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Discovering a piece of church history after a 20-year search

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Sharalyn Howcroft, lead archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers, cries over documents she had searched 20 years to find.

Sharalyn Howcroft, lead archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers, becomes emotional as she sees documents she has searched to find for 20 years during a research trip in Illinois in September 2022.

Jeffrey D. Mahas

This article was first published in the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Wednesday night.

The detective work behind President Dallin H. Oaks’ book about the trial of the accused assassins of Joseph Smith happened back in the 1960s.

But there’s a rest-of-the-story tale to share.

In 2020, President Oaks spoke about his thrill in discovering crucial documents. For example, he found an index in a county courthouse in Illinois with the name of the first defendant in the trial about Joseph Smith’s murder. That led him to a drawer with a large packet of papers labeled “People v. Levi Williams.”

“It was wrapped with a paper band sealed with paste and apparently never opened,” President Oaks said at a church history symposium. “I still remember vividly the experience of slitting that paper band with my thumb and having about 50 documents spill out on the table before me. The first thing I saw was the signature of John Taylor on a complaint against nine individuals for murdering Joseph Smith.”

There was much, much more.

In the half century since then, church historians rounding up all documents related to Joseph Smith couldn’t find again some of the documents President Oaks had included in his personal notes as he researched his book, “Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith.”

A church historian named Sharalyn Howcroft had learned the documents existed from reading President Oaks’ research notes in BYU’s archives, but she had been unable to find the original for use in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. She and others had conducted an exhaustive search in courthouses and government offices.

Finally, earlier this fall, she found the documents on yet another research trip to Illinois. She was overwhelmed.

“It’s hard to convey to people the experience of seeing something that you have been waiting that long to see, or knowing that something exists and you are trying your darndest to find it and you can’t,” she told the Church News. “To have that moment, I would call it kind of a complicated euphoria. I had a mixture of shock, surprise, I started crying and then I started laughing.”

One treasure was an inventory of Joseph Smith’s real estate properties.

Her moment of discovery was captured in images taken by friend and colleague Jeffrey Mahas.

Howcroft, Mahas and other researchers rounded up other Joseph Smith legal records on their trip. I’m sharing this story of discovery with the permission of my friend and colleague Trent Toone in hopes you’ll read his full story of what the researchers found here.

I’m grateful to Trent for his good work and friendship.

As I give thanks this week, I’ll also be thinking of the luminous Ann Madsen, who died recently after turning 90. She is reunited with her husband, Truman Madsen, who I came to know when I took classes from him at BYU. I didn’t know Ann until after she befriended me in large part because of this newsletter.

I was always grateful when she would call or text. She brightened every day I heard from her or saw her. It was a true gift. I went to her funeral on Saturday, and one of her children shared that a friend told them Ann had an eight-octave range with people. What a tremendous description.

She taught Isaiah courses at BYU for 47 years, up until the end of spring. She is listed in the BYU catalogue to teach it next semester. Her insights, her smile and her joyful touch are missed already.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, wherever you are in the United States or elsewhere. I’m thankful for each of you, too.

My recent stories

Latter-day Saint leaders condemn Colorado Springs LGBTQ club shooting (Nov. 21)

American Heritage School dedicated by Elder Rasband in Salt Lake City (Nov. 18)

Senate signals support for amended version of the Respect for Marriage Act (Nov. 16)

About the church

Elder Quentin L. Cook dedicated the Quito Ecuador Temple on Sunday.

Elder Dale G. Renlund dedicated the Belém Brazil Temple on Sunday.

The church announced six new missions on Tuesday:

  • The Cote d’Ivoire Abidjan North Mission.
  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo Kananga Mission.
  • The Nigeria Aba Mission.
  • The Nigeria Abuja Mission.
  • The South Africa Pretoria Mission.
  • The Romania Bucharest Mission.

The church announced open house and dedication dates for the Saratoga Springs Utah Temple. The open house will run April 15-July 8, and President Henry B. Eyring will dedicate the temple on Sunday, Aug. 13.

The church’s 2022 Light the World Christmas initiative includes 25 days of kindness, daily prompts and a Facebook group.

More vandalism of church buildings. The Logan Tabernacle here, and a meetinghouse on Vancouver Island in Canada here. Meanwhile, juveniles are the suspects in the Perry, Utah, meetinghouse vandalism case here.

Church News published an explainer about what the Presiding Bishopric does.

What I’m reading

As I cover the Respect for Marriage Act bills in Congress, I’m doing a lot of reading there. Respected law professor Douglas Laycock lays out what the Senate version of the bill does in a concise and clear way here.

And we rounded up statements made by four U.S. senators who acknowledged the church’s role on the Senate floor here.

This is a strong personal essay about the need for better representation of Latter-day Saints in TV shows and movies.

Saturday night’s BYU-Stanford football game will feature a historic clash of returned missionary quarterbacks. It’s a first.

A woman has made a Division I college baseball roster for the first time. Congratulations, Olivia Pichardo.

Finally, Leo Beus died. I got to know Leo when I covered Elder Ronald A. Rasband’s visit to Arizona in 2019 and he met with then Gov. Doug Ducey in the law offices of Beus and Paul Gilbert. Beus won a huge, $450 million award for BYU in a dispute with Pfizer over who developed Celebrex, according to the Arizona Republic’s obituary story. He used his funds in part to help schools like BYU and Arizona State. Here’s his personal obituary. Here’s a profile the Deseret News published in 2015. And here’s my story on Elder Rasband’s visit to his office with the governor.

Behind the scenes

Leo Beus, Elder Ronald A. Rasband and Paul Gilbert enjoy a moment after hosting Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey at the law offices of Beus Gilbert McGroder in Phoenix, Arizona, on Oct. 18, 2019.

Leo Beus, Elder Ronald A. Rasband and Paul Gilbert enjoy a moment after hosting Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey at the law offices of Beus Gilbert McGroder on Oct. 18, 2019.

Tad Walch, Deseret News

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks with Leo Beus in his offices in Phoenix, Arizona, on Oct. 18, 2019.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks with Leo Beus in his offices in Phoenix, Arizona, on Oct. 18, 2019.

Tad Walch, Deseret News

Leo Beus tells a story while sitting at his desk in the law offices of Beus Gilbert McGroder on Oct. 18. 2019.

Leo Beus tells a story while sitting at his desk in the law offices of Beus Gilbert McGroder on Oct. 18. 2019.

Tad Walch, Deseret News