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The Death Of The Prophet
The Mormons grow in numbers, but persecution makes them wanderers. Then a burst of violence results in
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
At nine o’clock the door of the Mansion House swung open, and a dim, short ray cut through the darkness. Hyrum came out, and the light was gone with the sound of the latch.
“A company of men are seeking to kill my brother,” said Hyrum to a man standing outside. “The Lord has warned him to flee to the Rocky Mountains to save his life.” Without more words the two men waited. Joseph came out suddenly holding a handkerchief to his face. He had said good-by to his Emma, then pregnant, and to their children. He was weeping.
Dark figures had gathered on the riverbank when the brothers came near. The river was higher that June than any old-timer could remember. Someone had gone to borrow a skiff. He had a hard time finding it, and in the long wait Joseph gave directions. “Tell our wives what we calculate to do,” he said, “and learn their feelings on the subject; tell Emma that you, Brother Phelps, will take her by the second steamboat upriver to Cincinnati. She has enough money for expenses. If there is anything wrong, come over the river and find out where we are.”
It was two o’clock on Sunday morning and raining heavily when the brothers Smith and Willard Richards climbed into the skiff. Following them, Porter Rockwell took the oars and sent it sliding out into the swirling current. Even with his great strength he made slow progress. The boat was flimsy and soon sprang a number of leaks. It was in danger of sinking until the desperate men took off their boots and shoes and used them to bail out the water. The skies were clearing and dawn was spreading behind them when their craft neared the Iowa shore. Mists rose from the river. They seemed to catch in the lush, green foliage and take their color from it. As the sunlight burned them away, the men in the boat could see cabins standing in coffee-colored water so deep that only roofs and chimneys rose above it. As his passengers clambered out on the bank, Porter Rockwell swung the skiff about and rowed back toward the sun-gilded town whence they had come. He had orders to bring back Joseph’s best horses in the dark of the following night.
By one o’clock that afternoon, however, the tireless giant had returned, and he was not alone. Three grim emissaries from Nauvoo stalked into Mormon William Jordan’s farmhouse where the brothers were packing provisions for a journey to the “Great Basin of the Rocky Mountains.” These messengers said the city was leaderless and in a panic. They accused the Prophet of forsaking his people out of sheer cowardice. They said that even his faithful Emma demanded his return. “When the shepherd deserts his sheep,” said one of them, “who will save them from the wolves?” The question marked the crisis of the conflict that raged within Joseph. From this moment flight with honor was impossible; death was certain. “If my life is of no value to my friends,” he said, as if he could not believe what he had just heard, “it is of none to myself.”
The fugitive general turned to Porter Rockwell, symbol of strength. “What shall I do?” he said.
“You’re the oldest,” said the big man, “you ought to know best. You make your bed. I’ll lie with you.”
Grasping at this straw of logic, Joseph appealed to his brother: “You are the oldest, Hyrum. What shall we do?”
Said the always confident Hyrum, “Go back and give ourselves up, and see this thing out.”
“If you go back, I will go with you,” said Joseph, “but we shall be butchered.”
“No, no,” said Hyrum, “let us go back and put our trust in God, and we shall not be harmed. The Lord is in it. If we live or have to die, we will be reconciled to our fate.”
The decision made, the brothers wrote a letter from “Bank of the River Mississippi” to Governor Ford in Carthage. It said they would come to Carthage the next day, and it asked for protection by a posse which they would meet at “the Mound” outside the town about two o’clock in the afternoon.
They recrossed the still-flooding river at twilight. Joseph rose early the next morning and rode with his friends up to the temple. The hammers of builders had not yet begun their clangor. He could see the high white spire he had planned only in his imaginings. Sitting easily in his saddle, he looked down the hill at his waking town. “This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens,” he said. “Little do they know the trials that await them.”
The little band trotted along the Carthage road, and the warm, wet smell of the prairie was around them. Goldfinches flitted ahead of them, constantly arching the limitless levels. Horned meadow larks sang beside them, and the air was sweet with the song of the white-throated sparrow. Close to the earth puccoons, paintbrush, and windflowers gave pastel underlining to grasses as high as their stirrups. Looking at the little band, an artist might well have likened them to horsemen caught for an instant on the surface of a tapestry.
They had traveled about twelve miles and Big Mound loomed ahead, when they saw sweeping toward them a long line of uniformed troopers. Outnumbered by almost three to one, the Mormons halted in a closeknit, fearful bundle. Said their commander: “Do not be alarmed, brothers, for they cannot do more to you than the enemies of truth did to the ancient Saints—they can only kill the body.”
The strangers halted, and their captain came forward to present an order from Governor Ford which required the Legion of Nauvoo to surrender all state-owned arms to him. Joseph countersigned it and ordered a deputy to hurry back to Nauvoo and inform the Legion officers that it must be complied with immediately.