Their adopted twin babies were sick with the measles, and the Prophet Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, hadn't been able to get much rest.
During the night, Emma told him to lie down on a trundle bed near the front door and try to get some sleep. He took the sicker twin and lay down, but his rest wouldn't last long.
Suddenly, Joseph heard Emma scream, and a mob of about a dozen angry men burst in and began dragging him out of the house.
As the Prophet recounted, "I made a desperate struggle, as I was forced out, to extricate myself, but only cleared one leg, with which I made a pass at one man, and he fell on the door steps. I was immediately overpowered again; and they swore ... they would kill me if I did not be still, which quieted me. ... They then seized me by the throat and held on till I lost my breath" (Joseph Smith, "History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints").
That was only the beginning of the living nightmare that Joseph endured the night of March 24, 1832, at the John Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio, about 30 miles southeast of Kirtland. He would be stripped of his clothes except for his shirt collar, have hot tar poured over his body followed by a layer of feathers and beaten to the extent that one of his teeth was knocked out.
The plan may have been to kill him. A Dr. Dennison, who was a member of the mob, had brought vials of nitric acid to force down the Prophet's throat. A vial broke in his teeth, and he didn't swallow the acid.
He recounted, "One man fell on me and scratched my body with his nails like a mad cat, and then muttered out: 'G-d--ye, that's the way the Holy Ghost falls on folks.'
"They then left me, and I attempted to rise, but fell again; I pulled the tar away from my lips, so that I could breathe more freely, and after a while I began to recover, and raised myself up ... When I came to the door I was naked, and the tar made me look as if I were covered with blood, and when my wife saw me she thought I was all crushed to pieces, and fainted."
Mark Staker, senior researcher for the historic sites group of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' history department in Salt Lake City, says tarring and feathering was a sign of disgrace. Eli Johnson, one of John Johnson's brothers, apparently provided the tar and heated it up.
"It would have been painful," Staker said, although "it wasn't as life-threatening as the acid and the physical abuse when they beat him unmercifully. Tarring and feathering is mostly humiliation."
Staker, who worked as a historian for the LDS Church's Kirtland restoration project, which was dedicated in 2003, says part of that project was restoring the John Johnson home in Hiram.
"It had suffered some structural damage and we had to close the home," he said. "We tried to understand what took place in each room of the home."
Staker's research has become part of the Joseph Smith Papers project, a scholarly effort to collect, transcribe and publish all available documents produced or owned by the Prophet. The first volume is expected to be published later this year.
"The Joseph Smith Papers project has come to view the historic sites as documents as well," Staker said. "The physical evidence of Joseph's ministry is by large the documents he produced, but also the physical culture around him, and so these buildings are actually tangible evidence of his life and his ministry. So while they're not papers, they are documentary evidence of Joseph."
The Prophet continued: "My friends spent the night in scraping and removing the tar, and washing and cleansing my body; so that by morning I was ready to be clothed again. This being the Sabbath morning, the people assembled for meeting at the usual hour of worship, and among them came also the mobbers; viz.: Simonds Ryder, a Campbellite preacher and leader of the mob; one McClentic, who had his hands in my hair; one Streeter, son of a Campbellite minister; and Felatiah Allen, Esq., who gave the mob a barrel of whiskey to raise their spirits. Besides these named, there were many others in the mob. With my flesh all scarified and defaced, I preached to the congregation as usual, and in the afternoon of the same day baptized three individuals."
Staker says that the Prophet's account holds up well.
"Joseph actually downplays the whole thing — because it ends up being a really brutal experience for him," he said. "Most Latter-day Saints would tell you, 'Oh, his tooth was chipped.' But accounts are clear that it was knocked out. And he had a permanent bald spot (where a patch of hair was torn out) that he combed to hide that spot. ... As a result of the mobbing he had an injury in his side. Those are things that if it were me, I would have whined about."
Staker says the mobbing happened early Sunday morning, not Saturday night. "All accounts suggest the moon was up, and that didn't happen until after 3 a.m. ... They took him to the kitchen and cleaned him up early Sunday morning. It would have taken a lot of work. They have to reheat the tar because it hardens once it gets cold. They (would have used) fat and grease to get it off. It would have taken a lot of time. ... He may not have had time to sleep before his sermon."
The Prophet recognized after the incident that he was vulnerable to people who wanted to harm him, Staker says.
"He's withstood persecution already for a decade in some form or another, but this is the first time that people come close to actually killing him." If the doctor had been able to get Joseph to drink one of the vials of nitric acid, "it would have killed him," Staker said. "It would have burned out his throat and esophagus. He would have died."
Staker says from that time on, armed guards protected the Prophet. "Joseph knew this was serious business. Yet he continues on the course he was following."
Joseph Smith wasn't the only one harmed that night.
The mob was in two groups, Staker says. One group had gone to Sidney Rigdon's cabin, where his six children all had the measles, too. The mob took Rigdon down the road to attack him, and historians have theorized that head injuries he suffered as he was being dragged along the frozen ground explain erratic behavior that Rigdon exhibited after the mobbing. For example, the day after the mobbing, he threatened his family, as well as the Prophet.
Joseph also blamed the mobbing for the death of baby Joseph Murdock, who died later that week of a cold.
Staker says that blame is natural, because the Prophet was a follower of Thompsonian medicine, which called for people who were sick to be kept out of cold weather. It's hard to say whether the baby would have died anyway, Staker says.
It was common in that era for people to meet political or religious differences with violence, Staker says. Members of the mob were mostly community leaders. Ryder, who purportedly led the mob, was captain of the local militia, and many of the others were militia members.
"These were respectable people ... not riffraff," Staker said. "In terms of a mob, they were a respectable mob."
Mob members' children didn't know their parents had been involved, Staker says. It wasn't until grandchildren came along that the stories began to be told. "They kept it secret," Staker said. "Even though they were respectable people, it was not a respectable thing to do."
Why did they participate?
Staker says a number of them wanted to stop family members from going to Missouri — Zion — and thought that harming the Prophet would somehow prevent the gathering, which was to take place in a couple of weeks. Others apparently were upset about the vision now contained in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants about seeing God and Jesus Christ and the new doctrine that there are many kingdoms in the hereafter.
Those who had been present were supposed to keep it secret at the time, but some did not. Staker says there was a Brother Haskell who was told about the vision and went around telling people about it even before he had a written copy.
After the mobbing, there was some pestering of Latter-day Saints that happened, but no direct attacks, Staker says. They couldn't stop what was happening with the church, even by resorting to violence.
"It says a lot about Joseph that he knows he could have been killed for the things he was teaching."
Dr. Mark Staker, senior researcher for the historic sites group of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' history department in Salt Lake City