The Nauvoo city council authorized the destruction of a printing press that had been printing lies about the Mormon Church on the premise that the press was inciting violence. This made non-Mormon neighbors very angry, and a riot followed. Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith and others were arrested for starting the riot. The Governor promised the men that if they submitted to the arrest and went to jail in Carthage, he would protect them. They agreed to go to jail and undergo the trial. While in Carthage, Joseph was threatened numerous times.On the morning of June 27, 1844, while at Carthage Jail, Joseph wrote a letter to his wife, Emma, “I am very much resigned to my lot, knowing I am justified, and hove done the best that could be done. Give my love to the children and all my friends . . . May God bless you all” (History of the Church 6:605).
During the afternoon the four men in the jail (Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards) were feeling depressed. They asked John Taylor to sing a hymn called “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” One part of the hymn was especially fitting to their condition:
In pris’n I saw him next-condemned
To meet a traitor’s doom at morn;
The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
And honored him ‘mid shame and scorn.
My friendship’s utmost zeal to try,
He asked, if I for him would die;
The flesh was weak, my blood ran chill,
But my free spirit cried, ‘I will!’
Then in a moment to my view
The stranger started from disguise.
The tokens in his hands I knew;
The Savior stood before my eyes.
He spake, and my poor name he named,
‘Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me.
(”A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” LDS Hymns, no. 29)
A little after 5:00 a mob of 100 men who had blackened their faces for disguise, headed for the jail. They stormed the jail and began firing through the door. Hyrum was shot in the face. Joseph leaned over his brother and said, “Oh dear, brother Hyrum!” Joseph fired three shots through the door at the mob. John Taylor attempted to leave through the window, but was hit. One shot hit his pocket watch, another his wrist, another his left knee, and another his left hip. Joseph Smith went to the window knowing that there was no safety in staying in the room. He was shot from outside the window and killed. His body fell through the window. Willard Richards luckily only had his ear slightly grazed.
The mob ran outside to make sure Joseph was dead, while they were gone, Willard Richards hid John Taylor (who was still alive), because he was expecting the mob to return, but they did not. Joseph Smith’s brother Samuel had heard about the threats on Joseph’s life and was on his way to Carthage. He arrived that same evening and was the one who wrote the letter back to Nauvoo telling the Mormon Saints that their prophet and his brother Hyrum were dead.
Carthage Jail was used as a jail for 25 years. It was then converted into a home. The Mormon Church bought the building and property in 1903 for $4,000. Joseph F. Smith was President of the Mormon Church at the time it was purchased. The Church did not start to restore it until 1938. It is now open for tours.