Spencer McBride: A mob at Carthage jail ended the lives of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, but it did not stop the work in which they were engaged. And the work to memorialize Joseph and Hyrum continues. As William W. Phelps put it in a verse of his song that paid tribute to the prophet, “Millions shall know ‘brother Joseph’ again.”
Today, millions of men, women, and children around the world have, in fact, learned about the life and ministries of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. The resources available for such learning are more numerous, detailed, and accessible than ever before.
In this episode, we explore the enduring efforts to preserve and share the history of Joseph Smith. We talk about historic documents and historic sites.
And we will start by discussing how the place of Carthage jail, the site of the violent murder of the prophet and his brother, evolved in the minds and memories of Latter-day Saints in the decades that followed that tragic event. How did a jail associated with such profound trauma become a place that people love to visit? What do visitors learn there—what do they feel there—that makes a trip to Carthage jail so special in the present day?
This is Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer McBride: Episode 6, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again.”
Spencer McBride: While Latter-day Saints in the 1840s thought of Carthage jail as a site of trauma, for the other residents of Hancock County, Illinois, it remained the county’s jail.
Emily Utt: So, the jail at Hancock County was in use through the mid 1860s.
Spencer McBride: That’s Emily Utt, a curator with the church’s historic sites team. She explained to me the history of the jail leading up to the eventual purchase of the building by the church.
Emily Utt: By the mid 1860s, it needed a lot of repair. Things were kind of falling apart, and the county builds a new jail, and this little jail/house is sold at auction to a man named Bryant Peterson. And Bryant Peterson promptly writes a letter to Brigham Young asking him if he wants the front door as a relic of his leaders that had been killed in the jail.
Spencer McBride: Brigham Young declined to purchase this piece of the jail, and Bryant Peterson proceeded to remodel the building into a private home. But owners of the building would make a couple more offers to church leaders to purchase it.
Emily Utt: The church had been offered the jail a couple of times, starting in the 1860s—you know, we’ll give you pieces of it. In the 1880s, the Church was offered the jail, and it was declined, I think probably because we weren’t ready to remember yet.
Spencer McBride: Hillary Kirkham, a member of the church’s historic sites team, offered several examples about how difficult it was for church members to grapple with the feelings they associated with the jail.
Hillary Kirkham: Hyrum’s brother-in-law Joseph Fielding referred to Carthage as a “cursed memory.” British artist Frederick Piercy visited in 1853 and made a drawing. But in his journal about it, he called the jail “hateful.” Missionary David Stuart visited in 1876, and he wrote that “a chill of horror past over me . . . while I remained in [a] blood stained place.”
Spencer McBride: Yet today church members visit the jail and report having very positive spiritual experiences, albeit in a very somber setting.
Hillary Kirkham: And so the question becomes, what happened? How did this meaning-making change? And part of it is just time. Traumatic places and traumatic events take time to fit into a meaningful, coherent narrative. They’re traumatic exactly because they’re outside of a meaningful structure.
Spencer McBride: Eventually, enough time had passed that the church and its members were ready to begin to approach Carthage jail from a different angle—to still recognize the trauma that occurred therein, but also to speak of how it fit in what they saw as the larger mission and ministry of Joseph Smith.
Emily Utt: In the early twentieth century, there is this kind of growing interest in memorializing the early events of the Restoration.
And so, the jail is purchased in 1903, at about the same time that the church is purchasing the Joseph Smith farm and the Hill Cumorah as well. So you have these kind of bookends of these early events. And then we’re also purchasing the Joseph Smith birthplace fairly early in that time period. So, it’s interesting that during the presidency of Joseph F. Smith, we are beginning this process of purchasing church properties.
Spencer McBride: Joseph F. Smith was the son of Hyrum Smith and the sixth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Emily Utt: Joseph F. Smith was really hesitant to buy that jail. He knew it is the place where his father had been killed, and it’s a place of trauma for him; he doesn’t want to visit.
Spencer McBride: However, in 1906, Joseph F. Smith traveled through Illinois on his way back to Utah from a ministering trip in Europe. Apostle Preston Nibley recalled that when the group was in Nauvoo, Joseph F. Smith pointed out the place in the street where he, as a five-year old boy, had bid farewell to his father, Hyrum. According to Preston Nibley, Joseph F. Smith said, “This is the exact spot where I stood when the brethren came riding up on their way to Carthage. Without getting off his horse father leaned over in his saddle and picked me up off the ground. He kissed me good-bye and put me down again and I saw him ride away.”
When the traveling party was in Carthage and toured the old Carthage jail, Joseph F. Smith had a strong emotional response to the place. They entered the room where Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been killed. There was still a blood stain on the floor back then, blood believed to have been from Hyrum Smith. Joseph F. Smith sat on the bed, covered his face with his hands, and wept convulsively. He then said to Charles Nibley, “Charlie, take me out of here.”
For years after the church purchased the property, the jail continued to function as a home until, in the 1930s, church leaders were ready to begin the work of restoring the building. So I asked Emily who undertook that work.
Emily Utt: The people that were asked to restore the Carthage jail were a combination of church members as well as the state of Illinois. So, Illinois got involved in the restoration of the jail. And they did a massive study of what they thought was original and what they thought wasn’t, and they removed a bunch of additions because it had been turned into a house. They had turned some windows into doors and opened up windows where they hadn’t been, and then they had a bunch of structures attached to it, so they removed a lot of those.
They tried to figure out what parts of the interior were still old—what parts of the plaster were from the 1840s, which windows, which bits of baseboard. And a man named Joseph McRae, who was a member of the church, was in charge of the restoration and then became the jail’s caretaker for about thirty years. And he would give people tours and was also in charge of deciding what was original and what wasn’t.
Spencer McBride: Some of these early restoration efforts, while well-intended, were not conducted according to the professional standards of modern historical restoration.
Emily Utt: So, that makes our job a little bit harder.
Spencer McBride: Later in the twentieth century, the church and its historic sites team took a more carefully studied approach to the restoration of the jail. But by then much of the jail had already changed due to their predecessor’s earnest desire to the restore the space.
Emily Utt: We’ve been touching it ever since. So, in the 1960s, there was some work done on the jail. The 1980s, there was another restoration done at the jail by the early church historic sites employees, and they’re faced with the building that’s been lived in and messed with for 150 years, and trying to uncover all of those details.
Restoration work is still ongoing at the jail; we’re still figuring things out. We had to do some structural upgrades of the roof just a few years ago. Soils in that part of Illinois are not great for building structures on, and so the ground is constantly moving and shifting, and we get cracks sometimes we have to deal with, and so we’re constantly still in the jail, figuring out what’s going on.
Spencer McBride: This is an important point for several reasons. The church’s historic sites team has worked hard to restore the jail. This means that when men, women, and children visit Carthage jail, they will experience a site that looks very similar to how it looked in June 1844. That careful attention to detail leads to a much more powerful visitor experience.
Yet historic sites curators will be the first to tell you that there are limitations to the work of restoring a building. The jail is not exactly as it was in June 1844. This means that those who study the physical space will inevitably run up against questions that cannot be answered. For instance, trying to study an imperfectly restored jail as a crime scene more than 150 years after the crime occurred will always run up against questions with no clear answers. We know who killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith and why they did it, but some of the details of the mob’s attacks—such as the number of shots fired, the trajectory of the bullets, and the precise location of men in the building—the imperfectly restored site may never allow us to know those details with certainty. It is not a perfectly preserved crime scene, no matter how much some researchers wish that it was.
In such instances, humility is required—a willingness to say I don’t know, and we may never know the details we are trying to figure out. And that humility is important because it is easy to adopt theories of what happened in this space that cannot be proven and, sometimes, are contrary to established facts. The humility required of all who engage in the study of history includes asking what we know and how we know it, and what we don’t know and why we don’t know it. As Emily Utt explains, it requires us to be okay with not knowing everything about the past. It means there are limits to what we can learn about the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith from the restored scene of that crime.
Emily Utt: I try to live in a land of healthy skepticism that I can’t know everything. No matter how much research I do, I cannot know exactly what type of guns were used at that jail. We have some good ideas, but I can’t ever precisely know. And I don’t know precisely how much powder that one person put in that one gun that day. And so the caution that I try to give people is, it’s okay that we don’t know everything. And the more absolute we are in our ideas and opinions about what happened that day, the more cautious I am in accepting them. I think we have to let some of the gray be the answer.
Spencer McBride: There is the obvious hope of those who work to restore and preserve Carthage jail that visitors will get a better sense of the physical location and context of the events that took place there, that they will feel a deeper connection with history because of their visit. But there can be more to the visitor experience than this. In concluding my interviews with Emily and Hillary, I asked them each what they, as members of the church’s historic sites team, hope that visitors to Carthage jail get out of their experience at that site. Hillary shared this perspective.
Hillary Kirkham: I hope that visitors understand that their visit contributes to the memorialization of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Visitors help keep their memory alive, and they keep the memory of the event alive. And more than this, they help create the meaning of this historic site. Memory making is meaning making, and it’s a fluid, changing process. When you go, it is a personal experience, and that sharing your experience or your thoughts or your impressions with others—either the people you’re visiting with or the public through social media or other means—is part of what keeps the memory and meaning alive for this site.
The death of Joseph and Hyrum was a truly, deeply traumatic event for the Saints, and it wasn’t just because he was their leader. It’s really important to contextualize this trauma and to address why it was so traumatic for the Saints that Joseph died and also how members and the institutional church handled the aftermath of the event. That’s a really important part of church history and our identity in this story that can be investigated and thought about more deeply.
Spencer McBride: Emily shared a perspective that relates to how people can look to western Illinois in June 1844 for lessons on how to handle conflict and tragedy in our own time.
Emily Utt: Every time I go to Carthage, I see people standing in the same places, looking through that door, standing at the well. There’s a very specific way that people go and remember the events of those days and remember and honor Joseph. So, I think many people go just for that chance to feel like, I am honoring them.
What I hope happens at Carthage is it becomes a place of reconciliation and a place where we can have hard conversations. What I find most remarkable about the events of that week is that the Latter-day Saints did not respond with violence in kind, that they went into mourning. And I think people in that community expected violence. And so, for me, I like to ask the question, when terrible things happen, what is my response? Do I respond with as equally a terrible reaction, or do I take those terrible things as an opportunity to change my own perception?
I also hope that Carthage becomes a place where we can have a hard conversation about how do I get along with people that think very differently than me? How do we live in communities where we can share a space and disagree with each other? Because no amount of personal disagreement should ever lead to the kind of violence that happened at Carthage jail.
Spencer McBride: I think that what Hillary Kirkham and Emily Utt said about the restoration of Carthage jail raises questions about the larger efforts of the church to preserve its history. I asked Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department, to reflect on why the church works so hard to preserve so many of the places that figured prominently in its early history.
Matt Grow: For us, these sites are sacred. That’s the fundamental reason. They were made sacred because at those sites, God restored the Church of Jesus Christ to the earth with the truths and with the authority of priesthood power.
They were also made sacred because at the sites, Joseph Smith and others early Latter-day Saints gave us examples of devotion and faithfulness and sacrifice for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to build a community of Saints, a Zion. So we preserve these sites because they witness to the sacred events that happened there, and because at them, we can feel the Spirit testify that the events were real—they happened. And as a result, that testifying spiritual power and the example of the early Saints gives us strength in our own lives.
Spencer McBride: Elder Kyle S. McKay, a general authority seventy in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church historian and recorder, added his perspective on the church’s historic sites, particularly those connected to the life of Joseph Smith. Why do these sites—why does this history—matter to the faith church members have in Jesus Christ?
Elder Kyle S. McKay: If Joseph is who we say he is—and that is a prophet, seer, and revelator, chosen to usher in the final and greatest dispensation, the dispensation of the fulness of times, restoring to the earth a fulness of the gospel, the restoration and gathering together all things in one in Christ, the revelator of things that had been withheld from every other dispensation. If he is that—and we testify that he is—then we want to collect and remember and understand everything we can about him, not just the things that were part of his ministry after his call.
And so we invade his privacy just a little bit. We go back to Vermont and even into his ancestry. We talk about his birthplace and his birth. We talk about and learn about experiences in his youth, including an infected leg.
And we learn about the First Vision, which to him was personal. All of these things we learn about Joseph because we want to know more about this man who stands at the head of this final dispensation.
Spencer McBride: So, to Latter-day Saints, their belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God who restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to humankind makes the places associated with Joseph Smith’s life particularly significant. But the church also has interest in preserving and sharing Joseph Smith’s surviving documents, publishing them all through the Joseph Smith Papers Project. This project’s goals include making these historical documents accessible to scholars and to anyone else who is interested in them. The project’s goals also include transparency. Matt Grow explains.
Matt Grow: For Latter-day Saints, history matters deeply. History is intertwined with our doctrine. History provides enhanced understanding of our scriptures and our beliefs. So, the first reason that it was important to the church to publish Joseph’s papers was so that we could understand better the history of the early church, Joseph’s history.
That’s paid off in lots of ways. As an example, many section headings in the Doctrine and Covenants in our scriptures were changed in 2013 as a result of this new research.
In addition, when the angel Moroni first appeared to Joseph Smith, he told him his name “should be had for good and evil among all nations.” Joseph has attracted attention from supporters and detractors from the moment he began telling his story, and the debate hasn’t stopped in the two centuries since his death. His story has been told repeatedly and will continue to be told.
What the Joseph Smith Papers does is allow Joseph’s voice, his perspective, to shape the way that his story is understood. In the past, biographies could be written about Joseph Smith without really engaging with the records that he left behind or not using very much of those actual documents. But now no one can write on Joseph Smith or the early Latter-day Saints, whose names are also had for good and evil, without hearing their voices, without grappling with the documents that they left behind.
So, from that perspective, the Joseph Smith Papers is a statement by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that we believe that Joseph’s story stands up to scrutiny, that it deserves to be heard.
Spencer McBride: Elder McKay also shared some thoughts on the project. He began by sharing his thoughts on ways that the project ensures transparency.
Elder Kyle S. McKay: Well, first and foremost, by publishing everything—everything that we know exists. And then beyond that, especially in the electronic version, we create links and additional information, so it creates an added transparency, if you will, and added context. I think that’s part of the transparency is to offer the context. And it makes for quite a bit of repetition in those papers because the context for every document, especially because most of them are chronological, you get a lot of the same thing to help you understand the context. So, context is a big part of this. And then one thing we do with all of our volumes is invite the readers. If you have something that we’re not aware of, please tell us; we’ll add it. We’re not running from anything. We’re inviting everything.
Spencer McBride: The documents featured in the Joseph Smith Papers are introduced and annotated with scholars as their intended audience. So we design the presentation of the print volumes and the accompanying website with a scholarly audience in mind.
I asked Elder McKay how his experience reading several volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers in his role as church historian has affected his understanding of Joseph Smith.
Elder Kyle S. McKay: This project, these papers, have added to my testimony understanding and compassion and empathy. I’ve had experiences that helped me relate to Joseph, knowing that he has had similar experiences. Becoming acquainted with his weaknesses and mistakes has, in a way, been a relief to me. For some people, it has become a stumbling block. To me, it has served as somewhat of a relief because if God can do what He did through Joseph Smith, then maybe he can work some small good through me.
I’ll just use an example. It was in the Nauvoo years, when he and Walter Bagby have this altercation.
Spencer McBride: The altercation Elder McKay mentioned involved a disagreement between Joseph Smith and tax collector Walter Bagby. The two men disagreed on whether the taxes on certain city lots had been paid, and their disagreement turned physical. Bagby picked up a stone to throw at Joseph Smith, but before he could do so, Joseph grabbed hold of Bagby and struck him two or three times.
Elder Kyle S. McKay: It was wrong. And Joseph knew it in the moment, and so what does he do? He immediately goes to the alderman, confesses what he’s done, and asks what his penalty is. That to me is indicative of a pattern that was started at least as early as the First Vision: I recognize that I’ve done wrong or that I do wrong, and I need forgiveness, I need to repent. So, he goes to the grove to ask for forgiveness.
Shortly after the First Vision, what does he do—“shortly” meaning three years after—he kneels by his bedside, again recognizing a need for forgiveness, and asks for it, and it summons forth Moroni. He’s constantly repenting and seeking forgiveness.
He gave others the same benefit, and maybe this is the thing that struck me most as I read some of these volumes, is how quick Joseph was to forgive and restore complete trust. With others, he gave trust, they betrayed it, they repented, he forgave, and restored them to that same level of trust.
Parley P. Pratt comes to mind, and W. W. Phelps comes to mind. He lived what he taught the brethren on one occasion, that he encouraged them to ever keep in practice the principle of mercy, and be willing to forgive a person on the first intimations of repentance. And then he taught that if you’ll forgive people when they ask or even before they ask, maybe the Father would be equally as merciful unto you, and I’m paraphrasing him there, but that’s in essence, his sermon.
Spencer McBride: As a historian immersed in Joseph Smith’s surviving records, I also see this pattern of Joseph Smith seeking forgiveness when he had erred. Many of Joseph Smith’s imperfections are on full display in the documents that he left behind. But so is his faith, so is his sincerity in the prophetic claims he made, and so is his commitment while he lived to preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Near the end of our interview, Elder McKay reflected on a revelation to Oliver Cowdery that appears in section 6 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph Smith dictated the revelation early in his ministry, in 1829. It relates to Elder McKay’s reflection on the divine calling and mission of prophets despite their individual imperfections.
Elder Kyle S. McKay: There’s this that comes out of the Doctrine and Covenants to Oliver, and it comes from Joseph, but it’s the Lord speaking to Oliver. And this has become my motto as well: “Stand by my servant Joseph, faithfully, in whatsoever difficult circumstances he may be for the word’s sake. Admonish him in his faults, and also receive admonition of him.”
Now, here’s the Lord speaking to Oliver, but remember Joseph’s right there, and I almost envision, in a light moment, Joseph saying, hey, I can hear everything you guys are saying. You’re sitting here saying that I’ve got faults and I’m making them. Well, the Lord knew that; Oliver knew that. And yet the commandment was stand by him, in whatsoever difficult circumstances he may be “for the word’s sake.” And that phrase “for the word’s sake,” I think applies to both what Joseph is going to go through “for the word’s sake,” but also I think it applies to Oliver and to me and to you, that we stand by God’s servant Joseph “for the word’s sake,” not just for Joseph’s sake. But you stand by him notwithstanding his faults. You can acknowledge and admonish, but stand by him, because this is My deal, this is My word and My work.
Spencer McBride: For me, this topic of how we think and talk about the historical legacy of Joseph and Hyrum Smith—of how we talk about the tragic ends to their lives—it’s an important one. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the martyrdom remains a significant historical moment in the history of the church and to their own spiritual development. To more fully understand this significance, I spoke with M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Ballard is a descendent of Hyrum Smith, and you will hear our conversation 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.