[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]
Last week I thought I knew what I was going to write in this post. Despite William Law’s Nauvoo conspiracy, I presumed the dissidents hadn’t been involved in Joseph’s actual death beyond publishing the Expositor. I supposed the mob had been composed of non-Mormons from Missouri and Illinois, whipped into a frenzy by the editor of the Warsaw Signal, Thomas Sharp. The Carthage Greys had been complicit, I supposed. And the escape of John Taylor, Willard Richards, and the handful of men who had been at Carthage Jail prior to the actual martyrdom had been a sort of miracle. I liked to say that it had been a miracle that Joseph and Hyrum hadn’t been killed by the Saints, though there had been hundreds allegedly willing to kill Joseph based on what had been written in the Expositor.
We haven’t had enough data before to realize what happened at Carthage, because we have not known the identities of the vast number of individuals involved in “illicit intercourse” under the influence of John C. Bennett. I submit it was these ostensibly “believing” members of the Church who were primarily responsible for the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. Inasmuch as we have presumed the killers of the Smith brothers were primarily ‘regular’ citizens of Missouri and Illinois, I believe we have an apology to make.
The Conspiracy of Nauvoo
Last week I summarized the account Dennison Harris left of the conspiracy headed by William Law and Austin Cowles. But it wasn’t until J. Stapley pointed me to recent information about the Council of Fifty that I was able to see the deadly dance between Joseph and the conspirators:
|Date||The Conspirators||Joseph Smith|
|Jan-Mar 1844||Recruit Dissidents||—|
|Feb-Mar 1844||Recruit Dennison Harris and Robert Stock||Asks Dennison and Robert to be spies|
|11 March||—||Establishes the Council of Fifty|
|17 March||Organize at home of William Law||Receives report of sedition|
|24 March||Decide Joseph and Hyrum must be killed||Receives report of intended murder. Conveys news of the danger and identities of key conspirators at the temple 3|
|26 March||—||Confers keys on Apostles. Says they may be called upon to die, and if so they should die like men.|
|31 March||Hold meeting where conspirators are required to swear an oath to kill Joseph||Advises Dennison and Robert that they may be killed, that if they are called to die, they should die as men. But Joseph thinks their youth will protect them. The young men identify Law, Cowles, and the Higbee brothers among the leaders of the conspiracy.|
|18 April 1844||Orders press?||Excommunicates William Law|
|26 April 1844||Augustine Spencer physically assaults his brother over the estate of their deceased father. Co-conspirators Charles Foster and Chauncey Higbee come to the Mayor’s office to defend Augustine, draw guns and threaten “they would be G– D–d if they would not shoot the Mayor.”||Joseph fines Augustine Spencer 4 for assault. He fines Charles and Robert Foster, and Chauncey Higbee for resisting authorities and for their threats.|
|1 May 1844||Francis Higbee sues Joseph Smith for the sum of Five Thousand dollars, intending to renew the accusation that Joseph attempted to seduce Nancy Rigdon.||—|
|15 May 1844||—||Publishes information about 1841 sexual sins of John C. Bennett and Francis Higbee (Francis had been Nancy Rigdon’s suitor).|
|May 1844||Augustine Spencer letter circulates in the east accusing Joseph of drinking, swearing, carousing, dancing all night, &tc., and keeping six or seven young females as wives.||—|
|18 May 1844||—||Excommunicates Austin Cowles|
|29 May 1844||—||Publishes information about 1842 sexual sins of John C. Bennett and Chauncey Higbee|
|7 June 1844||Publish the Expositor, with affidavits by Law and Cowles, accusing Joseph of seducing hundreds of women in Nauvoo||—|
|10 June 1844||—||Orders destruction of the Expositor press|
|12 June 1844||Swear out warrant for Joseph’s arrest. Thomas Sharp publishes his editorial stating “We have no time for comment, every man will make his own. LET IT BE MADE WITH POWDER AND BALL!!!”||—|
|18 June 1844||—||Impose martial law in Nauvoo|
|22 June 1844||Governor Ford demands Joseph and Hyrum go to Carthage to answer charges against them||Attempts to flee to the west with Hyrum. Is called back to Nauvoo by his friends.|
|24 June 1844||Augustine Spencer accuses Joseph of treason, a capital crime that requires Joseph be held in prison 5||—|
Joseph’s human intelligence into the dealings of the conspirators ended when Dennison and Robert left the third meeting of the conspirators, barely escaping with their lives when they refuse to swear the required oath.
Yet the conspirators had not actually explained how they intended to kill Joseph. I propose they never planned anything so crude as shooting Joseph in the streets of Nauvoo in cold blood. As we have seen recently with the attempt to force the Church to grant priesthood to women, intelligent opposition forces develop a multi-pronged strategy where there are multiple avenues for “success.”
Analysis of Past Failed Attempts to Kill Joseph
If the conspirators wished to kill Joseph, it seems they would have wanted to examine the “failures” in the previous attempts to make Joseph a dead man.
- The first time people seriously tried to kill Joseph was the night of 24 March 1832. A group of men attacked the Johnson farm where Joseph was staying. It was dark, letting the men think they were anonymous. Ultimately they stopped short of castrating and killing Joseph. But the identities of the would-be killers were not as hidden as they had believed. Each carried a tin lamp, hand-pierced with a unique pattern. Joseph knew exactly who had attacked him. Joseph declined to turn against his attackers.
- In fall 1838 Joseph Smith was betrayed into the hands of the Missouri military forces. George Hinkle, William W. Phelps and the others who betrayed Joseph were fully aware that General Lucas intended to have Joseph killed. But for the bravery of General Doniphan refusing to obey an illegal order, Joseph would have died in November 1838.
- In August 1840 a Missouri mob attacked Nauvoo, apparently intending to harm Joseph and his family. But the small, disorganized band were confused by a torrential summer rain. Instead of attacking the Smiths, they attacked and killed Marietta Holmes. Though we have remained unaware of this attack, Bennett and presumably his circle of friends would have been very aware that this event happened.
- On June 5, 1841, Joseph was arrested at Bear Creek, Illinois. He was able to obtain a writ of habeus corpus and escape custody.
- In summer/fall 1842 Joseph went into hiding to avoid extradition to Missouri, charged with involvement in the attempted murder of Missouri Governor Boggs. It was known that if Joseph was taken to Missouri he would be killed.
- In June 1843 Joseph was arrested at the home of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Wasson. After a week of legal wrangling, Joseph was able to get back to Nauvoo, where he was able to win his freedom due to the unusually strong City Charter Bennett had negotiated.
If the 1844 conspirators wished to kill Joseph and still retain power, they had to make it appear someone else had killed him. They had to make sure Joseph couldn’t find legal protection. And they had to make it appear that Joseph was at fault.
I believe the plot against Joseph Smith included multiple strategies. Between these various measures, the conspirators expected they would be able to effect their desires:
- Revoke the city charter and/or weaken Joseph’s access to habeus corpus writs that would allow him to be heard before the friendly Nauvoo courts.
- Create an opposition press to forment public anger and force Joseph’s hand.
- Create an alternative Church to accept the disaffected.
- Create a smear campaign against Joseph to weaken loyalty.
- Ensure the 200 sworn conspirators were ready to exploit any opportunity to kill Joseph.
- Ensure high profile members of the conspiracy had alibis for the “mob” attack.
- Inform key non-Mormon enemies that there was significant discontent among the Mormons.
- Ensure Joseph and Hyrum could be shot and killed if the mob gooned it up.
Carthage, seen as the outcome of Conspiracy
After March 31, the leaders of the conspiracy revealed their plan to those who had sworn the prior week to support the killing of Joseph Smith and keep the identities of the murderers a secret.
The Expositor was no doubt a major part of their ploy. If suppressed, the conspirators could claim Joseph was suppressing their freedom of speech. If not suppressed, the conspirators would continue to print their version of history where Joseph was guilty of heinous sin. In addition to the Expositor, which would take time to stand up, a campaign of opposition and letters was started.
When Joseph, as mayor, attempted to suppress the sedition, the conspirators could use this “oppression” to further their case that Joseph had to be killed.
As the controversy elevated, the officials in Illinois would insist that Joseph respond to the court in Carthage. The lawyers 6 had determined that a charge of treason, even if completely without basis, would ensure the Smiths would be held in jail without bond. With Joseph away from the safety of Nauvoo, they could implement their plan for an anonymous mob to attack, a mob that could be blamed on discontented folks from Missouri or Illinois.
The conspirators wanted Joseph and Hyrum dead, but weren’t eager to incur collateral damage. On the day of the killing, all the men who departed the jail were denied re-entry. Although John Taylor was seriously wounded in the heat of battle, there was no desire to “finish him off” or go after Willard Richards, once Hyrum and Joseph were dead. The alleged Missouri and Illinois malcontents would not have naturally operated with such surgical precision. 7
On the day of the killings, a detachment of the Warsaw militia supposedly marched North to Nauvoo. About six miles from Warsaw, near “the railroad shanties,” Colonel Levi Williams released three companies of men. He and Thomas Sharp then proceeded to “beat up” for volunteers to go to Carthage. According to some witnesses, the purpose for which the volunteers were allegedly to go to Carthage was left unstated, though one man who went home rather participate commented, “[I’ll] be damned if [I] would go kill a man that was confined in prison.” 8 According to William Daniels, approximately 30 of the group that marched back towards Carthage were from the Warsaw militia.
The railroad shanties “six miles from Warsaw” at the railroad crossing where Colonel Levi Williams released the companies may have been due east of Hamilton, shown by the red star labeled “1.” Based on the testimony of William Hamilton, he first sighted the group of 125 men approaching Carthage from two miles away, a bit north of due west, the only direction from which they could have approached without being seen much earlier. This location is shown by the red star labeled “2.”
[Edited 12/7/2014 to add: The map shows the train railroads that were built after Joseph’s death. The rail road in Joseph’s time would have been made of rails to allow heavy cargo from the river to be easily transported from the river. It seems likely that the train path would have followed the earlier rail road, as the earlier path would have already minimized topological variation.]
Some of the men had blackened their faces, to prevent recognition.
John Taylor mentioned that the shot that killed Hyrum came from outside through the window. Based on this data and the angle of the shot, which was nearly horizontal, John decided the killing shot must have come from the Carthage Greys, since the mob was too close to the jail to achieve the near-horizontal angle of the killing bullet. But what John didn’t consider was the possibility of a sniper positioned to shoot into the room. Francis Higbee, a leader of the conspiracy, was seen in Carthage that day, though he left shortly after the killings.
John went to the window, where he was shot. Falling on the sill, he felt himself sliding out of the window. But somehow he was pushed back into the room. John always presumed the bullet-like damage to his watch must have made the difference. But that damage is inconsistent with the damage an actual ball would have made, and no single ball could have imparted enough force to change John’s direction. It is more likely some pointy object damaged the watch as John fell to the window sill. 9
The “force” that pulled John from the window and a deadly fall was almost certainly Joseph Smith. Joseph, aware of the conspiracy as none of his colleagues were, would have seen Hyrum downed by a bullet from outside and would have realized there was a sniper trying to shoot him from outside. But to save John Taylor, Joseph put himself in the line of fire.
Raising his hands in the Masonic cry of distress, Joseph started to cry out “Oh Lord, My God! Is there no help for the widow’s son?” But he only had a chance to say “Oh Lord, My God!” before he stopped and fell out of the window.
[Edited 12/7/2014 to add: Most guns of the era had smooth bores, and the balls would quickly lose momentum. Bullets from such guns would rarely penetrate deep into a body, often being deflected even by sinew, much less bone. Guns with rifling in the barrel could shoot bullets that retained their momentum, traveling further. The prevalence of rifles in the Civil War, while armies were still using musket tactics, is credited with the reason that war was so incredibly bloody and lethal.
Rifles were relatively rare in the 1840s, however rifles were available. Contemporary documents regarding the death of the Smiths indicate that there were both guns and rifles. Hyrum was definitely killed by a rifle, with the ball entering his back, passing straight through his body, and having enough force to shatter his watch upon exiting. Hyrum was also almost certainly killed with a custom-made Hawken rifle made in St. Louis. Hawken rifles were known for their power and accuracy and had two triggers – the aftmost trigger made the main trigger extremely sensitive. It is possible for a trained marksman to repeatedly hit a bullseye at a range of 50 yards (150 feet) with a Hawken rifle. Hawken rifles were quality weapons, specifically developed to be “light enough to carry all the time, capable of knocking down big targets at long range.” The caliber of Hawken rifles ranged from .50 to .68, making them powerful enough to kill buffalo and other large game.
Though there isn’t as much data to be certain Joseph was killed by a rifle, the bullet that did kill Joseph was shot from outside the jail by someone who was positioned to the east, as had been the individual who shot Hyrum. Given the timing of events, the shot that caused Hyrum’s death was roughly 20-40 seconds before the shot that caused Joseph’s death, approximately the amount of time required for someone to reload a single shot muzzle-loaded gun.]
Contaminating the Testimony
If the Nauvoo conspirators were as involved in Joseph’s death as I suspect, they left one last trace of their involvement. One of the important witnesses to the events of June 27th was William Daniels. At the time of the killings, Daniels was not a Mormon. However after Joseph was dead, Daniels decided to join the Mormon Church. A few weeks before the trial, a pamphlet was published, containing the William Daniels testimony, but with fantastical modifications.
William Daniels had seen a young man approach Joseph’s body. 10 In the pamphlet the young man became a craven member of the mob intent on beheading Joseph.
Similarly, in the pamphlet Daniels story said a heavenly beam of light encompassed Joseph’s body and stunned all who attempted to desecrate the wounded prophet. But Daniels only said he saw a bright light pass across Joseph’s body.
Speaking of the difference between the pamphlet (regarding the bright light and the man with the bowie knife) and his version of the story, Daniels said:
I did not write that neither did I authorize it to be written… I told Mr. Littlefield it was not correct. 11
Mr. Littlefield, author of the pamphlet, had interviewed William Daniels multiple times to come up with the story he published. The pamphlet provided valuable information to the defense in the trial against those conspirators that were called up for trial, more than enough information to destroy Daniel’s credibility as a witness. Because of the distortions the pamphlet contained compared to Daniels’ testimony under oath, the prosecution agreed to throw out William Daniels’ testimony entirely.
The author of the pamphlet was Lyman O.Littlefield, one of Bennett’s Strikers who was named as having approached Catherine Warren for sex in 1842. Given the large number of Strikers named as members of the Nauvoo conspiracy, it is almost certain that Lyman O. Littlefield’s was also involved in the Nauvoo conspiracy to kill Joseph. If so, the pamphlet with its embellished tale was a finishing element of the conspiracy to kill Joseph and leave the conspirators blameless in the eyes of the world.
Joseph was dead. Those who contributed to and possibly effected his death were well-placed to take control of Joseph’s city. Many of the conspirators had been involved in Bennett’s campaign of illicit intercourse in 1841-1842. It seems possible that, despite their overt outrage regarding Joseph Smith’s alleged sexual excesses, some of them wished to return to the sexual freedoms they had enjoyed under Bennett’s leadership.
The apostles had been granted the keys of the priesthood, the keys Joseph and they believed would bring to pass the salvation of all mankind. Proxy work on behalf of the dead and the possibility of sealing families together, along with plural marriages when a man had been married to more than one spouse, were clearly associated with those keys.
As a body, the apostles chose not to avenge Joseph’s death. Instead they aggressively moved to continue his work. One of their first priorities was to transform plural marriage into what the revelation had said it was, rather than the celibate series of ceremonies Emma Smith argued it should be.
Future Planned Posts:
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy
- John Taylor, affidavit of 22 September 1844, available online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/tayloraccount.html, retrieved 27 June 2014. ↩
- William R. Hamilton, 24 December 1902, available online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/hamiltonaccount.html, retrieved 27 June 2014. ↩
- Wilford Woodruff Journals, 24 March 1844. ↩
- Sadler and Sadler, Augustine Spencer: Nauvoo Gentile, Joseph Smith Antagonist, Mormon Historical Studies, Fall 2011, Vol. 12 Issue 2, pp. 27-46. Available online at http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Augustine-Spencer-Nauvoo-Gentile-Joseph-Smith-Antagonist.pdf, retrieved 28 June 2014. ↩
- Sadler and Sadler, Augustine Spencer: Nauvoo Gentile, Joseph Smith Antagonist, Mormon Historical Studies, Fall 2011, Vol. 12 Issue 2, pp. 37-38. Available online at http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Augustine-Spencer-Nauvoo-Gentile-Joseph-Smith-Antagonist.pdf, retrieved 28 June 2014. See also Warrant for the Arrest of Joseph Smith on the Charge of Treason, available online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/treasonwrit.html, retrieved 28 June 2014. ↩
- The father of Chauncey and Francis Higbee had been a judge in Nauvoo before his death. It appears they were likely the legal advisors for the conspirators. ↩
- John Taylor account of the martyrdom, available online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/tayloraccount.html retrieved 27 June 2014. ↩
- George Walker testimony regarding Jacob Davis, available online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/carthageaccount.html, retrieved 27 June 2014. ↩
- Joseph Lynn Lyon research, reported by Christine Rappleye, Separating Facts from Fiction about the Prophet’s Death, available online at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705385933/Education-Week-Separating-facts-from-fiction-about-the-Prophets-death.html?pg=all, retrieved 28 June 2014. ↩
- Based on William R. Hamilton’s description of his actions that day, he could have been the young man William Daniels saw. ↩
- William Daniel’s testimony at Carthage in 1845, available online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/daniels2testimony.html, retrieved 28 June 2014. ↩