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Before its destruction, temple drew the curious

Years after fire, arsonist confessed

After the Latter-day Saints vacated Nauvoo, the temple they left behind became an object of great curiosity to those in the region, and drama continued to unfold within its walls. Until it was destroyed — by fire Oct. 9, 1848, and tornado May 27, 1850 — many people toured the building.

Nauvoo Temple Fire Painting
Nauvoo Temple Fire Painting Photo: Courtesy BYU

Owing to the fame and importance of the temple, some became jealous of the attention given the building; a reward was offered for its destruction. The following are excerpts of an alleged deathbed confession published in 1877[likely oft-told and enhanced over time] by Joseph Agnew, the man who claimed to be its arsonist:

"The reason why I burned it was that there was a continual report in circulation that the Mormons were coming back to Nauvoo and we were afraid they might take it into their heads to do so, and as we had had all the trouble with them we wanted. . . .

"We decided to get the steward to show us through the Temple, and then watch our chance to get in our work. So we hid our horses in the bushes . . . a mile from town and walked in. We looked about town until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and in the meantime had prepared a bundle of kindling by taking a corn sack and cutting arm holes in it so I could put it on like a coat under my coat. I then stuck in as many tarred rags on sticks as I could carry without being noticed. . . .

"We went in with a rush and kept a going, the man being left behind working with the door. He called out for us to stop but we kept on going and I noticed that he left the door with the key in it.

"I went back to the door and unlocked it and put the key in my pocket. . . .

[After their tour] so leaving the judge and squire on guard, I ran back to the Temple . . . [and set it on fire. On trying to exit] I had lost my way and did not know which way to turn to get out, although I had been through the Temple a number of times before. I had thought if I would succeed at last in getting out, that I would be sure to get caught by the steward, for he would soon be back and in all probability would have help with him, for I was certain that he would lay the missing key to us. You can imagine my feeling, being left in the burning Temple, and in case I did escape the fire I was sure of an arrest. I ran first one way, then the other, in hopes of gaining some passage that I would know so as to find my way out, but all to no purpose. I was getting worse lost all the time, and I could not tell one direction from another, for it was as dark as an Egyptian night. At last I came to the stairway going up and I took it with the hope that it would lead me back to where I had started the fire and I could then take a new start. After going up two pairs of stairs and through many halls I came to a square turn and a light shone way down the passage in the opposite direction from what I wanted to go, but I thought it best to go and see what it was or who it was, and I soon discovered that it was my fire which was burning at a fearful rate, sending its fiery tongue clear across the hall.

"I drew as near as I could and I happened to see Squire McCauley's bandana handkerchief lying on the floor a short distance from the fire on the opposite side of me. So I knew that my way led through the fire as that room was the end of our trip. Now what was I to do? I knew no other way but through the fire. I became horror stricken. Was I to be burned up by my own hands? Not knowing as it were what I did, I threw my coat over my head and made a dive through that fire, striking my full length on the floor and I rolled over and over until I got out of the reach of the fire. When I got to my feet I took off my coat and extinguished the fire that caught in the lining, after which I put it on again. . . .

"After going about one-half mile, I looked toward Nauvoo and I saw a flickering light and the next minute flames burst through the roof and lit up the country for miles as light as day. I put my horse into a dead run in the direction of the Missouri timber. . . . "

In 1849, the ruins were purchased by a French group known as the Icarians, whose philosophy and beliefs were based on communal living. They were led by Etienne Cabet, who had first attempted unsuccessfully to found a colony in Texas. They had only made a start on their work on the temple before another disaster, a tornado, struck on May 27. Emile Valley describes it:

"The masons began to lay the foundation to rest the columns or pilasters to support the floors. . . . At 3 o'clock p.m. a distant report of thunder announced the approach of a storm. At their request I stepped out to ascertain whether it was a severe storm or not. Seeing only an insignificant cloud, I reported no danger. We continued to work. . . . Suddenly a furious wind began to blow; four of the masons fearing the nonsolidity of the walls, left to seek shelter elsewhere. Seven of us remained, taking refuge in the tool room on the south side. If there is a Providence it was on our side, for hardly had we taken our position than the tornado began to tear small rocks from the top of the walls and flew in every direction. We became frightened. Some proposed to run away, others opposed it on the ground that it was dangerous, as those loose rocks could fall on our heads and kill us. Before we had decided whether we should stay or run, one of them that was watching exclaimed: 'Friends we are lost, the north wall is caving in!' And so it was. A wall sixty feet high was coming on us, having only forty feet to expand. We fled to the southwest corner, deafened with terror." ("History of the Experiment at Nauvoo of the Icarian Settlement," the Nauvoo Rustler, Nauvoo, Ill., n.d., pp. 8-9.)

For the next 15 years the ruined west front stood picturesquely, still considered worthy of note by visitors. Artists' sketches survive from this period, and they show the massive masonry remains and the fallen blocks and rubble where the rest of the building had stood. Finally the weakened ruin was demolished and the site filled in and leveled. The Carthage Republican on Feb. 2, 1865, reported:

"The last remaining vestage (sic) of what the famous Mormon temple was in its former glory has disappeared, and nothing now remains to mark its site but heaps of broken stone and rubbish. The south-west corner, which has braved the blasts of ten or fifteen winters — towering in sad grandeur above the surrounding buildings — a marked object for many miles, the shrine of the pilgrimage of thousands who have annually flocked to gaze in wonder and awe upon the beautiful ruin, — is no more. . . .

"Of the large number of decorations, stone carvings, & c., with which the temple was beautified, hundreds have been secured by curiosity seekers in all parts of the country; and numbers have even gone to Europe."

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