The Death Of The Prophet


In the afternoon a constable came to the jail and demanded custody of the brothers that he might take them to court for a hearing. The jailer refused to give them up, but the constable came back soon with a detail of the Carthage Grays, who were so threatening that Joseph and Hyrum were once more ordered into the streets. A wild and vociferous crowd greeted them, but the brothers moved swiftly into the midst of it and, locking arms with the most virulent of their enemies, made their way to the courthouse. The humiliation of being displayed before thousands of spectators as if they were animals in a traveling show—“like elephants” as one eyewitness expressed it—was in marked contrast with the honor accorded them in much larger Nauvoo only a few miles away—a fact that both they and their enemies could not have failed to note.

After futile arguments before Justice Robert F. Smith, who was also a captain of the Carthage Grays, the prisoners were returned to the jail. After they had left the court, Justice Smith, whose purposes were by now unquestionably criminal, set the date of trial for the twenty-ninth, in order, he said, that he might accompany his command on an official visit to Nauvoo ordered by Governor Ford for the next day.

After their supper the brothers and the companions who were with them in the large upstairs room heard Hyrum Smith read from the Book of Mormon narratives of the deliverance from prison of devout believers in Christ. It was obvious that all seven had been shaken by the malignancy of the crowds through which they had just passed. Joseph in particular was downcast. He had been able to read the intent to murder in the eyes and attitudes of the enraged soldiers and citizenry, and the confidence that had served him in many an incident involving danger to himself had deserted him. Though he had often been attacked by his enemies, he had emerged time and again as master of a seemingly hopeless situation. Now he felt only a growing sense of danger.

Willard Richards sat up late after the others had lain down to sleep. By the light of a tallow candle he was copying papers he regarded as essential to a true summary of the events of the week. The long bodies of the Prophet and his brother lay on the bedstead. The others slept on mattresses laid on the floor. At midnight the candle began to gutter. Suddenly in the darkness outside, but very close, a gun spoke sharply. The echo was still sounding as the sleeping men woke, startled and dismayed. It was hard, in the ensuing quiet, to go back to sleep.

Joseph rose from the bed and lay down on a mattress. “Lay your head on my arm for a pillow, Brother John,” he said. Then the other men, unable to sleep, heard him talking softly of his feeling that death was on its way.

“I would like to see my family again,” he said, and, after a moment of silence, “Would to God I could preach to the Saints in Nauvoo once more.” Later the sleepless six men heard the Prophet’s voice in the darkness, “Are you afraid to die?”

A different voice from the mattress said: “Has that time come? In such a cause I do not think death would have many terrors.” Silence and darkness then—and as light began the atmosphere was dull and heavy. A shower rattled on the roof.

On that dawn—the morning of June 27—a company of Warsaw militia under Colonel Levi Williams set out to march from their home town to Nauvoo, according to the Governor’s orders. They had covered about eight miles when a courier came galloping across the prairie. He gave the Colonel an order from Governor Ford saying that his guard into Nauvoo would be the Carthage Grays, except for a detachment of some fifty selected members of the Grays who had been left behind to guard the prisoners in the jail. Therefore, the Governor was ordering the Warsaw men to disband.

Loud protest came from the Warsaw troops. They were “loaded for bear,” they said, and had no intention of going back home. Incited further by their captains, many volunteered to march to Carthage. At this moment another messenger dashed up. He wore the uniform of the Carthage Grays. What his orders were has never been discovered, but the events of the day provided clues. An article in the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1867, by the distinguished John Hay, later a biographer of Abraham Lincoln and member of the presidential Cabinet from 1898 to 1905, tells what its author learned from his father (who obeyed the order to go back to Warsaw) and other reliable sources.

The Warsaw militia were “annoyed at the prospect of their picnic coming so readily to an end, at losing the fun of sacking Nauvoo, at having to go home without material for a single romance.” A hundred and fifty started on the march to Carthage, but the heat and humidity of the day caused that number to dwindle to seventy-five and put those who persevered in a murderous mood. Sweating and purposeful, they sang an adaptation of an old marching song as they plodded along. To the tune of “Where Now are the Hebrew Children?” they howled out,