Joseph's Final Day | 3pm - 6pm

On the outskirts of Nauvoo, a host of citizens watch as Governor Ford makes his appearance on the plateau. His entourage heads west down Mulholland Street. When they reach the temple on the edge of the bluff, they dismount and desire to tour the rising edifice. William Sterrett, a workman, is assigned to follow them while they tour the temple. Governor Ford and his followers pause at the baptismal font resting on the back of twelve sculptured oxen. They make light of it and then break off some of the horns for souvenirs.

This is an excerpt from The Assassination of Joseph Smith: Innocent Blood on the Banner of Liberty by Ryan Jenkins.

After their light-minded stop at the temple, Ford and his people go straight to the Mansion House. Emma Smith greets the governor and his followers with hospitality. Hearing of his desire to address the people, at least one thousand—perhaps up to five thousand—people gather around the stand where Joseph days earlier had delivered his last speech to the Nauvoo Legion. Not all gathered are Mormon. Some are outspoken enemies.

Ford has one company with him and two companies still in service back in Carthage. He has told all other Illinois county militias to disband and go home. The Warsaw men pretended to leave Carthage but have regrouped in Warsaw as a murderous posse. Ford’s arrival in Nauvoo is perfect timing for Joseph Smith’s enemies. 

He is far enough way, about twenty miles. Before Ford gives his speech, he and his followers enjoy refreshments from the hand of Emma and her helpers. They pay for none of the services or the meals graciously given.

Notwithstanding the kindness of Emma and the Saints, Ford rails on the Saints. He tells them that the destruction of the Expositor was “an unwise action and the heavily armed Nauvoo Legions posed a threat to the peace of the region.” Ford well understands the legion is operating under Nauvoo’s legal charter. He also knows they have not been the aggressors. Nonetheless, he tells the Saints it was wise to have the Legion disarmed, concluding, “You ought to be praying Saints, not military Saints.” A praying people still have the right to defend themselves. This is a fundamental principle of liberty Ford dismisses.

In his speech, Ford reflects the spirit of Lilburn W. Boggs. “Depend upon it, a little more misbehavior from the citizens, and the torch, which is already lighted, will be applied, and the city may be reduced to ashes, and extermination [will] inevitably follow.”

Though desperately trying to portray innocence and civil judgment, Ford seals whose side he is on by telling the Saints, “If anything of a serious character should befall the lives or property of the persons who are prosecuting your leaders, you will be held responsible.”—a warning he never voiced to the mob, which had already destroyed property, beat and killed some Mormons, and then bragged about it in Ford’s hearing.

In coming days, Ford’s haranguing of the Saints in Nauvoo will be recalled as “one of the most infamous and insulting speeches that ever fell from the lips of an executive.” 

A young boy by the name of William Hamilton is positioned on the roof of the courthouse. He is positioned at this lookout by the request of Captain Robert Smith, who still has command of the unruly Carthage Greys. The boy is attentive to his duty. About 4 p.m. he sees a large group of men coming from the west, from the direction of Warsaw. He leaves his position immediately to inform Captain Robert Smith. The boy is told “to tell no one.” Captain Smith of the Greys tells the boy to watch their direction closely and inform him right way if the men coming are moving “directly toward the jail.”

Positioned at the jail are seven men under the command of Franklin Worrell, Robert Smith’s cohort. They have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the men William Hamilton has seen approaching from the west. Both men know Thomas Sharp has prepared the men to make an attack on the jail. Before leaving Warsaw, Sharp delivers a speech on the “necessity of killing the Smiths to get rid of the Mormons.” With the fiery speech and plenty to drink, the men approach Carthage ready for the assassination.

The path to the jail is unobstructed. Captain Robert Smith has stationed the main body of Carthage Greys a half mile away, not in the direction of the approaching mob. They are “in or near their tents on the southeast corner of the town square.” The distance is needed because not all in the Carthage Greys agree with the events unfolding. Captain Smith knows this and has to keep those men and their soft hearts from interrupting the proceeding march of madness.

Many in the mob have blackened their faces with watered down gunpowder. Some report not only blackened faces but red and yellow as well. At least a hundred men are moving toward the jail. The prisoners’ only view is to the south and east. They have no idea of the advancement.

Within four miles of Carthage, the main body of the mob leaves the road. They make their final approach passing through heavy timber, perhaps to deter locals and a few of the Carthage Greys from impeding their purpose.

But word has gotten out that a mob is approaching. Captain Robert Smith commands his men to come to order. But it is not in their nature to be in perfect order or “military formality.” Some have to be awakened from their afternoon slumber. But Robert Smith isn’t very eager to get the troops over to the jail. He needs to delay their arrival at the jail. The main contingency is camped on the southeast corner of the town square, a few blocks from the jail.

One of the Greys by the name of Tom becomes impatient. With concern for the men guarding the jail, thinking they will be butchered, he yells at his fellows, “Come on you cowards damn you, come on, those boys [the guards] will be killed.” The cowards didn’t move with the same anxiety as Tom. He runs to the jail solo, while Captain Smith—neglecting all justice and duty—slowly calls the Greys to ranks and an even slower “disciplined march” as if it were a “dress parade.” With their guns and their flags in the air, their march of injustice begins.

Meanwhile, the men of murder cautiously make their way through the timber on their approach to town.

To this point, the prisoners still cannot see or hear their approach. They pass the late afternoon in various ways. John Taylor sings a hymn titled “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” a song about a stranger in a dire situation and who is in want. His needs are met by the kindness of another man. The kind man is well rewarded for his deeds. The last verse reads: 

Then in a moment to my view,

The stranger started from disguise:

The tokens in his hands I knew,

The Savior stood before mine eyes.

He spake—and my poor name he named—

“Of me thou hast not been asham’d;

These deeds shall thy memorial be;

Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”

When John Taylor finishes, Joseph Smith asks him to sing it again. Taylor doesn’t feel to do so. Hyrum, who is grinding out the somber moment by reading extracts from Josephus, urges him on. Taylor consents and sings the hymn again. It has a melancholy tone and a message that resonates with Joseph.

A changing of the guard occurs just after 4 p.m. Eight men bitter toward Joseph now guard the jail. It is the last changing of the guard. By 4:15, Joseph is conversing with the guards about his persecutors, particularly Joseph Jackson and William and Wilson Law. At least one, but most likely all of the guards, is familiar with the script as the mob from the west prepares to overrun the jail.

Willard Richards and Hyrum keep each other preoccupied in conversation. John Taylor leans through the south window and ponders their dismal situation. Joseph continues his conversation with the guards. The door to the bedroom is open. Joseph is most likely in the hall speaking with the guards who occupy the stairs and hall. Some of the guards are positioned at the front door of the jail. Joseph is not looking to escape. He knows an entirely different release is near. 

At the five o'clock hour, George Stigall, the jailor whose bedroom the prisoners are occupying, comes to share his sentiments on the gloomy situation the prisoners are facing. Having been out on errands and watching closely the tenor of men in and around Carthage, Stigall tells Joseph that he and the other men would be “safer in the cell.” His intentions seem to be neutral and his counsel honest. Joseph tells Stigall that after supper they will go into the cell.

Stigall leaves the men and the property for another errand.

Joseph turns to Willard Richards and says, “If we go into the cell, will you go in with us?”

Richard’s answers, “Brother Joseph, you did not ask me to cross the river with you—you did not ask me to come to Carthage—you did not ask me to come to jail with you—and do you think I would forsake you now? But I will tell you what I will do; if you are condemned to be hung for treason, I will be hung in your stead, and you shall go free.”

Joseph has no interest being hung. Upon leaving Nauvoo a few days before, he stated, “Well, if they don’t hang me I don’t care how they kill me.” It isn’t his preferred way to go out of this existence.

Nevertheless, Joseph says to Richards, “You cannot.” Richards emphatically responds, “I will.” Joseph knows he is willing, but that isn’t going to happen. Joseph Smith’s prophecy to Richards is about to be fulfilled. A year earlier he told Richards “the time [will] come that the balls would fly around [you] like hail, and [you] should see [your] friends fall on the right and on the left, but that there should not be a hole in [your] garment.”

This is a remarkable prophecy, especially when considering the size of Richards, who is probably around three hundred pounds—and who is sitting in a room just over fifteen feet squared. He is a large target in tight confinement.

The firestorm is about to begin.

A few of the guards interrupt the exchange of Joseph and Willard Richards. They come to the room with some wine and pipes. The pipes are ignored. The bottle of wine is uncorked. Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards share a taste with the guards. The guards take the wine and the pipes and abruptly leave the room.

Odd silence pervades. John Taylor gravely looks out a south facing window one more time and then turns from the window sill. Joseph, Hyrum, and Willard Richards wait out the dull moment. They have no idea of the ambush coming. Their attackers have arrived undetected from the west.

Immediately there is a “rustling at the outer door of the jail, and a cry of surrender.” The Carthage Greys fire three or four shots into the mob, most likely blanks never intended to harm those storming the jail. The mob returns the shots. The jailer’s boy is descending the stairs with supper dishes and hears whizzing above and around him. His mother is in the kitchen when a bullet whizzes over her while she bends down to get a pie out of the oven. The bullet lodges in the wall. Henry Harmon, a twelve-year-old boy, witnesses the unfolding scene.

Willard Richards quickly takes a glance through the curtain of the window, the same window Taylor has just left. The shots fired at the door are followed by “many rapid footsteps.” Taylor springs for a hickory cane that was left by one of their friends. Joseph and Hyrum slam the door to their room. Richards and Taylor join them at the door. All four men place themselves near and against the door. They match the men and the strength on the other side of the door. Their enemies tightly occupy the space at the top of the stairs.  

The lock to the door is useless.

It doesn’t matter.

The mob doesn’t shrink this time.

After an initial struggle pushing at the door with Joseph and his fellow prisoners, one of the mob members discharges his rifle into the door near the lock. A second shot explodes through the upper door panel.

The second shot clear the men at the door, except Hyrum. His position is directly in the path of the second shot. He receives the bullet to the left side of face, just off the nose. Simultaneously, shots irrupt from outside the jail, blasting the windows. Another bullet is shot through one of the bedroom windows and enters Hyrum’s right back side.

“Emphatically” he falls to the ground exclaiming, “I am a dead man.”

Members of the Carthage Greys marching toward the jail hear the commotion from their position about sixty yards away. Men of the Carthage Greys who want to help with the assassination begin shooting from the ground, possibly from structures above the ground. The men in the hallway are slowed in their attack because loaded guns need to be passed up to the shooters or other men with loaded guns have to get into position. The guns are producing “a fog” in the hall and the prisoners’ room. They are also producing a horrific noise.

The noise and smoke give Joseph and the two others some time to position themselves for better defense. During the madness, Joseph Smith springs from the wall and for a quick moment bends over his brother’s motionless body. “Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!” Hyrum has kept his promise that where his brother dies he would die.

Joseph promptly returns to the door, which Taylor and Richards are trying to keep from being swung completely open. He moves to the door with a “quick, firm step.” He has taken from his pocket the pistol Cyrus Wheelock left earlier. With a “determined expression in his face,” Joseph fires the pistol “six successful times; only three of the loads” express their vengeance. The others fail to discharge. This brings “no hope” for the prisoners. “Instant death” seems to be the cold reality.

Joseph’s resistance causes the mob to cease firing for a moment. He steps back from the door. The mobbers again lift their guns. Taylor and Richards muscle their best effort to deflect the barrels either into the air or down to the ground. Another bullet grazes the chest of the lifeless body of Hyrum hauntingly stationary on the floor. The bullet goes through his neck and lodges into his head.

Taylor, using the hickory cane, keeps parrying off the barrage of rifle barrels, which seem to be increasing in the doorway as the scene unfolds. Joseph is standing right behind Taylor and says matter-of-factly, “That’s right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can.” Taylor will later confirm these were the last words he heard Joseph Smith speak in the flesh.

Angry mob members not having a play on the action keep pushing their way up the stairs to the landing. This pushes the “assailants further and further into the room.” Hope of survival leaves the room. Taylor makes a rush to the east window, which is already open. He is an easy target for the men shooting from within and without the jail. Taylor can’t get the push he needs to leap from the window. He is struck by a bullet in the thigh. The large window sill catches him and a bullet from outside strikes him in the chest. He is thrown back into the room on the floor.

During the madness, Taylor’s watch is broken “leaving the hands to standing at 5 o’clock, 16 minutes and 26 seconds.”

Taylor’s instincts are still strong. He rolls himself under the bed, which is up against the east and south walls. During his attempt to roll under the bed, he is shot three more times: below his left knee, in his left hip, and in the left forearm. The last ball rolls down into his hand under the flesh and comes to a stop in his palm.

At this point, Hyrum is dead and John Taylor severely wounded—amazingly still breathing. Joseph Smith makes a surge for the same window Taylor tried to leap from. Joseph is shot at least three times, two in his back from the doorway and once by a bullet that hits his right breast from oustide. At this heightened instant, Richards hears Joseph say, “O Lord my God!” Joseph Smith’s impulse to get out of the room pushes his body head first through the window. Richards is right behind him, taking the position in the window sill as Joseph’s feet cross out the window. Richards watches as Joseph’s body falls about fifteen feet and lands on his left side next to a well. There is no struggle for life. He is dead.

A “fifer of the Warsaw Company” comes running into the jail yard directly for the lifeless body. He strikes Joseph with his fife several times on the head, shouting, “You were the ruination of my father. I will have revenge.”

Richards, within hearing of those gathered around his dead friend, is spared another barrage of shooting. Someone in the mob shouts, “He’s leaped the window.” The declaration clears those in the jail. They retreat to the exterior. Richards withdraws from the window thinking it no use to leap from the same window on “a hundred bayonets.” However, Richards returns to the window and exposes his large frame to the mob below him. He watches as more and more members of the mob run around the corner to where the body of Joseph Smith lies. He watches long enough to be “fully satisfied” that Joseph is dead.

Expecting another assault from the mob to kill him, Richards quickly makes his way to the cell room to see if the iron doors are open. Taylor calls out to him, “Stop, doctor, and take me along.” Richards is a doctor and an Apostle in the Church. Finding all the doors open, he retreats back to Taylor. He wants to hide his body in the cell room in hopes that Taylor will live to tell the tale. He places Taylor under his arm and drags him to the cell lamenting, “Oh! Brother Taylor is it possible that they have killed Joseph and Hyrum? It cannot surely be, and yet I saw them shoot them! Oh Lord, my God, spare Thy servants.” He adds, “Brother Taylor, this is a terrible event.” 


This is an excerpt from The Assassination of Joseph Smith: Innocent Blood on the Banner of Liberty.