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Joseph was killed at Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844.

I originally expected the discussion of Joseph’s death at Carthage would be a relatively boring recitation of the facts we all know. Then I read the original accounts from John Taylor, [1] William Daniels, [2] and William R. Hamilton. [3]

We have not 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. It appears these ostensibly believing members of the Church were primarily responsible for the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

The Deadly Dance

When I originally posted regarding the Council of the Kingdom and the Conspiracy of Nayvoo in June 2014 as part of the Faithful Joseph series, Jonathan Stapley pointed me to a 2010 paper in BYU Studies by Alexander L. Baugh and Richard N. Hozapfel. [4] This more recent discussion of the Council of Fifty deprecated the sources I had used. The paper by Baugh and Hozapfel contain two items of particular interest.

First, in the meeting Joseph talked about his expectation that he might be killed and used almost the same language reported by Dennison Harris, that the apostles might be called upon to die, and if so they should die like men. Second, Wilford Woodruff’s journal suggested this meeting had occurred on March 26. This indicated the conspirators’ Sunday night meetings likely occurred on March 17th, 24th, and 31st. [5]

With this insight into the dates of key events, it is possible to reconstruct the deadly dance between Joseph and the conspirators. The following table gives a refined timeline for Joseph’s interactions with the conspirators in the months leading up to his death.

Date The Conspirators Joseph Smith
Jan-Mar 1844 Recruited Dissidents
Feb-Mar 1844 Recruited Dennison Harris and Robert Scott Asked Dennison and

Robert to be spies

11 March Established the Council of Fifty
17 March Organized at home of William Law Received report of sedition
24 March Decided Joseph and Hyrum must be killed Received report of intended murder. Conveyed news of the danger and identities of key conspirators at the temple [6]
26 March Conferred keys on Apostles. Said they might be called upon to die, and if so they should die like men.
31 March Held meeting where conspirators were  required to swear an oath to kill Joseph Advised Dennison and Robert that they may be killed, that if they were called to die, they should die as men. But Joseph thought their youth would protect them. The young men identified Law, Cowles, and the Higbee brothers among the leading conspirators.
18 April 1844 Ordered press? Excommunicated William Law
26 April 1844 Augustine Spencer physically assaulted his brother over the estate of their deceased father. Co-conspirators Charles Foster and Chauncey Higbee came to the Mayor’s office to defend Augustine, drew guns and cried “they would be G– D–d if they would not shoot the Mayor.” Joseph fined Augustine Spencer [7] for assault. He fined Charles and Robert Foster, and Chauncey Higbee for resisting authorities and for their threats.
Date The Conspirators Joseph Smith
1 May 1844 Francis Higbee sued Joseph Smith for the sum of Five Thousand dollars, intending to renew the accusation that Joseph attempted to seduce Nancy Rigdon.
15 May 1844 Published information about 1841 sexual sins of John C. Bennett and Francis Higbee (Francis had been Nancy Rigdon’s suitor).
May 1844 Augustine Spencer circulated a letter 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 Excommunicated Austin Cowles
29 May 1844 Published information about sexual sins of John C. Bennett and Chauncey Higbee circa 1842
7 June 1844 Published the Nauvoo Expositor, with affidavits by Law and Cowles, accusing Joseph of seducing hundreds of women in Nauvoo
10 June 1844 Ordered destruction of the

Nauvoo Expositor press

12 June 1844 Swore out warrant for Joseph’s arrest. Thomas Sharp published 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 Imposed martial law in Nauvoo
22 June 1844 Governor Ford demanded Joseph and Hyrum go to Carthage to answer charges against them Attempted to flee to the west with Hyrum. Was called back to Nauvoo by his friends.
24 June 1844 Augustine Spencer accused Joseph of treason, a capital crime that required Joseph be held in prison [8] Travels from Nauvoo to Carthage, expecting to be gunned down along the way

Joseph’s human intelligence into the dealings of the conspirators may have ended when Dennison and Robert left the third meeting of the conspirators, barely escaping with their lives when they refused to swear the required oath.

Yet the conspirators had not actually explained how they intended to kill Joseph. It is doubtful they planned anything so crude as shooting Joseph in the streets of Nauvoo in cold blood. Intelligent opposition forces develop a multi-pronged strategy where there are multiple avenues for “success.”

Analysis of Failed Attempts to Kill Joseph

If the conspirators wished to kill Joseph, it seems they would have wanted to examine the “failures” of prior attempts to make Joseph a dead man.

  • The first time people seriously tried to kill Josephwas 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 were unable to castrate and kill Joseph, though they left him partially scalped. [9] A mob, alone, had failed to get the job done. 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 would have known exactly who had attacked him. Joseph declined to turn against his attackers.
  • In fall 1838 JosephSmith was betrayed into the hands of the Missouri military forces. George Hinkle, William  Phelps and the others who betrayed Joseph were fully aware that General Lucas intended to have Joseph killed. Had General Doniphan not refused to obey an illegal order, Joseph would have died in November 1838. Military discipline could derail a murder attempt.
  • In August 1840 a Missourimob attacked Nauvoo, apparently intending to harm Joseph and his family. But the small band of men was confused by a torrential summer rain. Instead of attacking the Smiths, they attacked and killed Marietta  Though historians have been unaware of this attack, Bennett and presumably his circle of friends would have been very aware that this event happened. Inclement weather could prevent success.
  • On June 5, 1841, Josephwas arrested at Bear Creek, Illinois. He was able to obtain a writ of habeus corpus and escape custody.
  • In June 1843 Josephwas 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. Joseph was again freed by getting a writ of habeus corpus thanks to the strong City Charter Bennett had negotiated. The Nauvoo City Charter had to be negated.
  • In summer/fall 1842 Josephwent 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. Joseph had to be prevented from fleeing.

Beyond the lessons the conspirators could have learned from the past, they wished to retain power after killing Joseph. Therefore they had to make it appear someone else had killed him. And they had to make it appear that Joseph was in the wrong.

The Strategy

The plot against Joseph Smith seems to have included multiple strategies. Between these various measures, the conspirators could have expected they would be able to achieve their goal:

  • Revoke the city charterand/or weaken Joseph’s access to habeus corpus writs that would allow him to be heard before the friendly Nauvoo  This was accomplished by having Augustine Spencer charge Joseph with treason.
  • Create an opposition press to foment public anger and force Joseph’s hand. This was served by creating the Nauvoo Expositor and having Thomas Sharpresume his position as editor of the Warsaw Signal.
  • Create an alternative Church to accept the disaffected. Suggestively, James Strangjoined the LDS Church during the time when conspirators were being sought. Most of the known conspirators aligned themselves with Strang after Joseph’s death.
  • Create a smear campaign against Josephto weaken loyalty. This was accomplished using letters and legal attacks.
  • Ensure the 200 sworn conspirators were ready to exploit any opportunity to kill Joseph. This is hinted at in the armed threat at Joseph’s office on April 26, 1844.
  • Ensure high profile members of the conspiracy had alibis for the “mob” attack.
  • Inform key non-Mormonfactions in the area that there was significant discontent among the Mormons.
  • Provide a back-up so Josephand Hyrum could be shot and killed if the mob somehow failed to kill the brothers.
  • Allow a window of several days for the attack, to ensure bad weather could be avoided. This is seen in the June 19, 1844, letter to Dr. Bennett claiming “things will come to a crisis in about eight to ten days…”

Carthage, seen as the outcome of Conspiracy

After March 31, the leaders of the conspiracy revealed their plan to those who had sworn to support the killing of Joseph Smith and keep the identities of the murderers a secret.

The Nauvoo 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 Nauvoo Expositor, which would take time to stand up, a campaign of opposition and letters was started.

When Joseph, as mayor, eventually attempted to suppress the sedition, the conspirators could use this “oppression” to further their case that Joseph had to be killed.

As the controversy escalated, the officials in Illinois would insist that Joseph respond to the court in Carthage. The lawyers [10] had determined that a charge of treason 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 it appears they were not eager to incur collateral damage. The day the Smiths were killed, 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 attempt to “finish him off” or go after Willard Richards once Hyrum and Joseph were dead. The supposed Missouri and Illinois malcontents would not have naturally operated with such surgical precision. [11]

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 Jacob Davis went home rather than participate, and reportedly commented, “[I’ll] be damned if [I] would go kill a man that was confined in prison.” [12] According to William Daniels, approximately 30 of the group that marched back towards Carthage were from the Warsaw militia.

Based on the testimony of William Hamilton, he first sighted a 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.

Some of the men had blackened their faces, to prevent recognition. Given the discrepancy between Daniel’s estimate that 30 men from the Warsaw militia returned to Carthage and Hamilton’s estimate that 125 men were in the final mob, as many as 100 members of the lethal mob may have been Nauvoo conspirators.

John Taylor mentioned that the shot that killed Hyrum came from outside, through the window. The mob was too close to the jail to achieve the near-horizontal angle of the killing bullet. John decided the killing shot must have come from the Carthage Greys.

But John did not consider the possibility of a shooter not with the Carthage Greys who may have been specifically positioned to fire into the room. Francis Higbee, a leader of the conspiracy, was allegedly seen in Carthage that day, though he left shortly after the killings. [13] Undercover U.S. Marshall John C. Elliott would later boast of killing both Smith brothers, having borrowed a specialized rifle capable of the deed.

John Taylor went to the window, where he was shot. Falling on the sill, he felt himself sliding out of the window. Somehow he was propelled back into the room. John presumed the damage to his watch was made by a bullet that pushed him back into the room. But that damage is inconsistent with the complete destruction an actual ball would have caused. Further, no single ball could have imparted enough force to reverse the slide of a stunned man collapsed in the window. It appears the watch’s internal gears damaged the watch face and casing when John initially fell to the window sill. [14]

The “force” that moved John from the window and a deadly fall was almost certainly Joseph Smith. Willard Richards could not have saved Taylor from the reported fall as he was trapped behind the door the conspirators had forced open. Joseph put himself in the line of fire to keep John from falling out of the window. Joseph then attempted to escape the upstairs room, apparently hoping the mob would spare the others if Joseph were no longer with them.

Once Joseph was at the window, he was shot by both the mob that had burst through the abandoned door on the west side of the room and by at least one person shooting from outside the jail, positioned to the east.

Raising his hands in the Masonic cry of distress, Joseph likely intended to cry out “Oh Lord, My God! Is there no help for the widow’s son?” But he only said, “Oh Lord, My God!” before he could no longer speak. Joseph hung in the window for a few seconds before gravity pulled him out of the window to the ground beneath. The coroner determined Joseph had been killed by the ball that entered Joseph’s right breast, shot from the east. [15]

Joseph and Hyrum were each shot from the east by someone firing from outside of the jail. Despite the confusion of the moment, it is entirely possible both deadly shots could have been made by John C. Elliott, as he would later claim.

A rifle would have taken roughly 30 seconds to load with a patched ball. Hyrum had been shot in the back just as a volley was being shot through the door. John Taylor had run to the window to escape, but was downed by the next volley shot by the mob, suggesting that 20 seconds had transpired since Hyrum’s death.  Giving Joseph a few seconds to run across the room to John’s side, 30-40 seconds had passed since Hyrum had been shot. Enough time had transpired for the same rifleman who shot Hyrum to reload and aim at Joseph Smith. [16]

Contaminating the Testimony

The Nauvoo conspirators left one last trace of their involvement. One of the important witnesses of the events of June 27th was William Daniels. At the time of the killings, Daniels was not a Mormon. However after Joseph’s death, Daniels decided to join the Mormon Church. A few weeks before the trial, a pamphlet was published containing William Daniels’ testimony, but with fantastical modifications.

William Daniels had seen a young man approach Joseph’s body. [17] In the pamphlet the young man became a craven member of the mob intent on beheading Joseph. Similarly, Daniels only said he saw a bright light pass across Joseph’s body. The pamphlet claimed Daniels said a heavenly beam of light encompassed Joseph’s body and stunned all who attempted to desecrate the wounded prophet.

Speaking of the difference between the pamphlet (regarding the bright light and the man with the bowie knife) and the version of the story he had recounted under oath, Daniels said:

I did not write that neither did I authorize it to be written… I told Mr. Littlefield it was not correct. [18]

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 for the conspirators on trial and more than enough fantastical elements to destroy Daniel’s credibility as a witness. Because of the distortions the pamphlet contained compared to Daniels’s testimony under oath, the prosecution agreed to throw out William Daniels’s testimony entirely.

Lyman O. Littlefield, author of the pamphlet, had been one of Bennett’s Strikers. Catherine Laur [Fuller Warren] gave testimony that Lyman O. Littlefield had demanded she yield to him in the winter of 1841/1842. Lyman O. Littlefield is also one of those excommunicated in 1842. Given the large number of Strikers named as members of the Nauvoo conspiracy, it seems likely that Lyman O. Littlefield was also involved in the Nauvoo conspiracy to kill Joseph. If so, the pamphlet with its embellished tale could be seen as a finishing element of the conspiracy to kill Joseph and leave the conspirators blameless in the eyes of the world.

As a body, the apostles chose not to avenge Joseph’s death. Instead of obsessing over who might have contributed to Joseph’s death, they aggressively moved to continue his work. One of their first priorities was to transform Celestial plural marriages into what the revelation had said they should be, rather than the celibate ceremonies Emma Hale [Smith] argued they should remain.

Carthage, 1844 – Notes

Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were killed June 27, 1844. Those who contributed to and possibly effected his death engaged in strategic attacks from roughly February 1844 until well after Joseph’s death.

Many of the leading conspirators were known to have been involved in Bennett’s campaign of illicit intercourse in 1841-1842. Despite the conspirators’ overt outrage regarding Joseph Smith’s alleged sexual excesses, some of them may have 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 sealing families together, even when a man’s prior wife had died, were clearly associated with those keys.

Joseph and Hyrum were imprisoned at Carthage based on a charge of treason. The treason charge was never substantiated. But the severity of the alleged offense prevented any legal escape. A mob attacked on the evening of June 27, 1844, shooting from the west into the room holding the prisoners. However the shots that killed Hyrum and Joseph came from the east. If the same gunman fired both lethal shots, he was positioned no closer than 100 yards from the jail. Making two lethal shots in such short succession indicates the shooter was using a rest, like a modern sniper might use. John C. Elliott boasted of being the one who had killed the Smith brothers. The owners of the rifle Elliott had used similarly boasted their gun had killed “Joe Smith.”

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[1] John Taylor, affidavit of 22 September 1844, online 27 Jun 2014 at http://law2.umkc.edu/ faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/tayloraccount.html.

[2] William Daniels, original 1845 trial record. Online 27 Jun 2014 at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/daniels2testimony.html.

[3] William R. Hamilton, 24 December 1902, online 27 Jun 2014 at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/hamiltonaccount.html.

[4] Baugh, Alexander L. and Richard N. Holzapfel, “I Roll the Burden and Responsibility of Leading This Church Off from My Shoulders on to Yours: The 1844/1845 Declaration of the Quorum of the Twelve Regarding Apostolic Succession,” BYU Studies, Vol. 49, No. 3, 2010, pp. 5-19. Joseph’s acknowledgement that he might be killed is on p. 18. Footnote 20 on p. 13 provides the support for the date falling on March 26, 1844.

[5] It seems more than coincidental that the first meeting likely occurred on the anniversary of the founding of Relief Society. Relief Society had proven the downfall of the Strikers.

[6] Wilford Woodruff Journals, 24 March 1844.

[7] Sadler and Sadler, “Augustine Spencer: Nauvoo Gentile, Joseph Smith Antagonist,” Mormon Historical Studies, Fall 2011, Vol. 12 Issue 2, pp. 27-46. Online 28 Jun 2014 at http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Augustine-Spencer-Nauvoo-Gentile-Joseph-Smith-Antagonist.pdf.

[8] Sadler and Sadler, “Augustine Spencer: Nauvoo Gentile, Joseph Smith Antagonist,” Mormon Historical Studies, Fall 2011, Vol. 12 Issue 2, pp. 37-38. Online 28 Jun 2014 at http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Augustine-Spencer-Nauvoo-Gentile-Joseph-Smith-Antagonist.pdf. See also Warrant for the Arrest of Joseph Smith on the Charge of Treason, online 8 Jun 2014 at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/treasonwrit.html.

[9] The reported scalping is given as a reason Jospeh would comb the hair forward at his temples. A profile portrait of Joseph painted by Mary Elizabeth Lightner appears to show a significant lack of hair on Joseph’s right temple, see Winder, Lorie, “In Search of the Real Joseph Smith,” Sunstone, issue 24, Nov/Dec 1980, p. 31.

[10] The father of Chauncey and Francis Higbee had been a judge in Nauvoo before his death. Thus they may have been the legal advisors for the conspirators.

[11] John Taylor account of the martyrdom, online 27 Jun 2014 at http://law2.umkc.edu/ faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/tayloraccount.html retrieved.

[12] George Walker testimony regarding Jacob Davis, online 27 Jun 2014 at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/carthageaccount.html.

[13] From John Taylor’s affidavit of 22 September 1844,I learned of Francis Higbee as being in the neighborhood. On hearing his name mentioned, I immediately arose and said, ‘Captain Smith, you are a justice of the peace; I have heard his name mentioned; I want to swear my life against him.’ I was informed that word was immediately sent to him to leave the place, which he did.”

[14] Lyon, Joseph L. and David W. Lyon, “Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What It Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” BYU Studies 47:4. See also Rappleye, Christine, “Separating Facts from Fiction about the Prophet’s Death,” Deseret News, online 28 Jun 2014 at http://www.deseretnews.com/ article/705385933/Education-Week-Separating-facts-from-fiction-about-the-Prophets-death.html?pg=all.

[15] William Elliott indictment, October 1844, LDS Archives. Jonas Hobart 1845 trial testimony (Sharp, Trial, 2). Cited in Junius and Joseph, p. 258.

[16] It takes roughly 20 seconds to load a smooth bore musket. Loading a rifle with a patched ball takes a few seconds longer that the time required for smooth bore muskets.

[17] Based on William R. Hamilton’s description of his actions that day, he could have been the young man William Daniels saw.

[18] William Daniel’s testimony at Carthage in 1845, online 28 Jun 2014 at http://law2.umkc.edu/ faculty/projects/ftrials/carthage/daniels2testimony.html.