THE DEATH OF JOSEPH SMITH
According to Mormon history, Section 132 of the “Doctrine and Covenants,” giving divine sanction to Joseph Smith’s polygamy, was adopted by the church in July of 1843. By the next year he had perhaps fifty “celestial” brides in addition to his legal spouse, Emma. A significant passage in the “Doctrine and Covenants” laid down the law for Emma:
And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God. For I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice; and I give unto my servant Joseph that he shall be made ruler over many things; for he hath been faithful over a few things, and from henceforth I will strengthen him. And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law. D&C 132:52-54
In the spring of 1844, the prophet of the Mormons was mayor, municipal judge, and foremost merchant of the city of Nauvoo, Illinois. In addition, he was running for the United States presidency. Though the countryside around the Mormon city was distrustful of the Latter-Day Saints and jealous of their prosperity, it was Smith’s own actions that precipitated violence and tragedy.
One of his ablest advisers, William Law, had already become disillusioned by Smith’s worldliness, his crafty business deals, and his political ambitions. Now he was incensed by Smith’s secret marriages, and the attempted seduction of Law’s own wife was the last straw. He begged Smith to confess his sins to the High Council of their church, but the prophet could not bring himself to do this. Whereupon Law on June 7 published a scathing editorial in his new Nauvoo Expositor attacking these evils. The city council in a highly irregular “trial” denounced the newspaper as libelous and fit for destruction, and the city’s militia (the Nauvoo Legion) wrecked Law’s press and destroyed all copies of the newspaper they could find.
This brazen act of civil disturbance resulted in Smith’s arrest, and after Illinois Governor Thomas Ford promised protection, Joseph, his elder brother Hyrum and a few others surrendered for trial in nearby Carthage. When they were released on bail, however, they fled across the Mississippi River, intending to move on further west. But then Emma Smith sent a message after them that people were calling them cowards, and so they returned to Nauvoo. The two brothers were immediately rearrested on a flimsy charge of treason (for declaring martial law and initially resisting arrest).
When the members of the disbanded militia from Warsaw, Illinois, attacked the two-story jail at Carthage on June 27, the Smiths were upstairs with two friends, Willard Richards and John Taylor. A six-shooter and a single-barrel pistol had been smuggled in to them the previous day. Their door was forced open by the mob, and Hyrum was struck in the face and body. “I am a dead man,” he called as he fell. Joseph emptied the six-shooter toward the door, wounding several of the attackers, before leaping on the windowsill and, some say, giving the Masonic sign of distress. This consisted of throwing up the hands with the palms extended upward and then dropping them to the sides, while exclaiming, “O Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow’s son?” This action is supposed to be repeated three times. (The rationale for the terminology is that all masons are brothers of Hiram Abiff, the architect of Solomon’s temple, who was a widow’s son.)
A shot fired from inside struck Smith in the back, and he was probably hit by another bullet from the crowd that had gathered outside. By the Mormon account he exclaimed, “O Lord, my God,” and fell to the ground. Then he was immediately propped up against the well curb in the yard. Colonel Levi Williams, head of the Warsaw militia, ordered his men to fire on the wounded man, who then fell on his face, dead. As one of the killers leaped forward with a knife to cut off Smith’s head, the storm clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight suddenly shone down. (Another version of the story says it was a bolt of lightning.) Unnerved, the mob broke up. Some time later, Richards, who was unhurt, carried the body inside and laid it beside Hyrum’s. Taylor was seriously wounded but recovered. Several officers were tried for Smith’s murder but were found not guilty at a trial in which the prosecution was mishandled and the witnesses were uncooperative. No trial for Hyrum’s murder was held.
Because desecration of the graves was feared, coffins filled with sand were interred at the public funeral and the brothers’ bodies were hidden under the yet incomplete Nauvoo House. Emma later had the bodies reburied near her summer cottage. In January 1928 the remains were sought and found a hundred feet from the Mississippi on South Main Street, Nauvoo. They were reinterred nearby alongside Emma and a distinctive marker was erected.
(Ref. How Did They Die? by Norman and Betty Donaldson, Greenwich House, 1980, p. 343)