Reflections on the Mormon Experience in Clay County, Missouri, and the Liberty Jail

A Conversation with Alexander L. Baugh

Q: Professor Baugh, could you tell me about some of the history of the area of Clay County?

A: When many Latter-day Saints think about Liberty or Clay County Missouri, they generally think about Liberty Jail. And they should, because it was the location where Joseph Smith and five others were incarcerated from December 1, 1838, to April 6, 1839 (127 days). But many Latter-day Saints are rather surprised to learn that Clay County was the main place of Mormon gatherings in Missouri from November 1833 to the latter part of 1836. During this time, a great deal of history took place in Clay County. For example, Zion’s Camp went there in the summer of 1834; the Saints eventually established fourteen settlements [there]; and by 1836, there were probably about 1,500 Latter-day Saints living there, which probably represented about twenty percent of the county’s population. The Church was fully organized in Clay County during those years, presided over by the Missouri presidency with David Whitmer as president, W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer as counselors, and a high council.

I think it is significant to note that the citizens in Clay County were much more hospitable to the Saints than Jackson County’s citizens. Following the expulsion of the Mormons from Jackson County in late 1833, the citizens living in Clay took the Saints in; they provided shelter, homes, jobs, and employment. It’s interesting to note that Clay’s citizens who were kind to the Mormons were even nicknamed “Jack Mormons.” When I was young, the old-timers in my ward sometimes called those who were less active in the church “Jack Mormons,” but the term originated in the early 1830s and was first applied to the residents of Clay County who were friendly toward the Mormons.

Significantly, today there are several places of interest in Clay County where visitors can go to learn more about the early history of the Latter-day Saints in the area. For example, in 2012, a beautiful monument, located about three and a half miles southwest of Liberty, was dedicated to commemorate the establishment of the Church in Clay County. The monument is situated in a beautiful park-like setting and is located on the former property of Michael Arthur, a non-Mormon who befriended the Mormons. The monument also includes information about Christian Whitmer and Peter Whitmer Jr., two of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon who died in Clay County and are buried on the Arthur property, the organization of the Missouri presidency and high council, and the disbanding of Zion’s Camp. Other places of interest include Alexander W. Doniphan’s grave, the Clay County Courthouse, the Liberty Jail Visitors’ Center, and, of course, the Kansas City Missouri Temple.

Q: Could you tell me about your experience speaking in October 2013 at the 175th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s imprisonment?

A: The year 2013 actually marked two anniversaries. First, on December 1, 1838, Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Caleb Baldwin, Alexander McRae, and Lyman Wight began their incarceration in the Liberty Jail, so 2013 marked the 175th anniversary of that event. In addition, in 1963, the LDS Church completed and dedicated the Liberty Jail Visitors’ Center, which included a reconstructed cut-away model of the original, so 2013 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the facility. Early in 2013, Elder Douglas Brenchley, the director of the Independence Visitors’ Center and the Liberty Jail Visitors’ Center began planning and organizing a special fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the visitors’ center and contacted me to be one of the speakers. Most of the activities for the two-day event (October 12–13, 2013), cosponsored by the Liberty Missouri Stake, were held in the rotunda of the building, with overflow accommodations provided in various rooms throughout the visitors’ center. Besides me, Susan Easton Black, BYU professor emeritus of Church history and doctrine, and Daniel C. Peterson, BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, also spoke. The commemoration included a reader’s theater and special musical numbers. On Sunday afternoon, October 13, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Robert C. Gay of the Seventy were the featured speakers. A number of local dignitaries, including Liberty’s mayor, Lyndell Brenton, also shared remarks. Later that evening, Elder Ballard, Elder Gay, and Donald J. Keyes, president of the Missouri Independence Mission, spoke at a fireside at the Liberty Stake Center adjacent to the Kansas City temple. The fireside was broadcast to six or seven stake centers in Missouri and Kansas. I’m guessing there were probably several thousand people who had the opportunity to participate in the commemoration. So it was a wonderful event. I hope in twenty-five years when we celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the Liberty Jail that I’m still around and maybe I can go back and speak again. I’ll be eighty-one years old, but I’d love to go back.

Q: Could you tell me more about the other prisoners in Liberty Jail? Why they were there?

A: Following the Mormon surrender to Missouri militia authorities in late October 1838, Joseph Smith, along with six other prisoners, were taken to Independence, where they remained for a few days. Then they were transferred over to Richmond in Ray County for a preliminary hearing conducted by Austin A. King, a circuit court judge for the state of Missouri. Eventually sixty-four Mormon men (including Joseph Smith) were arraigned before Judge King in a hearing that lasted from November 12 to 29. The hearing was held to determine if there was probable cause against the Mormon prisoners for any illegal activity they might have participated in during the Mormon War. At the conclusion of the hearing, King determined that there was probable cause against Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Caleb Baldwin, Alexander McRae, and Lyman Wight for committing acts of treason in Daviess County, and probable cause against Sidney Rigdon for acts of treason committed in Caldwell County. In addition, Judge King ordered Parley P. Pratt, Luman Gibbs, Norman Shearer, Morris Phelps, and Darwin Chase to stand trial for their involvement in the Battle of Crooked River. Because of the nature of the charges, none of the prisoners were permitted to post bail and be released until their hearings convened in March 1839, which meant that they would spend the entire winter in confinement. Since the Richmond Jail could not hold all eleven prisoners (it was also still unfinished), King ordered Joseph Smith and the other five men who were charged with treason to be confined in Liberty Jail, while the five who participated in the Crooked River engagement were ordered to be confined in the Richmond Jail. So that’s the backdrop.

On December 1, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to Emma Smith indicating that they had arrived in Liberty that day and were confined in the Liberty Jail. Until about the middle of February 1839, the prisoners had a steady stream of visitors, who brought food, changes of clothing, and letters. We know Emma visited the prison on at least three occasions. The other prisoners’ families and friends also came and went. On numerous occasions they visited with their attorneys and other visitors to set up their case and to negotiate how the Mormons should leave the state. After mid-February, when most of the Latter-day Saints had made their way out of Missouri, the number of visitors to the jail dropped dramatically.

Q: Are there any misconceptions about the experiences of the Mormon prisoners in Liberty Jail?

A: Yes, there are some misconceptions, or perhaps we could also say folklore, regarding the experience of Joseph Smith and the other Liberty Jail prisoners. First, there’s a misconception that the prisoners could not even stand up in the jail. In 1888, Andrew Jenson, who later became the assistant Church historian, visited the jail and took measurements. He noted that the dungeon cell, or the lower chamber was six and a half feet high. Although Alexander McRae was the tallest of the Liberty Jail prisoners—family members report him being six feet six inches tall—neither McRae nor any of the other prisoners ever mentioned they could not stand upright. Significantly, historical sources indicate they actually spent most of the time during the day in the upper chamber, where they would entertain visitors and eat their meals. Andrew Jenson reported that room to be seven feet high, so the idea that they could not stand up is probably not accurate.

Second, there seems to be a misconception that the prisoners remained confined in the jail during their entire incarceration and were never allowed to go outside. However, we have good historical documentation showing otherwise. James H. Ford, a deputy sheriff at the time, said that on occasion he accompanied the prisoners on walks around the town to get some exercise and fresh air. He even allowed them to occasionally enjoy a good meal at a local tavern. But during these excursions they were probably kept under heavy guard and maybe even chained. Alexander W. Doniphan, one of their attorneys, indicated the Prophet and the others were allowed to visit with him at his office. William T. Wood, another Liberty lawyer, also recalled that the Mormon prisoners were permitted to visit him in his law office. So they were allowed some limited time outside the jail.

Finally, following their release, both Hyrum Smith and Lyman Wight gave statements to the effect that during their incarceration they were fed human flesh, which they referred to as “Mormon beef.” Sometime later in Utah, Alexander McRae attested to the same thing. Although Clay County had its share of unruly characters, it’s hard to image that those in charge of the Mormon prisoners could so something that gruesome and repugnant. There can be no question that their food was mundane and at times perhaps even unhealthy and inedible, and while they obviously believed that they were fed human remains, this was probably not the case. For one thing, the attorneys representing the Mormon leaders, particularly Alexander Doniphan and Peter H. Burnett, who were also charged with seeing to the welfare of their clients, would never have allowed such treatment. Years later when William T. Wood, a Liberty attorney, whom I mentioned earlier, consulted with the Mormon prisoners during their incarceration, and James H. Ford, who frequently had charge of the prisoners—both respected citizens—learned of such reports, both men emphatically dismissed them. Without question, Liberty Jail was dingy, dirty, unsanitary, unpleasant, and a miserable place to be confined, but they could move about inside, they were occasionally permitted to leave the jail, and, although their food was coarse, they were probably never given human remains.

Q: Tell me more about the sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that Joseph Smith received while in the Liberty Jail.

A: Most Latter-day Saints are familiar that sections 121, 122, and 123 in the Doctrine and Covenants came from a March 20, 1839, letter dictated by Joseph Smith from Liberty Jail to Church leaders in Quincy, Illinois. Portions of the twenty-nine-page letter contain some of the Prophet’s most powerful teachings and expressions. In the 1870s, when Orson Pratt was preparing a new edition of the scriptures for publication, he reviewed the documents of Joseph Smith in the Church’s possession, including earlier published extractions of the March 20, 1839, letter. Pratt selected some of the most moving and doctrinally significant passages, provided versification, and then arranged them into sections for publication in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. So today we can thank Pratt for reviewing that material and including the material which became D&C sections 121, 122, and 123. In addition, Joseph Smith wrote several additional letters from Liberty Jail which also provide some wonderful instructional teaching, but have not been canonized.

Q: What kind of effect did the Liberty Jail experience have on Joseph Smith?

A: Liberty Jail was a life-changing experience for the Prophet. It helped him define who he was and what God wanted him to become. When he left the jail in April 1839, he came out a different man. In a letter dictated by Joseph Smith from the jail to Presendia Huntington Buell, dated March 15, 1839, as he was nearing the end of his confinement, he wrote, “It seems to me that my heart will always be more tender after this then it ever was before.” He then explained that he believed that much of what he was going through was because he understood there must be opposition in all things (see 2 Nephi 2:11). “It has been the plan of the devil to hamper me and distress me from the beginning,” he wrote, “to keep me from explaining myself to them [the Latter-day Saints] and I never have had the opportunity to give them the plan that God has revealed to me.”[1] And finally, in the March 20, 1839, letter he received divine reassurance: “Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.”[2] So Liberty Jail was a refiner’s fire for the Prophet. From these three statements—and there are many more—we learn just a few of the lessons he learned. He became more tenderhearted, he recognized the necessity of opposition, and he had complete confidence in God’s promise of deliverance.

When a person visits the jail and ponders about some of the things that took place there, I hope they will be able to sense the significance of Liberty Jail in the Prophet’s life. And although it was an extremely difficult, lonely, painful experience, Joseph grew from it. He became a better individual, a better prophet, and a better leader with more compassion and confidence. I think we can gain similar understanding regarding the trials and the opposition we each face in our own lives.

Q: How did the Liberty Jail Visitors’ Center come to be?

A: The jail is quite a Mormon landmark, as with all of our visitors’ centers, but the Liberty Jail Visitors’ Center was really the first of the modern visitors’ centers in the Church. It was constructed and dedicated in 1963, so it’s been around for fifty years and a lot of Latter-day Saints and their families traveling east or west have taken the time to stop in Liberty to tour the historic jail. If you crunch the numbers, literally hundreds of thousands of people have visited the jail, as many as thirty thousand to fifty thousand visitors a year. So if you multiply that by fifty years, then it’s easy to see that a lot of people have visited the site. I think most people who visit the jail experience some very powerful spiritual feelings. I know I did when I first visited the jail in June 1979, and I still do. Each time I visit it’s like stepping back in time. I try to imagine what the experience was like for Joseph Smith and the other prisoners, but I try to understand why it was necessary for him, and for us, to experience trials, and it’s been very helpful.

Q: How would you summarize the significance of Clay County, Missouri, in Mormon history?

A: I hope from our conversation that it is evident that Clay County is rich in early LDS history. But that history continues today, not only with the growth of the Church in the area, but the fact that there are sites that serve as a reminder of our past—like the Liberty Jail Visitors’ Center and the monument erected in 2012 to commemorate the Clay County period. In addition, the dedication of the Kansas City temple is the newest Mormon landmark, which stands as a symbol, not only of the present and the future, but also as a memorial to those Saints who established the Church in Clay County in the 1830s.


[1] Joseph Smith Jr. to Presendia Huntington Buell, March 15, 1839, manuscript copy in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock, Joseph Smith Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Also in Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971): 3:286.

[2] Joseph Smith Jr. to the Latter-day Saints at Quincy, Illinois, March 20, 1839, Church History Library, canonized as D&C 122:9.