The Martyrdom

The Nauvoo Expositor’s first and only issue was printed on June 7, 1844. The paper declared the fidelity of its editors to their Mormon faith and upheld the Book of Mormon as an inspired record, but denounced Joseph Smith as a fallen and corrupt prophet. The paper charged Smith with blasphemy, adultery, and political corruption; and called for the revocation of the Nauvoo Charter. Three days after its publication, Smith, acting as Mayor, declared the paper a public nuisance and voted with the City Council to order the destruction of the press. The Nauvoo Legion laid waste to the printing shop and scattered the type. While Smith held legal right as Mayor to declare the paper a public nuisance and order it to cease and desist, the physical destruction of the press was an overreach of power chargeable as a “riotous act.” Incensed, William Law, the paper’s editor, rode to the county seat at Carthage and filed a complaint against Smith and other members of the City Council. A warrant was issued for Smith’s arrest, but Nauvoo Judge Daniel H. Wells quickly acquitted him. Wells’ ruling sent Hancock County residents into an uproar, believing the Nauvoo court to be corrupt. They demanded a retrial in Carthage by threat of mobilizing a militia advance against Nauvoo. Smith and his brother Hyrum initially attempted to flee across Iowa from Nauvoo, but ultimately turned around and surrendered themselves. As his final political act, Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo shortly before he and his brother departed for Carthage with a small group of church leaders.

Smith and the other accused leaders arrived on June 25th and stayed the morning with Governor Thomas Ford. After being paraded before militia groups, Smith and the others were brought before a hearing on the riot charges in the afternoon. They were released on bail only to be immediately arrested again on charges of treason for the declaration of martial law in Nauvoo. Ford placed the accused men at Carthage Jail for their safety while awaiting another hearing scheduled two days later. On the morning of the 27th, Ford disbanded the militia groups in Carthage and departed for Nauvoo, intending to disarm the Mormons and diffuse the situation. In Ford’s absence, the Warsaw militia advanced to Carthage.

The two Smith brothers, along with church leaders John Taylor and Willard Richards, waited through the stifling summer day for their hearing. At 5:12 p.m., a group of armed men charged past the jail guards, climbed the stairs, and opened fire on the occupants of the jail. Another group of men opened fire from the street below through a window. Hyrum was killed by a shot to the face and fell dead. Joseph, using a smuggled pistol, attempted to defend himself by returning fire on their assailants, killing one and critically injuring several others. Taylor was shot four times and managed to roll under a bed for safety. Richards was only grazed while striking at the assailants with his cane. Joseph attempted to run for the window and was shot several times from behind and below. Plummeting to his death through the window, he uttered the beginning of the Masonic signal of distress, “O Lord My God…” The attack lasted a mere three minutes, and the mob quickly dispersed. Joseph and Hyrum lay dead while Richards and the severely wounded Taylor remained hidden. Ford returned to Carthage one hour after the assassination. Fearing Mormon retaliation, he and most of the residents of Carthage fled the city, leaving it a ghost town. At the behest of Richards, the Mormons did not retaliate. On June 28th, the Mormons brought their dead and wounded back to Nauvoo. Thousands lined the streets as wagons bearing the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum slowly passed. John Taylor later referred to the assassinations as acts of martyrdom.