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Meet the non-Latter-day Saint sheriff who tried to bring Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s killers to justice

Minor Deming was a man of principle who faced persecution in trying to follow the law, said Bryon Andreasen, a historian and curator at the Church History Museum

Minor Deming would likely not be as remembered today if he was not a brigadier general of the Illinois militia at the time that Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed in 1844.

The story is traditionally told that after the Smith brothers surrendered, Deming escorted them through unruly militia troops at the courthouse grounds in Carthage and reportedly introduced them as Generals Joseph and Hyrum Smith of the Nauvoo Legion.

The local militia troops, also knowns as the Carthage Grays, standing by thought Deming gave the prisoners too much respect and broke into hissing and profanities, said Bryon Andreasen, a historian and curator at the Church History Library.

“Afterward, Deming supposedly ordered the Grays’ arrest. At this, the Grays almost mutinied, until a face-saving way was found for Deming to countermand the arrest order,” Andreasen said.

Deming, a non-Latter-day Saint later elected as sheriff, was a man of principle who tried to bring those responsible for the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith to justice in the face of ridicule and persecution, Andreasen explained during the Church History Museum’s Evenings at the Museum series on Thursday, Oct. 20. 

“Although it would have been much easier and safe for him to have stood on his hands and let things happen, he didn’t do it,” Andreasen said. “He tried to preserve the rule of law and he tried to make it possible for even Mormons to be treated by the law. He stood up and said ‘these people need to be prosecuted and held accountable, even though it’s politically unpopular for me to say that.’ ... It’s that human story that I think is compelling.”

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Andreasen discovered the story of Minor and Abigail Deming as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. Their experience — documented in letters they wrote from Illinois back to family members living in Connecticut — provides historians with a nonmember perspective of life and events in the state before and after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

Andreasen was so taken with their story that he determined to one day research and write a biography, a project he is currently undertaking. He has yet to find photos of either Minor or Abigail.

Bryon Andreasen has been a historian and curator for the Church History Museum since 2013.
Bryon Andreasen, a historian and curator for the Church History Museum since 2013, presented on “The Story of Minor and Abigail Deming” as part of the Evenings at the Museum series Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. | Bryon Andreasen

‘Poor’ but ‘good citizens’

Born in 1810 in western Connecticut, Deming was 23 years old when he ventured west and purchased land in western Illinois before returning to marry his sweetheart, Abigail Barnum, a cousin of the famous showman, businessman and politician Phineas Taylor Barnum.

The couple moved to Hancock County, Illinois, in 1838, where Minor farmed, taught school and engaged in civic life.

As the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved in to the area in the early 1840s, the Demings observed that many were “poor” but found them to be “good citizens,” according to Andreasen.

The couple also described Nauvoo as the best market for produce and hired a Latter-day Saint family to oversee some of their farmland, despite opposition from some neighbors, Andreasen said.

“The Demings may have felt a kind of New England cultural affinity with many Latter-day Saints,” he said. “Though it is clear that neither Minor nor Abigail had any sympathy for the Latter-day Saint’s theology or their religious practices, they nevertheless did not shun association with individual Church members in the course of day-to-day living.”

Andreasen continued: “To them, the Saints had a human face. So when troublesome stories and reports regarding the Saints eventually started to dominate public discussion, the Demings’ knowledge of individual Church members apparently predisposed them to a more tolerant view of the Mormon community.”

Joseph Smith’s death mask is displayed near a large painting portraying a mob attacking the prophet and others in Carthage Jail.
Joseph Smith’s death mask is displayed near a large painting portraying a mob attacking the prophet and others in Carthage Jail in “The Heavens are Open” exhibit at the Church History Museum. | Stacie Scott, Deseret News

As a result, the Demings were labeled by anti-Mormon extremists as “Jack Mormons,” a pejorative term that meant “Mormon sympathizers.”

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‘Fiasco’ of justice

Due to complications, Deming was away from Carthage when the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith took place. Not only was his personal honor in question, he feared that he and Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford would be implicated. He felt the only way to clear his name was to seek justice for those responsible. He ran for Hancock County sheriff and was elected.

His first task was to prepare for the grand jury hearings, which meant he had to serve summons and subpoenas on many who did not want to come to court.

When the grand jury indicted nine men for the murders of the Smith brothers, he had to serve arrest warrants on people who had gone into hiding.

He was also trying to protect the Saints and others in the community from the anti-Mormon extremists.

“The whole thing became a fiasco,” Andreasen said.  

Deming encountered tremendous opposition in his quest for justice. When he attempted to serve arrest warrants in Warsaw, 17 miles west of Carthage, large numbers of men crowded the streets to threaten and intimidate Deming and his deputies.

The sheriff also made a dangerous, 100-mile winter trip to Springfield to arrest defendant Jacob Davis, a state senator, during a session of state legislation. Davis claimed immunity while the senate was in session, and Deming was reprimanded, criticized and pressured into releasing Davis.

Deming arrested others but there was a jailbreak.

In one letter, Deming lamented his inability to defeat the mob.

“They beat, threaten, assault and injure whom they choose with impunity,” Deming wrote.

Deming’s persecution

The sheriff was no exception. One former mob member beat Deming and tried to gouge out his eyes. Men broke into his stable and shaved his horse’s mane and tail. He became the subject of jokes and ridicule in Carthage and Warsaw. He moved his family to live with him at the jail in Carthage for their safety.

A dubious legal maneuver allowed the defense to have a substitute jury that acquitted all defendants in the trial for the accused killers of Joseph Smith.

The day before the trial for Hyrum Smith’s killers, one of the anti-Mormon leaders got into an argument with Deming over a land sale tax matter and tried to strangle the sheriff. Deming pulled his pistol and shot the man in self defense. He resigned as sheriff and hired an attorney for his own trial. He and his wife struggled to sleep for weeks fearing a night-time assassination attempt.

But before that could happen, the 35-year-old came down with congestive fever and died within a few feet of where Joseph Smith was murdered the year before.

“In a sense, another victim of the Carthage mob,” Andreasen said.

When news of Deming’s death reached Warsaw, mobocrats threw up hats and cheered. That night mobs began burning the homes of Latter-day Saints in southern Hancock County. The Saints soon agreed to leave.

Abigail Deming never remarried. She died in New York in 1890 at the age of 80.

Minor Deming’s pistol

Andreasen saved his biggest surprise for the end.

Pulling on curator gloves, he reached underneath the podium and pulled out the pistol — an Allen & Thurber .36-caliber dragoon-size Pepperbox revolving pistol. He told the audience that for more than 30 years Minor Deming’s pistol has masqueraded at the Church History Museum as the pistol that Joseph Smith used during the attack on Carthage Jail because it had been misidentified. The correct pistol, a smaller one of similar make, is now on display.

“The Deming pistol has its own separate dramatic story and is yet another tangible link to Church history in Illinois in the 1840s,” Andreasen said.

Minor Deming’s Allen & Thurber .36-calibar dragoon-size Pepperbox revolving pistol.
Minor Deming’s Allen & Thurber .36-caliber dragoon-size Pepperbox revolving pistol. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Takeaways from the Demings’ story

Andreasen presented a few takeaways from the lives of Minor and Abigail Deming.

“We’re reminded that the Nauvoo story didn’t end with the martyrdom at Carthage, that there were almost two more years of escalating violence, after which the Saints were forced to leave at gunpoint,” he said. “The Demings’ experience exposes just how ruthless many of the key anti-Mormon leaders really were, that their maliciousness was real and not just an exaggeration born of Latter-day Saint paranoia or persecution.”

Andreasen said much of the historical writing on the Nauvoo era assumes an almost exclusive member versus nonmember focus, a Mormon versus non-Mormon dichotomy. But as the Demings’ experience shows, there were complex, nuanced and deeply divisive differences of opinion among the old settlers before the Saints ever arrived in Hancock County in 1839.

Andreasen believes the number of county residents who joined and supported the extremist exterminators is actually lower than many historical records indicate.

In the Church History Museum’s “The Heavens are Open” exhibition, visitors walking through the Nauvoo section will see the sword of Thomas Brockman, the leader of the renegade militia that attacked the city of Nauvoo in September 1846. On the wall above the sword is a quote from Minor Deming: “The exterminators are more fanatical than the Mormons and less regardful of the law.”

This was the first Evenings at the Museum to be held under the direction of the museum’s new director, Riley M. Lorimer. Elder Hugo E. Martinez, a General Authority Seventy and assistant executive director of the Church History Department, and his wife, Sister Nuria Martinez, also attended the event.

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