Around midnight on March 25, 1852, Joseph Smith was dragged from his home by a violent mob which tared and feathered him. Many are familiar with this story but may not know all the details or why this happened. I’m Neil Rapley for Book of Mormon Central, and I’m here with Scott Woodward, who’s on the religion faculty at BYU, Idaho, and is also the Managing Director for Doctrine & Covenants Central. He and I are going to talk about this incident today. Good to see you, Scott. How are you doing?
Thanks, Neil. Good to be with you. Doing great. Excited to talk.
Great. Why don’t we just start by… Why don’t you just tell us about what happened? Give us the story of story.
Let’s back up, tell the story behind the story. So March 25, Joseph’s history says, is when this happened. But it happens, really, the seeds for what happened on that night are sown a year earlier. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigden had moved to Hyrum, Ohio a few months earlier, actually in September, because John Johnson had invited them to come up to his house. And so it’s Joseph and Emma and their two twins. In December 1831, DNC 71 was received, which commanded Joseph and Sidney to stop translating the Bible, stop that translation project, and to go out, and the Lord says, Go out and confound your enemies. Go out and confound your enemies, referring to Esra Booth and Simon’s writer, because they at this time had been fomenting hatred against the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon and saying this is a fraud. And actually, it had started to work. It had started to really create some antagonism in hyrum and roundabout. So the Lord says, Let’s stop. Go. And he says, Call upon them. This is the Lord speaking in section 71. Call upon them to meet you both in public and in private.
And in as much as you are faithful, their shame shall be made manifest. So in obedience to this command, on December 15, Sidney Rigden posts a public notice in the Ohio Star. The very paper, by the way, that Esra Booth had been publishing his letters in, announcing that he would deliver a lecture on December 25th, Christmas Day at the Brick Schoolhouse in Ravenna, Ohio. He said, I give notice to Esra Booth that his attendance is desired, as I shall review the letters written by him. And then he calls out Simon’s writer directly. He says, Simon, as you have publicly declared the Book of Mormon to be an imposition, and I believing it to be otherwise, do hereby present a request to you to meet me in the township of Hyrum at such a time and place as we can agree upon to investigate this subject before the public. If I’m deluded in receiving this book as a revelation from God, I may be corrected publicly and the public relieved from anxiety. So he publishes this and things start getting real. Ebert D. Howe, he was the editor of the Paynesville Telegraph, Down the Way, he sensed the battle coming.
He said five days later in his own paper, Sidney Rigden, the Vice Regent and Champion of Joe Smith, has thrown out a challenge in the Ohio Star to Esra Booth and Simons writer who have renounced the Mormon faith to meet him in mortal combat of words on the subject of the gold Bible. Here it comes. We’re going to have mortal combat of words. It’s going to happen.
This was a throwing down of the gauntlet, right?
Yes, totally. Because Section 71 said, Call on your enemies. Confound them. Let’s do this publicly or privately and privately. Well, neither of them show up to defend their accusations. Simmons even wrote back a little retort, and he said, Listen, I decline your invitation. He writes it back in the Ohio Star so everyone can read it. I decline your invitation given that Sidney Rigdon has an iraskable temper, loquacious extravagance, an impaired state of mind, and a want of due respect to his superiors. So finally, in January, Sidney writes a final public notice to the Ohio Star condemming Simmons’ once and for All. He says, Listen, having a few weeks since invited Simmons writer to meet me and investigate the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, which he pretended to have an intimate acquaintance with, and which he had pronounced an imposition. And he now, having denied my invitation, I ask this to the public, if Simmons writer is afraid to have his assertions put to the test, why make them? If he is certain, as he pretends, that the Book of Mormon is a base imposition, why be afraid to come forward and prove it?
I say, Where is honesty? Where is candor? Surely not in the heart of such a man. He’s calling him out. And then he says this, this is the last paragraph. He says, Let the public remember when Simmons goes forth again to proclaim his anathemas against the Book of Mormon, remember that he has been invited upon honorable principles to investigate its merits and dare not do it. He who is afraid to have his assertions put to the test, let him cease to make them. So this is where we get to March 25, 1852. Joseph says, and we’ll quote a lot from his account, and then also another good source is Luke Johnson. He’s one of the Johnson boys that lived in the home. So here’s what we understand happened. I was awoken by Emma screaming murder, Joseph says, When I found myself going out of the door in the hands of about a dozen men, some of whose hands were in my hair. Luke Johnson will say that a guy named Carnot Mason had jerked so hard on Joseph’s hair, he ripped out a chunk of not just the hair, but the scalp it was attached to.
And Joseph would later show Levi Hancock, this bare spot on his scalp, whereas his hair had been permanently removed here. He says, They grabbed my hair, took all my shirt, my drawers, my limbs. At the foot of the trundle bed was toward the door, leaving only room enough for the door to swing. And my wife, he says that she had heard a little gentle tapping on the window, which she then took no notice of, but later realized they were trying to assess if they were asleep. When the mob burst in and grabbed Joseph, pulling him out, he said, I was able to extricate one leg. I cleared one leg with which I made a pass at a man, a guy named Warren waist. And he kicked him right in the face, right in the nose. And just Warren goes flying backwards. But he then came back with his hands all bloody. He looks at Joseph and he just says some swear words. And then he grabs Joseph by the throat and he says, I’m going to kill you. His hands all covered with blood, smeared it in Joseph’s face, then chokes him out, Joseph says, until he lost his breath.
He passed out. When he came to, he was about 30 yards from his house. And then he saw Sidney Rigdon. Sidney Rigden had already been attacked, and he was stretched out on the ground where they had dragged him by his heels. And Joseph said, I suppose he was dead. So Joseph looks over and he sees a still lifeless Sidney Rigdon laying there, and he sees the writing on the wall. He senses the full weight of the situation here. He thinks they’re going to kill him. And so he says, I began to plead with them. I was saying, You will have mercy and spare my life, I hope. To which they said, God damn you, call upon your God for help. We’ll show you no mercy. I’m just quoting straight from Joseph’s Journal here. He said, and the people began to show themselves in every direction. People start to come out of the woodwork. Joseph said one of them came carrying a plank from the orchard. He said, I expected they would kill me and carry me off on the plank. They then don’t seem to fully know what they’re going to do next. They hadn’t fully planned this out.
He said that as they were carrying him another distance, he heard someone say this, Simons. Simons. And he says, I suppose they meant Simon’s rider. What other Simons in Hyrum Ohio is there? He said, Simons, pull up his drawers. Pull up his drawers. He’s going to take cold. They pulled some of his clothes off and others are like, What? Ain’t we going to kill him? I thought we were going to kill him. Ain’t we going to kill him? And so then they start to discuss. They’re like, Simmons, come here. Come here. And they start talking about what they’re going to do, holding some counsel. Joseph says, I could overhear a word or two here and there. I suppose they were trying to decide if it was best to kill me or not. They returned after a while, he says, and I learned that they had not concluded to kill me, but to just pound and scratch me and tear off my shirt and drawers and leave me naked. Actually, Luke Johnson says that they tore off the few night clothes that he had on for the purpose of emasculating him and had a man named Dr.
Denison. Luke calls him Dr. Denison was there to perform the operation. So he says they strapped him to this plank, tore off his clothes, and then they were going to emasculate him. But when the doctor, Denison, saw the Prophet stripped and stretched on the plank, his heart failed him, Luke says, and he refused to operate. The mob then descended on him and scratched his body and said, some more swear words, and said, That’s scratching him deeply like a mad cat, Joseph says. And they said, That’s the way the Holy Ghost falls on folks. And then also, they had tried to force a vial of something into his mouth, some poison. Luke thinks it was aquiferous nitric acid. And Joseph clenched his teeth so hard, they were wrenching his head around and they said, Open up, open up. And he wouldn’t. And apparently they broke part of his tooth. They were trying so hard to get that in there, they chipped a tooth, after which for the next 11 years, before Joseph gets that tooth fixed in 1843, he’s going to talk with a little bit of a whistle. People will say, as he says, his S is I suppose, a little bit of a whistle.
So that’s going to be some of the long term damage there. He says, Then they left him. He says, I attempted to rise, but I fell again. And he reached in. He pulled the tarr away from his lips so he could breathe more freely. And after a while, I began to recover, raised myself up, he said, started making his way back to the Johnson home. And when I came to the door, he said, I was naked. And the tarr made me look as though I had been covered with blood. And when Emma saw him, she thought it was all blood. So she passes out right there. He says, She thought I was matched to pieces. And so she fainted. Some sisters in the neighborhood collect. He calls for a blanket. They throw it on him. Sister Johnson, Luke Johnson said that his mom started to… She got some lard and starts to work on the tar to try to get the tar off of Joseph’s body. And they’re going to work on that all night long. And so one of the biggest tragedies of that night, we could even call this the first martyrdom, if you will.
Joseph’s child, his little adopted baby, Joseph, will die the next week because of the exposure that they left the door open. It was super cold that night, they talk about how the ground was frozen. So that’s how cold it was. His baby, who already had the mesels, was then exposed and he died as a result of that exposure. Wow. So that’s the gist of that evening of what happened. And the why of what happened is really, as far as we can piece together, this is Simon’s writer, who’s ticked at Joseph and Sidney. Sidney is the very first victim. They get him first, unleash their rage on him. They think he’s dead. He’s not dead. They think he’s dead. And then they go get Joseph, and that’s what happened next. So this is unleashing their rage on both Sidney and Joseph, who had recently called them out publicly. And Simon just feels like this is the last resort. If we’re going to get him out of Hyrum Ohio, there’s one way that we know that works real well. And so that’s what they resorted to.
Yeah. He talks about it as if he doesn’t feel any need to justify what he did or dress it up in anything that would make it sound more palatable. They were just okay with that. So i think one thing that you might hear sometimes when this issue or this episode is brought up is some people have claimed that this was… It wasn’t done just because Simon’s writer and his friends were upset. They claimed that there was some adulterous affair or something like that that Joseph Smith was involved in, and that that was the rationale or justification for this, which, let’s be honest, doesn’t really make it much better anyway. That still doesn’t justify this treatment of another human being. But where does that come from? And is there actually any historical basis for that? Where’s that accusation coming from?
Yeah, good question. So that’s a super late accusation. That comes like 1884. There’s a guy named Clark Braden, who was a Church of Christ Disciples Minister, same this Disciples group that Simon’s writer.
Is from. I was just going to also interject that Clark Braden was not involved. Not only is it late, but he had nothing to do with what happened. So far as we know, he didn’t really talk to anybody or have any inside source on what happened. We don’t even really know where he’s getting this from, right?
Exactly. He reads Luke Johnson’s account it seems is what happened. He reads that there was that plan to emasculate Joseph Smith, right? To castrate him when they tied him to the plank and he was strip naked. And then Dr. Denison didn’t dare to go through with it. And that’s it. That’s all we have historically. But what has happened is, is Clark Braden made this accusation, this innuendo about that. But surely the reason that they were going to castrate him was because he was a womanizer, because he was a sexual profligate. He was someone who was deserving of that. And that’s one of the reasons they drove him out of town. He totally created that from a whole cloth. And then Fonda Brody is going to use that. She’s going to retell it. She’s going to cast it. She creates another story. She says that Eli Johnson demanded that the Prophet be castrated for he suspected Joseph of being too intimate with his sister, Nancy Marinda. So her name is actually Marinda Nancy Johnson, not Nancy Marinda. She was living in the Johnson home. And so F on Brody is accusing Joseph, saying that Eli Johnson, her brother, said that he needed to be castrated because he was being intimate with his sister.
Well, there’s a ton of problems with that historically, right? I mean, first of all, Miranda doesn’t have a brother named Eli Johnson. There was an Eli Johnson, and there was an Eli in the crowd. Joseph says they were saying, Eli, go get the tar, stuff like this. But he was an uncle. There’s a guy named Eli Johnson who was an uncle of Marinda. Fond Brody doesn’t get her name right, calls her Nancy Marinda. But she’s drawing on Clark Braden’s 1884 Inyu window, and there’s nothing before that, right? And so this is totally just created as this assumption, built on an assumption and some weird memory about a brother, Eli Johnson, saying what nobody said he said, and he’s not even a brother, and that’s not even her name. But I think the best thing, though, is Marinda Johnson herself later on. And she stays in the Church, and she comes to Salt Lake, and she will say, and I find this the most compelling piece of evidence against that accusation. This is 1877. She’s 62 years old. After a lifetime of faithful membership, she says, I feel like bearing my testimony that during the whole year that Joseph was an inmate of my father’s house, I never saw ought in his daily life or conversation to make me doubt his divine mission.
There’s the girl. There’s the girl who this super late account, and then this even later spinning of that account of Fond Brody’s, is accusing Joseph of being intimate with a Marinda John. Well, she herself says, Listen, there was nothing. In fact, I never saw anything in his daily life that would make me doubt his divine mission. He was a good man. So anyone who wants to talk about it as this attempted emasculation being as a result of Joseph’s womanizing, I mean, that’s just really bad history. It’s agenda driven. Sometimes there’s portrayals of this even in media recently released under the banner of heaven portrays it in this way as if to say, look, here’s this womanizer, right? And he’s done wrong. He’s cheated on his wife with this girl. And the townspeople would have none of it. They need to come and they need to show them what is, right? What we do with immoral people in this community life. None of that is even close to historically based. Those people that are closest to it, Marinda herself, her brother Luke, the whole Johnson family, none of them thought that. When we actually do the historical due diligence, what we find is Simon’s writer is angry at Joseph Smith, he thinks he’s a fraud.
And he’s recently been called out by Sidney Rigden. And this just gets him. And there’s nothing that seems like they can do outside of violence to run Joseph and Sidney out of town. And that’s it. It’s completely based in his staunch religious opposition to Joseph Smith. He totally is convinced he’s a fraud. And he takes matters into his own hands to get him out of there. But it was never, ever anything about this business of immorality on Joseph Smith’s part. I’ll just end with this thought as we wrap this up. I’m so impressed in Joseph’s history, the way that he concludes this account. He says, My friends spent the night in scraping and removing the tarr and washing and cleansing my body so that by morning I was ready to be clothed again. This being the sabbath morning, the people assembled for meeting at the usual hour of worship. And among them also came the mobbers, Simon’s riders in the audience. He mentions a few other people by name, the one who had his hands in his hair and another guy that had given the mob a barrel of whiskey to raise their spirits, he says, and many others.
And then he says this, I love this from Joseph, he says, With my flesh, all scarified and defaced, I preached to the congregation as usual. And on the afternoon of the same day, baptized through the three individuals. You want to see the character of Joseph Smith in action? What man is he really? Well, there’s got to be ways to measure to some degree, imperfectly for sure, but there’s got to be ways to measure character. I think one of the best ways is you put someone under extreme stress, extreme stress, and then watch what they do. Now, this is a great measure of character. And boy, Joseph just comes away with shining colors on this. In fact, I remember a great talk that all of your listeners need to go listen to by Elder Holland called the Bitter Cup and the Bloody baptism. He tells this story, and then he quotes that line from Joseph’s Journal where he said, With my flesh all scarified and defaced, I preached to the congregation as usual. Elder Holland says, What? To that slimy band of cowards who by Friday next will quite literally be the murderers of your child. Stand there hurting from the hair of your head that was pulled and then tared into a mat, hurting right down to your foot that was nearly torn off by being wrenched out the door of your own home.
Preach the gospel to that damnable bunch of sniveling reprobates. What a great phrase. Damnable bunch of sniveling reprobates, he said, Surely this is no time to stand by principle. It’s daylight now and the odds aren’t 12 to 1 anymore. Let’s just conclude this Sunday service right now and go outside to finish last evening’s business. He says it was, after all, a fairly long night for Joseph and Emma. Maybe it should be an equally short morning for this dirty dozen who’ve sneakeringly shown up for church. And then Elder Holland corrects himself. He says, But those feelings I have even now, just reading about this experience 150 years later and feelings I know would have raged in my Irish blood that morning, mark only one of the differences between me and the Prophet Joseph Smith, he said. And then here’s the point. And this is what I would end with. As I think about this experience, and I’m so impressed with Joseph, so sad for what happened, but so impressed. He said, E lder Holland, quoting him again, you see, a disciple of Christ, which I testify to you, Joseph was and is, always has to be a disciple.
The judge does not give any time off for bad behavior. A Christian always stands on principle. He says, The good people, the strong people dig down deeper and they find a better way. Like Christ, they know that when it’s hardest to be so is precisely the time you have to be at your best. When I think about this story, I like to just end on that thought that what comes out of this episode, this tragic episode, is another testimony, another one of a thousand different testimonies in my heart that Joseph Smith was a true disciple of Jesus Christ, and that he acted like that when it would have been understandable to maybe not act like that. Those are my thoughts.
Excellent. Well, thank you. Well, I think we’ll just end then. Thank you, Scott Woodward, for joining me today to discuss this. I hope everybody listening has had a chance to learn something new and reflect on this. Of course, we know this is only the first of many ongoing acts of violence that would be perpetrated against the Saints in the coming years. This is really, in a lot of ways, just the beginning. But thank you for giving us some of that background, that context. It really puts a lot of things in perspective. I agree, it helps Joseph Smith really come out. He shines really well in this account when you have all of that information. Thank you very much and we hope everyone has enjoyed listening. Thank..