American Crucifixion

American Crucifixion
Also by Alex Beam:
Fellow Travelers
The Americans Are Coming!
Gracefully Insane:
Life and Death Inside America’s
Premier Mental Institution
A Great Idea at the Time


Copyright © 2014 by Alex Beam.
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Book design by Linda Mark
First Edition
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Beam, Alex.
American crucifixion : the murder of Joseph Smith and the fate of the Mormon church / Alex
Beam.—First Edition.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-61039-314-0 (ebook) 1. Smith, Joseph, Jr.,
1805–1844—Assassination. 2. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—History. 3. Mormon
Church—History. I. Title.
BX8695.S6B385 2014
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To my mother, beyond the veil
If you can imagine yourselves how the apostles and saints felt when the Savior was crucified, you can give something of a guess of how the Saints felt here when they [heard] that their Prophet and Patriarch were both Dead and murdered by a lawless mob. Never has there been such a horrible crime committed since the day Christ was Crucified . . .
, writing to Mormon friends from Nauvoo, Illinois, July 1, 1844
Cast of Characters
Place Names
“In Illinois we’ve found a safe retreat . . . ”
King Joseph
Zion, Illinois
Everybody Hates the Mormons
Polygamy and Its Discontents
“Oh! Illinois! thy soil has drank the blood / Of Prophets martyr’d for the truth of God.”
“The Perversion of Sacred Things”
“Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Enter Pontius Pilate
“The People Are Not That Cruel”
Joseph’s Homecoming
Trial by Jury
“Let us go to the far western shore / Where the blood-thirsty ‘christians’ will hunt us no more.”
This World and the Next
JOSEPH SMITH JR.: thirty-eight years old, founder of the Mormon Church
EMMA HALE SMITH: thirty-nine, Joseph’s first wife
LUCY MACK SMITH: Joseph’s mother
HYRUM SMITH: forty-four, Joseph’s older brother
JOSEPH SMITH III: Joseph and Emma’s oldest son
BRIGHAM YOUNG: head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Joseph Smith’s successor as head of the church
SIDNEY RIGDON: early convert to Mormonism, orator and theologian
ORRIN PORTER ROCKWELL: aide and friend to Joseph, a frontiersman and killer, one of the church’s “Avenging Angels”
WILLARD RICHARDS: Mormon church leader and Joseph’s personal historian
JOHN TAYLOR: apostle, future church president
WILLIAM MARKS: Nauvoo stake (ecclesiastical district) president
HIRAM KIMBALL: wealthy Nauvoo merchant who later converted to Mormonism
HEBER KIMBALL: one of the original twelve apostles
WILLIAM LAW: prominent church member and businessman, backer of dissident newspaper
Nauvoo Expositor
JANE LAW: William’s wife
WILSON LAW: William’s brother, Nauvoo Legion general, City Council chairman
CHARLES AND WILLIAM FOSTER: prominent Mormon dissidents, co-publishers of the
Nauvoo Expositor
CHAUNCEY AND FRANCIS HIGBEE: dissident sons of a prominent church leader
THOMAS SHARP: influential anti-Mormon newspaper editor in nearby Warsaw, Illinois
GOVERNOR THOMAS FORD: “accidental governor” of Illinois who tried to mediate between the Mormons and their enemies
GOVERNOR LILBURN BOGGS: governor of Missouri, Mormon-hater, author of the 1838 anti-Mormon Extermination Order
STEPHEN DOUGLAS: influential Illinois legislator, initially pro-Mormon
“DR.” ISAAC GALLAND: scalawag who sold government lands he didn’t own to the Mormons
JAMES GORDON BENNETT: pro-Mormon editor of the
New York Herald
JOHN C. BENNETT: former Nauvoo mayor, turned Mormon-hater
JAMES STRANG: Mormon prophet who attempted to take over the church after Joseph’s death
The un-Zion, where all non-Mormons, or Gentiles, live
Caldwell County, Missouri:
Scene of the 1838 anti-Mormon War
Carthage, Illinois:
Hancock County seat, site of Joseph Smith’s death
Montrose, Iowa:
Mormon settlement on the Mississippi’s west bank, in the Half-Breed Tract
Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois:
Mormon city founded in 1839, razed by Mormon-haters in 1846
Utah Territory, the Great Salt Lake:
Destination of the 1847 Mormon Trek, the religion’s eventual home
Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois:
Tiny town eclipsed by more populous Nauvoo; hotbed of anti-Mormon hatred
Gathering place of the righteous, i.e., the Mormons; initially Far West, Missouri, then Nauvoo, and ultimately Salt Lake City, Utah
Hancock County, Illinois, 1844.
JOSEPH SMITH THOUGHT HE WAS GIVING AMERICA TWO GREAT gifts. First, he created a new Bible, the Book of Mormon, which recounted Jesus’s appearance on the North American continent. The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the New World merged into one seamless, divine narrative, handed down by Joseph. Second, he brought news of the Second Coming and a restoration of God’s rule on earth. Joseph preached that a theocratic Kingdom of God would appear on American soil, possibly within his own lifetime. He had already chosen the men to administer the new, universal government.
America scorned Joseph’s proffered gifts. “The whole [Book of Mormon] was a delusion,” Smith’s father-in-law said in an 1834 affidavit gleefully reproduced around the country. As Joseph’s fame grew, his early neighbors broadcast their reminiscences of Smith and his family as a “lazy, indolent set of men.” The “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth”—a title Smith assumed in 1844—was continuously rejected by his kingdom. Smith fled the first Mormon colony in Kirtland, Ohio, under a cloud and moved his followers to Missouri.
Their new home proved even less hospitable. Within just a few years, a shooting war erupted between the Mormons and their Gentile neighbors, who chased the Latter-day Saints across the Mississippi River into Illinois. Just six years after they settled in Illinois, the Mormons were refugees once again, this time trekking west across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to their new home in Utah.
Joseph didn’t live to see his people prosper in the Salt Lake Valley. He was murdered in the dusty village of Carthage, Illinois, best known then and now for its tragic role in Mormon history.
What happened? Joseph was hardly the first prophet of America’s Second Great Awakening—the tide of religious fervor that washed across the country at the start of the nineteenth century—to traffic in millenarian predictions, and he wasn’t the last. But he was the most successful. Converts followed him across the vast American continent, in conditions of unimaginable privation. Rich men, inspired by Joseph’s biblical visions, surrendered their wealth to his fledgling church. Thousands of impoverished men and women from the British Isles crammed themselves into steamships to cross the Atlantic and half of the United States to join Joseph’s flock in the American Midwest. Yet within just a few years of their arrival, their leader was dead.
Latter-day Saint historians and their Gentile colleagues have pored over many signal events in Mormon history, such as Joseph’s First Vision of God, his purported discovery of the Book of Mormon, and the Saints’ grueling trek to Utah. But most historians have ignored Joseph’s death, known to the faithful as the “martyrdom.” The church’s sacred record of Doctrine and Covenants (135:1–6) reports Joseph was killed “by an armed mob—painted black—of from 150 to 200 persons,” a phrase that appears in almost every high school history textbook in America. But the “mob” included a prominent newspaper editor, a state senator, a justice of the peace, two regimental military commanders, and men who just a few months before were faithful members of Joseph’s church. They were a “respectable set of men,” as one Carthage resident explained.

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