“A Lamb to the Slaughter,” chapter 44 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 44: “A Lamb to the Slaughter”
After Thomas Sharp sounded his call to arms, anger against the Saints in Nauvoo spread through the area like wildfire. Citizens rallied in nearby Warsaw and Carthage to protest the destruction of the Expositor. Town leaders called on men in the region to join them in rising up against the Saints.1 Within two days an armed mob of three hundred men had formed in Carthage, ready to march on Nauvoo and annihilate the Saints.2
One hundred miles northeast of Nauvoo, Peter Maughan and Jacob Peart sat down for a meal at a hotel. Under Joseph’s direction, they had come to the area to find a coal bed for the church to purchase. Joseph believed it would be profitable to mine the coal and ship it down the Mississippi on the Maid of Iowa, the church’s steamboat.3
While they waited for their food, Peter opened the newspaper and read a report claiming that a massive battle had taken place in Nauvoo, killing thousands. Shocked, and afraid for Mary and his children, Peter showed the report to Jacob.
The two men took the next riverboat home. When they were about thirty miles from Nauvoo, they learned to their relief that no battle had taken place. But it seemed to be only a matter of time before violence erupted.4
Despite the city council’s studied decision to destroy the printing press, they had underestimated the outcry that followed. William Law had fled the city, but some of his followers were now threatening to destroy the temple, set fire to Joseph’s house, and tear down the church’s printing office.5 Francis Higbee charged Joseph and other members of the city council with inciting a riot when the press was destroyed. He swore that in ten days’ time there would not be a single Latter-day Saint left in Nauvoo.6
On June 12, an officer from Carthage arrested Joseph and other members of the city council. Nauvoo’s municipal court found the charges baseless and released the men, angering Joseph’s critics even more. The following day, Joseph learned that three hundred men had assembled in Carthage, ready to march on Nauvoo.7
Hoping to prevent another all-out war with their neighbors, as they had seen in Missouri, Joseph and others wrote urgent letters to Governor Ford, explaining the city council’s actions and pleading for help against mob attacks.8 Joseph spoke to the Saints, admonishing them to stay calm, prepare for the defense of the city, and make no disturbances. Then he mustered the Nauvoo Legion and put the city under martial law, suspending the usual rule of law and putting the military in charge.9
On the afternoon of June 18, the Legion assembled in front of the Nauvoo Mansion. As the militia commander, Joseph dressed in full military uniform and climbed atop a nearby platform, where he spoke to the men. “It is thought by some that our enemies would be satisfied with my destruction,” he said, “but I tell you that as soon as they have shed my blood, they will thirst for the blood of every man in whose heart dwells a single spark of the spirit of the fullness of the gospel.”
Drawing his sword and raising it to the sky, Joseph urged the men to defend the liberties that had been denied them in the past. “Will you all stand by me to the death,” Joseph asked, “and sustain, at the peril of your lives, the laws of our country?”
“Aye!” roared the crowd.
“I love you with all my heart,” he said. “You have stood by me in the hour of trouble, and I am willing to sacrifice my life for your preservation.”10
After hearing from Joseph about the city council’s reasons for destroying the press, Governor Thomas Ford understood that the Saints had acted in good faith. There were legal grounds and precedents for declaring and destroying nuisances in a community. But he disagreed with the council’s decision and did not believe their actions could be justified. The legal destruction of a newspaper, after all, was uncommon in an age when communities usually left such work to illegal mobs, as when vigilantes destroyed the Saints’ newspaper in Jackson County more than a decade earlier.11
The governor also placed high value on the free speech protections in the Illinois state constitution, regardless of what the law may have allowed. “Your conduct in the destruction of the press was a very gross outrage upon the laws and the liberties of the people,” he wrote the prophet. “It may have been full of libels, but this did not authorize you to destroy it.”
The governor further argued that the Nauvoo city charter did not grant the local courts as much power as the prophet seemed to think. He advised him and the other city council members who had been charged with riot to turn themselves in and submit to the courts outside of Nauvoo. “I am anxious to preserve the peace,” he told them. “A small indiscretion may bring on war.” If the city leaders gave themselves up and stood trial, he promised to protect them.12
Knowing that Carthage was swarming with men who hated the Saints, Joseph doubted the governor could keep his promise. Yet staying in Nauvoo would only anger his critics more and draw mobs to the city, putting the Saints in danger. More and more, it seemed the best way to protect the Saints was to leave Nauvoo for the West or seek help in Washington, DC.
Writing the governor, Joseph told him of his plans to leave the city. “By everything that is sacred,” he wrote, “we implore Your Excellency to cause our helpless women and children to be protected from mob violence.” He insisted that if the Saints had done anything wrong, they would do everything in their power to make it right.13
That night, after saying goodbye to his family, Joseph climbed into a skiff with Hyrum, Willard Richards, and Porter Rockwell and set out across the Mississippi. The boat was leaky, so the brothers and Willard bailed water with their boots while Porter rowed. Hours later, on the morning of June 23, they arrived in Iowa Territory, and Joseph instructed Porter to return to Nauvoo and bring back horses for them.14
Before Porter left, Joseph gave him a letter for Emma, instructing her to sell their property if necessary to support herself, the children, and his mother. “Do not despair,” he told her. “If God opens a door that is possible for me, I will see you again.”15
Later that morning, Emma sent Hiram Kimball and her nephew Lorenzo Wasson to Iowa to convince Joseph to come home and turn himself in. They told Joseph that the governor intended to occupy Nauvoo with troops until he and his brother Hyrum gave themselves up. Porter returned soon after with Reynolds Cahoon and a letter from Emma, again begging him to return to the city. Hiram Kimball, Lorenzo, and Reynolds all called Joseph a coward for leaving Nauvoo and exposing the Saints to danger.16
“I will die before I will be called a coward,” Joseph said. “If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of none to myself.” He knew now that leaving Nauvoo would not protect the Saints. But he did not know if he would survive going to Carthage. “What shall I do?” he asked Porter.
“You are the oldest and ought to know best,” Porter said.
“You are the oldest,” Joseph said, turning to his brother. “What shall we do?”
“Let us go back and give ourselves up, and see the thing out,” said Hyrum.
“If you go back, I shall go with you,” Joseph said, “but we shall be butchered.”
“If we live or have to die,” Hyrum said, “we will be reconciled to our fate.”
Joseph considered that for a moment, then asked Reynolds to get a boat. They would turn themselves in.17
Emma’s heart sank when Joseph arrived home late that afternoon. Now that she saw him again, she feared she had called him back to his death.18 Joseph longed to preach once more to the Saints, but he stayed home with his family instead. He and Emma gathered their children together, and he blessed them.
Early the next morning Joseph, Emma, and their children stepped out of the house. He kissed each of them.19
“You are coming back,” Emma said through tears.
Joseph mounted his horse and set off with Hyrum and the other men for Carthage. “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter,” he told them, “but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offense towards God and towards all men.”20
The riders climbed the hill to the temple as the sun rose, casting golden light over the building’s unfinished walls. Joseph stopped his horse and looked out over the city. “This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens,” he said. “Little do they know the trials that await them.”21
Joseph did not stay away long. Three hours after leaving Nauvoo, he and his friends encountered troops who had orders from the governor to confiscate the state-issued arms of the Nauvoo Legion. Joseph decided to return and see the order carried out. If the Saints resisted, he knew, it might give the mobs reason to attack them.22
Back in Nauvoo, Joseph rode home to see Emma and their children again. He said another goodbye and asked Emma if she would come with him, but she knew she had to stay with the children. Joseph appeared solemn and thoughtful, grimly certain of his fate.23 Before he left, Emma asked him for a blessing. With no time to spare, Joseph asked her to write the blessing she desired and promised he would sign it when he returned.
In the blessing she penned, Emma asked for wisdom from Heavenly Father and the gift of discernment. “I desire the Spirit of God to know and understand myself,” she wrote. “I desire a fruitful, active mind, that I may be able to comprehend the designs of God.”
She asked for wisdom to raise her children, including the baby she expected in November, and expressed hope in her eternal marriage covenant. “I desire with all my heart to honor and respect my husband,” she wrote, “ever to live in his confidence and by acting in unison with him retain the place which God has given me by his side.”
Finally, Emma prayed for humility and hoped to rejoice in the blessings God prepared for the obedient. “I desire that whatever may be my lot through life,” she wrote, “I may be enabled to acknowledge the hand of God in all things.”24
Howling and swearing greeted the Smith brothers when they arrived at Carthage a little before midnight on Monday, June 24. The militia unit that had collected the Saints’ arms in Nauvoo now escorted Joseph and Hyrum through the commotion of Carthage’s streets. Another unit, known as the Carthage Greys, was camped on the public square near the hotel where the brothers planned to stay the night.
As Joseph passed the Carthage Greys, the troops pushed and shoved to get a look. “Where is the damned prophet?” one man yelled. “Clear the way and let us have a view of Joe Smith!” The troops whooped and yelled and threw their guns into the air.25
The next morning, Joseph and his friends turned themselves over to a constable. A little after nine o’clock, Governor Ford invited Joseph and Hyrum to walk with him through the assembled troops. The militia and the mob that pressed in around them were quiet until a company of the Greys began to jeer again, tossing their hats into the air and drawing their swords. As they had done the night before, they howled and sneered at the brothers.26
That day in court, Joseph and Hyrum were released to await trial on the riot charges. But before the brothers could leave town, two of William Law’s associates brought complaints against them for declaring martial law in Nauvoo. They were charged with treason against the government and people of Illinois, a capital offense that prevented the men from being released on bail.
Joseph and Hyrum were confined in the county jail, locked together in a cell for the night. Several of their friends chose to stay with them, to protect them and keep them company. That night Joseph wrote a letter to Emma with encouraging news. “The governor has just agreed to march his army to Nauvoo,” he reported, “and I shall come along with him.”27
The next day, the prisoners were moved to a more comfortable room on the second floor of the Carthage jail. The room had three large windows, a bed, and a wooden door with a broken latch. That evening, Hyrum read aloud from the Book of Mormon and Joseph bore powerful witness of its divine authenticity to the guards on duty. He testified that the gospel of Jesus Christ had been restored, that angels still ministered to humanity, and that the kingdom of God was once more on the earth.
After the sun set, Willard Richards sat up late writing until his candle burned out. Joseph and Hyrum lay on the bed, while two visitors, Stephen Markham and John Fullmer, lay on a mattress on the floor. Near them, on the hard floor, lay John Taylor and Dan Jones, a Welsh riverboat captain who had joined the church a little more than a year earlier.28
Sometime before midnight, the men heard a gunshot outside the window nearest Joseph’s head. The prophet rose and moved to the floor beside Dan. Joseph quietly asked him if he was afraid to die.29
“Has that time come?” Dan asked in his thick Welsh accent. “Engaged in such a cause I do not think that death would have many terrors.”
“You will see Wales,” Joseph whispered, “and fulfill the mission appointed you ere you die.”
Around midnight, Dan awoke to the sound of troops marching past the jail. He got up and looked out the window. Below, he saw a crowd of men outside. “How many shall go in?” he heard someone ask.
Startled, Dan quickly woke up the other prisoners. They heard footsteps coming up the stairs and threw themselves against the door. Someone picked up a chair to use as a weapon in case the men outside stormed the room. A tomb-like silence surrounded them as they waited for an attack.
“Come on!” Joseph finally shouted. “We are ready for you!”
Through the door, Dan and the other prisoners could hear shuffling back and forth, as if the men outside could not decide whether to attack or leave. The commotion continued until dawn, when the prisoners at last heard the men retreat down the stairs.30
The following day, June 27, 1844, Emma received a letter from Joseph, in the handwriting of Willard Richards. Governor Ford and a band of militia were on their way to Nauvoo. But despite his promise, the governor had not taken Joseph with him. Instead, he had disbanded one militia unit at Carthage and retained only a small group of Carthage Greys to guard the jail, leaving the prisoners more vulnerable to an attack.31
Still, Joseph wanted the Saints to treat the governor cordially and not raise any alarms. “There is no danger of any exterminating order,” he told her, “but caution is the parent of safety.”32
After the letter, Joseph wrote out a postscript in his own hand. “I am very much resigned to my lot, knowing I am justified and have done the best that could be done,” he declared. He asked her to give his love to the children and his friends. “As for treason,” he added, “I have not committed any, and they cannot prove an appearance of anything of the kind.” He told her not to worry about harm falling on him and Hyrum. “God bless you all,” he wrote in closing.33
Governor Ford arrived in Nauvoo later that day and addressed the Saints. He blamed them for the crisis and threatened to hold them responsible for its aftermath. “A great crime has been done by destroying the Expositor press and placing the city under martial law,” he stated. “A severe atonement must be made, so prepare your minds for the emergency.”34
He warned the Saints that Nauvoo could be reduced to ashes and its people exterminated if they rebelled. “Depend upon it,” he said. “A little more misbehavior from the citizens, and the torch which is now already lighted will be applied.”35
The speech offended the Saints, but since Joseph had asked them to preserve the peace, they pledged to heed the governor’s warning and sustain the laws of the state. Satisfied, the governor finished his speech and paraded his troops down Main Street. As the soldiers marched, they drew their swords and swung them menacingly.36
Time passed slowly in the Carthage jail that afternoon. In the summer heat, the men left their coats off and opened the windows to let in a breeze. Outside, eight men from the Carthage Greys guarded the jail while the rest of the militia camped nearby. Another guard sat just on the other side of the door.37
Stephen Markham, Dan Jones, and others were running errands for Joseph. Of the men who had stayed there the night before, only Willard Richards and John Taylor were still with Joseph and Hyrum. Earlier in the day, visitors had smuggled two guns to the prisoners—a six-shooter revolver and a single-shot pistol—in case of an attack. Stephen had also left behind a sturdy walking stick he called the “rascal beater.”38
To ease the mood and pass the time, John sang a British hymn that had lately become popular with the Saints. Its lyrics spoke of a humble stranger in need who ultimately revealed himself as the Savior:
Then in a moment to my view,
The stranger darted from disguise;
The tokens in his hands I knew,
My Savior stood before mine eyes;
He spake—and my poor name He named,—
“Of me thou hast not been ashamed,
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”
When John finished the song, Hyrum asked him to sing it again.39
At four o’clock in the afternoon, new guards relieved the old ones. Joseph struck up a conversation with a guard at the door while Hyrum and Willard talked quietly together. After an hour, their jailer entered the room and asked the prisoners if they wanted to be moved to the more secure jail cell in case of an attack.
“After supper we will go in,” said Joseph. The jailer left and Joseph turned to Willard. “If we go in the jail,” Joseph asked, “will you go with us?”
“Do you think I would forsake you now?” Willard answered. “If you are condemned to be hung for treason, I will be hung in your stead and you shall go free.”
“You cannot,” said Joseph.
“I will,” said Willard.40
A few minutes later, the prisoners heard a rustling at the door and the crack of three or four gunshots. Willard glanced out the open window and saw a hundred men below, their faces blackened with mud and gunpowder, storming the entry to the jail. Joseph grabbed one of the pistols while Hyrum seized the other. John and Willard picked up canes and gripped them like clubs. All four men pressed themselves against the door as the mob rushed up the stairs and tried to force their way inside.41
Gunfire sounded in the stairwell as the mob shot at the door. Joseph, John, and Willard sprang to the side of the doorway as a ball splintered through the wood. It struck Hyrum in the face and he turned, stumbling away from the door. Another ball struck him in the lower back. His pistol fired and he fell to the floor.42
“Brother Hyrum!” Joseph cried. Gripping his six-shooter, he opened the door a few inches and fired once. More musket balls flew into the room, and Joseph fired haphazardly at the mob while John used a cane to beat down the gun barrels and bayonets thrust through the doorway.43
After Joseph’s revolver misfired two or three times, John ran to the window and tried to climb the deep windowsill. A musket ball flew across the room and struck him in the leg, tipping him off balance. His body went numb and he crashed against the windowsill, smashing his pocket watch at sixteen minutes past five o’clock.
“I am shot!” he cried.
John dragged himself across the floor and rolled under the bed as the mob fired again and again. A ball ripped into his hip, tearing away a chunk of flesh. Two more balls struck his wrist and the bone just above his knee.44
Across the room, Joseph and Willard strained to put all their weight against the door as Willard knocked away the musket barrels and bayonets in front of him. Suddenly, Joseph dropped his revolver to the floor and darted for the window. As he straddled the windowsill, two balls struck his back. Another ball hurtled through the window and pierced him below the heart.
“O Lord, my God,” he cried. His body lurched forward and he pitched headfirst out the window.
Willard rushed across the room and stuck his head outside as lead balls whistled past him. Below, he saw the mob swarming around Joseph’s bleeding body. The prophet lay on his left side next to a stone well. Willard watched, hoping to see some sign that his friend was still alive. Seconds passed, and he saw no movement.
Joseph Smith, the prophet and seer of the Lord, was dead.45