June 27th marks the anniversary of the 1844 assassinations of Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon founding prophet, and his brother Hyrum Smith at the Carthage Jail in Hancock County, Illinois. It is usually a day of remembrance for those claiming the legacy of Smith and the religious group he founded. The murders occurred late in the afternoon of the 27th, when conspirators engineered an attack on the jail. Although they killed only the Smith brothers, Mormon Apostle John Taylor was also seriously wounded while Willard Richards survived essentially unscathed.
This event set in motion a series of tumultuous changes, leading to the succession of Brigham Young as the head of the majority group of Mormons. He, of course, led them to Utah where they became a powerful force religiously, economically, and politically. Other groups also emerged; there occurred a splintering of the church as constituted in the era of Joseph Smith into at least ten identifiable groups. The fights were over theology and doctrine, polity and personality, pettiness and provocation. My own religious home among this panoply of groups, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which changed its name to Community of Christ in 2000), coalesced around the leadership of the prophet’s son, Joseph Smith III, a bit later.
How the Smiths came to be in the Carthage Jail, for me, is the most interesting part of the story. Perhap the greatest mistake of Joseph Smith Jr.’s, life—certainly it was the most costly—was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, published by Mormon dissidents in June 1844. They exposed Smith as an authoritarian leader who controlled everything in Nauvoo. They challenged his leadership, his practices—especially plural marriage—and his militarism. Smith pushed the Nauvoo city council to declare this newspaper a “nuisance” and ordered it destroyed.
In another time, in another circumstance, Smith might have gotten away with the destruction of the Expositor. Not this time. The dissenters Smith sought to destroy this time had been a part of Mormonism’s middle class, persons who had known both power and influence—especially William Law, a successful businessman and a counselor to Joseph Smith in the First Presidency for a time in the early 1840s—who immediately filed charges for Smith’s arrest. He was ensconced in the Carthage Jail, along with brother Hyrum and other lieutenants, on the afternoon of the 27th when armed conspirators assassinated the Smith brothers.
A murder conspiracy developed only on the afternoon of the 27th as men called together by the local militia leadership near Carthage were dismissed without any official mission. As they returned to Carthage, they gradually dwindled to no more than 75, but some began to assert that since they were gathered together that they should, according to John Hay, who grew up in the area, ”finish the matter totally. The unavowed design of the leaders communicated itself magnetically to the men, until the entire company became fused into one mass of bloodthirsty energy.” George Rockwell placed the best possible light on the conspiracy by telling his father soon after the event that those involved were “unwilling to be trifled with any longer, [and] they determined to take the matter into their own hands, and execute justice before they [the Smith brothers] should succeed in making their escape.”
Thomas Halman was present in Carthage at the time of the mobbing. A little more than a month after the murders he wrote to a friend, George Weston, about the episode. His account provides an interesting perspective on the conspiracy: “About four o’clock on the 27th of June the jail was surrounded by a mob disguised, who demanded the prisoners. The guard told them to desist—fired and wounded some, but before they had time to do more, they were being held down by the mob (taking good care not to hurt them) whilst others of the mob were making quick but thorough work of the object they had in view. They reached up stairs, Hyrum closed the door upon them and received his death wounds thro the door. Jo fired upon them, from some unknown cause raised the window on the cast and jumped from it. But received a number of balls before he reached the ground. They both expired immediately!”
William R. Hamilton was one of the youngest members of the militia at the time of the Smiths’ murders in 1844. Later a judge in the county, he was the son of Artois Hamilton, who owned the hotel in Carthage. Hamilton described his experiences of the murders in a letter to Foster Walker, a resident of Pontoosac, in Hancock County. Hamilton noted that the mob approached the jail from the north, streaming on either side to completely surround the building. “The guards were quietly sitting in front and in the hall below,” he commented, “all of whom were captured without much trouble or danger. Just a little suspicion might be attached to the officer in command. Yet it might be presumed he thought his only duty was to keep the Smiths from coming downstairs.”
Hamilton wrote that he sprinted to the site of the murders ahead of his company. “When about fifty yards away I saw Joseph Smith come to the window and fall out.” Then he added:
One of the men went to him and partially straightened his body out beside the well curb. Just at this time I got up amongst the men and heard him say, “he’s dead,” when all the mob immediately left. I went to where Smith was lying and found that he was dead without doubt. I then went up to the room where they had been quartered, where I found Hyram Smith lying upon the floor on his back, dead. No person was in the room, or came while I was there. He was stretched out on the floor, just as he had fallen after being shot. The shot that killed him was fired through the door panel by one of the mob, while in the hall, and struck him in the left breast; he falling backward. There were in the room at that time four persons the two Smiths and Elders Taylor and Richards. Taylor was wounded, being hit several times—all flesh wounds—and was the same night taken to Nauvoo. Richards was not hurt and immediately after the mob left the hall, carried Taylor into the cell department of the jail, which was done just before I went upstairs.
Hamilton also described how the Mormons had tried to secure the door when the mob came upstairs and how Smith had fired an old English pepper-box revolver through the doorway. He then commented that “After I had satisfied my curiosity, seen and been among the mob, seen the prophet shot, and seen the dead men, it occurred to me I ought to go home and tell the news. When about 200 yards from the jail I met the company coming ready for business. Nothing was to be done but to “about face,” return to camp and be disbanded; which was promptly done in good order, as their prisoners were dead and not likely to run away.”
As soon as the murders were done the mob disappeared. John Hay remarked of this: “They went home at a killing pace over the wide dusty prairie. Warsaw is eighteen miles from Carthage; the Smiths were killed at half-past five; at a quarters before eight the returning crowd began to drag their weary limbs through the main street of Warsaw,—at such an astounding rate of speed had the lash of their own thoughts driven them.”
They were concerned that the Nauvoo Legion would march but it did not. While the women and children were ferried across the river to Missouri, the “men kept guard night and day in the hazel thickets around the town.” But nothing happened. The Mormon leaders called for patience and mourning but not revenge. They sent a delegation to Carthage to retrieve their dead. The bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were returned to Nauvoo the next day and buried on June 29.