The Restoration of Christ's Church

Hey guys, so — Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob of about 100 men while he was being held in jail in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844. Did Joseph have a gun at the time of the attack? Yes, he did. Did Joseph fire that gun at his attackers? Yes, he did. As a result, did any of his attackers die? Let’s talk about it.

Alright, quick background info: On June 10th, 1844, the Nauvoo City Council, encouraged by Joseph, ruled that the anti-Latter-day Saint newspaper, The Nauvoo Expositor, was a public nuisance. They had it destroyed. They felt they were legally justified. The governor of Illinois did not. Joseph and several others faced riot charges and turned themselves in on June 24th. The next day, everyone was released on bail awaiting trial… except for Joseph and Hyrum, who were charged last-minute with treason and sent to Carthage Jail. Even Governor Ford later “doubted whether they were guilty of treason.” He recognized the charges simply as a ploy to keep the Smiths in jail “for the purpose of murdering them afterward.” 

Now, it’s a lesser-known fact that the mob actually rushed the jail more than once before the final attack. Around midnight on the beginning of June 27th, visitor Dan Jones woke up and heard mobbers outside the jail plotting their assault. Dan woke everyone else up, and they braced the door as they heard the mob advance up the stairs. He reported that “the Prophet with a ‘Prophet’s voice’ called out ‘Come on ye assassins, we are ready for you, and would as willingly die now as at daylight.’ Hearing this, they [the mob] retired again and consulted, advanced, and retreated alternately” until daylight.  

Around 5:30 AM, Dan Jones asked the commander of the guard, Franklin Worrell, about the cause of the mob intrusion in the night. Worrell reportedly replied, “We have had too much trouble to bring old Joe here to let him ever escape out alive….”

Later that day, rightly fearing an attack, two other visitors (John S. Fullmer and Cyrus Wheelock) managed to smuggle a single-shot and a six-shot pepperbox pistol into the jail. When given the single-shot pistol, Hyrum told Joseph, “‘I hate to use such things, or to see them used.’ ‘So do I,’ said Joseph, ‘but we may have to, to defend ourselves….’”

The attack came at about 5:16 PM. Joseph and Hyrum were in the room with two visitors—Willard Richards and John Taylor. The mob rushed the door and opened fire. It is unclear whether or not Hyrum fired the single-shot pistol before he was killed. As historian Alex Smith noted, “If there’s a shot from Hyrum’s single-shot pistol, it goes into the floor and not anyone out in the stairwell.” After seeing his brother killed in front of him, Joseph “opened the door slightly, and snapped the [other] pistol six successive times….” though the pistol misfired two or three times. John Taylor made for the open window but was shot down in the process. Joseph followed suit and was shot as he fell out the window. The mobbers then rushed back downstairs and outside, allowing Willard Richards to hide John Taylor, who had been shot four times. 

Now, did Joseph kill anyone in the attack? Personally, I don’t really care. I mean, I care in the sense that death is tragic, and this was a tragic situation, but… the men in this mob were trying to murder these people, and I would fully expect Joseph to defend himself and the others there. So I don’t feel like there’s much at stake with this question, but for curious minds:

John Taylor later wrote regarding Joseph’s six-shooter, “I afterwards understood that two or three [of the mob] were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed, died.” It looks like John Taylor had been misinformed. It is generally accepted that Joseph got 3 shots off and wounded 3 men—John Wills in the arm, William Voras in the shoulder, and William Gallaher in the cheek of the face. Their wounds were not immediately life-threatening. After the attack, a guy named William Brackenbury saw these wounded men on the road headed back to Warsaw, where the mob had come from. Henry Mathias assisted them into Warsaw, where they bragged about their participation in the murders. Apparently, the citizens of Green Plains and Warsaw, Illinois, later gave Gallaher and Voras new suits for their involvement in the crime.

The 3 men, among others, were later indicted to stand trial for murder, which would be a weird thing to do if any of these men were actually dead. The New York Herald reported that they “did not make their appearance for trial, and it was understood [they] had left the State.” Probably because their wounds may have tied them to the crime scene.

Now, an 1869 Atlantic Monthly article reported that Joseph actually got off 4 shots, and an unnamed 4th man was injured. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to believe this claim — the article gets other details wrong — but if it’s true, some researchers speculate that the 4th man could have been a Mr. Allen, who was also indicted and didn’t show up, but there’s also no evidence to suggest he died from any wounds. 

B. H. Roberts speculated that if a 4th man had been injured, he might have been a guy named Townsend, referenced in a story from the 1850s in the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. In the story, Joseph injures Townsend in the upper arm with his six-shooter, and the wound never heals. Instead, it rots. The arm has to be amputated, but the man continues to rot for months and months. Eventually, he admits Joseph was a prophet of God and that he’d brought his suffering down upon himself for participating in the mob. And then he dies a couple of months later. This is not a first-hand report, and I know of no other evidence to corroborate this account. Nobody seems to know who this Townsend guy was. The authors of “Carthage Conspiracy” lump this story into the category of “Utah myth.” And I agree. To me, this sounds like Latter-day Saint folklore. I give it a 5% chance of being accurate.

If you’re going to claim that Joseph killed someone in the attack at Carthage, you need more evidence than he-said, she-said, and that evidence just isn’t there. If you’re interested in learning more about why Joseph wanted the Nauvoo Expositor destroyed (the event that led to his initial arrest), go watch this video, and have a great day!


Learning More:

— “Joseph Smith’s death: 96-hour timeline surrounding his martyrdom,” via Church News: 

— “John Taylor’s June 27, 1854, Account of the Martyrdom,” by LaJean P. Carruth & Mark L. Staker (BYU Studies): 

— “The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and His Brother Hyrum,” by Dan Jones (intro by Ronald Dennis), via BYU Studies: 

— “William Vorhease and the Murder of Joseph Smith,” by Joseph Johnston (John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1, pgs 38-61): 

— “Return to Carthage: Writing the History of Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom,” by Dean C. Jessee (Journal of Mormon History, vol. 8 [1981], pgs. 3-19): 

— “The Mormon Trials,” New York Herald, June 10, 1845 (page 2). Supposedly a reprint of an earlier article by the Missouri Republican: 

— “Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s Martyrdom,” via 

— List of primary sources regarding the martyrdom via 

— “Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What It Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” by Joseph L. Lyon & David W. Lyon (BYU Studies): 

— “Road to Martyrdom: Joseph Smith’s Last Legal Cases,” by Joseph I. Bentley (BYU Studies): 

— “Joseph Smith, a True Martyr,” by Daniel Bachman: 

— “Was Joseph Smith a Martyr or a Murderer?” by Lance Starr (FAIR): 

— “Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt,” chapter 52 (Townsend story): 

— “Jeremiah Willey statement, 1844 August 13,” via the Church History Catalog: 

— An image of the pepperbox pistol Joseph likely used at Carthage: 

— “The Mormon Prophet’s Tragedy,” by John M. Hay (Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1869 issue): 


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