Skip to main content

The Death Of The Prophet

July 2024
28min read

The Mormons grow in numbers, but persecution makes them wanderers. Then a burst of violence results in


On April 6, 1830, six poor but enthusiastic young men organized the Church of Christ, later named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The ceremony, or organization, was held at the farm of Peter Whitmer in the town of Fayette, Seneca County, New York. The members immediately began the distribution through sale of the newly published Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith, their leader, claimed to have Jound and translated.

The Mormons, as they came to be called, proclaimed themselves “a peculiar people” and made it quite evident that their church differed from other sects in the vicinity. They insisted that the Book of Mormon be looked upon as an addition to the Holy Scripture published in the Bible. This their neighbors regarded as blasphemous. As a result Joseph Smith and his followers were so persecuted that they migrated to Kirtland, Ohio. It was soon obvious (since almost immediately they sent out missionaries to foreign lands) that not only in America but in England and all Scandinavian countries many people were eager to accept their new doctrine. A steady stream of converts began to join them.

From Kirtland, where they built their first temple, circumstances later forced them to move again westward to the area near Independence, Missouri. In 1838-39 feeling against the approximately ten thousand Mormons was so strong that they were driven from Missouri into Illinois. Here they stopped at a Mississippi River town called Commerce. They changed its name to Nauvoo, and soon thereafter, due to constant growth of the Mormon population, it became the state’s largest city. This enabled Joseph Smith to form, for the protection of the Mormons from further persecution, the Nauvoo Legion, a unit of the Illinois militia, with guns supplied by the state and Joseph Smith as self-appointed lieutenant general.



A sound of talk rose from the east bank of the Mississippi River at Nauvoo on the morning of June 18, 1844. Standing “at ease,” the Legion of Nauvoo, fifteen hundred armed and uniformed men, faced the uncompleted wall of a building across the muddy road fromjoseph Smith’s large new Mansion House. Crowded close behind them, about ten thousand townspeople, men, women, and children, chatted eagerly. Suddenly, sharp commands stiffened the Legion to attention, and silence fell. Trumpets sounded. There was an uneasy shifting as all eyes were fixed on the door of the Mansion House. It opened and six white-uniformed guards marched briskly from it. Behind them strode their tall Lieutenant General, preceding six more of the guards. Scattered shouts came from the crowd—then long, loud cheering.

From spurs glittering on his shiny black boots to his hat’s high crown (gilt stars tossed there among black ostrich plumes), the General was resplendent. Below epaulets on the shoulders of his self-designed blue general’s jacket, rows of brass buttons marched to his figured belt, where hung the scabbard of his sword. None of the men about him, not even Porter Rockwell—he of the long curls and burly body—drew the crowd’s attention away from the General. A head taller than any of the men in the white circle of his guards, he was the dark champion. The crowd roared its applause as he marched about inspecting his Legion.


It was two o’clock that afternoon before tall young General Smith, Prophet of the Mormons, mayor of the largest city in Illinois, and candidate for the Presidency of the United States, climbed with agility to the top of the unfinished wall. Though his mind was troubled, he resolutely began the speech he already knew might be the last he would ever make to his people. From the towns of Warsaw and Carthage, from the nearby settlements of Ramus, Morley, and Fountain Green, had come riders to report that anti-Mormon mobs were forming. There was already talk of an invasion of Nauvoo that would pit militia companies of the surrounding country-side against the militia in the Legion. During that day and the week that followed, it would seem that only Joseph Smith fully realized the imminence of civil war. Only he was conscious of the deadly intent of his enemies; only he felt the inevitability of tragic consequences.

As the General faced his audience, he was aware that his calling out of the Legion had caused fear and bitterness among non-Mormons in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. He was still under indictment in Missouri, and he was sure from his recent experiences that the “Pukes” (scornful nickname for Missourians) would not give up trying to extradite, kidnap, or kill him. He knew his order for the destruction of the presses of the Nauvoo Expositor , a journal published by rebellious Mormon apostates, had already caused charges of violation of the freedom of the press. He also knew that the paper had justifiably accused him not only of the secret practice of polygamy (of which, according to his confidential report to his closest friends, God’s approval had for years been revealed to him) but of urging the Mormon leaders to practice it. His was a desperate situation, but he met it with his usual romantic courage. Always the dramatist, he stood on the unfinished wall and defied his foes with sounding rhetoric and melodramatic gesture.

His speech began simply with a claim of the right of all Mormons to live under the protection of those who threatened them and to receive “the privileges guaranteed by our state and national constitutions.”

“We have turned the barren, bleak prairies and swamps of this state into beautiful towns, farms, and cities,” he said, and he shouted a few moments later, “I call God, angels, and all men to witness that we are innocent of the charges.…All mob-men, priests, thieves, and bogus makers [counterfeiters], apostates and adulterers, who combine to destroy this people, now raise the hue and cry throughout the state that we resist the law, in order to raise a pretext for calling together thousands more of infuriated mob-men to murder, destroy, plunder, and ravish the innocent.”

The volume and intensity of Joseph’s voice steadily increased in his next few sentences. After these he paused, and there was deep silence. Then came the deep-voiced utterance of his mighty question; “Will you all stand by me to the death, and sustain at the peril of your lives, the laws of our country, and the liberties and privileges which our fathers have transmitted unto us, sealed with their sacred blood?”

From the men of the Nauvoo Legion and the thousands behind them came a thundering “Aye!”

“It is well,” said the Prophet quietly. “If you had not done so, I would have gone out there [he pointed to the west] and raised up a mightier people.”

Then he resumed raising his audience to high excitement: “I call upon all men from Maine to the Rocky Mountains and from Mexico to British America whose hearts thrill with horror to behold the rights of free men trampled under foot.…Come, all ye lovers of liberty, break the oppressor’s rod, loose the iron grasp of mobocracy.” From the scabbard at his side, the General snatched a glittering blade and raised it above his head.

“I call God and angels to witness that I have unsheathed my sword with a firm and unalterable determination that this people shall have their legal rights…or my blood shall be spilt upon the ground like water, and my body consigned to the silent tomb…I would welcome death rather than submit to this oppression; and it would be sweet, oh sweet, to rest in the grave rather than to submit.”

For an hour more Joseph stirred the emotions of his people. And in the last minute of his appeal, he transformed himself from soldier in uniform to prophet of the Lord: “God has tried you. You are a good people; therefore I love you with all my heart. Greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friends.…I am willing to sacrifice my life for your preservation.…

“May the Lord God of Israel bless you for ever and ever. I say it in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth and in the authority of the Holy Priesthood he has conferred upon me.”

As the Prophet-General-Mayor left his makeshift platform, it was obvious to his prominent associates that he had made the crowning effort of his life. Before the Legion of Nauvoo, the largest military unit in the frontier states, he had defied the infuriated mobs still gathering in the river towns on both sides of the Mississippi. He had tried to make it clear that he regarded the publishers of the Expositor as criminals disturbing the peace, as inciters to violence, and therefore not entitled to federal guarantees of freedom of the press. But he had ignored the fact that he and the other Mormon leaders had for some time been practicing polygamy. Had he chosen to admit this, the bitterness of the anti-Mormons in the area would unquestionably have brought about an invasion of Nauvoo and civil war.

It is impossible to know how many of Joseph’s wives heard his ringing speech that Tuesday afternoon. It would be equally impossible to state definitely how many of the thirty or more women with whom he had gone through marriage ceremonies were “spiritual” wives—wedded to him “for eternity”—and hence not sharers of his bed. It is certain, however, that among his admiring hearers were several women whom he had married “for time” and with whom he had experienced connubial joys.

Perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most widely known of these was pretty, tiny, blond Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, of whom Joseph had heard much in the days of his upstate-New York treasure-digging before he had married his first wife, Emma Hale. Lucinda’s first husband had been the William Morgan who had threatened to reveal secrets of the Masons and had been kidnapped and murdered by fanatic members ofthat fraternity. One of the first of the Prophet’s plural wives, Lucinda had, for the seven years since she was thirty, been married to a Mason—George Washington Harris. It was then, living at the Harris home in Far West, Missouri, that Joseph had converted her to acceptance of the plural-marriage principle. Among other spouses (aside from the omnipresent Emma) who may well have listened pridefully to their eloquent husband on that sunny June afternoon in 1844 were twenty-nine-year-old Louisa Beaman, generally thought to be his first plural wife (he had been married to her for three years), and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, who later reported, “I was sealed to him in the Masonic Hall over the old brick store by Brigham Young in February, 1842.”

That same year he had wed Eliza Roxey Snow, poetess, sealed to him in June both for time and eternity; Sarah Anne Whitney, his bride of July; and Elvira Cowles, whom he soon after won for time and eternity. In the spring of 1843 he had added to his mates the Partridge sisters, Elisa, twenty-three, and Emily, nineteen; the Lawrence girls—Mary, twenty, and her sister Sarah, seventeen; Aimera Woodward Johnson, thirty-one; Lucy Walker, seventeen; and Olive Frost, twenty-seven. That fall he married nineteen-year-old Melissa Lott, who seems to have been, according to his biographers, the last wife bedded before his murder.

Hence several hearts beat faster as the tall General jumped lightly down from the wall. A black boot reached for a stirrup and a second flashed over the rump of the prancing black stallion, Charlie. As one man the white-clad dozen of the bodyguard swung into their saddles. In the dark-blue uniform, surmounted by the star-sprent black plumes, Joseph had become a black eagle floating in a white cloud of doves. The brass band struck up a march, and sharp orders punctuated the music as the officers of the Legion of Nauvoo moved their men into line. Their Lieutenant General and his staff led a great parade up the slanting Main Street toward the unfinished tower of the Temple of the Latter-day Saints, standing lone and high in the rays of the westering sun, while thousands of the Mormon faithful cheered.

After the Legion broke ranks on its parade grounds General Smith rode back to the Mansion House. Messengers had been galloping into town all the afternoon, and they awaited him. They said mobs were forming nearby in the towns of Appanoose and La Harpe, Rocky Run and Green Plains, Pilot Grove and Spilman’s Landing. In their opinion, the excited horsemen reported, invasion of Nauvoo was certain. There was even talk of mobs arriving by steamboat at Nauvoo Landing.

After Joseph had gone to bed he was awakened by a persistent knocking on the Mansion House door. When he unbarred and opened, he was just able to recognize in the darkness Shadrach Roundy, a Nauvoo policeman. The officer warned him that a man named Norton had been overheard in the streets making wild threats to shoot him. After some questions and answers faithful Shadrach resumed his duties, and Joseph went back to bed.


The Legion paraded along the riverbank every morning in the next few days, and every day the Lieutenant General in full uniform reviewed them. At his order small detachments were constantly galloping over the brown muddy roads that patterned the flat prairie. Pickets were sent out to stand guard on all the approaches to Nauvoo. Families of refugees, driven from their homes by their non-Mormon neighbors, appeared in the streets. A company of the Legion marching from Macedonia to Nauvoo came upon an anti-Mormon unit twice as large as their own, marching under two red flags. These foes at once deployed at the edge of a wood. The Legionnaires “opened file about ten feet apart” and resolutely kept to the road, though under sporadic fire that did no damage.

From widely separated mounds and hillocks the Mormon sentries could see bands of the enemy threading the levels of high grass as they tramped toward Nauvoo.

Lieutenant General Smith, always fascinated by the stratagems of war, frequently rode out on the prairie meadows to survey the situation. He spent much of the rest of his time at his desk in the Mansion House writing suggestions to his outposts that they let the invaders come through and then attack them from the rear, writing orders to distant Mormon communities to send aid, writing to the absent members of the Mormon council of twelve, informing them of the dangers he faced.

On returning from his review of the Legion on Friday, June 21, General Smith found messengers from the governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, who had come to Carthage, eighteen miles distant. He wrote that in the interests of impartial justice “well informed and discreet persons” capable of presenting the Mormon version of recent events should be sent to him. Two representatives were at once appointed, and accompanied by the messengers, they set out for Carthage at seven o’clock and arrived at eleven. John Taylor, one of the two, wrote that “The town was filled with a perfect set of rabble and rowdies” and that they “seemed to be holding a grand saturnalia, whooping, yelling and vociferating as if bedlam had broken loose.”

A meeting the next morning resulted in Governor Ford’s stating his desire that General Smith and “all parties concerned in passing or executing the city law in relation to the press” come to Carthage to “allay public excitement” and “prove their wish to be governed by law.” Delayed a half day by the Governor’s taking time to write a letter to Smith, the messengers were not in Nauvoo until dusk.

Ford’s letter was read before a meeting of a few Mormon leaders hastily summoned to an upper room of the Mansion House. Hearts sank as ears heard, …your conduct in the destruction of the press was a very gross outrage upon the laws and liberties of the people.…I require any and all of you, who are or shall be accused, to submit yourselves to be arrested.…I tell you plainly that if no such submission is made as I have indicated, I will be obliged to call out the militia; and if a few thousand will not be sufficient, many thousands will be…

As the reading ended Joseph said despairingly, “There is no mercy—no mercy here.”

He turned to his older brother: “What shall we do?”

“I don’t know,” said Hyrum.

The Prophet seemed lost in thought. Then his face brightened. “It is clear to my mind what to do,” he said. “All they want is Hyrum and myself; then tell everybody to go about their business and not to collect in groups but scatter about.…They will come here and search for us. Let them search; they will not harm you in person or property and not even a hair of your head. We will cross the river tonight and go away to the west.”

“I told Stephen Markham,” wrote Joseph that night in the last entry of his journal, “that if Hyrum and I were ever taken again, we should be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God.”

At nine o’clock the door of the Mansion House swung open, and a dim, short ray cut through the darkness. Hyrum came out, and the light was gone with the sound of the latch.

“A company of men are seeking to kill my brother,” said Hyrum to a man standing outside. “The Lord has warned him to flee to the Rocky Mountains to save his life.” Without more words the two men waited. Joseph came out suddenly holding a handkerchief to his face. He had said good-by to his Emma, then pregnant, and to their children. He was weeping.

Dark figures had gathered on the riverbank when the brothers came near. The river was higher that June than any old-timer could remember. Someone had gone to borrow a skiff. He had a hard time finding it, and in the long wait Joseph gave directions. “Tell our wives what we calculate to do,” he said, “and learn their feelings on the subject; tell Emma that you, Brother Phelps, will take her by the second steamboat upriver to Cincinnati. She has enough money for expenses. If there is anything wrong, come over the river and find out where we are.”

It was two o’clock on Sunday morning and raining heavily when the brothers Smith and Willard Richards climbed into the skiff. Following them, Porter Rockwell took the oars and sent it sliding out into the swirling current. Even with his great strength he made slow progress. The boat was flimsy and soon sprang a number of leaks. It was in danger of sinking until the desperate men took off their boots and shoes and used them to bail out the water. The skies were clearing and dawn was spreading behind them when their craft neared the Iowa shore. Mists rose from the river. They seemed to catch in the lush, green foliage and take their color from it. As the sunlight burned them away, the men in the boat could see cabins standing in coffee-colored water so deep that only roofs and chimneys rose above it. As his passengers clambered out on the bank, Porter Rockwell swung the skiff about and rowed back toward the sun-gilded town whence they had come. He had orders to bring back Joseph’s best horses in the dark of the following night.

By one o’clock that afternoon, however, the tireless giant had returned, and he was not alone. Three grim emissaries from Nauvoo stalked into Mormon William Jordan’s farmhouse where the brothers were packing provisions for a journey to the “Great Basin of the Rocky Mountains.” These messengers said the city was leaderless and in a panic. They accused the Prophet of forsaking his people out of sheer cowardice. They said that even his faithful Emma demanded his return. “When the shepherd deserts his sheep,” said one of them, “who will save them from the wolves?” The question marked the crisis of the conflict that raged within Joseph. From this moment flight with honor was impossible; death was certain. “If my life is of no value to my friends,” he said, as if he could not believe what he had just heard, “it is of none to myself.”

The fugitive general turned to Porter Rockwell, symbol of strength. “What shall I do?” he said.

“You’re the oldest,” said the big man, “you ought to know best. You make your bed. I’ll lie with you.”

Grasping at this straw of logic, Joseph appealed to his brother: “You are the oldest, Hyrum. What shall we do?”

Said the always confident Hyrum, “Go back and give ourselves up, and see this thing out.”

“If you go back, I will go with you,” said Joseph, “but we shall be butchered.”

“No, no,” said Hyrum, “let us go back and put our trust in God, and we shall not be harmed. The Lord is in it. If we live or have to die, we will be reconciled to our fate.”

The decision made, the brothers wrote a letter from “Bank of the River Mississippi” to Governor Ford in Carthage. It said they would come to Carthage the next day, and it asked for protection by a posse which they would meet at “the Mound” outside the town about two o’clock in the afternoon.

They recrossed the still-flooding river at twilight. Joseph rose early the next morning and rode with his friends up to the temple. The hammers of builders had not yet begun their clangor. He could see the high white spire he had planned only in his imaginings. Sitting easily in his saddle, he looked down the hill at his waking town. “This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens,” he said. “Little do they know the trials that await them.”

The little band trotted along the Carthage road, and the warm, wet smell of the prairie was around them. Goldfinches flitted ahead of them, constantly arching the limitless levels. Horned meadow larks sang beside them, and the air was sweet with the song of the white-throated sparrow. Close to the earth puccoons, paintbrush, and windflowers gave pastel underlining to grasses as high as their stirrups. Looking at the little band, an artist might well have likened them to horsemen caught for an instant on the surface of a tapestry.

They had traveled about twelve miles and Big Mound loomed ahead, when they saw sweeping toward them a long line of uniformed troopers. Outnumbered by almost three to one, the Mormons halted in a closeknit, fearful bundle. Said their commander: “Do not be alarmed, brothers, for they cannot do more to you than the enemies of truth did to the ancient Saints—they can only kill the body.”

The strangers halted, and their captain came forward to present an order from Governor Ford which required the Legion of Nauvoo to surrender all state-owned arms to him. Joseph countersigned it and ordered a deputy to hurry back to Nauvoo and inform the Legion officers that it must be complied with immediately.

As he watched his messenger gallop away Joseph said: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer morning. I have a conscience void of offense towards God and towards all men. I shall die innocent and it shall be said of me, ‘He was murdered in cold blood.’”

A few moments later, however, at the urgent request of the troopers’ captain, General Smith decided to return to the city to aid in the execution of the order. Some of the Mormon company rode on to Carthage. The rest began with him the long ride back home. When they reached Nauvoo the Legionnaires were already bringing their weapons to the Masonic Hall. During his wait for completion of the order Joseph twice rode to the Mansion House to say good-by to his family. All arms had been delivered before six o’clock, when the final journey to Carthage began. As he passed his farm on the edge of the town Joseph stopped.

It was nearly July, but his corn, drowned out early by heavy showers and then replanted, was short. He watched it climbing green from the wet earth into late-afternoon sunlight while about fifteen riders gradually assembled about him. Then his long hands tightened on his rein.

“If some of you had such a farm and knew you would not see it any more,” he said, “you would want to take a good look at it for the last time.” After these words he and his silent companions rode off into the swiftsettling dusk.

It was ten o’clock when they were back at the Mound. There they stopped at a farmhouse to eat and drink the refreshments they had brought from home in their saddlebags. The troopers who had received the Legion’s arms caught up with them here. They would act as guards for the Mormons as they entered Carthage. It was midnight as the procession reached the square where the town’s militia, the Carthage Grays, awaited it. The tired escort slumped in their saddles as they rode wearily by, with their even more exhausted prisoners placed for safety inside their columns.

From the crowd in the square came drunken cries of derision and hatred: “Where’s the damn prophet?” “Clear the way and show us Joe Smith, Prophet of God.” “God damn you, old Joe, we’ve got you now!”

The column stopped before the Hotel Hamilton, and the jeering of the crowd increased. A second-story window rose with a sharp crack.

“Gentlemen,” said the high, thin voice of the Governor of Illinois, “I know your anxiety to see Mr. Smith, which is natural enough, but it is quite too late tonight for you to have that opportunity; but I assure you, gentlemen, you shall have that privilege tomorrow morning, as I will cause him to pass before the troops upon the square, and now I wish you, with this assurance, quietly and peacefully to return to your quarters.”

The window closed, and the crowd wandered away, while hostlers led the horses of the guests to the barn.

On the next morning the Governor made good his promise. He issued an early order calling upon all troops in Carthage to assemble near the courthouse, and there to form a hollow square. In the meantime Joseph and Hyrum were put under arrest on a new charge, that of treason against the state of Illinois for having called out the Mormon militia unit—the Legion of Nauvoo—in the previous week.

At a little before ten o’clock the Governor climbed on an old table in the middle of the formation and appealed for order and correct behavior. Then the officer in command of the troops, General Deming, and Joseph and Hyrum Smith entered the square. Leading the way, Governor Ford introduced the brothers as “General Joseph Smith” and “General Hyrum Smith.” The Carthage Grays yelled loud protest. Their officers threw their hats in the air, drew their swords, yelled profane epithets at the Mormons. The Governor remonstrated with them politely and with the aid of General Deming quieted the demonstration.

The rest of the day was spent at the Hamilton House in legal arguments between the Mormons, the Governor, and Carthage local authorities. It ended, despite bitter protests, in the Mormon generals and several of their Mormon friends being escorted, “for their security,” by a militia detachment to the Carthage jail.

The jail was a sturdy two-story building. Its walls were of stone, and its hand-hewn oak beams were heavy and strong. A wooden staircase led from the first floor, which contained the jailer’s quarters, to cells above and one large, unbarred, informal chamber which held a bed and chairs. The two generals, voluntarily accompanied by five followers (against whom no charges had been lodged), found this the most suitable room for the group. The jailer made other rooms available, and all were treated with courtesy. They found the conversation on that Tuesday night “amusing,” and they were all in better spirits as they stretched themselves on the wide floorboards to sleep.

On the morning of Wednesday, the twenty-sixth, Governor Ford came to the jail, and he and Joseph had a long debate on the issues involved in the charges. Ford proved to be a stickler for the law as he interpreted it, and Joseph’s efforts to persuade him that the orders for destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press and the calling out of the Legion to establish martial law were in the interests of the public safety made little impression. The Governor left, and Joseph devoted the next few hours to correspondence.

In the afternoon a constable came to the jail and demanded custody of the brothers that he might take them to court for a hearing. The jailer refused to give them up, but the constable came back soon with a detail of the Carthage Grays, who were so threatening that Joseph and Hyrum were once more ordered into the streets. A wild and vociferous crowd greeted them, but the brothers moved swiftly into the midst of it and, locking arms with the most virulent of their enemies, made their way to the courthouse. The humiliation of being displayed before thousands of spectators as if they were animals in a traveling show—“like elephants” as one eyewitness expressed it—was in marked contrast with the honor accorded them in much larger Nauvoo only a few miles away—a fact that both they and their enemies could not have failed to note.

After futile arguments before Justice Robert F. Smith, who was also a captain of the Carthage Grays, the prisoners were returned to the jail. After they had left the court, Justice Smith, whose purposes were by now unquestionably criminal, set the date of trial for the twenty-ninth, in order, he said, that he might accompany his command on an official visit to Nauvoo ordered by Governor Ford for the next day.

After their supper the brothers and the companions who were with them in the large upstairs room heard Hyrum Smith read from the Book of Mormon narratives of the deliverance from prison of devout believers in Christ. It was obvious that all seven had been shaken by the malignancy of the crowds through which they had just passed. Joseph in particular was downcast. He had been able to read the intent to murder in the eyes and attitudes of the enraged soldiers and citizenry, and the confidence that had served him in many an incident involving danger to himself had deserted him. Though he had often been attacked by his enemies, he had emerged time and again as master of a seemingly hopeless situation. Now he felt only a growing sense of danger.

Willard Richards sat up late after the others had lain down to sleep. By the light of a tallow candle he was copying papers he regarded as essential to a true summary of the events of the week. The long bodies of the Prophet and his brother lay on the bedstead. The others slept on mattresses laid on the floor. At midnight the candle began to gutter. Suddenly in the darkness outside, but very close, a gun spoke sharply. The echo was still sounding as the sleeping men woke, startled and dismayed. It was hard, in the ensuing quiet, to go back to sleep.

Joseph rose from the bed and lay down on a mattress. “Lay your head on my arm for a pillow, Brother John,” he said. Then the other men, unable to sleep, heard him talking softly of his feeling that death was on its way.

“I would like to see my family again,” he said, and, after a moment of silence, “Would to God I could preach to the Saints in Nauvoo once more.” Later the sleepless six men heard the Prophet’s voice in the darkness, “Are you afraid to die?”

A different voice from the mattress said: “Has that time come? In such a cause I do not think death would have many terrors.” Silence and darkness then—and as light began the atmosphere was dull and heavy. A shower rattled on the roof.

On that dawn—the morning of June 27—a company of Warsaw militia under Colonel Levi Williams set out to march from their home town to Nauvoo, according to the Governor’s orders. They had covered about eight miles when a courier came galloping across the prairie. He gave the Colonel an order from Governor Ford saying that his guard into Nauvoo would be the Carthage Grays, except for a detachment of some fifty selected members of the Grays who had been left behind to guard the prisoners in the jail. Therefore, the Governor was ordering the Warsaw men to disband.

Loud protest came from the Warsaw troops. They were “loaded for bear,” they said, and had no intention of going back home. Incited further by their captains, many volunteered to march to Carthage. At this moment another messenger dashed up. He wore the uniform of the Carthage Grays. What his orders were has never been discovered, but the events of the day provided clues. An article in the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1867, by the distinguished John Hay, later a biographer of Abraham Lincoln and member of the presidential Cabinet from 1898 to 1905, tells what its author learned from his father (who obeyed the order to go back to Warsaw) and other reliable sources.

The Warsaw militia were “annoyed at the prospect of their picnic coming so readily to an end, at losing the fun of sacking Nauvoo, at having to go home without material for a single romance.” A hundred and fifty started on the march to Carthage, but the heat and humidity of the day caused that number to dwindle to seventy-five and put those who persevered in a murderous mood. Sweating and purposeful, they sang an adaptation of an old marching song as they plodded along. To the tune of “Where Now are the Hebrew Children?” they howled out,

Where now is the Prophet Joseph? Where now is the Prophet Joseph? Where now is the Prophet Joseph? Safe, safe in the Carthage jail.

While the Warsaw men were marching on the prairie, ominous events were making the Carthage jail seem far from safe. One by one the Mormon friends of the Prophet Joseph and his brother were being separated from them. One, Dan Jones, went outside to discover what he could about the temper of the town. He became so alarmed at the talk of killing that he hurried to the Governor to tell him of the possibility of a lynching. He found Ford at the point of starting his ride to Nauvoo. Excitedly he told his story. Said Thomas Ford coldly, “You are unnecessarily alarmed for the safety of your friends, sir; the people are not that cruel.” When Dan ran back to report, the guards at the jail refused him admittance.

After Dan had left the jail, Joseph wrote what proved to be his last letter to Emma. Whatever other loyalties he had, it was always to her that he turned in time of serious trouble.

Dear Emma, [he wrote]: The Governor continues his courtesies and permits us to see our friends. We hear this morning that the Governor will not go down with his troops today to Nauvoo as anticipated last evening; but if he does come down with his troops you will be protected.…There is no danger of an exterminating order…

There is one principle which is eternal: It is the duty of all men to protect their lives and the lives of their household, whenever necessity requires, and no power has the right to forbid it, should the last extreme arrive; but I anticipate no such extreme, but caution is the parent of safety. Joseph Smith

P.S. Dear Emma, 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 and all my friends.…as for treason—I know that I have not committed any, and they cannot prove an appearance of anything of the kind, so you need not have any fears that anything can happen to us on that score. May God bless you all. Amen.

A Mormon friend, Cyrus Wheelock, obtained a pass . from the Governor early that morning. During a shower he put on his overcoat and went to the jail. On the strength of the pass, the guards allowed him to enter without searching him. Joseph ordered Wheelock to ride to Nauvoo with orders to the Legion to refrain from any military display and to the people to stay indoors and not to gather in groups while the Governor and his military escort were there. Before Wheelock left he took from under the overcoat, where he had concealed it, a six-shooter of the sort then popularly known as an “Alien’s Pokerbox” and secretly placed it in Joseph’s pocket. Joseph then turned over to Hyrum a pistol with a single barrel which had also been smuggled into the jail by a Mormon friend.

After eating his noon meal that day Willard Richards, understandably nervous from the tension growing both outside and inside the jail, complained of feeling ill. Joseph asked another of his Mormon companions to get something for Richards that “would settle his stomach.” Engaged on that errand, the friend was surrounded by members of the Carthage street mob and forced to ride out of town. Now besides Joseph and Hyrum there were only two men left in the big upstairs room—Willard Richards—a big wide-faced New England doctor, a year older than Joseph, who had joined the church at Kirtland, where he was baptized by his cousin, Brigham Young; and John Taylor, of English birth, a slight man of thirty-six. Both were members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, all others being absent on important missions.

As the afternoon wore on, its heat and the dampness of the air increased. The men lounged near the open windows in their shirtsleeves. Little was said. The jailer, probably more aware than his charges of the waiting mood of the silent little town, came in to suggest that they might be safer in the small locked cells. Joseph said they would enter them after supper. He said to Willard Richards, “If we go into the cell, will you go with us?”

Richards replied: “Brother Joseph, you did not ask me to cross the river with you—you did not ask me to come to Carthage—you did not ask me to come to jail with you—and do you think I would forsake you now? But I will tell you what I will do; if you are condemned to be hung for treason, I will be hung in your stead, and you shall go free.”

Joseph said, “You cannot.”

“I will,” said his friend.

Then Joseph asked John Taylor to sing for him a religious ballad that had recently become popular in Nauvoo—“A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” A few stanzas will summarize its story and meaning:

A poor wayfaring man of grief Had often crossed me on my way, Who sued so humbly for relief That I could never answer, Nay.

I ran and rais’d the suff’rer up; Thrice from the stream he drain’d my cup, Dipp’d, and returned it running o’er; I drank and never thirsted more.

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 the free spirit cried, “I will!”

Then in a moment to my view, The stranger started from disguise; The tokens in his hands I knew, The Saviour stood before mine eyes.

The tune to which these verses were set was melancholy, but the image of the poor wayfaring man had ever been one which moved the Prophet deeply, and as John Taylor sang, he must have remembered the three wandering Nephites described in the Book of Mormon. The hot, quiet building echoed to his mellow voice, and there was a long silence when he stopped singing. Then Hyrum asked him to sing the long hymn again. John Taylor said despondently, “I do not feel like singing,” but he began again.

While the song was coming from the jailhouse young Billy Hamilton, son of the owner of the Hamilton House, stood in the cupola of the courthouse watching with a large field glass the west road into Carthage. At about four o’clock he saw a large number of men gathered beyond a point of woods about two miles from Carthage. Fifteen minutes later they began to move toward the town in single file and at a quick pace. They used a rail fence as a partial screen, and they carried guns at the trail as if they were trying to hide them. Billy raced down the steps from the cupola and ran toward the jail. By the time he reached it the awaited crime had been committed.

John Taylor had hardly completed the long ballad for the second time when he saw from an open frontwindow a number of men with painted faces come around the corner of the jail. They made for the stairs, and the four men above heard a sharp volley and the leaden thud of bullets in the wooden wall beyond the landing. There was a swift pounding of feet on the steps. Taylor ran to the door of the room but found the big, strong torsos of Hyrum and Willard Richards braced against it. A shot from the other side broke the weak latch and Hyrum and Willard backed away. As they did so a bullet through the door hit Hyrum in the face. At the same time a shot fired through the open window struck him in the side.

“I am a dead man,” said Hyrum in a strangely emphatic voice, and he fell on his back.

Joseph leaned over the dead body. “O my poor dear brother Hyrum!” he said. Then he moved swiftly to the door, opened it a few inches, and aimed the poker-box six-shooter down the hall. Three times it failed him; three times it fired. Cries of anguish told him the bullets had hit his targets. The long rifles of the mob were moving through the crack in the door now. It opened wider, and the besieged men saw the blackened faces of the murderers. The mob-men snarled and held back as they saw the big man in front of them, but the crowd behind was pushing them inexorably forward. They fired, and as they did so John Taylor grabbed the stout walking stick which one of their Mormon visitors had left behind (a “rascal-beater” he had called it) and knocked down the muzzles of their guns. “That’s right, Brother Taylor,” said Joseph, “parry them off as well as you can.”

More guns appeared in the doorway, and the men behind them screamed their hatred as they tried to angle their fire toward the Mormons. At last the murderers were inside, and John Taylor made for the window in the hope of jumping out and taking a chance on escape from the yard below. As he threw himself toward the opening a bullet hit him in the thigh. He would have fallen outside, however, had not another shot, which shattered the watch in his vest, knocked him back into the room. Almost unconscious, he still had presence of mind enough to roll under the bedstead. Now Joseph made his try at the window. He was almost out when two bullets from the doorway ripped into his body and another pierced his right breast.

“O Lord,” said the Prophet loudly, “My God,” and as he spoke he went out feet first through the window. The long body fell heavily into the yard beside the well.

“He’s leaped the window,” came a voice from the jail, and the men who had been upstairs raced down to the yard. One of them bent over him. At the words, “He’s dead,” the black-faced murderers cheered lustily. Then there was silence. Already a number of them were running away. Someone said, “The Mormons are coming,” and there was a scramble to run out of sight into the woods from which they had begun their attack.

Willard Richards, who had been behind the door when it was forced open and had not been noticed by the mob, started for the cells on the other side of the second floor. “Take me,” said John Taylor, and Richards lifted his desperately wounded friend and bore him to a cell where he laid him on the floor and covered him with a straw mattress that had burst its seams.

A few of the bolder members of the mob raced up the stairs once more and stood for a moment looking at the corpse of Hyrum. They did not look in the cells, but ran down to catch up with their fleeing accomplices.

Richards waited beside John Taylor until he was sure they had gone. Then he went slowly down into the yard. He bent over the murdered Prophet and somehow swung the tall man into his arms, then over his shoulder. Step by step he staggered up the stairs again, and when he had come into the big room he laid the body of the Prophet Joseph beside that of his brother.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.