Spencer McBride: In the minutes and hours following the mob’s attack, Carthage was a frenzied scene. Citizens of the town worried that the Latter-day Saints would attack in retribution. Some of those citizens fled the town as a precaution. Other citizens remained in their homes. Some of them tended to John Taylor’s wounds and promised to protect him and Willard Richards.
But there was work to be done. Richards needed to inform and warn the Saints in Nauvoo. He needed to work with church and civic leaders to restore and preserve peace. He needed to tend to the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum and to care for the wounded John Taylor. And the leadership of the church needed to regroup and determine the next steps for the Saints.
The aftermath of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, that’s what we are talking about in this episode of Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer McBride: Episode 5, “Mourning Joseph and Hyrum.”
Spencer McBride: Willard Richards did not mince words when he picked up a pen to write a letter informing the people of Nauvoo of the mob’s attack. “Joseph [&] Hyrum are dead,” he wrote, adding that Taylor was wounded, but not fatally. Apparently at the request of Taylor, who did not want to worry his family, Richards crossed out the word “fatally” and wrote in its place not “very bad.” Richards gave a succinct description of the attack, but a detailed account would have to wait. The primary purpose of this letter was to warn state and city leaders in Nauvoo that the mob may be headed their way. Furthermore, Richards informed them that the citizens of Carthage had promised to protect Richards and Taylor, but that they worried the Latter-day Saints would attack the city in retribution. In bold letters, Richards wrote, “I promised them no!”
Richards’s letter would eventually make it to Nauvoo, but news of the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith had already arrived in the city. As you might expect, the news was met with strong emotions. There was sorrow and there was grief. And there was anger.
Governor Thomas Ford worried that the people of Nauvoo would attack the town of Carthage in retribution. But that’s not what they did. Instead, they mourned and made preparations for the return of Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies to the city. Of course, those arrangements started in Carthage.
Sharalyn Howcroft, the project archivist of the Joseph Smith Papers, described for me the process of returning the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith to Nauvoo.
Sharalyn Howcroft: So, shortly after Joseph and Hyrum were killed, Artois Hamilton showed up at the jail. Hamilton was the owner and proprietor of Hamilton’s Hotel, which was just a few blocks away from Carthage jail.
Hamilton showed up, he put the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum in a wagon, and he took them to the hotel. There at the hotel, he made coffins for the bodies. The next day, Hamilton; Samuel Smith, who was the brother of Joseph and Hyrum; and Willard Richards, they are heading back to Nauvoo. Hamilton had Hyrum Smith’s body in his wagon, and Samuel Smith took Joseph in his own wagon. And the bodies were in oak boxes that were covered with brush to protect the bodies from the sun.
Spencer McBride: When Willard Richards, Samuel Smith, and Artois Hamilton arrived in Nauvoo with the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, thousands of people lined the streets and followed the procession as it entered the city.
Sharalyn Howcroft: The bodies were taken to George Cannon, who was a British convert. He was a furniture maker by profession, and he was also the local undertaker.
Cannon created death mask impressions. He sat the bodies up and basically built a frame around their heads to take these impressions and had molds in those frames. But it took an hour or more for these molds to dry. So, you can imagine just this painstaking process of doing the death masks.
After that, Cannon then washed and clothed the bodies and prepared them for a family viewing that would occur hours later.
Spencer McBride: To understand the response of Emma Smith and her children to the news of Joseph’s death, I spoke with Jenny Reeder, a historian with the Church History Department.
Jenny Reeder: I wish we had more from Emma’s hand at the time of these events, but we don’t. And so what we do have comes from different people.
Spencer McBride: This means that historians are reliant upon accounts recorded by others who witnessed firsthand the grief of Emma Smith and her children.
The Smith family was living at the time in the Nauvoo Mansion, or what came to be known as the Mansion House, which they also operated as a hotel.
Jenny Reeder: B. W. Richmond was a paying guest staying at the Mansion House, and he wrote about finding Julia and Joseph III on the floor with Alexander and Frederick. He said they were leaning over them, “mingling their grief in one wild scream of childish despair.” And then he peered into the room where Emma sat in a chair, her face covered by her hands as she sobbed uncontrollably.
Spencer McBride: Emma Smith was understandably distraught, even as her friends did their best to provide comfort.
Jenny Reeder: A friend, John P. Green, tried to comfort her. He assured her that the sorrow she bore would be the crown of her life. This is an interesting phrase because the crown of my life is also found in section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants as we know it today. And Emma responded to Brother Green and said, “My husband was my crown.”
So, it wasn’t comforting. And then after the bodies were brought into their home, Emma tried several times to walk across the room, but each time she fainted, and finally a friend helped her outside of the room.
Spencer McBride: Then Hyrum Smith’s wife, Mary Fielding Smith, arrived at the Nauvoo Mansion.
Jenny Reeder: And Mary Fielding Smith came with her children to see Hyrum. And finally, Emma decided she had the strength to go in. So, Dimick Huntington and another man assisted her back into the room, and Dimick held his hat up so that she couldn’t see Joseph as she walked in. And finally, she stood there for a moment, and he had her place her hand on Hyrum’s forehead and she said, “[Okay,] now I can see [them]; [I’m] strong now.” And she walked to Joseph where she knelt and groaned and cried and said, “Joseph, Joseph, . . . Are you dead? Have the assassins shot you?”
Her children, all four of them gathered around their mother and the dead body of their father, and it was just tremendous amounts of grief pouring over them. Young Joseph, Joseph III, remembered her saying, “Oh, Joseph, Joseph! My husband, my husband! Have they taken you from me at last!”
Spencer McBride: Sharalyn Howcroft described the experience of Joseph and Hyrum’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, when she saw the bodies of her two sons in the Mansion House.
Sharalyn Howcroft: Lucy Mack Smith recounts her horror at seeing her two dead sons laid out before her. She says, “My soul was filled with horror [beyond] imagination.” And in this inexplicable grief, she cries out, “My God! My God! Why has thou forsaken this family?” And she talks about hearing a voice that said, “I have taken them to myself that they might [find] rest.” And then she says she almost seems to hear Joseph and Hyrum say, “Mother, [don’t weep] for us; [we’ve] overcome the world [through] love.” And that though they were slain for their testimonies, they had an “eternal triumph.”
Spencer McBride: The general public had an opportunity to pay their respects to Joseph and Hyrum the following day.
Sharalyn Howcroft: On Saturday, June 29, there was a public viewing of the bodies in the Mansion House from the morning until the late afternoon, and approximately ten thousand people showed up to view the bodies. But after the viewing, the coffins were locked in a bedroom of the Mansion House while the outer boxes were weighted with sandbags and were buried in the Nauvoo cemetery. And then at midnight, the coffins containing the bodies were buried in the basement of the Nauvoo House.
Spencer McBride: Why were they so careful about where and how they buried the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum?
Sharalyn Howcroft: There was this sense or this fear that the bodies would be desecrated, and so there was this elaborate effort to make sure that that didn’t happen. So, after the bodies were buried in the basement of the Nauvoo House, they were later dug up and reinterred underneath an outbuilding on the Smith homestead property.
Spencer McBride: Years later, in 1928, nearly half a century after Emma Smith passed away, her body was disinterred along with the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum. They were reinterred alongside one another in Nauvoo in a gravesite that tens of thousands of men, women, and children visit each year.
Spencer McBride: On June 30, 1844, Willard Richards wrote another letter about the murders of Joseph and Hyrum. This time he wrote to Brigham Young, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Jeffrey Mahas: One of the biggest challenges the church faced immediately following Joseph and Hyrum’s death is that the bulk of church leadership was not in Nauvoo.
Spencer McBride: That’s historian Jeffrey Mahas of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Jeffrey Mahas: Almost the entire Quorum of the Twelve—most of the influential church leaders from the city and the region—are off on the East Coast serving missions, electioneering for Joseph Smith, or fulfilling other missionary responsibilities. Now, for these men, it’s a protracted process of how they find out about the deaths.
Spencer McBride: The news of the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith spread in the country’s newspapers faster than letters from Nauvoo could reach the missionaries. Yet false rumors of Joseph’s death had been circulated previously by American newspapers, and many of the apostles and missionaries were reluctant to believe them.
Jeffrey Mahas: One key example that always stands out in my mind is the example of Heber C. Kimball. Heber C. Kimball is traveling through eastern cities as a missionary at this time, and on the ninth of July—so two weeks later—he sees, for the first time, newspaper reports that Joseph and Hyrum are dead. He wrote in his journal that the news struck him to the heart, but he dared not believe it at first. Finally, several days later, the rumors became more than he could bear, and he and Lyman White, another member of the Quorum of the Twelve, retired to their room where they held a solemn prayer and asked for confirmation one way or the other, was Joseph dead?
That night, they received a letter from Vilate, Heber C. Kimball’s wife, informing them that Joseph had submitted to arrest and gone with state authorities to Carthage. After they received that news, there was no doubt in their mind that Joseph was killed.
Spencer McBride: Brigham Young heard the news in July 1844 while just outside of Boston. Soon thereafter he traveled into the city to meet up with fellow apostle Wilford Woodruff. As Woodruff recorded in his journal, the two men sat together and cried. Woodruff covered his face with his hands and “gave vent to [his] grief and mourning” and was “bathed [in] tears.” As the last line of Willard Richards’s letter to the electioneering missionaries read, it was best “for all the travelling elders to stop preaching politics.”
By early August 1844, most of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the other electioneering missionaries had returned to Nauvoo. There was work to be done.
Spencer McBride: When Brigham Young arrived back in Nauvoo, he said that the city felt like sheep without a shepherd. There was a clear need of leadership in the church now that Joseph and Hyrum were dead. But there were questions among the Saints about who should assume that leadership. Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department, explained several factors that contributed to the questions surrounding succession in church leadership.
Matt Grow: Joseph Smith didn’t know in 1830, when the church was organized, who would succeed him in 1844 or whenever he died. So at different points in the early years of the church, Joseph seems to be thinking different things about succession. So there’s different statements that can be interpreted in different ways. And as the quorums and organizations of the church develop, so does his thinking on succession. New possibilities emerge and become solidified over time.
Spencer McBride: What do we know about Joseph Smith’s thinking on succession in the final years of his life?
Matt Grow: In the years before his death, Joseph Smith had given increasing responsibility to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is first organized in 1835, the apostles essentially have authority for missionary work. They have governance in the church where there is not an established stake, so their responsibilities are away from church headquarters, we might say.
When the church moved to Nauvoo, Joseph gives them additional responsibilities at church headquarters where stakes are organized. They’re now in charge of immigration, and they’re in charge of church publishing, and they’re in charge of lots of other things at Nauvoo as well, and Joseph increasingly relied on the Twelve in Nauvoo. So, by the time of Joseph Smith’s death, he had entrusted most of the Twelve with the temple ordinances that were being prepared to be practiced once the Nauvoo temple was dedicated. And at a meeting of church leaders at some point in spring 1844, Joseph told the Twelve, “I roll the [burden] and responsibility of leading this church off from my shoulders on to yours.”
But not even the Twelve seemed to have fully understood what that meant or what would occur at the time of Joseph Smith’s death and what succession would look like. This was still an unsettled question. And part of that is when you have a leader who’s relatively young and vibrant, like Joseph Smith, you’re not necessarily planning for his successors in the way you might be if he was in his sixties or seventies or eighties.
Spencer McBride: But, as Matt explains, news of Joseph Smith’s death helped Brigham Young and others realize a fuller understanding of Joseph Smith’s direction to the Quorum of the Twelve on the future leadership of the church.
Matt Grow: When Brigham Young, who’s the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, learns about Joseph Smith’s death, he’s on a mission to the East. And he recalled that his head felt like it was going to crack. He just feels this intense pressure and burden, and he says that he fears initially that Joseph and Hyrum Smith have taken the keys, or the authority to govern the church, with them to their graves. But he says, he then felt a burst of light, a burst of revelation, and he says it came like a clap. And he understood that the keys of the kingdom are here. By that he meant here with the Twelve. And so even Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve only fully come to understand what Joseph had been preparing them to do after his death. And for me, it’s a really interesting case to look at how Joseph prepares the Twelve. He’s very clearly mentoring them over many years to be able to take on the responsibilities of leading the church.
Spencer McBride: Brigham Young himself benefited from Joseph Smith’s mentorship.
Matt Grow: Particularly someone like Brigham Young, who by his own admission is pretty rough around the edges, when he joins the church, Joseph seems to work with him and tutor him for years. He sees in Brigham this great capacity, this great devotion, this great faith, and he increasingly gives him responsibilities that are going to prepare him to help lead the church. So, in 1840, when Brigham is sent on a mission to England, Brigham is given responsibility, along with a few other apostles, to lead church publishing efforts. And Brigham has no expertise in publishing. Brigham doesn’t write books. Brigham doesn’t publish books. But through time, Joseph gives him responsibilities that expand Brigham’s capacities, that ask him to do things he hasn’t done before, so that he will be prepared when the time comes.
Spencer McBride: Yet not all church members were ready to follow the leadership of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Other church leaders claimed that they should assume a presiding role in the church. Some thought that the successor should be a member of the Smith family. Debate ensued.
Matt Grow: One key part of the debate was simply, who is the right person or the right group of people to lead the church? And while several names or groups of people are discussed initially in Nauvoo, pretty quickly it becomes apparent that there’s going to be two key initial claims to that authority. One is going to be by Sidney Rigdon, who was one of Joseph Smith’s counselors, and the other is going to be by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And it’s important to note that the claimant is not Brigham Young. It’s the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a group to lead the church. And Brigham and the Twelve said that Joseph had entrusted them with the keys that would authorize them to govern the church after his death.
Sidney Rigdon said that he would lead the church as a guardian for the church—that he would protect the church and try to do what Joseph Smith would have done. That was basically his argument. And Sidney pressed the issue, and he wants the issue decided quickly. So, there’s a very significant meeting that happens on August 8, where Sidney is asking for the issue to be decided.
Brigham, on the other hand, tells the congregation that he would have preferred to wait. He said, I want to weep for thirty days and “then rise up and tell the people what the Lord wants with them.” Many Saints present that day later testified that in a miraculous way, the mantle of Joseph had fallen upon Brigham, and they received divine confirmation that Brigham should lead the church.
Spencer McBride: Still, there were additional considerations in the question of leadership succession in the wake of Joseph Smith’s death.
Matt Grow: There’s other elements to the debate besides just who. One part of the debate is if the church would continue to move forward with the revelations that Joseph Smith had received in Nauvoo, including the temple ordinances and doctrinal teachings about the nature of God and man.
Then there’s also questions wrapped up in that about will plural marriage continue? What about church finances? Who governs those issues? And so, there’s all sorts of issues, but fundamentally, I think they come down to who will lead the church. And the Quorum of the Twelve is saying that Joseph had prepared them and entrusted them with the keys, and also that looking to the New Testament church, it was the Twelve Apostles who led the church in that era.
Spencer McBride: Ultimately, an overwhelming majority of church members determined that the church should be led by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with Brigham Young as the president of that quorum. In time, the church would reorganize the First Presidency, and Brigham Young would be set apart by his fellow apostles as the church’s next president. But that action would not occur for three years. In the meantime, there was considerable work for the apostles to undertake as the church faced several serious obstacles.
Spencer McBride: Even as the church grappled with the question of succession, church leaders and Emma Smith had to settle Joseph Smith’s financial affairs. And it was a particularly complicated estate to settle. I asked Sharalyn Howcroft who was in charge of settling Joseph Smith’s financial affairs after his death.
Sharalyn Howcroft: Joseph died without a will. And the Illinois statutes, in instances where deceased persons didn’t have a will, the law required that an administrator be appointed to settle the estate. The administrators were to manage the appraisal of personal and land properties and to settle claims against the estate. During the settlement of Joseph’s estate, there were three different administrators.
Emma Smith was appointed in July of 1844, but she failed to provide an additional bond that was required by the court, and her administration was revoked. Joseph W. Coolidge became an administrator in September of 1844, and he began to sell personal properties and started looking into several of the real estate holdings that Joseph had. He ended up migrating west, and John [M.] Ferris ends up becoming the administrator in August of 1848.
Spencer McBride: What made the settling of Joseph Smith’s estate so challenging was that his personal finances were enmeshed with the church’s finances. This had started when the church was headquartered in Kirtland but continued out of necessity when church members were expelled from Missouri under the threat of extermination. When they were rebuilding their lives in Illinois as religious refugees, the members of the First Presidency purchased on credit the land on which Nauvoo was to be constructed. Joseph Smith eventually became in charge of that land as the legally appointed trustee-in-trust of the church. Elizabeth Kuehn, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, explained some of the challenges this situation presented.
Elizabeth Kuehn: There was not a lot of distinction between his personal finances and those of the church. And this is reflected in the many claims brought against Joseph’s estate after his death. You have personal debts which range from smaller to larger, as well as money borrowed on behalf of the church or lent on behalf of the church, and even long-standing unpaid debts from the Kirtland era that they’re still trying to figure out or settle.
Spencer McBride: In 1842, Joseph Smith had filed for bankruptcy. But one outstanding debt to the United States government had severely delayed those proceedings and, following Joseph Smith’s death, proved particularly challenging to the settling of the estate.
Elizabeth Kuehn: A major complication in settling Joseph’s estate is a debt owed to the federal government. Joseph and several partners had purchased a steamboat from the federal government in 1840, which unfortunately had been wrecked shortly after its purchase, and ultimately they were not able to repay the debt to the federal government, and so this debt is lingering over Joseph’s financial affairs.
And in settling the estate, the government makes sure that they get their money first, and so this is the claim that will ultimately be settled before anyone else. The government is the creditor that will get paid before anyone else. In addition to this—and also kind of wrapped up in the steamboat debt question, Joseph Smith had been enmeshed in trying to settle his debts through bankruptcy proceedings, and these were not finalized before his death. So, you have a lot of unanswered questions about Joseph’s financial affairs that then lead to probate and estate, and many, many years of trying to settle that down the road.
Spencer McBride: It would take years for the estate to be fully settled. But in the short term, enough of the estate had to be settled to allow for the support of Emma Smith and her family.
Sharalyn Howcroft: Emma’s financial livelihood and the care of her children really depended upon her husband’s estate. Because Joseph didn’t have a will, all of the assets—that is the personal property and the real estate—was supposed to be sold to satisfy the debts. According to Illinois law, Emma could take a portion of her dower’s rights from the personal property before it was sold at auction. These personal items, personal effects, included household furniture, farming equipment, livestock, just a miscellany of things, and from that personal property, Emma did take a portion of her dower’s rights. She decided to get the parlor furniture, some miscellaneous personal property, and according to Joseph Smith III, she received Joseph Smith’s two horses, Charlie and Joe Duncan.
But the financial upkeep of her children in the coming years would draw upon the finances of the estate, and Joseph Smith’s personal property wasn’t sufficient to cover the expenses for the children.
Spencer McBride: The church was also dependent on the settlement of the estate to maintain its financial liquidity. And this was complicated by some bad legal advice previously given to Joseph Smith. According to Illinois law, the trustee-in-trust of a church could hold up to forty-five acres of land. Perhaps because that law was designed for individual church congregations more than it was for a large church whose thousands of members at that time tended to move to a central location, unknown advisors convinced Joseph that the church, through him as its trustee-in-trust, could hold more property than the specified forty-five acres. The church held thousands of acres.
So some of the land in Joseph’s name was clearly part of his individual holdings. Most was clearly part of the church’s holdings.
Elizabeth Kuehn: So you get this sense of this lack of clear distinction in his personal debts and assets and those of the church. And some land he held as an individual land owner; some was held specifically as trustee for the church. It’s not clear. The lawyers that Emma is consulting in the aftermath of Joseph’s death note that this is going outside the boundaries of what is accepted for a trustee and basically urge her to try and get that land because she has claim as a widow to that land far more than, say, the church, which is extending this kind of small role of trustee to now hold thousands and thousands of acres of land, and so it’s in this land controversy that you really see Emma pitted against the Church.
Spencer McBride: So the way Joseph Smith’s estate was settled would directly affect the financial well-being of Joseph’s widow and children and the financial state of the church Joseph had organized and led as a prophet. Brigham Young wanted to make sure that Emma Smith and her children were cared for, but he also wanted to make sure that all of the property that rightfully belonged to the church remained available to the church. Emma cared about the church and her fellow Saints but also was earnest in her efforts to make sure that she and her children were taken care of. Historian Jenny Reeder reflected on the resulting tension that arose between Brigham Young and Emma Smith.
Jenny Reeder: She was so concerned for her family and how she was going to provide for them. It’s so interesting, I think, that both Emma and Brigham were dedicated 100 percent to Joseph Smith—Brigham Young, because he was protecting the church and the Quorum of the Twelve; Emma, because she was protecting her family. And it is there that we get the tension that comes between what’s going to happen to either one of these things—the church and the family.
Spencer McBride: But, as Jenny points out, there was more than financial interest involved in the actions of Brigham and Emma.
Jenny Reeder: I think even with the tensions between Brigham Young and Emma Smith, we have to notice they were both so dedicated to Joseph. They both said the exact same things on their deathbeds, Brigham in 1877 and Emma in 1879: “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.” They were both so dedicated and believed that he had come for them, and so they shared that and that was their common thread.
Spencer McBride: The estate of Joseph Smith took years to fully settle. It was complicated, and the stakes were high. We will address this subject further in a later episode of this podcast series. I will also state that all of the surviving documents associated with the estate will be published online as part of the Legal series and the Financial series of The Joseph Smith Papers.
Spencer McBride: Amid the questions of succession in the church and the disposition of property in Joseph Smith’s estate, Illinois officials tepidly approached the question of justice for the men who killed the prophet and his brother in the jail at Carthage. Jeffrey Mahas explains.
Jeffrey Mahas: Immediately after the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, people begin to think about what’s going to happen legally to the men who were involved. Thomas Ford, who met with Willard Richards that night, promised that the state would hold a trial, that the men who were responsible for this would be held accountable. And Ford was consistent with that promise. Writing to the Illinois state legislature later that year, he said that a wrong had been committed, a trial needed to be held, the honor of the state needed a trial in order for its honor to be satisfied.
However, in this public document, Ford admitted that he wasn’t that invested in a trial. He wrote, “Although I was determined from the first, for the honor of the State, that this murder should be fully inquired into; and some of the guilty brought to trial; yet, I was never anxious to proceed with the full rigor of the law.” So, Ford wants there to be a trial, there needs to be a trial, but he’s not willing to do all he can to enforce that trial.
Spencer McBride: The first step in seeking justice was identifying as many members of the mob as possible. There had been between one hundred and two hundred people in the group that attacked the jail, and Willard Richards felt that he could identify several of them.
Jeffrey Mahas: In the weeks that follow the martyrdom, you have attempts from many to identify individuals who were responsible for their deaths. You have men like William Daniels, who claims to have been a member of the mob. He comes to Nauvoo and swears an affidavit identifying many of the participants, and you have several others that are named. And ultimately, in October 1844, the circuit court convenes a grand jury, and nine men are formally indicted for the murder of Joseph Smith. Levi Williams, who is the colonel of the Hancock County militia; Jacob C. Davis, an Illinois state senator; Mark Aldrich, a prominent landowner; Thomas C. Sharp, the editor of the Warsaw Signal; William Vorhas; John Wills; William N. Grover; a man only known by the name of “Gallagher”; and a man only known by the name of “Allen.” These last two are indicted because testimony supports that they were shot by Joseph at the jail, and if they were shot by Joseph, they must have been present. But no one knows their actual identities, and so of these nine men who are indicted, four of them were never arrested or tried.
Spencer McBride: It’s important to state that in the summer of 1844, there was no doubt about who killed Joseph Smith and why they had done it. Thomas Sharp published an article in the Warsaw Signal in which he justified the actions of the mob, including his call for extralegal mob violence weeks earlier. In addition, members of the mob openly bragged about what they had done. They took pride in their crimes. In the summer of 1844, there was no question about who killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith because the members of the mob and its supporters talked openly about what they had done and why they had done it. That provides a remarkable body of primary historical sources. And in the present, professional historians and serious scholars who employ the standards of responsible scholarship reaffirm the obvious: the mob that killed Joseph and Hyrum took credit for the act. We have questions about some details of their attack, but no questions of who made the attack.
However, in the weeks and months that followed the martyrdom, identifying the assassins was one thing. Bringing them to justice was an entirely different challenge. Historian Richard E. Turley Jr. explains.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Ultimately, of the group of a hundred to two hundred people who were in the mob that murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith, some five dozen were identified by name. But when those names were presented to the grand jury that was responsible for handing down the indictments, there’s some hesitation about putting all of them in there, and it gradually, over a course of time, only nine people out of a hundred to two hundred were ultimately indicted. Of those, four left the state and only five really came to trial. So, if you just look at the numbers statistically, there’s a real problem here. You’ve got a hundred to two hundred members of the community who are responsible to the extent of having been part of the mob that committed the murders. So under concepts of murder, they all would have been responsible for it at the time they participated in the murder. So, you got a hundred, two hundred people who are responsible for the murder, at least sixty of those are identified by name. Nine, only, get indicted.
Spencer McBride: The jury trial of the five charged assassins of Joseph Smith was set for late spring 1845.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: The trial of the murderers of Joseph and Hyrum Smith is held in May of 1845. The trial was very unusual from a lot of standpoints. But probably the most unusual thing that happened was that you’ve got these people in custody who are widely known publicly to have participated in the crime. If you had asked the public at large, did they do it? They would have said, yes, they did. They could have sought a change in venue. Governor Ford already agreed that he would not oppose that if they felt that the jury that they got in Hancock County was not going to be able to provide them justice. They could have asked for a change of venue and gone to another county. Intriguingly, they didn’t want to go to another county. Why not? Because if you had a fair jury in another county that considered the evidence, they’d be found guilty. So they didn’t want to go to another county where they would be found guilty.
Spencer McBride: Latter-day Saints were reluctant to fully participate in the trial for reasons we’ll address shortly. But some Saints were selected for the jury of the accused assassins. And this led the accused assassins and their legal representation to take a very unusual action when it looked like a jury might clearly condemn them of their crimes, even in their home county.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Neither did they want to stay in Hancock County with the initial jury that was chosen because a substantial portion of those were Latter-day Saints, and they felt that as a result, there was a substantial possibility that at least a good portion of the jury would find them guilty.
So they made a very unusual move—very unusual in American jurisprudence. The five men who were on trial, who were known to have participated in the crime, they petitioned the judge and said that they didn’t think they could get a fair trial from the jury. So rather than ask for a change of venue, which had been the normal procedure, they took the very unusual step of asking the judge to disregard all of the state-sanctioned methods for choosing a jury, dismissed the jury that had already been selected, and then choose two individuals who would seat a new jury.
Spencer McBride: The judge granted the request, and the entirely new jury was seated—a jury without a single Latter-day Saint on it. We’ll talk about that in a later episode. Rick explained the immediate influence of this jury.
Richard E. Turley Jr.: Now, the judge in this particular case, he had political aspirations, and I’m sure he felt that he was between a rock and a hard place. He didn’t want appear to be favorable to the Latter-day Saints, who were increasingly unpopular in the area. At the same time, he didn’t want to do something that would be considered unpopular by people in the area, given he had political aspirations. And so he ultimately agreed to this very crazy idea of dismissing the jury and having two people select another jury, at the end of which there were very few Latter-day Saints present there. The jury was definitely composed of a group of people who, if you were intelligent from a legal standpoint, you would know would not vote in favor of conviction. So, basically they won the case with this strange move, and then everything else that happened was just show.
They did bring about some evidence, and there were arguments made on both sides, but the case was decided with the selection of the jury.
Spencer McBride: The clear bias of the court in the case made Latter-day Saints reluctant to fully participate in the trial. But, as Jeffrey Mahas explains, their reluctance was also motivated by a fear of violent reprisal from the Anti-Mormon Party.
Jeffrey Mahas: Ultimately Church leaders decide, we’re not going participate in this trial. We don’t think it’s fair, we don’t think it’s just, we don’t think you’re going convict them, and we’re not going have anything to do with it. And so you have apostle George A. Smith and stake president John Smith writing to the prosecuting attorney, who begged them to supply witnesses. These men write back and say, we’re not going participate. This is your affair. If we try to participate, the anti-Mormons are going to use it as a justification to attack us. We’re going to hold this at arm’s length and let you deal with it. One of the realities is because Latter-day Saints generally refused to participate in the trial, they had few witnesses, and ultimately all five of the men are acquitted from the charges.
Spencer McBride: We will talk more about the trial of the accused assassins of Joseph Smith in a later episode. But the trial contributed to the fraught aftermath of the martyrdom, a time in which church leaders had to find solutions to pressing problems related to the future of the church, the management of Joseph Smith’s estate, and the formulation of plans for the Saints to leave Nauvoo—and the United States—altogether.
Still, amid all of this, the Saints preserved the memory of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in their community. They took time to memorialize the two men and to discover spiritual meaning and significance in their deaths.
Spencer McBride: To the Latter-day Saints, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were martyrs. The Saints in 1844 understood as well as anyone that there were economic, political, and legal elements in the hostility that culminated in the assassination of two of their religious leaders. But they also recognized the religious prejudice that colored it all. They recognized the religious bigotry stated in the mob’s published criticisms of the Saints and their public explanations for the assassination. Joseph and Hyrum went to Carthage knowing full well that they were likely to die there but willing to face their accusers to explain their actions and to stand firm in their religious faith. To the Latter-day Saints, Joseph and Hyrum Smith are martyrs.
The Saints’ reverence for the two men is evident in the very first efforts the community made to memorialize them. But so was the anger and the sadness that they felt. Hillary Kirkham, a curator on the church’s historic sites team, explains.
Hillary Kirkham: In terms of public memorialization and meaning making, some of the earliest accounts of that we have is through poetry. So, Eliza R. Snow in Times and Seasons—the July 1 edition, she published the poem “The Assassination of Generals Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith.”
Spencer McBride: The poem compared Joseph and Hyrum Smith to many of the prophets and prominent figures in the Bible and invoked well-known prophesies from the New Testament. But the poem also condemned the members of the mob who carried out the murders and the public officials who Eliza R. Snow believed had facilitated the crime.
Hillary Kirkham: Eliza is trying to make sense of these deaths, even though it’s only been, honestly, a few days after their deaths. But what’s interesting as well is that while there’s this meaning-making structure, unbridled emotion is just coming through in this. This sorrow and just trying to make sense of this just is throughout, and you can see this in the way she describes the perpetrators of this act. She calls them “wretched murderers,” “fierce for human blood,” “men with hatred,” “a brutish clan.”
Spencer McBride: Eliza R. Snow’s poem was one of the earliest poetic tributes to Joseph and Hyrum Smith and one of the first efforts to publicly assign meaning to their tragic deaths. But others would soon follow.
Hillary Kirkham: It’s followed pretty shortly after by W. W. Phelps’s poem “Joseph Smith,” which is published also in the Times and Season on August 1, which is turned into the well-known hymn “Praise to the Man.” And he similarly tries to make the death sacred by comparing Joseph to early religious figures. He likewise condemns the state of Illinois.
We get that famous line of “Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins, / stain Illinois, while the earth lauds his fame.” But Phelps’s memorialization takes a different tack than Eliza’s, which he speaks much more to Joseph’s legacy in a way that’s more reminiscent of heroic figures. And so he calls Smith a “hero” explicitly, but he also uses lines as “hail to the Prophet,” “praise to his memory,” “great is his glory.” And so you see these similarities but also differences in these very early memorialization and meaning making, that there’s a sanctification, there’s this ties to early biblical murders, there’s divine retribution, but you also see these slight differences in frameworks of how they’re trying to make sense of it, as you see with Phelps more focusing on the heroic elegy and Eliza focusing a bit more on the sorrowful mourning.
Spencer McBride: The church also released an official announcement of the martyrdom in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. This statement has traditionally been attributed to John Taylor. However, recent research has revealed uncertainty about its authorship. It could have been Taylor, but there are others who may have written it. Nevertheless, the statement declares boldly that “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”
Even as the Saints worked to understand the place of the martyrdom in the history and future of the church, they were faced with peril. Many of their committed critics believed that by killing Joseph Smith, they would simultaneously bring about an end to the church that he led. But that wasn’t the case. So tensions between the Saints and their determined enemies endured.
Eventually, the Saints finished constructing the Nauvoo temple. They worshipped in that sacred building for several weeks. Then a majority of them loaded up wagons and migrated west to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Hyrum Smith’s widow, Mary Fielding Smith, and their children made the trip west. However, Emma Smith and her children remained in Nauvoo. There were many reasons for this. Tension with Brigham Young over Joseph’s estate and over the practice of plural marriage was part of it. But so was a desire for stability after a lifetime of travail and uprooting her family. It seems that there was also a desire to remain close to the place where her husband was buried. But in both places—Nauvoo and the Great Salt Lake Valley—and everywhere the Saints would move and everywhere their missionaries would preach, the memory of Joseph and Hyrum Smith would live on.
Spencer McBride: Long after the majority of the Saints left Nauvoo for the Great Salt Lake Valley, men and women who knew Joseph and Hyrum would stand in church meetings and testify of their prophetic missions. They would produce poems, songs, and other artistic tributes to the brothers. The hymn written by William W. Phelps while he was still in Nauvoo was eventually included in the church’s hymnbook. That song, titled “Praise to the Man,” declared that “millions shall know ‘brother Joseph’ again.”
But the song also declared, “Long shall their blood [that] was shed by assassins, / stain Illinois, while the earth lauds their fame.” This line pointed to the fact that hard feelings toward the people who killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith did not quickly fade. And the same could be said for the disdain many Saints felt for the site of the martyrdom, Carthage jail. For years, the jail was a place associated with tremendous trauma for the church and its members. One of Hyrum’s sons, John Smith, reportedly declared that “if some one would put dynamite under it and blow it to atoms it would suit him.” Perhaps the destruction of the site of the martyrdom could ease the pain church members felt over that event.
This all begs the question though: how did the jail become a site that more than a hundred thousand people visit each year? And what is the role of Carthage jail to the enduring efforts of the church to preserve and share the history of the man it reveres as a prophet? We’ll answer those questions 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.