How did the U.S. press react when Joseph and Hyrum were murdered?
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“How did the U.S. press react when Joseph and Hyrum were murdered?” Ensign, Apr. 1984, 22–23

How did the U.S. press react when Joseph and Hyrum were murdered?

Larry C. Porter, director of Church History, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University. As we know, a double murder was committed on the hot Thursday afternoon of 27 June 1844 at Carthage, Illinois. The Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were slain in a violent outburst by an armed mob of one-hundred to two-hundred men. The attackers were primarily members of the Warsaw (Illinois) militia, aided and abetted by certain of the Carthage Greys who had been posted to guard the prisoners.

Newspapers in every state and territory of the Union alerted their readership to the assassinations. Even a cursory examination of the sources yields an impressive amount of newspaper coverage. The Morse magnetic telegraph had been in operation for only one month at the time—and only between the cities of Washington and Baltimore. But the western mails dispatched news of the slayings with surprising rapidity. The news reached the papers in St. Louis, Missouri, in two days; Cincinnati, Ohio, in six; New York City and Washington D.C., in eleven; and Boston in twelve. The village of Palmyra, New York, near the site of the Hill Cumorah, learned the preliminaries of the murders in thirteen days. The papers in Windsor County, Vermont, where Joseph and Hyrum were born, carried an account of their deaths fifteen days after the fact.

Of course, towns closer to Nauvoo received the word more quickly. A Quincy newspaper, forty miles south of Nauvoo, notified its citizens on June 28, one day after the murders took place. The people of Warsaw, Illinois, some eighteen miles down the Mississippi from Nauvoo, received an extended account of the occurrence after two days.

Although the murders were known to every inhabitant of Nauvoo, the first extensive coverage in that city of the circumstances appeared three days later on June 30, published in a Nauvoo Neighbor,—Extra, “Sunday, 3 o’clock P.M.” A simple, one-page “Proclamation” had been issued in the city the previous day by Brigadier General M. R. Deming of the Illinois State Militia, inviting the citizens of Hancock County to remain in their homes and cooperate in “establishing tranquility.” This “Proclamation” was published simultaneously in a Nauvoo Neighbor,—Extra, and other newspapers in the area. However, it contained no details concerning the murders, except a note on the return of the corpses.

The Saints in Europe had no trans-Atlantic cable and, of course, received the sad news belatedly. Elder Orson Hyde wrote to the “Brethren and Sisters in England” from New York City on 10 July 1844, and the message would have taken between eighteen and twenty-one days to cross the ocean. Elder Hyde’s letter, along with other particulars, was printed in a Supplement to the Millennial Star, August 1844.

Many of the initial accounts of the murders carried misinformation concerning what had actually happened at the jail. On June 29, the Quincy Herald published an inaccurate account of the murders, which had been acquired from “a slip form [sic] the Warsaw Signal.” The Quincy Herald article was in turn picked up on July 8 by The Daily National Intelligencer (Washington) and other newspapers, compounding the original errors. The Daily National Intelligencer readers digested this distorted copy:

“It appears that Joe[seph] and Hiram [Hyrum] Smith, and a number of other Mormon leaders were in jail at Carthage, confined on certain offences against the laws of the State. The Carthage Greys, a volunteer company, were placed as a guard around the jail. About six o’clock on the evening of the 27th, an attempt was made by the Mormons on the outside to rescue the prisoners from the custody of the guard. A youth about nineteen years of age (a Mormon) began the affray by shooting the sentinel at the door, wounding him severely in the shoulder. Simultaneously with this attempt, the Mormons on the inside of the jail, including the Smiths, presented pistols through the windows and doors of the jail, and fired upon the guard without, wounding, it is supposed mortally, four of the old citizens of Hancock. It is unnecessary to say that the blood thirsty attempt on the part of the Mormons was the signal for a certain and sure vengeance. The lives of Joe[seph] Smith and his brother Hiram, and Richards, Joe[seph] Smith’s secretary, were quickly taken, and we believe no others. Carthage was filled with Mormons previous to the affray. The Mormons appeared to be collecting around the jail for the purpose of attempting the rescue of their leader.”

It is understandable that these and numerous other inaccuracies found their way into print in the midst of the confusion surrounding the actual circumstances at Carthage. Some of the misconceptions were corrected as more reliable information became available. However, certain of the erroneous reports were allowed to stand without being corrected in subsequent issues of the particular newspaper, thus perpetrating a misrepresentation of facts.

Those newspapers which chose to editorialize on the murders, rather than merely recording “intelligence from the western mails,” generally condemned the assailants for their actions and identified them for what they were—murderers. Press reaction from the Providence, Rhode Island, Manufacturers and Farmers Journal on July 15 is indicative of widespread national sentiment: “No language is too strong to express the condemnation with which every good citizen must view the massacre of these men, and unless effectually and promptly punished, it puts a stain of the deepest dye upon the national character.”

Though there were obvious exceptions, namely the Warsaw Signal and Quincy Whig, local newspapers were primarily strong in their denunciations of the lawless act. On 29 June 1844, the Lee County Democrat (Fort Madison, Iowa) carried a journalistic synopsis of concerns over the wanton killings as expressed in the area press:

“With reference to the recent bloody affair at Carthage the C. S. Democrat of this morning says:—

“‘From all the focts [sic] new fefore [sic] us, we regard these homicides as nothing else than murder in cold blood—murder against the plighted faith of the chief magistrate of Illinois—murder of a character so atrocious and so unjustifiable, as to leave the blackest stain on all its perpetrators—their aiders, abetters, and defenders.’

“The Republican pronounces the deed ‘unprovoked murder.

“The Reporter says:—‘The conduct of the mob, at Carthage cannot be justified.’

“The Reville says:—‘Joe[seph] Smith has been “Lynched,” while under the protection of Governor Ford and the laws!’

“The New Era says:—‘It was cruel and cowardly to murder unarmed prisoners when they had surrendered themselves and were in the custody of the laws.’

“In fact, the Press of St. Louis denounces this bloody deed, without a dissenting voice.—St. Louis Eve. Gaz. on the 1st.

“We also endorse the whole of the sentiment of the St. Louis Presses, and say that it was premeditated murder, and that the offenders ought to be ferreted out and delt with according to the strict sense of the law.”

The national press was certainly not lauditory of Mormonism nor of its prophet, but it also did not condone murder—whether politically motivated or as an outgrowth of religious intolerance. (For an added perspective on the attitude of the American press, see Paul D. Ellsworth, “Mobocracy and the Rule of Law: American Press Reaction to the Murder of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies, Fall 1979, pp. 71–82.)

It was with cause that the Warsaw Signal (Warsaw, Illinois) attempted a lengthy justification for the slayings. Its editor, Thomas Sharp, had a very personal involvement in the assassinations. He and eight other men were subsequently indicted for the murders. In the June 12 issue of the Signal—fifteen days before the slayings—Thomas Sharp had reacted violently to the Nauvoo City Council’s destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. He had cried that a “War and extermination” of the Mormons was “ineveitable” [sic]. Further haranguing his readers to action, he declared: “We have no time for comment: every man will make his own. Let it be made with POWDER and BALL!!!” Thomas Sharp was present at Carthage Jail to assist in the fulfillment of his own decree.

In a subsequent issue of the Signal on 24 July 1844, Sharp attempted to allay the public mind as to why the killing of the Smith brothers was so necessary. After an extended treatment of purported “aggressions and outrages on the peace and safety of society” by the Mormons and the conditions surrounding the jailing of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Hyrum, he avowed:

“But what satisfaction could it afford the old citizens of Hancock, to know that Joseph was in jail? They know, and the world must know for reasons before given, that they never could be convicted of any crime. We had taken a great deal of trouble to assert and maintain the supremacy of the law, but if the matter rested there, justice might have dispared of his cause. It was this conviction that compassed their execution. Did they deserve death? There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person aquainted with their history.”

Thomas Sharp and the eight men indicted with him were acquitted in the death of Joseph Smith at a trial held in Carthage, Illinois. A jury verdict of “not guilty” was rendered on 30 May 1845. (See Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 184–85.)

In the meridian of time, the Savior had warned his ancient Apostles, “The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” (John 16:2.) Whatever their individual motives may have been, there was certainly an overall affirmation on the part of the jubilant perpetrators that a valid service had indeed been performed at Carthage. Time, however, always vindicates the prophets, not their detractors.