CARTHAGE, Ill. — Carthage late in June can feel like a sauna, especially if you're not used to it. How oppressive it must have been for Joseph and Hyrum Smith and their supportive friends on that June day in the hours before the Prophet and his brother would perish in a hail of gunshots from a mob of assassins. Evidently the Prophet, just 38 when he died, felt for some time that the end was near. With relentless urgency he had given the Twelve the instruction they would need to carry forward the work of the Kingdom. On the ro d to Carthage, he stopped to view the unfinished walls of the temple, then gazed at the city to the west and said: "This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens; little do they know the trials that await them." (HC, 6:554.)
Dan Jones, the Welsh steamboat pilot who had joined the Church a year and a half earlier and had become a devoted friend, reported: "Even though J. Smith could have saved himself from [the mob's] clutches in many ways; yes, even though hundreds gathered around him begging him with tears on their cheeks, out of fondness for him, not to go to the slaughter — for almost everyone including himself believed that he would not come back alive — he went. And I shall never forget that scene when he stood in the middle, and looking around him, then at the city and its inhabitants who were so dear to him, he said, 'If I do not go there, the result will be the destruction of this city and its inhabitants; and I cannot think of my dear brothers and sisters and their children suffering the scenes of Missouri again in Nauvoo; no, it is better for your brother, Joseph, to die for his brothers and sisters, for I am willing to die for them. My work is finished; the Lord has heard my prayers and has promised that we shall have rest from such cruelties before long, and so do not prevent me with your tears from going to bliss.' And after embracing his little children who were clinging to his clothes and after bidding a tender farewell to his wife whom he loved greatly, also in tears, and after giving the last comfort to his aged, saintly mother, he addressed the entire crowd with great effect, exhorting them to be faithful in the way and with the religion which he had taught them. (The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and His Brother, Hyrum, Ronald D. Dennis, trans., in Brigham Young University Studies, Winter 1984, p. 85.)
Now in Carthage, their efforts at legal defense exhausted, the governor of the state having left them in the charge of a hostile militia, the two brothers and their devoted friends sat in plaintive conversation in the upstairs bedroom where the jailer, out of concern for their safety and comfort, had placed them.
John Taylor recalled: "During one of the conversations Dr. [Willard] Richards remarked: 'Brother Joseph, if it is necessary that you die in this matter, and if they will take me in your stead, I will suffer for you.' At another time, when conversing about deliverance, I said, 'Brother Joseph, if you will permit it, and say the word, I will have you out of this prison in five hours, if the jail has to come down to do it.' My idea was to go to Nauvoo, and collect a force sufficient, as I considered the whole affair a legal farce, and a flagrant outrage upon our liberty and rights. Brother Joseph refused." (B.H. Roberts, The Rise and Fall of Nauvoo, p. 441.)
Joseph, resigned to his own fate, was nevertheless unwilling to see his friends die with him. Eyewitness accounts by Elders Taylor and Richards reflect his heroic struggle:
"I was sitting at one of the front windows of the jail," Elder Taylor wrote, "when I saw a number of men, with painted faces, coming around the corner of the jail, and aiming towards the stairs. The other brethren had seen the same, for, as I went to the door, I found Brother Hyrum Smith and Dr. Richards already leaning against it. . . . While in this position, the mob, who had come up stairs, and tried to open the door, probably thought it was locked, and fired a ball through the keyhole; at this Dr. Richards and Brother Hyrum leaped back from the door, with their faces towards it; almost instantly another ball passed through the panel of the door, and struck Brother Hyrum on the left side of the nose, entering his face and head. At the same instant, another ball from the outside entered his back, passing through his body and striking his watch. . . . Immediately, when the balls struck him, he fell flat on his back, crying as he fell, 'I am a dead man.' He never moved afterwards.
"I shall never forget the deep feeling of sympathy and regard manifested in the countenance of Brother Joseph as he drew nigh to Hyrum, and, leaning over him, exclaimed, 'Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!' He, however, instantly arose, and with a firm, quick step, and a determined expression of countenance, approached the door, and pulling the six-shooter left by Brother [Cyrus] Wheelock from his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol six successive times; only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. . . . While I was engaged in parrying the guns, Brother Joseph said, 'That's right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can.' These were the last words I ever heard him speak on earth." (Roberts, pp. 441-444.)
Elder Taylor then recounted the barrage of gunfire and the serious wounds he received as he attempted to jump from the window, then fell to the floor and found refuge under the bed in the room.
Elder Richards recounted that the Prophet turned from the door, dropped the pistol and calmly walked to the window to make an exit. Elder Richards was certain that effort was to save the lives of his brethren. There was, after all, no hope of escape from the mob below. As it happened, Joseph was shot several times before and after he jumped from the window, and the Prophet of the Restoration was dead. (HC 6:617-618.)
Through a series of events in intervening years, the Church now owns the jail where Joseph and Hyrum were unjustly prisoned and where they became easy targets for a murderous mob. Many thousands have visited the site over the years. The temple open house in nearby Nauvoo occasioned the highest visitation ever, with some 30,000 coming in May, more than all of last year.
Indeed, that sad event — as well as the setting — now evokes feelings of reverence. Little wonder that the dedication of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, the 21st century culmination of Joseph's 19th century dream, would occur on June 27, the 158th anniversary of his martyrdom.