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Were Mormons poisoned at the Liberty Jail?

By Bill McKeever

Members of the LDS Church often use the hardships and persecutions of their past as a means to authenticate their faith. Unfortunately, many of these stories have been embellished over the years, making it difficult to distinguish between fact or fiction. For example, Mormon leaders have often used their pulpits to illustrate the miserable conditions that Smith and company had to endure during their stay in the Liberty (MO) jail. While many of the described conditions are not all that difficult to believe, there is one story in particular that has been repeated over and over that needs to be challenged.

Not long after Mormons began settling in Missouri, they clashed with the local inhabitants; at times these disagreements became violent. These violent exchanges became known as the “Mormon War.” On October 31, 1839, Joseph Smith and several of his colleagues were arrested and taken to Richmond, Missouri after a group of Mormons engaged a company of Missouri militiamen at what came to be known as the Battle of Crooked River. Smith was charged with treason but because the jail in Richmond was full, he spent more than five months in the nearby Liberty jail. Had a local judge, the sheriff, and guards not allow Smith to eventually escape in April 1839, no doubt his stay at the Liberty jail would have been much longer.

According to the LDS periodical Times and Seasons (4:254), the prisoners were not only alleged to have been poisoned during their stay in Liberty, but they were “also subjected to the necessity of eating human flesh, for the space of five days, or go without food, except a little coffee, or a little corn bread.”

George A. Smith, First Counselor to Brigham Young, also mentions the human flesh incident in a conference message he gave on October 8, 1868. He claimed that the prisoners were told how the meat being served to them was “Mormon beef” and that it was actually “the flesh of some of their murdered brethren.” Who these murdered brethren are is a mystery.

Mormon Apostle Orson Whitney tells the same story but with a significant twist: “It is said that the depravity of their jailers descended so low that they even cooked human flesh, taken from the body of a negro who had been killed, and offered it to these prisoners to eat; and the Prophet, warned by the Lord, told his brethren not to partake of it.” Despite this alleged warning by Smith, Lyman Wight, one of the prisoners arrested with Smith, did eat the meat.

I suppose if we combined the two stories above, we could conclude that the murdered brother was a black member of the LDS Church. However, this seems unlikely during this period in Mormon history. If it was a black member, who was he (or she)?

Hyrum Smith, the brother of Joseph Smith, claimed, “We also heard the guard which was placed over us making sport of us, saying they had fed us on ‘Mormon’ beef. I have described the appearance of this flesh to several experienced physicians and they have decided that it was human flesh.” The names of these experienced physicians are not listed.

Hyrum Smith claimed, “We learned afterwards, by one of the guards, that it was supposed that this act of savage cannibalism in feeding us with human flesh would be considered a popular deed of notoriety; but the people, on learning that it would not take, tried to keep it secret; but the fact was noised abroad before they took the precaution” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 3:190-191).

It seems likely that the many loose ends and contradictory details caused B.H. Roberts, a church historian and LDS seventy, to express doubt about the Mormon beef story when he commented on this event in his Comprehensive History of the Church. Said Roberts, “One of the prisoners suspected that at one time an attempt was made to feed them upon ‘human flesh,’ basing his suspicion upon the appearance of the meat and the fact that one of the guards made sport of the prisoners, saying that he had fed them on ‘Mormon beef,’ but this boast might have arisen from the fact that ‘Mormon’ cattle were brought in and killed for beef. Bad as the Missourians were, they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt that exists in the case of such a revolting crime” (1:521).

I tend to agree with Roberts. It seems that guards at the Liberty jail were merely taunting their prisoners with this cruel story. Does it seem likely that if a murdered Mormon was the victim that we are left with no name? If this heinous act was really “noised abroad,” could we not expect at least some public outcry? Unless the LDS Church can provide factual evidence that fills the many gaps in this story, it is unconscionable for LDS leaders and Mormon history books to perpetuate this tale.

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