On June 27, 1844, a mob of between 100 and 200 armed men, their faces painted black to hide their identities, marched to the Carthage city jail.
A few minutes after 5 p.m. in an upstairs room in the jail, the Prophet Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum, John Taylor and Willard Richards heard shots outside and footsteps scrambling up the stairs. The men rushed to the door to keep the assailants from entering the room.
One of the attackers shot a bullet through the door, which struck Hyrum in the face. Hyrum fell to the ground, crying, “I am a dead man!” (see “Church History in the Fulness of Times,” Chapter 22).
John Taylor said that he would always remember the distraught look on Joseph’s face as he saw his brother lying dead on the floor, according to “Church History in the Fulness of Times.”
John Taylor rushed to the window and was shot as he attempted to leave the room. Another bullet hit his pocket watch, knocking him back inside. He was shot three more times before rolling under the bed in the room. Taylor would survive his wounds and eventually become the third president of the church.
Joseph rushed to the window and was shot as he fell from the window, crying, “Oh Lord, my God.”
Willard Richards, who had been standing behind the door trying to knock the muskets away with his cane, was grazed on the ear by a bullet but was otherwise unharmed, fulfilling a prophecy by Joseph Smith (see “Church History in the Fulness of Times,” Chapter 22).
The entire tragedy occurred within minutes.
Several members of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most of them scattered throughout the United States, stated that at the exact time of the martyrdom, they felt depressed and mournful without knowing why.
Elder Heber C. Kimball wrote that he suddenly felt mournful, as though he had just lost a friend, and Elder Orson Hyde became sorrowful and tears ran down his cheeks (see “Church History in the Fulness of Times,”Chapter 23).
Elder Parley P. Pratt recorded that as he stood on a canal boat, “A strange and solemn awe came over me, as if the powers of hell were let loose. I was so overwhelmed with sorrow I could hardly speak. … This is a dark day, and the hour of triumph for the powers of darkness” (see “Church History in the Fulness of Times,” Chapter 23).
Later, passengers boarded the boat and spread the news that Joseph and Hyrum had been killed. There was excitement onboard and many of the passengers taunted Elder Pratt, according to “Church History in the Fulness of Times.”
Enemies of the church celebrated the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum and predicted that the church would now fail. Thomas Ford, the governor of Illinois at the time of the martyrdom, wrote, “Thus fell Joe Smith, the most successful impostor in modern times; a man who … never could succeed in establishing a system of policy which looked to permanent success in the future” (see “Joseph the Seer” by President Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, September 1994). Later events would prove Ford wrong.
In Nauvoo, the Saints mourned the loss of their beloved leaders. On June 28, the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were placed in wagons and covered with tree branches to shade them from the sun. Many of the Saints lined the road as the wagons approached Nauvoo. The next day, thousands of people filed past the coffins and said their goodbyes. The city remained in a state of grief for weeks, according to “Church History in the Fulness of Times.”
Following the martyrdom, John Taylor wrote, “(Joseph Smith) … lived great and died great in the eyes of God and his people … and so has his brother, Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated” (see Doctrine and Covenants 135:3).
In 1903, the church bought Carthage Jail and later restored it to look as it did on that fateful day. The jail celebrates the lives of Joseph and Hyrum, and visitors can view a life-size statue that pays tribute to the martyrs.
“The martyrdom has always been an inspiration to the people of the Lord … and must ever be held in sacred memory by the Latter-day Saints who have learned the great truths that God revealed through his servant, Joseph Smith,” wrote President Joseph F. Smith, sixth president of the church and son of Hyrum (see “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith,” Chapter 46).
In a meeting in 1994, on the 150th anniversary of the Martyrdom, President Gordon B. Hinckley, then the first counselor in the First Presidency, visited Carthage and said, “Joseph Smith died here at Carthage Jail … but his work has grown in magnitude, strength and power, and will continue to do so … The testimonies which were sealed here in these very precincts … now nurture the faith of people around the world. God bless the memory of Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith who died here” (see “Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, September 1994).
Ben Tullis is a Deseret News intern and a freelance writer and copy editor. He graduated from Utah Valley University in April 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He lives in Pleasant Grove with his wife and 2-year-old son.