The Murder Of The Prophet - His Character

On Tuesday morning, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were arrested again in

Carthage, this time on a charge of treason in levying war against

the state, by declaring martial law in Nauvoo and calling out the

Legion. In the afternoon of that day all the accused, numbering

fifteen, appeared before a justice of the peace, and, to prevent

any increase in the public excitement, gave bonds in the sum of

$500 each for their appearance at the next term of the Circuit

Court to answer the charge of riot.* It was late in the evening

when this business was finished, and nothing was said at the time

about the charge of treason.

* The trial of the survivors resulted in a verdict of acquittal.

"The Mormons," says Governor Ford, "could have a Mormon jury to

be tried by, selected by themselves, and the anti-Mormons, by

objecting to the sheriff and regular panel, could have one from

the anti-Mormons. No one could [then] be convicted of any crime

in Hancock County."--"History of Illinois," p. 369.

Very soon after their return to the hotel, however, the constable

who had arrested the Smiths on the new charge appeared with a

mittimus from the justice of the peace, and, under its authority,

conveyed them to the county jail. Their counsel immediately

argued before the governor that this action was illegal, as the

Smiths had had no hearing on the charge of treason, and the

governor went with the lawyers to consult the justice concerning

his action. The justice explained that he had directed the

removal of the prisoners to jail because he did not consider them

safe in the hotel. The governor held that, from the time of their

delivery to the jailer, they were beyond his jurisdiction and

responsibility, but he granted a request of their counsel for a

military guard about the jail. He says, however, that he

apprehended neither an attack on the building nor an escape of

the prisoners, adding that if they had escaped, "it would have

been the best way of getting rid of the Mormons," since these

leaders would never have dared to return to the state, and all

their followers would have joined them in their place of refuge.

The militia force in Carthage at that time numbered some twelve

hundred men, with four hundred or five hundred more persons under

arms in the town. There was great pressure on the governor to

march this entire force to Nauvoo, ostensibly to search for a

counterfeiting establishment, in order to overawe the Mormons by

a show of force. The governor consented to this plan, and it was

arranged that the officers at Carthage and Warsaw should meet on

June 27 at a point on the Mississippi midway between the latter

place and Nauvoo.

Governor Ford was not entirely certain about the safety of the

prisoners, and he proposed to take them with him in the march to

Nauvoo, for their protection. But while preparations for this

march were still under way, trustworthy information reached him

that, if the militia once entered the Mormon city, its

destruction would certainly follow, the plan being to accept a

shot fired at the militia by someone as a signal for a general

slaughter and conflagration. He determined to prevent this, not

only on humane grounds,--"the number of women, inoffensive and

young persons, and innocent children which must be contained in

such a city of twelve hundred to fifteen thousand

inhabitants"--but because he was not certain of the outcome of a

conflict in which the Mormons would outnumber his militia almost

two to one. After a council of the militia officers, in which a

small majority adhered to the original plan, the governor solved

the question by summarily disbanding all the state forces under

arms, except three companies, two of which would continue to

guard the jail, and the other would accompany the governor on a

visit to Nauvoo, where he proposed to search for counterfeiters,

and to tell the inhabitants that any retaliatory measures against

the non-Mormons would mean "the destruction of their city, and

the extermination of their people."

The jail at Carthage was a stone building, situated at the

northwestern boundary of the village, and near a piece of woods

that were convenient for concealment. It contained the jailer's

apartments, cells for prisoners, and on the second story a sort

of assembly room. At the governor's suggestion, Joseph and Hyrum

were allowed the freedom of this larger room, where their friends

were permitted to visit them, without any precautions against the

introduction of weapons or tools for their escape.

Their guards were selected from the company known as the Carthage

Grays, Captain Smith, commander. In this choice the governor made

a mistake which always left him under a charge of collusion in

the murder of the prisoners. It was not, in the first place,

necessary to select any Hancock company for this service, as he

had militia from McDonough County on the ground. All the people

of Hancock County were in a fever of excitement against the

Mormons, while the McDonough County militia had voted against the

march into Nauvoo. Moreover, when the prisoners, after their

arrival at Carthage, had been exhibited to the McDonough company

at the request of the latter, who had never seen them, the Grays

were so indignant at what they called a triumphal display, that

they refused to obey the officer in command, and were for a time

in revolt. "Although I knew that this company were the enemies of

the Smiths," says the governor, "yet I had confidence in their

loyalty and their integrity, because their captain was

universally spoken of as a most respectable citizen and honorable

man." The governor further excused himself for the selection

because the McDonough company were very anxious to return home to

attend to their crops, and because, as the prisoners were likely

to remain in jail all summer, he could not have detained the men

from the other county so long. He presents also the curious plea

that the frequent appeals made to him direct for the

extermination or expulsion of the Mormons gave him assurance that

no act of violence would be committed contrary to his known

opposition, and he observes, "This was a circumstance well

calculated to conceal from me the secret machinations on foot!"

In this state of happy confidence the governor set out for Nauvoo

on the morning of June 27. On the way, one of the officers who

accompanied him told him that he was apprehensive of an attack on

the jail because of talk he had heard in Carthage. The governor

was reluctant to believe that such a thing could occur while he

was in the Mormon city, exposed to Mormon vengeance, but he sent

back a squad, with instructions to Captain Smith to see that the

jail was safely guarded. He had apprehensions of his own,

however, and on arriving at Nauvoo simply made an address as

above outlined, and hurried back to Carthage without even looking

for counterfeit money. He had not gone more than two miles when

messengers met him with the news that the Smith brothers had been

killed in the jail.

The Warsaw regiment (it is so called in the local histories),

under command of Colonel Levi Williams, set out on the morning of

June 27 for the rendezvous on the Mississippi, preparatory to the

march to Nauvoo. The resolutions adopted in Warsaw and the tone

of the local press had left no doubt about the feeling of the

people of that neighborhood toward the Mormons, and fully

justified the decision of the governor in countermanding the

march proposed. His unexpected order disbanding the militia

reached the Warsaw troops when they had advanced about eight

miles. A decided difference of opinion was expressed regarding

it. Some of the most violent, including Editor Sharp of the

Signal, wanted to continue the march to Carthage in order to

discuss the situation with the other forces there; the more

conservative advised an immediate return to Warsaw. Each party

followed its own inclination, those who continued toward Carthage

numbering, it is said, about two hundred.

While there is no doubt that the Warsaw regiment furnished the

men who made the attack on the jail, there is evidence that the

Carthage Grays were in collusion with them. William N. Daniels,

in his account of the assault, says that the Warsaw men, when

within four miles of Carthage, received a note from the Grays

(which he quotes) telling them of the good opportunity presented

"to murder the Smiths" in the governor's absence. His testimony

alone would be almost valueless, but Governor Ford confirms it,

and Gregg (who holds that the only purpose of the mob was to

seize the prisoners and run them into Missouri) says he is

"compelled" to accept the report. According to Governor Ford, one

of the companies designated as a guard for the jail disbanded and

went home, and the other was stationed by its captain 150 yards

from the building, leaving only a sergeant and eight men at the

jail itself. "A communication," he adds, "was soon established

between the conspirators and the company, and it was arranged

that the guards should have their guns charged with blank

cartridges, and fire at the assailants when they attempted to

enter the jail."

Both Willard Richards and John Taylor were in the larger room

with the Smith brothers when the attack was made (other visitors

having recently left), and both gave detailed accounts of the

shooting, Richards soon afterward, in a statement printed in the

Neighbor and the Times and Seasons under the title "Two Minutes

in Gaol," and Taylor in his "Martyrdom of Joseph Smith." * They

differ only in minor particulars.

* To be found in Burton's "City of the Saints."

All in the room were sitting in their shirt sleeves except

Richards, when they saw a number of men, with blackened faces,

advancing around the corner of the jail toward the stairway. The

door leading from the room to the stairs was hurriedly closed,

and, as it was without a lock, Hyrum Smith and Richards placed

their shoulders against it. Finding their entrance opposed, the

assailants fired a shot through the door (Richards says they

fired a volley up the stairway), which caused Hyrum and Richards

to leap back. While Hyrum was retreating across the room, with

his face to the door, a second shot fired through the door struck

him by the side of the nose, and at the same moment another ball,

fired through the window at the other side of the room, entered

his back, and, passing through his body, was stopped by the watch

in his vest pocket, smashing the works. He fell on his back

exclaiming, "I am a dead man," and did not speak again.

One of their callers had left a six-shooting pistol with the

prisoners, and, when Joseph saw his brother shot, he advanced

with this weapon to the door, and opening it a few inches,

snapped each barrel toward the men on the other side. Three

barrels missed fire, but each of the three that exploded seems to

have wounded a man; accounts differ as to the seriousness of

their injuries. While Joseph was firing, Taylor stood by him

armed with a stout hickory stick, and Richards was on his other

side holding a cane. As soon as Joseph's firing, which had

checked the assailants for a moment, ceased, the latter stuck

their weapons through the partly opened doorway, and fired into

the room. Taylor tried to parry the guns with his cudgel. "That's

right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can," said

the prophet, and these are the last words he is remembered to

have spoken. The assailants hesitated to enter the room, perhaps

not knowing what weapons the Mormons had, and Taylor concluded to

take his chances of a leap through an open window opposite the

door, and some twenty-five feet from the ground. But as he was

about to jump out, a ball struck him in the thigh, depriving him

of all power of motion. He fell inside the window, and as soon as

he recovered power to move, crawled under a bed which stood in

one corner of the room. The men in the hallway continued to

thrust in their guns and fire, and Richards kept trying to knock

aside the muzzles with his cane. Taylor in this way, before he

reached the bed, received three more balls, one below the left

knee, one in the left arm, and another in the left hip.

Almost as soon as Taylor fell, the prophet made a dash for the

window. As he was part way out, two balls fired through the

doorway struck him, and one from outside the building entered his

right breast. Richards says: "He fell outward, exclaiming 'O

Lord, my God.' As his feet went out of the window, my head went

in, the balls whistling all around. At this instant the cry was

raised, 'He's leaped the window,' and the mob on the stairs and

in the entry ran out. I withdrew from the window, thinking it of

no use to leap out on a hundred bayonets, then around General

Smith's body. Not satisfied with this, I again reached my head

out of the window and watched some seconds, to see if there were

any signs of life, regardless of my own, determined to see the

end of him I loved. Being fully satisfied that he was dead, with

a hundred men near the body and more coming round the corner of

the gaol, and expecting a return to our room, I rushed toward the

prison door at the head of the stairs." Finding the inner doors

of the jail unlocked, Richards dragged Taylor into a cell and

covered him with an old mattress. Both expected a return of the

mob, but the lynchers disappeared as soon as they satisfied

themselves that the prophet was dead. Richards was not injured at

all, although his large size made him an ample target.

Most Mormon accounts of Smith's death say that, after he fell,

the body was set up against a well curb in the yard and riddled

with balls. Taylor mentions this report, but Richards, who

specifically says that he saw the prophet die, does not. Governor

Ford's account says that Smith was only stunned by the fall and

was shot in the yard. Perhaps the original authority for this

version was a lad named William N. Daniels, who accompanied the

Warsaw men to Carthage, and, after the shooting, went to Nauvoo

and had his story published by the Mormons in pamphlet form, with

two extravagant illustrations, in which one of the assailants is

represented as approaching Smith with a knife to cut off his


*A detailed account of the murder of the Smiths, and events

connected with it, was contributed to the Atlantic Monthly for

December, 1869, by John Hay. This is accepted by Kennedy as

written by "one whose opportunities for information were

excellent, whose fairness cannot be questioned, and whose ability

to distinguish the true from the false is of the highest order."

H. H. Bancroft, whose tone is always pro-Mormon, alludes to this

article as "simply a tissue of falsehoods." In reply to a note of

inquiry Secretary Hay wrote to the author, under date of November

17, 1900: "I relied more upon my memory and contemporary

newspapers for my facts than on certified documents. I will not

take my oath to everything the article contains, but I think in

the main it is correct." This article says that Joseph Smith was

severely wounded before he ran to the window, "and half leaped,

half fell into the jail yard below. With his last dying energies

he gathered himself up, and leaned in a sitting posture against

the rude stone well curb. His stricken condition, his vague

wandering glances, excited no pity in the mob thirsting for his

life. A squad of Missourians, who were standing by the fence,

leveled their pieces at him, and, before they could see him again

for the smoke they made, Joe Smith was dead:" This is not an

account of an eye-witness.

The bodies of the two brothers were removed to the hotel in

Carthage, and were taken the next day to Nauvoo, arriving there

about three o'clock in the afternoon. They were met by

practically the entire population, and a procession made up of

the City Council, the generals of the Legion with their staffs,

the Legion and the citizens generally, all under command of the

city marshal, escorted them to the Nauvoo Mansion, where

addresses were made by Dr. Richards, W. W. Phelps, the lawyers

Woods and Reid, and Colonel Markham. The utmost grief was shown

by the Mormons, who seemed stunned by the blow.

The burial followed, but the bodies did not occupy the graves.

Stenhouse is authority for the statement that, fearing a grave

robbery (which in fact occurred the next night), the coffins were

filled with stones, and the bodies were buried secretly beneath

the unfinished Temple. Mistrustful that even this concealment

would not be sufficient, they were soon taken up and reburied

under the brick wall back of the Mansion House.*

* "Rocky Mountain Saints," p. 174.

Brigham Young said at the conference in the Temple on October 8,

1845, "We will petition Sister Emma, in the name of Israel's God,

to let us deposit the remains of Joseph according as he has

commanded us, and if she will not consent to it, our garments are

clear." She did not consent. For the following statement about

the future disposition of the bodies I am indebted to the

grandson of the prophet, Mr. Frederick Madison Smith, one of the

editors of the Saints' Herald (Reorganized Church) at Lamoni,

Iowa, dated December 15, 1900:--

"The burial place of the brothers Joseph and Hyrum has always

remained a secret, being known only to a very few of the

immediate family. In fact, unless it has lately been revealed to

others, the exact spot is known only to my father and his

brother. Others who knew the secret are now silent in death. The

reasons for the secrecy were that it was feared that, if the

burial place was known at the time, there might have been an

inclination on the part of the enemies of those men to desecrate

their bodies and graves. There is not now, and probably has not

been for years, any danger of such desecration, and the only

reason I can see for still keeping it a secret is the natural

disinclination on the part of the family to talk about such


"However, I have been on the ground with my father when I knew I

was standing within a few feet of where the remains were lying,

and it is known to many about where that spot is. It is a short

distance from the Nauvoo House, on the bank of the Mississippi.

The lot is still owned by the family, the title being in my

father's name. There is not, that I know, any intention of ever

taking the bodies to Far West or Independence, Missouri. The

chances are that their resting places will never be disturbed

other than to erect on the spot a monument. In fact, a movement

is now underway to raise the means to do that. A monument fund is

being subscribed to by the members of the church. The monument

would have been erected by the family, but it is not financially

able to do it."

In the October following, indictments were found against Colonel

Williams of the Warsaw regiment, State Senator J. C. Davis,

Editor Sharp, and six others, including three who were said to

have been wounded by Smith's pistol shots, but the sheriff did

not succeed in making any arrests. In the May following some of

the accused appeared for trial. A struck jury was obtained, but,

in the existing state of public feeling, an acquittal was a

foregone conclusion. The guards at the jail would identify no

one, and Daniels, the pamphlet writer, and another leading

witness for the prosecution gave contradictory accounts.

But the prophet, according to Mormon recitals, did not go

unavenged. Lieutenant Worrell, who commanded the detachment of

the guards at the jail, was shot not long after, as we shall see.

Murray McConnell, who represented the governor in the prosecution

of the alleged lynchers, was assassinated twenty-four years

later. P. P. Pratt gives an account of the fate of other

"persecutors." The arm of one Townsend, who was wounded by Joe's

pistol, continued to rot until it was taken off, and then would

not heal. A colonel of the Missouri forces, who died in

Sacramento in 1849, "was eaten with worms, a large, black-headed

kind of maggot, seeming a half-pint at a time." Another

Missourian's "face and jaw on one side literally rotted, and half

his face actually fell off." *

*Pratt's "Autobiography," pp. 475-476.

It is difficult for the most fair-minded critic to find in the

character of Joseph Smith anything to commend, except an

abundance of good-nature which made him personally popular with

the body of his followers. He has been credited with power as a

leader, and it was certainly little less than marvellous that he

could maintain his leadership after his business failure in Ohio,

and the utter break-down of his revealed promises concerning a

Zion in Missouri. The explanation of this success is to be found

in the logically impregnable position of his character as a

prophet, so long as the church itself retained its organization,

and in the kind of people who were gathered into his fold. If it

was not true that HE received the golden plates from an angel; if

it was not true that HE translated them with divine assistance;

if it was not true that HE received from on high the

"revelations" vouchsafed for the guidance of the church,--then

there was no new Bible, no new revelation, no Mormon church. If

Smith was pulled down, the whole church structure must crumble

with him. Lee, referring to the days in Missouri, says, "Every

Mormon, if true to his faith, believed as freely in Joseph Smith

and his holy character as they did that God existed."* Some of

the Mormons who knew Smith and his career in Missouri and

Illinois were so convinced of the ridiculousness of his claims

that they proposed, after the gathering in Utah, to drop him

entirely. Proof of this, and of Brigham Young's realization of

the impossibility of doing so, is found in Young's remarks at the

conference which received the public announcement of the

"revelation" concerning polygamy. Referring to the suggestion

that had been made, "Don't mention Joseph Smith, never mention

the Book of Mormon and Zion, and all the people will follow you,"

Young boldly declared: "What I have received from the Lord, I

have received by Joseph Smith; he was the instrument made use of.

If I drop him, I must drop these principles. They have not been

revealed, declared, or explained by any other man since the days

of the apostles." This view is accepted by the Mormons in Utah


* "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 76.

If it seems still more surprising that Smith's associates placed

so little restraint on his business schemes, it must be

remembered that none of his early colaborers--Rigdon, Harris,

Cowdery, and the rest--was a better business man than he, and

that he absolutely brooked no interference. It was Smith who

decided every important step, as, for instance, the land

purchases in and around Nauvoo; and men who would let him

originate were compelled to let him carry out. We have seen how

useless better business men like the Laws found it to argue with

him on any practical question. The length to which he dared go in

discountenancing any restriction, even regarding his moral ideas,

is illustrated in an incident related in his autobiography.* At a

service on Sunday, November 7, 1841, in Nauvoo, an elder named

Clark ventured to reprove the brethren for their lack of

sanctity, enjoining them to solemnity and temperance. "I reproved

him," says the prophet, "as pharisaical and hypocritical, and not

edifying the people, and showed the Saints what temperance,

faith, virtue, charity, and truth were. I charged the Saints not

to follow the example of the adversary non-ormons in accusing the

brethren, and said, 'If you do not accuse each other, God will

not accuse you. If you have no accuser, you will enter heaven; if

you will follow the revelations and instructions which God gives

you through me, I will take you into heaven as my back load. If

you will not accuse me, I will not accuse you. If you will throw

a cloak of charity over my sins, I will over yours--for charity

covereth a multitude of sins. What many people call sin is not

sin. I do many things to break down superstition."' A

congregation that would accept such teaching without a protest,

would follow their leader in any direction which he chose to


* Millennial Star, Vol. XVIII, p. 743.

Smith was the farthest possible from being what Spinoza has been

called, "a God-intoxicated man." Real reverence for sacred things

did not enter into his mental equipment. A story illustrating his

lack of reverence for what he called "long-faced" brethren was

told by J. M. Grant in Salt Lake City. A Baptist minister, who

talked much of "my dee-e-ar brethren," called on Smith in Nauvoo,

and, after conversing with him for a short time, stood up before

Smith and asked in solemn tones if it were possible that he saw a

man who was a prophet and who had conversed with the Saviour.

"'Yes,' says the prophet, 'I don't know but you do; would you not

like to wrestle with me?' After he had whirled around a few

times, like a duck shot in the head, he concluded that his piety

had been awfully shocked."*

* Journal of Discourses, Vol. III, p. 67.

In manhood Smith was about six feet tall, weighing something over

two hundred pounds. From among a number of descriptions of him by

visitors at Nauvoo, the following may be cited. Josiah Quincy,

describing his arrival at what he calls "the tavern" in Nauvoo,

in May, 1844, gives this impression of the prophet: "Pre-eminent

among the stragglers at the door stood a man of commanding

appearance, clad in the costume of a journeyman carpenter when

about his work. He was a hearty, athletic fellow, with blue eyes

standing prominently out on his light complexion, a long nose,

and a retreating forehead. He wore striped pantaloons, a linen

jacket which had not lately seen the wash-tub, and a beard of

three days' growth. A fine-looking man, is what the passer-by

would instinctively have murmured upon meeting the remarkable

individual who had fashioned the mould which was to shape the

feelings of so many thousands of his fellow-mortals." *

*" Figures of the Past," p. 380.

The Rev. Henry Caswall, M.A., who had an interview with the

prophet at Nauvoo, in 1842, thus describes him: "He is a coarse,

plebeian, sensual person in aspect, and his countenance exhibits

a curious mixture of the knave and the clown. His hands are large

and fat, and on one of his fingers he wears a massive gold ring,

upon which I saw an inscription. His eyes appear deficient in

that open and straightforward expression which often

characterizes an honest man."

* Millennial Star, November 1, 1850.

John Taylor had death-casts taken of the faces of Joseph and

Hyrum after their murder. By the aid of these and of sketches of

the brothers which he had secured while they were living, he had

busts of them made by a modeller in Europe named Gahagan, and

these were offered to the Saints throughout the world, for a

price, of course.*

The proofs already cited of Smith's immorality are convincing.

Caswall names a number of occasions on which, he charges, the

prophet was intoxicated after his settlement in Nauvoo. He

relates that on one of these, when Smith was asked how it

happened that a prophet of the Lord could get drunk, Smith

answered that it was necessary that he should do so to prevent

the Saints from worshipping him as a god!*

* "Mormonism and its Author," 1852.

No Mormon ever concedes that proof of Smith's personal failings

affects his character as a prophet. A Mormon doctor, with whom

Caswall argued at Nauvoo, said that Smith might be a murderer and

an adulterer, and yet be a true prophet. He cited St. Peter as

saying that, in his time, David had not yet ascended into heaven

(Acts ii. 34); David was in hell as a murderer; so if Smith was

"as infamous as David, and even denied his own revelations, that

would not affect the revelations which God had given him."

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