Tag Archives: mormonism

1844: Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, lynched

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.

1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

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.