30th anniversary recalls Church's reconstruction of historic Liberty Jail

One hundred fifty-five years after the Prophet Joseph Smith and five others were incarcerated in the Liberty Jail, the mayor of Liberty joined with dignitaries, members and friends to commemorate the event and the anniversary of the reconstruction of the historic site.

In a special open house held Sept. 15, exactly 30 years after the dedication of the Historic Liberty Jail Visitors Center, Liberty Mayor Robert Saunders, not a member of the Church, said the site was a "historic and saintly place" and the visitors center grounds "have been a spot of beauty in the city of Liberty."The reconstructed jail and visitors center were dedicated on Sept. 15, 1963, by President Joseph Fielding Smith of the Council of the Twelve.

Other speakers at the anniversary program included Elder Everett West, director of the visitors center, and his wife, Betty West; Dell Johnson and Harvey Evans, members who once attended Church meetings in a house that had been constructed over the jail dungeon; Ross Schriever, who has portrayed old-time jailer Sam Tillery in vignettes at the jail; Liberty Stake Pres. Michael Barker; and Pres. Thomas R. Murray of the Missouri Independence Mission.

The jail was constructed in 1833. In November of 1838 the Prophet Joseph Smith was arrested on false charges and imprisoned there with five other Church leaders: Caleb Baldwin, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight and Alexander McRae.

The old jail was the strongest in Clay County and perhaps western Missouri when it was constructed with its four-foot-thick walls. It was used for just 23 years as a jail. From 1856 to 1878, it served as an ice house for Clay County and then was abandoned.

In 1900 the upper floor was torn down, and a home was built upon the dungeon foundation, which became a basement.

In 1939 the Church took steps to acquire the building. Members used it as a home for missionaries and a Church meetinghouse. In the early 1960s the house was demolished. The dungeon's limestone rocks were carefully removed, numbered and later reset in their exact location as the jail was rebuilt. The modern visitors center was built around it.

The jail was constructed as close to the original as possible. Besides the original stone dungeon, other original artifacts are an outer door, the lower window bars and some of the door hardware.

For the past decade, area members have participated in vignettes each month at the Liberty Jail for visitors to the site. Three actors portray the Prophet Joseph Smith, Emma Smith and jailer Sam Tillery. Tom Wight, a descendant of early apostle Lyman Wight, frequently takes a turn portraying the jailer. He lives in nearby Excelsior Springs.

This month, for the first time ever, deaf members from the Olathe Kansas 4th (deaf) Branch did vignettes in sign language for deaf members and friends.

Deaf member Susan Debauge, who portrayed Emma Smith, said the experience increased her appreciation and respect for Emma. Her husband, David Debauge, portrayed Tillery. In sign language and verbally, he said: "I feel the Spirit here. I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet and it [the gospelT is true."

In his anniversary speech, Mayor Saunders noted that the city of Liberty has recognized the Mormon role in the history of the area in a historic mural in the Liberty City Hall, one panel of which depicts the Prophet Joseph Smith.

"You continue to be part of our history and we continue to be part of yours," he said.

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