Ep 51 – Force and Inertia
On this episode, we discuss just how terrible the winter of 1838-1839 was for the Mormons, especially for the incarcerated leadership. The Saints were forcefully removed from Missouri and landed in temporary refugee camps along the Mississippi, settling a little town called Quincy, IL. Jo, Hyrum, Rigdon, McRae, Baldwin, and Wight are all wasting away in Liberty Jail until Doniphan gets cert for an habeus corpus hearing. Rigdon pulls out the ol’ preacher moves and sways the congregation to release him; even in his fractured mental state, he’s still got it. We end the episode with a brief wrap up of the Mormon history tour as well as ReasonCon.
LDS History article “Within the Walls of Liberty Jail”
Patience Delila Pierce Palmer personal history
Jeffrey Holland – Lessons from Liberty Jail
Chris Nemelka (Marvelous Work and a Wonder)
Shawn McCraney (Heart of the Matter)
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Voicemail Line (864)Nake-dMo (625-3366)
Welcome back to the Naked Mormonism podcast, the serial Mormon history podcast. We’ve been away for some time but it’s Star Wars day, May the 4th 2017, this is your host, Bryce Blankenagel returning from a month and a half-long hiatus, and thank you for joining me.
It’s a bit of a challenge, how to start this episode. There’s so much bouncing around my head at the moment that it’s a legitimate challenge to decide where to start. I want to recount some of the Mormon history tour and ReasonCon which are both fresh on my mind, but this is also our return episode and I can’t spend the entire hour + talking about what happened recently without a little dive into what’s happening in our historical timeline. As per the regular formula of historical timeline episodes, we’ll get into a roundup of the last historical episode in our timeline for the milk, then we’ll move into the meat for a segment talking about Liberty Jail where our heroes currently reside. After that, we’ll take a bit of a longer final segment to discuss some of the Mormon history tour and ReasonCon before buttoning up this return from hiatus episode and we get back to our regular weekly schedule.
The last historical episode was a big one, mostly because we spent so much time reading through witness testimonies of the November 1838 Court of inquiry and coming to understand what happened with the sham legal proceedings endured by the Saints after the Mormon-Missouri war was officially declared a victory for the Missourians following the surrender of the Mormons at Far West and Diahman. We took a vantage point perspective of what happened, hearing multiple first-hand accounts of similar situations from people involved in the proceedings of all 1838. We heard from some of the Missouri militia, and from many more Mormons who gave us insight as to what really went down on the Mormon side in Missouri during the conflict. We can unequivocally say that Jo was doing some brashly illegal activities and those activities were carried out at the hands of his trusted followers who otherwise may not have committed any illegal actions. Jo was a mob boss ordering around his little cronies to carry out the will of the Lord for whatever Jo interpreted that to be.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple for the court of inquiry, they weren’t staring at an open and shut military case. Jo and the leadership should have been tried in a civil court, but since they were acting as a private military, not with state-sanctioned status of course, they went through the court of inquiry instead, which was a legal proceeding reserved for military infractions. Jo and friends were civilians. This court of inquiry was the wrong tool and it was even wielded incorrectly in prosecuting Jo and company.
In listening back to episode 50, I had the realization that I didn’t actually read the charges leveled by Justice King. I read the initial charges and the 53 defendants who were being charged, but we went through the entire episode and I just finished with reading testimonials and a wrap-up. Instead of reading the active charge documents individually, for the sake of brevity I’ll read a paragraph from Rise of Mormonism by H. Michael Marquardt from pg 488, he sums things up better than I could.
“After Judge Austin A. King heard the testimony of the witnesses he discharged twenty-nine of the defendants because of the lack of sufficient evidence. Twenty-Four Mormon prisoners were considered guilty of arson, burglary, robbery, and larceny in Daviess County and as the offences were bailable they could post bail until the next term of the Daviess County Circuit Court. But the court believed that Joseph Smith and four other Mormons were guilty of overt acts of treason in Daviess County. Smith together with Lyman Wight, Hyrum Smith, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin were to answer the charge in March 1839. Sidney Rigdon was charged with treason committed in Caldwell County. They were committed to Liberty Jail in Clay County. Since the death of Moses Rowland occurred in Ray County it was believed that Parley P. Pratt, Norman Shearer, Darwin Chase, Luman Gibbs, and Morris Phelps were guilty and they were to be held in the Ray County jail.”
That’s where we left off our historical timeline on episode 50. We read the court of inquiry witness statements and learned that Jo, Rigdon, Hyrum, and a small number of other important Mormon leaders were incarcerated into the county jail in Ray and the local jail in Liberty, Clay county.
That pretty much sums up the milk for this episode and gets us caught up in our historical timeline. Let’s get into the meat of this episode and talk about the actual timeline during Jo and company’s incarceration in Liberty Jail.
Liberty Jail is often touted as an important milestone in church history separating the New York and Kirtland years from the Nauvoo and Utah years. It seemingly provides incontrovertible evidence for the case that Joseph Smith was persecuted due to his religion and claims of prophethood. Unfortunately, those versions of church history during 1838 in Missouri are fairly misguided and one-sided in their reporting. This claim that Jo was in jail because of religious persecution alone ignores everything the Mormons did in Missouri for all of 1838 and the 7 years prior, and passes completely over what raised public ire against them in the first place. We’ve been covering this time in Mormon history for like 9 historical episodes by this point; contextualizing the conflict doesn’t bear repeating any more than it’s been multiply reiterated.
That being said, thanks to this cross-country Mormon history tour from which I just returned home, I can try to offer a first-person perspective of what the liberty jail is like, so allow me some license to paint a mental picture. Liberty is a very small town, but there is this surprisingly large building near the center of town that looks a bit like a bank or something. Outside of the building a large granite or marble marquee says Liberty Jail visitor’s center of the LDS church. Upon entering, you come in to a fairly small lobby area with a number of missionaries on staff to lead tours of the museum. There’s a greeting desk on the left side of the lobby with a glass divider sanctioning one half of the room as a small lecture area with a bunch of church chairs set up in rows to accommodate something like 30 people.
The first thing you hear when your foot makes contact with the welcome mat is a cheery greeting from some young sister missionaries holding their books of Mormon with color-coded book marks, no doubt the same set of scriptures they were given by Grandma on their 8th birthdays. In addition to the cheery greetings, you’re met with bright and wholesome smiles from the young women and elderly missionaries who are greeting you. Some quick conversation is exchanged, they ask where you’re visiting from and eventually they offer a tour of the jail.
You begin the tour with a brief lecture about the church’s history in Missouri from 1830-1838. Luckily for me there was a tour group that just began before I got there so they decided to put me in my own group and this elder missionary, possibly in his mid-60’s gave me the tour. After the brief lecture and looking at the various exhibits they have, you’re ushered through a large wooden door into the vault.
What a sight to behold. The vault is a massive concrete and granite safe built around a mock-up reconstruction of the jail. Liberty jail is literally built inside of this massive chamber and it’s missing one wall so you can see a cross-section of the building and get an idea for what it would have been like to be confined there. You walk around the back while the tour guide tells you all about the roof, bricks, massive wooden door with original locking mechanism, so on and so forth, and then you make your way down the stairs into the dug-in floor of the vault to sit on benches at ground level of the jail, a good 10 feet below the actual ground level of the building. Since the one wall is missing, you can see the thickness of the walls which from the inside out begin with what look like railroad ties with 2 feet of brick for the outside shell. In between the railroad ties and the shell is a bunch of lose-pack large rock that would shift and fill in gaps if there were an attempt to escape. The men were kept in the lower floor of the jail, the dungeon, which was only accessible through a small trap door on the main floor. A rope dangles from the overhead door down into the dungeon, everything was done with that rope from lifting out the chamber pot to lowering the men’s abhorrent meals into the depths of this melancholy little shithole.
The lighting is low inside the vault as the tour guide continues to tell you about the Liberty jail experience for the leaders. Inside the jail are life-size mannequin models of 5 of the 6 men who were incarcerated beginning December 1, 1838, with Jo writing at a desk lit by candlelight.
It’s at this point the missionary uses a flashlight to identify each person and their role and relationship to the church. The most noticeable detail at this time for me was the fact that no mannequin reconstruction of Sidney Rigdon resides in the jail cell. Granted, Rigdon didn’t spend as much time in the jail as other guys did, but he was still there for quite some time and should be represented instead of ignored. That’s neither here nor there, because after the missionary points out each person they hit a button and the real tour begins. The lights are all extinguished and you’re enshrouded in darkness only to hear a booming voice come over the speakers to read some of Joseph and McRae’s writings about how terrible the circumstances were, including the claim that they were poisoned and fed human flesh by the guards.
You learn just how terrible it was in Liberty jail, but the thought also occurs that likely no other jail in the country was any better or worse than this, it just so happens that Joseph was in this jail and people don’t like it when their prophet is forced into disgusting or inhospitable conditions. You may notice on the right wall of the jail is a small bit of fallen-down rocks where Jo and the others had tried to dig themselves out to manage an escape, the attempt was thwarted by the vigilant guards.
The disembodied narrator continues through the audio experience featuring lights brightening and dimming to match what he’s narrating. No mention of Sidney Rigdon, and the audio track is over. The only thing left is for the missionary leading the tour to bear their testimony that this is a true work and Joseph wouldn’t have suffered through such persecution if it were all a lie. They lead you out of the vault through a different door from the one you entered and you’re in a final exit chamber of the visitor’s center.
In this chamber, the walls are covered with pictures of Jesus, the prophets, and even a reproduction of the gold plates locked in a glass case at chest height. At this point the missionary refers you to a stack of cards on a portable desk that are eager to be filled out with curious potential prospective Mormon investigators; and that’s it, the tour is over.
In my experience, and everybody will have a different experience when they visit, I left feeling quite stimulated from the conversation I’d had with the missionary, but also feeling kinda bamboozled. Being that I was the only person in my group, the missionary and I were able to have some interesting conversations about the history where I called him out on a few details surrounding the Missouri-Mormon conflict. However, it was hard not to feel a little like I was cheated out of some real history in everything we were discussing. It was incredible to see Liberty Jail and the abysmal living accommodations Jo and friends had to deal with, but the history lesson was so utterly one-sided and lacking in substance that it didn’t make any sense. It’s a good thing I had been studying this time in Mormon history for the past year because only then was I able to fill in some massive gaping fissures between the little pieces of information the missionary was feeding me.
The whole Liberty jail experience is couched as pure religious persecution, ignoring all nuance that made this a two-way conflict between the Missourians and Mormons.
Here’s a couple little snippets from the history.lds.org article entitled Within the Walls of Liberty Jail. This will give you an idea for what it was like during the tour with the one-sided nature of the history and the motivated story-telling.
“On December 1, 1838, a Latter-day Saint named Caleb Baldwin was incarcerated in the lower level of Liberty Jail in Clay County, Missouri, on charges of “crimes of High Treason.”1 His prison companions included members of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and Sidney Rigdon, as well as Lyman Wight and Alexander McRae. The six detainees’ nearly four-month confinement became the final episode of an eventful and often troubled history of the Latter-day Saints in Missouri.
Within the walls of Liberty Jail, Baldwin scribed some of Joseph Smith’s most profound reflections in letters to the scattered and destitute Latter-day Saints—portions of which were later canonized as Doctrine and Covenants sections 121, 122, and 123. Some of these passages have become scriptural gems, often cited in Latter-day Saint discourse over the years.
While the story of Liberty Jail has been told and retold from the perspective of Joseph Smith, the experience of the other incarcerated men provides additional insight. Baldwin, who was the most senior of the group, struggled physically and emotionally in the dungeon level of Liberty Jail. The inspiring words that came to Joseph as he dictated his letter provided comfort and counsel to Baldwin, the 47-year-old father of 10 who longed to be with his family during his four-month confinement.
Spending more than four months in the snug jail proved a daunting experience. Four-foot-thick stone walls, a six-foot ceiling, and constant harassment by guards caused Joseph and his companions to describe the structure as “hell surrounded with demons.”6 The detainees were placed in the lower-level dungeon, where temperatures dropped, light dimmed, odors reeked, and time seemed to slow. Only “dirty straw couches” prevented the prisoners from sleeping on the stone floor, but even those wore out after a while.7
As was the case in other 19th-century county jails, the food sickened the prisoners. Joseph and his companions described their daily meals as “very coarse and so filthy that we could not eat it until we were driven to it by hunger.” When the prisoners finally ate their servings, the food caused them to vomit “almost to death.” Some of the detainees suspected the guards of poisoning their food and water or even feeding them human flesh.”
Next historical timeline episode we’ll discuss the writings going in and out of Liberty jail because Jo was essentially running the church from the jail cell. It is worth briefly pointing out, they stated three times in that short excerpt that the men were incarcerated for nearly 4 months and postulates that it was such a terrible experience. I’ve never spent a single night in a jail cell, let alone a 19th-century jail cell with straw for a couch, so I can’t offer any perspective of what this was like, but Mandela was in prison for 27 years. That’s 81 times the number of months these guys spent in Liberty. People have spent their entire lives and died in prison, wrongfully, in worse conditions than Jo and friends experienced. This is not to disparage or minimize their experience, but it’s hard to make the case that this was some major crime against humanity when more egregious sentences were happening all day every day back then, before then, and even today, 179 years after it happened.
What isn’t discussed much in that article is something worth discussing. We need to understand what it was like for the remaining thousands of Mormons who’d lost their homes and been chased out of Missouri with no legal recourse. After the surrender and downfall of Far West and Adam–ondi-ahman, the twin Mormon sanctuary cities in Missouri, the Missouri militia upheld the terms of surrender, including the Mormons’ agreement to vacate the state. It was contended that this was an unconstitutional action, but that court proceeding was tabled until July of 1839 and by that time nearly every Mormon had already left Missouri for Illinois and the whole thing was eventually swept under the rug.
Just because it’s relevant to telling the story at hand, I’ll share another exciting experience I had while on the history tour. After 3 futile attempts, I finally made it into the Daughters of Zion museum in Salt Lake City, a few blocks from the state capitol building. They have an entire records department where I was able to find the file they had on my great great great-grandfather and grandmother. Turns out my Grandma was a doctor in Utah for the nearly 40 years she lived there, and there’s even a picture of her on the wall in the doctor’s room of the museum. I spent a few hours reading through my Grandma’s recounting of her life and, more specifically, 1838 in Missouri as the Palmers were camped out a few miles south of Haun’s mill when the massacre went down and the Mormons surrendered to the Missouri militia.
You can read through a lot of Mormon journal entries or interviews conducted for the press at this time and they all talk about the exodus from Missouri as being a very challenging time of personal struggle while sickness and starvation gripped nearly every camp. My Grandma’s experience is by no means exclusive, there are hundreds of existing accounts from this time, but her experience is fairly representative of what thousands of Mormons endured from early 1838 to late 1839. Here are a few passages and I’ll include a link to her brief digitized history posted on familysearch.org.
“The mob at the mill killed eighteen and instead of coming down to our camp as they had intended, they became frightened lest an army of saints from Far West were coming down the creek, and fled over a twenty-five-mile prairie that night…. While they were away we saw a mob, armed and on horses approaching. They rode down toward us to the brow of a hill a short distance away and stopped. Another sister and myself went to them and the captain, with drawn sword, advanced. I asked him what they intended to do with us. He said, to our surprise, his company should not harm us, but he advised us to leave the vicinity, for a mob of furious men was coming. He told us of an unguarded, backwoods road from which the guard had been removed and also of a man who could act as guide. He then requested us to promise we would not reveal what he had told us for, if it became known, his life would be in danger.
We did as advised, broke up camp[,] and started for the woods. When we had traveled about fifteen miles we stopped for several days waiting for orders from Far West. While there, one of the brethren arrived with the news that the saints had agreed to leave the state. We then moved on. Our food soon gave out and we had nothing to eat. My husband got some corn, and that was all we had for three weeks. We would parch the corn and then eat it, but the small children could not do that. We had to partly chew it ourselves, it having been parched, and then feed it to them. We lived in this way for three long weeks, then our corn gave out and we were without food of any kind for two days and a half. On the night of the third day we procured a sack of flour and then having nothing but the flour, we lived several days on spoon cakes, made by mixing flour with water and baking in dry skillets….
The reason for our company living for three weeks on parched corn, was not due to us having no money, for there was money in the camp. We repeatedly tried to buy provisions from the settlers as we moved along on our weary way in leaving the state of Missouri, in compliance with the Governor’s extermination order. The whole country was stirred to a fever heat in persecuting the saints, and the people would not sell us food. For example, my husband wanted to get a horse sho[e]d that had become so tender footed that he could travel no father without shoes. He took him five or six miles in advance of the company to a small village. As he was not known, they sho[e]d his horse and took him in the house for dinner. While they were eating, our company passed. The women and larger children were wa[i]ling, holding up their skirts while wading through the mud and slush, which was ankle deep in many places, as it rained and snowed nearly all of the time. The woman of the house, seeing us go by, said, “I wish all those women and children would take cold and die.” The man said viciously, “I wish I could see old Joe Smith tied to a pile of wood, and I have the privilege of kindling it. I would say to the fire, ‘burn s[l]ow’.”
One might ask why my husband did not buy food under this disguise as a single horseman. He did try and at once was denounced as a “Mormon.” During that never-to-be- forgotten journey coming out of Missouri, we traveled through mud, snow, and ice, as had been stated, nearly all the way. All, excepting the little children, went on foot. As we had already traveled a thousand miles or more that summer to get to Missouri, our horses were almost worn out, and it was all they could do to slowly move our wagons. One day a company of mobbers going to Far West surrounded us, calling us to hal[t], and the leader with drawn sword asked for the (page 8) captain of our company. My husband stepped out to him. The leader said: “We have orders from the Governor to search your wagons and take your guns and books.
Mr. Palmer told him our wagons had been searched and our guns taken from us, and showed a receipt to that effect. They then rode on, and as they did so one man placed the muzzle of his gun almost against my breast and said, “I swore I’d kill a d-d-Mormon when I left home, and now is my chance.” I looked him fearlessly in the eyes, when the captain told him to put down his gun, which he did, and then rode on. One man, a more humane one, said as he passed me: “Good woman, you had better go and get into your wagon. You will catch your death wading through this water and mud.” They rode to the top of a hill we had just descended and simultaneously fired off their guns making the air ring with demoniac yells.
One day I will ever remember, we traveled over a prairie. It was covered with ice, slush and snow. One step the ice would hold us up and the next would break through over our shoe tops: thus our feet were wet all the day long. At night we camped by a stream of water with timber and brush along its banks. We parched our corn of which we made our supper, after which some cut down brush to sleep upon to keep their beds out of the water that was running everywhere. Some slept in the wagons, which was but little better, as the covers had become worn and torn from our long traveling.
Next morning I awoke and looked around. My husband had a fire burning and was thawing out his clothes so that he could put them on. I saw my little children covered with snow that had fallen during the night. Everything was dreary. Snow was sifting into my bed. I knew when I should get up with my little ones shivering around the camp fire, I would have nothing to give them to eat but parched corn, and realizing that our supply of that was becoming short, my (page 9) heart sank within me, and I burst into weeping.
What had we done to be thus treated by our fellow-country men? My husband’s father suffered untold hardships all through the Revolutionary War; and had fought and bled to establish American freedom; so had my grandfather. They labored and suffered that all men might enjoy religious liberty in this land; and there we were, fleeing before a relentless and blood-thirsty mob, composed of American citizens sent out by the Governor to compel us to leave the state. All this because we believed that God was the same unchangeable being, that he had spoken from the Heavens once more and restored the Gospel as it was revealed by Jesus Christ when he was on the earth, through his chosen servant, Joseph Smith, the Prophet. My husband heard me crying, and with a tremor in his voice said, “Cheer up, my dear, we will live and shine forth in the Kingdom of our God, when these murderous mobbers are in perdition; and more, I will yet have the privilege of preaching the Gospel.” This speech so comforted me that I arose with a light heart and in the midst of snow, slush and ice around our camp fires, parched our corn, ate it, and praised the Lord our God.”
As I said, this was by no means an isolated incident, but representative of the entire Mormon experience. During the winter of 1838-39, beginning in early December, the Mormons were forcefully removed from Missouri and many of them had similar experiences to that of the Palmers. The Mormons had been removed from Kirtland just the previous winter, forced to make the nearly 1000 mile journey from Kirtland to Far West. It was nearing winter when Jo gave the first revelation that told people to leave New York and head for the Ohio; the Smith family moved during that same winter to Ohio. You would think the saints would be used to moving around at the worst times of year to possibly move.
But that’s just what the Saints were experiencing en masse. Try to envision being Jo or any of the other Mormon leadership held up in Ray County or Liberty Jail, not knowing what the Missouri militia is doing to the Mormons, only occasionally hearing rumors or getting little snapshots of the action from letter exchanges to and from loved ones. It must have been a heart wrenching experience to be the leader of all these people and know that they’re being treated horribly by their enemies.
The Mormons didn’t really have anywhere reasonable to go. The majority of them who’d moved to Missouri had done so from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and even some parts of Canada and Europe. They couldn’t just say, well shit, we got to Missouri and they had already turned on the ‘no vacancy’ sign so we had to turn around and come home; that wasn’t an option for most of these people. They’d already sacrificed all their worldly possessions to get there. Even the saints who’d fled the persecution from the church in Kirtland which had excommunicated Jo, Hingepin Rigdon, and Bloody Brigham Young, couldn’t just go the 900 miles back to Ohio where the ruins of their old lives lay in disrepair. The only thing the saints living in Missouri could do was press ever forward.
They began to settle in this little town that bordered Missouri on the other side of the Mississippi called Quincy, Illinois. When I say ‘settle,’ that may be a strong word for what they were actually doing. The reality of the situation is a bit more complicated. The Missouri militia had agreed not to antagonize any Mormon who was actively fleeing the state, but there were way more Mormons than there was habitable land on the shores of the west and east side of the Mississippi. This caused two makeshift refugee camps to spring up. One on the Missouri side with Mormon families waiting to cross the Mississippi on the ferry, one camp on the Quincy, Illinois side where the Mormons landed awaiting further instructions from the leadership. Life wasn’t great for these people, and there’s no possible way to describe or even quantify the sacrifices they made and the hardships they endured for something they sincerely believed was the God’s honest truth.
Now that we’ve painted a mental picture of what it was like for the Saints who were removed during the harsh Missouri winter of 1838-9, let’s cut back to our heroes inside Liberty Jail. Before we do, there is an interesting CES devotional given by St. Bernard jowls Jeff Holland from September 2008 called “Lessons from Liberty Jail.” Indulge yourself by watching this and viewing the Missouri picture album on the Naked Mormonism FB page and you’ll essentially be getting the jail tour from an apostle. Now, back to Jo and company.
One thing I neglected to mention for time restraints was how proud the Missouri militia leaders were that they’d broken up the Mormon resistance and successfully ended the conflict. It was nearly a week and a half journey from when the leaders were captured outside Far West and Diahman on November 1 until they actually reached Richmond where the Court of Inquiry took place. During that journey, Generals Clark, Lucas, Wilson, and the other commanding officers paraded the Mormon prisoners around the local townships to show off their military success, a similar theme occurs while the Mormons were incarcerated in Liberty Jail. First, a passage from Richard Van Wagoner’s Sidney Rigdon, A Portrait of Religious Excess talking about their journey in early November prior to the court of inquiry. This is page 264-5.
“General Wilson, according to Pratt’s account, viewed his charges as “wonderful…royal prisoners,” and en route he often “halted the whole brigade to introduce us to the populace, pointing out each of us by name.” Rigdon’s more peevish account likened it to a sideshow where “we served the same purpose that a caravan of wild animals would.” Probably the wayside spectators were merely curious. Pratt added that Wilson allowed no person to “insult us, or treat us with disrespect in the least.” When they arrived in Independence, Rigdon and the others were initially quartered in a vacant house prepared for them. Although under guard, they were well-treated. “Were it not for the absence of our families,” Pratt wrote, “we should almost forget that we are prisoners.” With an almost audible sigh of relief he added: “we believe that this journey saved our lives from the hands of furious men.”
The prisoners were free to walk the streets of Independence without guard, visiting former haunts at will. The most sacred site in the vicinity was the place they had dedicated seven years earlier for the temple in Zion, their City of New Jerusalem. What had been a beautiful rise of ground, heavily timbered in 1831, now lay desolate, a melancholy reminder of their shattered dreams.”
It’s easy to agree with Pratt saying that parading the Mormon leaders around probably saved their lives from the hands of furious men. If it were circulated in the media, and the common public knew, that the Mormons were being moved by the Missouri militia through the counties for the purpose of facing them with the law in the Court of Inquiry, the Mormon-hating vigilantes wouldn’t bother the Mormons or attempt an assassination because they were getting what was coming to them. There were some benefits to parading the prisoners around so openly in the public.
The Mormons, and especially their leaders, were a spectacle to most. Most citizens had spent so much time reading about and discussing with their friends and neighbors all about those damned religious fanatics known as the Mormons; now those other-worldly and inhuman monstrous zealots were on exhibit for all to see. This social phenomenon remained true after the court of inquiry just as much as it did before. Once the Mormon leaders were incarcerated in Liberty Jail, regular Missourians would come look at the Mormons through the bars of the jail, just to get a look at them, or maybe pass something through the bars to them like a corn-cake or something. Here’s how the history.lds.org article discusses their zoo-like stay in Liberty Jail.
“Word spread of the Latter-day Saint prisoners at Liberty Jail, and “the place took on some aspects of a zoo.” Locals visited the jail in droves to gape at the prisoners, and their taunts and jeers echoed through the stone walls. Hyrum Smith complained, “We are often inspected by fools who act as though we were elephants or dromedarys or sea hogs or some monstrous whale or sea serpents.”9
Day after day the men languished in jail, and the emotional sting slowly and continuously tested their faith. “Our souls have been bowed down and we have suffered much distress . . . and truly we have had to wade through an ocean of trouble,” Joseph wrote.”
The Mormons were in the public eye and people wanted to see Jo and company. Local Missourians weren’t the only ones who visited the Mormons in the jail. Porter Rockwell, as we know him, Pistol-packin-port, reportedly brought them alcohol related refreshments while Nancy Rigdon passed small cakes through the bars on the window to offer the prisoners some respite from the disgusting food the jail guards were providing.
If we haven’t gathered it by this time, the stay wasn’t exactly a weekend resort. It was dark and cold, the only bedding they had was hay which matted down the more they lay upon it. They could have a fire to warm the place up a bit, but the smoke couldn’t escape so it filled the room with eye-stinging suffocation every time they lit anything bigger than a candle. Sanitation and overall stench was a bit of a challenge as the 6 men shared one chamber pot that may have been emptied at the end of the day, or may not be emptied for a few days at a time. The article on history.lds.org takes the level of detail a bit further.
“The four-month confinement in Liberty Jail also took a heavy physical toll on the prisoners. Sunlight barely crept through two small, iron-barred windows that were too high to see through, and long hours in the darkness caused the men’s eyes to strain, as one of the jailers later remembered. While a small fire was allowed, without a chimney to channel the smoke, the prisoners’ eyes became even more irritated. Their ears ached, their nerves trembled, and Hyrum Smith even went into shock at one point. Sidney Rigdon, the second-oldest member of the company next to Baldwin, was in such poor health that, lying in an inclined bed, he petitioned for an early release. His eloquent speech and severe infirmity caused the judge to discharge Rigdon ahead of schedule.”
Most of the prisoners were over 6 feet tall, thus forcing them to bend over any time they were standing, as the ceilings were only 5’11,” I think it was Caleb Baldwin who was the only guy under 6 foot and was the only person who could stand upright without creaking his neck. Jo’s spirits were at an all-time low. This may truly represent rock-bottom for Jo, but the person I’m most concerned with when it comes to the Liberty Jail stay is Sidney Rigdon. This is another passage from page 254 of Wagoner’s quintessential biography on Sidney Rigdon.
“Hyrum Smith later complained that because of “my close and long confinement, as well as from the sufferings of my mind, I feel my body greatly broke[n] down and debilitated, my frame has received a shock from which it will take a long time to recover.” Forty-five-year-old Rigdon, a fretful hand-wringer under stressful circumstances, was not a good companion. While the others bore taunts, bad food, unsanitary and crowded quarters, and the fear of lynching, Rigdon’s frequent bouts of mania, followed by melancholic periods of whining, wore heavily on the others’ nerves. “The sufferings of Jesus Christ,” he was heard to mutter, “were a fool to [mine].”
Prior to this incident and even prior to their indictment, Rigdon had a frail and tenuous connection to reality. It’s hypothesized that his childhood horse-riding accident wreaked untold havoc on his mental faculties, while another few incidents once he teamed up with Jo probably didn’t help his mental state. For someone who teeters on the edge of sanity and broaches that line constantly in order to increase the emotion and impact of his sermons, this maddening stay in Liberty jail was very taxing on the small remaining mental fortitude Rigdon had in reserve. Jail broke his brain. Jail, or the situation, or the food coupled with dysentery, or constant worry for the well-being of his friends and family, or some combination of all these factors caused Rigdon’s mind to irreparably fracture. From this time forward Rigdon would never be the same. Luckily for him, his eloquence never departed.
Continuing on in Van Wagoner’s biography from where we left off on 254:
“In 25 January 1839, after petitioning to have their case heard on a plea of habeas corpus, the prisoners were brought before Judge Joel Turnham, a Clay County judge. The Smith brothers, along with McRae, Wight, and Baldwin, were represented by their previous counsel, Alexander Doniphan. Rigdon, who considered himself a capable barrister, chose to present his own plea. His unique rhetorical skills served him well. When summoned to address the court, the still-infirm spokesman spoke from a cot on which he reclined. After pleading innocent to the charges of high treason and murder, Rigdon began to relate the hardships and degradations he had suffered trying to serve God. He spoke of tar and feathers, homeless children, mobbings, hunger, cold, and of destitution. Doniphan, who was unsuccessful in obtaining release for his clients, later said of Rigdon’s petition: “Such a burst of eloquence it was never my fortune to listen to, at its close there was not a dry eye in the room, all were moved to tears.”
You hear of those great speeches in history. Whether it’s Lincoln’s second inaugural address, MLK’s I have a dream, Eisenhower’s military industrial complex farewell, Churchill’s blood sweat and tears, Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech or even something before the modern era like Demosthenes speech to the Athenians or Alexander the Great’s oration to his men before invading India; we have some of these modern speeches on video which almost puts us in the audience, but given the millennia of great orators and the very short time we’ve had the ability to instantly record them while they’re working their magic, we can reasonably assume that most of the world’s best speeches and orators have gone widely unnoticed regardless of how great they may have been.
If I could use a time-machine for one single moment of history, this speech would be my destination. To hell with going back to witness the JFK assassination, the shot heard round the world, the burning of the library of Alexandria, or witnessing Uzzah killed for touching the ark of the covenant. If I had a voucher to use for one time in history, watching this speech would be the only thing in the world I want, and then I could keel over and die a happy man after I drank the water back then or something. It was later reported that a man stood up in the crowd after hearing the speech claiming that he’d come there with his friends to inflict injury upon the men that day, but after hearing Rigdon’s speech he said release these men and send them back to their destitute families. Rumor has it the crowd even raised $100 in donations that day to give to Rigdon for his journey. That’s our guy, Hingepin Rigdon.
It’s like Rigdon had a secret weapon hidden in the back of his maddened skull that he whipped out at the last conceivable minute. I’ve read enough of Alexander Doniphan’s letters to know that he had his own way with manipulating and constructing words together, but his efforts proved fruitless in petitioning the early release of the 5 prisoners for whom he was advocating. Rigdon came in the room representing himself and dropped the goddamn nuke of oration and everybody in the courtroom was left completely devastated by his magnificence AND the audience gave him $100 to help Rigdon’s return journey.
Rigdon’s mind was arguably in a fragile state, which may have helped with the emotional punch of the delivered oration, but he wasn’t completely maniacal. He still retained a very realistic understanding of the public perception of Mormons and was terrified to leave the courtroom upon his release. He knew that once he stepped foot outside of the jail cell the mob would have their way with him as they’d been wanting to do for months by that point.
Out of self-preservation, Rigdon consented to return to Libery Jail as a free man among his 5 prisoner friends. He immediately organized an “escape” to make it look like the guards simply lost track of him instead of allowing him to escape. From my understanding, it seems like Rigdon made quite good friends with the jail guards and didn’t want harm to befall them once their neighbors learned they allowed a Mormon leader to escape. The elaborate escape was planned and executed; Phebe Rigdon, Sidney’s wife, and their son-in-law George W. Robinson arrived to help with the grand plan. This next passage is from Van Wagoner’s biography on Rigdon pg 255.
“When darkness fell, the sheriff and jailer brought supper to their charges. After Sidney and Phebe had eaten, Rigdon whispered to the jailor to blow out all the candles but one, and step away from the door with that one. The sheriff then took him by the arm, and a pre-arranged scuffle ensued. During the mock shoving match the sheriff pushed Rigdon out the door onto the street, then shook his hand and bade him farewell, advising him to make his escape with all possible speed. After sprinting a short distance Rigdon heard someone running behind him. Thinking his escape had been discovered he drew his pistol, cocked it, and assumed a defensive posture, determined not to be taken alive. But as his pursuer drew near and spoke, Rigdon recognized it was George W. Robinson. A few moments later another ally, the guide, arrived with horses.
In the rush of adrenaline and confusion of the moment, Rigdon had forgotten his wife in the jail. Robinson returned to get her while Rigdon and his squire left town as fast as their horses could manage. Three miles outside town Robinson and Phebe, riding in an open carriage, caught up with the horsemen. Phebe and her son-in-law then drove to Far West to gather their families while Rigdon and his guide spared no horseflesh racing eastward across Missouri to an anticipated safe haven…
When the travelers reached the western banks of the Mississippi after dark, Rigdon was so apprehensive about remaining in Missouri overnight that he paid two canoeists to transport him across the mighty river, where, wrote his son Wickliffe, he “was free from his persecutors … and could rest in peace.”
Rigdon was finally free and in Quincy, Illinois. Upon his arrival, Rigdon realized just how useful Brigham Young had made himself. As one of the few presiding leaders of the church who hadn’t been incarcerated, Bloody Brigham had been working tirelessly to organize the exodus of the saints from Missouri to Illinois, creating haphazard makeshift settlements for the nearly 10,000 saints who were arriving in droves. However, the quorum of the Twelve lead by Brigham didn’t have the power to make executive decisions without consulting Jo, Rigdon and Hyrum. Well, Rigdon was back in town and ready to focus on the problems at hand and make some real decisions on behalf of the thousands of homeless saints.
Keep the whole situation in perspective though. Rigdon was free while Jo and Hyrum, the supreme leaders of the church, were still rotting away in Liberty Jail. The fact that Rigdon’s powers of oration were enough to free him but left the other leaders to toil in their cell was something of an inconvenience to which Jo took prejudicial notice.
I’d be pissed too. Imagine yourself in Jo’s position. All said and done, Rigdon was one of the primary reasons you’re in jail in the first place, and now he gets out after a month and a half, while you’re still locked away for god knows how long? Rigdon had given the July 4th oration, the primary catalyst that lead to public conflict between the Missourians and the Mormons, yet here you are with your closest friends, except for Rigdon who unconvincingly escaped and now lived as a free man in Illinois.
February was a hard month for Jo, Hyrum, McRae, Baldwin, and Wight. Unbeknownst to them, Rigdon was amidst the process of negotiating and procuring Commerce City, a barren swampland, for the saints to settle. Rigdon acted in sole authority for this time, never asking Jo or Hyrum for their guidance or thoughts. We’ll get into the details of those decisions next historical episode.
These monolithic decisions Rigdon made caused a few adverse effects. Firstly, both Rigdon and Jo realized that Rigdon could run shit without Jo and Hyrum, and arguably things went better when he did. What’s more threatening to a leader’s power than his second in command acting as supreme leader? Secondly, Rigdon’s well-being during this time should be taken into account. In Liberty Jail, he spent most of his time nearly despondent in a delicate and sometimes manic mental and physical state. Rigdon’s daughter, Nancy, and wife, Phebe, were constantly worried about how Rigdon would pull through. They didn’t know which Rigdon to expect each time they visited. It may have been the apocalyptic Rigdon rambling on about the doomed state of the world, or the Rigdon that would barely even acknowledge their presence in his depressed state. They may have even come to visit during some of his days of endless dysentery brought on by dirty water and terrible food, wiping his chapped ass with the straw he’d been laying on for comfort the night before, never having a worthy bath during his entire imprisonment. It must have been tough for them to see their husband and father in this situation.
Some historians have postulated that Rigdon suffered from severe manic depressive symptoms sometimes even falling under swoonings or seizures in conjunction with or possibly due to the various brain injuries he’d suffered during his lifetime. Someone as ethereal and disconnected from reality as Rigdon is hard to put into a box inside our reality which properly describes such a personality. Similarly, it’s hard to understand the complicated relationship Rigdon and Jo had throughout their years of trials and tribulations together, culminating in the strife rampant during the summer of 1838. This next passage from Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History describes the situation between Rigdon and Jo, obviously leaving a fair amount of nuance absent due to the nature of historical studies. This is starting with page 251.
“To the dirty food, unsanitary and crowded quarters, and the fear of lynching was added a new horror when someone smuggled poison into the tea and coffee. McRae, who drank neither beverage, escaped, but all who drank them, he said, “were sorely afflicted, some being blind two or three days, and it was only by much faith and prayer that the effect was overcome.”
The prison discomforts were borne with fortitude by all the men except Rigdon. His frequent fits were followed by periods of whining that wore on the nerves of the younger men. When on February 25 Doniphan finally succeeded in getting him released on a writ of habeas corpus, the others watched his departure with relief. Joseph, whose disillusionment with the older man was now complete, wrote in his journal with contempt: “He said that the sufferings of Jesus Christ were a fool to his.”
Glad as he was to be rid of him as a prison companion, the prophet was disquieted by thoughts of what Rigdon would do with the Saints in Illinois, and took immediate steps to curb his authority. Beware of “a fanciful and flowery and heated imagination,” he wrote to his brethren, and ordered that the affairs of the church be transacted by a general conference rather than a single man. Fearful lest Rigdon try to revive the United Order and the Danites, he forbade the “organization of large bodies upon common stock principles, in property, or of large companies of firms,” and warned against “the impropriety of the organization of bands or companies, by covenants or oaths, by penalties or secrecies.”
Obviously, Brodie takes certain historical liberties in coloring Jo and Rigdon’s relationship as being more toxic than I personally picture it, but it’s still understandable that Jo was a bit apprehensive of Rigdon’s power and influence without himself there to keep things in check. There’s no way of knowing for certain what tensions underlie the Jo-Rigdon dynamic.
One thing we can’t lose sight of, a significant number of the Mormons were Rigdonites long before they converted to Mormonism. Some of the core believers in Mormonism had been Rigdon’s followers and close friends for years prior to Jo appearing on the scene. Rigdon was watching his friends and family chased from Missouri for the third mass exodus in Mormon history, but not only that, people who trusted him as their spiritual guide and conduit to god were now suffering from Rigdon’s shitty management and poor choice in business partner. Everything that happened to the Saints was due to decisions made by Jo who was often influenced by Rigdon. In the early days of the church, Rigdon would influence Jo on doctrinal and theological things. During the late Kirtland years and all the Missouri years, however, Jo was taking advice from and being influenced by a bunch of people concerning really tough decisions. Any power Rigdon had over influencing Jo to do certain things in Missouri was heavily dampened by the sea of other advisors trying to make themselves useful to the prophet.
Seeing this situation play out in front of us, I can’t help but briefly muse on power dynamics. Take a journey with me as we contemplate and ponderize what power really is. Many people would consider Joseph Smith a powerful individual in religious history, such claim runs perfectly in line with intuition. How can somebody build a religious empire without being a powerful personality.
Let’s qualify the term power. As a physical term, it implies ability to move something or accomplish some units of work. As a mechanical term, it’s a measurement of a machine’s ability to combat the forces of nature like a car with 227 horsepower and 217 ft-lbs. of torque having the power to move itself. Power can be equated with strength, especially when it comes to political or national power. And now my personal definition, power is the mechanism by which an object has the ability to move another inert object towards or away from potentiality.
What gives a person that revered status of a powerful individual? Typically, the term is accurately reserved for those who affect great social or political change on an inert system through unwavering and powerful tactics. Take Mahatma Ghandi, he was aggressively pacifist but was considered a powerful man able to affect political change, or at least bring the conversation of oppression to the forefront of the British empire in India. Similarly, Carrie A. Nation was born a mere 20 years prior to Ghandi; she was known as being a terrifyingly powerful 6 foot tall Kentucky hard-ass who advocated for temperance by literally attacking bars with hatchets. What about Lyndon Johnson, known as an abnormally powerful president. This is what his biographer, Randall Woods, wrote of Lyndon Johnson:
“Depending on the circumstances, he could be:
Johnson the Son of the Tenant Farmer, Johnson the Great Compromiser, Johnson the All-Knowing, Johnson the Humble, Johnson the Warrior, Johnson the Dove, Johnson the Romantic, Johnson the Hard-Headed Pragmatist, Johnson the Preserver of Traditions, Johnson the Crusader for Social Justice, Johnson the Magnanimous, Johnson the Vindictive or Johnson the Uncouth, LBJ the Hick, Lyndon the Satyr, and Johnson the Usurper”
Only a truly powerful person could fit all those personalities and effect change depending on what hat they wear at a given time. Johnson was well known for cornering his opponents and bombarding them with his perspective until they gave in to his will. He was a powerful individual.
All of these people used their power to create change in a system typically plagued by inert actors. They recognized that something was the way it shouldn’t be and they used their power and influence to move things in a certain direction. But power only works in true form when met by apathy. An apathetic actor can be very easily influenced by something or someone with power, which brings me to a question.
Where did Joseph Smith fall on the power scale? Was he a truly powerful man, or was he acted upon by powerful men as an apathetic and inert symbol of his office? For better or worse, powerful people are often not easy to convince of anything. If they’re dumb and powerful they’ll continue to bang their head against logic until the logic or the person breaks. If somebody is wise and powerful, well, we see those as some of the great people in history, capable of constructing empires from nothing and overcoming incredible odds. The point is, we don’t typically see powerful people who are quickly swayed by whatever tide or force they happen to encounter. I would make the argument that powerful people aren’t often swayed by other powerful people, so let’s consider Jo’s timeline a bit.
From the earliest days of his history he was heavily influenced by his wishy-washy, intemperate, universalist father, Joseph Smith Sr., and of course, universalist teachings find their way into the BoM. Jo was influenced by treasure-diggers Luman Walters, Samuel Lawrence, and Mason Chase, and these people obviously shaped some of Jo’s understanding of reality, treasure-digging even makes its way into the BoM as well.
Fast-forward to Kirtland days and the church was essentially run by the quorum of the twelve, Rigdon, and Hyrum, supposedly under Jo’s rule, but we don’t see many theological debates or arguments over policy stemming from Jo. Most arguments are between outside actors or uninformed Saints with Rigdon or Cowdery arguing on behalf of Jo and the church. Some of the greatest sermons in the church were never delivered by Jo, but by Rigdon. When it came to military actions in Missouri, Jo trusted George Hinkle, Sampson Avard, and Captain Fearnaught to run the Mormon military which ended with some horribly botched skirmishes and the surrender and removal of all Mormons living in Missouri.
Beyond Missouri, Jo meets a number of powerful men which influence his politics, religion, and even his very morality. John Bennett lived with Jo for barely a year and nearly brought the church down with his spiritual wifery and the following expose he published. James Strang was considered a very close friend of the prophet with rightful revelatory claim to the throne after his death; nearly half of the Saints followed him instead of Bloody Brigham. The only way Jo was able to convince some women to marry him was because he told them about his big scary angel friend who appeared with a giant flaming cock, I mean sword, in the middle of the night commanding them to get married or be destroyed, he couldn’t even come up with a powerful and cogent argument to get these chicks in the honeymoon pose, he had to scare them into polygyny by invoking his big mean friend from out of town.
Back to the point of this entire historical timeline episode, when Jo needed it the very most in his life, he couldn’t summon enough emotive power to be released from the hell-hole prison he was stuck in. His friend Doniphan, a lawyer and Brigadier General of the Missouri state militia, couldn’t even use his power and influence to get the prophet released. Jo and his 4 friends would remain inert in prison until March. But, give the stand over to Rigdon for 10 minutes and everybody in the courtroom is inconsolable and throwing money at him, begging the judge for his release.
The ability of one man to convince a room of people to do whatever he pleases is a weapon that changes the entire field of play. Rigdon could force his will upon an inert population and cause them to move into a state of potentiality, what happened after was contingent upon the direction Rigdon steered the energy of the room. Whether it was convincing his followers to be baptized by the new Mormon preachers from New York, convincing Jo to march with 200 men to their certain death in Missouri in 1834, convincing the thousands of Mormons to move from their safe havens in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Canada, Britain, wherever, for a “better” life in a temporary city of refuge in Missouri, or even convincing thousands of people that they should vote for Jo and Rigdon as president and vp of America in 1844, Rigdon was the mechanism by which so much work was done and so much potential energy was realized and implemented. Rigdon is a force waiting to awaken at a moment’s notice. Rigdon is true power.
Had a lot of time to think about the direction of the show and what it truly is. Getting rid of Mormon mimzy and sticking with the monologue, it’s what people come to this show for, to be entertained, not to do scholarship for themselves.
Gathered a ton of material for special edition episodes, there’s simply too much to talk about.
History tour, not everybody listened or will listen to travel logs so do a brief wrap-up plugging fb page and website for pics.
NaMo home evening will be outlet for non-Mormon discussions with interesting people, will begin broadcasting them after recording.
Jim and Loris
Aaron, Ryan, and Leah
Andrew and Joey
Preston and Melissa
Harry and Robbie
And to so many more I can’t even begin to mention, thanks for making this trip a possibility and enriching it in your own ways. Most of all, thanks to the church and its staff of slave-labor missionaries for providing living museums available to tour year-round.
I shot a metric shit-ton of 360 video but it takes forever to process and edit. Those will be released very slowly on the NM youtube channel. If anybody has experience with editing 360 videos they could share, or wants to gain some experience, consider reaching out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk. There is currently one video I shot and produced on the youtube channel which features yours truly at the Jacob Hamblin farm in St. George Utah talking a little about the history there and telling some stories of who Hamblin was. That’s just a brief taste into what the rest of the 360 video will be like. Most are 5-15 minutes long and one is almost an hour long because there was just too much to see at Gilgal gardens in SLC.
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