Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nauvoo to Carthage by horse

One hundred and sixty six years ago today, on June 27th 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob in Carthage IL. Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, known as The Mormons to many. The mob that killed him had blackened their faces and, although five were tried, no one was convicted of the killing.

The mob most likely contained William Law and Robert Foster who had been generals in the private militia (The Nauvoo legion) that Smith had created to enforce his theocratic law within Nauvoo. They complained that Smith had proposed marrying their wives and Smith had them excommunicated on April 18th 1844. On June 7th Smith used his Nauvoo legion to destroy the printing presses of the Nauvoo Expositor because it had published stories calling him a polygamist, a charge Smith denied often. Riots ensued and Smith declared martial law and enforced it with his Nauvoo legion. The governor of IL mobilized the national guard in nearby Carthage and threatened to send an even larger force if Smith and his brother refused to surrender themselves. Smith originally thought he was being held for inciting a riot, but when he discovered that running a shadow theocratic government and raising a private army against the United States of America earned him a charge of treason he panicked. He had a gun smuggled in to his jail cell and sent orders to the Nauvoo Legion to attack Carthage and free him by force. Fearing that Smith would be freed a mob of former Mormons attacked Carthage. Smith fired upon them and jumped out the window, pistol in hand, into a crowd waiting bellow; apparently in an ill-conceived attempt at escape. Joseph Smith was then shot to death. Hyrum Smith was shot dead with a bullet to the head. John Taylor and Willard Richards were also in the jail cell with the Smith brothers, both lived, Richards was uninjured.

The specifics of this event makes Joseph Smith an awkward Martyr at best. Although an unjust killing by any moral measure Smith enjoyed much more justice than most on the pre-civil war American frontier. Still, there are many who consider this one of the great martyrdoms in American History.


concolor1 said...

In fact checking your claim that the Carthage Mob most likely included William Law, I find the evidence strongly indicates otherwise.

Law, who had been Second Counselor in Joseph Smith's church, had been the force and the finances behind the publication of the single issue of the Nauvoo Expositor which exposed the polygamous practices of Smith's inner circle of Mormon leaders in the early 1840's. As noted in your essay, Smith's ordering of the destruction of the printing press was what precipitated his incarceration and death.

There's evidence, yes, that Smith may have wanted Jane Law for a "plural wife" and was rejected after propositioning her, but the following interview with Dr. Law from 1887 is a portrait of an individual who wanted to work within the legal system and expose Smith's religious excesses. Smith's martyrdom brought a legitimacy to his prophetic claims that probably wouldn't have occurred otherwise.

adult onset atheist said...

concolor1; I must admit that the information I gathered was not conclusive. That is why I chose “most-likely” rather than “did”.

However I'm not really following your evidence. The way I read it you provide more reasons to believe he was there. In the interview he says he thought the Smiths tried to poison him, and that they had poisoned other people successfully. Law also says in the interview that he was in Carthage around the time of the killing. The mob gathered only after Smith had called on his armed militia -the Navoo legion- to free him by force from the jail. Many probably gathered to ensure that justice was not avoided by Smith's thugs. Smith originally thought the mob was the his gang arrived to attack the jailers, and he reportedly boasted to the jailers about this (which many might take as a mortal threat). When Smith, bieng emboldened by both alcohol and the pistol in his hand, jumped out the window while firing at the gathered mob, some who might have preferred to see him hanged by a court of law might have shot at him.

In addition to the reasons why he would have been in the Carthage crowd Law had reasons to lie during an interview in Salt Lake City. At the time of the interview Utah was approaching the 30th anniversary of the September 11th massacre at Mountain Meadows. One of the widely distributed lies justifying the massacre was that some members of the party had participated in the killing of Joseph Smith. I'm sure anyone who did participate would have lied about it on a stack of bibles anywhere near Utah.