“Martyrdom at Carthage,” Ensign, June 1994, 30
Joseph Smith: Legacy of a Prophet
Martyrdom at Carthage
The deaths of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum sealed their testimony to the truthfulness of the Restoration.
Even before the Prophet Joseph Smith went to Carthage, there were signs that his life was in danger: Illinois Governor Thomas Ford going to Hancock County with a force of more than twelve hundred state militiamen, Warsaw and Carthage citizens in mass meetings passing resolutions to “utterly exterminate” the Mormon leader, Illinois officials confiscating state arms from the Nauvoo Legion while allowing other militias to retain theirs.
The events prompted Joseph Smith to say five days before his martyrdom: “I told [Colonel] Stephen Markham that if I and Hyrum were ever taken again we should be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God.”1
Earlier that day, while he was contemplating his plight, Joseph’s countenance had brightened. “The way is open,” he told his brother Hyrum. “It is clear to my mind what to do. … We will cross the river tonight, and go away to the West.”2
The night of June 22 was upon Nauvoo when Hyrum walked out of the Mansion House and extended his hand to Reynolds Cahoon, saying: “A company of men are seeking to kill my brother Joseph, and the Lord has warned him to flee to the Rocky Mountains to save his life. Good-by, Brother Cahoon, we shall see you again.”3
Joseph followed Hyrum a few minutes later after bidding a tearful farewell to his family. Inside the Mansion House, Joseph, Hyrum, and others had heard Elder John Taylor and Brother John Bernhisel report on their visit with Governor Ford, now in Carthage with a militia. The governor, they reported, was surrounded by the Prophet’s enemies and was demanding that Joseph come to Carthage and submit himself to arrest.
“There is no mercy—no mercy here,” the Prophet concluded.4
The whole countryside was in a state of confusion. Mormons feared and distrusted their enemies, and their enemies feared the power of the Mormons if provoked. Rumors bred rumors. Armed men practiced military drills everywhere. Day after day men crossed and recrossed the Mississippi River from Missouri as attacks upon Nauvoo were planned and canceled.5
During the afternoon of June 23, Reynolds Cahoon and Orrin Porter Rockwell found Joseph, Hyrum, and others across the river in Montrose. Provisions for their journey west were spread across a room. Brothers Cahoon and Rockwell said they came at the request of the Prophet’s wife, Emma. A posse had come for Joseph and Hyrum that morning warning that the governor had promised to garrison troops in Nauvoo until the brothers submitted to arrest.6 The brethren were told that the people of Nauvoo feared what the troops might do. A discussion ensued. At its end, Hyrum said, “Let us go back and give ourselves up, and see the thing out.”7
On the morning of Tuesday, June 25, events moved rapidly. Joseph and Hyrum, charged with riot for the June 10 destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press, surrendered themselves to Constable Davis Bettisworth in Carthage despite being acquitted earlier on related charges. Nauvoo City Council members, feeling that the press threatened their lives and liberties by inciting mob violence against them, had ruled, within the rights they felt were granted by the Nauvoo Charter, that the newspaper was a public nuisance. As directed by the city council, the Prophet, acting as mayor, had then ordered the marshal to destroy the press.8
After posting bail in Carthage, Joseph and Hyrum were released pending the next term of the circuit court. However, the brothers faced a second charge of “treason” for calling the Nauvoo Legion to assemble on June 18 and for declaring martial law—actions that had been prompted by justified fears of mob attack on Nauvoo.9 But Justice of the Peace Robert F. Smith, who also served as captain of the unruly Carthage Greys militia, left the courtroom without calling Joseph and Hyrum to answer the second charge.
Later, when they were back in their room in the Hamilton House (a hotel, tavern, and Carthage social center where the governor and other officials also were lodged), Constable Bettisworth reappeared to take Joseph and Hyrum to jail to await trial for treason. A warrant known as a mittimus was needed for such action, their legal counsel explained, and before a mittimus could be issued, the law required that the prisoners be brought before the justice of the peace again for an examination. To everyone’s surprise, the constable pulled a mittimus from his pocket, signed by Robert F. Smith. Joseph objected to “such bare-faced, illegal, and tyrannical proceedings.”10 James W. Wood, Joseph’s lawyer, went down the hall to the governor. Ford refused to intervene, and the Prophet, Hyrum, and several other brethren were escorted to Carthage Jail.11
The jail stood near the Warsaw road on the northwest edge of town, one block north and two blocks west of the town square. The jailer and his family lived on the first floor of the two-story stone building. The Church leaders spent their first night in a cell on this floor. On the second floor were a cell and a bedroom; the brethren were moved into this bedroom on the second day. Eight militiamen, posted from the ranks of the Carthage Greys, acted as guards.
Hancock County rabble followed the brethren to the jail, milling about, shouting at the guards, and sitting on their haunches against a pole fence surrounding the yard. They joked and cursed and spat on the ground. Occasionally they sang doggerels as fit their mood. One was set to the tune of “Old Dan Tucker”:
There’s Governor Ford with mind so small,
He hasn’t room for a soul at all;
He can’t be either damned or blest,
If heaven or hell should do their best.12
Governor Ford met with militia leaders and citizens in the Hamilton House on the morning of 27 June 1844. Notwithstanding they had planned a military display in Nauvoo with all state militias participating, the governor had decided against it. But as a concession to militia leaders’ wishes, he would lead a force to Nauvoo “to terrify the Mormons from attempting any open or secret measure of vengeance.” However, he announced, the force would not be large—only Captain Dunn’s company of Union Dragoons from Augusta, the small township in the extreme southeast corner of Hancock County. All other militias, with the exception of the two companies in Carthage—the Greys and the Riflemen, assigned to guard the jail—were to be disbanded immediately.13
Commotion broke out in the room. To those favoring a march to Nauvoo, the order to disband was merely more of the “Ford reasoning.” But to those planning the Prophet’s death, the import of the governor’s orders became apparent. The troops were to be disbanded in Carthage! Once the responsible had left for their homes, the residue would become an armed and lawless mob.
Dan Jones had spent the night sleeping in the jail, but earlier in the day had left to take a message to the governor. On his return, the guards would not let him pass. So he sat against the pole fence and waited, ignoring the frequent curses and rocks tossed his way.
It was late morning when the Prophet had a letter passed to him with instructions that he take it immediately to a lawyer in Quincy, about sixty miles away.14
Like almost everyone in Carthage, the Greys felt Joseph Smith would soon call for his own militia, the Nauvoo Legion, to rescue him from mob action. Now, with Jones receiving the Prophet’s letter and calling to the jailer’s son for his horse, one of the guards became nervous and shouted that Joseph Smith had sent orders to raise the Nauvoo Legion. At once, the rabble in the yard and several of the Greys surrounded Jones, demanding the letter. At the same time, a group rode into the woods where they planned to waylay Jones on the Nauvoo road. Among those in the yard, a squabble erupted over killing Jones then and there. In the middle of this embroilment, Jones broke away and rode out of town, shots buzzing about him. In the confusion of the moment, he headed down the nearby Warsaw road, avoiding those who planned to waylay him. He changed his direction and rode toward Nauvoo only when he was well beyond town.15
Word spread rapidly that the Nauvoo Legion had been ordered to march on Carthage.
At noon in Nauvoo about two thousand members of the Nauvoo Legion turned out to parade. Nearly all were armed—the men bringing their private arms to the drill because the governor had ordered the state arms collected several days before. Ford had directed Captain James Singleton, backed by a force of about sixty militiamen, to reorganize the city police. As he reviewed the assembled Nauvoo Legion, Singleton was astonished at the legion’s size and the number of arms carried. He reportedly remarked that it would not do to come against such a force as the legion he saw.16
The review had hardly begun when a messenger arrived with an order from the governor: All militias within Hancock County were to be disbanded immediately except a small escort of Augusta Dragoons en route to Nauvoo with the governor, Singleton’s command of troops in Nauvoo, and the two Carthage companies guarding the county jail. The Nauvoo Legion was accordingly disbanded.17
Colonel Levi Williams and his four companies of Warsaw militia were several miles out of Warsaw, bound for Nauvoo, when a rider bearing the orders to disband reached them. They were to have met the governor’s force at Golden’s Point on the Hancock prairie, then to have marched on to Nauvoo. The troops reacted instantly to the disbanding. Most were angered at having their “Nauvoo picnic” cut short; others left promptly, saying they could be home by supper. Shortly, a second rider appeared. He carried a note from the Carthage Greys. The time was at hand to kill the Smiths, the note said. The guards at the jail would offer only token resistance.18
There were now only four men in the upstairs bedroom: Joseph, thirty-eight, first elder and President of the Church; Hyrum, forty-four, Church patriarch and associate president; John Taylor, thirty-five, editor of two Nauvoo newspapers, the Times and Seasons and the Nauvoo Neighbor; and Willard Richards, forty, a physician and the Prophet’s personal secretary. Elders Taylor and Richards were the only two members of the Quorum of the Twelve on the western frontier. The other ten were on missions in the eastern United States.
Other brethren who had been at the jail, such as Cyrus Wheelock and John Fullmer, had gone to Nauvoo to bring back witnesses. Stephen Markham had gone for medicine. Others who had left were not permitted to reenter. James Wood, principal counsel for the Church leaders, had gone to Nauvoo, and his assistant, H. T. Reid, had not been seen for hours. Since arriving in Carthage, the men in the jail had had a steady stream of visitors. Now there was none.
The four men had two firearms among them, left behind by friends: a single-shot pistol Joseph had passed to Hyrum and a six-shot pistol, called a pepperbox, which the Prophet retained. They also had two walking canes: a large hickory stick called a “rascal-beater” and a smaller walking cane. Joseph’s companions had used both to beat back the rabble while making their way from the Hamilton House to the jail two days earlier.
Inside the room, the afternoon heat was oppressive. The Brethren had opened wide the windows to receive as much breeze as might be stirring. With their coats off, they sat about the room, somewhat listlessly. Hyrum read from Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Joseph visited with a guard on the landing. When John Taylor sang “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” recently introduced to Nauvoo, Hyrum asked that he sing it a second time. But Elder Taylor, who felt the song too much in accord with their feelings, responded, “Brother Hyrum, I do not feel like singing.”
“Oh, never mind,” responded Hyrum, “commence singing, and you will get the spirit of it.” Elder Taylor again sang the song.19
Meanwhile, the disbanded Warsaw militia looped east to enter Carthage on the Nauvoo road. As they walked along, they chanted:
Where now is the Prophet Joseph?
Where now is the Prophet Joseph?
Where now is the Prophet Joseph?
Safe in Carthage Jail.20
They stopped at a bank of mud, and with gunpowder and mud they blackened their faces.
From the landing inside the jail there was a knock at the door, and the jailer’s son entered with a pitcher of fresh well water. His father followed behind, saying that Stephen Markham had been surrounded by rabble and run out of town. The mob had set up picket lines on roads coming into Carthage; the Prophet’s friends were not permitted to cross them.21
The jailer said the prisoners would be safer if they were in the cell.
“After supper we will go in,” Joseph replied.22
On the outskirts of Carthage, the Warsaw troops left the jimsonweed- and mayweed-lined road and cut across a woodlot and pasture. Through the trees they could see the jail, its yellow stone picking up the flood of late afternoon sun. The men broke into a run.
A lookout atop the courthouse shouted to the Greys below, “They’re coming down the fence to the jail!” The Greys formed and started for the scene, a few breaking ranks and racing ahead.
East of the jail, a Carthage housewife stepped to her back porch. She was taken aback at the sight of dozens of men “strung along in single file and quick step[ping]” out of the woods. The men scaled the pole fence and rushed the jail.
The woman assumed the Warsaw militiamen were Mormons who had come to rescue the Prophet. She and others began sounding the alarm throughout the city.23
The jailer had just left the upstairs bedroom. “Brother Richards,” the Prophet asked, “if we go into the cell, will you go in with us?”
“Brother Joseph,” Elder Richards answered, “you did not ask me to cross the river with you—you did not ask me to come to Carthage—you did not ask me to come to jail with you—and do you think I would forsake you now? But I will tell you what I will do; if you are condemned to be hung for treason, I will be hung in your stead, and you shall go free.”
“You cannot,” the Prophet said.
“I will,” Elder Richards replied.24
Immediately, there was a clamor in the yard below, the crash of men on the stairs, a shout of “Surrender!” John Taylor, at the window, saw a force of armed men scrambling across the yard. He jumped to the door, only to find the others already braced against it.
Reaching the top of the stairs and assuming the door locked, the mobbers fired at the latch, shattering the door’s edge. Inside, the Prophet, Willard Richards, and John Taylor jumped back to the wall. Almost at the same time, a ball came through the door and hit Hyrum in the face. From the outside, a second ball hit him in the back. He fell full length to the floor, face up. “I am a dead man,” he murmured.25
The Prophet dropped to his brother. “Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum,” he groaned. The deep look of sympathy on Joseph’s face fastened itself to Elder Taylor’s mind. The Prophet then stood, and with a firm step he went to the door, pulled the pepperbox from his pocket, and, reaching around the door casing, fired blindly into the hallway. He snapped all six shots. Half discharged, striking three men.26
There was much shouting and cursing on the landing. The smoke from the powder flashes clouded everything and added to the confusion as those who had shot their round tried to push back to ram in a new load and those who had yet to fire pushed forward. Those pressing the doorway followed their bayonets, and Elder Taylor, using the rascal-beater, beat down the arms. As he did so, he felt his death was imminent: “Streams of fire as thick as my arm passed by me as these men fired, and it looked like certain death … ,” he later wrote. “But I do not know when, in any critical position, I was more calm, … and acted with more promptness and decision.”27
From behind him, the Prophet said, “That’s right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can.” They were the last words he heard the Prophet speak.28
When it became impossible to beat down the arms any longer, Elder Taylor crossed the room, hoping to find some safety by jumping to the yard below. As he reached the window, a ball from the door struck him in his thigh. He fell across the window sill, unable to move. “I am shot!” he exclaimed. Suddenly he was lifted back into the room by the force of a ball fired up from the yard. The ball hit the watch in his breast pocket, stopping the works. Thus the time of the martyrdom was set: 16 minutes, 26 seconds past five.29
Elder Taylor found his animation restored when he hit the floor. He took three more balls as he crawled beneath the bed: one below the left knee; a second in the left arm, which traveled through his wrist and lodged in the fleshy part of his hand; and a third in his left hip, which splattered blood and flesh and left a hole the size of a cup.30
When Elder Taylor left the door, Elder Richards took his place and continued beating with the smaller walking cane. The Prophet—in an attempt to draw the mobbers’ attention away from the room—dropped his pistol and went quickly to the window and jumped to the ledge. He was hit simultaneously in the back by two balls fired from the door, and in the chest by a third ball fired from the outside. Joseph poised momentarily on the sill. “Oh Lord, my God!” he cried, then fell dead to the yard below.
No sooner did the Prophet fall than the mobbers yelled, “He’s leaped the window!” and rushed downstairs, leaving Elders Taylor and Richards behind. Stealing to the window, Elder Richards looked out, determined to see the end of him whom he loved. Seeing the Prophet dead, Elder Richards retreated to the landing to see if the cell was open.
“Take me!” a voice called. It was then that Elder Richards realized Elder Taylor was still alive. Grabbing him beneath the arms, Elder Richards dragged the wounded man into the cell, placing him on a pile of straw and covering him with a dirty mattress. “This is a hard case to lay you on the floor,” Elder Richards said, anticipating the mobbers’ return, “but if your wounds are not fatal, I want you to live to tell the story.” He then went to the metal door that opened to the landing, closed it, and “stood … awaiting the onset.” Again mobbers rushed up the stairs.31
The streets of Carthage were pandemonium. The sounds of shooting at the jail mixed with the shouts of men and the pounding of horses and wagons as men gathered in the streets to defend themselves. Others vacated the city in fear of the Nauvoo Legion. The news first carried by the Carthage housewife and others made its full circle, and in the jailhouse yard the erroneous cry went up, “The Mormons are coming!”
The mobbers who had found only the dead Hyrum in the upstairs bedroom heard the cry and ran downstairs, joining those fleeing the scene.
In the stillness of the jail, Elder Richards realized the siege was over. He slumped to the floor. His mind went to Joseph, who had prophesied to him over a year before that the time would come when he would not receive a hole in his robe, though balls would fly around him like hail and friends would fall dead by his side.32
At the edge of Carthage, a man fired a cannon. In Warsaw, on hearing the sound and according to plan, a merchant jumped to his horse and rode to Quincy to report that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been killed, along with all those who were with them in the jail.33
In Nauvoo, when the cannon was fired, Governor Ford was concluding an address to the people. There was an obvious pause in his delivery. Soon thereafter, the governor and the Union Dragoons left the city. On the prairie, they met two men hurrying to Nauvoo with news of the martyrdom. Ford, fearing immediate retaliation from Nauvoo, took the two into custody. The governor stopped in Carthage only long enough to denounce the people and gather county records before proceeding on toward Quincy.34
On June 28, Thomas Gregg, the anti-Mormon editor of the Warsaw Message, wrote: “The sun rose on as strange a scene as the broad Hancock prairies had ever witnessed. At the three corners of a triangle, eighteen miles asunder, … stood a smitten and mourning city [Nauvoo] and two almost deserted villages [Warsaw and Carthage]. … Toward the two villages, the more courageous ones … were now returning, tired and worn, to find their several homes unsacked and untouched.”35
That day, too, the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum crossed the broad Hancock prairie. They were taken to Nauvoo in two open wagons, brush covering their bodies. Willard Richards, speaking from the same platform as had the governor the day before, directed the people of Nauvoo to keep the peace. They pledged to do so. Beginning at eight o’clock the next morning, an estimated ten thousand people filed through the Mansion House to view the bodies of the slain Prophet and his brother.36
One hundred years later, a biographer would write: “A few thousand wept at the news of the Prophet’s death; today he lives in the hearts of … million[s] who sing:
“‘Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah …
“‘Men shall extol him and nations revere.’”37