Death of Joseph Smith

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The death of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844, marked a turning point for the Latter Day Saint movement, of which Smith was the founder and leader. When he was attacked and killed by a mob, Smith was the mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and running for President of the United States.[1] He was killed while jailed in Carthage, Illinois, on charges relating to his ordering the destruction of facilities producing the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper whose first and only edition revealed Smith was practicing polygamy and claimed that he intended to set himself up as a theocratic king. Smith voluntarily surrendered to the authorities at the county seat at Carthage to face the charges against him. While he was in jail awaiting trial, an armed mob of men with painted faces stormed the jail and shot him and his brother Hyrum to death. Latter Day Saints generally view Joseph and Hyrum as martyrs.

Incidents leading to the event

Joseph and Hyrum Smith monument, entitled Last Ride, is in front of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple

Several of Smith's disaffected associates at Nauvoo and Hancock County, Illinois, joined together to publish a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. Its first and only issue was published June 7, 1844.[2]:v6,p430 Some of these associates alleged that Smith tried to marry their wives. About eight of Smith's wives were also married to other men (four were Mormon men in good standing, who in a few cases acted as a witness in Smith's marriage to his wife) at the time they married Smith. Typically, these women continued to live with their first husband, not Smith. Some accounts say Smith may have had sexual relations with one wife, who later in her life stated that he fathered children by one or two of his wives,[3] although the reliability of these sources is disputed by some Latter Day Saints.[4] DNA investigations performed to date have consistently shown that Smith was not the father of children thought to be his based on written and oral traditions.[5]

In response to public outrage generated by the paper, the Nauvoo city council passed an ordinance declaring the newspaper a public nuisance designed to promote violence against Smith and his followers. They reached this decision after lengthy[specify] discussion, including citation of William Blackstone's legal canon, which included a libelous press as a public nuisance. According to the council's minutes, Smith said he "would rather die tomorrow and have the thing smashed, than live and have it go on, for it was exciting the spirit of mobocracy among the people, and bringing death and destruction upon us."[6]

Under the council's new ordinance, Smith, as Nauvoo's mayor, in conjunction with the city council, ordered the city marshal to destroy the paper and the press on June 10, 1844. By the city marshal's account, the destruction of the press type was carried out orderly and peaceably. However, Charles A. Foster, a co-publisher of the Expositor, reported on June 12 that not only was the printing press destroyed, but that "several hundred minions ... injured the building very materially",[7] although the building went on to be used for at least another decade.[8]

Smith's critics said that the action of destroying the council violated freedom of the press. Some sought legal charges against Smith for the destruction of the press, including charges of treason and inciting riot. Violent threats were made against Smith and the Mormon community. Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, a newspaper hostile to the Mormons, editorialized:[9]

Warrants from outside Nauvoo were brought in against Smith and dismissed in Nauvoo courts on a writ of habeas corpus. Smith declared martial law on June 18[10] and called out the Nauvoo Legion, an organized city militia of about 5,000 men,[11] to protect Nauvoo from outside violence.[10]

Incarceration at Carthage Jail

An etching of the Carthage Jail, c. 1885

Illinois Governor Thomas Ford proposed a trial by a non-Mormon jury in Carthage, the county seat, and guaranteed Smith's safety. Smith originally planned on leaving rather than surrendering but when criticized by some followers was reported to have said, "If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself."[2]:v6,p549 Smith reluctantly agreed and submitted to arrest, and was further quoted as saying, "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me—he was murdered in cold blood."[12]

On June 25, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, along with the other fifteen city council members and some friends, surrendered to Carthage constable William Bettisworth on the original charge of riot. During the trip to Carthage, Smith reportedly recounted a dream in which he and his brother Hyrum escaped a burning ship, walked on water, and arrived at a great heavenly city.[13] Upon arrival at Carthage, almost immediately Joseph and Hyrum were charged with treason against the state of Illinois for declaring martial law in Nauvoo, by a warrant founded upon the oaths of A. O. Norton and Augustine Spencer. At a preliminary hearing that afternoon, the city council members were released on $500 bonds, pending later trial. The judge ordered the Smith brothers to be held in jail until they could be tried for treason, which was a capital offense.[citation needed]

The Smith brothers were held at the Carthage Jail and were joined there by Willard Richards, John Taylor, and John Solomon Fullmer.[14] Governor Ford left for Nauvoo not long after Smith went to stay at the jail. The anti-Mormon[15] "Carthage Greys", a local militia, were assigned to protect Smith.

Dan Jones, who was present, relayed to Governor Ford several threats against Joseph Smith made by members of the Carthage Greys, all of which were dismissed by Ford.[16]


The door in Carthage Jail through which the mob fired. There is a bullet hole in the door.
Hit by a ball, Smith fell from the second story window

Before a trial could be held, a mob of about 200 armed men, their faces painted black with wet gunpowder, stormed the jail in the late afternoon of June 27, 1844. As the mob was approaching, the jailer became nervous, and informed Smith of the group. In a letter dated July 10, 1844, one of the jailers wrote that Smith, expecting the Nauvoo Legion, said, "Don't trouble yourself ... they've come to rescue me."[17] Smith was unaware that Jonathan Dunham, major general of the Nauvoo Legion, did not dispatch the unit to Carthage to protect him. Allen Joseph Stout later contended that by remaining inactive, Dunham violated an official order written by Smith after he was jailed in Carthage.[18]

The Carthage Greys reportedly feigned defense of the jail by firing shots or blanks over the attackers' heads, and some of the Greys reportedly joined the mob, who rushed up the stairs.[17]

The mob first attempted to push the door open to fire into the room, though Joseph Smith and the other prisoners pushed back and prevented the door from opening. Then a member of the mob fired a shot through the door. Hyrum Smith was shot in the face, just to the left of his nose, which threw him to the floor. He cried out, "I am a dead man!" and collapsed. He died almost immediately, cradled in his brother's arms.[19]

Joseph Smith, Taylor, and Richards attempted to defend themselves. Taylor and Richards used a long walking stick in order to deflect the guns as they were thrust inside the cell, from behind the door. Smith used a small pepper-box pistol that Cyrus Wheelock gave him when Wheelock visited the jail earlier that day.[20] Three of the six barrels misfired,[21] but the other three shots injured at least three of the attackers.[22]

Taylor was shot four or five times and was severely injured, but survived. It has been popularly believed that one shot was stopped by his pocket watch, which is on display in the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City; the watch was broken and was used to help identify the time of the attack. In 2010, forensic research by J. Lynn Lyon of the University of Utah and Mormon historian Glen M. Leonard suggested that Taylor's watch was not struck by a ball, but rather broke against the window ledge.[23] Columbia University historian Richard Bushman, the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, also supports this view. Richards, physically the largest, escaped unscathed as he was pushed behind the door when it was forced open.[citation needed]

After using all of the shots in his pistol, Joseph Smith made his way towards the window. As Smith prepared to jump down, Richards reported that he was shot twice in the back and a third bullet, fired from a musket on the ground outside, hit him in the chest.[2]:v6,p620

1851 lithograph of Smith's body being mutilated. (Library of Congress).

Taylor and Richards's accounts both report that as Smith fell from the window, he called out, "Oh Lord, my God!". Some have alleged that the context of this statement was an attempt by Smith to use a Masonic distress signal.[24]

There are varying accounts of what happened next. Taylor and Richards's accounts state that Smith was dead when he landed after his fall. One eyewitness, William Daniels, wrote in his 1845 account that Smith was alive when mob members propped his body against a nearby well, assembled a makeshift firing squad, and shot him before fleeing. Daniels's account also states that one man tried to decapitate Smith for a bounty, but was prevented by divine intervention.[25] There were additional reports that thunder and lightning frightened the mob off.[26] Mob members fled, shouting, "The Mormons are coming," although there was no such force nearby.[27]

After the attack was over, Richards, who was trained as a medical doctor, went back to see if anyone besides himself had survived, and he found Taylor lying on the floor. Richards dragged Taylor into the prison cell (they had not been held in the cell, but in the guard's room across the hallway). Richards dragged Taylor under some of the straw mattress to put pressure on his wounds and slow the bleeding and then went to get help. Both Richards and Taylor survived, and Taylor eventually became the third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Richards had escaped all harm except for a bullet grazing his ear.

Injuries to mob members

There have been conflicting reports about to what extent members of the mob were injured during the attack, and whether any of them were killed. Shortly after the events occurred, Taylor wrote that he heard that two of the attackers died when Joseph Smith shot them with his pistol.[2]:v7,p102

Most accounts seem to agree that at least three mob members were wounded by Smith's gunfire, but there is no other evidence that any of them died as a result of the attack. John Wills was shot in the arm, William Voras was shot in the shoulder, and William Gallaher was shot in the face.[22][28] Others claimed that a fourth unnamed man was also wounded.[29] Wills, Voras, Gallaher, and a Mr. Allen (possibly the fourth man) were all indicted for the murder of the Smiths. Wills, Voras, and Gallaher, perhaps conscious that their wounds could prove that they were involved in the mob, fled the county after being indicted and were never brought to trial.[30] Apart from Taylor's report of what he had heard, there is no evidence that Wills, Voras, Gallaher, or Allen died from their wounds.[31]


Current gravesite of Joseph, Hyrum, and Emma Smith

Joseph and Hyrum Smith's bodies were returned to Nauvoo the next day. The bodies were cleaned and examined, and death masks were made, preserving their facial features and structures.

A public viewing was held on June 29, 1844, after which empty coffins weighted with sandbags were used at the public burial. (This was done to prevent theft or mutilation of the bodies.) The coffins bearing the bodies of the Smith brothers were initially buried under the unfinished Nauvoo House, then disinterred and deeply reburied under an out-building on the Smith homestead.

In 1928, Frederick M. Smith, president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church) and grandson of Joseph Smith, fearing that rising water from the Mississippi River would destroy the grave site, authorized civil engineer William O. Hands to conduct an excavation to find the Smiths' bodies. Hands conducted extensive digging on the Smith homestead, and located the bodies, as well as finding the remains of Joseph's wife, Emma, who was buried in the same place. The remains—which were badly decomposed—were examined and photographed, and the bodies were reinterred close by in Nauvoo.

Responsibility and trial

After the deaths, much speculation was made about who was responsible. Governor Ford was accused of knowing about the plot to kill Smith, and some said he even approved of it.[who?] Ford denied this, but he later wrote that it was good for the Mormons to have been driven out of the state and said that their beliefs and actions were too different to have survived in Illinois. He said Smith was "the most successful impostor in modern times,"[32] and that some people "expect more protection from the laws than the laws are able to furnish in the face of popular excitement."[33]

Ultimately, five defendants—Thomas C. Sharp, Mark Aldrich, William N. Grover, Jacob C. Davis and Levi Williams—were tried for the murder of the Smiths. All five defendants were found not guilty by a jury. The trial jury was composed exclusively of non-Mormons after the defense counsel convinced the judge to dismiss the initial jury, which included Mormons.[34] The defense was led by Orville Hickman Browning, later a United States Senator and cabinet member.

Consequences in the Latter Day Saint movement

After the death of the Smiths, a succession crisis occurred in the Latter Day Saint movement. Hyrum Smith, the Assistant President of the Church, was intended to succeed Joseph as President of the Church,[35] but because he was killed with his brother, the proper succession procedure became unclear.

Initially, the primary contenders to succeed Joseph Smith were Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, and James Strang. Rigdon was the senior surviving member of the First Presidency, a body that had led the church since 1832. At the time of the Smiths' deaths, Rigdon was estranged from Smith due to differences in doctrinal beliefs. Young, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, claimed authority was handed by Smith to the Quorum of the Twelve. Strang claimed that Smith designated him as the successor in a letter that was received by Strang a week before Smith's death. Later, others came to believe that Smith's son, Joseph Smith III, was the rightful successor under the doctrine of lineal succession.

A schism resulted, with each claimant attracting followers. The majority of Latter Day Saints followed Young; these adherents later emigrated to Utah Territory and continued as the LDS Church. Rigdon's followers were known as Rigdonites, some of which later established The Church of Jesus Christ. Strang's followers established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite). In the 1860s, those who felt that Smith should have been succeeded by Joseph Smith III established the RLDS Church, which later changed its name to Community of Christ.

See also


  1. Quinn (1994, p. 119)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Smith Jr., Joseph. Roberts, Brigham Henry (ed.). History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 6 & 7. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company. ISBN 0-9582183-0-7. Retrieved 15 June 2009. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Provided by BYU Studies. Published in book form in 1902.
  3. Newell, Linda King; Avery, Valeen Tippetts (1994). Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (2d ed.). University of Illinois Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-252-06291-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> See also Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.
  4. Anderson, Richard Lloyd; Faulring, Scott H. (1998). "The Prophet Joseph Smith and His Plural Wives". FARMS Review. 10 (2): 67–104. Reliable evidence indicates that Joseph Smith fathered some children through his plural marriages with single women, but that evidence does not necessarily support intimacy with polyandrous wives.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. De Groote, Michael (2011). "DNA Solves a Joseph Smith Mystery". Deseret News. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Roberts, B. H., ed. (1912), "Chapter XXI: The Destruction of the "Nauvoo Expositor"—Proceedings of the Nauvoo City Council and Mayor", History of the Church, Salt Lake City: LDS Church<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Tanner, 1981, chapter 17, "Joseph Smith". The Changing World of Mormonism. Retrieved August 22, 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Allen, James B.; Glen M. Leonard (1992). Story of the Latter-day Saints (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City: Deseret Book. p. 208. ISBN 0-87579-565-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Warsaw Signal, June 12, 1844, p. 2.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Firmage, Edwin Brown; Mangrum, Richard Collin (2001). Zion in the courts. University of Illinois: University of Illinois Press. pp. 114 & 115 of 430 pages. ISBN 0-252-06980-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Military Service Records of LDS Men". Genealogy Gateway. 1995. Retrieved 15 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Paragraph 6.
  12. Doctrine and Covenants 135:4 (LDS Church ed.).
  13. Phelps, William Wines (1862). "Almanac for the year 1863". Great Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News: 27–28. Retrieved 13 July 2011. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Six other associates accompanied the Smiths: John P. Greene, Stephen Markham, Dan Jones, John S. Fullmer, Dr. Southwick, and Lorenzo D. Wasson [1]
  15. Hill, Marvin S. "Carthage Conspiracy Reconsidered: A Second Look at the Murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith" (PDF). Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Illinois State Historical Society (Summer 2005). Retrieved 2012-02-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, chapter 56.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Dr. Quinn, D. Michael (1992). "On Being a Mormon Historian (And Its Aftermath)". In Smith, George D. (ed.). Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History. Salt Lake City: Signature Books. p. 141.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Journal of Allen Joseph Stout," Journal for Period 1815–1848, Published by the Book of Abraham Project at Brigham Young University, retrieved December 15, 2007.
  19. Doctrine and Covenants 135:1 (LDS Church ed.).
  20. Oaks and Hill, 20.
  21. Oaks and Hill, 21.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Oaks and Hill, 52.
  23. Lyon, "Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What It Reveals about the Assassinations of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith," BYU Education Week, 16 August 2010.
  24. This connection was first made by Reed C. Durham in his presidential address, "Is There No Hope for the Widow's Son," delivered at the Mormon History Association convention in Nauvoo, Illinois, 20 April 1974. (University of Utah Marriott Library, Manuscripts Division, Reed C. Durham Papers, Accn 444.) See also "Why was Joseph Smith a Mason?", from Sunday Sermons, by Cordell and Janice Vail,, dated 23 Nov 2003, retrieved December 15, 2007.
  25. William M. Daniels (1845). A Correct Account of the Murder of Generals Joseph and Hyrum Smith, at Carthage on the 27th Day of June, 1844 (Nauvoo, Ill.: John Taylor).
  26. Oaks and Hill, 89, 127, 132–33, 136, 144, 165–66.
  27. Richards, 1844; D&C 135; Oaks and Hill, 1979; Quinn, 1994.
  28. CHC 2:285 n.19
  29. CHC 2:285 n.19.
  30. Oaks and Hill, 52, 79.
  31. Starr, Lance (2003), Was Joseph Smith a Martyr or a Murderer (PDF), Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Stevenson, Adlai Ewing (17 December 1909). Something of men I have known (2nd ed.). CHICAGO: R. R. DONNELLEY & SONS COMPANY. pp. 211–212.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Flanders, Robert Bruce (1975). Nauvoo: KINGDOM ON THE MISSISSIPPI (illustrated ed.). University of Illinois: University of Illinois Press. p. 306. ISBN 0-252-00561-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. See Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill (1975). Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press); Marvin S. Hill. "Carthage Conspiracy Reconsidered: A Second Look at the Murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith", Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2004.
  35. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (2d ed., 1966, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft) s.v. "Assistant President of the Church".


Further reading

External links

Preceded by
Joseph Smith
Succeeded by