Carthage Jail

Joseph and Hyrum's statue at Carthage jail

Following increased opposition and the destruction of a printing press, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were taken to Carthage Jail. While the brothers were awaiting trial, an armed mob stormed the building and killed the two men. Latter-day Saints mourned their deaths, and today Carthage Jail stands as a memorial to the brothers.

We all felt as though the powers of darkness had overcome, and that the Lord had forsaken His people. Our Prophet and Patriarch were gone! Warren Foote1

Latter-day Saint Warren Foote wrote these words in his journal one day after a mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in Carthage Jail. Foote’s words provide a glimpse into the devastation felt by Latter-day Saints following the martyrdom. Today, through an intimate look at the brothers’ last days, the jail helps visitors remember the prophet and patriarch.

Prelude to the Martyrdom

As Nauvoo grew from a swampy town to a bustling city, opposition to the Latter-day Saints increased as well. Some were worried about Joseph Smith’s power in the community, others feared the Saints’ political influence, while some disagreed with religious teaching and practices—especially plural marriage.2 Eventually, the situation in Nauvoo became a tinderbox.

The destruction of a printing press ignited the situation in Nauvoo, ultimately leading to the martyrdom. Some disaffected former Latter-day Saints started the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper that criticized the prophet and the Church. Joseph Smith called for the press’s destruction after the newspaper published its first—and only—issue.

The front page of the 7 June 1844 edition of the "Nauvoo Expositor," a 19th newspaper published to rally anti-mormon sentiment against the Church in Nauvoo.

Front page of the Nauvoo Expositor’s only issue.

The press’s destruction led to a warrant for Joseph and Hyrum’s arrest on riot charges and a series of legal proceedings. Eventually, the two brothers, mayor and vice mayor of Nauvoo, turned themselves in to the Carthage court, where they were subsequently charged with treason for declaring martial law.3 Prevented from posting bail, they awaited their trial in Carthage Jail.4

West façade of Carthage Jail.

Days before the Martyrdom

When Joseph and Hyrum arrived at Carthage Jail on June 25, 1844, they were put in the criminal’s cell upstairs. However, they only stayed in this dark room for a few hours before moving downstairs to the debtor’s cell.

Carthage Jail Exteriors

Criminal’s cell, Carthage Jail.

The debtor’s cell allowed some friends to stay with Joseph and Hyrum, providing companionship and support. Eight men stayed with them on the night of June 25.

Carthage Jail Exteriors

Debtor’s cell, Carthage Jail.

Given the public’s hostility toward Joseph Smith, the jailor, George Stigall, considered the debtor’s cell too dangerous. Being on the first floor left the brothers easily exposed. He moved Joseph and Hyrum upstairs to the family bedroom on June 26. They were joined by their friends John Taylor, Willard Richards, Stephen Markham, Dan Jones, and John Fullmer.

Upstairs bedroom, Carthage Jail.

The next day, June 27, Stephen Markham, Dan Jones, and John Fullmer left the jail to run some errands. Joseph and Hyrum, along with John Taylor and Willard Richards, stayed in the bedroom. Fewer than 10 guards protected the jail, leaving the men vulnerable to attack. This insufficient protection proved deadly.

The Martyrdom

Soon after 5:00 p.m., Joseph and his companions heard some gunshots and, looking out the window, saw over a hundred men gathered outside.

[Mob at Carthage Jail]

Mob at Carthage Jail, by William L. Maughan.

The mob rushed up the stairs toward the bedroom.

Carthage Jail Exteriors

Stairs leading up to the bedroom, Carthage Jail.

Joseph and Hyrum quickly armed themselves with pistols, while John and Willard grabbed canes to defend themselves. All four pushed against the door to keep the mob from bursting into the room.

Undeterred, the mob shot through the door, striking Hyrum in the face and killing him almost instantly. Musket balls flew through the air as the three men strained to keep the door closed.

Carthage Jail

Bedroom door with bullet holes, Carthage Jail.

During this chaos, Joseph ran toward the window, hoping to escape. The attempt was in vain, as the mob surrounded the jail. While at the windowsill, several musket balls pierced his body—two in his back and one below his heart.

Carthage Jail Exteriors

Interior window where Joseph was shot, Carthage Jail.

Joseph fell from the window to the ground outside, landing next to the well. The shots had dealt a lethal blow.

Carthage Jail

Reconstructed exterior well where Joseph died, Carthage Jail.

After the Martyrdom

Following the martyrdom, Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies were taken to the Nauvoo Mansion House, an approximately 20-mile journey.

Exterior of Mansion House

Nauvoo Mansion House, Joseph Smith Historic Site.

Of the procession to the Mansion House, one witness remembered:

Women broke out in lamentations at the sight of the two rude boxes in the wagons, covered with Indian blankets. The weeping was communicated to the crowd, and spread along the vast waves of humanity extending from the Temple to the residence of the Prophet. The groans and sobs and shrieks grew deeper, and louder, till the sound resembled the roar of a mighty tempest, or the low, deep roar of the distant tornado.5

Large crowds came to pay their respects to the beloved prophet and his brother. They were secretly buried in the basement of the unfinished Nauvoo House, but they were eventually moved to the Smith Family Cemetery.

Smith Family Cemetery at Joseph Smith Historic Site

Smith Family Cemetery, Joseph Smith Historic Site.

Remembering the Martyrdom

Carthage Jail stands as a memorial to Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Those who visit today might reflect not only on the prophet and the patriarch’s last days but also on their legacy. As we read in Doctrine and Covenants 135:3, written soon after the martyrdom, “[Joseph] lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood; and so has his brother Hyrum.”

Carthage Jail with statue of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

Commemorative statue of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, by Dee Jay Bawden, Carthage Jail.