The Last Days of the Prophet

The Story of the Church, Chapter 35

By Inez Smith Davis

Joseph Smith, Jr.

The Church had so often appealed in vain for redress of their wrongs that, as the presidential election approached, Joseph Smith proposed to feel out some of the candidates with respect to their attitude towards the Latter Day Saints. He wrote Martin Van Buren, Lewis Cass, J. C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay. None of the answers pleased him. Clay's was the most favorable but not decisive enough to give the church any guarantee of protection. The Saints therefore determined to place Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in the field on an Independent ticket. Surely the church people throughout the States had not the remotest idea of electing this ticket. The only explanation of this move could be that these men, smarting under injustice done, feeling unable to support any ticket in the field, resolved to roll up as high a protest vote as they possibly could. The "platform," if so it may be called, of this unique movement had some very wise provisions, however hopeless might be the chance of putting them into practice.

The year 1844 opened with public feeling running high on the "Mormon" question. So numerous had the Saints become in Hancock County that their favor was eagerly sought, and the party to which support was not given was ready to abuse and slander them.

In 1843 the Whig candidate for Congress, Cyrus Walker, had been defeated by the Democratic candidate, Joseph P. Hoge, and when it was learned that if the votes of Nauvoo, a large majority of which were cast for Hoge, had been cast for Walker, he would have been elected, the rage of the Whig press in Illinois knew no bounds.

The newspaper industry in Illinois was then in its infancy and, as has been implied by historians, a by no means reputable infancy. Newspapers were practically all published in the interest of one political party or the other, each editor as firm in his own political faith (Whig or Democrat) as any crusader in his religious belief. Each printed the speeches of its statesmen in full, and knew by heart the argument of its favorite spellbinders. "A man had to commit murder, steal a horse, or break a leg to get into the papers" in those days. "No painting barns, mending chicken coops, or 'Sunday-ing' with some neighbor," could win public recognition. The front page was for editorial comment on purely political matters, and a little country editor was quite ready to challenge debate with the biggest papers in New York City. The editorial method of debate was to turn out the most unbelievable "violence of invective and abuse." He poured forth a perfect lava of detraction, which, were it not for the knowledge of the people that such charges were generally false, or greatly exaggerated, would have overwhelmed and consumed all men's reputations. This was the sort of thing "especially to the taste of the young, crude state, and the inhabitants entered the lists without reserve and with sufficient vocabularies."

"Newspapers at present have little influence. Their readers are few, and these are taught to believe that anything that appears in a newspaper is a lie of course," said Hooper Warren, while DeTocqueville remarked upon the lack of influence of American newspapers. Miss Martineau had never heard anyone deny the profligacy of newspapers in general, or that American newspapers were the worst. "Why the Republic had not been overthrown by its newspapers," Miss Martineau did not understand.

But lightly as they were taken in their time, unfortunately the evil they do lives after them and imparts new joys to the muckraker sniffing through their yellowed pages for sensation. They certainly furnish plenty of it. With horror we read of John Fuller of Michigan saying in August, 1864, "Are you willing to follow in the footsteps of Lincoln, the perjured wretch?" of O'Brien of Illinois, declaring, "We want to try Lincoln as Charles I of England was tried, and if found guilty will carry out the law," or of C. Chauncy Burr, saying, "We have patiently waited for a change, but for four years we have lived under a despotism, and the wonder is that men carry out the orders of the gorilla tyrant who has usurped the Presidential chair," but when it comes to lesser lights, we are more ready to believe.

We must approach the newspaper history of that time with this knowledge, for otherwise it cannot be understood. The two parties were so equal in the congressional district in which Nauvoo was situated that the Saints held the balance of power, and it was charged (as it naturally would be) that the Mormon leaders controlled the votes of the church, and hence were in a position absolutely to control the election.

Naturally a man in Joseph Smith's position would have a great deal of influence with a people who loved and trusted him, but the charge that he attempted or desired to dictate the vote of the church was certainly groundless, for in this case, although the vote went heavily for Hoge, Joseph Smith himself voted for Walker and said, "that he would not, if he could, influence any voter in giving his vote; that he considered it a mean business for him or any other man to attempt to dictate to the people whom they should support in elections."

If Joseph Smith had been inclined to use his political power to gain favor, he could have done so in the presidential election of 1844 by throwing his influence with one party or the other. Instead he brought the wrath of both parties upon his head by making what seemed even to some of his friends a rather ridiculous gesture of protest.

About this time disaffection, in which the Laws, Doctor Foster, and some of the Higbees figured prominently, culminated, and under date of April 18, 1844, the church recorder published notice that several had been expelled for "unchristianlike conduct." . . . Crime and immoral conduct were charged freely on both sides. . . . On May 6, 1844, Joseph was arrested by officer John D. Parker on a warrant by the clerk of the Circuit Court at Carthage issued on complaint of Francis M. Higbee, one of the dissenters mentioned above. It appears that Higbee claimed five thousand dollars damage, but his complaint did not specify upon what his claim was based; nor was there any crime charged whatever.1

Joseph obtained a writ of habeas corpus and brought the case before the Municipal Court at Nauvoo. Before this court he appeared on May 8 and after investigation was duly discharged. The complainant did not appear, either in person or by counsel, but at the request of the defendant, the court now went behind the writ and decided that Francis M. Higbee and others had conspired to take the life of Joseph Smith.

Immediately after this a "prospectus" was issued and distributed for a new paper, to be called the Nauvoo Expositor. On June 7 the Expositor appeared. It contained some original material and some of the old John C. Bennett charges. There were a few certified affidavits and some other serious allegations which were unsigned. In the spirit of those times, and because it was felt that the Expositor tended and was intended to stir up riot conditions, the city council on June 10, 1844, declared the Expositor a nuisance and ordered the mayor to have the establishment and paper removed without delay, in such manner as he should elect. The mayor issued an order to Marshal John P. Green, who with a posse proceeded to the office of the Expositor and removed press, type, papers, and fixtures into the street and destroyed them.

The Saints never did a more unwise thing than order the destruction of the Expositor, though it was not an unusual way of expressing disapproval when an editor voiced opinions contrary to the established prejudices of a community. Between 1823 and 1867 in the State of Illinois, sixteen instances of violence to either the editors or presses, or both, of men who dared to express views contrary to those held in the community may be counted. Editors said almost anything they pleased before the days of refinement of libel suits, although they well knew if they went too far they would be jerked up by the community in an unpleasant way. They took that chance. Among these sixteen are the famous cases of Elijah Lovejoy, at Alton, and the attempt of General Burnside to suppress the Chicago Times.

In every instance save one or two, the editor left town and abandoned his efforts at publication; in none of them were the instigators punished; in but very few was there any adverse newspaper comment whatever, or any attempt made to punish those who participated.

But in the case of the Expositor, public opinion was already inflamed and waited only an opportunity to strike. Higbee swore out a warrant against the mayor and practically all the city council. As usual Joseph Smith and all others charged sued out a writ of habeas corpus in the Municipal Court of Nauvoo. But as the situation became more tense, on the 14th Joseph Smith made a report of the entire affair to Governor Ford and stated that if the Governor had any doubts about the legality of proceedings, he had only to signify it, and all who were implicated would go before any legal tribunal in the state capital and submit to investigation; that he need issue no writ, as they would respond upon receipt of his expressed wish.

Upon advice of Judge Jesse Thomas, those named again submitted to arrest and were tried before Daniel H. Wells, then not a member of the church but known as a "Jack Mormon."2 The press, especially the Warsaw Signal (Whig), continued to pour out all manner of invectives. What favor they might have received from the Democrats after the election of Hoge was nullified by the fact that the Democrats could no longer look to the "Mormons" for help at the coming presidential election.

Again the writ for destroying the Expositor was renewed and put in the hands of Constable Bettisworth. Fearing for their lives from the mobs surrounding, the Smith brothers, Joseph and Hyrum, took refuge in Iowa, while they entered into correspondence with legal counsel and determined what to do. They had reason to fear mob violence.

A letter from Vilate Kimball to her husband, Heber C. Kimball, pictures conditions in Nauvoo:

June 7, 1844.

My Dear Husband: Nauvoo was never so lonesome since we lived here as it is now. I went to meeting last Sunday for the first time since conference. Neither Joseph nor Hyrum nor any of the Twelve were there, and you may be assured that I was glad when meeting was over. . . .

June 11th. Nauvoo was a scene of excitement last night. Some hundreds of brethren turned out and burned the press of the opposite party. This was done by order of the city council. They had published only one paper [Nauvoo Expositor] which is considered a public nuisance. They have sworn vengeance and no doubt will have it.

June 24th. Since I commenced this letter, varied and exciting indeed have been the scenes in this city. I would have sent this to you before this time, but I have been thrown into such confusion, I know not what to write. Nor is this all; the mails do not come regularly, having been stopped by high water, or the flood of mobocracy which pervades the country. I have received no letter by mail since you left.

Nothing is to be heard of but mobs collecting on every side. The Laws and Fosters, and most of the dissenting party, with their families, left here a day or two since. They are sworn to have Joseph and the city council or to exterminate us all. Between three and four thousand brethren have been under arms here the past week, expecting every day the mob would come upon us. The brethren from the country are coming in to aid in defense of the city. Brother Joseph sent a message to the Governor signifying if he and his staff would come into the city he would abide their decision; but instead of the Governor coming here, he went to Carthage, and there walked arm in arm with Law and Foster until we have reason to fear he has caught their spirit. He sent thirty men from there day before yesterday to arrest Brother Joseph, with an abusive letter, saying if thirty men cannot do the business, thousands can, ordering the brethren who had been ordered out to defend the city against the mob to deliver up their arms to their men and then disperse.

Yesterday morning (although it was Sunday) was a time of great excitement. Joseph had fled and left word for the brethren to hang on to their arms and defend themselves as best they could. Some were dreadfully tried in their faith to think Joseph should leave them in their hour of danger. Hundreds have left; the most of the merchants on the hill have gone. I have not yet been frightened, neither has my heart sunk within me till yesterday, when I heard that Joseph had sent word back for his family to follow him, and Brother Whitney's family were packing up, not knowing but they would have to go, as he is one of the city council. For a while I felt sad enough, but did not let anybody know it, neither did I shed tears. I felt a confidence in the Lord that he would preserve us from the ravages of our enemies. We expected them here today by the thousands, but before night yesterday things put on a different aspect—Joseph returned and gave himself up for trial. He sent a messenger to Carthage to tell the Governor he would meet him and his staff at the big mound at eight o'clock this morning, with all that the writ demanded. They have just passed here to meet the Governor for that purpose. My heart said, "Lord, bless those dear men and preserve them from those that thirst for their blood!" What will be their fate, the Lord only knows, but I trust he'll spare them. The Governor wrote that if they did) not give themselves up, our city was suspended upon so many kegs of powder, and it only needed one spark of powder to touch them off.3

This letter, written upon the scene, shows how much rumor had to do with events. The people who were not Latter Day Saints were as much afraid of the "Mormons" as the Saints were of the mob.

Joseph Smith had contemplated leaving Nauvoo and perhaps taking his case up to Federal authorities in Washington. As Emma Smith said, "He . . . left home intending not to return until the church was sifted and thoroughly cleansed; but his persecutors were stirring up trouble at the time, and his absence provoked some of the brethren to say he had run away, and they called him a coward, and Joseph heard of it, and then returned and said, 'I will die before I will be called a coward.' He was going to find a place and then send for the family, but when he came back I felt the worst I ever did in my life, and from that time I looked for him to be killed."4

Maliciously minded persons have made it appear that Joseph was about to flee to the West, but was "coaxed to return by Emma" and so lost his life. His letter to her shows plainly what his intentions were, and these persons have for years in their publications deleted the part of the letter showing his destination was probably Washington, D. C. The original letter is in the church vault in Independence, Missouri.

Joseph's Letter to Emma in His Own Handwriting

Safety, June 23


Emma Smith:

Brother Lewis has some money of mine—H. C. Kimball has $1,000, in his hands of mine, Bro. Neff, Lancaster Co., Pa.—$400.

You may sell the Quincy property or any property that belongs to me you can find anything about, for your support and children and Mother. Do not despair— — If God ever opens a door that is possible for me I will see you again. I do not know where I shall go, or what I shall do, but shall if possible endeavor to get to the city of Washington.

May God Almighty bless you, and the children, and Mother, and all my friends. My heart bleeds. No more at present. If you conclude to go to Kirtland, Cincinnati, or any other place, I wish you would contrive to inform me this evening.

Joseph Smith.

P. S. If in your power I want you should help Dr. Richard's family.

He came back to Nauvoo, and the night before he left for Carthage, he spoke to the assembled people of his church from a platform on the northwest corner of the block on which stands the Nauvoo House and south across Water Street from the Mansion House.

"Brethren," he is reputed to have said, "before you would see me taken to Carthage and butchered, would you be willing to lay down your lives for me?"

"Yes," shouted the people almost with one voice.

The meaning of the next words were not understood by the people until several days after, for he felt, that by the sacrifice of his own life, he might spare his brethren and he said:

"Brethren, just as you are willing to lay down your lives for me, so I am willing to die for you."

Shortly after he said, "Farewell, brethren, and farewell to the city I have loved. I am going like a lamb to the slaughter."

He bade good-by to friends in Nauvoo. Charlotte Leabo, daughter of Peter Haws, remembered how he came to their home across the street from where his brother Hyrum lived. She was only nine, and she loved him dearly; he had but recently baptized her in the river. She could not understand why he kissed each of the children and bade them good-by, telling them to be good, and that they would see him no more.5

All seemed to sense an approaching tragedy, at least those nearest and dearest to Joseph and Hyrum felt impending calamity. Even Joseph's great mastiff, Major, for the first time in his faithful life, refused to obey orders to "go back home," and insisted on staying close to his master, and when imprisoned in an upper room, jumped from a second-story window to follow. At the loss of that master, who never returned, old Major transferred his loyalty to the eldest son Joseph, never leaving him night or day, and refusing to permit strangers to approach him. And there was reason to believe that danger did threaten "Young Joseph."

A group of his friends accompanied the Prophet on horseback part of the way to Carthage, unwilling to part with him, for what they felt might be the last time. Josiah Ells was one of these, and he often told of overhearing Joseph say to his brother Hyrum, who rode at his side, "Well, Brother Hyrum, we must go and lay our heads upon the sod. The mob want blood, and blood they will have. And if they do not have ours, they will kill our women and children." They had stopped at a spring for a drink of water, and when all were refreshed, he turned to his friends and said gently: "You, brethren, need not go further and expose yourselves to useless danger." Reluctant and sorrowing, they turned back.

In his published memoirs, Joseph Smith III, (Young Joseph as he was called) tells of meeting the actor, Thomas A. Lyne, on the street in Salt Lake City, on June 29, 1885, and of Lyne's account of this incident, he says:

He [Lyne] was among the group of brethren who started to escort to the county seat, my father, Uncle Hyrum, and others, when they were summoned in arrest, to answer for the destruction of the printing press of the Nauvoo Expositor. He proceeded five or six miles upon the road to Carthage when a halt was called, and a division of the party ensued. Father having decided it was unnecessary for so many to go with them, Lyne was among those requested to return to Nauvoo, to which he strenuously objected. His objections, however, were overruled by father, who beckoning him to one side, told him to return, and to be especially, wary and wise and watchful, adding, "Most probably I shall not return. I want you to live, so that you may correct the illusions and misunderstandings and misstatements that will follow after my death—if I die. You will live to pass through many scenes of difficulty and danger, but will also bear a strong testimony to the truth."

About four miles out of Nauvoo, they had met Captain Dunn and returned with him to Nauvoo, for Captain Dunn, with his company of cavalry, had with him an order for the "state arms" at Nauvoo. The militia at Nauvoo made no resistance, although Dunn had requested that the Smiths return with him, for fear of an uprising. The Saints showed their usual disposition to be law-abiding. On account of this delay, it was nearly midnight on June 24, 1844, when the party arrived in Carthage, and put up at Hamilton's Hotel.

The next morning, having heard rumors of violence, they saw the Governor, who "pledged the faith of the State," that they would be protected. They then, accompanied by their attorney, H. T. Reid of Burlington, Iowa, who had met them there by request on the morning of the 25th, voluntarily surrendered themselves to the constable, Mr. Bettisworth, who held a writ against them on a charge of riot and for destroying the press, type, and fixtures of the Nauvoo Expositor, property of William and Wilson Law, and other dissenters. Soon after the surrender on charge of riot, they were both arrested on charge of treason against the State of Illinois. The affidavits upon which the writs were issued were made by Henry O. Norton and Augustine Spencer. That same afternoon, the two Smiths and other persons charged with riot, appeared before R. F. Smith, a justice of the peace residing in Carthage, and on advice of counsel "voluntarily entered into recognizance in the sum of five hundred dollars each with unexceptionable security for their appearance at the next term of the circuit court. . . .

Carthage Jail
Carthage Jail where Joseph and Hyrum were murdered

"Making out the bonds and justifying bail, necessarily consumed considerable time, and when this was done, it was near night, and the justice adjourned his court over without asking the Smiths to answer to the charge of treason, or even intimating to their counsel or the prisoners that they were expected to enter into an examination that night."6 In less than an hour after the adjournment of court, Constable Bettisworth, who had arrested the prisoners in the morning, appeared at Hamilton's Hotel, at the lodgings of the prisoners and their counsel, and insisted that they should go to jail. Wood and Reid, their counsel maintained that they were entitled to be brought before the justice for an examination before they be sent to jail, and the constable produced a mittimus, signed by Smith, saying that the prisoners had been brought before him, and on account of the absence of material witnesses the trial was postponed. Therefore the prisoners were to be placed in jail.

The attorneys for the defense said, "the recitals of the mittimus is wholly untrue, unless the prisoners could have appeared before the justice without being present in person or by counsel." Reid and Wood appealed to the Governor, but he refused to intervene, nor would they take the prisoners out of jail for examination, assuring the counsel they had already been committed, but at length they were taken before Justice Smith, and their counsel then asked for a postponement until witnesses could be brought from Nauvoo. The justice fixed the examination then for 12 noon on Thursday, June 27.

On the morning of June 27, the Governor disbanded the troops from McDonough and sent them home, took Captain Dunn's company of cavalry and proceeded to Nauvoo, leaving the jail guarded only by the Carthage Greys. The two brothers spent the day quietly visiting with their friends, John Taylor and Willard Richards. Joseph Smith wrote two letters,7 both of which showed that he intended to be submissive to the law of the state. However, about six o'clock in the afternoon, an armed mob invaded the jail and shot both of them to death.

1 Church History, Volume 2, pages 736. 737.

2 Nonmember who was favorable to the church.

3 Life of Heber C. Kimball.

4 "Visit to Nauvoo in 1856," by Edmund C. Briggs, Journal of History, Volume 9, pages 453, 454.

5 Daughter of Peter Haws, well known in early church history. Mrs Leabo was the mother of Sister Delta Wilson (Mrs. Nelson Wilson) who did so much to establish the Reorganized Church in Manitoba and other places in western Canada and on the Pacific slope. Mrs. Leabo's brother, Albert Haws, was the first missionary of the Reorganized Church in Hawaii. Saints' Herald, 1904 page 41.

6 Statement of Attorney H. T. Reid, Church History, Volume 2, page 746.

7 One to his wife Emma Smith and one to Honorable Orville H. Browning, asking him to assist In his defense. See page 269.