JS, Letter, , Clay Co., MO, to , , Adams Co., IL, 4 Apr. 1839; handwriting and signature (now missing) of JS; three pages; JS Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. Includes address, wafer seal, and redactions.
Bifolium measuring 12¾ × 7½ inches (32 × 19 cm). The letter was addressed, trifolded twice in letter style, sealed with an adhesive wafer, and postmarked. At some point, the leaves became separated and the wafer became detached. Later, JS’s signature was cut out, resulting in loss of text on the recto of the second leaf. The top of the recto of the second leaf was inscribed in graphite with “Letter of Joseph Smith | Prophet of the | Mormons”, likely by a document dealer. The document has undergone conservation.
The letter was presumably in ’s possession for some time after she received it. Eventually it came into the possession of Oliver R. Barrett, a noted collector of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, who owned the document at the time of his death in 1950. The same year, Parke-Bernet Galleries of New York City sold the letter and other selected manuscripts from Barrett’s collection. The letter was later acquired by William Robertson Coe, who donated it with his extensive Americana collection to Yale University in the early 1950s.
Withington, Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Collection of Western Americana, 244.
Withington, Mary C., comp. A Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Collection of Western Americana Founded by William Robertson Coe, Yale University Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952.
On 4 April 1839, JS wrote to his wife Emma Smith in , Illinois, as he contemplated his imminent departure from the in , Clay County, Missouri, after months of incarceration. On 31 March, the prisoners’ lawyer, Peter Burnett, had visited them in the jail and likely informed them that guards would soon transport the men from Liberty to in , Missouri, where a grand jury hearing for the eleventh judicial circuit was scheduled to begin on 8 April. Burnett may have also told the prisoners that they would have the right to petition the court to change the venue of their upcoming trial to another county.
JS summarized these updates in this letter to his . He also expressed his profound desire to be reunited with her and their children, and he offered her counsel regarding their family. As with previous letters JS penned to Emma from the jail, he wrote this 4 April letter himself rather than dictating it to a scribe. Instead of sending the missive to with a courier, as he apparently did with earlier letters to his wife, JS opted to send it through the postal service on 5 April 1839. It probably arrived sometime before 11 April.
Hyrum Smith, Diary, 31 Mar. 1839; Ruling, Richmond, MO, Nov. 1838, p. , State of Missouri v. JS et al. for Treason and Other Crimes (Mo. 5th Jud. Cir. 1838), in State of Missouri, “Evidence”; An Act to Prescribe the Times of Holding Courts in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit [12 Feb. 1839], Laws of the State of Missouri , p. 36.
Smith, Hyrum. Diary, Mar.–Apr. 1839, Oct. 1840. CHL. MS 2945.
Laws of the State of Missouri, Passed at the First Session of the Tenth General Assembly, Begun and Held at the City of Jefferson, on Monday, the Nineteenth Day of November, in the Year of Our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty-Eight. Jefferson, MO: Calvin Gunn, 1838.
On 4 April 1839, Hyrum Smith named in his journal six Missouri counties—Audrain, Monroe, Shelby, Clark, Lewis, and Marion—presumably as potential destinations for the venue change. (Hyrum Smith, Diary, 4 Apr. 1839.)
Smith, Hyrum. Diary, Mar.–Apr. 1839, Oct. 1840. CHL. MS 2945.
This assumption is based on the speed that contemporary correspondence was delivered through the mail. Hyrum Smith sent a letter, postmarked 5 April 1839, from the Liberty post office to his wife, Mary Fielding Smith, in Quincy. In her 11 April 1839 letter to her husband, she added an undated postscript acknowledging receipt of his missive. (Hyrum Smith, Liberty, MO, to Mary Fielding Smith, Quincy, IL, 23 Mar. 1839; Mary Fielding Smith, [Quincy, IL], to Hyrum Smith, 11 Apr. 1839, Mary Fielding Smith, Collection, CHL.)
Smith, Mary Fielding. Collection, ca. 1832–1848. CHL. MS 2779.
, Clay. Co., Mo, April, 4th, 1839.
Dear— and affectionate— .
Thursday night I sat down just as the sun is going down, as we peak throu the greats of this lonesome prision, to write to you, that I may make known to you my situation. It is I believe <it is>now about five months and six days since I have bean under the grimace, of a guard night and day, and within the walls grates and screeking of iron dors, of a lonesome dark durty prison. With immotions known only to God, do I write this letter, the contemplations, of the mind under these circumstances, defies the pen, or tounge, or Angels, to discribe, or paint, to the human mind being, who never experiance what I we experience. This night we expect; is the last night we shall try our weary joints and bones on our dirty straw couches in these walls, let our case hereafter be as it may, as we expect to start tomorrow, for — for our trial, We shall have a change of Venue to some of the lower counties, for the final trial, as our Lawyers generaly say, if law can be adheared to in , as it grants us the privaliege. But you are awere of what we may expect, of beings that <have> conducted as they have. We lean of on the arm of Jehovah, and none else, for our deliverance, and if he dont do it, it will not be done, you may be assured, for there is great thirsting for our blood, in this ; not because we are guilty of any thing: but because they say these men <will> give an account of what has been done to them; the wrongs they have sustain if it is known, it <will> ruin the .So the mob party have sworn, to have our lives, at all hasards, but God will disappoint them we trust, We shall be moved from this at any rate and we are glad of it let what will become of <us> we cannot <get> into a worse hole [p. ]
JS and his fellow prisoners were incarcerated in the Clay Countyjail on 1 December 1838. JS was arrested on 31 October 1838, which may be the date he was using as the basis for his calculation of “five months and six days.” (Letter to Emma Smith, 1 Dec. 1838.)
The prisoners began seeking a change of venue as early as January 1839. On 24 January, the prisoners argued in a memorial to the Missouri legislature that they could not receive a fair trial within the fifth judicial circuit. Their petition led to a revised Missouri statute that permitted changes of venue between circuits. Ultimately, the prisoners received a change of venue on different grounds: the legislature reorganized the state’s second and fifth judicial circuits, with Daviess County becoming part of the newly created eleventh circuit. The judge appointed to the eleventh circuit was Thomas Burch, who previously served as the prosecuting attorney in the prisoners’ case. In cases in which the judge previously served as counsel, Missouri law mandated a change of venue. (Historical Introduction to Memorial to the Missouri Legislature, 24 Jan. 1839; Historical Introduction to Promissory Note to John Brassfield, 16 Apr. 1839.)