How and Why Was Joseph Smith Killed? – powered by Happy Scribe
I’m here in Carthage, Illinois, near the historic jail where Joseph Smith was killed, standing underneath a window where Joseph Smith fell after he was shot by a mob on June 27, 1844. Both Joseph and Hyrem Smith were killed by a mob in the Carthage jail. They were the founders of a faith that’s grown today to include several million members, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. And coming to a spot like this begs the question, why did the mob kill Joseph and Hyrum Smith? And what were the factors that led to their death? We first begin our journey in Salt Lake City at the Church History Museum. I’ve been told that they have a new exhibit here with artifacts from the scene where Joseph Smith and his brother were killed. The Church History Museum has recently been beautifully remodeled with technology, video, and artifacts to tell the story of the early Church. But there is just one specific exhibit I’m interested in today. We’re here at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, where some of the most important artifacts linked to the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith are located. You can see right here the clothes that Hyrum Smith was wearing the day that he was killed, including the bullet holes still in the clothes.
Over here is the watch that was in John Taylor’s pocket while the attack on the jail was happening. A little further down are the pistol s held by Joseph and Hyrum Smith on the day they were killed, including the pepper box pistol that Joseph Smith used to try and fight off the mob. But probably the most famous artifacts linked to the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith are the death mask. It was common to make death mask in the 19th century before photography was widespread. These death mask captured some of the most gripping details of the final moments of Joseph and Hyrem’s life. You can see a Distortion on the side of Hyrem’s nose where they had to plug the bullet hole full of cotton so that they could make the death mask in the first place. These masks, which were probably created within 24 hours of Joseph and Hyrem’s death, represent parts of the puzzle. In fact, every object here is a part of the puzzle to put together the story that we’re going to try and tell in the next few minutes. The story of why Joseph and Hyrem went to Carthage jail, what happened when they were there, and what the last few moments of their lives say about themselves, their faith in the restored gospel, and why they were willing to give up their lives for it.
After an amazing time exploring the Museum, I arrive at the airport and get ready for my flight from Salt Lake City to St. Louis. We then rent a car and make the drive to the small town of Nauvoo. Today, Nauvoo is a sleepy little town in rural Illinois. But at the time that Joseph Smith and the Latterday Saints settled here, it became one of the biggest cities in the state. Joseph and the Saints were fleeing persecution from nearby Missouri and arrived here as refugees. When they first came, the city was just a malarial swamp. A lot of the Saints got sick. Many of them died. But by the time they left, Nauvoo had been built up into one of the most prosperous and economically viable places in the state. Joseph and the Saints thought that they would find peace here, but instead they found violence, and this would be the final resting place of Joseph Smith. I pull into historic Nauvoo with re creations of important buildings during Joseph Smith’s time. Nauvoo in Hebrew means beautiful, and the Saints were able to turn it into just that. The temple was the highlight of their construction, a symbol of their hard work, and Joseph’s leadership and dedication to his beliefs.
But today I’m heading to the visitor center to meet colleague and friend, Scott Woodward, a professor of Latterday Saint history. We’re here filming a video on the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. So tell us, what do we need to know to understand this story?
Wow. This is a complex issue, as you know. This is Nauvoo. This is a little model of Nauvoo. This was becoming one of the largest cities in Illinois. It rivaled Chicago in size at the time. You can picture here that Nauvoo in the early 1840s was prospering and growing like crazy. And that actually incited some jealousy in their neighbors, both economically and politically. A lot of threats were happening. Property was being harmed. People were using the word extermination again, which creates some twitches from Missouri. A lot of people outside were planning and plotting to do things that would cause the Saints to want to leave. And I want to take you to one of the hotbeds of where that was happening, Warsaw. You want.
To go? Let’s go. We then drive about 17 miles to the south, the small town of Warsaw, Illinois. An important location in understanding the external events that led to Joseph Smith’s death.
We’re here at Warsaw. Today, this place and its people are delightful. But back in the day, this was the hotbed of opposition against the Saints in Nauvoo. In fact, this building here is one of the possible sites of the most antagonistic newspaper against the Saints that was run by a fellow named Thomas Sharp. Another possible location are just two or three blocks down that way. This is where Thomas Sharp declared, War and extermination is inevitable. Citizens, arise one and all. Can you stand by and suffer such infernal devils to rob men of their property and rights without Avenging them? We have no time for comment. Every man will make his own. Let it be made with powder and ball. Joe Smith is not safe at a Nauvoo. We would not be surprised to hear of his death by violent means in a short time. Wow. A scary prediction that became a sad reality, in large part, thanks to the rhetoric of Thomas Sharp and the war saw signal.
You can see how that language would potentially lead to violence. In fact, just down the street from that possible location, the war saw signal is a location where the militia assembled. This is the traditional location of the War saw Fleming tavern where the militia assembled before they went to Carthage to carry out the assassinations of Joseph and Irips Smith.
We know somewhere here on this site, we don’t know if any of this is original, but it was definitely here. I think the name tavern there gives away some of the way that Sharp and others whipped this group into a frenzy, doesn’t f.
So, if Warsaw was the center of the external opposition to Joseph Smith, there was also internal opposition within the Church itself.
That’s right. And the internal opposition, understand that we’re going to need to go back to Nauvoo.
While external opposition ternal factors in places like Warsaw, led to persecution of the Church from the outside, Joseph was also facing internal challenges from dissenting members who lived among the Saints in Nauvoo. They created the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper dedicated to bringing down Joseph Smith and charging him with teaching blasphemous doctrine. Joseph had taught things such as the potential to become gods, eternal marriage and relationships, and even plural marriage. But the Expositor exaggerated ideas of these teachingsto the point the church leaders were afraid it would cause the same persecution and mob violence they faced back in Missouri. So Scott and I returned to Nauvoo to discuss these challenges. So what does Joseph Smith and the city council do after the Nauvoo Expositor is published.
Those accusations in the Nauvoo Expositor trouble them deeply. And so Joseph, acting as Mayor, convenes the Nauvoo Council, who meet twice for about three hours each time, to discuss what to do about this. They finally decide after consulting with legal texts, that the Nauvoo Expositor was a public nuisance, and therefore, they were within their legal right to remove it. And so they authorized the local law enforcement to then destroy that press. Of course, even though this is legal, that’s not going to satisfy their enemies either inside or outside of Nauvoo. And so those enemies are then going to press charges against Joseph.
And Joseph Smith is actually acquitted of the charges they make against him two times. One time before a Latterday Saint judge, and the other time before a non Latterday Saint judge. But that still doesn’t satisfy his enemies. I mean, at this point, they’re out for blood. Totally. With persecution all around them, Joseph and Hyrem Smith made an attempt to cross the river to avoid death and to protect the Saints. However, after being advised to go back and be protected by the law, Hyrem said, Let us go back and give ourselves up and see the thing out. After studying a few moments, Joseph replied, If you go back, I shall go with you, but we shall be butchered. They then went back to Nauvoo, saying goodbye to their families, knowing this might be the last time that they see them. You can see behind us this statue that represents Joseph and Hyrum as they left on the road to Carthage. Joseph passed by the temple and said, This is the loveliest spot and the best people under the heavens. Little did they know of the trials that await them. It would have taken hours to travel to Carthage on horse.
On the way, Joseph told his friends, I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but I am as calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall be said of me, He was murdered in cold blood. Joseph believed in what he had done. He had seen visions of angels and even the eternal God. His teachings and the political power his following had gained riled up his enemies. But Joseph felt innocent in the eyes of those who would have him killed. We then travel about 20 miles Southeast to Carthage. It’s a cozy town with many tourists who come to visit the site of the Martyrdom.
So this is Carthage jail, the place of the Martyrdom.
This is the spot that Joseph and Hyrem have been dreading coming to because they know that there’s not a good chance they’ll get out of here alive. This is the place where rumors began to be stated openly, where things that were whispered now were openly stated. People like the militia that were gathered around the jail, began to openly declare that Joseph and Hyrem would not leave this place alive, and that they put an end to the Saints and their faith once and for all. At the center of this site stands a statue of Joseph and his brother, Hyrum. One survivor of the attack would later say, In life, they were not divided. In death, they were not separated. Joseph and Hyrum stuck it out to the end, believing in their faith, innocence, and rights. Behind them stands the jail they were held in, the last location of their lives. So this is the Carthage Jail.
This is Carthage Jail. This is one of the main entrances here. So this here on the right, this would be the area where they’d prepare food for the prisoners. Joseph and the other prisoners would have eaten in here. Up these stairs, this comes up to the Dungeon cell. They would have been brought up here first, and it is as bad as it sounds. The first night they were brought into this cell here, this is called the Dungeon cell. This is the maximum security area.
Of the jail. This is what I think of a 19th century prison. The image that comes to mind.
There’s some shackles here, as you can tell. This place was intense. Conditions are dark.
And dank and it’s severe, but my understanding is they don’t spend very much.
Time here. Right. The jailer recognizing these were not the hardened criminals, perhaps he had been told they were. He moved them pretty quickly down from this cell, which they probably stayed in for only a few hours, down into what we call the debtor cell downstairs.
We leave this dark and intense dungeon and head downstairs. Apparently, the jailer believed they were not the threat they were made out to be and let them stay in a different room, but a jail room nonetheless. So this is the debtor cell that they’re brought to after they spent a couple of hours in the dungeon cell. What happens in here?
They’re going to stay here in this room. They’ll actually sleep here the first night. This is the room where they have an interview with Governor Ford. They asked Governor Ford to come here and bail him out because they were… They only came to Carthage because he pledged his sacred honor that they would be safe here and he would see to it that they’d be protected. So that exchange happens in this room and it does not look promising. He says if he leaves and he goes to Nauvoo, he’ll make sure he brings the prisoners with him, which he doesn’t. He leaves the next day to Nauvoo and they stay here.
This is the lion’s den where no matter what the situation is, if they’re in Carthage, which is the center of opposition, they’re in danger.
And look out these windows here. You can see that the ground level is just right there and this would be an easy shot. There’s two windows. If their enemies wanted to shoot this way, they’d be sitting ducks. So it seemed to actually be a safer option the next day to take them up to the jailer’s own bedroom.
We head back upstairs to the jailer’s bedroom, where they hope to be protected from the mobs outside. So this is the jailer’s bedroom.
This is the last place they would stay.
They’re in here. This is where Joseph writes his last letter to Emma, where he writes, My dear Emma, I am very much resigned in my lot, knowing that I am justified and have done the best that I could be done. Give my love to the children and all my friends. And as for treason, I know that I have not committed any, and they cannot prove one appearance of anything of the kind. And you need not have any fears that any harm can happen to me on that score. May God bless you all. Amen. The day that they’re here, it’s really hot. Everybody’s feeling down. So Joseph asked John Taylor to sing a poor wayfaring man of grief.
I’m a Joseph’s favorite song.
And then when he’s finished, they asked him to sing it again.
And he says, I don’t feel.
Like singing. He says, I don’t feel like it. Hyrum says, Start singing and you’ll get the spirit of it.
Yeah. And then about 5 PM, they see a mob of about 150 to 200 persons coming around the corner here, painted black, carrying guns, the writings on the wall. They come up the staircase. They hear Hyrum Smith and Willard Richards are here. A gunshot is fired at the ratchet here, which causes them to step back. Then the next shot through the door, you can actually see the original bullet hole is still here. This shot, this is the deadly shot that will kill Hyrum Smith. Hyrem is standing right about here when the shot comes through the door and hits him on the left side of the nose and goes right into his head. And at the same time as that bullet came in here, another one from the window outside hits him in the back. He doesn’t move his feet. He falls straight back and says, I’m a dead man. Joseph Smith rushes to his brother’s side and says right here, Oh, my dear brother, Hyrum. And then instantly he stood up with a quick step and a determined resolution, pulls out a six shooter, and he comes to the door here, opens it slightly, sticks his arm out and snaps six times, only three times discharge.
We don’t know if Joseph actually hit anybody, killed, killed anybody, that was their last recourse of protection as far as firearms go.
When they come back, John Taylor says he’s standing here with his walking stick trying to parry the guns off, push them away. He hears Joseph say, That’s right, brother Taylor. Parry them off as best you can. And then later says, Those were the last words I heard him say in mortality. So it’s clear at this point that the mob’s coming in.
The mob then starts to, as they continue to push the door, John Taylor has the thought, Maybe there are some friends of ours outside. So he rushes to the window, maybe with the intent to jump. He says he got hit in the leg. Another bullet entered his, he said, his left wrist. Another one hit him right in the knee. Another one hit him on the hip. He falls, writhing in pain, underneath this bed here.
Willard is over here, still trying to parry off the guns that are firing at John Taylor. John’s under the bed, and neither of them quite see what happens next. But apparently Joseph goes to the window, and he sometimes sees this depicted like he falls out the window. But according to one source, he actually gets up in the window. He’s there for a moment.
As if to draw.
Fire, perhaps. As if to draw fire, says, Oh Lord, my God. And then he’s hit twice from the doorway and twice from outside, and he falls out the window. It’s possible that he may have done this to try and draw them away. He knows that they’re after him in Hyrum. Hyrum is gone. If that was his plan, it does work because everybody in the jail runs downstairs to see Joseph’s body. And John and Willard are given a brief moment of respite from the mob.
Willard Richards comes over to confirm. He looks out the window and sees Joseph there. He thinks John Taylor is probably dead. Hyrum is certainly dead. As he’s getting ready to leave, he hears John Taylor say, Take me with you, in a weak voice. Richards comes, gets John Taylor, drags him from here over into the dungeon cell to hide him underneath some of the mattresses there. They never come back. Someone shouts outside, The Mormons are coming. The Mormons are coming. And so everyone scatters. The Mormons weren’t coming. But that saves the lives of these two men.
Scott and I head out of the jail to see the final resting place of Joseph Smith after he fell from the window for his friends and beliefs. So it was right underneath this window that Joseph’s body falls. They take his body, they prop it up, they fire into it several more times. Now, Scott, what do you think is the point of all this?
I’m just struck by their example of being willing to lay it all down. The serenity of their deaths and the seriousness of their discipleship inspires me to want to be a more determined disciple.
And their sincerity, I mean, Section 135 says they have sealed their testimony with their blood. There’s no greater sign than a person’s sincere than their willingness to lay down their life for what they believe in. Both Joseph and hyrum do that here. Yeah. Scott and I leave this sacred and hallowed location. Here, Joseph and Hyrum died, standing and fighting for their beliefs and rights. Joseph was loved and hated back then, as well as today. But one thing is certain, he believed in what he was doing. He said at one point that he wouldn’t have believed his work if he hadn’t experienced it himself. Even under the worst circumstances, he wouldn’t deny the miracles he’d seen. And he followed through, sealing his testimony with his blood. While we are not called to be martyrs, the example of these two brothers can help us better dedicate our lives to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. you.