The first newspaper reports of the martyrdom were from anti-Mormon sources and tended to justify the killings, but as the facts began to get out, there was general condemnation throughout the United States. Although the editors did not care for the LDS religion, they condemned the acts of violence.
Seeing some pattern between the Native American movement and the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum, Fayetteville's North Carolinian announced that civil war "with all its horrors is upon us! It breaks upon us simultaneously from the east, and from the west. Native Americanism in Philadelphia and Mormonism in Illinois!" (North Carolinian [FayettevilleT, July 13, 1844, p. 3.)As the fateful day of martyrdom drew near, the mood in Nauvoo can be caught in the letters from Vilate Kimball to her husband, Heber C. Kimball, who was in the East campaigning for the Prophet Joseph: "Nothing is to be heard of but mobs collecting on every side. The Laws and Fosters, and most of the dissenting party with their Families left here a day or two after their press was destroyed. They are sworn to have Joseph and the city council, or exterminate us all. Between three and four thousand brethren have been under arms here the past week. Expecting every day they would come, the brethren were called in from all the branches round to help defend the city. Joseph sent word to the Governor if he and his staff would come here, he would abide their decision. But instead of his coming here, he went to Carthage, and there walked arm and arm with Law and Foster, until we have reason to fear he has caught their spirit. He sent thirty men here day before yesterday to take Joseph and sent him a saucy letter, saying if these could not take him thousands could. He ordered the troops here to deliver up their arms, and disperse." (Compilation of Heber C. Kimball Correspondence, Vilate Kimball's Letter, June 9, 1844, LDS Church Archives.)
It was under these circumstances that Joseph and Hyrum crossed the Mississippi river to Iowa, with the intent of going West with their families. It was felt that with Joseph and Hyrum gone, the crisis would pass. However, Emma and others urged Joseph to return, with the argument that the governor's promise of protection could be trusted. Joseph had already written to the governor stating, "We dare not come, though your excellency promises protection." The Prophet stated that his concern was that legal writs would become a means "to drag us from place to place, from court to court . . . till some bloodthirsty villain could find his opportunity to shoot us." (History of the Church 6:540.)
Joseph, with clear misgivings, turned back, but he also said, "And I declare again the only objection I ever had or ever made on trial by my country at any time was what I have made in my last letter - on account of assassins, and the reason I have to fear deathly consequences from their hands." (History of the Church 6:550.) Joseph and Hyrum were persuaded to come back. It is here that Joseph made his famous statement, "If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of no value to me."
We now return to the narrative of Vilate Kimball: "Yesterday morning (although it was Sunday) was a scene of confusion. Joseph had fled and left word for the brethren to hang on to their arms and take care of themselves the best way they could. Some were tried almost to death to think Joseph should leave them in the hour of danger. Hundreds have left the city since the fuss commenced. Most of the merchants on the hill have left. I have not felt frightened amid [it allT neither has my heart sunk within me, until yesterday, when I heard Joseph [wroteT and sent word back for his family to follow him, and Br. Whitney's family were packing up, not knowing but they would have to go, as he is one of the city council. For a little while I felt bad enough, but did not let anybody know it, neither did I shed any tears. I felt a confidence in the Lord, that he would preserve us from the ravages of our enemies. We expected them here today by thousands but before night yesterday things put on a different aspect." (Compilation of Heber C. Kimball Correspondence, Vilate Kimball's Letter, June 9, 1844, LDS Church Archives.)
The rest is well known: the demand by the governor that Joseph go to Carthage and stand trial, the disarming of the Nauvoo Legion, the Prophet's arrival at Carthage at midnight. He was charged with riot and immediately put up $500 bail, whereon he was immediately charged with treason and was taken to Carthage Jail.
The fact that the Prophet Joseph would meet a martyr's death seems to be clear from what he wrote and spoke. From Doctrine and Covenants 6:30 we read, "And even if they do unto you even as they have done unto me, blessed are ye, for you shall dwell with me in glory."
On Jan. 22, 1843, he said: "I know what I say; I understand my mission and business. God almighty is my shield, and what can man do if God is my friend. I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes - then I shall be offered freely." (Wilford Woodruff, Journal, Jan. 22, 1843.) In an address at the funeral of Ephraim Marks, the Prophet Joseph said: "Some have supposed that Brother Joseph could not die, but this is a mistake. It is true there have been times when I have had the promise of my life to accomplish such and such things, but having accomplished those things I have not at present any lease of my life, and am as liable to die as other men." (Wilford Woodruff, Journal, April 9, 1842.)
And finally, these telling words from Orson Hyde within three months of the martyrdom: "Before I went east on the fourth of April last, we were in council with Brother Joseph almost every day for weeks. Says Brother Joseph in one of those councils:
there is something going to happen; I don't know what it is, but the Lord bids me to hasten and give you your endowment before the temple is finished.' He conducted us through every ordinance of the holy priesthood, and when he had got through with all the ordinances he rejoiced very much and says:Now if they kill me you have got all the keys, and all the ordinances, and you can confer them upon others, and the hosts of Satan will not be able to tear down the kingdom as fast as you will be able to build it up.'
And now,' says he,on your shoulders will the responsibility of leading this people rest, for the Lord is going to let me rest a while.' " (Orson Hyde Testimony, Rigdon Trial Minutes, Times and Seasons 5:651, Sept. 15, 1844.)
Even on the Saturday before the martyrdom, Joseph responded to the governor's demand of his surrender for a non-Mormon trial by saying, "We have ever held ourselves amenable to the law. And for myself, sir, I am ever ready to conform to and support the laws and Constitution, even at the expense of my life." (History of the Church 6:526.)
The morning of Thursday, June 27, 1844, dawned hot and muggy in Carthage. During the day, one by one, Joseph sent on various errands those who were with him at Carthage Jail but charged with nothing. As late afternoon approached, only Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards were left in the care of the jailer and a guard that was reduced to eight men, despite the unruly activity in the town. It was during this time that a feeling of gloom began to settle over the jail, and the Prophet Joseph asked John Taylor to sing, "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief."
At 5 p.m. the jailer suggested that the group would be safer in the cell rather than in the jailer's living quarters, where they were. Joseph said they would go into the cell after supper.
It was here that Joseph asked Willard Richards if he would go into the cell with them. Willard and John Taylor were not charged with anything but stayed with Joseph and Hyrum just the same. Willard Richards responded by telling Joseph that he was not asked to come to Carthage with Joseph and Hyrum or go to the jail with them, but he did. He further said that if Joseph was condemned to death, he would die in his place. The Prophet said, "You cannot," to which Willard Richards said, "I will." (History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol. VI, Salt Lake City: 1973, p. 616.)
It was a few minutes later that a mob with painted faces overpowered the guard and stormed up the stairs to the second story room, and in a matter of minutes it was all over.
Hyrum was shot first and exclaimed, "I am a dead man!" John Taylor was severely wounded, while Willard Richards, in fulfillment of an earlier promise, was unharmed.
The Prophet Joseph was shot twice in the back and once in the front and fell from the second-story window, exclaiming "Oh Lord, my God!"
The dispensation of the fulness of times had been ushered in. Priesthood power and saving ordinances had been restored. New scriptures had been revealed for the salvation and exaltation of mankind, and the Church of Jesus Christ in these latter days had been restored in its fulness. Now the founding prophet had sealed his testimony with his blood.
In a letter written just three weeks after the martyrdom, Almira Mack, niece of Lucy Mack Smith, wrote to her sister, who had just lost a son: "Your trouble, you think, is as much as you can bear; but it is not like Aunt Lucy's. What must have been her feelings at seeing two of her sons brought into the house dead? Murdered by wicked men. When your little boy was sick, you could be with him and administer to his wants, and when he was gone, you could bury him with decency. But this privilege she could not have. . . . These two of the noblest men on earth were slain, and for what? Was it for crimes they had committed? I answer NO, but it was because they professed the religion of Jesus Christ. They were Prophets of the Lord, and they laid down their lives as did the Prophets in ancient days." (John C. Cumming, The Pilgrimage of Temperance Mack [Mount Pleasant, Mich.: privately printed, 1967T, pp. 41-47.)
The tragedy of the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, with the attendant grief felt by the Saints in Nauvoo and throughout the Church, cannot be adequately described. The Prophet was known as Brother Joseph to the Saints of Nauvoo and throughout the stakes in the surrounding area. He was not just the Prophet; he was their Prophet. They had heard him speak from the grove on many occasions, and he had been in the homes of many of them and interacted with them in a most personal way. They had felt the enlightenment of the Spirit as he spoke to them, and they had a first-hand knowledge and witness of the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and now they were gone.
While the enemies of the Church were convinced that with the death of Joseph and Hyrum the Church would fade away, little did they realize that it was the gospel of Jesus Christ that was restored and there was no turning back.
Said Heber C. Kimball in a letter to William Smith after the martyrdom: "As regards matters here, all goes well. There never was more union in the Church than at the present time. . . . For the Saints here in the City of Nauvoo and in the regions round about have their confidence in the Twelve as a body, and in those that are placed to lead them. . . . And this is increasing daily to the astonishment and surprise of everyone. For there is a spirit now existing in our meetings that a person can scarcely enter them before there is a spirit of love and union that overwhelms their minds, which draws tears of joy in floods from their eyes." (Ronald K. Esplin, "Life in Nauvoo, June 1844: Vilate Kimball's Martyrdom Letters" BYU Studies Winter 1979, Vol. 19, No.2, p. 240.)
Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, and his brother Hyrum had done their work well. As John Taylor wrote:
With gods he soared, in the realms of day;
And men he taught the heavenly way . . . .
The chosen of God, and the friend of men,
He brought the priesthood back again,
He gazed on the past, on the present too;
And ope'd the heav'nly world to view.
(John Taylor, "The Seer," Times and Seasons, Jan. 1, 1845, p. 767.)