1844: Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, lynched

1 comment June 27th, 2016 Headsman

Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.

Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.

Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.

“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”

The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.

A few books about Joseph Smith

Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.

The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†

By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡

But in this case, the law did not take its course.

On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”

Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.

* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.

** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his spuriously “ancient” book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.

† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.

‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Famous,History,Illinois,Lynching,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Rioting,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

2 comments November 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Peter Mortensen was shot over a lumber bill.

The evidence against Peter Mortensen was circumstantial: a moonlight witness, some unexplained cash, and a perceived insufficiency of vigor in insisting upon his innocence when suspicion fell upon him.

Though this much sounds pretty speculative, Mortensen’s very direct pecuniary interest in Hay’s death was harder to wave away. Mortensen, a Salt Lake contractor, owed money to George Ernest Romney’s* Pacific Lumber company. On the evening of December 16, 1901, he summoned Romney’s employee James R. Hay — who was also Mortensen’s friend, neighbor, and fellow-teacher at a Mormon Sunday school — to pay up.

Hay never made it home.

The next day, Mortensen had a receipt for the payment in Hay’s hand, and Hay had a cashless grave and a bullet hole in his head. Rarely have means, motive, and opportunity converged so exactly.

Public sentiment against Mortensen was so overwhelming** that selecting an impartial-ish jury proceeded at a weeks-long crawl as Mortensen’s attorney met prospect after prospect by bluntly asking whether they had formed an opinion as to his man’s guilt. Prospect after prospect confirmed that they had done. By the end, the court had been reduced to issuing “open venires” bypassing the regular jury summons process and authorizing anyone handy to be inducted into the jury pool. Deputies scoured Salt Lake City like press gangs, hunting for possible jurymen.

In all, the court dismissed some 600 prospective jurors for bias (which was quite a lot for the time), and ran through $4,500 in that process alone (likewise).

Those finally seated had to weigh, along with the more conventional indicia of guilt, the inflammatory witness testimony of James Hay’s father … who said he didn’t just have a pretty strong suspicion about the defendant, but that he actually knew Mortensen did it. “God revealed it to me,” the elder Hay said with “tears streaming down his cheeks” according to a report in the Idaho Daily Statesman of June 6, 1902.

He appeared to me by the Holy Ghost and put the words of His Spirit into my mouth. I had to utter them, for I knew they were true. I cannot and will not deny it here, neither will I deny it when I meet my God on the last day.

This is not the only manifestation I received. On Tuesday noon I saw the trail of blood leading from the railroad tracks to where my son-in-law was buried. I saw it in a vision just as plainly as when I afterwards visited the spot.

Again, this is judicial testimony in an American courtroom in the 20th century.

The fact that it appeared — and that the trial court refused a defense demand to instruct the jury not to consider supernatural visions in the light of real evidence — formed the central argument of Mortensen’s appeal. In the end, Utah’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the sentence. Still, the weird appearance of “divine revelation evidence” in a Utah courtroom led the Mormon patriarch Joseph F. Smith to issue a finding distancing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from any embarrassing mummery:

[N]o member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the “Mormon” faith is wholly unjustified

About six weeks before Mortensen’s execution, a prison break took place at the penitentiary. It’s been given out latterly that the arrogant Mortensen was so unpopular even with his fellow-prisoners that they intentionally left him stuck in his cell. 1903 press accounts appear to indicate otherwise — that he was not the only convict left stuck in his cell, and that Mortensen’s particular rum luck wasn’t a social lack but a digital one: somebody dropped the necessary set of keys. Either way, there was no way out, and neither when Utah’s governor interviewed Mortensen personally to see about his mercy application. Never mind his popularity with prisoners; Mortensen’s continued insistence on innocence while pleading for his life was the real diplomatic failure.

Mortensen selected shooting rather than hanging as his method of death, and went to it “firm as a rock.” He left only a last statement repeating his vociferous and widely disbelieved denial of Hay’s murder.

To the world I want to say and swear by the heavens above, by the earth beneath, and by all I hold near and dear to me on this earth, that I am not guilty of that cowardly murder of my dearest friend. I ask therefore no man’s pardon for aught that I may have done in life. I am confident that my life is an example to most people. I lay no claim — please strike out the last two words — I do not say that I am better or more worthy of respect of the world than the average man, but I have done my duty to my father and mother, my brothers and sister, and to other near relatives. I have done my absolute duty toward my wife and my five little babies. May God keep and care for those sweet darlings.


Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 20, 1903.

* Yes, those Romneys. George Ernest Romney‘s significantly younger first cousin George Wilcken Romney became Governor of Michigan, and was in turn the father of the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The mutual grandfather of George E. and George W. designed the St. George Tabernacle.

** Even Mortensen’s wife thought him guilty, for he had gone out that fatal evening of the 16th with Hay, and returned an hour later “deathly pale.” However, while God’s hearsay to Mr. Hay was available in open court, Mrs. Mortensen’s evidence was not: Utah law prohibited wives testifying against their husbands.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Shot,USA,Utah

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1942: Helmuth Huebener, Mormon anti-Nazi

3 comments October 27th, 2012 Headsman


Poster announces Helmut Hubener’s execution.

On this date in 1942, 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener was executed at Plotzensee Prison for listening to the BBC.

Huebener was a Mormon youth with the political perspicacity to abhor fascism from a very young age: the former Boy Scout (Mormons really take to scouting) ditched the Hitler Youth after Kristallnacht, which happened when Huebener was only 10 years old.

As Germany forged ahead towards worse horrors in the years, conscientious people of all ages had moral dilemmas to resolve. Mormons in Nazi Germany weren’t persecuted per se and to keep it that way that small community generally kept its head judiciously down.

Not Huebener.

Horrified by the privations of their Jewish neighbors, Huebener with fellow Mormon teens Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe began illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts and using the material to compose anti-fascist pamphlets for distribution around Hamburg.

Themes like Germany’s coming defeat (a Huebener circle favorite) never went over well with the authorities; a 1939 law decreed that “Whoever willfully distributes the broadcasts of foreign stations which are designed to endanger the strength of resistance of the German people will, in particularly severe cases, be punished with death.”

Huebener’s friends, aged 18 and 16, were judged only sufficiently severe for hard labor sentences; both survived the war but have since died. Huebener as the ringleader got the death penalty. (The local Mormon congregation expediently excommunicated him, a judgment later reversed from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.) And clearly Huebener was failing to “support the troops”, in the present-day parlance: his own older brother Gerhard had been drafted into the Wehrmacht and was away at the front.

“My Father in heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong,” young Helmuth wrote shortly before his beheading. “I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter.”

The Latter-Day Saints church, not usually thought of as a hive of anti-authority activity, has only gradually warmed up to celebrating its appealing young resistance martyr.

In addition to a number of books, Huebener is the subject of the documentary Truth & Conviction as well as the forthcoming feature film Truth & Treason.

A few books about Helmuth Huebener

Three Against Hitler and When Truth Was Treason were written by Huebener’s un-executed confederates.

Novels inspired by Helmuth Huebener

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1877: John D. Lee, for the Mountain Meadows Massacre

1 comment March 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1877, Mormon leader John D. Lee was shot at the site of (and for the crime of instigating) the Mountain Meadows Massacre 20 years before.

As the only person ever prosecuted for this dreadful affair, which saw 120 California-bound settlers slaughtered by a Mormon militia, Lee “was allowed … to carry to his grave Mormondom’s guilt for this horrible and barbaric act.” (Jan Shipps)

On this anniversary of Lee’s death, Executed Today interviews author Judith Freeman, whose historical novel Red Water tells Lee’s story through the eyes of three of his 19 wives.

You grew up Mormon — what brought you to this story? I gather that it wasn’t exactly daily discourse in your youth.

I found a copy of Juanita Brooks‘ book The Mountain Meadows Massacre in a used bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington, read it and was captivated by this story.

Growing up in northern Utah, I’d only heard vague, shadowy references to the massacre. It was the dirty little secret buried in the Mormon past — except for those people in Southern Utah who lived with that story as part of every generation’s experience and shame. I felt I had to write a novel about it, in part to try and understand this question: How do you get basically good people, like those Mormon settlers, to commit such evil?

You paint a picture of John Lee through the eyes of three of his wives. What kind of man was he — and how representative of the Mormon hierarchy would that be?

I think Lee was first and foremost a brilliant pioneer and survivalist and also a big blowhard, the kind of guy who would talk your head off — affable and a bit boring when it came to promoting his own virtues and experiences. He was self-aggrandizing, he’d do anything to make a buck, he had problems with the truth. He was a suck-up to Brigham Young who became his substitute father and then betrayed him.

He wasn’t entirely trustworthy because he put his own interests before all else. He could also be incredibly generous and kind, helpful to others. He wanted people to like him though they often didn’t, and he had an ingratiating quality. He was an orphan, with an orphan’s life-long neediness. In many ways I think he was good to his wives and cared deeply about his family — all sixty something kids and 19 wives. He was an amazingly talented man, skilled at many trades and businesses.

Was he representative of the Mormon Hierarchy? I don’t know. In some ways yes but I sense he was more sycophantic than some, and had a more amusing character than others, but what they all had in common was an absolute deference to church authority. I think I might have enjoyed meeting John D. Lee, he might have been more lively and fun than Brigham Young who strikes me as a misogynist and a brittle, cold man.

What about the women — three very different characters. What’s the sense you got of life for these women as pioneers, living in a polygamous family? How did they relate to one another, and how did the massacre and the execution of John Lee change their situation?

The women were also amazingly inventive as pioneers, strong, tough, formidable women though how can you generalize about 19 different personalities? Some liked each other and some couldn’t stand each other and the good thing was that Lee was a small industry and many of his wives had their own farms so they weren’t required to live on top of each other. He understood the “kitchen thing” when it comes to women, and said he wanted every one of his wives to have her own stove. The Lee family/families were devastated by his execution. His families were left penniless and destroyed, treated very cruelly, the women dispersed and shunned, the children shamed, and this shame was carried for generations.

To what extent is polygamy in the back story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre? What, for that matter, was the massacre really “about” in your judgment?

Polygamy had a small role to play in the massacre. The practice of polygamy, outlawed by the United States, was a part of what disturbed Washington and caused the federal government to send troops to Utah, which scared the Mormon populace into committing violent acts. One must remember that they had been the victims of violence and massacre, and fear turned in their minds.

What the massacre was really about, in my judgment, was the struggle for power in Utah. Would Brigham Young and the Mormon hierarchy control the territory and be masters of their own destiny, or would the federal government impose control of the “fiefdom”? The massacre came out of the idea the Indians could be made to carry out an attack and then the government would be forced to realize that if the Mormons were not allowed to control the territory and “their” natives, terrible things could happen. But the whole thing got out of control and took on a terrible life of its own.

A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrant wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for “Indians” which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them.

At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy. They retired to the upper end of the “Meadows,” resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleaguered emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer! And, all unconscious of the poetry of it, no doubt, they lifted a little child aloft, dressed in white, in answer to the flag of truce!

The leaders of the timely white “deliverers” were President Haight and Bishop John D. Lee, of the Mormon Church. Mr. Cradlebaugh, who served a term as a Federal Judge in Utah and afterward was sent to Congress from Nevada, tells in a speech delivered in Congress how these leaders next proceeded:

They professed to be on good terms with the Indians, and represented them as being very mad. They also proposed to intercede and settle the matter with the Indians. After several hours parley they, having (apparently) visited the Indians, gave the ultimatum of the savages; which was, that the emigrants should march out of their camp, leaving everything behind them, even their guns. It was promised by the Mormon bishops that they would bring a force and guard the emigrants back to the settlements. The terms were agreed to, the emigrants being desirous of saving the lives of their families. The Mormons retired, and subsequently appeared with thirty or forty armed men. The emigrants were marched out, the women and children in front and the men behind, the Mormon guard being in the rear. When they had marched in this way about a mile, at a given signal the slaughter commenced. The men were almost all shot down at the first fire from the guard. Two only escaped, who fled to the desert, and were followed one hundred and fifty miles before they were overtaken and slaughtered. The women and children ran on, two or three hundred yards further, when they were overtaken and with the aid of the Indians they were slaughtered. Seventeen individuals only, of all the emigrant party, were spared, and they were little children, the eldest of them being only seven years old. Thus, on the 10th day of September, 1857, was consummated one of the most cruel, cowardly and bloody murders known in our history.

-Mark Twain, Roughing It

John Lee: murderer, scapegoat, or both? How did he come to be prosecuted at all, and how to be the only one prosecuted?

John D. Lee was both murderer and scapegoat. He was bold and careless enough to hang around the area after the massacre, and to prosper from his various businesses and appear almost indifferent to what had happened — perhaps he thought he had the protection of the church authorities who continued to insist the Indians had committed this atrocity. A lot of others who’d participated in the massacre left the area, driven out by fear and shame. But Lee hung on.

John D. Lee, seated beside his coffin just before his execution.

How he was thrown to the wolves by the church authorities is a long story, as is the story of his two trials. He was the easiest person to scapegoat. He took the bullet for his church, and I think the authorities felt that they could put the affair behind them once he was dead, and they did for a very long time, until brave little Juanita Brooks wrote her book in the 1950s and was the first to tell the truth: the Mormons did it.

Does the Mormon church have some unfinished reckoning here? If so — why, after all these years?

Who cares what I think? But in my opinion, of course they do. They need to stop saying it was a “local” affair, carried out by some “local” renegade fanatics in southern Utah. The whole situation that led to the massacre was put into motion by people high up in the church, but I doubt very much they’ll ever go there and admit that. Too many lawyers, too much money, too impossible to admit culpability of prophets, seers, revelators.

Finally, I just want to say that after writing Red Water and thinking about this massacre for the five years it took to research and write the book, this is what I came to believe about how you get good people to do bad things.

You need to get three things going: First, you have to make people afraid and use that fear to manipulate them (think of 9/11). Second, you need get people to obey some greater force or consciousness other than their own — the Mormons had a principle of Perfect Obedience where you were required to subject yourself to the authority of the priesthood and church elders, but this idea could as well be inculcated in the concept of patriotism, or military duty. The point is, you subdue your own conscience in favor of deferment to an outside force. Third, you make people think their system is better than the other guy’s, that you’re doing God’s will, that your sense of right is greater than theirs. If you can make people think they are doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything. Get these three things going, and you can get good people to commit great evil.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Infamous,Interviews,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Scandal,Shot,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,USA,Utah

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