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Who Killed Joseph Smith?

Museum Treasures

When we speak of the mob that killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith in Carthage Jail, we sometimes forget that each of these men had names and lives. One of these men, from the militia in the neighboring town of Warsaw, Illinois, commemorated his participation in the killings on this horn, which carried his gunpowder: “Warsaw Regulators, The end of the Polygamist Joseph Smith kilt at Carthage Jail June 27, 1844.”1

While we do not know the name of the man who owned this powder horn, we do know the names of several men who helped organize and carry out the plan to kill the Prophet Joseph. As two commentators have stated, “The murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage, Illinois, was not a spontaneous, impulsive act by a few personal enemies of the Mormon leaders, but a deliberate political assassination, committed or condoned by some of the leading citizens in Hancock County [Illinois].”2

Joseph Smith had faced opposition, suspicion, and persecution most of his life, from the time he first saw God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, at age 14. As the Church grew, opposition shifted from mockery of the religious beliefs of Church members to distrust and fear of the Church’s—and Joseph Smith’s—growing political power.

In Nauvoo, Illinois, conflict that had simmered for years came to a boil when Joseph and the city council ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press. The Nauvoo Expositor was a newspaper published by apostate members of the Church who were opposed to plural marriage, a practice that had been growing in Nauvoo. The paper argued that Joseph Smith “had too much power, that polygamy was whoredom in disguise, and that the Nauvoo charter should be unconditionally repealed.”3

The members of the Nauvoo city council, which was led by Joseph Smith, felt that the paper was slanderous and ruled it a nuisance. By their interpretation of the rights granted to them by the state in the Nauvoo charter, the council believed they were legally justified in destroying the press.

Upon hearing of the paper’s destruction, residents of neighboring cities Carthage and Warsaw held mass meetings, declaring the act tyrannical.4 A judge in Carthage issued an arrest warrant for Joseph and Hyrum, charging that destroying the press amounted to inciting a riot.

Others did not trust the law to resolve the situation. Thomas Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, wrote, “We hold ourselves at all times in readyness to co-operate with our fellow citizens . . . to exterminate, utterly exterminate, the wicked and abominable Mormon leaders.” He even called for an attack on Nauvoo, declaring, “Strike them! For the time has fully come.”5

Hearing these threats, Joseph Smith was reluctant to go to trial in Carthage and sought resolution from nearby judges. He also declared martial law in Nauvoo to protect the residents in case of an attack. This act angered neighbors even further, and citizens charged him with treason.

Joseph called upon Governor Thomas Ford to resolve the conflict. The governor promised to protect Joseph and Hyrum if they would answer the charges against them in Carthage. The protection he offered, however, came from the “Mormon-hating” Carthage militia, who offered only “token resistance” to the men attacking the jail.6

Of the approximately 100 men involved in the attack that killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith, only nine were indicted. Four immediately fled, including a Mr. Gallaher, who, according to one witness, was the first to shoot Joseph Smith.7 Only five men were brought to trial: Thomas C. Sharp, publisher of the Warsaw Signal, an anti-Mormon newspaper; Levi Williams, colonel and commanding officer of the 59th Regiment of the Illinois militia; Mark Aldrich, commander of the Warsaw Independent Battalion; William N. Grover, captain of the Warsaw Rifle Company; and Jacob C. Davis, state senator and commander of the Warsaw Cadets.

The prosecution argued that even if these men did not fire a shot at Carthage Jail, “they did direct the arm that did strike the fatal blow.”8 While many people believed them to be guilty, no one was convicted for the murders. After they were acquitted, each man continued his life as a respected citizen in his community.9

While many people hoped that the death of Joseph Smith would also mean the end of the Mormons, today millions of Church members around the world join in singing, “Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven! Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain. Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren; Death cannot conquer the hero again.”10

Footnotes

[1] Gallery Guide for A Covenant Restored: The Foundations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a guide developed by the Church History Museum for volunteer use only, 2005), 49.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (University of Illinois, 1975), 6.

[3] John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith: An American Prophet (New York: Macmillan Company, 1946), 197.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review, vol. 9, no. 4 (Winter 1965), 862.

[5] Warsaw Signal, June 19, 1844; quoted in Oaks and Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, 15; capitalization modernized.

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” 867–68.

[7]Meet the Defendants in the Carthage Conspiracy Trial,” University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, accessed May 18, 2015, law2.umkc.edu.

[8]Opening Statement for the Prosecution by Josiah Lamborn in the Carthage Conspiracy Trial,” University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, accessed May 18, 2015, law2.umkc.edu.

[9] Timothy Merrill, “ ‘Will the Murderers Be Hung?’ Albert Brown’s 1844 Letter and the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies, vol. 45, no. 2 (2006), 98, footnote 37.

[10] “Praise to the Man,” Hymns, no. 27.