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Commemorating the anniversary of the martyrdom at Carthage

CARTHAGE, Ill. — By the numbers, when five bells tolled, 15 of the 35 lead balls that were fired killed two men and wounded one on June 27, 1844, at Carthage, Ill.

Now, 168 years later, more than 500 persons gathered to pay afternoon respects of that anniversary. The commemorative events this year included remembrance with flowers, songs, prayers and remarks at the Smith Family Cemetery in Nauvoo, Ill.

Later in the afternoon at Carthage at the 2012 Martyrdom Commemoration, President Glen Jenson, second counselor in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple presidency, spoke before a standing-room crowd outside the old jail in 93-degree heat.

"Today, two men are being honored rather than martyred," President Jenson said at the event conducted and presided over by President Russell S. Gilliland of the Nauvoo Illinois Mission.

A crew from an English TV station filmed this year's commemoration.

There were recollections of that afternoon in 1844 when the Prophet Joseph Smith, 38, and his brother Hyrum, 44, were martyred in the jail. The martyrdom was witnessed by Elders John Taylor, 35, and Willard Richards, 40, who also were in the jail. The foursome was vastly outnumbered by a mob estimated to number more than 50.

Hyrum Smith, who was serving as patriarch and assistant president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the first to fall as he was hit by four lead balls. The Prophet Joseph Smith and Elder Taylor also were each struck by four lead balls, and some say that Elder Taylor's life may have been spared when his pocket watch stopped a fifth lead ball that was fired at 5:21:15 p.m., or 5:26:16 p.m., depending on the account.

Numerous books have been written about the martyrdom. Yet there is nothing like being in Carthage and Nauvoo to help visualize the events.

In Illinois during that June afternoon, it was Elder Taylor who had sung “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” on two occasions to uplift his fellow prison mates and who later penned the official account of the martyrdom in the Doctrine and Covenants 135. Verse 4 of that section quotes Joseph Smith's prediction, "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer's morning."

Elder Richards, who had received powder burns on his cheek that day in 1844, wrote his account of the martyrdom in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons, titled “Two Minutes in Jail.” He tells of hiding the wounded Elder Taylor underneath a mattress in the jail. Elders Richards and Taylor sent a message back to Nauvoo that night: "Carthage Jail, 8:05 o'clock, p.m., June 27th, 1844. Joseph and Hyrum are dead. … The job was done in an instant."

Elder Taylor returned July 2 to Nauvoo on a sleigh, but the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were taken to Nauvoo on June 28.

Among the mourners there were two new widows, Emma, 40, and Mary Fielding Smith, 43. Emma and Joseph had 11 children, including their youngest son, David H. Smith, who was born in November, four months after the Prophet's death.

Mary Fielding Smith was the mother of two of Hyrum's eight children, including then 5-year-old Joseph F. Smith, future apostle and president of the LDS Church.

Two others known by Joseph Smith were among those late arriving on the scene on June 27, 1844: Samuel Smith, his younger brother, and “Sonny,” who first met the Prophet as a young man.

In his October 2007 general conference address, the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve told of a 14-year-old boy who had been taken care of by Joseph Smith as he searched for his brother. This boy ended up being a stage driver between Nauvoo and Keokuk, Iowa, with Carthage being a half-way station. That boy was nicknamed “Sonny” by Joseph, who rode the stage.

On June 27, 1844, when that stage came through Carthage, Sonny saw a mob gathered around the jail. As passengers got off the stage, the shooting started. Sonny drove the stage to the stable and saw Joseph fall from the jail window.

Samuel, who was one of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon, never made it to the Carthage Jail before the martyrdom.

He lived southeast of Nauvoo in nearby Plymouth, Ill., and was on horseback to see his brothers in Carthage. He escaped after being met by members of the mob who chased him through the woods.

Samuel was part of the 14-person bodyguard of Joseph and Hyrum when their bodies were returned to Nauvoo the next day in his wagon. Just over a month later, Samuel died on July 30 as a result of the fatigue from the chase of June 27, leaving six children behind and preceding by 21 days the birth of his daughter, Lucy J.C.

Other members of the then Quorum of the Twelve as well as two future church presidents were on missions in Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nauvoo at the time of the martyrdom.

Elders Taylor and Richards, the only two apostles who were not away on missions, were in the jail cell of their own accord.

Joseph, in his journal, noted Nauvoo had 15,000 inhabitants. There were between 25,000 and 26,000 members of the church in 1844. Today, Nauvoo has a population around 1,000. Joseph's final journey from Nauvoo to Carthage as one of 15 men took 15 miles. Nowadays, it takes 23 miles on paved roads for a similar route.

The Nauvoo Temple was completed after Joseph and Hyrum's martyrdom, razed shortly thereafter and now rebuilt in 2002. It was closed the afternoon of the martyrdom's anniversary, which also marked the 10th anniversary of the rebuilt temple.

Sources: "History of the Church," Vol. 6; "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith," "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young," "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: John Taylor," "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodfuff," "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith"; the LDS Church Almanac; "History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith;" "Charles C. Rich," by Leonard Arrington; "In Old Nauvoo," by George W. Givens; "The Restored Church," by William Edwin Berrett; "The Carthage Conspiracy;" "Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith" by Mark L. McConkie; and "Separating facts from fiction about the Prophet's death," Deseret News, Sept. 7, 2010

Ralph R. Zobell has worked for BYU Athletic Media Relations in various capacities for more than 30 years. His email is