Rowenna Erickson, plural wife who became one of Utah’s top polygamy critics, dies at 78

Obituary • Erickson and Tapestry Against Polygamy advocated prosecution.

Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, died Jan. 27, 2018. Photo courtesy Erickson family.

Rowenna Erickson — a former plural wife who co-founded what for a time was Utah’s most outspoken anti-polygamy organization, Tapestry Against Polygamy— died Jan. 27 in Taylorsville. She was 78.

Tina Bessey, Erickson’s daughter, said on Monday her mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s and died at a care center.

Erickson and other former plural wives, including Lillian Bowles and Vicky Prunty, were among the women who founded Tapestry Against Polygamy in 1998. They cited their own experiences as examples of what was wrong with the lifestyle. The word “Tapestry” was placed in the name to denote what the founders considered a mosaic of harsh stories woven around one theme — polygamy.

Tapestry, as it was known for short, at first targeted physical and emotional abuse within polygamy by lobbying for the prosecution of those abusers. But within a few years, the founders made less of a distinction between households with reproachful adults and those without. By 2003, Tapestry’s website referred to abuses within polygamy as “inherent.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune File Photo) In this 1998 photo, members of Tapestry Against Polygamy — left to right, Rowenna Erickson, Laura Chapman, Vicky Prunty and Carmen Thompson — hold a news conference outside Gov. Michael Leavitt's office to gain support in their fight to prosecute bigamy and related civil rights abuses in the state of Utah.

Tapestry arrived at a fertile time for anyone wanting to criticize polygamy. The year Tapestry was founded, Mary Ann Kingston ran from a barn in Box Elder County and reported the beating given to her by her father. Tom Green was under scrutiny for his plural marriages, and journalists from across the world were writing about Utah and its history with polygamy as they previewed the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Erickson and her co-founders made themselves available to weigh in on all of it. For the Green bigamy trial in 2001, Erickson, though she had no direct connection to the case, was quoted in news outlets from New York to London. She was frank about how she was using the trial’s publicity to tell what she regarded as the real story of polygamy in Utah.

“It is a long journey that we have been on to get the attention of the state to get them to recognize some of the abuses that go on in these groups,” Erickson told the BBC days before the trial.

Green was convicted of bigamy in 2001 and rape of a child the following year. He was paroled from prison in 2007.

For people wanting to leave plural families, Tapestry would help them find service providers and sometimes made cash donations. In 1999, the National Organization for Women gave the four Tapestry co-founders its Women of Courage award at its national convention in Los Angeles.

Polygamists accused Erickson and the other founders of taking their own bad experiences with plural marriage and applying them too broadly. Moroni Jessop, who published the blog The Punk Rock Polygamist, wrote a post in 2008 referring to Tapestry as “a hate group.” He stopped eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, he wrote, after seeing a report that the company had donated to Tapestry.

In an email sent to The Salt Lake Tribune last week, Jessop said he was sorry to hear of Erickson’s death. He also said he still does not eat Ben & Jerry’s.

Rowenna Emma Ekstrom Erickson was born Nov. 11, 1939, in Bountiful, to Ernie and Blenda Ekstrom. The Ekstroms had joined the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group.

According to an essay Erickson wrote in 2009, Ernie Ekstrom was not a polygamist. Yet every Sunday, the family would drive from their home near 900 East and 600 South in Salt Lake City to worship in Bountiful with polygamists in the Kingston Group.

“I learned to believe that plural marriage sealed men and women in marriage for time and eternity,” Erickson wrote. “That a worthy man holding the priesthood, and having many wives, would become a God in eternity and populate other worlds with his wives.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune File Photo) In this 1998 photo, members of Tapestry Against Polygamy — left to right, Rowenna Erickson, Vicky Prunty, speaker Laura Chapman and Carmen Thompson — hold a news conference outside Gov. Michael Leavitt's office to gain support in their fight to prosecute bigamy and related civil rights abuses in the state of Utah.

At age 20, Erickson became the second wife of her brother-in-law, Charles Leon Kingston. Kingston had already legally married Erickson’s older sister, Laurine. Plural wives in the Kingston Group seldom use their husbands’ names for fear of illuminating the relationship, and some wives go a step further by replacing their maiden names. Erickson picked her surname out of the phone book, she said.

Kingston was an attorney. Erickson said he gave little financial or emotional support to her and her eventual eight children.

“He’d come over late at night, have dinner, boss [the children] around, sleep with their mother, then leave in the morning,” she wrote.

Erickson and her children lived in the same house as her sister for a time. Then she and her children moved into a rental house in Swede Town, a neighborhood along Beck Street on the north edge of Salt Lake City. Erickson said she supported herself and her children by babysitting and collecting aluminum cans.

She said her drift from polygamy and her religion started with an episode of “The Phil Donahue Show.” A hypnotist on the show placed a patient under a trance and then a root canal was performed on the person with no anesthetic. Erickson decided to investigate hypnotism and its therapeutic benefits.

The hypnotherapy training she underwent gave her a new view of her marriage and life in the Kingston Group. She came to regard her isolation and religious instruction she received as brainwashing. She eventually came to know women from the polygamous communities on the Utah-Arizona line and was stunned by the amount of sexual abuse those women reported to her.

About 1990, Erickson took her concerns about the treatment of women and girls in the Kingston Group to a matriarch in the sect. Rather than consider the concerns, according to Erickson’s account, male leadership in the Kingston Group excommunicated her. She left the sect and her marriage in 1994.

Tapestry disbanded in 2009, but Erickson continued her advocacy. Bessey said her mother continued giving lectures and interviews until the effects of Alzheimer’s became apparent about five years ago.

Bessey said her parents, despite their differences during their plural marriage, remained friends.

“He and my mom were on good terms,” Bessey said.

Leon Kingston, as Erickson’s former husband is known, survives her, as does Laurine Kingston. Other survivors include Bessey; Erickson’s other daughters, Michelle Taylor, Kelly Kingston, Kristin MacKenzie, Stacy Wallin and Heather Erickson; sons, Taylor and Collin Erickson; 14 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Bessey on Monday said neither she nor any of her full or half-siblings ever practiced polygamy.

“We all more or less knew way before she did” about the problems in polygamy, Bessey said. “As we were growing up, all of us knew we weren’t going to be a part of it.”