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10 Polygamist Wives Who Escaped Unbelievable Abuse

by Charity Christenson
fact checked by Jamie Frater

These women grew up in isolated communities, dressed like pioneers and brainwashed to marry much older men who had many other wives. They were reared to be baby factories and virtual slaves in a culture of fear, oppression, and poverty that we usually associate with the likes of the Taliban. It started in Utah, but these twisted polygamist communities still exist everywhere from Canada to Mexico. Against extreme odds, and under the threat of spiritual damnation, the women below escaped to make a better life for themselves and their children.

10Rebecca Kimbel
Escaped In 1976

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Rebecca was one of 39 children born to her father’s six wives in a polygamous cult called the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), an offshoot of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Like most polygamist children, she grew up hiding her identity and lived in constant fear that strangers would discover that her family was polygamist. If so, the welfare authorities would take her family away and her dad would go to prison, which he eventually did.

They lived in such poverty that Rebecca spent one winter in a chicken coop huddled beneath heavy quilts, and the family ended up eating a dead horse to survive. You can read her own harrowing account of her childhood at the link above. Her mother remarried after her father went to prison and, when she was 11, Horace, her stepfather, chained Rebecca to an old iron bed and violently beat and raped her. She was abused for years and was kept a prisoner through threats to her siblings. She finally escaped when she felt she had nothing left to lose.

9Susan Ray Schmidt
Escaped In 1976

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Susan was born in 1953, the seventh child in a large Mormon family in southern Utah. When Susan was six years old, her parents moved to Mexico to join a new community, an offshoot of the FLDS church called Colonia LeBaron. Everyone in the colony was polygamist and lived in desperate poverty. So Susan was brainwashed to think it was normal when, at 15 years old, she became Verlon Lebaron’s sixth wife. She was moved to another location in Baja, California away from her family. There, her mission was to give birth to and raise as many children as possible.

Susan gave birth to her first child before her 16th birthday, and four more soon followed. Meanwhile, Verlon was engaged in a blood feud over religious issues with his brother Ervil from 1972 to 1988 that claimed up to two dozen lives. She ultimately escaped from her violently oppressive, impoverished polygamist life with her five children and is now happily married to one man.

8Mary Mackert
Escaped In 1984

Mary was born into a FLDS family in Colorado City, Arizona. At 17, she was married to a 50-year-old man with five other wives. She went on to bear five of his children and lived in two adjoining houses with most of the other wives—and 35 children—in Kearns, Utah. At the age of 30, she pleaded with him for a house of her own, believing that she could not survive anymore without one. He declined and she tried to walk out, determined to get a house of her own for her and her children. Her husband followed and abducted her. He kept Mary locked in a room for a day and tried to get her to submit to “blood atonement,” the FLDS practice where her throat would be slit and she would be disemboweled to atone for her sins.

When she wouldn’t submit, Mary’s husband took her to the cult’s “prophet,” Rulon Jeffs, for advice. After the meeting with Jeffs, Mary got into her car with her husband, but couldn’t stop shaking. Finally she said, “You let me out of this car or I’m going to jump!” She got out of the car with only a $20 bill she’d hidden in her shoes and went on to make a better life for her and her children.

7Flora Jessop
Escaped In 1986

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Flora grew up in Colorado City, Arizona. She was raised in a polygamous family with two mothers and 27 siblings, all members of the FLDS. Flora tried to be submissive and “stay sweet” as long as she could, but then she did the unheard of and, at 13, took a member of the sect to court, accusing him of sexually molesting her. The court dismissed Flora’s case and she was returned to Colorado City, where she became a virtual prisoner for four more years.

When she was 17, she was forced to marry her first cousin, but she soon got her chance to run away when they let her go to the bathroom unsupervised. Believing she was already damned due to the cult’s brainwashing, she turned to stripping and cocaine to make a living and numb her pain. She eventually became a mother, though, and turned her life around for her daughter’s sake. Flora is now an outspoken critic of polygamy and runs an “underground railroad” which has helped over 84 women escape polygamy with more support than she ever had.

6Pennie Stubbs
Escaped In 1988

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Pennie “accomplished the impossible” and made a clean getaway before being impregnated by the FLDS polygamous community in Short Creek, now known as Colorado City, Arizona. She was a beautiful girl, and when she was 14 she was assigned to marry a 58-year-old man with five other wives and somewhere around 70 children. Although she was raised in the strict, isolated religion, was only 14 years old, and knew no other life, she fled anyway. After being told whom she was to marry, she had 24 hours, as is the custom there, to get prepared for her marriage. As her matriarchs sewed her wedding dress for her, she begged them not to make her do it.

Being brainwashed themselves, the matriarchs just told Penny to “keep sweet” and follow the prophet. When she stormed out of the house, they didn’t bother to follow her. There was no public transportation in the desert where they lived. Any girl walking alone in the town would immediately be suspect, picked up, and returned. Even the local police were in cahoots and would not let a girl escape on their watch. But Pennie was determined—and lucky. She kept to the night’s shadows, flattened herself against walls when necessary, and actually made it to the road out of town. Reaching the highway, the bedraggled, oddly dressed girl stuck her thumb out for a ride. It was a miracle: The car that stopped wasn’t another FLDS member or a crooked cop to take her back to be raped. It was a businessman who had driven the back roads as a fluke on his way to Las Vegas. He risked going to jail himself for transporting a runaway minor across state lines, but her story moved him so much that he took her anyway.

The businessman gave Pennie all the money in his wallet and told her to “have a good life.” And that’s just what she did. Flora is one of the few people still named specifically as an “Agent of the Devil” by FLDS preachers in their sermons. Her clean escape is a threat to their domination over other young women who wish to leave the cult.

5Ruth Stubbs
Escaped In 2001

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Ruth was Pennie’s younger sister and also grew up in the FLDS community of Colorado City, Arizona. Ruth’s family was always on the “outs” with the community because her sister Pennie had escaped when Ruth was five years old. They were considered a substandard family for that, but they still made beautiful girls. Ruth wasn’t especially religious and had even been a tomboy, actually wearing pants and working on tractors (to the outrage of the other community members). But she fell in love with a practicing member of the cult, a handsome 20-year-old guy, and she wanted to marry him.

So Ruth went to the FLDS prophet as a healthy, blonde bombshell of 16 and asked to be accepted back into their religion. They accepted her back, but instead of marrying her to the handsome heartthrob, they married her to a man twice her age. He was a local cop who had given her many tickets for infractions in her youth and was already married to her older sister. She ended up working 14-hour days at a convenience store for no pay and, when she found out that she was pregnant with her third child at the age of 18, she contacted her family members who had fled. They collaborated to get her and her children out of the cult, leading to a daring escape plot in December 2001.

4Rebecca Musser
Escaped In 2002

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Rebecca was born into another FLDS polygamist family in Colorado City, Arizona. When she turned 19, she became the 19th wife of the church leader, Rulon Jeffs. He was 85 years old at the time. When he died at the age of 92, he had 64 wives, and the new church leader (his son, Warren) told Rebecca that she had to remarry. Well, after seven years of being terrified to refuse her creepy old husband’s advances and thus feeling sexually violated, she had had enough.

Instead of remarrying, Rebecca escaped the compound by sneaking past armed guards under the cover of darkness. She later testified against Warren Jeffs, and helped the prosecution win 11 convictions against him. The first time she testified in 2007, her testimony helped convict him as an accessory to rape regarding her 14-year-old sister Elissa Wall’s marriage to an older cousin (see below). During the trial, she boldly showed up in a striking red dress. Women are forbidden to wear the color red by the FLDS dress code, so it was a real in-your-face blow to the sect.

3Elissa Wall
Escaped In 2003

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Elissa was one of the 14 children born into a polygamous family in Salt Lake City, Utah. When she was 13, her mother was reassigned to marry another man, Fred Jessop, and join his wives in Hildale, Utah near Colorado City. The new family was so large that the children had to eat meals in shifts. When Elissa was 14, she was assigned to marry her 19-year-old cousin, Allen Steed, whom she despised. The marriage was traumatic and included frequent rapes. She began to spend nights sleeping in her truck to avoid the abuse. During this time, she met a former FLDS member, 25-year-old Lamont Barlow, who convinced her to leave the cult. She successfully escaped and later married him. They have two children together.

In 2006, Elissa pressed charges against the FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, who had overseen her “marriage.” He was arrested in 2007 while traveling in Nevada in a new, red Cadillac which was found to contain tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards, 15 mobile phones, and three female wigs. Warren was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting children.

2Carolyn Jessop
Escaped In 2003

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Carolyn was a sixth-generation polygamist born into the FLDS cult in Hildale, Utah. She spent most of her childhood in the nearby polygamist community of Colorado City, Arizona. She was a bright child and aspired to go to college and then medical school. Instead, at 18, she was forced to marry Merril Jessop, who was 50 years old at the time. He already had three wives and more than 30 children, some older than her. He was given two more wives just months into their marriage. She often gave in to his sexual advances in the hopes of gaining some affection, and ultimately had eight children with him.

After each of Carolyn’s last four pregnancies, she was warned not to have any more by her doctors. Her final pregnancy was life threatening and she had to have an emergency hysterectomy. She feels that the resulting freedom from pregnancy helped her escape from her abusive life of polygamy. In 2003, she became the first woman to be granted full custody of her children in a disputed case with the FLDS.

1Heidi And Helen Holm
Escaped In 2012

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Heidi and Helen are twin sisters who also grew up dressed like 19th-century pioneers within the isolated FLDS community of Colorado City, Arizona. As the twisted egomaniac Warren Jeffs took over the commune, his edicts became more severe, divisive, and disturbing to the populace. Eventually, the twins’ father was expelled and their mother left the cult to marry a man in Nevada. But the girls stayed behind in the only life they knew, believing that they would be damned if they left.

Even though he is a convicted criminal and is currently serving time, Warren is still dictating rules from prison. He has mandated that the women only be issued reusable feminine products, be banned from outside work and cell phones, and even that hair ribbons and children’s toys be confiscated. After a seven-hour meeting where members were forced to denounce anyone who had left the cult, including their mothers and fathers, Heidi decided to leave, followed shortly by her sister Helen. Two weeks later, they helped another member, Allie Steed, escape while her father was at work. They are now trying to make lives for themselves in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Charity is an artist who lives by the Big Rock Candy Mountain in central Utah. You can check out her style on Facebook . . . or her man’s cool sculptures and festival exhibits at Enjoy!

fact checked by Jamie Frater