One of strangest trends in recent plural marriage publications by cultural Mormons has been to regress back to Fawn Brodie’s portrayal of Joseph Smith’s first plural marriage with Fanny Alger as an adulterous affair. This despite Todd Compton’s seminal treatment and a wide array of evidence in favor of a marriage from both hostile and friendly sources. I don’t wish to recap all this here as it would be a retread of G. L. Smith’s recent FARMS Review (I was thrilled to receive a shout out in the footnotes). Suffice it to say, the distorted version of Joseph Smith as a womanizer has really taking a beating and I have recently uncovered some additional information that will further vindicate the Prophet on that score, but that will have to wait for another post. The other major paradigm debate regards Fanny’s age at the marriage and on this I part ways with Compton’s analysis. Even if it is granted she was 16 at her ceremony, I can find regions of the country contemporaneous with Joseph Smith where men married a higher percentage of females aged 16 or less with greater frequency than Joseph Smith did. But, first let me present my unprofessional transcription of Mosiah Hancock holograph that I followed Compton’s lead and checked up on in the LDS archives:
When my Father had started on his first mission to preach this gospel He felt that perhaps he had done wrong in not telling the Prophet that he had made arrangements to marry Temperance Jane Miller of New Lyme — When Father returned from his mission he spoke to the Prophet concerning the matter. The Prophet said — “Never mind Brother Levi about that for the Lord has one prepared for you that will  be a Blessing to you forever.
At that time Clarissa Reed — was working at the Prophets. She loved brother Levi Hancock. The Prophet had the highest respect for her feelings. She had thought that perhaps she might be one of the Prophet’s wives as herself and Sister Emma were on the best of terms. My Father and Mother understanding each other were inspired by the Spirit of the Lord to respect his word through the Prophet. — Therefore Brother Joseph said “Brother Levi, I want to make a bargain with you. If you will get Fanny Alger for me for a wife, you may have Clarissa Reed. I love Fanny.” “I will” said Father. “Go brother Levi and the Lord will prosper you” said Joseph. — Father goes to the [undeciphered] Samuel Alger. — his [his crossed out?] Father’s Brother in Law and [said] “Samuel, the Prophet Joseph loves your daughter Fanny and wishes her for a wife, what say you?” — Uncle Sam says — “Go and talk to the old woman about it, t’will be as she says” Father goes to his sister and said “Clarissy, Brother Joseph the Prophet of the most high God loves Fanny and wishes her for a wife, what say you?” Said she “Go and talk to Fanny, it will be all right with me.” — Father goes to Fanny and said “Fanny, Brother Joseph the Prophet loves you and wishes you for a wife, will you be his wife?” “I will, Levi,” said she. — Father takes Fanny to Joseph and said “Brother Joseph, I have been successful in my mission.” Father gave her to Joseph repeating the ceremony as Joseph repeated to him. 
Clarissa Reed being in poor health, Father takes her to her folks in Rome — The reason of mother’s poor health was that she worked hard at the Prophets. He had many visitors at this time and it used to be frequently the case that many of these worthies ? chewed tobacco to the extent that it would seem that were they had been sitting in a room for a little while that a flock of geese had been waddling about the floor the filth was so great and mother being of such a refined nature could not stand such nonsense. – Not far from this time Joseph received the Revelation on the Word of Wisdom. –
As time progressed [I stopped copying here as one can get the rest of the story about rescuing Fanny from the temple from Compton.]
Compton excerpts most of this material, but one misses out on some delightful commentary on the genesis of the Word of Wisdom. Emma tends to get unfairly blamed for it, but she wasn’t the only one disgusted for having to clean up the mess. As an aside, I once worked with a new member who had difficulty accepting the section as a revelation, instead viewing a better solution to “Emma’s” problem as a lecture on manners instead of overacting by banning the substances altogether.
This account has been controversial because of its lateness and second-handedness and its conflicts with other sources that are more easily reconciled with an 1835 dating when things got difficult with Fanny working as a maid and Emma likely experiencing one of her bouts of jealousy. I have a speculative theory that harmonizes the accounts, but I don’t wish to provide more fodder for critics with what little evidence I have to support a very tentative hypothesis.
I have been poking around about Fanny Alger
‘s birthdate. She may have been older than Compton accepts. Compton used Ancestral File for his date of 20 Sept. 1816 . But those user-submitted family group sheets are notoriously inaccurate. The vast majority on familysearch.org
regarding Alger report it as 30 Sept. 1816 in Rehoboth, Bristol, Massachusetts. A couple suggest “About 1814 Bloomfield, Essex, New Jersey” while correctly identifying her parents Samuel Alger
and Clarissa Hancock.
The main reason to suspect that the 1816 date is too late is Levi Hancock’s autobiography
We were then able to have rye bread and soon the potatoes came on so we fared well again. By fall we had some apples and peaches. I went to live with Solomon for awhile to help him boil his sorghum. By this time it was spring and I helped Father drive his team and get the ground ready to plant corn, beans, and potatoes and wheat. After the crops were in I went to live with Samuel Alger in 1815. I stayed there through the fall and winter. My sister, Clarrisa was at mothers with her young baby, Fanny. She stayed through part of the summer, sometimes her boy, Eli, was with her and at times he stayed with his Father or his uncle Solomon. Samuel Alger went to stay with his wife and children and hauled wood with a man by the name of Adams. In the spring they returned home. He gave me twenty-five cents to bare my expenses and I started home in March, 1816.
The 1810 census has Samuel Alger in Bloomfield, Ontario, NY which matches Levi’s record well. By the 1820 Census they had moved to Lebanon, Astabula, OH. The move must have come after the birth of another daughter Amy (Emma) Saphony in Sep. 1818. Fanny [Custer] appears in 3 censuses (1850, 1860, 1880) afterwards and all list her birthplace as New York. Emma S. [Overton] is listed as being born in New Hamphire (wrong!) in 1850 and New York in 1860. This is significant because the Sept. 1816 data for Fanny’s birthdate usually comes coupled with her being born in Massachusetts, when everything else points to her and all her siblings born before the move to Ohio being born in Bloomfield, NY. (The other familysearch items get the town right but not the county or state.) So Compton appears to be mistaken in the JMH article on p. 177 by uncritically following the Massachusetts birthplace and arguably that casts doubt on the date as well.
In general, the ages in the census for Fanny don’t help a lot:
Assuming the 1830 census taker followed instructions to report ages as of June 1st, Fanny could still turn 15 later in the year and hence could have been born between June and, say, Sept. 1815. I think that such a date can be reconciled with Levi’s autobiography. It is clear that some of the other Census reports underestimate her age. Women were notoriously evasive about their true age, but there may be other ways that such a discrepancy surfaced.
It is much more difficult to reconcile the Sept. 1816 date, even though it comfortably fits with the 1830 census. Perhaps Levi misnamed the “young baby” as Fannie when it was really Saphony who is reported to have been born in 1813 and died young. But I don’t think a 2 year old is a “young baby” and odds are that she died in her first year like one of her older brothers did. (I have studied 19th century child mortality rates). It makes more sense to have grandma help with the baby in the months shortly after it is born. Levi’s dates can’t be easily corrected because he gives so many of them. So unless the Alger family genealogists have something more solid than Levi’s autobiography, I think Fanny was probably at least a year older than what Compton uses.