Kenneth W. Godfrey, “Remembering the Deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 301-315
Remembering the Deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith
Kenneth W. Godfrey
Kenneth W. Godfrey was director of the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to Utah State University in Logan, Utah when this was published.
Believing that Joseph Smith was indeed the author of the history that bears his name, the celebrated though controversial biographer, Fawn McKay Brodie, wrote: “There are few men, however, who have written so much and told so little about themselves. To search his six-volume autobiography for the inner springs of his character is to come away baffled” (Brodie vii). With the publication of the personal papers, diaries, letters, and sermons of Joseph Smith by Dean C. Jessee, Andrew F. Ehat, and Lyndon W. Cook, historians have become cognizant that the Prophet revealed much about himself, his feelings, attitudes, even his deep spirituality. Thus, though the flame of his life was snuffed out more than 148 years ago, it is possible for modern Latter-day Saints to become intimately acquainted with the martyred leader. In this paper, I will detail the last few days in the Prophet’s life, focusing on his thoughts and feelings and what they reveal about him as a person as he confronted his imminent death.
In full uniform from the top of a frame building that provided his platform, Lieutenant General Joseph Smith addressed the Nauvoo Legion for what would be the last time (History of the Church 6:497; hereafter HC). Concluding his remarks, the Prophet expressed his willingness to sacrifice his life for the Latter-day Saints. Then with some emotion, he continued, “You are a good people; therefore I love you with all my heart. . . . You have stood by me in the hour of trouble, and I am willing to sacrifice my life for your preservation” (HC 6:500). As events continued to unfold, the Prophet called the Twelve Apostles home, learned of a multitude of threats upon his life by the non-Mormons of Hancock County, advised his older brother Hyrum to take his family and flee to the safety of Cincinnati, and proclaimed his own innocence in letters sent to Illinois Governor Thomas Ford.
Convinced that should he go to Carthage as the governor requested, he would face certain death, the Prophet sent representatives to the governor, met with advisors, and carefully considered his alternatives. At dusk on Saturday, 22 June 1844, Joseph read a letter just delivered from the governor, remaking as he finished, “’There is no mercy—no mercy here.’” Perplexed for only a moment, his countenance suddenly brightened as he declared, “The way is open. It is clear to my mind what to do” (HC 6:545). Having received divine guidance, Joseph proceeded to outline a plan that would save not only his own life, but the Nauvoo populace as well.
The Prophet told six of his disciples to inform the people of Nauvoo to go about their business, scatter about, and not congregate in groups. The governor’s forces, Joseph predicted, would come to Nauvoo, search the city, but would harm neither persons nor property, not even bothering a hair on anyone’s head. With Hyrum, Porter Rockwell, and Willard Richards, the Prophet would cross the Mississippi and proceed west. If his own words represent accurately his deepest feelings and concerns, then the Prophet was at least as concerned for the safety of his followers as for his own life (HC 6:545-46). Though he cheerfully told Reynolds Cahoon that they should meet again, Joseph, after bidding his family farewell, came from the Mansion House, “tears flowing fast,” holding “a handkerchief to his face,” so overcome with emotion that he was unable to utter a word (547). Over the next five days, the Prophet appears calm and confident in public while reflecting a sense of melancholy, even depression and resignation, in private.
At the home of William Jordan, on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, Joseph learned that some of his followers were accusing him “of cowardice for leaving his people, concluding it was like the fable, when the wolves came the shepherd ran, leaving the sheep to be devoured.” Even though God had clearly shown him not only the way to save his own life, but the lives of his people as well, the Prophet, deeply hurt by the cowardice accusations, remarked, “If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of none to myself.” Convinced that a return to Illinois soil meant that he would be butchered, Joseph, perhaps like his brother Hyrum, became reconciled to his fate (Blake 69). Slowly making his way to the river and the boat, he told Porter Rockwell that he would like to talk to the people once more. Rockwell said that it might be done by starlight (Ibid 70-71). However, this was not to be.
Witnessing the marriage of Hyrum’s daughter, Lovina, to Lorin Walker, Joseph then spent his last night in Nauvoo, Sunday 23 June, with Emma, Joseph III, little Alexander, Frederick, and Julia. On horseback the next morning, Monday 24 June, after carefully closing the wicket-latch on his door, Joseph, with 17 men, rode up Main Street, turned right on Mulholland, and continued on to the temple. Stopping at the brow of the hill, the Prophet looked over the city and remarked, “’This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens’” (HC 6:554).
The Prophet and his disciples traveled east on the Carthage road. Having gone 14 miles, they met Captain Dunn and his soldiers at the Albert G. Fellows farm, just four miles west of Carthage. At this confrontation, the Prophet declared, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, yet I am calm as a summer’s morning” (HC 6:555; 7:187). Returning to Nauvoo with Dunn and his company, Joseph asked the Saints to give up their weapons as the governor had requested. Twice more he bid his family good-bye, and as he swing his six foot frame into the saddle, tears welled into his eyes only to be not so carefully wiped away on his sleeve. The Prophet, an emotional man even in the best of times, seemed certain that he would never see Nauvoo or his family again.
The good-byes said and the work done, Joseph left Nauvoo at 6:00 pm. Having been warned that a judicial trap was already set, he dreaded his arrival in Carthage, the seat of Hancock County, knowing that he probably would not leave there alive. Yet Joseph braced himself for what lay ahead (Jones 83). Even as the company slowly traveled east, Dan Jones said rumors swept the county as Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw (Illinois) Signal, boasted that 7,000 armed men were ready to kill the Prophet and then attack the largely unarmed residents of Nauvoo (84). Joseph was certain, however, that his own blood would satisfy the mob and that his followers would be spared. When they came again to the Fellow’s farm and the travelers paused for refreshment, Jones noted that the Prophet asked that his friends return to Nauvoo and safety (86). None of them heeded his request. Joined by Dunn and his company returning with the state arms from Nauvoo, the group were escorted into Carthage, arriving at 11:55 pm. The hooting, whooping, and profanity that greeted their entrance significantly increased as the prisoners made their way to the Hamilton House to meet Governor Thomas Ford. Only after the governor promised that on the morrow would they see and hear the Prophet did the soldiers retire.
The prisoners spent their first night in Carthage in the Hamilton House. Joseph and the others under indictment spent most of Tuesday, 25 June, talking with governor, conferring with lawyers, posting bail for the charge of inciting a riot, but then being bound over on the accusation of treason which disallowed any bail.
In the presence of several officers, Joseph declared, in the name of the Lord, that they would “witness scenes of blood and sorrow,” until their souls would “be perfectly satiated with blood” (Blake 75). Incarcerated with the Prophet in Carthage Jail, Dan Jones remembers that the prisoners spent the night “in pleasant conversation about the secret of godliness.” When both Joseph and Hyrum remarked that they “were about to finish their race and go to their joy,” Jones recalled that he had “never seen them so cheerful and so heavenly minded.” Nor had he ever before thought of Carthage Jail as “the gates of Paradise” (88).
Awake early, Joseph and the others spent Wednesday, 26 June, again in the company of attorneys, governors, and friends. Displaying his courage as he witnessed a “mob gathering and assuming a threatening aspect,” the Prophet boldly walked into their midst, locked arms with the “worst mobocrat,” and together with Hyrum was escorted to the courthouse (HC 6:595). Legal arguments ensued, and finally Joseph and the others were “thrust into close confinement” (597).
Dr. John Bernhisel, the Prophet’s friend, not under indictment himself, quickly secured an audience with the governor and was given an order allowing the prisoners “to occupy a large open room containing a bedstead.” There they had “free access to the jailer’s house” where there were no bars or locks on the windows and doors (Tyler 46). The prisoners prepared themselves for still another long night.
During the evening, the Prophet’s uncle, Patriarch John Smith, visited and asked questions. Joseph’s lawyers came with legal advice. Cyrus H. Wheelock gave Joseph a six shooter pistol (HC 6:607). President Taylor remembered that there was “a great variety of conversation, which was rather desultory than otherwise, and referred to . . . former and present grievances.” Willard Richards offered his life as a ransom for Joseph’s, and John Taylor asked for the Prophet’s consent to go to Nauvoo and collect a force sufficient to free the leaders (Tyler 46). Neither the offer nor the request was granted (47). Taylor remembered that the Prophet “objected[,] preferring peace” (Taylor 2). Occasionally Joseph preached to the guards, encouraging them to return home and not join “with the mobs to persecute any further” (89).
William Clayton, the Prophet’s clerk, sent a letter even as messengers were dispatched to gather witnesses for the next day’s trial. John Taylor prayed and Hyrum read and commented upon extracts from the Book of Mormon, “on the imprisonments and deliverance of the servants of God for the Gospel’s sake.” Joseph bore his testimony as to the “divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon” (HC 6:600).
It was midnight before the prisoners retired for the night. Willard Richards continued to write until his candle burned out. The prisoners placed a chair against the door postured in such a way that it would fall and awaken them should an attack take place during the night (Jones 89). A gun fired close by caused the Prophet to leave his bed and lie on the floor between Dan Jones and John S. Fullmer. There he told the two men that he was certain he was going to die and wished he could see his family again and “‘preach to the Nauvoo Saints once more’”(HC 6:600-01). Years later, Jones remembered that sometime during the night a group of men came to the door and Joseph Smith invited them in, declaring that “it made no difference to him whether he died at that time or at daylight” (Jones 89). His boldness disarmed the intruders and they left. The rest of the night passed without incident.
By 5:00 AM on Thursday, 27 June, the first visitors arrived at the jail on their way to Nauvoo (HC 6:602). With their departure, the Prophet asked Dan Jones to inquire as to the reason for the firing of the gun, the intrusion of the night, and who was responsible (Jones 90). Answered with curses and threats on the Prophet’s person, Jones confronted Governor Ford, reminding him of his pledge of protection. Twice more that morning Jones warned the governor that the mob congregated in Carthage was determined to kill the Mormon leaders. Prevented from returning to the jail, Jones was dispatched to Quincy with a letter from Joseph. Because the mob believed Jones had been sent to Nauvoo with orders for the Legion to come in force and free the prisoners, his departure may well have hastened the murders of the Prophet and his patriarch brother (91).
Joseph wrote to Emma expressing his love for her and their children and declaring that he was “resigned to [his] lot” (HC 6:605). Sent from the jail on errands, Wheelock, Markham, and Fullmer were not allowed to return, leaving only four prisoners. Thus, the morning of the Prophet’s last day passed quickly. After a dinner which Joseph and Hyrum did not eat, the prisoners, John Taylor remembered, felt “unusually dull and languid,” and sent for wine to revive them (Tyler 47-48).
Elder Taylor, as the afternoon waned, in consonance with the languid feelings of the prisoners, sang a hymn that had only lately been introduced into Nauvoo, known today as “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” (Hymns #29). Later he remembered that Hyrum had requested that he sing (Hicks 399). Some time lapsed and then Hyrum asked that Elder Taylor sing again. Protesting that he did not feel like singing, Taylor was admonished by the Patriarch, “Oh, never mind; commence singing, and you will get the spirit of it” and he sang (Tyler 48).
At 4:00 PM the guard was changed, and the Prophet conversed with the new guards about Joseph H. Jackson, the Law brothers, and other “Nauvoo conspirators.” Sitting in the window, John Taylor saw a number of men with painted faces make their way toward the jail. A Carthage housewife out shaking a rug saw the men too, as did Willard Richards (Taylor 48). The Prophet secured “his six-shooter” from his coat and Hyrum got the single-barrel Joseph had given him the day before. John Taylor grabbed the Markham hickory cane while handing his own smaller waking stick to Willard Richards.
The firing of a ball through the keyhole caused Willard and Hyrum to leap back, still facing the door. Even as they jumped, another ball passed through the panel striking Hyrum on the “left side of the nose, entering his face and head. At the same instant, another ball from . . . outside” the jail hit him in the back. As it passed through his body, it struck and broke his watch (Tyler 48). John Taylor believed because of the height of the jail and the angle of the missile that that ball must have been fired by a Carthage Grey, ostensibly at the jail to protect the Mormon prisoners. Subsequently two other balls hit Hyrum, and falling flat on his back, he explained, “I am a dead man,” and never moved again (Ibid 48). John Taylor did not forget the “deep feeling of sympathy and regard manifested in the countenance of Brother Joseph” as he, leaning over Hyrum, exclaimed, “Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!” (Ibid 48). He quickly arose and with determination opened the door slightly and “snapped the pistol six successive times.” However, only three of the chambers discharged, wounding three of the attackers. Joseph’s firing caused the assailants to pause, but it was only a moment before they pushed the door open and again began firing into the room. John Taylor and Willard Richards “parried them off with [their] stick[s], giving another direction to the balls” (Ibid 48).
The last words they heard the Prophet speak were, “‘That’s right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can’” (Tyler 49). Believing there might be friends outside, John Taylor sprang to the window directly opposite the door. Just as he was leaping out, a ball stuck him in the thigh, flattening itself on the bone and severing a nerve. Although he thought he was falling out the window, he suddenly found himself back in the room crawling for the bed, all the while receiving three other balls (Ibid 50). It was only after he was taken to Nauvoo that Taylor learned it was a bullet that had hit his vest watch that had thrust him back into the cell (Ibid 63).
The Prophet, seeing there was no safety in the room and “probably thinking that it would save the lives of his brethren in the room if could escape, turned calmly from the door, dropped his pistol on the floor, and sprang to the window, as two balls pierced him from the door and one entered his right breast from without” (Jessee, “Return” 16). As he fell, Willard Richards heard him exclaim, “Oh Lord, my God!” (HC 6:620).
William Daniels remembered that Joseph fell “partly on his right shoulder and back, his neck and head reaching the ground a little before his feet, and he rolled instantly on his face” (Jessee, “Return” 16). A man, barefoot and bareheaded, pants rolled above his knees, set the martyred leader against the south side of the curb well. Colonel Williams then ordered four men to shoot him again. “A slight cringe of the body was all the indication of pain visible when the balls struck him, and he fell on his face.” As the same ruffian, bowie knife in hand was about to strike Joseph’s body, the clouds parted and sunlight encompassed the slain Prophet (Ibid 16). A shout, “The Mormons are coming!” caused the mob to disperse, leaving a strange, foreboding silence that soon engulfed the county seat (16). The assassins believed the light signified God’s approval of their act, while the Latter-day Saints were convinced otherwise! (16; see also Lightner).
By eight o’clock the following morning, his left ear and cheek burned by a musket ball, Richards sat astride a horse beside the two wagons that were carrying the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. One wagon was driven by Samuel Smith, and each was escorted by four mounted militiamen. The blood-soaked corpses were protected from the sun’s heat and flied by prairie brush and an Indian blanket (Hill 1).
After a Friday night viewing by thousands of shaken, stunned Latter-day Saints, the bodies of the slain leaders were secretly entombed in the basement of the Nauvoo House (Van Wagoner and Walker 3), while a hearse bearing coffins containing sandbags passed a Nauvoo meeting ground even as William W. Phelps was eulogizing the Prophet and the Patriarch. Phelps funeral sermon seemed “more intent upon inciting riot than upon preventing it” (Ibid 4). As he concluded his discourse, Phelps noted that he looked with great anticipation to the Judgment Day when all worthy Saints would be reunited with the martyrs even as the trump sounds and Jehovah declared: “The saints are free . . . and not a righteous man is lost” (Ibid 18).
Even though it is possible to flesh out a great many facts regarding the martyrdom, it is more difficult to reconstruct the inner thoughts and feelings of the Prophet at that time. As mentioned earlier, five days before he was murdered as he left his family to flee west, tears “flowed fast,” and he held a handkerchief to his face being so overcome with emotion that he uttered no words (HC 6:54).
Without sentimentalizing this occurrence, it is nevertheless helpful to make some generalizations. Joseph, perhaps more than most men, loved his wife and their children. Being convinced because of sacred ordinances revealed to him that husbands, wives, and children were sealed together for eternity was perhaps the reason the Prophet was more kind, more affectionate, more caring than many of his contemporaries. Partings were painful and poignant for him. His display of emotion belies, too, the notion that American fathers at this time were emotionally removed, even aloof, with respect to their wives and children. Continuing this theme, in his last letter to Emma just hours before his death, the Prophet asked that she give his love to their children. Admittedly, this letter was intended, in part at least, to alleviate some of Emma’s fears regarding his safety, which would cause him to minimize the expressions of sentiment lest they alarm her. Still he conveyed a tenderness, yes, even shadows of a deep love. Joseph, as the arms of death beckoned, appears to have been emotionally involved in thoughts of family and home (see Godfrey 27-31).
If the Prophet’s own words reflect his inner feelings of the last five days of his life, he was experiencing a greatly magnified love for his followers, the Nauvoo Saints. The statement, “If my life is no value to my friends, it is of none to myself,” was directed at those accusing him of cowardice, even as he stood safely on Iowa soil. As others hurried to the boat and the Mississippi crossing, Joseph in quiet tones told Porter Rockwell of his wish to “get the people together, and . . . talk to them by starlight” (HC 6:551). Again, on horseback as he paused at the Nauvoo Temple, he remarked, “This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens” (HC 6:554), revealing in these statements his deep attachment to both the city and its people. It is almost as if he desired that the land remember him who had built upon it a might city.
Joseph seems to have felt, though he left it unarticulated, that once he had lived on the land and had been a partner with its moods, secrets, and seasons, it was then difficult to leave. It was as if the thousands of sounds, sights and smells, and people had become a part of him (Logan 5). Having directed the construction of a city upon what had been a wilderness swamp, the Prophet seemed to believe that there was something stirring about human labor and care in an empty country. As Willa Cather writes in The Professor’s House, “It . . . makes you feel differently about the ground you walk over every day” (194). Reluctantly and in a melancholy spirit, Joseph left Nauvoo, hoping that both the people and the land would remember him. He knew he would remember them.
The Prophet also wanted Daniel H. Wells to cherish his memory and not think him a bad person, perhaps not realizing fully that not only Wells but millions of others, to use the words of the LDS hymn, “shall know ‘Brother Joseph’ again” (Hymns #27). Convinced that the Church would one day fill the world, he probably could not have been fully cognizant at that moment of the numberless hosts yet unborn who indeed would also learn to “cherish” his memory.
As the shadow of his life darkened, the word calm flowed from his pen and lips more than a few times. He told the company escorting him to Carthage that “he was calm as a summer’s morning” (HC 6:555; 7:187). Moreover, in his 25 June letter to Emma he wrote, “We all feel calm and composed” (6:565). And just eight hours before he was killed, he felt “resigned” to his lot (6:605).
Even though Joseph Smith wrote about being calm and exhibited a degree of taciturness, his dreams perhaps reveal the tension, the stress, and the pressure that engulfed him. The day before his death, the Prophet dreamed that William and Wilson Law had combined to throw him into a well or pit, dug so deep that he was unable to get free but could see over the top. While attempting to extricate himself, he heard the brothers crying and pleading for help. Wilson was in the grasp of a wild beast, and William, “blue in the face, had green poison forced out of his mouth, caused by the coiling of a large snake around his body.” He cried, “Oh Brother Joseph, Brother Joseph, come and save me or I die.” In answer the Prophet shouted, “I cannot, William; I would be willing, but you have tied me and put me in this pit and I am powerless to help you or liberate myself” (HC 6:461-62). His former friends, now enemies, had placed Joseph in a state of helplessness from which he could not escape. The dream may well represent the conflict and the emotions inside the imprisoned leader as events over which he had no control were rapidly bring his life to a close.
Before Cyrus Wheelock left Carthage, Joseph had prophesied that “he would never forget the occurrences of this day,” and then related a different dream of the previous night, about how his Kirtland, Ohio, enemies fought among themselves as Joseph “Walked out of the barn about up to his ankles in mud” (HC 6:610). This action on his part suggests that Joseph believed that there was nothing more “worth contending about,” and he was withdrawing, leaving; for him the battle was over. The dream might also depict the anxiety Joseph was experiencing regarding the probability of his death in sharp contrast to the calm demeanor he was displaying (Grosbeck 21).
Two days before his martyrdom, Joseph told W.W. Phelps of a dream that involved fire, walking on water, and the destruction of an entire town. In that dream, both Hyrum and Joseph are able to walk on the water and are subsequently joined by his brother Samuel who ironically died only weeks later. While interpreting the dreams of Joseph Smith is, at best, dangerous, I will hazard a few guesses. This dream seems to suggest that Joseph, even though surrounded by hatred and catastrophe, would complete the journey to God and attain eternal life together with his brothers (Grosbeck 28). In the dream a city was destroyed which may denote that subconsciously the Prophet was not as certain as his statements would suggest that his blood alone would sufficiently quench the mob’s deep blood thirst. These three dreams then might well reflect the turmoil, ambiguity, and conflict raging within Joseph that he would not publicly display.
We know, too, from eyewitness accounts that in those last days the Prophet’s thoughts were at times not only centered on matters of legal import but meandered to things regarding his and his fellow prisoner’s faith as well. He read from the Book of Mormon, bore his testimony to both prisoners and guards, and his last words have been interpreted by some as a greeting to his Savior whom he may have believed was there not only to welcome him but accompany him more (D&C 130:16). His actions reflect his deep commitment to assurance that God had in fact inspired and bestowed on him the power to prepare the world for the second coming of His Son.
Contrary to what the skeptical, unbelieving Fawn McKay Brodie wrote, Joseph Smith revealed much about himself in the last days and moments of his life. Indeed, the careful student discovers a man of deep compassion, a man of faith, unafraid to bear witness that he had told the truth, that the Book of Mormon was authentic, and that the Restored Church was sanctioned by God. His Carthage jail conduct was above reproach, and like a true martyr he looked death squarely, unflinchingly in the eye. Willing to give his life as a witness for the cause to which he had been called, the Prophet not only “lived great,” but he also “died great in the eyes of God and his people,” to use the words of President John Taylor (D&C 135:3). He sealed his mission and his work with his own blood. Even God could not ask for more.
Perhaps Governor Thomas Ford best captured just what the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith would come to mean to the Church, its members, and the world. He wrote that “the murder of the Smiths, instead of putting an end to . . . the Mormons . . . only bound them together closer than ever, . . . [giving] them new confidence in their faith” (357). Continuing this theme, two pages later he wrote “. . . some gifted man like Paul . . . who will be able by his eloquence to attract crowds of the thousands . . . may succeed in breathing new life into . . . The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and make the name of the martyred Joseph ring as loud, and stir the souls of men as much as the mighty name of Christ itself” (359-60). Ford lived with a fear that should this happen, his own otherwise forgotten name would, like those of Pilate and Herod, be dragged down to posterity (360). To borrow a phrase from the Book of Mormon, Governor Ford’s prediction has “come to pass.”
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