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Martyrdom aftermath difficult for Emma

Prophet's wife faced sting of newspaper accusations

In the aftermath of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844, his widow Emma vehemently denied spurious press reports that she was renouncing the religion he led. But the intermingling of Joseph's personal and Church obligations resulted in tension between Emma and the surviving leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sharalyn D. Howcroft, archivist with the LDS Church History Department's Joseph Smith Papers Project, discussed this topic on Nov. 11 at the fifth and final lecture of a monthly Women's History Lecture Series offered by the Church History Library. She spoke to a capacity audience in the auditorium of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.

Photograph shows Emma Smith holding her infant son, David Hyrum Smith, who was born after the martyrdom of his father, Joseph Smith.
Photograph shows Emma Smith holding her infant son, David Hyrum Smith, who was born after the martyrdom of his father, Joseph Smith. Photo: Image courtesy Church History Library

Sister Howcroft described how Emma, then pregnant with their youngest son, David Hyrum Smith, reacted upon seeing the body of her husband after it was transported to Nauvoo from Carthage. Ill., where he and his brother Hyrum were murdered by a mob that stormed the jail where they were being held awaiting trial stemming from events incident to local opposition against the Church.

"Emma screamed and fell back in agony, then came forward, kissing his face and calling him by name," Sister Howcroft said. "She pled with him to speak to her. Hyrum's wife, Mary Fielding, was silent, and mother Smith was distracted with grief at the loss of her two dear sons."

She said the opportunity for the Latter-day Saints to mourn the death of Joseph and Hyrum was eclipsed by rumors that the anti-Mormons were intent on expelling the Mormons from the state. Church members anxiously prepared themselves for this possibility. The posting of an armed guard for protection hampered the mobility of the family and seemed more like house arrest, she added.

Letter from Willard Richards and John Taylor sent from Carthage Jail reported that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been killed.  The document was shown during Church History Library Women's History Lecture Series lecture by Sharalyn D. Howcroft.
Letter from Willard Richards and John Taylor sent from Carthage Jail reported that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been killed. The document was shown during Church History Library Women's History Lecture Series lecture by Sharalyn D. Howcroft. Photo: Image courtesy Church History Library

"When Joseph was alive, frequently newspapers denounced him as a charlatan," Sister Howcroft said. "After his death, the throng of rumor mongering, false accusations and besmirching of character that had hounded him in the press turned to his widow."

For example, in December 1845, the New York Sun published a letter allegedly from Emma denouncing Mormonism and its leaders; editor James Arlington Bennett claimed it was genuine.

"The letter culminated with its most injurious statement: 'I must now say that I never for a moment believed in what my husband called his apparitions and revelations, as I thought him laboring under a diseased mind,' " Sister Howcroft said.

"Informed that this letter was in print, Emma promptly shot off a letter to Bennett, exclaiming, 'I was never more confounded with a misrepresentation than I am with that letter, and I am greatly perplexed that you should entertain the impression that the document should be a genuine production of mine. How could you believe me capable of so much treachery as to violate the confidence reposed in me and bring my name before the public in the manner that letter represents?' "

She made a public announcement that the letter in the Sun was a forgery. Her denial was never published in the Sun, but it was printed in the Church's newspaper, the Times and Seasons, at Nauvoo, Ill.

In addition to dealing with haranguing in the press, Emma had to focus her efforts on securing her and her children's interests from her husband's estate, Sister Howcroft said. This was complicated by the state of Joseph's financial and business papers, she added.

The Church had appointed Joseph as its trustee, Sister Howcroft explained. "Creating a Church trustee in effect consolidated the Church's assets. It also provided a vehicle to compensate Joseph Smith and his family for their extensive property losses experienced in the Missouri persecutions."

At Joseph's death, however, there was confusion over what papers among his effects represented personal or Church business, she said.

This confusion was evident as early as July 1844, when William Clayton, as agent for the trustee, visited Emma, Sister Howcroft said. Brother Clayton subsequently said, "There is considerable danger, if the family begins to dispute about the property, Joseph's creditors will come forward and use up all the property there is. If they will keep still, there is property enough to pay the debts and plenty left for other uses."

During a question/answer session following the lecture, Sister Howcroft was asked about evident rancor between Emma and President Brigham Young, Joseph Smith's successor. She said that it appears some unidentified factor occurred in about 1850 that exacerbated the tension between the two. The mutual resentment seems to worsen from that point, she said, and one has to wonder how much his 1860s statements about 1840s events were influenced by that increasing tension.

"I question to what degree ... the rise of Joseph Smith III to the presidency of the RLDS Church influenced how Emma and Brigham perceived each other," Sister Howcroft said. The Reorganized Church, or RLDS Church, was one of a number of splinter groups that emerged after the death of Joseph and Hyrum.

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