The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901

Author: William Alexander Linn

Chapter XIV. The Murder of the Prophet—His Character

On Tuesday morning, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were arrested again in Carthage, this time on a charge of treason in levying war against the state, by declaring martial law in Nauvoo and calling out the Legion. In the afternoon of that day all the accused, numbering fifteen, appeared before a justice of the peace, and, to prevent any increase in the public excitement, gave bonds in the sum of $500 each for their appearance at the next term of the Circuit Court to answer the charge of riot.* It was late in the evening when this business was finished, and nothing was said at the time about the charge of treason.

* The trial of the survivors resulted in a verdict of acquittal. "The Mormons," says Governor Ford, "could have a Mormon jury to be tried by, selected by themselves, and the anti-Mormons, by objecting to the sheriff and regular panel, could have one from the anti-Mormons. No one could [then] be convicted of any crime in Hancock County."—"History of Illinois," p. 369.

Very soon after their return to the hotel, however, the constable who had arrested the Smiths on the new charge appeared with a mittimus from the justice of the peace, and, under its authority, conveyed them to the county jail. Their counsel immediately argued before the governor that this action was illegal, as the Smiths had had no hearing on the charge of treason, and the governor went with the lawyers to consult the justice concerning his action. The justice explained that he had directed the removal of the prisoners to jail because he did not consider them safe in the hotel. The governor held that, from the time of their delivery to the jailer, they were beyond his jurisdiction and responsibility, but he granted a request of their counsel for a military guard about the jail. He says, however, that he apprehended neither an attack on the building nor an escape of the prisoners, adding that if they had escaped, "it would have been the best way of getting rid of the Mormons," since these leaders would never have dared to return to the state, and all their followers would have joined them in their place of refuge.

The militia force in Carthage at that time numbered some twelve hundred men, with four hundred or five hundred more persons under arms in the town. There was great pressure on the governor to march this entire force to Nauvoo, ostensibly to search for a counterfeiting establishment, in order to overawe the Mormons by a show of force. The governor consented to this plan, and it was arranged that the officers at Carthage and Warsaw should meet on June 27 at a point on the Mississippi midway between the latter place and Nauvoo.

Governor Ford was not entirely certain about the safety of the prisoners, and he proposed to take them with him in the march to Nauvoo, for their protection. But while preparations for this march were still under way, trustworthy information reached him that, if the militia once entered the Mormon city, its destruction would certainly follow, the plan being to accept a shot fired at the militia by someone as a signal for a general slaughter and conflagration. He determined to prevent this, not only on humane grounds,—"the number of women, inoffensive and young persons, and innocent children which must be contained in such a city of twelve hundred to fifteen thousand inhabitants"—but because he was not certain of the outcome of a conflict in which the Mormons would outnumber his militia almost two to one. After a council of the militia officers, in which a small majority adhered to the original plan, the governor solved the question by summarily disbanding all the state forces under arms, except three companies, two of which would continue to guard the jail, and the other would accompany the governor on a visit to Nauvoo, where he proposed to search for counterfeiters, and to tell the inhabitants that any retaliatory measures against the non-Mormons would mean "the destruction of their city, and the extermination of their people."

The jail at Carthage was a stone building, situated at the northwestern boundary of the village, and near a piece of woods that were convenient for concealment. It contained the jailer’s apartments, cells for prisoners, and on the second story a sort of assembly room. At the governor’s suggestion, Joseph and Hyrum were allowed the freedom of this larger room, where their friends were permitted to visit them, without any precautions against the introduction of weapons or tools for their escape.

Their guards were selected from the company known as the Carthage Grays, Captain Smith, commander. In this choice the governor made a mistake which always left him under a charge of collusion in the murder of the prisoners. It was not, in the first place, necessary to select any Hancock company for this service, as he had militia from McDonough County on the ground. All the people of Hancock County were in a fever of excitement against the Mormons, while the McDonough County militia had voted against the march into Nauvoo. Moreover, when the prisoners, after their arrival at Carthage, had been exhibited to the McDonough company at the request of the latter, who had never seen them, the Grays were so indignant at what they called a triumphal display, that they refused to obey the officer in command, and were for a time in revolt. "Although I knew that this company were the enemies of the Smiths," says the governor, "yet I had confidence in their loyalty and their integrity, because their captain was universally spoken of as a most respectable citizen and honorable man." The governor further excused himself for the selection because the McDonough company were very anxious to return home to attend to their crops, and because, as the prisoners were likely to remain in jail all summer, he could not have detained the men from the other county so long. He presents also the curious plea that the frequent appeals made to him direct for the extermination or expulsion of the Mormons gave him assurance that no act of violence would be committed contrary to his known opposition, and he observes, "This was a circumstance well calculated to conceal from me the secret machinations on foot!"

In this state of happy confidence the governor set out for Nauvoo on the morning of June 27. On the way, one of the officers who accompanied him told him that he was apprehensive of an attack on the jail because of talk he had heard in Carthage. The governor was reluctant to believe that such a thing could occur while he was in the Mormon city, exposed to Mormon vengeance, but he sent back a squad, with instructions to Captain Smith to see that the jail was safely guarded. He had apprehensions of his own, however, and on arriving at Nauvoo simply made an address as above outlined, and hurried back to Carthage without even looking for counterfeit money. He had not gone more than two miles when messengers met him with the news that the Smith brothers had been killed in the jail.

The Warsaw regiment (it is so called in the local histories), under command of Colonel Levi Williams, set out on the morning of June 27 for the rendezvous on the Mississippi, preparatory to the march to Nauvoo. The resolutions adopted in Warsaw and the tone of the local press had left no doubt about the feeling of the people of that neighborhood toward the Mormons, and fully justified the decision of the governor in countermanding the march proposed. His unexpected order disbanding the militia reached the Warsaw troops when they had advanced about eight miles. A decided difference of opinion was expressed regarding it. Some of the most violent, including Editor Sharp of the Signal, wanted to continue the march to Carthage in order to discuss the situation with the other forces there; the more conservative advised an immediate return to Warsaw. Each party followed its own inclination, those who continued toward Carthage numbering, it is said, about two hundred.

While there is no doubt that the Warsaw regiment furnished the men who made the attack on the jail, there is evidence that the Carthage Grays were in collusion with them. William N. Daniels, in his account of the assault, says that the Warsaw men, when within four miles of Carthage, received a note from the Grays (which he quotes) telling them of the good opportunity presented "to murder the Smiths" in the governor’s absence. His testimony alone would be almost valueless, but Governor Ford confirms it, and Gregg (who holds that the only purpose of the mob was to seize the prisoners and run them into Missouri) says he is "compelled" to accept the report. According to Governor Ford, one of the companies designated as a guard for the jail disbanded and went home, and the other was stationed by its captain 150 yards from the building, leaving only a sergeant and eight men at the jail itself. "A communication," he adds, "was soon established between the conspirators and the company, and it was arranged that the guards should have their guns charged with blank cartridges, and fire at the assailants when they attempted to enter the jail."

Both Willard Richards and John Taylor were in the larger room with the Smith brothers when the attack was made (other visitors having recently left), and both gave detailed accounts of the shooting, Richards soon afterward, in a statement printed in the Neighbor and the Times and Seasons under the title "Two Minutes in Gaol," and Taylor in his "Martyrdom of Joseph Smith." * They differ only in minor particulars.

* To be found in Burton’s "City of the Saints."

All in the room were sitting in their shirt sleeves except Richards, when they saw a number of men, with blackened faces, advancing around the corner of the jail toward the stairway. The door leading from the room to the stairs was hurriedly closed, and, as it was without a lock, Hyrum Smith and Richards placed their shoulders against it. Finding their entrance opposed, the assailants fired a shot through the door (Richards says they fired a volley up the stairway), which caused Hyrum and Richards to leap back. While Hyrum was retreating across the room, with his face to the door, a second shot fired through the door struck him by the side of the nose, and at the same moment another ball, fired through the window at the other side of the room, entered his back, and, passing through his body, was stopped by the watch in his vest pocket, smashing the works. He fell on his back exclaiming, "I am a dead man," and did not speak again.

One of their callers had left a six-shooting pistol with the prisoners, and, when Joseph saw his brother shot, he advanced with this weapon to the door, and opening it a few inches, snapped each barrel toward the men on the other side. Three barrels missed fire, but each of the three that exploded seems to have wounded a man; accounts differ as to the seriousness of their injuries. While Joseph was firing, Taylor stood by him armed with a stout hickory stick, and Richards was on his other side holding a cane. As soon as Joseph’s firing, which had checked the assailants for a moment, ceased, the latter stuck their weapons through the partly opened doorway, and fired into the room. Taylor tried to parry the guns with his cudgel. "That’s right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can," said the prophet, and these are the last words he is remembered to have spoken. The assailants hesitated to enter the room, perhaps not knowing what weapons the Mormons had, and Taylor concluded to take his chances of a leap through an open window opposite the door, and some twenty-five feet from the ground. But as he was about to jump out, a ball struck him in the thigh, depriving him of all power of motion. He fell inside the window, and as soon as he recovered power to move, crawled under a bed which stood in one corner of the room. The men in the hallway continued to thrust in their guns and fire, and Richards kept trying to knock aside the muzzles with his cane. Taylor in this way, before he reached the bed, received three more balls, one below the left knee, one in the left arm, and another in the left hip.

Almost as soon as Taylor fell, the prophet made a dash for the window. As he was part way out, two balls fired through the doorway struck him, and one from outside the building entered his right breast. Richards says: "He fell outward, exclaiming ’O Lord, my God.’ As his feet went out of the window, my head went in, the balls whistling all around. At this instant the cry was raised, ’He’s leaped the window,’ and the mob on the stairs and in the entry ran out. I withdrew from the window, thinking it of no use to leap out on a hundred bayonets, then around General Smith’s body. Not satisfied with this, I again reached my head out of the window and watched some seconds, to see if there were any signs of life, regardless of my own, determined to see the end of him I loved. Being fully satisfied that he was dead, with a hundred men near the body and more coming round the corner of the gaol, and expecting a return to our room, I rushed toward the prison door at the head of the stairs." Finding the inner doors of the jail unlocked, Richards dragged Taylor into a cell and covered him with an old mattress. Both expected a return of the mob, but the lynchers disappeared as soon as they satisfied themselves that the prophet was dead. Richards was not injured at all, although his large size made him an ample target.

Most Mormon accounts of Smith’s death say that, after he fell, the body was set up against a well curb in the yard and riddled with balls. Taylor mentions this report, but Richards, who specifically says that he saw the prophet die, does not. Governor Ford’s account says that Smith was only stunned by the fall and was shot in the yard. Perhaps the original authority for this version was a lad named William N. Daniels, who accompanied the Warsaw men to Carthage, and, after the shooting, went to Nauvoo and had his story published by the Mormons in pamphlet form, with two extravagant illustrations, in which one of the assailants is represented as approaching Smith with a knife to cut off his head.*

*A detailed account of the murder of the Smiths, and events connected with it, was contributed to the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1869, by John Hay. This is accepted by Kennedy as written by "one whose opportunities for information were excellent, whose fairness cannot be questioned, and whose ability to distinguish the true from the false is of the highest order." H. H. Bancroft, whose tone is always pro-Mormon, alludes to this article as "simply a tissue of falsehoods." In reply to a note of inquiry Secretary Hay wrote to the author, under date of November 17, 1900: "I relied more upon my memory and contemporary newspapers for my facts than on certified documents. I will not take my oath to everything the article contains, but I think in the main it is correct." This article says that Joseph Smith was severely wounded before he ran to the window, "and half leaped, half fell into the jail yard below. With his last dying energies he gathered himself up, and leaned in a sitting posture against the rude stone well curb. His stricken condition, his vague wandering glances, excited no pity in the mob thirsting for his life. A squad of Missourians, who were standing by the fence, leveled their pieces at him, and, before they could see him again for the smoke they made, Joe Smith was dead:" This is not an account of an eye-witness.

The bodies of the two brothers were removed to the hotel in Carthage, and were taken the next day to Nauvoo, arriving there about three o’clock in the afternoon. They were met by practically the entire population, and a procession made up of the City Council, the generals of the Legion with their staffs, the Legion and the citizens generally, all under command of the city marshal, escorted them to the Nauvoo Mansion, where addresses were made by Dr. Richards, W. W. Phelps, the lawyers Woods and Reid, and Colonel Markham. The utmost grief was shown by the Mormons, who seemed stunned by the blow.

The burial followed, but the bodies did not occupy the graves. Stenhouse is authority for the statement that, fearing a grave robbery (which in fact occurred the next night), the coffins were filled with stones, and the bodies were buried secretly beneath the unfinished Temple. Mistrustful that even this concealment would not be sufficient, they were soon taken up and reburied under the brick wall back of the Mansion House.*

* "Rocky Mountain Saints," p. 174.

Brigham Young said at the conference in the Temple on October 8, 1845, "We will petition Sister Emma, in the name of Israel’s God, to let us deposit the remains of Joseph according as he has commanded us, and if she will not consent to it, our garments are clear." She did not consent. For the following statement about the future disposition of the bodies I am indebted to the grandson of the prophet, Mr. Frederick Madison Smith, one of the editors of the Saints’ Herald (Reorganized Church) at Lamoni, Iowa, dated December 15, 1900:—

"The burial place of the brothers Joseph and Hyrum has always remained a secret, being known only to a very few of the immediate family. In fact, unless it has lately been revealed to others, the exact spot is known only to my father and his brother. Others who knew the secret are now silent in death. The reasons for the secrecy were that it was feared that, if the burial place was known at the time, there might have been an inclination on the part of the enemies of those men to desecrate their bodies and graves. There is not now, and probably has not been for years, any danger of such desecration, and the only reason I can see for still keeping it a secret is the natural disinclination on the part of the family to talk about such matters.

"However, I have been on the ground with my father when I knew I was standing within a few feet of where the remains were lying, and it is known to many about where that spot is. It is a short distance from the Nauvoo House, on the bank of the Mississippi. The lot is still owned by the family, the title being in my father’s name. There is not, that I know, any intention of ever taking the bodies to Far West or Independence, Missouri. The chances are that their resting places will never be disturbed other than to erect on the spot a monument. In fact, a movement is now underway to raise the means to do that. A monument fund is being subscribed to by the members of the church. The monument would have been erected by the family, but it is not financially able to do it."

In the October following, indictments were found against Colonel Williams of the Warsaw regiment, State Senator J. C. Davis, Editor Sharp, and six others, including three who were said to have been wounded by Smith’s pistol shots, but the sheriff did not succeed in making any arrests. In the May following some of the accused appeared for trial. A struck jury was obtained, but, in the existing state of public feeling, an acquittal was a foregone conclusion. The guards at the jail would identify no one, and Daniels, the pamphlet writer, and another leading witness for the prosecution gave contradictory accounts.

But the prophet, according to Mormon recitals, did not go unavenged. Lieutenant Worrell, who commanded the detachment of the guards at the jail, was shot not long after, as we shall see. Murray McConnell, who represented the governor in the prosecution of the alleged lynchers, was assassinated twenty-four years later. P. P. Pratt gives an account of the fate of other "persecutors." The arm of one Townsend, who was wounded by Joe’s pistol, continued to rot until it was taken off, and then would not heal. A colonel of the Missouri forces, who died in Sacramento in 1849, "was eaten with worms, a large, black-headed kind of maggot, seeming a half-pint at a time." Another Missourian’s "face and jaw on one side literally rotted, and half his face actually fell off." *

*Pratt’s "Autobiography," pp. 475-476.

It is difficult for the most fair-minded critic to find in the character of Joseph Smith anything to commend, except an abundance of good-nature which made him personally popular with the body of his followers. He has been credited with power as a leader, and it was certainly little less than marvellous that he could maintain his leadership after his business failure in Ohio, and the utter break-down of his revealed promises concerning a Zion in Missouri. The explanation of this success is to be found in the logically impregnable position of his character as a prophet, so long as the church itself retained its organization, and in the kind of people who were gathered into his fold. If it was not true that HE received the golden plates from an angel; if it was not true that HE translated them with divine assistance; if it was not true that HE received from on high the "revelations" vouchsafed for the guidance of the church,—then there was no new Bible, no new revelation, no Mormon church. If Smith was pulled down, the whole church structure must crumble with him. Lee, referring to the days in Missouri, says, "Every Mormon, if true to his faith, believed as freely in Joseph Smith and his holy character as they did that God existed."* Some of the Mormons who knew Smith and his career in Missouri and Illinois were so convinced of the ridiculousness of his claims that they proposed, after the gathering in Utah, to drop him entirely. Proof of this, and of Brigham Young’s realization of the impossibility of doing so, is found in Young’s remarks at the conference which received the public announcement of the "revelation" concerning polygamy. Referring to the suggestion that had been made, "Don’t mention Joseph Smith, never mention the Book of Mormon and Zion, and all the people will follow you," Young boldly declared: "What I have received from the Lord, I have received by Joseph Smith; he was the instrument made use of. If I drop him, I must drop these principles. They have not been revealed, declared, or explained by any other man since the days of the apostles." This view is accepted by the Mormons in Utah to-day.

* "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 76.

If it seems still more surprising that Smith’s associates placed so little restraint on his business schemes, it must be remembered that none of his early colaborers—Rigdon, Harris, Cowdery, and the rest—was a better business man than he, and that he absolutely brooked no interference. It was Smith who decided every important step, as, for instance, the land purchases in and around Nauvoo; and men who would let him originate were compelled to let him carry out. We have seen how useless better business men like the Laws found it to argue with him on any practical question. The length to which he dared go in discountenancing any restriction, even regarding his moral ideas, is illustrated in an incident related in his autobiography.* At a service on Sunday, November 7, 1841, in Nauvoo, an elder named Clark ventured to reprove the brethren for their lack of sanctity, enjoining them to solemnity and temperance. "I reproved him," says the prophet, "as pharisaical and hypocritical, and not edifying the people, and showed the Saints what temperance, faith, virtue, charity, and truth were. I charged the Saints not to follow the example of the adversary non-ormons in accusing the brethren, and said, ’If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser, you will enter heaven; if you will follow the revelations and instructions which God gives you through me, I will take you into heaven as my back load. If you will not accuse me, I will not accuse you. If you will throw a cloak of charity over my sins, I will over yours—for charity covereth a multitude of sins. What many people call sin is not sin. I do many things to break down superstition."’ A congregation that would accept such teaching without a protest, would follow their leader in any direction which he chose to indicate.

* Millennial Star, Vol. XVIII, p. 743.

Smith was the farthest possible from being what Spinoza has been called, "a God-intoxicated man." Real reverence for sacred things did not enter into his mental equipment. A story illustrating his lack of reverence for what he called "long-faced" brethren was told by J. M. Grant in Salt Lake City. A Baptist minister, who talked much of "my dee-e-ar brethren," called on Smith in Nauvoo, and, after conversing with him for a short time, stood up before Smith and asked in solemn tones if it were possible that he saw a man who was a prophet and who had conversed with the Saviour. "’Yes,’ says the prophet, ’I don’t know but you do; would you not like to wrestle with me?’ After he had whirled around a few times, like a duck shot in the head, he concluded that his piety had been awfully shocked."*

* Journal of Discourses, Vol. III, p. 67.

In manhood Smith was about six feet tall, weighing something over two hundred pounds. From among a number of descriptions of him by visitors at Nauvoo, the following may be cited. Josiah Quincy, describing his arrival at what he calls "the tavern" in Nauvoo, in May, 1844, gives this impression of the prophet: "Pre-eminent among the stragglers at the door stood a man of commanding appearance, clad in the costume of a journeyman carpenter when about his work. He was a hearty, athletic fellow, with blue eyes standing prominently out on his light complexion, a long nose, and a retreating forehead. He wore striped pantaloons, a linen jacket which had not lately seen the wash-tub, and a beard of three days’ growth. A fine-looking man, is what the passer-by would instinctively have murmured upon meeting the remarkable individual who had fashioned the mould which was to shape the feelings of so many thousands of his fellow-mortals." *

*" Figures of the Past," p. 380.

The Rev. Henry Caswall, M.A., who had an interview with the prophet at Nauvoo, in 1842, thus describes him: "He is a coarse, plebeian, sensual person in aspect, and his countenance exhibits a curious mixture of the knave and the clown. His hands are large and fat, and on one of his fingers he wears a massive gold ring, upon which I saw an inscription. His eyes appear deficient in that open and straightforward expression which often characterizes an honest man."

* Millennial Star, November 1, 1850.

John Taylor had death-casts taken of the faces of Joseph and Hyrum after their murder. By the aid of these and of sketches of the brothers which he had secured while they were living, he had busts of them made by a modeller in Europe named Gahagan, and these were offered to the Saints throughout the world, for a price, of course.*

The proofs already cited of Smith’s immorality are convincing. Caswall names a number of occasions on which, he charges, the prophet was intoxicated after his settlement in Nauvoo. He relates that on one of these, when Smith was asked how it happened that a prophet of the Lord could get drunk, Smith answered that it was necessary that he should do so to prevent the Saints from worshipping him as a god!*

* "Mormonism and its Author," 1852.

No Mormon ever concedes that proof of Smith’s personal failings affects his character as a prophet. A Mormon doctor, with whom Caswall argued at Nauvoo, said that Smith might be a murderer and an adulterer, and yet be a true prophet. He cited St. Peter as saying that, in his time, David had not yet ascended into heaven (Acts ii. 34); David was in hell as a murderer; so if Smith was "as infamous as David, and even denied his own revelations, that would not affect the revelations which God had given him."


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Chicago: William Alexander Linn, "Chapter XIV. The Murder of the Prophet— His Character," The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 in The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 Original Sources, accessed March 27, 2023,

MLA: Linn, William Alexander. "Chapter XIV. The Murder of the Prophet— His Character." The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901, in The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901, Original Sources. 27 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Linn, WA, 'Chapter XIV. The Murder of the Prophet— His Character' in The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901. cited in , The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901. Original Sources, retrieved 27 March 2023, from