The Assassination of Joseph Smith Jr.: Meanings and Interpretations

This lithograph depicts Joseph Smith as the head of the Nauvoo Legion. The Nauvoo Temple is in the background.

This lithograph depicts Joseph Smith as the head of the Nauvoo Legion. The Nauvoo Temple is in the background.


I was at a local party the other night and ended up in conversation with a professor who teaches early nineteenth century history about Joseph Smith Jr. and early Mormonism. Our conversation turned to Smith’s assassination at Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844. We discussed how it was the direct result of the Nauvoo government’s destruction of the Expositor, published by Mormon dissidents in June 1844, but that the story was much more complex. It related to longstanding strife between the Mormon “quest for refuge,” to use Marvin Hill’s term, from American republicanism.

Those who embraced Mormonism, Marvin S. Hill appropriately concluded, saw little of worth in American civilization. “They wanted a society that would exclude unnecessary choices and would exclude pluralism,” he wrote in Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Signature Books, 1989). “Above all, they wanted to diminish the secular influences that pluralism engendered.” The Latter Day Saint movement was founded on a fear that the world had gone awry and would subvert or co-opt them if it had the chance. A conspiracy, without question, was afoot either to destroy the institution or to make its adherents like other Americans. The result was an effort to close off the outside world, “to revitalize this magical world view [of Medieval society, to] combine it with elements of more traditional Christian­ity, and [to] establish a theocratic society where the unconverted, the poor, and the socially and religiously alienated could gather and find a refuge from the competing sects and the uncertainties they engendered.”

In another time, in another circumstance, Joseph Smith might have gotten away with the destruction of the Expositor. Not this time.

The non-Mormon public surrounding Nauvoo reacted against the Mormon silencing of the Expositor. After considerable legal machinations on both sides, finally on June 25, 1844, Joseph Smith and others surrendered to authorities in Carthage. When Smith and his associates arrived in the Hancock County seat local militia, townspeople, and thrill-seekers from outside gathered in the center of the town to view the Mormon leaders. It was a cross between a carnival and a riot as 1,400 people crowded the Mormons. Some shouted abuses, others merely watched, all were impressed.

For most of the next three days the Smiths underwent a series of legal actions and public displays before they were assassinated on June 27, 1844. An account of the assassination came from William R. Hamilton, one of the youngest members of the local militia, the Carthage Grays.

Later a judge in the county, he was the son of Artois Hamilton, who owned the hotel in Carthage where wounded Mormon apostle John Taylor was taken and cared for after the attack. Hamilton described his experiences of the murders in a letter to Foster Walker, a resident of Pontoosac, in Hancock County, who was seeking recollections from many non-Mormons on this subject near the turn of the twentieth century.

Hamilton’s account demonstrates very well a lack of preparation for the attack, and the less than spectacular response made by the militia stationed in town. Hamilton commented that he and another boy were lookouts to see if anyone was coming into town. They especially were to watch the Nauvoo road. “We had a large field glass and could clearly see in every direction save due north for several miles.”

Hamilton and his friend kept watch all day, but saw nothing out of the ordinary “until about 4 p.m. when we saw a body of armed men in wagons and on horse approaching the low timber, a little north or west from the jail, and about two miles distant.” They reported this to their captain, and were told to report if the men came through a stand of timber on the outskirts of town. Hamilton then narrated the rest of the episode with a certain degree of aplomb.

In about a half hour after a body of armed men—about 125—came out of the woods on foot and started in a single file, behind an old rail fence, in the direction of the jail. They were then about three-fourths of a mile distant. This we at once attempted to report, but could not find the captain; and…told another officer, who after considerable delay found the captain who ordered the company to fall into line. By this time the mob had reached the jail and had commenced shooting. I there forgot all about orders to put on accoutrements and fall into line; but immediately started on double quick for the jail. To digress: For one of the best drilled and equipped companies in the state at that time–on that occasion we would have taken the prize for the best exhibition of an awkward squad in existence. I have always thought the officers and some privates were working for delay.

Above the fold front page of the only issue of Expositor ever published.

Above the fold front page of the only issue of Expositor ever published.

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,” 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.”

What does all of this mean? I would suggest that the murders of Joseph Smith and his brother at Carthage on that hot June afternoon of 1844 was an expression of morality and politics in American culture. Since the creation of the nation, citizens have recognized that the public sphere is filled with a variety of voices, a variety of claims about what is good and bad, and a variety of positions on the direction of the “ship of state.”

The last address of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.

The last address of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.

In Hancock County the non-Mormon citizens believed that  Smith had been using the state as a shield to protect them from justice. They recognized, even if officials of the state did not, that the bureaucratically administered state allows little room for the pathos of the citizenry. Such an institution operates under a set of rules that are little known and less understood by those outside.

The non-Mormons in Hancock County keenly felt that the administrative system had allowed Smith to escape. They used the judicial bureaucracy to arrest Smith and others in decision-making positions, but were stymied in obtaining justice. Then, it took significant effort to engage the interest of the Illinois governor and to get him to actually do something about the situation.

Finally, when taken into custody and brought to Carthage, all manner of legal maneuvering and dismissal of charges and the like made it appear that Joseph Smith might walk as he had done so many times before. It appeared to the non-Mormons that the governmental bureaucracy was on autopilot and not responsive to what they considered the legitimate of the majority of the citizenry.

Pursuing action through the judicial system seemed to have no point, and because of this some of the non-Mormons of the county resorted to direct action that short-circuited the bureaucratic machinery. Even those not directly involved in the attack on the jail, as the comments of those in the guard indicated, recognized the legitimacy of the murder. After the fact, as John Hay wrote in an 1869 article, everyone in the county knew why Smith had been killed and who had done it. In the murder trials after the fact, however, “it was not proven, and the verdict NOT GUILTY was right in law. And you cannot find in this generation an original inhabitant of Hancock County who will not stoutly sustain that verdict.”

By taking the type of action they did in June 1844, the citizens of Hancock County reasserted fundamental direction over the government whether for good or ill. Political scientist Jurgen Habermas has suggested that when the “instrumental rationality” of the bureaucratic state intrudes too precipitously into the “lifeworld” of its citizenry, they rise up in some form to correct its course or to cast it off altogether. The “lifeworld” is evident in the ways in which language creates the contexts of interpretations of everyday circumstances, decisions, and actions. He argues that the “lifeworld” is “represented by a culturally transmitted and linguistically organized stock of interpretive patterns.” For a sizable proportion of the citizens of Hancock County, the activities of the Mormons had intruded into their “lifeworld,” as their expressions of discontent demonstrated, and they could obtain no resolution from the “instrumental rationality” residing in the state. They took direct and violent action and justified it without a tinge of conscience for the rest of their lives.

From the standpoint of the Mormons the murders were an act of mobocracy and it made Joseph Smith a religious martyr. From the perspective of the bureaucratic state they also viewed it as an act of mobocracy. Local non-Mormons, however, viewed it differently. They saw it as an act necessary to overturn tyranny. The question to be asked and to be debated indefinitely, who were the martyrs and who the tyrants?

This entry was posted in Community of Christ, History, Mormonism, Personal, Politics, Religion, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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