Final Moments at Carthage Jail and the Death of Joseph Smith

By Bill McKeever 

The events leading to the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith are much like the events surrounding his life—full of contradiction. To hear Mormons tell the story, Smith did no wrong; for others, he did no right. Like most stories, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In his book Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, author Robert B. Flanders lays the groundwork for what was to become one of the darker days in Mormon history. On page 308 Flanders writes:

“When an opportunity to murder Smith finally came, it grew paradoxically out of events within the Mormon Church. Conflict over the issues of plurality of wives and other ‘ultraist’ doctrines, including plurality of gods, had grown within the circle of Mormon leaders until an open break occurred in the spring of 1844. A number of prominent men withdrew and formed their own reform church. They were led by William Law, a member of the First Presidency since 1841, Wilson Law, a brigadier general in the Legion, Austin Cowles, a member of the Nauvoo High Council, James Blakeslee, a prominent Seventy, and Robert D. Foster, Chauncey Higbee, and Charles Ivins, prominent businessmen. They resolved to publish their views and to ‘expose’ the secret and abominable teachings of the Mormon hierarchy in an opposition newspaper, to be named The Nauvoo Expositor. On June 7 they issued the first and only edition of their paper.”

In response, Smith (who was also Nauvoo’s mayor) and the Nauvoo city council voted to declare the paper a public nuisance and sent an order to the city marshal that stated, “You are here commanded to destroy the printing press from whence issues the Nauvoo Expositor, and pi [scatter] the type of said printing establishment in the street, and burn all the expositors and libelous handbills found in said establishment” (History of the Church 6:448). The act was carried out as ordered on June 10th.

This rash decision caused the publishers to go to the nearby town of Carthage to obtain an arrest warrant for Smith and the council, charging them with riot. The municipal court of Nauvoo, composed of Mormons sympathetic to Smith, did not see it this way and acquitted all of the accused.

When it was learned that the municipal court had no right to decide such a case, the defendants were then examined by Justice Daniel H. Wells. Again they were acquitted. But because Wells did not have authority in such a case, this led to a third examination. This too ended with the defendants being found not guilty.

Joseph Smith sought the help of Illinois Governor Thomas Ford. In order to have this matter settled, Ford believed that Smith and the others who were originally charged should submit themselves to the constable at Carthage (David Bettisworth) and there await trial. In his letter Governor Ford also promised Smith and the others that they would “be protected from violence.”

Refusing to believe the governor’s promises, Smith made plans to escape capture and flee to the Rocky Mountains. Orrin Porter Rockwell arrived with a message from his wife who urged her husband to return and give himself up because several of his followers were accusing him of cowardice. Smith returned to Nauvoo, spent the night, and in the morning was told that he had to report to Carthage by 10 a.m. However, no escorts were provided.

According to the testimony of John Taylor, Smith commented,

“I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me. ‘He was murdered in cold blood'” (D&C 135:4).

It was a typically hot, early summer day in western Illinois when Joseph and Hyrum Smith rode into Carthage to turn themselves in to local authorities.

When they arrived, the two checked into a local hotel but were later met by Constable Bettisworth, who placed them under arrest and escorted them to the local jail. The jail at Carthage was made of stone and had two stories. The upper level had two rooms, one equipped with steel bars and the other styled more like a regular bedroom. There were no bars on this room, and the door was so warped that it would not latch.

On the afternoon of June 27th, the Smiths, Willard Richards, and John Taylor were in this latter “cell” when, in the words of John Taylor,

“Elder Cyrus H. Wheelock came in to see us, and when he was about leaving, drew a small pistol, a six-shooter, from his pocket, remarking at the same time ‘Would any of you like to have this?’ Brother Joseph immediately replied, ‘Yes, give it to me,’ whereupon he took the pistol, and put it in his pantaloons pocket. The pistol was a six-shooting revolver, of Allen’s patent; it belonged to me, and was one that I furnished to Brother Wheelock when he talked of going with me to the east, previous to our coming to Carthage” (History of the Church 7:100. See also The Gospel Kingdom, p.358).

Wheelock later left “on some errand” and was not “suffered to return.” The History of the Church states that:

Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Captain Jones who went after it, but they would not suffer him to return. I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards. We all of us felt unusually dull and languid, with a remarkable depression of spirits. In consonance with those feelings I sang a song, that had lately been introduced into Nauvoo, entitled, ‘A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief’, etc. (7:101).

Image for Carthage Jail

Depiction from; available under Creative Commons License

Soon afterwards, Taylor “saw a number of men, with painted faces, coming around the corner of the jail, and aiming towards the stairs.” Immediately Willard Richards and Hyrum Smith leaned against the door to prevent the mob from entering the room.

“While in this position, the mob, who had come upstairs, and tried to open the door, probably thought it was locked, and fired a ball through the keyhole; at this Dr. Richards and Brother Hyrum leaped back from the door, with their faces towards it; almost instantly another ball passed through the panel of the door, and struck Brother Hyrum on the left side of the nose, entering his face and head.” Hyrum fell back and cried out, ‘I am a dead man!'”

Wrote Taylor,

“I shall never forget the deep feeling of sympathy and regard manifested in the countenance of Brother Joseph as he drew nigh to Hyrum, and, leaning over him, exclaimed, `Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!’ He, however, instantly arose, and with a firm, quick step, and a determined expression of countenance, approached the door, and pulling the six-shooter left by Brother Wheelock from his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol six successive times; only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed, died.”

Several accounts given by Taylor shows that he never changed the particulars of this account, and many LDS historians have also used his eyewitness account to retell the final moments of Smith’s life.

A Lamb to the Slaughter?

In a 1-star review of Mormonism 101 from an LDS reader on, the reviewer rebuts our criticism of Smith’s use of Isaiah 53:7. Was Smith making some kind of messianic statement and comparing his death to that of the Savior when he said he was being a lamb led to the slaughter? This Mormon argues that he was doing no such thing and that this was nothing more than a common expression of the day that made perfect sense since Smith was unarmed when he made the statement. While this may be true to a point, it was only true until Smith accepted the offer of Wheelock’s pistol. From that moment on everything changed, making any comparison to an innocent lamb or a willing martyr a perversion of the facts.

It would indeed be difficult to know for sure what exactly Smith meant by his reference to Isaiah 53:7, but we do know that several Mormons have made the messianic connection. In a conference message delivered in 1948, Seventy Milton R. Hunter said Smith decided not to flee Nauvoo as a result “of his deep love for the Saints.” Hunter said he returned voluntarily “to give his life as a sacrifice for them” (Conference Report, April 1948, p.31, emphasis mine).

1967 – Edna Budvarson, co-founder of Utah Christian Tract Society, stands next to a glass frame covering what was believed to be the blood of Joseph Smith.

There is no question that many modern LDS continue to make the messianic comparison. When my good friends Art and Edna Budvarson, the founders of Utah Christian Tract Society, visited the jail in 1967, there was a glass frame covering a bloodstain just a few feet from the door of Smith’s cell. They were told at the time that it was the blood of Joseph Smith that was shed for the church.

When I visited the jail in 1980, the glass frame had been removed. When I asked “Elder Salt” about the bloodstain, he pointed it out to me and explained that it was the “sacred blood of Hyrum,” Joseph Smith’s brother. Saying the blood was that of Hyrum makes more sense. Joseph Smith was shot near the window, not the door. It is unlikely that a bloodstain of that size would be located so far away from the window if it was indeed the blood of Joseph. I don’t know why the LDS Church  removed the glass frame from off of the floor.

When I visited the Carthage Jail again in June of 2002, “Sister Thorpe,” after speaking reverently of Joseph Smith, told the crowd that “he sacrificed his blood for us.” Two days earlier, a personal friend of mine visited the jail and was told by his tour guide that Carthage was the Mormon “Calvary.” In 1988, Ted Cannon, then director of the Mormon Visitor Centers at Carthage and Nauvoo, told reporter Doug Schorpp that Carthage “…holds the same significance…as Calvary holds for Christians all over the world” (Journal Star, Peoria, IL, Sunday, June 26, 1988 D3).

In an April 5, 1896 conference address, Franklin D. Richards said, “Well before the temple was completed our Prophet laid down his life, having been led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Collected Discourses 5:109). Two facts make me think that this appraisal is misleading.

  1. Smith’s decision to use the smuggled pistol demonstrates that he did not have any intention of voluntarily laying down his life.
  2. Smith’s last words were, “Oh Lord my God.” Standing alone these words do not mean much, but Mormon historian Reed C. Durham notes on page 28 of the booklet No Help for the Widow’s Son that Smith, with hands raised, was actually attempting to give the “Masonic distress call to fraternal Masons who were present in the mob.” His call for help went unheeded, and Smith was shot at the jail window, unable to complete the words, “is there no help for the widow’s son.” Again, if Smith was actually planning to give his life willingly, such an action seems entirely unnecessary.

Typically, Christian martyrs are known for willingly and peacefully giving their lives for the cause of Christ. Our history is full of examples, both ancient and modern, of Christians who chose not to fight back when death for their faith was immanent.

Am I somehow condoning Smith’s death? Not hardly! The mob acted outside of the law and, in my opinion, their actions can in no way be justified. I agree with Mormons who say that Smith was murdered in cold blood, but I’m uncomfortable with going so far as to say he was totally innocent. There is no escaping the fact that he was guilty of being involved with the destruction of the Expositor, and history has shown that many of the accusations made in the paper regarding Smith’s secret involvement with polygamy were accurate.

Was Smith wrong in trying to defend himself? Perhaps not. Is it wrong for Mormons to portray his last moments as that of an innocent lamb and willing martyr? Absolutely.

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