“Liberty Jail,” Church History Topics
On December 1, 1838, Missouri authorities imprisoned Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin, and Alexander McRae in a jail in Liberty, Missouri, for crimes allegedly committed during conflicts with other Missourians over the past several months. They had surrendered two weeks earlier after Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs ordered that Mormons be driven from the state or be exterminated. An initial hearing in Richmond, Missouri, found sufficient evidence that Church leaders had committed crimes against the state of Missouri, and the court ordered that they be held in the Clay County Jail in Liberty until their trial in late spring 1839.
Built in 1833, the building served as the Clay County jail until 1856. The 14 x 14½ foot (4.2 x 4.4 meter), two-story structure was constructed of rough-hewn limestone exterior walls two feet (60 centimeters) thick and interior walls made of oak. Loose rocks filled the one-foot (30 centimeter) void between the two walls to discourage escape attempts. The jailer occupied the upper floor. The lower section, used exclusively to house prisoners, was accessed through a trapdoor from the upper floor. Two narrow windows, 2 feet (60 centimeters) wide and 6 inches (15 centimeters) high, with iron bars, provided fresh air to the space.
Conditions in the jail were miserable.1 Joseph Smith wrote, “We are kept under a strong guard, night and day, … our food is scant, uniform, and coarse; we have not the privilege of cooking for ourselves, we have been compelled to sleep on the floor with straw, and not blankets sufficient to keep us warm; and when we have a fire, we are obliged to have almost a constant smoke.”2
Relief came from visits of friends and family. Hyrum Smith remembered, “Many of our brethren and sisters call to see us and to administer to our necessities.”3 According to Alexander McRae, visitors “brought us refreshments many times” with some bringing “cakes, pies, etc., and handed them in at the windows.” The visitors who brought the greatest joy to the prisoners were members of their immediate families. Emma Smith visited the jail three times, once bringing Joseph and Emma’s son Joseph III. Hyrum’s wife Mary Fielding Smith visited her husband with their infant son, Joseph F. Smith. This was the first time Hyrum had met his son.4
As their time in the jail lengthened and the majority of Saints fled the state, the number of visitors declined. Receiving letters became one of the few things that lifted the prisoners’ spirits. But letters also brought heartbreak as the prisoners learned of the conditions many Saints were in as they left Missouri for Illinois during the harsh winter months.
While in the jail, Joseph Smith prayed to understand why the Lord had allowed the Saints to suffer the expulsion from Missouri. “O God, where art thou?” Joseph asked. The answer came by revelation: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.” In two important letters to the Church, Joseph dictated the revelatory instruction that followed as well as his own counsel to the Saints. Portions of these letters are now found in sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.5 The sublime truths in these letters led later Latter-day Saints to speak of Liberty Jail as both a temple and a prison.6
The prisoners pursued several legal means to obtain their freedom. Believing their imprisonment to be deeply unjust and illegal, the prisoners also tried to escape on at least two occasions. In February, authorities released Sidney Rigdon on bail. The other prisoners obtained a change of venue, and on April 6, 1839, an armed guard escorted them from the jail in Liberty. En route to the trial in Boone County, the guards allowed the prisoners to escape, and the prisoners made their way to Illinois.
In 1856 county officials declared the jail unsafe, and it fell into disrepair. On June 19, 1939, Church member Wilford C. Wood purchased the site for $4,000 and transferred the title to the Church for the same cost. The Church sent missionaries to the site to care for the property and welcome tourists. The Church broke ground in 1962 for a new visitors’ center, which now houses a reconstruction of the jail. President Joseph Fielding Smith dedicated the site on September 15, 1963.
Related Topics: Mormon-Missouri War of 1838