A Masonic Martyrdom: Freemason Involvement in the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith

Melissa K. Bentley, “A Masonic Martyrdom: Freemason Involvement in the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2006 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2006), 3–14.

A Masonic Martyrdom: Freemason Involvement in the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith

Melissa K. Bentley


On June 27, 1844, while incarcerated at Carthage Jail on charges of riot and treason, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were assassinated in cold blood.[1] One to two hundred men, many of them of the Warsaw militia, disguised their faces and stormed the jail. They met only feeble resistance from the guards, the Carthage Greys.[2] Hyrum was the first to fall, exclaiming, “I am a dead man!” as his brother Joseph rushed to his side and sobbed, “Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!”[3] With his revolver, Joseph managed to fire three shots out the narrow opening of the door. He, however, received four bullets himself before the end. While trying to escape through the window, bullets fired from outside the window pierced both his collar bone and chest while he received two more from behind. He cried out, “O Lord My God!” then fell to his death.[4]

The Masonic Aggressors

There is little doubt that the main antagonists in this tragic incident from Mormon history were anti-Mormons from Warsaw, Illinois. Five leading men of the group were tried for murder in a court of law, though none were convicted of any crime. Among these men were Mark Aldrich, cofounder and treasurer of the Warsaw Masonic Lodge No. 21; Levi Williams, colonel of the Warsaw militia; Thomas Cook Sharp, publisher of the anti-Mormon Warsaw Signal; and Jacob C. Davis, a prominent politician. Each was closely tied to the Masonic organization, as were the intended victims of the attack: Joseph and Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards. Both Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Master Masons, were sworn protection through their positions in the fraternity. Hyrum Smith, the leader of the Nauvoo Lodge, was a Most Worshipful Master Mason, and was the most prominent Mason in Nauvoo. The Masonic order is one of fraternal bonds and brotherhood. Why, then, would these men undermine their Masonic oaths and murder their own?

In an article in the Times and Seasons, the editor states: “[Hyrum and Joseph] were both Masons in good standing. Ye brethren of ‘the mystic tie’ what think ye! Where is our good master Joseph and Hyrum? Is there a pagan, heathen, or savage nation on the globe that would not be moved on this great occasion, as the trees of the forest are moved by a mighty wind? Joseph’s last exclamation was ‘O Lord my God!’”[5] This article openly refers to the fact that Joseph and Hyrum were Master Masons, likely to show the Smiths’ elevated status and the respect they should have received. However, this reference also shows that the connection between the Mormon leaders and Masonry was open and public. The editor would not have presented new, distracting material when trying to recount the martyrdom but would rather write material pertinent to the subject at hand. This passage also shows a suspicion of Mason involvement in the deed. The editor directly addresses the Masons. Perhaps some in the mob were recognized as fellow Masons of other lodges, and the editor now asks the murderers how, when bound by “the mystic tie,” they could act against their consciences thus. The paper condemns these Masons as worse than pagans, heathens, or savages, who would have done as much as to step in. To expect Masons who were not present to have intervened in the murder attempt would be irrational and implausible. Likewise, the Mormon Masons doubtless would have done what was necessary to save their leaders. Therefore, it is neither the uninvolved Masons nor the Mormon Masons the publisher is appealing to. He is directly implicating the murderers, identifying them as members of the Masonic order. Joseph crying out “O Lord My God!” just moments before his death is also condemning evidence, and the editor knows it. The phrase is part of the Masonic signal of distress, or the Grand Hailing Sign: “O Lord My God, is there no help for the widow’s son?”[6] Joseph’s choice of words is not simply coincidental. It is likely he suspected some members of the mob to be his fellow Masons and was making a direct appeal to the “mystic ties” that should have protected him.[7]

Of the nine men indicted for murder, four received prominent advancements within the organization immediately following their acquittal. Mark Aldrich was even elevated to a Master Mason on October 8, 1845, in Warsaw Lodge 21 just prior to the trial for the murder.[8] Unable to elevate a member currently in conflict with the law, the lodge made the necessary investigations to determine Aldrich’s intent. What they found seems to have been pleasing, for shortly afterward, Mark Aldrich was further elevated to Worshipful Master of the Lodge—the sublime degree in Masonry.[9] Those who accompanied him—known Warsaw anti-Mormons Levi Williams, Thomas Cook, and Jacob C. Davis—were soon made Masons in the same lodge.[10]

Only honorable, respectable men who had proved themselves were to be admitted into the Masonic order. Was the assassination considered a demonstration of good character? Members of Warsaw Lodge 21 were most certainly involved. While the leaders may not have ordered the assassination, they certainly approved of it and rewarded those involved. After the murder trial, Grand Master William P. Walker reported to the Grand Lodge: “Your committee beg leave to suggest to the M. W. Grand Master, that perhaps it will not be necessary to inflict punishment to the extent of his great authority; that although the lodge erred, and greatly erred, yet they conceive the error was an error of the head and not of the heart; that all the harm has been done in the case that can be done; the men have been since tried by the laws of their country and a jury of their peers, and acquitted.”[11] Grand Master Walker acknowledges the error of the lodge in admitting members currently under the suspicion of murder. While Walker cannot deny the crime of murder, he seeks to justify it, showing his sympathies with the Smiths’ Masonic murderers. He reaffirms that the lodge made an error of the head in ignoring customary Masonic policy, but does not make any admission of guilt of the heart. He clearly states that the lodge believed the men truly worthy of such esteem. He uses the accused’s legal dismissal from court in order to justify the lodge’s actions.

It is interesting to note that during this time the Warsaw Lodge lost its charter. However, shortly after the acquittal of the offending mobbers, the Warsaw Lodge once more regained its charter and was warmly welcomed back into the order of Freemasonry.[12] The four members of the Warsaw Lodge 21 were accepted as good, deserving men.

Cause for Action: The Mormons’ Offense

But what could have caused the Warsaw Lodge and other Illinois lodges to murder their fellow Masons and justify—even reward—it so easily? No doubt there was strong resentment and fear to justify such a crime. From the very establishment of the Nauvoo Lodge, Mormon Masons found themselves at odds with their Masonic neighbors. Joseph Smith might have hoped that Masonic ties might not only unify the people of Zion but also create a stronger bond with their neighbors. It is possible that, fearing another dispute similar to the Jackson County tragedy, the Mormon leaders believed that common grounds of morality and brotherhood would smooth out relations.[13] Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, these Masonic ties were the cause of increased tension in Illinois.

The Nauvoo Lodge was established on October 15, 1841, after having originally appealed to the nearby Bodley Lodge in Quincy, Illinois, for an endorsement.[14] When Quincy refused, the Mormons in Nauvoo appealed to Abraham Jonas, the Jewish Grand Master of Illinois from the Columbus Lodge, to endorse them himself. [15] For a time, Jonas became a friend to the Mormon Masons in Illinois. No one seemed willing to accept the Mormons into the order, but since they went about the process legally and in accordance with their rules, there was little to be done. Quincy’s initial refusal was only the beginning of awkward and tumultuous relations between Mormon and non-Mormon Masons.

The Nauvoo Lodge was characterized by uncommonly rapid growth and an abandonment of traditional conventions. In the meeting that established the Nauvoo Lodge, Jonas made Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon Masons “on sight,” having only heard of their character, forgoing the customary twenty-eight-day waiting period.[16] At the same time, forty-one members were considered for entrance into the order, despite the customary tradition that only one or two be considered at a time. To facilitate swifter introduction and advancement of members, the Nauvoo Lodge revoked the practice of balloting, in which all existing members would vote for or against the member in question.[17] This process could take weeks, hindering the addition of new members in the meantime. Non-Mormon Masons felt their order was becoming flooded with new members, many of whom were disregarding customs they held dear. One commented, “There is some reason to fear that the intention and ancient landmarks of our institution have been departed from to an inexcusable extent.”[18]

In the space of five months, the lodge in Nauvoo had initiated 256 candidates—six times the number of all other Illinois lodge initiations and advancements in that year combined.[19] This greatly concerned other Masons of Illinois, who outside of Nauvoo numbered only 227, even with the addition of six new lodges in the year 1842.[20] By 1843, the Mormons controlled five lodges. The growing Mormon population was a concern outside of the Masonic circles as well. Already they dominated political elections. Their friend Abraham Jonas was easily voted to the state legislature, largely due to Mormon support. Masons feared that the dramatic increase of Mormon Masons would create a theocracy within the Masonic order. “Almost every church leader was a Mason and nearly two-thirds of all Freemasons in Illinois were Latter-day Saints.”[21] As the situation progressed, with an average of five Masons added into the Nauvoo ranks a day, it is no wonder the Masons outside of Nauvoo felt overwhelmed.[22]

Another issue of discontent between the Masons and Mormons was the introduction of the sacred Mormon temple ceremony. Masons suspected the similarities between their rituals and the Mormon’s newly introduced covenant were more than coincidence, accusing Joseph of violating the sacred oath he took to keep the Masonic rituals secret and separate from non-Masons. Joseph Smith, on the other hand, maintained that the covenant of the endowment was a ritual older than even the Masons and that “freemasonry . . . [was] the apostate endowment, as sectarian religion [was] the apostate religion.”[23] Mormons had little trouble accepting these temple ordinances as divinely inspired, but Masons, who did not have faith in Joseph as a divine prophet, saw it as a crude form of plagiarism. Masons greatly valued their secrecy and exclusive knowledge. They were already insulted by the common nature Masonry was taking on in the Mormon communities in Illinois; they were more than irate at the public nature of what they held to be sacred and secret ceremonies. Due to a misunderstanding of the Mormon endowment, Masons even accused Joseph and the members of the Nauvoo lodge of initiating women into the the Masonic order.[24] Such rumors contributed to the list of accusations against the Mormons.

Other complaints against the Mormons included immorality. According to Masonic doctrine, Masons were not to violate the chastity of any Master Mason’s female relative.[25] Nancy Rigdon, daughter of Mason Sidney Rigdon, and Sarah Pratt, wife of Orson Pratt, also a Mason, filed complaints against the Prophet, claiming he had dealt with them inappropriately. The accusation was ill founded in both cases; Joseph Smith had no intention of such a relationship with Mrs. Pratt.[26] It is true Joseph did propose marriage to Nancy Rigdon, but it was neither improper nor deceitful according to the Mormon practice of plural marriage.[27] According to John W. Rigdon, Nancy’s brother, Joseph proposed to Nancy sometime at the end of 1843 or the beginning of 1844.[28] However, Nancy was repulsed by the idea of polygamy and “flatly refused [Joseph], saying if she ever got married she would marry a single man or none at all, and thereupon took her bonnet and went home.” Sidney Rigdon continues to say that “the story got out and it became the talk of the town that Joseph had made a proposition to Nancy Rigdon to become his wife, and that she refused him.” When Joseph came by the house a few days after, Nancy was still quite bitter and felt as though she had been insulted.[29] To non-Mormons (and, as shown by Nancy Rigdon’s reception, to some Mormons as well), the concept of plural marriage appeared indecent and was a strong complaint against the Mormons at the time. Such differences of opinion and conduct were yet another point of disagreement between the two parties. Already suspicious of Joseph Smith and his dealings, the non-Mormon Masons of Illinois were all too eager to implicate Joseph with improper behavior.

It was not only Joseph Smith who received undue scrutiny, however. The Nauvoo Lodge was examined and suspended for a short time due to the increasing number of Masons in the lodge.[30] Abraham Jonas, however, believed that if the Nauvoo Masons “were not Mormons that lodge would stand in the highest of any lodge.”[31] The prejudice against Mormons, most particularly those Masonic leaders in Nauvoo, had reached a boiling point. But could this really justify murder?

A Parallel to the Morgan Murder

Nearly twenty years before the Martyrdom, a Mason named Captain William Morgan was dispatched by his fellow Masons. Morgan became a Mason in Rochester in 1823, but was excluded from the Batavia chapter. Bitter at this rejection, he began working on a book divulging secret information regarding the Masonic order, The Illustrations of Masonry. When local Masons discovered this, hostilities arose in the form of anonymous persecutions. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to burn down his printing press on September 8, 1826. Unable to stop Morgan’s work, Masons had him arrested for debt, hoping that during the search of his belongings the condemning manuscript might be found. Once cleared of this charge, Morgan was detained on another trumped-up charge. While imprisoned in Batavia, on September 12, 1826, Morgan was kidnapped. A group of Masons formed a mob and escorted William Morgan into a covered carriage.[32] From there, everything else is speculation. Some believe he may have been released across the Canadian border. However, it is far more likely that he was thrown into the junction of Niagara River and Lake Ontario.[33] People at the time assumed the case to be one of murder, and the Masonic order soon became known as a dangerous force, capable of murder to protect their secret order.

The Morgan incident was extensively covered and only solidified prejudice against the Freemasons at the time. It became a favorite topic in newspaper articles. Over time, denunciations of the Masonic order grew more and more vehement. Stearns, a contemporary commentator, stated in his book, first published in 1829: “Masonry is a murderous institution. It is based on laws which require murder. . . . Who then does not see that the very principles, spirit and essence of this ancient fraternity are murderous!”[34] Stearns goes on to describe the Morgan incident: “But where is Morgan? Where is the unhappy man, who in their clutches, cried murder! murder! ! murder! ! ![35] The Morgan incident clearly illustrated the anxieties and the insecurity of Masons in the New York area, and later the Masonic organization, as anti-Masonic sentiment spread. Masons were very sensitive to betrayal, particularly in times of persecution, and did not hesitate to rid the order of one of their own if they felt a dissenter was a threat. Even though Freemasons professed ideas of brotherhood and protection, they were more concerned with the survival of the order than with the survival of certain members. In persecution, they reverted to a more primitive survival mode.

On close investigation, the similarities between Morgan’s demise and the Smiths’ are startling and help us understand how (and why) Masons once more were able to murder a member of their own fraternity. Morgan and the Smiths were sent to prison and were forced to stand trial, both were found innocent, and both, only moments after acquittal, were accused of another crime to detain them. They were separated from their friends and support, kept alone and cornered. The victims, disarmed and powerless, were at the mercy of mob justice. Governor Thomas Ford wrote in his History of Illinois:

On the 23d or 24th day of June Joe Smith, the mayor of Nauvoo, together with his brother Hyrum and all the members of the council and all others demanded, came into Carthage and surrendered themselves prisoners to the constable, on the charge of riot. They all voluntarily entered into a recognizance before the justice of the peace, for their appearance at court to answer the charge. And all of them were discharged from custody except Joe and Hyrum Smith, against whom the magistrate had issued a new writ on a complaint of treason. They were immediately arrested by the constable on this charge and retained in his custody to answer it. [36]

We also see a similarity between Morgan’s kidnapping and the break-in of Carthage Jail. There was only a feeble attempt to fight off forces. In Morgan’s case, only a few men were necessary in the kidnapping; it was not a feat of force. Breaking into the jail at Batavia was likely not without internal aid or consent. In the case of Joseph and Hyrum, their guards, the Greys, were far from indifferent to their fate. They were not only antagonistic toward the Smiths but were suspected of assisting the assault by merely giving “feigned resistance.”[37] The law stepped aside quietly under pretense of resistance in both cases. The manner of their accusation and dispatch being so similar, local Masons might have employed the same tactics to dispose of the Smiths as the New York Masons did with Captain William Morgan.

The strongest similarity is, of course, the cause of aggression. The greatest crime Joseph Smith ever committed in the eyes of the Masons was divulging their Masonic secrets: the same offense Morgan had committed by attempting to publish his book. As a result, the Masons of Hancock County took action in the same way the Masons of New York had done: mob violence.


In conclusion, Illinois Freemasons feared the Mormon influence within their order. The Mormon Masons’ growing population, changes in tradition, and disclosure of secret rites and rituals deeply upset the non-Mormon lodges. As a result, Masons reacted as they had done before in the case of Captain William Morgan, by eliminating the threat. This similarity sheds light on one of the most traumatic incidents in the history of the Church.


[1] Joseph I. Bentley, “The Legal Trials of Joseph Smith,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1,347.

[2] Joseph I. Bentley, “Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:862.

[3] B. H. Roberts, ed., The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period 2: Apostolic Interregnum, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 7:102.

[4] Bentley, “Martyrdom,” 862.

[5] “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, July 15, 1844, 585.

[6] See Mervin B. Hogan, “Freemasonry: Mormonism’s Scorned Presence” (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993), 6.

[7] See Hogan, “Freemasonry: Mormonism’s Scorned Presence,” 6.

[8] Mervin B. Hogan, “Freemasonry and the Lynching at Carthage Jail” (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1981), 15; Robert Sigfrid Wicks and Fred R. Foister, Junius and Joseph: Presidential Politics and the Assassination of the First Mormon Prophet (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2005), 251.

[9] See Hogan, “Lynching,” 22.

[10] See Hogan, “Lynching,” 22.

[11] Grand Master William F. Walker, as cited in Mervin B. Hogan, “Lynching,” 16.

[12] See Wicks and Foister, Junius and Joseph, 252.

[13] See Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 316, 314.

[14] See Leonard, Nauvoo, 314.

[15] See Leonard, Nauvoo, 314.

[16] See Leonard, Nauvoo, 316.

[17] See Kenneth W. Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 64, no. 1 (Spring 1971): 87.

[18] Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” 87.

[19] See Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” 85.

[20] See Leonard, Nauvoo, 316.

[21] Wicks and Foister, Junius and Joseph, 250.

[22] See Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” 86.

[23] Joseph Smith as cited in Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo, 315. The statement was made by the Prophet to Benjamin F. Johnson.

[24] See Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” 86.

[25] See Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” 84–85. Godfrey notes, “Evidence for Smith’s belief that Masons took an oath that they would not violate the chastity of women is his charge that G. M. Nye broke his Masonic oath when he committed adultery with a woman in Nauvoo.”

[26] In an interview, Mrs. Pratt spoke to Wilhelm Wyl about various, supposed Mormon infidelities such as abortion, infidelity, and the atrocious conduct of prominent Mormons, notably Joseph Smith Jr. and John C. Bennett. Her account is both incredible and antagonistic toward the Church and in particular the Mormon leadership. Her accusation of Joseph Smith’s infidelity is not well founded, as no tangible evidence save her word only has been found to support it. The interview is given in full in Wilhelm Wyl’s Mormon Portraits; or The Truth about the Mormon Leaders from 1830 to 1886 (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing, 1886), 60.

[27] See Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” 84.

[28] See Joseph Fielding Smith and Richard C. Evans, Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1905), 83.

[29] Smith and Evans, Blood Atonement, 84.

[30] See Godfrey, “Joseph Smith and the Masons,” 88.

[31] Abraham Jonas, as cited in Godfrey, “Joseph Smith,” 87. Godfrey cites the source as “Handwritten copy of the proceedings of this meeting made by Henry Sherwood,” dated Nauvoo, 1844, Unclassified Letter File, LDS Church Historian’s Library.

[32] See Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850 (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 114.

[33] See Cross, The Burned-over District, 115.

[34] John G. Stearns, An Inquiry into the Nature and Tendency of Speculative Freemasonry (Utica, NY: T. W. Seward, 1869), 130.

[35] Stearns, An Inquiry into the Nature and Tendency of Speculative Freemasonry, 149.

[36] Governor Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 236; emphasis added.

[37] Bentley, “Martyrdom,” 862.