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.
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
"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
"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.
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."