The Day Joseph Smith Was Killed: A Carthage Woman’s Perspective

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Years after the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on June 27, 1844, Amanda Benton Smith, a resident of Carthage, Illinois, and non–Latter-day Saint, recorded an account of the events of that day. Twenty-eight years old and a mother of six, Amanda was the wife of Carthage Grey captain Robert F. Smith—the militia officer responsible for protecting the Latter-day Saint prisoners in Carthage jail and defending the town. In her reminiscence, Amanda describes learning of the Smiths’ deaths and draws a vivid picture of the vacant city as local citizens fled to the countryside in anticipation of the Latter-day Saints’ retaliation, which never came. This account, reproduced in full in this article, presents an alternative viewpoint articulated with courage and even a little humor. If accurate, her sketch also suggests that the leader of the Carthage Greys may not have been complicit in the attack on the jail.

Transcript

The Day Joseph Smith Was Killed 

A Carthage Woman’s Perspective

A document transcription by Alex D. Smith

It’s easy to imagine the fear and uncertainty experienced by early Latter-day Saints when Joseph Smith, their beloved prophet, was killed, but what about their neighbors? Alex D. Smith brings to light the experiences of a woman who was in Carthage when Joseph and Hyrum were martyred, offering a new perspective on the tragic event.

This reading of this document has been a clean-text rendition, meaning that all deletions, insertions, and other emendations have been silently incorporated. For an expanded transcription that preserves the original spelling and stylization, see the document on byustudies.byu.edu.

Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed on June 27, 1844, in the recently constructed jail in Carthage, Illinois. Years later, local resident Amanda Benton Smith recorded her own account of the events of that day. Twenty-eight years old and a mother of six, Amanda was the wife of Carthage Grey captain Robert F. Smith — the militia officer responsible for protecting the Latter-day Saint prisoners and defending the town. In her reminiscence, Amanda describes learning of the Smiths’ deaths and draws a vivid picture of the vacant Hancock County seat as local citizens fled to the countryside in anticipation of the Latter-day Saints’ retaliation, which never came.

An alternative viewpoint articulated with courage and even a little humor is not the only contribution of Amanda’s account. If accurate, her sketch suggests that the leader of the Carthage Greys may not have been complicit in the attack on the jail. According to Amanda’s narrative, her husband, Robert, expressed alarm and concern at the fate of the Smith brothers. If Robert had been aware of the plans to murder Joseph Smith, he did not preemptively warn his own family to leave the town as so many of their neighbors had done. Amanda’s “short sketch” helps contextualize the Smiths’ murders by providing a perspective less frequently considered in traditional Latter-day Saint narratives of the tragic day. In describing the “almost constant terror of the Mormans” she had felt for years, her anxiety over her husband’s welfare, and her desires to protect her family, Amanda gives voice to those Hancock County non–Latter-day Saints who were not involved in the deaths of the Church’s prophet and patriarch. Like the Latter-day Saints in nearby Nauvoo, Amanda felt threatened by her neighbors and sought to protect her own interests. Her story helps capture the emotions shared by Church members and non–Church members alike during the tense summer of 1844.

A separate piece of paper accompanying the manuscript contains the following typed note:

Mrs. R. F. Smith’s Story.

The enclosed manuscript is one written in her own hand by Mrs. Robert Smith, wife of Captain Robert F. Smith, commander of the Carthage Grays, telling of her “trials” on the day Joseph and Hiram Smith were killed by the mob at the Carthage jail. The Smiths at that time lived on the place we know as “Cottonwood” on Gospel Four Corners, our present home place to which Father and Mother moved in 1864.

The Baird place mentioned was later the T. C. Miller farm. Captain Miller was father of Mrs. Laura Noyes. Mrs. Gene Baird was grandmother, and her son, James was father of Robert and Alex Baird. The Metcalf place, also section 29, Carthage Township. Well-known family.

This is a very valuable manuscript, new and unpublished history of the Mormon episode. It shows the terror of the Carthage people, also that Captain Smith himself believed it possible the Mormons would rise against the Gentile inhabitants. This manuscript was given to me by a member of the Smith family.

Abigail Davidson. December 1936

Document Transcription

A short sketch of the trials of Mrs. R. F. Smith at the Killing of the Smiths, the Mormons’ Prophet

They were killed on the 27th of June 1844. That day I was unusually depressed and out of sorts—had been living in almost constant terror of the Mormons for years and never knew from day to day and hardly from one hour to another, what dreadful catastrophe would happen, and when the runner reached me, about half past two P. M., that a mob had collected on the prairie a few miles out and were on the road to Carthage, some thought they were Mormons coming to liberate the Smiths from jail and would destroy the town and everything in it. My neighbors began to make preparations to leave their homes with their families, and the part of town where I lived was soon entirely deserted but myself.

My husband was Captain of the Captain of the Carthage Greys. He had not been at home a single night for two weeks. He, with his men, had been keeping guard of the town day and night all that time. Everything seemed so gloomy at home, but I thought I would not give way to my feelings. So I dressed my six little children in clean frocks and put the baby in his little wagon and sent them to visit a friend of mine just one block away. An hour or so after I had sent them away, I heard the firing of many guns. I got up from my chair to go to the front door but was powerless to move for a minute or so. When I became conscious, there was a Mormon girl who lived in the neighborhood standing in the door. I was holding on to the back of my chair, and she was ringing her hands and saying “Oh my God. Mrs. Smith, they are shooting the men down at the Jail and throwing them out of the window.”

I soon collected my senses, and my first thought was of my absent children, and I started to bring them home. By that time the mob had scattered and were all over the town. I met one of them but did not know him as he was disguised, but he knew me and told me what had occurred. That was the first I knew of the truth, who had been killed, etc. I got my little children together and went back home, hoping I might find my husband there, but was disappointed. There was not a soul stirring in that part of the town.

Then I started down to the headquarters, on the square, as it was called, to inquire for my husband. The officer in command there told me that my husband had been ordered by Governor Ford to guard the town and that I would find him down at the jail. I went there but had not the courage to enter the building, so sent a little boy who was standing there in to tell Captain Smith that his wife was outside and would like to see him. I was getting very anxious, as it was getting towards evening, to know our fate for the coming night. My husband came to me but was full of trouble and worry over the terrible ending of the prisoners and did not have many comforting words for his wife and children. He told me that his duties were such that it was impossible for him to leave there and for me to go back home and he would send word to a friend up in town that had a team and wagon to call for us and take us to the house of an old friend about four miles out in the country. the friend came with his team soon after I got home so I had no time to get supper for my children but started at once. I felt as though I would never want food for myself, again.

There was another family in the wagon, and some of their household goods, which made quite a heavy load as well as a crowded one. They intended stopping at a place a mile nearer town than I was going to. Mrs. Baird a widow and her son lived there, and on quite a high hill. There was a creek at the foot of the hill, and the rise was quite steep. Just as we got across the creek, the wagon broke down and could not be repaired at that time and place. We could do nothing else but get out and walk up the hill to Mrs. Bairds. I was not much acquainted with her, but the lady who started to go there was and we all got a very cool reception. She said she did not see why folks did not stay at home like she did. She also said her Jimmie had slept on the floor three nights before we got there. I told her that I did not go there to stay, but intended to go to the next farmhouse. She told me it was a mile and a half to go the main road, but only one-half mile to go across and a good “coo” path all the way.

By that time, the sun had set and the full moon had arisen. I once more started with my six little children for Mrs. Metcalfs, where I knew, if I could only get there, my whole family would be welcome. My eldest child, Emma, was a little over eight years old, and the youngest of the six was only fifteen months old and had to be carried. We walked and stumbled across a large field and finally came to a wide creek, which I knew nothing about nor where to find  the crossing. The children were getting very tired and sleepy and hungry. It was a study for me to know how we were to get across the creek. Finally I  helped Emma across by stepping on tall grass and flags that grew from one side to the other and often would step into holes over shoe top in water.

After helping and carrying each child across separately, we had quite a long, steep hill to climb. My children were so worn out with fatigue and hunger that they fell down often and wanted to go to sleep right there. It was long after their usual hour of going to bed. We were all in such a helpless plight, I felt as though I could not go much farther myself. After walking slowly and almost driving the children along, we got to the top of the hill. It was a very clear moonlight night, and in the distance, I could see the house. Everything seemed so still and not a sound of anything to be heard. For the first time, through all the trouble, I felt afraid but could not tell why. We finally reached the house and found it deserted, but the latch string was out for any friend who happened along.

The first thing I did after entering the house was to kindle a fire. Wood and kindling was left on the hearth of the large fireplace, and fire covered over so that it was an easy matter to start a blaze. I then took a survey of the place and found a broad trundle bed in bedroom and a bedstead all in order in living room. The first thing was to prepare my little ones for bed. There was not a dry stitch of clothing on one of them. The dew was very heavy and the grass in some places higher than their heads. We were all as wet as if we had been dipped in the river. I could not find dry clothes to put on them, so had to put them to bed without any, and they were all asleep in a short time.

I began to look around for a dress for myself but could not find a garment of any kind but a coarse, heavy shirt that Mrs. Metcalf had just finished for her fifteen-year-old son. I took off my dress and put that on. Then I made a rousing fire and hung all the children’s wet clothing around it to dry. I was very nervous and frightened all the time I was in the house. I began to realize all at once that I had a severe headache and was sick enough to die, I thought. I laid down on the side of the bed, but before I could compose myself, I heard a dog bark and shortly Mr. Metcalf and our family doctor, Doctor Evens, came in.

We were made more than welcome by Mr. Metcalf. They had traveled a long distance and were very hungry and wanted to know if I could get them something to eat. There was nothing prepared for an emergency of that kind. Could not find anything in the pantry but corn meal and a large panful of sour cream. I stirred up a corn cake as soon as I could and put it to bake and made a pot of coffee and set the table. By that time, I was too sick to stand up another minute. The doctor made me lie down again, and he and Mr. Metcalf finished getting their supper, etc. There being no timepiece of any kind, I did not know what time of night it was, but think it must have been near midnight. After they finished their supper, they got me all stirred up again by saying they were going to town. I begged so hard to go with them, but it was all in vain.

Soon after they left, refugees from town kept coming in till the house was full, and all brought word of what terrible revenge the Mormons were going to take on the Carthage people for killing the Smiths. they were frightened and believed all the stories they heard, and surely there never was a more exciting time. In about an hour after the doctor and Mr. Metcalf went to town, Dr. Evens came back in great haste with his horse buggy and said he wanted three of my children to take to Augusta and that my husband would be there for me and the rest of the children in half an hour. I hesitated about getting the children ready for their clothes were not near dry yet, and I told the doctor I could not put damp clothes on them for fear of making them sick. He did not stop to discuss the question at all but told another person to hand him out three of the children, and they were only partly dressed—two little boys and my second daughter, Louisa. One of the little boys had no pants on at all. The doctor stopped at the next house and got a quilt to wrap the children in. He took them safely through to Augusta in that plight. A near and dear friend of mine took them in and cared for them till she had an opportunity to send them home again.

Soon after the doctor left, a big wagon drove up filled full of household goods, women, and children. The gentlemen members of the tribe were walking and carrying their firearms. When I saw how crowded the wagon was, I did not want to go. I was so near worn out—I told my husband I would about as soon die right there as to go any further, but I had to go, and myself and my three youngest children were helped up on an already overloaded wagon, and to make matters worse for me, there was a very old lady lying on a bed near where I was sitting, and she had several fits and seemed to suffer greatly, but none of her people seemed to pay her any attention, but I witnessed it all, and I expect I suffered more than she did.

After we had traveled a mile or so, it began to get daylight, and after traveling a few miles further, we stopped and got breakfast camp fashion. After breakfast, we started again on our journey, hoping to reach Augusta by noon. But after traveling several miles, we discovered one of the horses was lame and about to give out. We were near Crooked Creek, which was full of water, and quite a steep hill on the other side. While the men were discussing whether we had better try to cross the creek and up the hill with the lame horse, an old resident that once lived in Carthage came along and said he lived nearby and insisted that we should go to his house and stay until we could find out if it was necessary to go further on. I was sure he was a good friend in need and was glad that his kind invitation was accepted.

When we got to the house, we found many old acquaintances and neighbors, some from Carthage and some from other places. They were very busy getting dinner. I asked one who belonged to the house if I could have a quiet room where I could lie down without being disturbed for a while. The lady took me to a cool, pleasant room and done all she could for my comfort. I was so exhausted, I could have slept on a rock pile but felt so thankful that I could have a quiet once more. I slept till after three P. M., then got up, arraigned my toilet the best I could under the circumstances. Kind friends in the meantime took care of my children. I was invited to the dining room, and after taking a good cup of coffee and other refreshments, I soon began to feel more like myself. While talking to some of the ladies, I saw they kept smiling and were very much amused at something about me and at last they broke out in one voice” “Mrs. Smith, do tell us what kind of a garment you have on.” And to my utter astonishment, I still had that boy’s shirt on that I put on while trying to dry my dress, and in the hurry and confusion of getting ready to start, I put my dress on & forgot to take off the shirt. I must have been a comical looking sight indeed,  and when I come to think of it at this late date, I wonder how I got my dress fastened over it.

About five P. M. of the same day, a messenger from Carthage brought us word that everything was quiet and that the dead bodies of the Smiths had been taken to Nauvoo. There were only a few people in town, and they did not apprehend any danger at that time from the Mormons. My husband and two other gentlemen hired a team and carriage, and we went back to Carthage that night. It was several days before the children that went to Augusta got home. The little girl enjoyed it so much she wanted to know how soon we were going again.

About the author

Alex D. Smith is a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has coedited six volumes in the Journals and Documents series and is currently editing the Nauvoo journals of William Clayton.

This is an audio production of BYU Studies, read for you by Joseph Sandholtz and Clara Wright. BYU Studies publishes scholarship informed by the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. For more information and access to articles, essays, and more, visit byustudies.byu.edu.