William the Unloved was the last surviving brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, hanging on nearly five decades more than the rest. I always feel a little sorry for William, since nobody liked him and nobody remembers him at all fondly.
We went to visit William’s grave a couple months ago and he will mark the first entry in a feature I’m calling “Cemetourism.” I inherited the cemetery gene from my mother and her mother. My uncles say of my grandmother (with a groan!) that she can never pass by a cemetery without wanting to stop and hunt for ancestors. I share those inklings. As we travel around the country, we like to stop and look for graves, either of ancestors, Mormon history figures, or U.S. presidents and vice presidents, along with their defeated rival candidates for both offices. (Yes, I’ve been to the graves of Alben Barkley, Hannibal Hamlin, and Wendell Willkie!)
You won’t find William Smith’s grave by accident. His final resting place is really off in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, and we got there only thanks to instructions from our friends and fellow researchers, Erin Jennings and Michael Marquardt. Visiting is convenient, pretty much only if you’re doing a river tour of the upper Mississippi (as we were). William lies in Bethel Cemetery, just south of the town of Osterdock on Osterdock Rd., which is County Road X47 (see map). The cemetery is small, so the grave is fairly easy to find. As you enter the gate, William lies to the rear and left of the small church.
William was the sixth of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith’s nine children to live to adulthood, and he was the fifth of six sons. As his tombstone indicates, he was born at Royalton, Vermont, on March 13, 1811. Although not one of the official Eight Witnesses to the plates, William claimed to be an unofficial witness. Late in life he recalled, “I was permitted to lift them as they laid in a pillow-case; but not to see them, as it was contrary to the commands” his brother Joseph had received. William was baptized on June 9, 1830, and Dan Vogel estimates that he was the 34th member of the church.
Siblings are interesting. I’m the eldest of five children; I have three sisters and one brother. None of us are the same, but if you know us and look closely, we all seem to have the same mix of ingredients in different proportions. I tend to see something similar in the Smith boys. Alvin clearly had some of the same qualities that Joseph possessed. Before Alvin died, Joseph and the others seemed to be in the shadow of the charismatic, responsible, eldest son.[*] When Alvin died, it wasn’t the second son Hyrum who became leader. Just two years younger than Alvin, Hyrum had more the personality of a middle, peace-maker child. Rather, it was the third son Joseph Jr. — seven years younger than Alvin and eldest of the next clump of children — who came to the fore. Samuel and Don Carlos, like Hyrum seem ever supportive of Joseph. William, by contrast, was a problem. And my gut feeling is that William’s problem was that, like Alvin, he was the brother most like Joseph — both were creative, energetic (even pugnacious); both had big egos and big personalities. But unlike Joseph, who buried Alvin’s shadow early on, William never was able to seize the spotlight as his own (try and try though he might). And at the end of the day, Joseph had the capacity to do something terrible and still have people forgive him and love him. Whatever ingredient made this true for Joseph, it was never true for William. Nobody loved William.
William was ordained to be one of the original Twelve Apostles of the Restoration by the Three Witnesses on February 15, 1835. He wasn’t their first choice, but Joseph insisted. Ever thereafter, his relationship with his fellow apostles proved rocky. In Nauvoo, Joseph hoped to turn William’s often nasty temperament to good ends by making William editor of the church’s political newspaper, The Wasp. William also served Nauvoo as elected representative to the Illinois General Assembly.
After the deaths of his three remaining brothers Joseph, Hyrum, and Samuel in 1844, William claimed the office of Presiding Patriarch/Evangelist of the church. This anomalous position had been created for Joseph Smith Sr., who passed it on his deathbed to his eldest living son Hyrum. As sole surviving son of Joseph Sr., William successfully argued to his fellow apostles that the Patriarchate was his “by right” of lineage. Once ordained, William was immediately prolific in giving blessings. In his Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volume, Michael Marquardt includes over 300 of William’s blessings given in less than a six-month period. William’s tone and content differ greatly from the blessings conferred by Hyrum. Often his inspiration verged on the scriptural, as in his prophecy to Abigail Abbott:
One of thy posterity named after the name of his father…shall be a mighty warrior, and be led on to avenge the blood of the Prophets and Patriarchs, he shall lead a mighty people from the wilderness and one mighty among them who shall be also a mighty warrior by the name of Nishcosh, he shall be a descendent of one of the name of Nimrod, who was also a descendant of that Nimrod, who was a mighty hunter in the days of old, by way of the Jaredites upon this country, who founded a city and called it the city of Gnoalum, this city now lying in ruins the wreck of which only appears as the last descriptive monument of a people that has fallen, and the remnants of whom have become barbarous, wild and uncultivated.
Prolific and scriptural as his blessing might have been, William quickly clashed with his fellow apostles over the scope of his new position. Rather than call William “Patriarch of the Church,” Brigham Young insisted William was “Patriarch to the Church.” Unwilling to compromise, William insisted he was now “Patriarch over the Church.” It was a power struggle William was doomed to lose and by October 1845, the patriarch was forced to flee Nauvoo, prepositions and all. After toying with founding his own Mormon church organization, William investigated the claims of James J. Strang, who was quickly becoming Brigham Young’s most significant rival for church leadership. Pragmatically, William was willing to recognize Strang as Church President, so long as Strang, in turn, recognized William as “Presiding Patriarch over the Whole Church.” It was a deal both could make.
This union also did not last. William had long been practicing celestial (plural) marriage on his brother’s model, i.e., being sealed to wives in secret while publicly denouncing the practice of “polygamy.” Strang did not embrace the practice until 1849. William’s activities among the Strangites of Voree, Wisconsin, were consequently regarded as “adultery,” and William was excommunicated from Strang’s organization on that basis.
Not one to be discouraged, William decided to go solo. In 1847, William and a small group of Mormons in Lee County, Illinois, founded the “Palestine Grove Stake” of the church. From this base, William asserted his claim to both his brothers’ offices, ultimately styling himself: “First President, Prophet, Seer, Revelator, Translator, and Patriarch over the whole church”! William looked to New Testament precedent, cleverly arguing that Jesus’ successor was not Peter (the chief apostle) but James (the brother of Jesus). Although he had some success, plural marriage once again led to William’s downfall. By now the practice had split Mormonism and the Midwestern Latter Day Saints of William’s flock were committed opponents. William’s public denunciations of polygamy fit well, but privately he continued to follow Joseph’s model of taking wives in secret. His church ultimately collapsed when one of his plural wives — the teenaged daughter of two committed supporters — filed charges with the Lee County sheriff of statutory rape.
Given that background, it’s little wonder that when those same Midwestern Latter Day Saints, at a meeting in Lee County, Illinois, “reorganized” their church and ordained William’s nephew Joseph Smith III as their prophet in 1860, William was not welcome. Instead, after one last stab at organizing his own church with Martin Harris in Kirtland and trying his hand at being a Baptist preacher, William flirted (vainly) with the idea of joining up with Brigham Young in Utah. Having finally rid himself of William, Young had zero interest in taking the defrocked patriarch back.
After a lengthy correspondence with his nephew Joseph III, William was eventually accepted as a member of the RLDS Church in 1878. But his claims to the offices of apostle and patriarch were ignored; only his ordination as a High Priest was recognized. By now living near Osterdock, Iowa, the last Smith brother ended his days as an RLDS preacher, frequently called upon to administer to the sick and to give funeral orations. He died November 13, 1893.
 Dan Vogel, ed. Early Mormon Documents, 5 volumes (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996) 1:497.
 Ibid., 5:366.
[*] If one reads the Lehi family narrative as containing elements inspired by Joseph Smith Jr.’s own life story, it is tempting to see in Nephi elements of Joseph himself. This reading might imply a certain degree of lingering resentment in Joseph against the eldest son Laman (Alvin) and his side-kick Lemuel (Hyrum).
 See Peter Crawley’s introduction to The Wasp (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2003), v-vi.
 Irene M. Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 72-83.
 H. Michael Marquardt, ed., Early Patriarchal Blessings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007), 244.
 Bates and Smith, 84.
 Vickie Cleverley Speek, “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2006), 68.
 Gospel Herald (Voree, Wisconsin) 2, no. 30 (October 14, 1847).
 Kyle R. Walker, “William Smith’s Quest for Ecclesiastical Station: A Schismatic Odyssey, 1844-93,” in Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer, eds., Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2007), 107.
 Erin B. Jennings and Connell O’Donovan, “The Wives of William Smith,” presented at the 38th Annual Conference of the John Whitmer Historical Association, September 25, 2010.
 Walker, 110-111.
 Ibid., 113.