John Taylor, Eyewitness to the Assassination of Joseph Smith

John Taylor as President of the Church, source: http://tinyurl.com/m8agylk

John Taylor as President of the Church, source: http://tinyurl.com/m8agylk

The “Editor’s Pick” at BYU Studies Quarterly today is a new article featuring John Taylor’s eyewitness account of the assassination of Joseph Smith, which Taylor delivered in a sermon on June 27, 1854, the tenth anniversary of the martyrdom. Editor-in-chief John W. Welch writes that Taylor’s “words were taken down in Pitman shorthand and until very recently that dictation had never been transcribed. Deciphered by LaJean Carruth, and edited and introduced by Mark Staker, this impressive document and the materials connected with it in this article should be read in full and featured prominently in any future discussions of that treacherous assassination. It includes many new, interesting contemporaneous assertions and historical details”.

One interesting highlight of the article transcribing the talk that Welch spotlights is Taylor’s comments in that sermon about the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor:

Taylor also spoke about the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, published by enemies of Joseph and very critical of him. Declaring it a nuisance that “was calculated to injure, destroy [the] community,” the Nauvoo City Council ordered the sheriff to legally abate it. Taylor testifies, “I was on that council and I believe made perhaps the first move toward the destruction of it” (45). He rightly points out that Blackstone’s legal commentary gave substantive legal authority for a government to act upon a public nuisance, and the city charter of Nauvoo “gave unto us power to declare what was a nuisance and remove it” (46). Taylor went on to explain that he did not see this merely as a matter of hanging onto a legal technicality and that the action of the City Council would be justified as a general principle of social order: “There is a difference between freedom and abuse of it. . . . There is no country I can go to that will allow me to interfere with the rights of citizens in that country” (46-47). And on this point, he reports a remarkable conversation he subsequently had with Governor Thomas Ford, who said, “‘Mr. Taylor, I was sorry you destroyed that;’ [Taylor] ‘yet,’ says I, ‘it was legal.’ [Ford] ‘That is nothing but it comes in contact with the prejudice of the people.’ . . . [Taylor] ‘What were we to do then?’ [Ford] ‘I would have got up a mob to destroy it and that would have cleared the city council'” (47)!! Thus, any assertion that Joseph caused his own death by acting illegally in connection with the destruction of the Expositor is disregarding the fact that the Nauvoo Council acted legally in declaring the paper a public nuisance, as Ford himself seems to have conceded.

"Carthage Mob", source: http://tinyurl.com/oobdba5

“Carthage Mob”, source: http://tinyurl.com/oobdba5

Welch further reflects on the legal and practical implications of this situation for the assassination of Joseph Smith:

Of course, with hindsight one might wonder what else the Council might have tried, or if it might have used better judgment. It could have issued a warning, or demanded the right to publish a rebuttal in that newspaper, or just pied the type and required the press to move out of town. But the Council did not act in haste; it debated and deliberated for many hours, and in the end, besides demolishing the printing press itself, only paper and office furniture was burned, and no one was injured or arrested. Yet the revenge of Joseph’s enemies was calculated, legally unjustifiable, and flagrantly excessive, as Taylor reports: “[They] fabricated every kind of falsehood in order to inflame and irritate the public mind, and they succeeded in great measure in doing it” (47).

Carruth’s transcription should make an important contribution to the historical record relating to the assassination of Joseph Smith, as witnessed by John Taylor, who was incarcerated together with Joseph and Hyrum Smith and Willard Richards.

Comments

  1. FarSide says:

    “and in the end, only paper and office furniture was burned, and no one was injured or arrested.”

    Alex Beam’s recent book about the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum (“American Crucifixion”) notes that much more than just some “paper and furniture” was destroyed by the mob. A $2,000+ printing press was laid to waste, along with all of the type. Further, everything in the Nauvoo Expositor building that wasn’t nailed down was put to the torch.

    More to the point, Blackstone’s legal definition of a public nuisance hardly provides the requisite legal authority for a local government to destroy private property and engage in prior restraint of the press without any due process. Further, contrary to Brother Taylor’s allegation that the Expositor “fabricated every kind of falsehood,” much of what it printed about surreptitious polygamy by church leaders was true (though some of it was not). And if the City Council was concerned that this paper would “inflame and irritate the public mind,” did they give any thought as to how their decision to destroy the Expositor would be received by the public?!?

    Nothing that Joseph Smith, John Taylor et al. did warranted the summary execution of Joseph and his brother by the mob in Carthage. But their decision to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor was ill-advised and the hostile response it triggered was quite predictable, though perhaps not to the degree experienced by the Smith brothers, John Taylor and Wilfred Woodruff.

  2. FarSide, in copying over the paragraph, I somehow messed up the text deleting a key phrase there (which you will see if you click through to Welch’s comments on the BYU Studies website). I have corrected it in the original post. The paragraph reads as follows, with the phrase that I somehow deleted in preparing this blog post highlighted in bold:

    Of course, with hindsight one might wonder what else the Council might have tried, or if it might have used better judgment. It could have issued a warning, or demanded the right to publish a rebuttal in that newspaper, or just pied the type and required the press to move out of town. But the Council did not act in haste; it debated and deliberated for many hours, and in the end, besides demolishing the printing press itself, only paper and office furniture was burned, and no one was injured or arrested. Yet the revenge of Joseph’s enemies was calculated, legally unjustifiable, and flagrantly excessive, as Taylor reports: “[They] fabricated every kind of falsehood in order to inflame and irritate the public mind, and they succeeded in great measure in doing it” (47).

  3. J. Stapley says:

    LaJean really is doing an incredible service. Wonderful stuff. Thanks for highlighting it, John.

  4. FarSide says:

    Thanks, john F. And I agree with J. Stapley—it’s nice to see these additions to the historical record. Though I may interpret events differently than John Taylor, eyewitness accounts such as these are invaluable.

  5. I think that there’s a great, wide gulf between “legal” and “advisable.” In retrospect, and with reference to Blackstone and nearly every other 19th-century reference and precedent I’ve ever seen, the destruction of the press was probably legal. It was, however, arguably an overreaction. In the City Council’s defense, and of course playing “what-if,” it’s possible that Ford’s scenario might have played out and a mob might have made a more thorough and violent job of it. The definition of “nuisance” in a legal sense can be a little tough to nail down.

    However, one wonders (and I’m not aware of any primary source which addresses this) if the Council would have done the same thing knowing what the consequences would be; i.e., the arrest and murder of Joseph and Hyrum. I think that would have happened anyway and all that was wanting was an excuse, but the Council certainly gave the anti- faction their excuse on a silver platter. The action, or at least the extent of the action, was ill-advised. There was a spectrum of response available, from dignified silence to global thermonuclear war, and they chose the equivalent of carpet-bombing.

    Simply closing the business by some devious legal mumblety-mumble familiar to city councils the world ’round would also have been a way to handle it. Revoke their license, raid them for an illegal poker game, something Tammany-esque. Abate the nuisance without fanning the flames.

  6. [Ford] ‘I would have got up a mob to destroy it and that would have cleared the city council’”

    I wonder whether this is perhaps a tacit admission by Ford that this was his approach with regard to Carthage.

  7. BHodges says:

    Bravo, bravo! to BYU Studies Quarterly for this really cool publication.

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