by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “Through Teenage Eyes”, New Era, June 1994, 41
They were your age. They knew Joseph Smith. Here, in their own words, is how his death affected them.
Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s martyrdom shocked every Latter-day Saint, including the youth of the Church.
One hundred and fifty years ago this month on June 27, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered by a mob of angry men. The events of that tragic afternoon at Carthage, Illinois, have usually been seen through the eyes of adults. Yet there were many young men and women who knew the Prophet and the patriarch and who felt great grief at their passing. While we don’t have a great deal of information about young people who were affected by the deaths of their leaders, a few records do give us a view of the martyrdom through teenage eyes.
Fifteen-year-old Mary Ann Phelps told of being asked to help the Prophet. “When [Joseph] found he had to go to Carthage [to meet with Thomas Ford, governor of Illinois], he wanted a man by the name of Rosecrantz, who was well acquainted with the governor, to go with him.”
At the time, Mr. Rosecrantz’s wife was ill. The Prophet thought that if someone could be found to take care of her, Mr. Rosecrantz would be more likely to make the trip. He asked Mary to stay with Mrs. Rosecrantz.
“I went to stay with Mrs. Rosecrantz,” Mary recalled. “As [the Prophet and Hyrum] were going, they called at the gate with their company of about twenty men, and Joseph Smith asked me if I would bring them out a drink of water.” Mary took them a glass and a pitcher. Joseph leaned over and said to her, “Lord bless you.”1
Another young person, William Hamilton, met Joseph and Hyrum when, on their first night in Carthage, they stayed at his father’s inn. They arrived at the Hamilton House hotel five minutes before midnight on June 24. Early the next morning, the Smith brothers voluntarily surrendered to a constable. After a court hearing during the day, they met with Governor Ford. During the interview a justice of the peace appeared with a paper from a judge authorizing the jailing of Joseph and Hyrum Smith until they could be tried for treason—which was a change from the original charge of rioting.
Despite protests from their attorneys, Joseph and Hyrum were hurried off to Carthage jail, only a few blocks away. Several friends and associates were allowed to stay with the Prophet and the patriarch that evening. On the next day, June 26, the treason hearing was held. No witnesses appeared, so Joseph and Hyrum were required to stay in jail until another hearing could be held, this one scheduled for June 29. But the conspiracy to murder the Prophet and his brother was already in motion.
On June 27, 1844, William stood as lookout on the roof of the county courthouse. It was hot and humid. Sometime near five o’clock, William noticed a group of about 100 men with blackened faces going toward the jail. He hurried to report the movement, but it was already too late. The soldiers assigned to protect the prisoners were outnumbered by the mob. They stormed the jail, rushed up the stairs, and fired shot after shot after shot. Then a yell that the Mormons were coming caught everyone’s attention, and the mob fled.
William went into the jail, where he saw the body of Hyrum Smith. Outside the jail, the Prophet Joseph also lay dead in a pool of blood. John Taylor was severely wounded. Willard Richards was only grazed on his ear by a bullet.2
Fourteen-year-old Eliza Clayton also entered the jail. The doors were still open. She said it looked “as though the people had left in great haste.” When she went upstairs, she saw “some Church books on the table and the portraits of Joseph’s and Hyrum’s families on the fireplace mantel.” But when she saw the “blood in pools on the floor and spattered on the walls,” Eliza started to cry.3
Fifteen-year-old Henry Sanderson was one of the first in Nauvoo to hear the tragic news, “when a runner went past our house shouting that the Prophet was killed.” Henry recalled how “sad a blow” it was to him and his family.4
The news spread quickly. At Hyrum’s home on Water Street, not far from Joseph and Emma’s home, George D. Grant knocked at the door and delivered the sad tale to the family.
“The news flew like wild-fire through the house, and the anguish and sorrow … can be easier felt than described. But that will never be forgotten by those who were called to go through it,” recalled Mary Ann Smith, one of Hyrum’s children.5
On the morning of June 28, the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were gently placed on two different wagons, covered with branches to shade them from the hot summer sun. William Hamilton and his father Artois accompanied Samuel Smith and Willard Richards to Nauvoo with the bodies of the slain Church leaders.
They left Carthage about 8:00 A.M. and arrived in Nauvoo about 3:00 P.M., where they were met by a great assemblage. When the bodies were returned to Nauvoo, they were washed and dressed. Then family and friends were ushered in to see them.
When young Joseph Smith III entered the room, he dropped upon his knees, laid his cheek against his father’s, and kissed him. He was heard saying, “Oh, my father, my father!” Other children of the Prophet and the patriarch crowded around to see their slain fathers. It was an almost unbearable scene.6
On the following day, June 29, the bodies lay in state in the Mansion House while thousands of Saints silently filed past the coffins, grateful but sobered to see their beloved leaders one last time. Mary Ann Phelps’s father took her to the Mansion House early in the morning, before the bodies were prepared for the public viewing.
“I went down, saw them, and laid my hand on Joseph’s forehead,” she said. “The sheet that was around him was stained with blood. Still he looked very natural.”7
Slowly, life in Nauvoo got back to normal. Missionaries left to serve missions; new converts arrived. Work continued on homes, shops, and most importantly, the temple. Young people fell in love and were married. Parties and sporting contests were held.
Yet the memory of Joseph and Hyrum did not fade. For example, one young woman made a sampler, a common activity at the time. She embroidered:
“Sacred to the Memory of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Who fell as Martyrs for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, June 27th, 1844. Aged 38, and 44, years.
“Zion’s noblest sons are weeping,
See her daughters bathed in tears,
Where the prophets now are sleeping,
Nature’s sleep—sleep of years.
When the earth shall be restored,
They will come with Christ the Lord.”
She signed it: “Mary Ann Broomhead’s work, 1844, Age 13 years.”8
Following a short period of peace, dark clouds cast their long shadow on Nauvoo again. Eventually the Saints were driven out, leaving their beautiful temple and the graves of their Prophet and his brother behind. Yet these young people who lived in the days of Joseph and Hyrum remembered them throughout their lives. They passed on their personal stories and experiences to a new generation. By doing so they kept alive their own faith and the testimony of two great witnesses of the Restoration.
1. Mary Ann Phelps Rich, “The Life of Mary A. Rich: 1820–1912,” Harold B. Lee Library Archives, Brigham Young University.
2. Hamilton’s testimony is found in Charles J. Scofield, ed., History of Hancock County, in Newton Bateman, et. al, eds., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Hancock County, Chicago: Munsell, 1921, 2:84. His age is not documented, but he was probably between 10 and 14 years old at the time of the martyrdom.
3. Eliza Clayton, “Reminiscences of Nauvoo,” in Leonard J. Arrington, ed., Voices from the Past: Diaries, Journals, and Autobiographies, Provo: BYU Press, 1980, p. 15.
4. Henry W. Sanderson, “Autobiography,” copy of typescript, LDS Church Archives.
5. Mary Ann Smith Harris, letter dated March 2, 1881, LDS Church Archives.
6. Joseph Smith [III], “What Do I Remember of Nauvoo?” Journal of History 3 (July 1910): 336 41.
7. Mary Ann Phelps Rich, “Life of Mary A. Rich.”
8. The sampler is on display at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City. A copy is reproduced in Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and T. Jeffery Cottle, A Window to the Past, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993, p. 57.