June 27, 2022

The Murder of Joseph Smith

The Murder of Joseph Smith

June 27, 1844. Self-styled prophet and founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, is murdered by an angry mob. *** Get an exclusive NordPass deal plus 1 additional month for FREE at nordpass.com/historydaily


Cold Open

It’s June 27th, 1844.

On a midsummer’s evening in Carthage, Illinois, an armed mob marches across a field toward a jailhouse. Among them, a man named John Wills grips his musket and glowers menacingly as he creeps through the tall grass.

When the mob reaches the jailhouse, they surround the entrance. John wipes sweat from his brow as another mob member named Levi emerges from the crowd. Levi steps forward… and pounds his fist against the jailhouse door.

The jailer squints out from the crack in the door at the large mob. But before he can speak – Levi shoves the jailer aside and shouts: “Rush in, boys!”

John and the rest of the mob charge inside, spread out, and begin searching. 

John climbs a flight of stairs followed by two of his fellow mob members. When they reach a locked door… John shoots off the lock and pushes the door open.

Then he and his cohorts rush down a corridor toward another door at the far end of the hall. John kicks it down. Inside, he finds the two men he’s looking for: Joseph Smith, the founder of a controversial religious group called the Mormons; and Joseph’s brother, Hyrum.

Seeing John and his smoking musket… Joseph and Hyrum retreat to the back of the room, their eyes wide with fear. The brothers were recently arrested for mobilizing a Mormon militia to violently defend their community. But for John and the rest of the mob, it’s not enough that the Smith brothers have been jailed. John and the mob want them dead.

John begins loading his musket. But before he can ready his weapon, Joseph Smith produces a pistol, one his friend slipped him earlier in the day. Joseph takes aim… and fires three times at his assailants.

John staggers backward, clutching his bleeding shoulder.

Then John’s cohorts rush past him, aim their weapons… and fire. 

After being driven out of New York, Ohio, and Missouri, Joseph Smith and his followers eventually settled in Illinois. But as the leader of a rapidly growing religious sect, Joseph made many enemies within the local community; enemies who became suspicious of Joseph’s increasing power and influence.

Eventually, tensions escalated, and Joseph Smith called up a militia to protect himself and his followers. Not long after, authorities arrested Joseph and his brother, along with two other Mormon men, and put them in jail, where the two brothers were later killed.

The mob hoped that Joseph’s death would spell the end of the Mormon Church. But his murder will have the opposite effect; it will inspire a wave of Mormons to travel across the country in search of a new place of refuge. They will discover that place fifteen hundred miles away, in Utah. There, they will establish a home for their burgeoning religion and follow the teachings of Joseph Smith, whose short life came to an end on June 27th, 1844.  


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is June 27th, 1844: The Murder of Joseph Smith.

Act One: Golden Plates

It’s June 1818; twenty-six years before Joseph Smith’s murder.

On the outskirts of Palmyra, in upstate New York, a 12-year-old Joseph Smith stands at the back of a large congregation. At the front of the crowd, a preacher delivers a sermon, his sonorous voice booming from the pulpit. Joseph watches as members of the congregation fall to their knees, throw up their arms; and speak in tongues. But Joseph isn’t moved like his fellow worshippers. Instead, he’s confused.

In 1818, America is in the grips of a spiritual transformation; a collective surge of religious zeal known as the Second Great Awakening. During the 1700s, the predominant type of Christianity in America was Puritanism, which emphasizes the idea that humanity is inherently sinful and that no one can attain salvation except through God’s mercy. But the 1790s brought change to the Christian faith in America. Partly inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution, many people of faith started gravitating away from Puritanism, and toward a new type of Christianity that emphasized individual liberty, free will, and self-determination.

Evangelicals, as they’re called, maintain that anyone can attain salvation through hard work and personal piety and that an emotional connection to God is more important than an intellectual understanding of the Bible. Evangelical preachers are often laymen who travel from town to town, delivering rousing sermons like the one Joseph is watching today.

Joseph’s mother, like many people in this poor, undereducated area, have embraced Evangelicalism. She often brings Joseph to gatherings like this one, but the young boy finds himself incapable of participating. He isn’t convinced the message delivered by these roaming, Evangelical preachers is the true word of God. And back at home, while his father claims to experience divine visions, all Joseph has are bad dreams.

As time passes, and as Joseph grows older, he begins to worry that his life lacks spiritual meaning and that it always will. He yearns for a divine purpose and a consequential destiny.

But as the Second Great Awakening continues to sweep America, the climate of religious nonconformism will make many people hungry for radical new ideas; cultivating the conditions in which a new American religion can rise; and with it, a brand new American prophet. 


It’s May 1830.

Joseph Smith stands inside a chapel in Fayette, New York. Assembled before him is a small congregation. They look at Joseph the way people in his mother’s church used to look at the roaming preachers. And Joseph swells with pride. Clutched in his hands is a book, newly printed and bound in dark leather, its title emblazoned in gold-lettered script: The Book of Mormon.

Joseph begins a sermon, explaining to his followers the story behind the book. He proclaims that three years ago while praying on a hillside outside Palmyra, he was visited by an angel named Moroni. Moroni entrusted Joseph with the written record of an extraordinary tale.

In the chapel, Joseph recounts the story of an ancient tribe of Israelites who sailed to America 600 years before Christ was born. Then, Joseph explains that in the 4th century AD, a prophet and historian named Mormon engraved the written records of his people on a set of golden plates. Joseph tells the congregation that Mormon’s son, Moroni, buried those plates on this very hillside in upstate New York. Joseph also tells them that when Moroni appeared to him, he instructed Joseph to dig up those plates, translate them into English, and form a new religion based on their teachings.

Amazed whispers ripple through the chapel.

Last month, Joseph established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the followers of which will come to be known as Mormons. Soon, Joseph begins to spread his new religion. He opens branches in several towns across New York, and before long, the Church has amassed hundreds of supporters. But as Mormonism grows, so too will opposition from local townspeople, who believe Joseph Smith is nothing but a crook, a conman, and a gold-digger; and they will stop at nothing until this self-proclaimed prophet has been brought back down to earth.

Act Two: Milk and Honey  

It’s March 24th, 1832; 12 years before Joseph Smith is murdered.

In the dark hours of the morning, Joseph Smith sleeps alongside his wife, Emma, in their home in Kirtland, Ohio.

Not long after establishing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York, Joseph and his followers were made to feel unwelcome. Hostile townsfolk hurled abuse at them in the streets, suspicious of this new Church and its charismatic leader. So, Joseph decided to relocate his congregation to a new home, promising them a place of “great riches… overflowing with milk and honey.” That “promised land” turned out to be Kirtland, Ohio.

In 1830, Joseph established a new headquarters here in Kirtland. With the help of Sidney Rigdon, a local minister and new convert to Mormonism, the church has acquired several hundred more followers.

But not everybody has taken kindly to Joseph’s preaching. Some townsfolk in Kirtland are intrigued by his extraordinary claims. But others are scornful of Joseph’s assertion that he speaks directly to God, others even accuse him of having extra-marital affairs. They feel Joseph is a false prophet and a malignant influence on their community. 

But here in house, late at night, Joseph is fast asleep until he's roused by the sound of a floorboard creaking. Blearily, he sits up and discovers that his bedroom is filled with dark, shadowy shapes. Before he can cry out, Joseph feels a hand clamp over his mouth. Then several more hands grasp at his arms and legs. He is quickly hauled out of bed and dragged downstairs. Joseph kicks and thrashes – but it’s no use. A burly arm tightens around his neck, squeezing the air from his lungs, until he loses consciousness.

When Joseph wakes, he finds himself sprawled naked in the street, covered in hot tar and feathers. Wincing in pain, Joseph staggers to his feet and limps home. By the time his friends have scraped off the sticky substance, Joseph’s skin is raw and blistered.

But Joseph survives the attack even more determined to preach the word of Mormonism. The new religion continues to spread and grow in size, until by 1837, the Church has over 16,000 members, mostly spread around Missouri and Ohio. Joseph is well on his way to establishing what he calls a heavenly utopia -  a “City of Zion” - in which he allegedly rules as God’s earth-bound prophet.

But in spite of the rapid growth, the church is riddled with financial problems. After building a new temple in Kirtland and expanding to other cities, the Mormons are short on cash and deep in debt. So Joseph comes up with a solution: he decides to start his own bank and print his own banknotes.

Printing money isn’t unheard of in America at this time, because the country still doesn’t have standardized currency. Still, in Ohio, every banking institution is required to seek approval from the state legislature before going into business. When Joseph applies, he fails to secure a state charter. But he doesn’t wait for approval; he buys engraving plates and presses on. In January of 1837, he officially opens the Kirtland Safety Society Bank and starts printing money to pay off his creditors.

The enterprise is a success. In fact, so many townspeople borrow money from the bank, the city of Kirtland experiences a brief economic boom. But within weeks, the United States economy spirals into a financial disaster caused by excessive speculation; a crisis known as the Panic of 1837. Fearing a complete economic collapse, people in Kirtland rush to the bank to cash in their bills for hard currency. But they soon discover that the Mormon bank is insolvent. And many townspeople feel they’ve been duped, and they’re angry.

In January of 1838, local authorities issue a warrant for Joseph’s arrest on charges of operating the bank without a state charter. Soon, an angry mob forms determined to bring Joseph to justice. But instead of facing down the mob, Joseph decides to flee Kirtland with his followers.

Joseph reassures his people that their misfortune is all part of God’s plan. He tells them that he recently received a commandment from God, telling him to establish his Holy Kingdom in a different place: Missouri. And before long, Joseph sets up a new Church headquarters there, and thousands of Ohio Mormons flood across the border to join their fellow Mormons in Missouri. But eventually, local residents there complain about being overrun by members of this strange, new religious group. And once again, tensions escalate into violence, forcing Joseph Smith and his acolytes to flee their new-found home.

Having left Ohio and Missouri, the Mormons finally settle in Hancock County, Illinois. There, they set up headquarters in Commerce, a town on the Mississippi River, which Joseph renames Nauvoo. Taking pity on the ostracized group, the Illinois state legislature will pass a decree called the Nauvoo Charter, authorizing the Mormons to establish independent courts, a university, and even a militia. But as the Mormon colony grows stronger, so too will the forces of opposition, sending Joseph Smith down a path that will lead to his murder.

Act Three: Murder in Carthage

It’s June 7th, 1844; three weeks before Joseph Smith’s murder.

Joseph sits in his study in the Mormon headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois. As he reads an article in the local paper, his brow creases with concern.

The newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, has been printed by a group of dissident Mormons, who decided to leave the Church after becoming disillusioned with Joseph’s teachings: especially the new and highly secretive Mormon doctrine of polygamy, the practice of men having multiple wives. The newspaper argues that “Joseph Smith has too much power”, and that “polygamy is whoredom in disguise.”

Joseph seethes. He knows that many people around Illinois are highly suspicious of him. With over 25,000 members in his Church, they believe the power is going to his head. Recently, Joseph petitioned Congress to make Nauvoo an independent, self-governing territory. When Congress refused, Joseph declared his intention to run for President of the United States. Joseph knows that as his stature grows, more people will want to bring him down. But the last thing he wants is a dissident newspaper fanning the flames of jealousy and fear.

So Joseph orders the Mormon militia to take action. On June 10th, the militia enters the offices of the Nauvoo Expositorand destroys its printing press.  Many citizens of Hancock County are outraged. Three days later, they gather in the town of Carthage and write a petition to Illinois governor Thomas Ford, asking him to arrest Joseph Smith for inciting mob violence. Governor Ford obliges. Days later, he arrives in Carthage flanked by a force of state militia.

Joseph contemplates fleeing yet again. He even crosses the Mississippi River into Iowa, but soon decides to turn back. He’s spent too much of his life on the run from persecution. So instead, he decides to stand firm and argue his case in court. On June 23rd, Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, ride into Carthage and hand themselves over to the authorities.

But Joseph and Hyrum will never see their day in court. On June 27th, an angry mob of Carthage townsfolk will break into the jail. Hyrum will be shot and killed instantly. Joseph will attempt to escape, scrambling through a back window, before being shot as he falls to the ground.

The angry mob hoped that by killing Joseph Smith, they would eradicate Mormonism. But instead, Joseph will be replaced as leader by one of his followers, a man named Brigham Young.

Young will lead a vast majority of the ostracized Mormons from Illinois on a dangerous, fifteen hundred-mile odyssey across the continent, until eventually, they arrive in Utah, establishing the official home of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City – where it still thrives today.

This dramatic early history of the Mormons is filled with violence, intolerance, and scandal. But the Church defied the odds and survived to become one of America’s largest religious minorities; an achievement reached in spite of the killing of the Church’s founder on June 27th, 1844.


Next onHistory Daily.June 28th, 1914: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, puts Europe on the path to war.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.