Hey guys, so Joseph Smith was killed by a mob at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. This episode is not going to cover the events of that day in detail. Instead, we’re going to look at the controversy surrounding the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor and how that situation sparked the chain of events that ultimately led to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
Destroying the Nauvoo Expositor, which we’re going to talk about, wasn’t the real reason Joseph was killed. It was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. People were angry for a lot of reasons. Politically, the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo were a threat, theologically they were considered blasphemous, and also, rumors had started circulating that Joseph was quietly teaching and practicing plural marriage in Nauvoo, which of course, he was.
To air these grievances, some disaffected members including William Law, Robert Foster, and Francis Higbee produced a rather inflammatory new publication in Nauvoo called the Nauvoo Expositor. On June 7th, in their first and only edition, the Expositor attacked Joseph’s political goals, plural marriage, and theological teachings. If you want to read the paper, there’s a link in the description.
On June 8th, Joseph told the Nauvoo City Council that “such papers are calculated to destroy the peace of the city—and it is not safe that such things should exist—on account of the mob spirit, which th[e]y tend to produce.”
On June 10th, the City Council met again for several hours to figure out what to do. You can actually read the council meeting minutes online if you want to. The City Attorney was at the meeting. He defined “nuisance” as anything that disturbs the peace of the city. With that as a legal basis, with only one dissenting vote, the Council agreed to take action. Joseph Smith’s personal journal summarizes what ended up happening,
“The Council passed an ordinance declaring the Nauvoo Expositor a nuisance, and also issued an order to me to abate the said nuisance. I immediately ordered the Marshal to destroy it without delay … About 8 p.m., the Marshal returned and reported that he had removed the press, type, printed paper, and fixtures into the street, and destroyed them. This was done because of the libelous and slanderous character of the paper, its avowed intention being to destroy the municipality and drive the Saints from the city.”
Now, was getting a posse together and destroying the newspaper illegal? The City Council (who I admit was probably biased) didn’t think so. But the governor, Thomas Ford, disagreed. He understandably thought it was an infraction of the freedom of the press. Joseph later wrote to Governor Ford explaining the City Council’s legal justification, but also said, “If we have erred, we again say we will make all right if we can have the privilege.”
In response to the destruction of the Expositor, Thomas Sharp with the Warsaw Signal published: “War and extermination is inevitable! Citizens ARISE, ONE and ALL!!!—Can you stand by, and suffer such INFERNAL DEVILS! To ROB men of their property and RIGHTS, without avenging them. We have no time for comment, every man will make his own. Let it be made with POWDER AND BALL!!!”
Weeks before the event, the same Thomas Sharp warned that “Joe Smith is not safe out of Nauvoo, and we would not be surprised to hear of his death by violent means in a short time.” Joseph was in a pickle. Governor Ford wanted him and others to stand trial in Carthage, Illinois. To Joseph, that was like walking into Mordor. He invited Ford to Nauvoo. Ford rejected the offer and threatened to send the militia into Nauvoo to arrest Joseph, which also had great potential to end in bloodshed. Joseph wrote back: “We dare not come, though your Excellency promises protection. Yet at the same time you have expressed fears that you could not control the mob.—in which case we are left to the mercy of the Merciless.”
So, Joseph and a couple of others went with Option C. They fled Nauvoo and hoped to appeal to the federal government. So when a posse arrived in Nauvoo to arrest Joseph, he wasn’t there. Emma wrote Joseph asking him to turn himself in and trust the legal process. On top of that, some on-edge Saints thought Joseph had abandoned them like a shepherd leaving his flock to the wolves. Resigned to his fate, Joseph said, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself.” He, along with several others, turned themselves in on June 24.
On June 25 in Carthage, they were all released on bail until their trial would roll around, except for Joseph and Hyrum, who had been re-arrested on last-minute treason charges which I won’t get into, because even Governor Ford later “doubted whether they were guilty of treason.” He later recognized the charges as a ploy to keep the Smiths in jail “for the purpose of murdering them afterwards.” And it worked. Joseph and Hyrum were taken to Carthage Jail to wait for a hearing. John Taylor and Willard Richards voluntarily went with them.
This is where we’re going to end this episode. The stage is set. Eventually, I’m going to have to do a couple more episodes about the martyrdom itself as well as the legal failures surrounding this event. But, in a nutshell, these are the events leading up to Joseph’s imprisonment and murder.