June 27, 1844: Founder of Mormon Church, Joseph Smith Murdered in Illinois

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A Brief History

On June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), was shot to death by a mob with blackened faces in a Carthage, Illinois jail while awaiting trial for treason.

Digging Deeper

Smith, who founded the Mormon Church on the basis of the Book of Mormon that had (he claimed) been given to him by the angel Moroni in the form of engraved metal plates in 1823, and interpreted by Smith and written down in 1828.  In between being “given” the plates (which he promised to, but never showed anyone) and recording their content, thus starting a new religion, Smith was convicted of fraud for using a “seer stone” to find (for a fee) lost treasure for people.  The Book of Mormon was completed and published in 1830.

A depiction of Joseph Smith dictating the Book of Mormon by peering at a seer stone in a hat.

Having established a following and being persecuted and chased out of New York, and then later out of Ohio, Smith and his Mormon followers ended up in Missouri before being evicted from that state by a force of 2500 State Troopers.  Smith took his flock to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they set up their enclave in 1839.  By 1844, things had soured between Joseph Smith and some of his followers, with Smith berated for his polygamous policies and accused of trying to seduce and marry other men’s wives.

Smith asked Congress to make Nauvoo a separate territory (no success) and decided to run for President of the US.  He also secretly met with the “Council of Fifty” to decide which US and Illinois laws Mormons would follow or not follow.  Former trusted confidants, William Law and Robert Foster had a falling out with Smith and Smith excommunicated the pair that he now perceived as a threat to his supremacy at Nauvoo.  Law, Foster, and their allies set up a competing church society, and publicly accused Smith of conspiring to steal wives and practice a religion of “many gods.”  Joseph Smith declared martial law for Nauvoo on June 18, 1844 as he feared an uprising that would unseat him as head of the religious encampment.  The state militia was summoned and put an end to the martial law and got the Nauvoo militia to stand down.  Smith and his brother Hyrum were indicted on charges of polygamy and perjury, and after a brief flight, the brothers returned to face the charges.

Engraving of Nauvoo, ca. 1855

Taken into custody and transported to Carthage, Illinois for trial, the charges against Smith were raised to that of treason.  On June 27, 1844, a mob with blackened faces stormed the jail the Smiths were held in, gunning down Hyrum immediately and then also gunning down Joseph who attempted to defend himself with a pepperbox revolver that had been slipped to him by a supporter.

Joseph Smith came to be revered within the Mormon Church as the founder and prophet, as well as a martyr to the faith.  A scramble for control of the Church led to the ascendancy of Brigham Young as the leader, with some smaller groups creating other minor sects.  Smith’s legacy is a thriving religious movement consisting of at least 4 million active members (though Church officials claim as many as 15.8 million, supposedly counting former members in those numbers) with many prominent people adhering to the faith, and an overwhelming presence in the State of Utah.  Members include major sports, business, entertainment, academic, political, medical and scientific notables in their field.

Brigham Young

Which famous Mormons are you aware of?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Beam, Alex.  American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.  PublicAffairs, 2014.

Goodmansen, Mark.  Conspiracy at Carthage: The Plot to Murder Joseph Smith.  Cedar Fort, Inc., 2016.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.