One of the Worst Men in Hancock County

Benjamin C. Watson, “One of the Worst Men in Hancock County One of the Worst Men in Hancock County,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2007 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 11–17.

One of the Worst Men in Hancock County

Benjamin C. Watson


I am a direct descendant of “one of the worst men in Hancock” County.[1] John McAuley was one of the Nauvoo Temple arsons[2] as well as the second in command to Levi Williams, who was part of the mob that stormed Carthage Jail, killing the Prophet and his brother.[3] Indeed, being descended from such a man makes for an interesting situation when I’m asked, “So, do you have any ancestors associated with Church history?”

The short answer is yes. However, I am quick to say that my ancestor did not head west on Parley Street. No, my ancestor drove the Saints west. John McAuley got just what he asked for during his raids against the Mormons—an eviction of the Saints and good riddance.

Yes, I am a direct descendant of “one of the worst men in Hancock”[4]—one credited for whipping Saints in their harvest fields, burning down their homes, and even beating up Brigham Young’s brother, Phineas. John McAuley was described as a skinny, red-headed Irishman with no backbone to stand up to a Saint alone, but one who always had his mobbers with him on every confrontation. Although never a Saint, he was born in Palmyra, New York, and eventually settled in Hancock County, Illinois, previous to the arrival of the Saints.[5]

I have been approached by many people who upon hearing this history say something to the effect of “Wow! I bet John McAuley is just rolling in his grave knowing that some of his descendants are building the kingdom he tried to destroy” or “Hmm, talk about adding salt to the wound. I bet John is just fuming on the other side!” Yet as I reflect on these comments and ponder the life of my ancestor, I am slow to judge and quick to think the opposite. I do not have sour feelings toward my progenitor—though his deeds were revolting. Instead, I am inclined to think that John McAuley is perhaps grateful (and I daresay proud) that some of his descendants are now reversing the role his blood played in the history books of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, John McAuley is probably well aware of the incorrectness of his deeds while on earth. Who are we to judge John McAuley?

Remarks from General Authorities

In the 1950s my maternal grandmother (the fifth generation from John and the first of his line to accept the Church) attended a stake conference in Texas. The Presiding General Authority was Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, a direct descendant of Hyrum who was killed by John McAuley and his mob. Being a new convert, my grandmother walked up to Elder Smith to ask a pressing question. Poised with caution but exerting simple courage, she asked something to the effect of, “Elder Smith, I am a direct descendant of John McAuley, one of the number who burned the Nauvoo Temple and killed the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum. I know we should do the temple work for our ancestors, but is it even worth it to send John McAuley’s name to the temple?” Elder Smith responded lovingly, shaking his finger at my grandma and said, “You do his temple work, and let God be the judge.” She went home, collected the necessary information, and ensured that John McAuley’s temple work was taken care of.

Who are we to judge another? I thank God that a perfect Judge sits in the heavens extending perfect justice, wisdom, and mercy according to His omniscience and omnipotence. I am not one to wonder about McAuley’s accepting or rejecting the gospel in the hereafter, nor am I out to prove he deserves salvation. John McAuley’s salvation is between him and the Lord. Yet it is interesting to hear the remarks of some of our beloved Brethren concerning John McAuley.

President Gordon B. Hinckley is aware that one of the Carthage mobbers has descendants who are faithful members of the Church, working to build the kingdom both on earth and in heaven. In an August 2002 letter to my Uncle James Holtkamp (the first priesthood holder in McAuley’s line), President Hinckley wrote that he had been looking here and there throughout his life to discover whether any of the mobbers at Carthage had descendants who joined the Church. He continued in his letter by stating, “You are the first of whom I know” who are descended from these mobbers.

In a letter dated September 2004 between Elder M. Russell Ballard and me, Elder Ballard expressed interest in this unique genealogical tie and continued the majority of his letter discussing how wonderful it is to know that the blessings of salvation offered through the Atonement of Jesus Christ extend beyond the grave. He acknowledged with gratitude the efforts of McAuley’s descendants to continue faithful in building the kingdom of God.

Malachi’s Promise

We read in Malachi 4:5–6, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” We are left to ask, what is this smiting? What is this curse Malachi speaks of? Malachi speaks of the coming of Elijah, who fulfilled prophecy by visiting Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple (see D&C 110:13–16). During this visit, Elijah committed the keys of the sealing power with power to bind on earth and in heaven. However, how does this visit keep the earth from being smitten with a curse?

The Lord speaks frankly of a curse placed on those who tried to hinder the work of the Church in its early days in this dispensation: “And the iniquity and transgression of my holy laws and commandments I will visit upon the heads of those who hindered my work, unto the third and fourth generation, so long as they repent not, and hate me, saith the Lord God” (D&C 124:50). Further, “And inasmuch as mine enemies come against you to drive you from my goodly land, which I have consecrated to be the land of Zion, even from your own lands after these testimonies, which ye have brought before me against them, ye shall curse them” (D&C 103:24).If we apply the curse discussed in these two verses to John McAuley, then John McAuley’s curse lasted four generations—four generations where neither he nor his family had access to the saving ordinances of the gospel. Indeed, it wasn’t until the fifth generation that his descendant (my grandmother) received the missionaries into her home as a young mother, accepted the gospel, and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the moment of her baptism, the curse began to be lifted so that John McAuley had access to the saving ordinances of the gospel. Not only were these ordinances unlocked for his blessing, but for the blessing of his descendants. Is it any wonder that Elder Joseph Fielding Smith counseled my grandma to ensure John McAuley’s temple work be taken care of? If Elijah’s promised visit never occurred and the saving, sealing power not delivered to the Prophet Joseph Smith, then the world would be smitten with a curse as mentioned by the Lord in Malachi. The world would be smitten with the same curse John McAuley suffered for four generations—a curse with no access to saving temple ordinances.Yet Elijah fulfilled prophecy and committed the sealing power to Joseph Smith. Since that moment, the Church has been on a mission to save our kindred dead by extending to them the blessings afforded in and only through the sealing power found in the temple. Surely, it must seem like a curse to those who are anxiously waiting the day their work will be performed for them.

Case in Point

A love of family history and temple work for our dead is best achieved when correct motives are in place. For me the catalyst for such a love is found when I recognize three critical elements: urgency, reality, and responsibility.

Urgency. When one realizes the urgency of this work—namely that we have a pile of work to do for a large amount of people anxiously waiting on the other side of the veil—interest in getting actively involved with family history increases.

Before my grandmother unexpectedly passed away, she printed off all of her family history research and presented it to me in one large pile of paperwork. She said the following: “Benjamin, if anybody can help get this work done, you can.” She passed away two weeks later. I felt a keen sense of urgency and responsibility for the welfare of my ancestors. I feel they are very aware of the charge placed on me by my grandma to help ensure this work is finished.

As a college student at Brigham Young University, I have taken opportunity to visit some of the best family history resource libraries in the world, one being in the basement of the campus library and the other in Salt Lake City. I recognize the great opportunity we have to become involved with family history while at college, which adds an added measure of urgency.

Reality. One cannot fully appreciate family history research without first appreciating that the names they are researching are individuals who lived real lives and continue to exist beyond the veil. For example, when I think of John McAuley, I cannot help but think that although we have on record many of the atrocities he committed against the Saints, McAuley had a wife and children. John McAuley lived a childhood and surely had hobbies. He cried about things. He laughed about things. He worked and worried like most humans do. John McAuley was a real person, and so are the rest of the people for whom I research.

It is easy to get caught up in the nominal nature of family history, seeing ancestors as simple, hard to decipher cursive names on a nineteenth-century census. True, it takes a great deal of effort to tie in a real life to these individuals whose journals or written materials are missing. However, when the researcher recognizes that a portion of their ancestor lives within them, then the process of attaching reality to these names becomes active.

We can become captivated about the lives of our ancestors by gazing at an old photo. Look into their eyes. Think about them looking at you today and how grateful they must be to have somebody on earth who acknowledges them. This is a sobering experience for me—to know that I am one of few people who have concern for the welfare of a particular ancestor. When I attach reality to the name of an ancestor, not only do I feel increased urgency for the work, but also an increased kinship for a very real individual.

Responsibility. It may be that only you have the interest in a particular ancestor. Sometimes, I am the only one with a keen interest in the welfare of a departed loved one or ancestor. For example, I am currently trying to find the parentage of an ancestor of mine named Chauncey Roberts. Until my grandmother passed away, she was the primary (and perhaps only) active researcher on Chauncey’s line. However, before she passed away she explained that she had been intently researching and still hadn’t found success in moving Chauncey’s line back. Who would take over the responsibility when she eventually passed on? Certainly I feel an increased responsibility for the welfare of Chauncey and his parentage because I know that I am perhaps the only one researching his line.

Family history and its attached temple work is a very personal matter and must be seen as a work for the individual. Family heritage should not be taken lightly; it is a subject demanding respect and commitment. It is one vital way we show honor to our ancestry. A certain responsibility lies within each of us to take up a little concern for those whom we have never met but are part of our family line. I daresay that the hearts of our fathers have been turned to their children far longer and with much more interest than perhaps the hearts and interest of the children have been turned to the fathers. I cannot help but wonder how long my ancestors have looked on their children with anticipation for their work to be done. Are these gazes in vain? What must we do to turn our hearts and gaze toward them?

I honor my ancestors because each contributed something that has become a literal part of me. Yes, I am descended from “one of the worst men in Hancock,”[6] but I am also a descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins who crossed the mighty Atlantic on the Mayflower; the Foulger line from which Benjamin Franklin comes from; the Watson line, full of entrepreneurial venture and the epitome of Americana; the Fender line, from which some of the world’s best bluegrass came from; and the Ellis line for which Ellis Island is named.

From Nantucket to Nova Scotia, Holland to Hancock, I cannot help but show deep respect for the good things my ancestors left to their posterity and ultimately to me. John McAuley deserves a portion of my respect, for without him I would not be. The same is true for him. Without his children’s children, he would not have any eternal progression.

My ancestor did not go west on Parley Street. However, one of his descendants did. My visit to Nauvoo, Illinois, last year was particularly poignant for me considering the unique genealogical connection I had to the city. I walked Parley Street, and I walked it west as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I possessed a vibrant, living testimony of the truthfulness of its message and the divinity of its history, and I couldn’t help but wonder how happy my ancestor John McAuley must have been knowing that this individual walking Parley Street was from his family and posterity.


[1] B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period 2: Apostolic Interregnum, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1932), 7:143.

[2] Biographical information on John McAuley, n.d., Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

[3] Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 341–42.

[4] Roberts, History of the Church, 7:143.

[5] Research within archives at Nauvoo, Illinois, Family History Center. On site research conducted August 2005.

[6] Roberts, History of the Church, 7:143.