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Joseph Smith, the founder and leader of the Latter Day Saint movement, and his brother Hyrum Smith were killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844. The brothers had been in jail awaiting trial when an armed mob of about 200 men stormed the facility, their faces painted black with wet gunpowder. Hyrum was killed first, having been shot in the face. After emptying the pistol with which he tried to defend himself, Joseph was then shot several times while trying to escape from a second-story window, and fell from the window as he died.
Joseph Smith, as mayor of the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, had ordered the destruction of the facilities producing the Nauvoo Expositor, a newly established newspaper set up by a group of non-Mormons and people who had seceded from the church. The newspaper's first (and only) issue was deeply critical of Smith and other church leaders—reporting that Smith was practicing polygamy and claiming he intended to set himself up as a theocratic king. In response, Smith declared the paper a public nuisance and ordered its press destroyed.
The destruction of the press led to charges of riot against the Smith brothers and other members of the Nauvoo City Council. Warrants for his arrest were dismissed by Nauvoo courts. Joseph Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo and called on the Nauvoo Legion to protect Nauvoo. The brothers voluntarily traveled to the county seat at Carthage and surrendered to the authorities to face the charges. After surrendering, the brothers were also charged with treason against Illinois for declaring martial law. The brothers were in the Carthage jail awaiting trial when the mob attacked.
Five men were indicted for the killings, but were acquitted at a jury trial. At the time of his death, Joseph Smith was also running for President of the United States. Smith's death marked a turning point for the church, and since then, members of the Latter Day Saint movement have generally viewed that the two men were "murdered in cold blood" and were religious martyrs.
The Mormons began to move into Hancock County in 1839; at the time, most were Democratic. After the Mormons' expulsion from Missouri, Joseph Smith went to Washington, DC and met with President Martin Van Buren, seeking intervention and compensation for lost property. Van Buren said he could do nothing to help. After returning to Illinois, Smith vowed to join the Whig Party. Most of his supporters switched with him, adding political tensions to the social suspicions in which this group were held.
Several of Smith's disaffected associates at Nauvoo and Hancock County, Illinois, joined together to publish a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. Its first and only issue was published June 7, 1844.:v6,p430 Based on allegations by some of these associates, the newspaper reported that Smith practiced polygamy. It said that he tried to marry wives of some of his associates. About eight of Smith's wives had already been married to other men (four were Mormon men in good standing, who in a few cases acted as a witness in Smith's marriage to his wife) at the time they married Smith. Typically, these women continued to live with their first husband, not Smith. Some accounts say Smith may have had sexual relations with one wife, who later in her life stated that he fathered children by one or two of his wives. The reliability of these sources is disputed by some Latter Day Saints. DNA investigations performed to date have consistently shown that Smith was not the father of children thought to be his based on written and oral traditions.
In response to public outrage generated by the paper, the Nauvoo city council passed an ordinance declaring the newspaper a public nuisance designed to promote violence against Smith and his followers. They reached this decision after lengthy[specify] discussion, including citation of William Blackstone's legal canon, which defined a libelous press as a public nuisance. According to the council's minutes, Smith said he "would rather die tomorrow and have the thing smashed, than live and have it go on, for it was exciting the spirit of mobocracy among the people, and bringing death and destruction upon us."
Under the council's new ordinance, Smith, as Nauvoo's mayor, in conjunction with the city council, ordered the city marshal to destroy the paper and the press on June 10, 1844. By the city marshal's account, the destruction of the press type was carried out orderly and peaceably. However, Charles A. Foster, a co-publisher of the Expositor, reported on June 12 that not only was the printing press destroyed, but that "several hundred minions ... injured the building very materially".
Smith's critics said that the action of destroying the press violated freedom of the press. Some sought legal charges against Smith for the destruction of the press, including charges of treason and inciting riot. Violent threats were made against Smith and the Mormon community. Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, a newspaper hostile to the Mormons, editorialized:
War and extermination is inevitable! Citizens ARISE, ONE and ALL!!!—Can you stand by, and suffer such INFERNAL DEVILS! To ROB men of their property and RIGHTS, without avenging them. We have no time for comment, every man will make his own. LET IT BE MADE WITH POWDER AND BALL!!!
Warrants from outside Nauvoo were brought in against Smith and dismissed in Nauvoo courts on a writ of habeas corpus. Smith declared martial law on June 18 and called out the Nauvoo Legion, an organized city militia of about 5,000 men, to protect Nauvoo from outside violence.
In response to the crisis, Illinois Governor Thomas Ford traveled to Hancock County, and on June 21, he arrived at the county seat in Carthage. On June 22, Ford wrote to the Mayor and City Council of Nauvoo, proposing a trial by a non-Mormon jury in Carthage, the county seat, and guaranteed Smith's safety. Smith fled the jurisdiction to avoid arrest, crossing the Mississippi River into Iowa. On June 23, a posse under the command of Ford entered Nauvoo to execute an arrest warrant, but they were unable to locate Smith. After Smith was criticized by some followers, he returned and was reported to have said, "If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself.":v6,p549 Smith reluctantly submitted to arrest. He was quoted as saying, "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer's morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me—he was murdered in cold blood." On June 25, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, along with the other fifteen city council members and some friends, surrendered to Carthage constable William Bettisworth on the original charge of riot.
During the trip to Carthage, Smith reportedly recounted a dream in which he and his brother Hyrum escaped a burning ship, walked on water, and arrived at a great heavenly city. Upon arrival at Carthage, almost immediately the Smith brothers were charged with treason against the state of Illinois for declaring martial law in Nauvoo, by a warrant founded upon the oaths of A. O. Norton and Augustine Spencer. At a preliminary hearing that afternoon, the city council members were released on $500 bonds, pending later trial. The judge ordered the Smith brothers to be held in jail until they could be tried for treason, which was a capital offense.
The Smith brothers were held at the Carthage Jail and were joined there by Willard Richards, John Taylor, and John Solomon Fullmer. Six other associates accompanied the Smiths: John P. Greene, Stephen Markham, Dan Jones, John S. Fullmer, Dr. Southwick, and Lorenzo D. Wasson. Governor Ford left for Nauvoo not long after Smith was jailed. The anti-Mormon "Carthage Greys", a local militia, were assigned to protect the Smiths.
On Thursday morning, July 27, Cyrus Wheelock went to visit Joseph Smith. He had a pass from the governor instructing the jailors to let him pass unmolested. It was raining, and he used the opportunity to hide a small pepper-box pistol in his bulky overcoat, which had belonged to John Taylor. Most visitors were rigidly searched, but the guards forgot to check Wheelock's overcoat, and he was able to smuggle the gun to Smith. Smith took Wheelock's gun and gave Fullmer's gun to his brother Hyrum.
Before a trial could be held, a mob of about 200 armed men, their faces painted black with wet gunpowder, stormed the jail in the late afternoon of June 27, 1844. As the mob was approaching, the jailer became nervous, and informed Smith of the group. In a letter dated July 10, 1844, one of the jailers wrote that Smith, expecting the Nauvoo Legion, said, "Don't trouble yourself ... they've come to rescue me."
Smith did not know that Jonathan Dunham, major general of the Nauvoo Legion, did not dispatch the unit to Carthage to protect him. Allen Joseph Stout later contended that by remaining inactive, Dunham violated an official order written by Smith after he was jailed in Carthage.
The Carthage Greys reportedly feigned defense of the jail by firing shots or blanks over the attackers' heads, and some of the Greys reportedly joined the mob, who rushed up the stairs. The mob first attempted to push the door open to fire into the room, though Joseph Smith and the other prisoners pushed back and prevented this. A member of the mob fired a shot through the door. Hyrum Smith was shot in the face, just to the left of his nose, which threw him to the floor. He cried out, "I am a dead man!" and collapsed. He died almost immediately.
Joseph Smith, Taylor, and Richards attempted to defend themselves. Taylor and Richards used a long walking stick in order to deflect the guns as they were thrust inside the room, from behind the door. Smith used a small pepper-box pistol that Cyrus Wheelock had given him earlier that day. Three of the six barrels misfired, but the other three shots are believed to have injured three of the attackers.
Taylor was shot four or five times and was severely injured, but survived. It has been popularly believed that his pocket watch stopped one shot. The watch is displayed in the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City; the watch was broken and was used to help identify the time of the attack. In 2010, forensic research by J. Lynn Lyon of the University of Utah and Mormon historian Glen M. Leonard suggested that Taylor's watch was not struck by a ball, but rather broke against the window ledge. Columbia University historian Richard Bushman, the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, also supports this view.
Richards, physically the largest, escaped unscathed; Lyon speculates that after the door opened, Joseph Smith was in the line of sight and Richards was not targeted. After using all of the shots in his pistol, Joseph Smith made his way towards the window. As Smith prepared to jump down, Richards reported that he was shot twice in the back and a third bullet, fired from a musket on the ground outside, hit him in the chest.:v6,p620
Taylor and Richards's accounts both report that as Smith fell from the window, he called out, "Oh Lord, my God!". Some have alleged that the context of this statement was an attempt by Smith to use a Masonic distress signal.
There are varying accounts of what happened next. Taylor and Richards's accounts state that Smith was dead when he hit the ground. Eyewitness William Daniels wrote in his 1845 account that Smith was alive when mob members propped his body against a nearby well, assembled a makeshift firing squad, and shot him before fleeing. Daniels' account also states that one man tried to decapitate Smith for a bounty, but was prevented by divine intervention. Additional reports said that thunder and lightning frightened the mob off. Mob members fled, shouting, "The Mormons are coming," although there was no such force nearby.
After the attack was over, Richards, who was trained as a medical doctor, went back to see if anyone besides himself had survived, and he found Taylor lying on the floor. Richards dragged Taylor into the prison cell (they had not been held in the cell, but in the guard's room across the hallway). Richards dragged Taylor under some of the straw mattress to put pressure on his wounds and slow the bleeding and then went to get help. Both Richards and Taylor survived. Taylor eventually became the third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Richards had escaped all harm except for a bullet grazing his ear.
There have been conflicting reports about injuries to members of the mob during the attack, and whether any died. Shortly after the events occurred, Taylor wrote that he heard that two of the attackers died when Joseph Smith shot them with his pistol.:v7,p102
Most accounts seem to agree that at least three mob members were wounded by Smith's gunfire, but there is no other evidence that any of them died as a result. John Wills was shot in the arm, William Voras was shot in the shoulder, and William Gallaher was shot in the face. Others claimed that a fourth unnamed man was also wounded. Wills, Voras, Gallaher, and a Mr. Allen (possibly the fourth man) were all indicted for the murder of the Smiths. Wills, Voras, and Gallaher, perhaps conscious that their wounds could prove that they were involved in the mob, fled the county after being indicted and were never brought to trial. Apart from Taylor's report of what he had heard, there is no evidence that Wills, Voras, Gallaher, or Allen died from their wounds.
Joseph and Hyrum Smith's bodies were returned to Nauvoo the next day. The bodies were cleaned and examined, and death masks were made, preserving their facial features and structures.
A public viewing was held on June 29, 1844, after which empty coffins weighted with sandbags were used at the public burial. (This was done to prevent theft or mutilation of the bodies.) The coffins bearing the bodies of the Smith brothers were initially buried under the unfinished Nauvoo House, then disinterred and deeply reburied under an out-building on the Smith homestead.
In 1928, Frederick M. Smith, president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church) and grandson of Joseph Smith, feared that rising water from the Mississippi River would destroy the grave site. He authorized civil engineer William O. Hands to conduct an excavation to find the Smiths' bodies. Hands conducted extensive digging on the Smith homestead, and located the bodies, as well as finding the remains of Joseph's wife, Emma, who was buried in the same place. The remains—which were badly decomposed—were examined and photographed, and the bodies were reinterred close by in Nauvoo.
After the murders, there was speculation about who was responsible. Governor Ford was accused of knowing about the plot to kill Smith. Ford denied this, but he later wrote that it was good for the Mormons to have been driven out of the state and said that their beliefs and actions were too different to have survived in Illinois. He said Smith was "the most successful impostor in modern times," and that some people "expect more protection from the laws than the laws are able to furnish in the face of popular excitement."
Ultimately, five defendants—Thomas C. Sharp, Mark Aldrich, William N. Grover, Jacob C. Davis and Levi Williams—were tried for the murders of the Smiths. All five defendants were acquitted by a jury. The trial jury was composed exclusively of non-Mormons after the defense counsel convinced the judge to dismiss the initial jury, which included Mormons. The defense was led by Orville Hickman Browning, later a United States Senator and cabinet member.
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After the death of the Smiths, a succession crisis occurred in the Latter Day Saint movement. Hyrum Smith, the Assistant President of the Church, was intended to succeed Joseph as President of the Church, but because he was killed with his brother, the proper succession procedure became unclear.
Initially, the primary contenders to succeed Joseph Smith were Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, and James Strang. Rigdon was the senior surviving member of the First Presidency, a body that had led the church since 1832. At the time of the Smiths' deaths, Rigdon was estranged from Smith due to differences in doctrinal beliefs. Young, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, claimed authority was handed by Smith to the Quorum of the Twelve. Strang claimed that Smith designated him as the successor in a letter that was received by Strang a week before Smith's death. Later, others came to believe that Smith's son, Joseph Smith III, was the rightful successor under the doctrine of lineal succession.
A schism resulted, with each claimant attracting followers. The majority of Latter Day Saints followed Young; these adherents later emigrated to Utah Territory and continued as the LDS Church. Rigdon's followers were known as Rigdonites, some of which later established The Church of Jesus Christ. Strang's followers established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite). In the 1860s, those who felt that Smith should have been succeeded by Joseph Smith III established the RLDS Church, which later changed its name to the Community of Christ.
Reliable evidence indicates that Joseph Smith fathered some children through his plural marriages with single women, but that evidence does not necessarily support intimacy with polyandrous wives.
[...] Joe Smith being armed with a six barrelled pistol, furnished by his friends, fired several times as the door was bursted open, and wounded three of the assailants.
Joseph Smith probably then decided he might be able to save Willard Richards's life by moving into the line of fire and attempting to jump from the east window, which was the nearest window to Joseph Smith's haven in the northwest corner of the room. This action would draw the attackers outside
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