Episode 1 - Fellow Wanderer
On June 27, 1844 the Prophet Joseph Smith was murdered in Carthage, Illinois.
I am Stephen Dethloff, and this is the Strangers & Pilgrim’s podcast telling of the story of the Death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Our telling of the story of the Death of Joseph Smith starts in December of 1843 with Porter Rockwell in jail in Independence, Missouri. This is six months before Joseph Smith’s murder.
The Missourian’s have Porter Rockwell in jail – but who they really wants is Joseph Smith.
But, Porter is one of Joseph’s best friends. They grew up just down the road from each other in upstate New York. Their families are friends. Porter was one of the earliest converts to the religion, which Joseph Smith founded, the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And, Joseph trusts Porter. So, these men in Missouri are hoping they can get to Joseph Smith through Porter.
They want to get Joseph Smith in jail, because if he is in jail, then they can kill him. Or, even better, if he is on his way to jail, they can kill him on the way there extra-judicially. And, a lot of people want to kill Joseph Smith. From now until Joseph is murdered, the goal of a hefty portion of people in this part of the country is to kill him.
And, for now I am just going to say that one of the reason’s people want to kill Joseph is because they believe if you kill this new religion’s prophet and founder then the religion itself will just kind of fall apart.
The State of Missouri has Porter Rockwell in a dungeon cell. It’s a basement room with a low ceiling with a hatch in it. They let down a ladder to crawl in and out of. And Porter’s hands and feet are ironed to the floor with chains. He has been in multiple jails for the last 10 months so his hair and beard are matted flat with mud and dirt.
Porter was put in jail after being caught by a bounty hunter in St. Louis – over 200 miles east of Independence. He had a bounty out for his capture for the attempted assassination of the former Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs. Ex-Governor Boggs had been shot a year earlier in his home. He was sitting in a room by himself one rainy night, in Independence, when someone shot a pistol loaded with buckshot through his window. Two of the pieces of buckshot got him in the head. One actually broke through the skull and got down to his brain.
But, the ex-Governor didn’t die. Everyone thought he had, though. Newspapers were publishing his obituaries. Missourians were eulogizing him.
When the gunshot went off, Bogg’s wife and son ran in to find him laying on the floor in a pool of blood. They ran outside and looked around for the shooter, but couldn’t find him– only his gun.
Almost immediately after people heard about the Ex-Governor getting shot they started pointing fingers at the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. People were writing editorials in the newspapers about how it was probably their prophet and leader Joseph Smith who had done it. Everyone knew that the Latter-day Saints and the Missourians didn’t like one another.
And, Joseph, almost immediately, too, began arguing against these claims. He wrote in to one newspaper defending himself. Saying he didn’t do it. And, he said, he was “tired of the misrepresentation, calumny and detraction heaped upon me by wicked men.”
Like we mentioned in this podcast’s introduction, for the last 14 years of his life – Joseph was constantly persecuted by his enemies. And, so, Joseph sees himself being falsely accused of an attempted murder in newspapers all over the American West, and to him, this is not an isolated incident. It is another instance of this decade of persecution. It is part of the continuous stream of “misrepresentation, calumny, and detraction,” that has followed him since he restored the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Well, after the ex-Governor recuperated from his gunshot wounds, he went to a judge and filed charges claiming that Porter Rockwell was the attempted assassin and that Joseph Smith ordered the hit. At the time, Joseph Smith didn’t live in Missouri. He lived in Illinois – east of Missouri across the Mississippi River. So, the then-current Governor of Missouri writes an arrest warrant and makes an extradition order, to get Joseph Smith back to Missouri. So, they can try him for this attempted murder.
Well, when Porter and Joseph – again, who are living in Illinois – found out that they were both being charged for the attempted assassination, and learning that there was an arrest warrant out, and feeling they were innocent, and that, again, this was just the latest instance in a long string of persecution – they both went into hiding.
They had both barely made it out of Missouri and into Illinois with their lives after being threatened and shot at and chased out of the state. They look at this unfounded charge of attempted assassination as a ploy to get them back into Missouri from where they escaped so that their murder can be finished like it should’ve been.
So, Porter goes back east and hides out in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Joseph went into hiding just around the city he lived in, in Nauvoo, Illinois. Different relatives houses. Friends houses. He kept a low profile.
And while he is in hiding, Joseph’s wife, Emma is writing letters to the Governor of Illinois – saying, “please rescind this arrest warrant. Joseph is obviously innocent. Those people in Missouri just hate us. They only want to kill my husband. You can’t believe this.”
After a couple months Joseph starts to get letters from the Governor of Illinois, and his lawyers, saying, just come up to the Illinois capital. We have been talking with the Supreme Court, and these charges have no legal standing. We’re not going to extradite you to Missouri. It’s ridiculous that you’re charged with an attempted assassination. But, you still need to come in and get this cleared up through the proper legal channels.
So, Joseph agrees. He comes out of five months of hiding, and he and a group of his friends travel to the capital of Illinois for a trial. And, it is the biggest trial of the year. The court room is packed. Because of Joseph Smith’s growing religion, and growing followers, and this failed assassination attempt – everyone wants to see it. One of the people, actually, in attendance to see the trial, was Mary Todd Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln’s new wife.
After a couple of days of the trial, the Judge rules that the extradition order, for Joseph to get sent back to Missouri, is not valid, and Joseph is freed to go back to his hometown of Nauvoo. So, when Porter who had been back east in New Jersey and Pennsylvania hears that Joseph is free of this arrest warrant, and that he is safe from getting sent to Missouri, he feels like it is safe for him to head back to Nauvoo. And, on Porter’s way back home, this bounty hunter catches him in St. Louis, and, so, instead of Porter getting taken back north up to Nauvoo, Illinois, he gets taken out west to Independence, Missouri.
And he gets thrown in jail for the failed assassination attempt.
And, he’s first put in an iron-bar cell on the 2nd floor of a jail. This was a common set-up for the day. The jailor lived downstairs in a house, and then the jail was upstairs. With the iron bars and shackles in a room. And, while Porter was there he saw a rotating cast of characters come in and out. One of the men who gets brought in is a guy who was arrested for issuing fake U.S. Treasury Notes.
So, Porter becomes acquainted with this guy and finds out that he wants to escape. He really wants to break out of jail. And, Porter wants to escape, too. Not only does this guy want to escape, but somehow, this guy was allowed to keep his saddlebags and all of his possessions with him in jail.
Anyway, Porter finds out this guy has fire-steel in his packs. Fire-steel are these little metal rods that you can use to start fires. So, Porter gets one, and almost completely saws off his chains with this fire-steel. But, he can’t finish the job. And there is this girl that lives across the street, she is a slave. And, sometimes she brings Porter food. So, he gets her to bring him a knife. He lets down a rope and a basket, and she puts the knife in there. He hauls it up, and Porter saws his chains off the rest of the way.
So, now Porter and this guy are sitting there eating dinner waiting for the jailor to come up and take their plates away when they’re done. And this treasury notes guy is eating a big meal, telling Porter that he is going to need his energy in the escape. And Porter is telling this guy, “man. If you eat too much you aren’t going to be able to run.” But, the guy disagrees. So, the jailer comes to take away their empty plates, and Porter, with his chains sawed off, leaps up and grabs the jailor. Porter and the treasury notes guy take the jailor’s keys, lock him up in the jail, and head downstairs where they run into the jailor’s wife. She is probably terrified to see two prisoners come down the stairs from where her husband just went up. They tell her not to worry. Her husband isn’t hurt. They’ve just locked him up, and they run outside.
They get out there and there is a 12-foot fence they have to climb. So, Porter throws the keys into some bushes, hops the fence, and runs off. He gets a couple yards off, and he turns around to see the Treasury Notes guy is stuck on the fence. He can’t get over. So, Porter is like, “I gotta’ go back and help this guy.” So, he runs back and helps him over the fence. But, by the time they get off and keep running again they’ve lost too much ground. The jailor’s wife has alerted the town. Porter is winded. They both get caught and get thrown back in jail.
Well, a lot of people, probably the Governor included, assumed Joseph and Porter were the ones who tried to assassinate Ex-Governor Boggs, because a few years earlier Governor Boggs had passed an executive order in Missouri – Order 44 -- which ordered members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be exterminated and driven from the state. This order from the Governor gave the state’s militia authority to kill these Latter-day Saints and drive them out of their houses and off their lands.
So, it’s easy to see how, one morning Ex-Governor Bogg’s gets shot in the head with buckshot through his window, and he, and a lot of people immediately think – must’ve been the Latter-day Saints. There is a lot of built-in motivation that the shooter could probably have been an angry member of this new religion looking for vengeance.
Now, there is a lot of history leading up to this extermination order. Governor Boggs didn’t wake up one day and just decide to exterminate and drive all the Latter-day Saints out of his state.
The first settlers of this restored religion had moved to Missouri about 13 years before Joseph Smith’s death. They settled in Independence. Independence would later be the site of Ex-Governor Bogg’s failed assassination attempt, and the location of Porter Rockwell’s dungeon cell. And, at the time, the city of Independence is the very edge of Missouri – it is one of the state’s western most cities. And, Missouri itself is the edge of America – it is the western most part of the country. And, everything west of it is Indian Territory. You could stand there just west of the city out look out onto land that was not America. And, it wasn’t part of any government, really. There were no rules. No government. No anything. It was the blank slate of the wild west.
So, Independence Missouri, when the Latter-day Saints show up and start to settle it 13 years before Joseph’s death, is the American Frontier.
Independence is the head of the Santa Fe Trail. It is full of preachers from out east trying to convert the Indians to Christianity.
The closest federal Marshall lived in St. Louis, Missouri which, you’ll remember, is over 200 miles east of Independence along the Missouri River. Occasionally this Marshall comes out to Independence with warrants to look for fugitives and criminals. But, before he gets there all the outlaws in town just run across the border and hang out in Indian Territory until he leaves. So, it’s full of outlaws and criminals and fugitives – and strictly orthodox settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You can imagine how that would probably play out.
Not only that, but judges and sheriffs and other law officers regularly acknowledge they can’t even enforce the law. Lawlessness, at the time, is a pretty common trait to frontier Americans.
After these first Latter-day Saint settlers lived in Independence for about 2 years a mob got up and burned down their houses. The roofs were torn off the houses they didn’t burn down. They chased the women and children across the plains in the middle of the night until their feet bled. The Latter-day Saints had all their property taken and they were forced to leave the county.
Some of these settlers, after having their houses burned down, swam across the Missouri river in the middle of the night and escaped, as refugees, to adjacent counties. When these refugees went and talked to first the local sheriff, and then the county judge, about these attacks it was not suggested that they take legal action against their enemies, but that they fight back. They were told to kill their attackers, because the law couldn’t do anything for them.
This first instance of the Latter-day Saints being kicked out of Jackson County, Missouri, and being forced to settle as refugees in other parts of the state, sets up this pattern of persecution that will follow them in Missouri all the way until Governor Boggs signs the Extermination Order against them. For the Latter-day Saints in Missouri, it is 8 years of escalations and rising tensions and increased conflict, and small wars, until the Governor of Missouri says, “here is an order. Just kill them all and kick them out of the state.”
As a GOOD SUMMARY of the tension between the two groups one historian wrote that early membesr of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “ran counter to ideas, institutions, and ways of life that were fundamental forces on the frontier.” It was like oil and water trying to mix Missourians and the Latter-day Saints. The two just didn’t mesh. And, you have to think. You have, moving into Missouri, converts to this new religion. Most of them are from out east. Where there are schools, and roads, and newspapers. These people are all members of a new religion that isn’t even 10 years old yet. And, it’s a religion that they are so zealous about that they’ve converted to it, and then moved hundreds of miles across the country to settle a new land. So, you have these eastern religious families settling the frontier in the middle of adventurers, fur trappers, and fugitives.
And, so, the primary source of the conflict between the Missourians and the Latter-day Saints was found in these social, political, and economic differences that existed between the two groups.
For example, you have all these eastern religious families move out to THE FRONTIER, and there are issues with slavery. The Latter-day Saints don’t endorse it. They encourage freed slaves to settle with them. This state they just moved to, however, Missouri, is fiercely protective of its slavery practices. Numerous historians, and people who lived with the members of the restored Church of Jesus Christ in Missouri, say they think they biggest source of fighting between them and their neighbors was the latter-day Saint’s anti-slavery feelings and expressions. Or, at the very least, the fear that the Latter-day Saintss were anti-slavery.
Furthermore, the Latter-day Saint settlers are colonizers. They moved in to Missouri in 1831 and start building numerous settlements. They start taking over large swaths of land. These easterners roll in and buy up hundreds of acres of land. Sometimes buying up land directly underneath settlers, who were waiting to come into land ownership through squatters rights. At the time of these early Latter-day Saints living in Missouri, some of their religion’s biggest enemies were men squatting on federal land, waiting to earn it through squatters rights, who when the church came in and, legally, bought the land out from under them, became hellbent on attacking them.
Other things that added to this conflict in Missouri is that the Latter-day Saints are very clannish and insular –However, their neighbors, who are frontiersmen, are rugged and individualistic. They’re opposites. Because these Latter-day Saints are clannish and insular they immediately show up and turn into a very powerful voting bloc. A voting bloc that can sway elections in any direction they choose – and they can sway elections to favor their religious doctrines and beliefs. And they can get their own people – other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – elected as judges, and council members, and sheriffs, and then further control the local government. This makes people uncomfortable.
And, at the time of the Extermination Order, the majority of Latter-day Saints lived in Missouri. Now, they didn’t live in Independence, anymore, since they’d been kicked out. But, they lived in settlements about 50 miles north of Independence.
So, the Latter-day Saints, all throughout the 1830s, are settling into Missouri, right in the middle of a community that hates them. That doesn’t understand them. And, isn’t understood by them. And, over the years, this hate manifests itself in numerous altercations and fights between the them and their neighbors. And, I say fights and altercations. It’s less that and more of just outright persecutions. The Latter-day Saint settlers are having their houses burned. Their property stolen. They are raped, murdered, beaten, and attacked by angry mobs.
Now, throughout the entire time the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are in Missouri, they will occasionally fight back. And, they will occasionally make a stand. But, the gauntlet is never thrown down – they never look to end the persecution. They just try to curb it. And, the whole time they keep asking for help from the local government, and they kept not receiving any.
And, every contention, and fight, and disagreement between the Latter-day Saints and their neighbors have only compounded onto one another so that eventually the state of Missouri decides it needs to step in and officially get involved in this war between the Latter-day Saints and their neighbors. But, surprising the Latter-day Saints, the state of Missouri doesn’t protect them. It drives them out under the threat of extermination.
Now, the Governor wrote Executive Order 44, but Missouri’s state militia was responsible for executing it. But, they didn’t kill anyone. Instead, they marched out to exterminate the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and used their extermination authority as a bargaining tool. The state militia said they would not massacre all of the Latter-day Saints in exchange for the confiscation of their land and property, and the imprisonment of their leaders. So, Governor Bogg’s extermination order resulted in Latter-day Saints being driven from the state and having their property stolen, and their leaders – including Joseph Smith -- being thrown in jail.
Because of Governor Bogg’s extermination order, most of the Latter-day Saints living in Missouri moved back east, across the Mississippi river, to a city called Commerce, in the state of Illinois. Commerce was in Western Illinois, right on a hill next to the Mississippi river. Ultimately so many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved into this city they kind of took it over and changed the name of it to Nauvoo. This is the city, Nauvoo, that was built by refugees that I mentioned in the introduction to the podcast.
At the time of the extradition request it has about 12,000 citizens living in it – making it the largest city in Illinois. And, again, this is where Porter and Joseph were living when they found out they were being charged with Bogg’s murder.
But, now, back to the present. It is December 1843. The Latter-day Saints have been in Nauvoo, Illinois for about 4 years now. They have escaped from Missouri into Nauvoo, and have been building their city and growing their communities for four years. And, this failed assassination attempt has brought these Missouri memories, and persecutions back to the front of their mind. It caused them to resurface. And, it reminds the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo of the danger in Missouri.
It also reminds the Missourians of the dangerous Latter-day Saints to the east. In fact, Missourian vigilantes start crossing over the Mississippi River into Nauvoo to try and kill Joseph Smith. And, Missourian law officers, also, start crossing over the Mississippi River to try and bring Joseph back to Missouri.
And, this is going to be an important part of the story of Joseph Smith’s death – this idea that these refugees – these strangers and pilgrims on the American frontier – have been persecuted for 14 years. And, so everything they see, and everything that happens to them, is in this context of 14 years of persecution. And, is in the context of, “we have to protect ourselves.”
This extradition order – that Joseph be sent back to Missouri for the failed assassination attempt is a reminder to all the religious refugees in Nauvoo that these frontiersmen still want Joseph Smith dead. Because, the Missourians believe, if you cut off the head -- the body will die. Get rid of Joseph and you get rid of the restored Church of Jesus Christ he founded. And, If you get rid of the Church of Jesus Christ you get rid of, its powerful voting bloc, its stealing of land, and its taking away all your income, all these political and economic repurcussions of these settlers out on the frontier.
So, now Porter is in a dungeon. But he isn’t in this dungeon because of the failed assassination attempt. He has been cleared of murder charges against ex-Governor Boggs. Well, in fact, official charges were never even brought against him. After being captured by the bounty hunter, and sitting in jail for 10 months, he was brought before a grand jury. And, they decided there wasn’t even enough evidence to indict him in the attempted murder, because essentially the whole case rested on the affidavit of Governor Boggs – who got shot in the head, through the window, on a rainy night. He didn’t have any actual proof that Porter and Joseph were responsible for his murder. So, there was nothing to go on. But, Porter is still in jail because of these two failed escape attempts he had. And, we talked about one of the failed attempts earlier in the podcast – with Porter and the man in jail for faking US Treasury Bonds.
So, while Porter is down in this dungeon, the county sheriff opens up the hatch. He and some guys lower down the ladder and come into the jail and talk to Porter. They say, “We have spies all around Nauvoo,” which, again, is where Joseph Smith and a lot of the Latter-day Saints are settled. And, these quotes that I am saying are from Porter Rockwell’s retelling of the story.
The Sheriff says, “We know how much Joseph trusts you. If you could just, get him in a carriage or on horseback somewhere. So that we could apprehend him, we will protect you.” They say that all he has to do is to name his price and the citizens of the county will donate or raise whatever he requests so that he’ll never have a hard day in his life again. “You just need to bring us Joseph Smith,” they say, “and we’ll give you money, houses, horses – Whatever you want.”
Porter looks them in the face and says, “you all go and be damned, and then I won’t help you.
The Missourians can’t use Porter Rockwell to get to Joseph Smith. They have to find another way.
So, it’s December 1843. Porter Rockwell has told the sheriff in Jackson County, Missouri that he isn’t going to help him capture Joseph Smith. And, after going to court for his escape attempt, Porter Rockwell is let out of Prison. He was ordered to serve only 5 minutes in jail for his escape attempt. And, then he was let go.
It’s the winter, and Porter is walking back east through fields and forests to avoid angry Missouri vigilantes. At the same time, there is a large meeting of Illinois citizens who are angry with the Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith and the rest of the Latter-day Saints got run out of Missouri, but they already have new enemies in Illinois. There is a political organization in the surrounding towns and counties that has cropped up, and they actually call themselves the “Anti-Mormons”.
Now, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refer to themselves as Saints or Latter-day Saints, but almost every one that they’re interacting with at this time, not a member of their church, is calling them “Mormons”.
This is because at the same time Joseph Smith was founding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he was translating and publishing a book of scripture called “The Book of Mormon”. And, since, at the time, this book of scripture was unique to Joseph Smith’s religion, the name “Mormon” stuck as a short hand both for the religion, in the term “Mormonism” and for its members in the term “Mormons”. But, in accordance with direction from the prophet of the church at the time this podcast is being recorded, Russell M. Nelson, the church will, throughout this podcast be referred to by its full name, as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and its members will be referred to either as members of the Church, or as Latter-day Saints.
So, the enemies of the Church, at this time, have started up a group and they call themselves “Anti-Mormons” – to express that they are directly opposed to the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
These Anti-Mormons have all the same issues with the Latter-day Saints that the Missourians had with them. But, they have an added problem. They’re dealing with a large influx of immigrants from Great Britain who are converts to the Church.
Latter-day Saint Missionaries had been in Great Britain since 1837 teaching and baptizing people over there. The converts to the Church, however, did not begin immigrating to America, to join up with other like-minded converts and Joseph Smith, their religion’s prophet, until 1840. That was about a year after the Latter-day Saints had been driven out of Missouri.
So, you have Hancock County. This little county in Western Illinois that, for 4 years now, is first filling up with Latter-day Saint refugees, and then filling up with immigrants who are converts to the refugee’s church. Thousands of them. In fact from 1840 until 2 years after Joseph’s death, Nauvoo sees 5,000 converts come in from Great Britain.
So, for the locals this is a problem. Nauvoo is the largest city in county, and in the state. It has 12,000 people living in it. Most of them Latter-day Saints. And, about 5,000 of them are immigrants. It’s a culture change for people that lived in Missouri before the Latter-day Saints got there. They take jobs. They take land. They create voting blocs.
And they create a pretty efficient voting bloc because they’re not a nebulous group of immigrants. And, it’s not a nebulous group of refugees. They all have a common religion. And, they all have a common leader – Joseph Smith. All these people that live here are tied together through the Prophet Joseph. And that’s why the “Anti-Mormons” want to kill him. They think that if you kill Joseph Smith, all the refugees, and immigrants, and religious followers will just kind of fall away and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they showed up.
The “Anti-Mormon” group is so “anti-The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”, that when they hold their town meetings and interested citizens show up who want to take a more moderate approach to kicking the Latter-day Saints out of Illinois, or who want to talk through things at a slow pace, they get shouted down. They’re told, “When you saw the notice for this meeting in the newspaper – and saw that it was a meeting of the “anti-Mormons” what did you think we were going to talk about? We don’t have room for moderates here. You’re either completely on board with us, or you’re not with us at all.”
And this winter, the “anti-Mormons” are holding town meetings, and electing representatives to go meet at the upcoming regional convention of “Anti-Mormons” in Carthage, Illinois. Carthage is the county seat of Hancock County.
And, at the December Carthage Convention there are two groups within the organization – there are the fire-eaters who just want Joseph Smith dead, and they want to do it themselves, right this instant. And, there are the more calculating men who want Joseph Smith dead, but they want someone else to do it, so they can keep their hands clean. They want the law to do it for them.
The spokesman for the “Anti-Mormons” is a guy named Thomas Sharp. Thomas is the editor of his party’s “Anti-Mormon” newspaper that is published about 17 miles south of Nauvoo. The newspaper is called the Warsaw Signal. And, Thomas is one of the guys who wants the Latter-day Saints to be run-off, and Joseph Smith killed by the government. He doesn’t want his hands dirty.
And, so Thomas starts writing letters to the Governor of Illinois, Governor Ford, trying to get the Governor to go into Nauvoo, and arrest Joseph Smith.
And, the Governor is telling Thomas that he can’t do that. Illinois isn’t the frontier. They try to keep the rule of law, and to keep order more than their neighbors to the west. The Governor tells Thomas that he can only persecute the Latter-day Saints if a war breaks out, and even then, only if the Latter-day Saints happen to be the first aggressors.
And, this is a great example of how Illinois is different from Missouri. In Missouri, when a war broke out, and the Latter-day Saints weren’t the first aggressors, they were still the ones that were punished.
So, things are done a bit differently in Illinois than they are in Missouri. The “Anti-Mormons” want to run-off their neighbors like they were in Missouri, but they can’t.
So, Thomas and the “Anti-Mormons” decide the best thing they can do is get Joseph Smith back to Missouri. If they can just get him back there – back to the wild west -- then the Missourians can kill Joseph Smith, and the Illinois “Anti-Mormon” party will look like they weren’t involved in it at all.
So, while these fire-eaters in the “Anti-Mormon” party are going around saying, let’s kill him now. Let’s go do it. Let’s get it over with. Thomas Sharp is telling everyone, “no. no. let’s keep our minds about ourselves. The Governor of Missouri, Governor Reynolds, is our ally. He is helping us. We just have to get Joseph over the river.”
A few weeks after getting out of prison after walking through the backwoods of Missouri, and crossing the Mississippi River Porter Rockwell staggers into Joseph Smith’s house in Nauvoo during a Christmas party – actually on Christmas day. He is staggering across the room. His hair is long and dirty – from not being washed or cleaned or combed for 10 months – and no one can recognize him. Joseph Smith, his childhood friend, one of his closest friends, doesn’t even recognize him from across the room. So, Joseph comes up to him to kick him out of his house, but stops when he sees that it is his friend Porter who has escaped from Missouri.
Joseph is overcome with happiness and tells Porter at that moment – he prophesies in the name of the Lord, “Orrin Porter Rockwell, so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to thy faith, [you] need fear no enemy. Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee.”
Like Samson in the Bible, Porter is told that if he never cuts his hair, a bullet will never harm him. And, this is the beginning, really, of Porter Rockwell becoming a mythical type figure out on the frontier. He becomes this gunslinger in the Wild West who never cuts his hair, and can’t be killed by another man because of a promise given to him by a Prophet. And, from that point on a lot of men will try and hunt Porter down to try and kill him, and a lot of men will fail.
As a side note, a few years earlier, Joseph was writing about his, what he called “laying the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” And, he is writing about the people that helped him lay the foundation of this church he established.
He wrote in this book that there [was] one man [he] would mention -- Porter Rockwell, who “is now a fellow wanderer with myself – an exile from his home because of the murderous deeds and infernal fiendish disposition of the indefatigable and unrelenting hand of the Missourians. He is an innocent and a noble boy, and was an innocent and a noble child, and my soul loves him. Let this be recorded for ever and ever. Let the blessings of Salvation and honor be his portion.” (August 30 1842 journal online). Joseph Smith loves Porter Rockwell. He sees themselves as fellow wanderers – as strangers and pilgrims.
So, the Christmas party ends. The Christmas season is over. And it’s now 1844. The year of Joseph Smith’s death. Back in Missouri, Governor Reynolds is eating breakfast one morning. After he finishes he goes to his desk and writes a letter to his friend about how he has been abused by his enemies for the last twelve months. And, about how much of a burden it is to him.
He finishes the short letter, and ties a piece of twine to the trigger of a gun. He puts it against his forehead, and pulls.
And, we don’t really know the reason for why Governor Reynolds killed himself. It’s a mystery. In his suicide note he mentions that he was tired of being abused by his enemies. But, historians today aren’t really sure who his enemies were. He was mentioned as having melancholia, and being depressed. Historians believe that had something to do with his suicide – but how much we’ll probably never know.
When Thomas Sharp found out that the governor of Missouri had just committed suicide he was beside himself. He wrote in his “Anti-Mormon” paper, “Our city is overshadowed with gloom and distress! Governor Reynolds is no more!”
And, it is with Governor Reynold’s suicide that now the “Anti-Mormons” in Illinois feel alone. The man whom they felt was their biggest governmental help in Missouri – in accomplishing the government sanctioned death of Joseph Smith – is gone. Their scapegoat is gone. And, from here, Thomas Sharp – who is one of the key figures in the death of Joseph Smith, and one of the key figures in our story going forward – turns hard.
He and other members of the “Anti-Mormon” party who used to feel like they could let the government take out Joseph and the Latter-day Saints, now feel they’re going to have to kill Joseph Smith themselves. And, they’re going to have to do it in Illinois where they live. And, they’re probably going to have to do it outside the law. They might have to take the law into their own hands.
In fact, Thomas Sharp turns so hard against Joseph Smith, that in the process he becomes incredibly frustrated with The Governor of Illinois, Governor Ford (who also by the way, will be an important figure in the upcoming story) – Thomas become so frustrated with Governor Ford’s inability and failure to deliver Joseph Smith to prison, or to death, that Thomas ends up coming up with a plan that will allow him to not only kill Joseph Smith, but also kill the Governor at the same time. So that Thomas can rid himself of two of his problems at once.
And, so our story moves away from Ex-Governor Boggs. And the now-dead Governor Reynolds. Thomas Sharp can’t use them anymore. Thomas Sharp and the “Anti-Mormon’s” attention turns from Missouri to Illinois.
Almost 6 months after Porter Rockwell got out of jail, and made it to Joseph Smith’s house on Christmas Day, Joseph Smith would die. Joseph’s enemies would get him to Carthage and murder him.
NEXT WEEK ON THE PODCAST:
. . . Joseph’s enemies outside the restored Church of Jesus Christ aren’t the only ones who want him dead. Within the church itself, a group of members become so upset with their prophet, that they, too, begin to lay plans to see his destruction.