To Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith died a martyrs death, persecuted to the end for preaching the restored gospel. Critics have objected to the LDS perspective of the prophets death. More than one critic has claimed that Joseph died in a blazing gun battle in which he killed at least two men and wounded another.... Joseph Smith was no martyr.... (Decker and Hunt, 173.) This charge deals with two separate issues: 1) Joseph supposedly killed at least two men in a gun battle during his final moments of life; 2) Joseph Smith, according to the critics, does not qualify as a martyr. This paper will deal with issue number one. (For a discussion of issue number two, see Joseph Smith - Martyrdom.)
Joseph Smith killed two men in a blazing gun battle.
While confined in jail on the false charge of treason, Joseph and Hyrum were allowed the privilege of visitors. Cyrus Wheelock, a friend of the Prophets, managed to secure a pass to see Joseph and slipped both Joseph and Hyrum handguns. The Smith brothers reluctantly accepted the guns and Hyrum said, I hate to use such things or to see them used. So do I, said Joseph, but we may have to, to defend ourselves. (HC 6:608.) At about five oclock an armed mob, with blackened faces, rushed the jail while the guards put up a mock fight. As the mob up the stairs Joseph and Hyrum sprang to their feet and Hyrum bolted the door to lock out the attackers. The mob, however, fired through the wooden door and hit Hyrum in the face. He fell backwards, crying, I am a dead man! and died. Joseph bent over the lifeless body of his brother and exclaimed, Oh, my poor, dear brother Hyrum! (CHC 2:284.) Grabbing his revolver, Joseph opened the door slightly then fired his gun-- only half of the rounds discharged. John Taylor, wielding a walking stick, attempted to keep the mob from entering the doorway while Joseph ran to the window. Outside, however, more mob members had gathered, and seeing Joseph at the window, fired, hitting him four times. Joseph rocked on the sill for a second then cried, O Lord, my God! (Ibid., 286) as he fell to the earth, dead. John Taylor was shot four times himself, one of which smashed his pocket watch at 5:16. Taylor was wounded, but lived. Only Willard Richards escaped without injury.
Did the three rounds that Joseph fired, find their marks? Yes, and no. John Taylor, in recounting the event, said, only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed, died... (HC 7:103.) The reader will notice that Taylor claims that his information is not first-hand, but rather that he was informed of this information from another source or sources.
Parley P. Pratt also has written:
A man named Townsend, living in Iowa, near Fort Madison, was one of the mob who assaulted and forced in the jail door. The pistol discharged by Joseph Smith wounded him in the arm, near the shoulder, and it continued to rot without healing until it was taken off and even then it would not heal.
About six months after he was shot Mrs. Lawn saw his arm and dressed it. He was then gradually rotting and dying with the wound. He stayed over night with Mrs. Lawns father, and groaned through the night without sleeping. He asked the old gentleman what he thought of Joseph Smith being a Prophet? He replied that he did not know. Well, said Townsend, I know he was a Prophet of God! And, oh, that I had stayed at home and minded my own business, and then I would not have lost my life and been tormented with a guilty conscience, and with this dreadful wound, which none can heal! He died two or three months afterwards, having literally rotted alive! (Pratt, 391.)
In the section of Pratts autobiography containing this account, Pratt also relates the supposed fate of other mob members who participated in the attack on the prophet. Pratt notes that these particulars, and many others, were related to me by brother Beckwith previous to his death, and afterwards by his widow and father-in-law, and others who were conversant with them, and are believed to be correct. (Ibid., 392.) Again we see that Pratts information is not first-hand. Most LDS scholars reject the authenticity of those accounts which claim to relate the ill-fated deaths of the persecutors of Joseph Smith. (See Oaks and Hill, 95 n.60; Roberts, CHC 2:332 - 333; Poulsen.)
Most accounts seem to agree that three mob members were wounded by Josephs gunfire: John Wills, an Irishman who had joined the mob from his congenital love of a brawl, was apparently shot in the arm by the prophet (CHC 2:285 n.19); William Voras, a half grown, hobbledehoy from Bear Creek, was shot in the shoulder by Joseph (ibid.); and William Gallaher, a southerner from the Mississippi Bottom who supposedly was shot in the face. (Ibid., see also Oaks and Hill, 52.) A Mr. John Hay claimed that a fourth man whose name I will not mention, as he is prepared to prove an alibi, and besides stands six feet two in his moccasins was also wounded (CHC 2:285 n.19.) This fourth man, identified as a Mr. Allen, could not have been wounded by Smith, since he only fired three rounds. Nevertheless, Allen, as well as Wills, Voras and Gallaher, were all indicted for the murder of Joseph and Hyrum. Wills, Voras and Gallaher were probably named in the indictment because of their wounds, which testimony showed were received at the jail, were irrefutable evidence that they had participated in the mob. (Oaks and Hill, 52.) According to one source, the citizens of Green Plains were said to have given Gallaher and Voras new suits of clothes for their parts in the killing. (Ibid., 53.) None of these four assailants were ever arrested or appeared for trial, and one report claimed that at least three of these men had left the state. (Ibid., 79.)
Although it is possible that one or more of these men died as a result of the wounds they received during their mob attack, there is no evidence to suggest that such is the case, other than second or third hand reports which most scholars have dismissed as folklore.
Michael R. Ash
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