Carthage, 1844

[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.]

imageJoseph was killed at Carthage, Illinois on June 27, 1844, 170 years ago.

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.

I thought today’s post would be a relatively boring recitation of the facts we all know. Then I read the original accounts from John Taylor[ref]John Taylor, affidavit of 22 September 1844, available online at, retrieved 27 June 2014.[/ref] and William R. Hamilton.[ref]William R. Hamilton, 24 December 1902, available online at, retrieved 27 June 2014.[/ref]

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[ref]Wilford Woodruff Journals, 24 March 1844.[/ref]
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[ref]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, retrieved 28 June 2014.[/ref] 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[ref]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, retrieved 28 June 2014. See also Warrant for the Arrest of Joseph Smith on the Charge of Treason, available online at, retrieved 28 June 2014.[/ref]

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. On June 5, 1841, Joseph was arrested at Bear Creek, Illinois. He was able to obtain a writ of habeus corpus and escape custody.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

The Strategy

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[ref]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.[/ref] 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.[ref]John Taylor account of the martyrdom, available online at retrieved 27 June 2014.[/ref]

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.”[ref]George Walker testimony regarding Jacob Davis, available online at, retrieved 27 June 2014.[/ref] According to William Daniels, approximately 30 of the group that marched back towards Carthage were from the Warsaw militia.

Key Locations near CarthageThe 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.[ref]Joseph Lynn Lyon research, reported by Christine Rappleye, Separating Facts from Fiction about the Prophet’s Death, available online at, retrieved 28 June 2014.[/ref]

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.[ref]Based on William R. Hamilton’s description of his actions that day, he could have been the young man William Daniels saw.[/ref] 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.[ref]William Daniel’s testimony at Carthage in 1845, available online at, retrieved 28 June 2014.[/ref]

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

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

27 thoughts on “Carthage, 1844

  1. Always an impressive read. I look forward to these posts with great anticipation. Thank you for investing the work, time, thought, analysis, and care that you do.

  2. If a sniper (e.g., Francis Higbee) was positioned in the upper story (or on the roof) of a building to the east of Carthage jail, then this individual could have also caused the bright light William Daniels reported seeing. The sun was in the west, so would not have shone on Joseph’s body, which had fallen on the eastern side of the jail, and so would be in the afternoon shade cast by the house. It’s possible that the sniper used a mirror to cast bright light on Joseph’s body, to ensure from that distance that he was no longer moving. If Joseph had still been alive, a sniper would have been able to take action to ensure Joseph’s death.

    Bright light cast on a body lying on the shady side of the yard would have been shocking, which is why William Daniels would have noted it.

    In the table above I didn’t bother listing all the legal suits brought against Joseph, such as the legal suit William Law brought against Joseph relative to the financial (and marital) matters involving Sarah and Maria Lawrence.

    Obviously the matter of Joseph’s death has spawned intense interest. I have cited only a few of the many excellent documents relating to this event.

    By the way, I found an even older map showing where the roads and railways ran in 1875: Given the development of railroad lines, it is likely these rail lines were in place in 1844, when Joseph was tried.

  3. Joseph pulled John Taylor away from the window because he realized a sniper was there? It’s more likely John Taylor’s watch wasn’t fully destroyed because of a ricocheted shot, bad powder, etc than the fell down after Joseph realized a sniper was taking them out and pulled him out of the way.

    So much of this makes no sense…organize a mob intent on killing Joseph, then setup as a sniper with a difficult shot and a terrible chance of success to ensure the job is done? You’ve got a hundred armed people right there and you decide you need to pull off a through the window black powder killing shot in the off chance he lines up in the melee? And Joseph is thinking along exactly these lines too?! “It must be an ex LDS conspirator shooting through the window from a distant building, not the mob outside! Get away from that window John!”

    I think you definitely need to get your ideas into a good bit of historical fiction with dialogue, etc. it would be awesome to read. It would actually make you a pretty decent sum if money of you go the next step and make it alternative fiction and flesh out the world that would have been over a series of books. I’d read it and you clearly have the mind for spinning alternate realities!

  4. Hi Aaron,

    Aside from the ad hominem aspersions, I would love to hear your explanation for the light William Daniels saw.

    Obviously the current version of the story as accepted by folks is sufficient to explain the data. But it doesn’t fit the data so perfectly as to preclude other interpretations.

  5. It’s ad hominem to think it makes no sense to put forth a theory that Joseph suspected a sniper in a distant building? I don’t really feel a need to explain the light. Anyone who has spent some time outdoors has seen pretty interesting things with light (especially in areas where smoke filled the air). Since I didn’t see the light phenomenon don’t think I can offer a theory on it.

    But I’d think most people wouldn’t accept the sniper shining a mirror to look for traces of movement theory. Like I said, this would be a fun read as an alternate history. But the sniper is responsible theory really jumps the shark.

  6. Researching the railroad bit, there was a railroad being built between Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, but it’s not clear that the crossing at the location of present-day Elvaston, Illinois, was necessarily in place. However the specification that the rail tracks was 6 miles from Warsaw tends to draw us due west rather than north toward Nauvoo from Carthage. I suspect the railroad referred to in the testimony could have been under construction. There would have been no reason to be constructing a railroad anywhere other than the location of the eventual tracks we see in later maps.

    Here’s a map of Hancock County in 1844:

    Prairie and Ramus are locations where we have documentation of illicit intercourse between Strikers and women. The “six miles from Warsaw” description tends to put the discharge of the Warsaw militia at the western boundary of Prairie, and the column of mobbers approaching slightly north of west towards Carthage would have the mob traveling through Prairie again.

    Taylor posited a shooter that wasn’t part of the mob. It’s just that he found it sufficient to suppose a member of the Carthage Greys was shooting at the jail. But the Carthage Greys were supposed to have been supplied blanks, the ostensible reason the mob was told they didn’t have anything to worry about.

    I simply think William Daniels’ testimony is incredibly important, and that this is the reason the conspirators had to destroy the credibility of his testimony.

    I think the term “sniper” is what threw you off. Let’s just call the individual a plant, further away from the action than the obvious mob, belt and suspenders to ensure the job gets done.

    We know John realized a shot through the window had killed Hyrum. But the window seemed the only route of escape, given the fire coming through the door. Which is why John attempted to escape via the window. But here he too is gunned down.

    It would seem odd in the extreme for Joseph to see Hyrum downed by a window shot and then see John Taylor cut down and yet not be aware that the window route was dangerous.

    Given John’s report that he was sliding out the window but was pulled/pushed back by some force, I don’t know why one would question the possibility of Joseph as that “force.” Our other options are a single ball that was too wimpy to even shatter John’s watch or angels. I prefer a flesh and blood Joseph as that salvific “force.”

    I suspect the reasons John never put forward that interpretation was survivor guilt. The watch provided an explanation to John’s non-scientific mind, and so John never had to contemplate the possibility that he was part of the chain of events that resulted in Joseph being in that window, where he was killed.

  7. This railroad thing has been a fascinating side investigation.

    According to, the railroad between Chicago and the Mississippi wasn’t completed until February 1854.

    But as early as the late 1820s the earliest rail systems were being put in place. Early rail systems were a far cry from what we think of modernly.

    The rails running from Warsaw to Carthage would have been put in place to quickly move products transported by river to the county seat. Lacking information to the contrary, it seems likely the railroad in place between Warsaw and Carthage in 1844 would have served to inform the route of the later, more modern railroad that would be installed a decade later.

    Six miles is an interesting measure, because the 1844 map of Hancock County shows the county laid out in six mile by six mile square divisions.

    The 1844 map also shows us that Warsaw and Nauvoo were in direct economic competition – they were the only two river ports reasonably close to Carthage at the time. And Warsaw was right across the river from the North border of Missouri, making it much more sympathetic to the concerns of Missouri than the scruples of the rest of Illinois.

  8. The Great Flood of 1844 certainly contributed to the danger at Carthage. In terms of sheer water volume, it was the worst flood ever to hit that region. Since there were no levees at the time, the water flooded miles of coastal land, displacing people and preventing them from engaging in their normal pursuits. The flooding was so bad that my ancestors who arrived in Nauvoo the day Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies returned tell of the riverboats traveling over land that had previously been fields.

    For those of us who remember the 1993 flood, you might be able to imagine the slow, creeping inevitability of such flooding.

  9. Artist Al Rounds creates LDS memes as a result of his popular paintings of Church historical sites, but sometimes, as in his depiction of Nauvoo in the days of Joseph Smith, he gets it wrong. The flood control dam built at Keokuk south of Nauvoo raised the water level as much as 15 feet at Nauvoo and changed flow characteristics. Rounds shows a marsh near the homestead, Joseph’s first home in the area, but in the 1840’s steamboats docked at the foot of the nearby street as depicted in a painting by one of Joseph’s sons. Rounds’ depiction of the temple makes it seem much nearer than it appears to someone standing (or sitting in a row boat) from the point of view he assumes. Like many others I accepted his painting as representing reality until I visited Nauvoo in preparation for my own attempt to portray an incident from the time. While Meg ventures some opinions that may seem unsupported, much of what she writes is based on careful reading of documents most never see. We have our memes, created on the basis of what others have written, and it can be difficult to shift them. If the shooter she mentions isn’t one of the Nauvoo conspirators, her research indicates that they were likely involved in some way. I have to admit that as a physicist with an expertise in weaponry, she is probably more qualified than most to say that a bullet hitting his watch didn’t drive John Taylor back into the room. I find her idea that it was Joseph yanking on his vest more likely. I have read that it is likely that Joseph, knowing that the mob were after him, jumped from the window to divert the attention of the mob from John and Willard, truly a noble act if true, but he likely knew he would die anyway. As for survival guilt on John Taylor’s part as an explanation of his version, not so much. Those who are caught up in crisis situations often have faulty recall of details.

  10. Meg, I recall one account saying the mob dispersed after someone raised the cry of “the Mormons are coming!”. Do you know if this is accurate, or would the mob have dispersed after simply deciding the two they were after were sufficient?

  11. Hasn’t several shots coming in from the window always been part of the narrative?

    If so, the idea that they came from the assembled mob seems sufficient. As i understand the geometry involved, those who shot into the window from the outside did not have to be elevated above the ground.

    Here’s why: If they had been elevated, such as on the rooftop or second floor of another building , or standing on a wagon, their shots would have risked hitting the indoor mobbers, not just the prisoners who were trying to escape via the window. By shooting from ground level, not far away, any shots that entered the 2nd floor window and missed their intended targets would have gone into the ceiling, not towards the door where the mobbers were trying to enter.

    However, a ground level shooter standing somewhere between 50 and 100 yards away could have made his shot look like it was horizontal by the time it reached the window. That’s because bullets, especially the slower heavy bullets or those times, travelled in an arc. The bullet(s) could have transitioned/arced from an upward path to a more horizontal path by the time it reached the window.

    And yes, the term is “sensory overload” when too many things that you aren’t used to experiencing start happening too fast. And you fail to take note of all that is going on. And you later have to make assumptions in order to fill in the gaps.

  12. Btw, to clarify, bullets still travel in an arc, 🙂 but modern rifle bullets are lighter and faster and more aerodynamic, so they travel in a “flatter” arc, that is closer to a straight line than a heavy/slow and less aerodynamic bullet of yester years.

  13. The distant shooter is suggested by the flatter trajectory of the bullet. For some reason John Taylor didn’t think the mobbers in the yard below could have shot the bullet that killed Joseph.

    I recommend reading the first-hand testimony from William Daniels, John Taylor, and William R. Hamilton. Don’t rely on the Littlefield pamphlet.

    The light is significant, I’d swear it. I’d love to see Mythbusters d a piece on Carthage, documenting the watch, the shot that killed Hyrum, and options for what could have caused the light.

  14. The fact that the militia was disbanded is very telling. It shows/means that only those interested in murdering Joseph (and Hyrum) would have shown up at the jail. Given the actions of the dissenters detailed earlier in Meg’s posts I have to admit that the idea of them being the major movers in this episode makes more sense to me than the “standard explanation” version we often hear. Probably all sorts of people were involved in the “mob”, but as the wicked priests in the Book of Mormon demonstrate those that apostatize and go over to the other side seem quite a bit more blood thirsty than the run-of-the-mill antagonists they often end up goading on to viciousness.

  15. JSH, good observation. Also, the murderous intent and oaths under penalty of death among the conspirators, make their endeavor a “secret combination” in very deed, in accordance with those examples in the BoM too.

  16. So does anyone have the equation for a 1844-era rifle? Browning will do, as these are the kind of rifle availlable to those attacking Carthage jail and its inhabitants. It seems possible to get a rough solution for the range of locations the distant shooter would have been at, and then we can figure the angle of the sun and the kind of reflection you’d get from a range of items (mirror, rifle barrel, etc.).

    Fascinating stuff. Conspiracy and physics, all rolled into one.

  17. Ballistics will depend on a few things. For starters, any idea how far away the supposed sniper’s firing position was? Elevation in relation to the window? I don’t see anything on the maps that indicates there was a building nearby in line with the upper window.

  18. Meg,
    how did you decide on Browning? Jonathan Browning (John Moses Browning’s father) had a gun shop in Nauvoo starting in 1842, but didn’t manufacture in volume like some contemporary manufacturers. He built to order and each gun took 2 weeks to complete. Additionally, his long-guns made before 1848 were not rifled, but smooth bore.

    Springfield muskets, on the other hand, were far more common at the time, having been standard issue for the Army since 1814 and used in the Texas Revolution. In total, the production volume of the various Springfield models up to 1844 passed the into the low millions. They fired large caliber round lead balls with an effective range of between 50 and 75yds, depending on the model and caliber. They were fired from smooth bore barrels, which made the bullet trajectory inherently unstable. One could “lob” a .58 or .69 caliber round ball up to 200 yds, but not with any degree of accuracy. By the end of the bullet path, it would be coming down at nearly a 45 deg angle.

    Using the widely-used .69 caliber ball for the math, between 50 and 100yds, the bullet would have dropped over 5 inches and slowed from 1500fps at the muzzle to just over 1000fps.

    Other musket models could have been used, as well. But, given the year, they certainly would have been smooth bore muskets.

    To add to the difficulty in accuracy, most muskets were built as flintlock actions from the factory, meaning there was a noticeable delay between the click of the trigger and bang of the gunpowder. And they were muzzle-loaded, meaning they had to be stood on end and took about 20 seconds to prepare to fire.

    And to make it even more difficult, telescopic sights were not invented until the late 1830’s, no detailed plans were published until 1848, and they were not mass produced in the US until after the mid-1850’s. So it’s a near certainty the person firing the gun was using iron sights. Iron sights on muskets were not adjustable, in modern terms. The owner would “sight in” the gun at 50yds by filing down the front or back posts. Any shots outside that range required “hold-over”, which was a guesstimate based on the experience of the user.

    The Minie ball was a very new French invention in 1844 and very few US rifles fired it. It required an older musket to be retrofitted with rifling groves inside the barrel and ranged iron sights, extending the effective range to 200-300yds. Such rifles were not widely adopted by the military until after 1850 and became generally available to the public shortly thereafter.

    So a rifleman would have had to make that shot with iron sights aimed at the dark side of a house through a poorly lit window with what was most likely a weapon effectively inaccurate past 75yds.

    I only bring this data to your attention to clarify the difference between the role we see in today’s ultra-accurate marksmen with their modern weaponry and the likelihood that someone in 1844 would have even had the right tools to make that shot, let alone the skill.

    Then take into account that the “killing shot was nearly horizontal” and you’re talking about a very close pistol or a rifle within less than 50yds. The round balls in generally available calibers of the time, though they could exit the barrel at nearly 1500 feet per second (given a .69 cal 400+ grain ball with 110 grains of powder), were very ballistically deficient at ranges over 75yds. In other words, “nearly-horizontal” isn’t the way you would describe a bullet’s path from a sniper’s musket at the end of the effective range.

    Any idea how far away the supposed sniper’s firing position was? Elevation in relation to the window? If he’s in a building 30yds across the street, then the description of the bullet path is a possibility. But I don’t see anything on the maps that indicates there was a building like that nearby in line with the window.

  19. Hi Trevis,

    You’re wonderful. Thank you for bringing your expert knowledge of firearms to this discussion.

    Consider a couple of things.

    1) Even though rifling was not a common feature in 1844, the principle of rifling had been known since the 1600s. Queen Anne pistols often featured rifling (circa 1700) and were widely popular in England.

    2) The Nauvoo Militia formed early in 1841. An unusual number of conspirators were from the upper ranks of the militia.

    3) Bennett and his supporters had planned to kill Joseph in 1842, in conjunction with a mock battle. We don’t know enough about that plot to rule out the idea that a “distant” shooter was part of that plot.

    4) Francis Higbee, identified as being on the scene at the time of the shooting, had an abiding hatred of Joseph Smith, ever since he was exposed as a whoring and diseased degenerate to the Masonic Lodge in July 1841.

    So while I grant you that a random bloke would have been limited to a smooth bore musket, it seems that a multi-year pre-meditated action on the part of (for the time) wealthy individuals would include the possibility of a custom weapon capable of increased range and accuracy.

    Looking it up, the precursor to the minie ball wasn’t developed until 1848 in France, so I agree the ball would have likely been round.

    Taylor gives his account of Hyrum’s death, giving the reasons why he suspected it wasn’t a shot from the mob immediately surrounding the jail. The room they were in is about 15 feet wide from east to west, so Hyrum was likely 10 feet from the window.

    “…as I went to the door, I found Brother Hyrum Smith and Dr. Richards already leaning against it. They both pressed against the door with their shoulders to prevent its being opened, as the lock and latch were comparatively useless. 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. At the same instant, another ball from outside entered his back, passing through his body and striking his watch. The ball came from the back, through the jail window, opposite the door, and must, from its range, have been fired from the Carthage Greys, who were placed there ostensibly for our protection, as the balls from the firearms, shot close by the jail, would have entered the ceiling, we being in the second story, and there never was a time after that when Hyrum could have received the latter wound. Immediately, when the ball struck him, he fell flat on his back, crying as he fell, “I am a dead man!” He never moved afterwards.”

    “the Carthage Greys, …were stationed some ten or twelve rods off.” A rod is 5.5 yards, so they were 55 to 66 yards away (say 50-70 yards).

    “It would seem that immediately after my attempt to leap out of the window, Joseph also did the same thing, of which circumstance I have no knowledge only from information. The first thing that I noticed was a cry that he had leaped out of the window. A cessation of firing followed, the mob rushed downstairs, and Dr. Richards went to the window.”

    So we have the members of the mob who are gathered within 2-3 rods of the house (10-20 yards) and we have an armed group of men further from the house, at a range of 50-70 yards. When I say “distant shooter” I am talking about this 50-70 yard range or even a bit closer, as one can imagine an individual co-located with the Carthage Greys moving towards the jail rather than away as the mob stormed the house.

    Allegedly the Carthage Greys were shooting blanks.

    The sun would have been west north west, at an elevation of 25 degrees. The sun would not set that night until after 8 pm, so there was plenty of light, despite the east side of the jail being in the shade. ( – note this shows daylight savings time, so you need to adjust by an hour).

    I can’t know whether there was a tree or wagonbox from which the shooter would have been elevated. However if we imagine him on the ground at a range of 40-50 yards, it seems the shot that killed Hyrum would be possible. A shot stopping Joseph at the window would also be possible.

    If I call Carthage jail 24 feet tall (8 yards), the roof takes up only 10 degrees from the horizon at 50 yards, so it would be possible for an individual at 50 yards to reflect the sun back onto the body of Joseph, if they had something flat (mirror, flask, metal plate). Even a relatively small reflector would cast an elongated reflection on the horizontal. This reflection of the sun needn’t have been effected by the shooter – any member of the Carthage Greys with a mirror might have used that means to illuminate the scene without approaching the body.

  20. Meg,
    I think we can agree that it wasn’t a Minie ball. If they ahd 3yrs to reserach and procure a specialty rifled musket firing a round ball, the list of guns get very large. Guns in the first part of the 19th century were made en masse, like i mentioned earlier, but others were also being hand built by hundreds of family owned gunsmiths, nearly one in every major city. The list of manufacturers from the 1800-1844 time frame is tremendous. Adding to that the fact that many more were imported from abroad, like the French rifles used in the revolutionary war, and you could be talking about anything from a one-off purpose-built rifle to a retrofitted 1777 French army musket. the list is too big to narrow down without eye-witness testimony regarding the armament of the militia.

    As for the “sniper shot”, with a rifled barrel shooting a .69 caliber lead ball at 40-50 yds, the 400+ grain projectile is still traveling well over 1200fps and at a nearly flat arc, dropping less than 1.5 inches between 25 and 50yds. If someone was simply aiming for the center of a dark window, they could hit whatever was in the center of that window with iron sights.

    It’s telling that the ball went through Hyrum and hit his watch. Rounds balls generally had a huge impact force, but not the energy to get all the way through the person beyond maximum effective range. That’s why it was so common for field doctors in the civil war to dig around and pull out the ball before patching the person up. Also, balls were easily redirected in the body by angle of impact, bones, and even tensed muscles.

    Field doctors in the civil war noted the difference in would channels between the pistol rounds, the Minie ball (after 1848), and the musket round balls. Musket balls left deep interior wounds while rifled Minie balls and pistol rounds generally crushed bone and shredded flesh as they passed through. Many field doctors could look at the wound and tell what the soldier had been hit with before cutting them open. If it was a Minie ball wound to the leg, they would just amputate because the leg wasn’t broken, it was irretrievable shattered into many many pieces.

    Pistol rounds, on the other hand, usually had enough punch to go all the way through because they were being fired at very close range, but were moving with much less weight and at a lower velocity, leaving a “cleaner” wound channel than a rifled Minnie ball.

  21. “It’s telling that the ball went through Hyrum and hit his watch.”

    The ball not only hit the watch, it destroyed the watch. This is mentioned when people critique the John Taylor “the bullet hit my watch and saved my life” story.

    At any rate, I take you to be saying that the nature of the shot passing through Hyrum with enough residual momentum to shatter the watch does indicate the possibility of a rifled barrel. The angle also points to someone at ~50 yards versus the random mob members close to the jail. The rifled barrel suggests this was not a random member of the Carthage Greys.

    And we know from John Taylor’s account that he was told Francis Higbee was in Carthage after the shooting, presumably having remained throughout the day (versus returning after the shooting).

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  24. Oh, comments to this post are still open… that’s a surprise.

    I was interested to note that contemporary accounts of the events of Carthage describe that individuals there had both muskets and rifles. I’d have to re-read the transcript of the trial to give chapter and verse, but suffice it to say here that there were rifles at Carthage on the day Joseph and Hyrum were fatally shot.

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