Spencer McBride: As the sun rose on June 25, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, along with the men with whom they had traveled to Carthage, readied themselves for the day. They had spent the night in the Carthage Hotel, also known as Hamilton’s Carthage Hotel. From there, they would submit themselves to an officer of the law and, if things went well, they would be released on bail and be on their way back to Nauvoo before sundown.
But things did not go well, and by the end of the day, the Smith brothers found themselves confined to the county jail. And with the exception of a short appearance in court, they would never step foot outside of that jail again.
How did Joseph and Hyrum Smith spend their last days alive? And how do the activities of those final days help us understand the violent and tragic events that culminated in their deaths? We’ll answer those questions in this episode of Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host Spencer McBride.
Spencer McBride: Episode 4, “The Martyrdom.”
Spencer McBride: Joseph and Hyrum Smith, as well as thirteen others, submitted to arrest with a local constable in Carthage on June 25. This was a prearranged arrest, but there were many onlookers, including a unit of the Illinois state militia, the Carthage Greys, that was encamped in the town’s center. Historian David Grua of the Joseph Smith Papers explains what happened next.
David Grua: Joseph was put under arrest on the riot charge during the morning of June 25. At 4 PM that day, Joseph and the other men who were with him appeared before a justice of the peace. It was not the man that they had been told they needed to appear before. It was a different justice of the peace, Robert F. Smith. Robert F. Smith was also the commander of the Carthage Greys, so he was functioning in multiple capacities as well. Chauncey L. Higbee, who was one of the dissenters, one of the proprietors of the Expositor, served as the prosecuting attorney. To Joseph and the others this was clear evidence that this would not be an impartial examination of him and his codefendants.
Spencer McBride: David explained that the men were not in court that day for a trial on the charge of riot but for a hearing and to post bail.
David Grua: Justice of the peace Robert F. Smith ordered that the defendants enter into recognizances. Now that’s a legal bond that required the defendants to appear before the circuit court at its next term for trial. The legal examination that happened on June 25 was not the trial itself. This was just a preliminary hearing, and justice of the peace Smith ordered them to enter into these recognizances, which bound them to appear. Joseph and the others all signed their names to a recognizance. So, most of the men who were in Joseph Smith’s party were free to go back to Nauvoo. They were essentially out on bail. But Joseph and Hyrum were told that they had to remain in Carthage.
Spencer McBride: The reason that Joseph and Hyrum had to remain in Carthage was that earlier that morning, when the prearranged arrest of the party occurred, the constable had presented a second warrant. This one was for the arrest of just Joseph and Hyrum Smith on a charge of treason.
The arrest of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on the charge of treason came as a surprise to the Saints. The governor had made absolutely no mention of the charge in his letters to Joseph Smith. They felt blindsided.
The treason charge reportedly stemmed from Joseph, acting as mayor of Nauvoo, declaring martial law in the city and mobilizing the Nauvoo Legion to defend the city’s citizens, if needed. Hyrum Smith may have been included in the charge as Nauvoo’s vice mayor, though he had not functioned in that role for some time.
There appears to have been questions about whether or not Joseph Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, was authorized to declare martial law. Joseph, as lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion, believed that he was, but many believed that only the governor of the state held that power. However, as Governor Ford recalled the charge years later, whether Joseph and Hyrum had committed treason as charged would also come down to whether or not the Nauvoo Legion had attempted to interfere with the posse dispatched by the governor to serve the arrest warrant on Joseph Smith and others in Nauvoo, or had it only served the legitimate purpose of protecting the city from those who may have used the posse as a cover for instigating violence.
Joseph Smith and others thought, with good reason, that there was no basis in the charge. The Nauvoo city charter gave him the right as mayor to declare martial law, and he had called out the militia to protect the city due to credible threats of violence. No violence had occurred against the governor’s posse or any other members of the state militia. And although the posse had not ultimately served the warrant against Smith and company, others had ultimately served the warrant. So, in actuality, the official work of the state had not been impeded. Was there a basis for a charge of treason? To many onlookers, particularly Latter-day Saints, the charge appeared to be unjust. However, that question would have to be settled by a court of law. But the charge—trumped up, as Joseph Smith and many others thought that it is was—had dire consequences in the short term.
In Illinois, treason was an unbailable charge. Joseph and Hyrum Smith would have to wait for a hearing before they could return to Nauvoo. The ultimate effect of the treason charge—and what appears to have been its intent all along—was to keep Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage, where they were susceptible to an attack by a mob, where they were vulnerable and accessible to men who had already expressed their desire and intent to kill them.
Joseph and Hyrum Smith would have to prepare for the trial from the confines of the county jail in Carthage. They did not feel safe there.
While Joseph and Hyrum were the only two under arrest, other Latter-day Saints chose to go to the jail with them. This added company would provide comfort, a stronger sense of security, and people able to carry out tasks and errands as needed for the preparation of the Smith brothers’ legal defense.
The jail was kept by a man named George Stigle, who lived in the building with his family. The Stigles gave the upstairs bedroom to the Smiths and their friends. The bedroom was more accommodating and comfortable than the jail cell.
On June 26, the group of Saints in Carthage Jail was in frequent conversation with officials, including Governor Ford, and carrying messages and correspondence to others. But while their companions could freely come and go from the jail, Joseph and Hyrum Smith could not. They were trapped. And their confinement away from Nauvoo provided the church’s avowed enemies in the area the opportunity for violent action that they had long waited for. It was an opportunity that they had, in fact, orchestrated.
Spencer McBride: On June 27, Joseph and Hyrum Smith awoke in the jail in Carthage, Illinois, at 5:30 in the morning. It had rained overnight, so it is possible that they had opened the window to get relief from the humid air that typically blanketed the region in the summer months.
As we begin to recount the events of June 27, 1844, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that the work of historians requires a careful examination and consideration of historic sources. It also requires humility. Professional historians learn quickly to acknowledge that we can never know all that we wish we knew about certain topics. We have to be okay with that. When we come upon gaps in our knowledge, it’s natural to speculate. But it is the responsibility of historians and other scholars to clearly distinguish between speculation of possibilities and what is supported by historic sources.
So, as we consider the events of June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Illinois, it is worth taking a moment to ask, how do we know what we know? And why don’t we know what we wish we knew?
Alex Smith: One of the challenges of identifying what actually occurs minute by minute, hour by hour in Carthage Jail is the quality and quantity of the sources that we have describing the events.
Spencer McBride: That’s Alex Smith, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers.
Alex Smith: So many people have written articles, books, it appears in documentaries—what happens minute by minute in Carthage Jail, and so often those secondary histories focus on the particular events. How many feet was Hyrum standing back from the door? Who was shot and in what order? And where did those balls come from? And what was their trajectory through doorways and windows? What caliber of guns were used?
And while it’s obviously important that we understand the event, I think it’s far less significant than the actual causes and questions of why Joseph and his brother were killed and why this attack, why the Saints were driven out of their homes in Nauvoo in the coming years. But as we consider the events themselves, we’re left with the challenge of conflicting information in contemporaneous sources. Very little of course is written by the participants in the event.
Spencer McBride: This is an important caution about the reliability of surviving historic sources on the mob’s attack of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in Carthage Jail. As historians we privilege the sources of eyewitnesses and participants in events, but even those can be incomplete, particularly if the events in question occurred rapidly and were associated with trauma.
Brett Dowdle, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, identified one historic source that stands out above all the others in its level of detail and the author’s proximity to the events of the martyrdom.
Brett Dowdle: The best source that we have of what happened on June 27 is Willard Richards’s journal. He kept a very detailed journal. He tended to write in what I would call shorthand. He would have short little sentences, and so there is some piecing together of things. But that is our single best source of what happened in the moments leading up to the martyrdom.
Spencer McBride: Alex Smith compared the level of detail in Willard Richards’s journal on typical days to the level of detail while he was in jail with Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
Alex Smith: If you look at his diary entries for the months and years preceding the event, there may be one line per day—very, very scant details about his daily activities.
But compare those to the three or four days of entries in the jail, and he has page after page after page describing on a minute-by-minute basis what is happening. He clearly understands the significance that something important is happening here, and for one reason or another, legal or for historical memory, one reason or another, we need a detailed record of this. So, he’s actually writing on the day of events, and then later that night he probably writes a little more of that record.
Spencer McBride: While in the jail, Richards had more time to devote to his journal than he usually did. He also seemed to understand that he was witnessing and recording a pivotal moment in the history of Joseph Smith and the church that the prophet led.
But that was not the only record of events that Richards left. A few days later, he published a newspaper article based on his private journal but expanded on what he wrote there. He titled that article “Two Minutes in Jail.”
Alex Smith: Willard Richards’s own accounts, both in his journal and that “Two Minutes in Jail” article, are really the best accounts of what’s happening in the room at the time of the attack.
John Taylor, who is also present of course and survives the event, doesn’t write his own account until many years later, and it’s clearly heavily based on Willard Richards’s account.
Spencer McBride: Those are the accounts associated with the men who were in the jail with Joseph and Hyrum Smith. What about the members of the mob who committed the murder? Sources survive that offer a glimpse into the mob’s perspective and justification of their attack at Carthage Jail.
Alex Smith: In the Warsaw Signal, editor Thomas Sharp publishes in the 10 July issue of 1844, an astonishing editorial titled “The Act and the Apology.” A spoiler alert: there’s not much apology in it. It’s mostly a justification of why we did this, and I believe in many ways it stands unparalleled in American history as a written explanation for why a community deemed vigilantism necessary. It’s basically saying, had you been us, you would have killed him too. That’s just mind-bogglingly arrogant if you think about it.
Spencer McBride: These are some of the principle and most reliable historical sources about what happened in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844, and why it happened. They are incomplete, but professional historians accept that records are inevitably incomplete. Wild speculation about events and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories are not, in the end, part of the historian’s craft.
So, let’s look more closely at the events of June 27. As I mentioned before, the story of that day starts early in the morning.
Spencer McBride: According to Willard Richards’s journal, the men in the upstairs room of the jail awoke at 5:30 but did not arise until 7:30. They ate breakfast and turned their attention to the business of preparing for the hearing scheduled for June 29. During the morning hours, Joseph dispatched several of his companions from the jail on various errands, and several men would arrive at the jail to deliver messages. For example, a messenger arrived to inform Joseph and Hyrum that the governor would not bring as many members of the state militia with him to Nauvoo because he learned of a plan by several of those militia men to instigate a war with the Saints.
Curiously, just before noon, church member Almon Babbitt arrived at the jail and read a letter from Oliver Cowdery, a man who had served as the primary scribe of the Book of Mormon translation process, the former second elder of the church, and a companion with Joseph for many of the most important events in the early history of the church. At this time, Cowdery was no longer a member of the church. What did this letter say? Had Cowdery written it to Babbitt or to Joseph? We do not know the answers to these questions. The letter does not survive, and the only mention of it is the short line Richards wrote in his journal.
Between breakfast and lunch, Joseph composed two pieces of correspondence. Brett Dowdle described those letters.
Brett Dowdle: He sends one to a lawyer named Orville Browning, hoping that Browning would become a member of Joseph’s legal team and help him to be able to fight these charges of treason. And then he sends a very emotional letter to Emma.
Spencer McBride: Joseph had started dictating the letter for Emma to Willard Richards the day before. On the morning of June 27, Joseph and Richards finished the letter. Joseph explained to Emma the planned actions of Governor Thomas Ford in Nauvoo later that day and provided instructions for the residents of the city. But for a more personal postscript, Joseph took up the pen himself.
He wrote: “I am very much resigned to my lot knowing I am justified and have done the best that could be done[.] give my love to the children.”
He also added a couple sentences on the charge of treason that he believed to be unjust and destined to be dismissed in court. He wrote: “as for treason I know that I have not commited any and they cannot prove one appearance of any thing of the kind[.] So you need not have any fears that any harme can happen to us on that score[.] may God bless you all[.] Amen[.]”
Brett Dowdle: He explains to Emma that he is innocent of these charges, he did not commit treason, and he expresses his love to her and the children. And this is the last thing that we have in Joseph Smith’s hand is this expression of love to Emma and the children and his sense that this was not going to turn out well.
Elizabeth Kuehn: He’s saying his conscience is clear. He’s been accused of treason; he knows he hasn’t committed it.
Spencer McBride: That’s Elizabeth Kuehn, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers. She described for me a second postscript to Joseph’s letter to Emma.
Elizabeth Kuehn: Later in the morning of June 27, Willard Richards added a second postscript to the letter to Emma informing her that Governor Ford intended to disband his troops and come to Nauvoo to give a speech. This would leave Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage. Willard Richards wrote in his journal that after the final postscript was added, the letter was sent with Joel Miles and Cyrus Wheelock, who left for Nauvoo before 10:30 that morning. It would have taken a few hours to travel the approximately 20 miles from Carthage to Nauvoo, but the letter was surely delivered to Emma that day.
Spencer McBride: That’s an overview of how Joseph Smith and his companions in jail spent the morning of June 27, 1844.
Brett Dowdle: It’s more of a business approach to the morning of June 27. You still have a sense that even though Joseph feels a sense of foreboding, he is hoping that things can work out. The afternoon is quite different. The afternoon becomes much more emotional.
Spencer McBride: At 1:15 in the afternoon, Joseph and Hyrum Smith took their lunch in the upstairs room of the jail in which they were staying. John Taylor and Stephen Markham ate their lunch downstairs. At 1:30 in the afternoon, Joseph sent Markham on an errand. Markham intended to go back to the jail, but an assembling mob would prevent his return.
So, by mid-afternoon, the jail was guarded by seven men. The jailer was out on an errand, but his wife and children remained downstairs. There were only four men left upstairs: Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards.
During his time in the jail, Joseph had begun to openly wonder about their security and the insufficiency of their guard. He had commented on the matter just one day earlier.
Alex Smith: Joseph Smith tells Willard Richards and those present—and Willard writes this down in his journal
—that Joseph says, “I have had a good deal of anxiety about my safety, which I never did before.”
I think that’s telling that even on the day before, as it’s understood that they have this trial approaching, that Joseph is feeling alarm for his personal safety and the safety of the men in the jail. So, I think we see tensions rising, fears in the prisoners there in the jail, and I think we also see that in their interactions with the guards at the jail. Particularly on the twenty-seventh, they’re starting to see more animosity with their guards.
Spencer McBride: Willard Richards recorded in his journal that at 3:15 in the afternoon, “The guard have been more severe in their ope[r]ations.” They spoke of open war with the Later-day Saints. It’s easy to understand why such talk weighed on the spirits of the four men upstairs.
In the afternoon John Taylor stood to sing a song for the group. The men were feeling particularly somber, and they supposed that a song could help cheer them up. Joseph in particular loved music and had frequently asked friends with pleasant voices to sing for him. On this occasion, Taylor sang a song that had recently arrived in the United States from England.
Aaron West: A poor, wayfaring Man of grief
Hath often crossed me on my way,
Who sued so humbly for relief
That I could never answer nay.
I had not pow’r to ask his name,
Whereto he went, or whence he came;
Yet there was something in his eye
That won my love; I knew not why.
Spencer McBride: Called “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” today the song appears in the hymnbook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1844 it was sung to a different melody. It is being sung here by Aaron West of the Church’s Historic Sites team.
The song narrates the story of a person who repeatedly serves a stranger in different states of distress. The first state of distress was hunger.
Aaron West: Once, when my scanty meal was spread,
He entered; not a word he spake,
Just perishing for want of bread.
I gave him all; he blessed it, brake,
And ate, but gave me part again.
Mine was an angel’s portion then,
For while I fed with eager haste,
The crust was manna to my taste.
Spencer McBride: Again and again this person meets the afflicted stranger. Whether thirsty, unsheltered, or beaten and left to die by a highway side, the person helps the stranger in every instance. The message is clearly drawn from the teaching of Jesus to serve one another, that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
In the penultimate verse, Taylor sang of the person meeting the stranger one last time. This time, they met in prison.
Aaron West: In pris’n I saw him next, condemned
To meet a traitor’s doom at morn.
The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
And honored him ’mid shame and scorn.
My friendship’s utmost zeal to try,
He asked if I for him would die.
The flesh was weak; my blood ran chill,
But my free spirit cried, “I will!”
Spencer McBride: Then the song concluded with one final revelatory verse.
Aaron West: Then in a moment to my view
The stranger started from disguise.
The tokens in his hands I knew;
The 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.”
Spencer McBride: Given the circumstances of the four men—committed to serving others as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ but in a jail facing stiff opposition to their work—these final two verses must have resonated with them.
Whether the song provided the men comfort, reflection, or both, they welcomed it and asked Taylor to sing it once more. Taylor honored their request.
Spencer McBride: At 4:00 in the afternoon, the men assigned to guard the jail—the men who had been growing more and more severe in their treatment of the Smiths, Taylor, and Richards—were relieved by a new group of guards.
At little after 5:00 in the evening, the jailer returned. Aware of the mob assembling in the town, he spoke to Joseph and recommended that the four men leave the comfort of the bedroom in which they had been staying for the security of the jail cell. Joseph told him that they would move to the cell after dinner. But, as Elizabeth Kuehn explains, the men never got the chance to move. And the suggested move to the cell likely would not have provided the protection they needed anyway.
Elizabeth Kuehn: Sometime after 5 o’clock, an armed mob rushed the Hancock County Jail, broke through the guards, climbed the stairway, and attempted to force entry into the bedroom where Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards were. The four men quickly grabbed the weapons they had available and barricaded themselves in the room, bracing themselves against the door.
Spencer McBride: Hyrum was struck first. According to Willard Richards’s account of the event, Hyrum was shot in his face. Clasping his wound with his hands, Hyrum fell back and exclaimed, “I am a dead man!”
Elizabeth Kuehn: Responding to Hyrum’s death, Joseph opened the door slightly and repeatedly fired a revolver, which he had received from Silas [Cyrus] Wheelock earlier that day, into the crowd, though it “missed [fired] two or three times.”
Spencer McBride: Fearing a mob attack and worrying that the jail’s security was insufficient, church member Cyrus Wheelock had snuck two guns into the jail: a six-shot pepperbox revolver and a single-shot revolver. In traveling to Carthage, Joseph and Hyrum had shown that they were willing to die for what they believed, but this did not mean that they were anxious to do so. Alex Smith reflected on this act of self-defense.
Alex Smith: In some of the portrayals that you see of the events, we lose sight of the fact that, of course, these men are trying to defend themselves. They have two handguns in the room with them, and a couple canes that they’re using to knock down rifle barrels, musket barrels, and that kind of thing. That of course doesn’t minimize the atrocity that’s committed—the fact they are trying to defend themselves, that Joseph gets off a few successful shots with the revolver. It also misfires a few times—not uncommon. If there’s a shot from Hyrum’s single-shot pistol, it goes into the floor and not anyone out in the stairwell, but they are being mobbed in the jail by, Willard Richards says, “from 1  to 200 men.”
Spencer McBride: The mob was divided in two parts: those who rushed into the jail and fired at the prisoners from inside and those who surrounded the jail from without to prevent escape.
John Taylor apparently rushed to the window in a bid to escape and, when he did, was struck by shots fired from both inside and outside the jail. Badly wounded, Taylor fell to the floor and rolled himself beneath the bed for cover. Willard Richards was wedged in the corner of the room between the opening door and the wall. Using a cane, he did his best to knock down the guns that were taking aim at the mob’s primary target: Joseph Smith.
As Willard Richards recorded the event: “Joseph attempted as the last resort, to leap the same window from whence Mr. Taylor fell, when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward exclaiming, ‘O Lord my God!’”
Joseph fell to the ground below. Outside the jail, near the well of water that served the building, members of the mob watched his body tumble. It is unclear if Joseph was dead by the time he fell from the window.
Elizabeth Kuehn: There are a variety of accounts on this point, but some accounts claim that Joseph was still alive when he hit the ground and that he was either able to prop himself up against the well curb or that the mob physically propped him against the well curb. And accounts vary on this, but Joseph was then shot again at the well curb, killing him.
Spencer McBride: “The job was done in an instant,” Richards would soon write about the murder of his beloved friends Joseph and Hyrum Smith. And the mob fled the scene soon after its members were sure that Joseph was dead. Richards worried that the assailants would travel to Nauvoo to wage war on the Saints.
Spencer McBride: By sundown on June 27, 1844, a mob had murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith. John Taylor was badly wounded. The task of notifying the Saints in Nauvoo of the events that had transpired fell upon Willard Richards.
How would he get word to the Saints, and how would the Saints respond? There would be mourning, for sure. But would that mourning be accompanied by additional violence? The responses of the Saints to the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, that’s where we will resume the story in the next episode of Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.
Spencer McBride: If you are interested in learning more about the history discussed in this episode or in exploring the papers of Joseph Smith, visit josephsmithpapers.org.