Volume 7 Chapter 5 | BYU Studies

Volume 7 Chapter 5


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Chapter 5

Political Considerations of the Period Following the Death of the Prophet—"Trial" of the Murderers—Status of Civil Government in Hancock County

"Another election was to come off in August, 1844, for members of congress, and for the legislature; and an election was pending throughout the nation for a president of the United States. The war of party was never more fierce and terrible than during the pendency of these elections. The parties in many places met separately almost every night; not to argue the questions in dispute, but to denounce, ridicule abuse, and belittle each other, with sarcasm, clamor, noise, and songs, during which nothing could be heard but hallooing, hurrahing, and yelling, and then to disperse through town, with insulting taunts and yells of defiance on either side.

Political Fanaticism of the anti-Mormon Party.

In all this they were but little less fanatical and frantic on the subject of politics, than were the Mormons about religion. Such a state of excitement could not fail to operate unfavorably upon the Mormon question, involved as it was in the questions of party politics, by the former votes of the Mormons. As a means of allaying excitement, and making the question more manageable, I was most anxious that the Mormons should not vote at this election, and strongly advised them against doing so.

Political Course of Col. E. D. Taylor—Democrat.

But Colonel E. D. Taylor went to their city a few days before the election, and the Mormons, being ever disposed to follow the worst advice they could get, were induced by him and others to vote for all the democratic candidates. Colonel Taylor found them very hostile to the governor, and on that account much disposed not to vote at this election. The leading whig anti-Mormons, believing that I had an influence over the Mormons, for the purpose of destroying it had assured them that the governor had planned and been favorable to the murder of their Prophet and Patriarch. The Mormons pretended to suspect that the governor had given some countenance to the murder, or at least had neglected to take the proper precautions to prevent it. And yet it is strange that at this same election, they elected General Deming to be the sheriff of the county, when they knew that he had first called out the militia against them, had concurred with me in all the measures subsequently adopted, had been left in command at Carthage during my absence at Nauvoo, and had left his post when he saw that he had no power to prevent the murders. As to myself, I shared the fate of all men in high places, who favor moderation, who see that both parties in the frenzy of their excitement are wrong—espousing the cause of neither; which fate always is to be hated by both parties. But Colonel Taylor, like a skillful politician, denied nothing, but gave countenance to everything the Mormons said of the governor; and by admitting to them that the governor was a great rascal; by promising them the support of the democratic party, an assurance he was not authorized to make, but which they were foolish enough to believe, and by insisting that the governor was not the democratic party, he overcame their reluctance to vote. Nevertheless, for mere political effect, without a shadow of justice, the whig leaders and newspapers everywhere, and some enemies in the democratic ranks, immediately charged this vote of the Mormons to the governor's influence; and this charge being believed by many, made the anti-Mormon party more famous than ever in favor of the expulsion of the Mormons.

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A Proposed "Wolf Hunt".

In the course of the fall of 1844, the anti-Mormon leaders sent printed invitations to all the militia captains in Hancock, and to the captains of militia in all the neighboring counties in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, to be present with their companies at a great wolf hunt in Hancock; and it was privately announced that the wolves to be hunted were the Mormons and Jack-Mormons. Preparations were made for assembling several thousand men, with provisions for six days; and the anti-Mormon newspapers, in aid of the movement, commenced anew the most awful accounts of thefts and robberies, and meditated outrages by the Mormons. The whig press in every part of the United States, came to their assistance. The democratic newspapers and leading democrats, who had received the benefit of the Mormon votes to their party, quailed under the tempest, leaving no organ for the correction of public opinion, either at home or abroad, except the discredited Mormon newspaper at Nauvoo. But very few of my prominent democratic friends would dare to come up to the assistance of their governor, and but few of them dared openly to vindicate his motives in endeavoring to keep the peace. They were willing and anxious for Mormon votes at elections, but they were unwilling to risk their popularity with the people, by taking a part in their favor, even when law and justice, and the Constitution, were all on their side. Such being the odious character of the Mormons, the hatred of the common people against them, and such being the pusillanimity of leading men, in fearing to encounter it.

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In this state of the case I applied to Brigadier-General J. J. Hardin, of the state militia, and to Colonels Baker and Merriman, all whigs, but all of them men of military ambition, and they, together with Colonel William Weatherford, a democrat 1 with my own exertions, succeeded in raising about five hundred volunteers; and thus did these whigs, that which my own political friends, with two or three exceptions, were slow to do, from a sense of duty and gratitude.

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Wolf Hunt Dispersed.

With this little force under the command of General Hardin, I arrived in Hancock county on the 25th of September. The malcontents abandoned their design, and all the leaders of it fled to Missouri. The Carthage Greys fled almost in a body, carrying their arms along with them. During our stay in the county the anti-Mormons thronged into the camp, and conversed freely with the men, who were fast infected with their prejudices, and it was impossible to get any of the officers to aid in expelling them. Colonels Baker, Merriman and Weatherford, volunteered their services if I would go with them, to cross with a force into Missouri, to capture three of the anti-Mormon leaders, for whose arrest writs had been issued for the murder of the Smiths. To this I assented, and procured a boat, which was sent down in the night, and secretly landed a mile above Warsaw. Our little force arrived at that place about noon; that night were to cross to Missouri at Churchville, and seize the accused there encamped with a number of their friends; but that afternoon Colonel Baker visited the hostile encampment, and on his return refused to participate in the expedition, and advised all his friends against joining it. There was no authority for compelling the men to invade a neighboring state, and for this cause, much to the vexation of myself and several others, the matter fell through.

The Accused Murderers of the Prophet Dictate their Own Terms of Surrender.

It seems that Colonel Baker had already partly arranged the terms for the accused to surrender. They were to be taken to Quincy for examination under a military guard; the attorney for the people was to be advised to admit them to bail, and they were to be entitled to a continuance of their trial at the next court at Carthage; upon this, two of the accused came over and surrendered themselves prisoners.

But at that time I was held responsible for this compromise with the murderers. The truth is, that I had but little of the moral power to command in this expedition. Officers, men, and all under me, were so infected with the anti-Mormon prejudices that I was made to feel severely the want of moral power to control them. It would be thought very strange in any other government that the administration should have the power to direct, but no power to control. By the Constitution the governor can neither appoint nor remove a militia officer. He may arrest and order a court martial. But a court martial composed of military officers, elected in times of peace, in many cases upon the same principles upon which Colonel Pluck was elected in New York City, is not likely to pay much attention to executive wishes in opposition to popular excitement. So, too, in Illinois, the governor has no power to appoint, remove, or in anywise control sheriffs, justices of the peace, nor even a constable; and yet the active cooperation of such officers with the executive, is indispensable to the success of any effort the governor may take to suppress civil war. If anyone supposes that the greatest amount of talents will enable anyone to govern under such circumstances, he is mistaken. It may be thought that the governor ought to create a public sentiment in favor of his measures, to sway the minds of those under him to his own course, but if anyone supposes that even the greatest abilities could succeed in such an effort against popular feeling, and against the inherent love of numerous demagogues for popularity, he is again mistaken.

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Governor Ford's Pledge of Safety to the Prophet Admitted

Determination of the Governor to Have the Ringleaders of the Murderers of the Prophet and Patriarch Tried.

I had determined from the first that some of the ringleaders in the foul murder of the Smiths should be brought to trial. If these men had been the incarnation of satan himself, as was believed by many, their murder was a foul and treacherous action, alike disgraceful to those who perpetrated the crime, to the state, and to the governor, whose word had been pledged for the protection of the prisoners in jail, and which had been so shamefully violated; and required that the most vigorous means should be used to bring the assassins to punishment. As much as anything else the expedition under General Hardin had been ordered with a view to arrest the murderers.

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Accordingly, I employed able lawyers to hunt up the testimony, procure indictments, and prosecute the offenders. A trial was had before Judge Young in the summer of 1845. The sheriff and panel of jurors, selected by the Mormon court, were set aside for prejudice, and elisors were appointed to select a new jury. One friend of the Mormons and one anti-Mormon were appointed for this purpose; but as more than a thousand men had assembled under arms at the court, to keep away the Mormons and their friends, the jury was made up of these military followers of the court, who all swore that they had never formed or expressed any opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the accused. The Mormons had one principal witness, who was with the troops at Warsaw, had marched with them until they were disbanded, heard their consultations, went before them to Carthage, and saw them murder the Smiths. But before the trial came on, they had induced him to become a Mormon; and being much more anxious for the glorification of the Prophet than to avenge his death, the leading Mormons made him publish a pamphlet giving an account of the murder; in which he professed to have seen a bright and shining light descend upon the head of Joe Smith, to strike some of the conspirators with blindness, and that he heard supernatural voices in the air confirming his mission as a Prophet! Having published this in a book, he was compelled to swear to it in court, which of course destroyed the credit of his evidence. This witness was afterwards expelled from the Mormons, but no doubt they will cling to his evidence in favor of the divine mission of the Prophet. 2

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The—"Trial!" The State of the Court

Many other witnesses were examined, who knew the facts, but under the influence of the demoralization of faction, denied all knowledge of them. It has been said, that faction may find men honest, but it scarcely ever leaves them so. This was verified to the letter in the history of the Mormon quarrel. The accused were all acquitted.

During the progress of these trials, the judge was compelled to permit the courthouse to be filled and surrounded by armed bands, who attended court to browbeat and overawe the administration of justice. The judge himself was in a duress, and informed me that he did not consider his life secure any part of the time. The consequence was, that the crowd had everything their own way; the lawyers for the defense defended their clients by a long and elaborate attack on the governor; the armed mob stamped with their feet and yelled their approbation at every sarcastic and smart thing that was said; and the judge was not only forced to hear it, but to lend it a kind of approval. Josiah Lamborn was attorney for the prosecution; and O. H. Browning, O. C. Skinner, Calvin A. Warren, and William A. Richardson, were for the defense.

Nauvoo Authorities Acquitted for Destruction of Expositer Press.

At the next term, the leading Mormons were tried and acquitted for the destruction of the heretical press. It appears that, not being interested in objecting to the sheriff or the jury selected by a court elected by themselves, they in their turn got a favorable jury determined upon acquittal, and yet the Mormon jurors all swore that they had formed no opinion as to the guilt or innocence of their accused friends. It appeared that the laws furnished the means of suiting each party with a jury. The Mormons could have a Mormon jury to be tried by, selected by themselves; and the anti-Mormons, by objecting to the sheriff and regular panel, could have one from the anti-Mormons. From henceforth no leading man on either side could be arrested without the aid of an army, as the men of one party could not safely surrender to the other for fear of being murdered; when arrested by a military force the Constitution prohibited a trial in any other county without the consent of the accused. No one would be convicted of any crime in Hancock; and this put an end to the administration of the criminal law in that distracted county. Government was at an end there, and the whole community were delivered up to the dominion of a frightful anarchy. If the whole state had been in the same condition, then indeed would have been verified to the letter what was said by a wit, when he expressed an opinion that the people were neither capable of governing themselves nor of being governed by others. And truly there can be no government in a free country where the people do not voluntarily obey the laws." 3

Chapter 5.

1. Of the officers who were out with me in this expedition, General Hardin, Colonels Baker and Weatherford, and Major Warren, afterwards greatly distinguished themselves in the Mexican War. Ford.

2. The witness here referred to was one Wm. M. Daniels, and he is doubtless worthy of all the scorn that Governor Ford here heaps upon him. But the "Mormons" do not "cling to his evidence in favor of the divine mission of the Prophet" since they concede the unreasonableness of his testimony as also the testimony of one Benjamin Brackenbury, as will be seen by the treatment of the testimony of these witnesses in The Comprehensive History of the Church, Century 1, vol. 2, ch. 60, pp. 324-6, notes 14-15. B. H. R.

3. Ford's History of Illinois, pp. 354-369.