What happened to John Taylor’s pocket watch at Carthage Jail? Historians conclude investigation

Church History Department historians have continued investigating the damage to the Church leader’s watch to determine how it happened. Here’s what they learned

John Taylor was in the room with Joseph and Hyrum Smith when the brothers were killed by a mob in the Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844.

Taylor, who would go on to become the Church’s third president, was shot four times during the attack, and the story has been told countless times that his pocket watch blocked a fifth — potentially deadly — bullet from penetrating his chest.

“I sent for my vest, and, upon examination, it was found that there was a cut, as if with a knife, in the vest pocket which had contained my watch,” Taylor later wrote. “In the pocket the fragments of the glass were found literally ground to powder. It then occurred to me that a ball had struck me at the time I felt myself falling out of the window.”

John Taylor as he appeared during his tenure as President of the Church circa 1880.
John Taylor, the third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as he appeared during his tenure as President of the Church circa 1880. | Church History Department

Over the years, visitors at the Church History Museum have questioned if the damage done to the watch was truly caused by a bullet or by some other means.

Hyrum Smith’s watch was also shot during the attack and its damage was much more extensive.

The findings of the Church History Department’s investigation into the damaged piece of Church history was presented in an article on the Church History blog on Sept. 12.

The John Taylor watch investigation

In 1998, further research and investigation by the Church History Museum concluded the watch had not been hit by a bullet. Historians adopted the theory that the damage was caused by a windowsill that President Taylor fell onto after being shot. This became the dominant version of the account for many years.

Still seeking answers, historians used available forensic methods to study the watch in 2020.

They reviewed research articles previously written about the watch; had X-rays taken of the watch’s components; and performed field tests in which watches of a similar age and manufacture were shot, dropped and struck with rocks or wooden boards. They also examined reports from various other scientific analyses, including electron microscopy — using a electron microscope to magnify an object’s image.

The results of this investigation, including hundreds of digitized documents, are available online in the Church History Catalog.

A period-correct watch used for ballistic testing. 
A period-correct watch used for ballistic testing.  | Church History Department

Results of the John Taylor watch investigation

Despite the exhaustive tests, historians couldn’t definitively determine how President Taylor’s watch was damaged.

Brian Warburton, a historian in the Church History Department, gave his theory while presenting at the 2023 Mormon History Association Conference. He said the most likely cause of the damage was a small projectile traveling at approximately 200 miles per hour, such as a bullet that had ricocheted or already passed through a solid object, thus reducing its velocity.

This means it could have very well been a bullet that hit the watch, although at a slower speed.

The pocket watch worn by John Taylor during the mob attack at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. This is how the pocket watch appeared in 1898.
The pocket watch worn by John Taylor, third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during the mob attack at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. This is how the pocket watch appeared in 1898. | Church History Department

Other John Taylor items

The Church History Library holds other collections related to John Taylor.

Visitors can learn more about him through a massive repository of documents (see the John Taylor collection, MS 1346), his personal journal (MS 7277), and correspondence sent and received from his office during his tenure as Church President (CR 1 180). The Church also holds a sizable collection of portrait photographs taken of President Taylor between 1870 and 1887 (PH 4468).

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