Episode 163 – Live and Die by the Law
On this episode, we discuss the Law family. From Jo’s personal councilor in the Church presidency, aide-de-camp in the Nauvoo Legion, registrar of the University of Nauvoo, and general Mormon eliteness to one of the most powerful and outspoken critics of Joseph Smith and Mormonism; William Law has an interesting story in the Church and left behind a ton of documentation that is crucial and invaluable to historians today. We get to know him, his wife Jane, and his brother Wilson in this episode and then discuss what changed.
William Law Biography
Wilson Law Biography
JS Reflections and Blessings
William Law grain and sawmill
William Law-chaired Court Martial
Deed from JS/ES to William Law
History of the Saints by John C. Bennett
An Interview with William Law
3 letters from William Law
Joseph H. Jackson 1844 expose
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
We saw something interesting happen last week. When Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith got up and announced he received a revelation that the Mormons should vote for the Democrat Hoge, William Law stood up in an act of defiance and insubordination and told the Mormons that they should vote with Jo’s pick, the Whig Cyrus Walker, because the prophet knows the mind of God better than the patriarch of the church. Jo cleared the air and the Mormons voted as he requested. When William Law got up and spoke his mind, I commented that this would foreshadow events in the distant horizon of our historical timeline.
I thought this might be a good opportunity to take some time and get to know William Law as he will figure heavily into the 1844 timeline moving forward. William Law could be classified as one of the most controversial leaders in the Nauvoo church when the entirety of his career in Mormonism is taken into consideration. William, and his wife Jane Silverthorn Law, joined the church most likely in 1837. Little is known of Jane’s history, but the Law family immigrated from Ireland when William was about 9 years old. The Law family initially lived near Pittsburgh, but later moved to Ontario Canada where William met Jane and they were married in 1833.
1837 was a tough time for Mormonism. It was amidst an upheaval from within the highest ranks of trusted elites. The Fanny Alger affair with Jo had gone viral. The church had built and dedicated its first temple in Kirtland, Ohio, but had done so at great expense to the membership to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. The Mormons were attempting to live some kind of communalistic new-era religion where the members hold all things in common, except for the fact that the leadership held more things in common. All members were equal in this United Order socialistic regime, but the leaders were more equal. The Kirtland Safety Society Anti-bank-ing company was created early in 1837. The KSS didn’t rescue Jo and the leadership from their debts so much as it consolidated their debts into one form of promissory note. Lawsuits were flying around from within from the gentile world outside the church. It was rough. Jo’s cabinet of leaders, the Quorum of Apostles, had, in the summer of 1836, devised a plot to assassinate him. Which is fine because he was trying to assassinate a public critic and enemy of the church later in 1837 by the name of Grandison Newell.
The Law family joined the church when it was on the brink of collapse. Warren Parrish had led a group of dissenters in to a meeting in the Kirtland Temple brandishing pistols and bowie knives that resulted in a public brawl with multiple complaints of assault filed by many of the participants. It wasn’t long after this that Jo and Hingepin Sidney Rigdon fled in the middle of the night to escape assassination by ranking members of the church. What followed this troublesome year of 1837 was the Mormons openly waging war against the government of Missouri. The Laws missed out on this controversial time of Mormon history. They were still in Canada as active members hearing about all of these scandals and outrages through the papers and friends in the church.
When the Mormons relocated to Illinois after the Missouri-Mormon war, the Law family moved to Commerce, which later became Nauvoo, in mid-1839. The first time William Law really makes his appearance on the scene in an official capacity was in the first major revelation crafted in Nauvoo, what’s now known as D&C 124. Verse 82 commanded William Law by name to purchase stock in the Nauvoo House Association, which we’ve discussed extensively, but was basically what Jo conceived of to become the Mormon Ritz in Nauvoo. 15 verses later reads as follows:
Let my servant William Law also receive the keys by which he may ask and receive blessings; let him be humble before me, and be without guile, and he shall receive of my Spirit, even the Comforter, which shall manifest unto him the truth of all things, and shall give him, in the very hour, what he shall say.
And later it reads in verse 107:
Let him assist my servant Joseph, and also let my servant William Law assist my servant Joseph, in making a solemn proclamation unto the kings of the earth, even as I have before said unto you.
Finally, in verse 126, William Law was called to an important office:
I give unto him [Joseph] for counselors my servant Sidney Rigdon and my servant William Law, that these may constitute a quorum and First Presidency, to receive the oracles for the whole church.
This passage put William Law on the same level of authority as Hingepin Sidney Rigdon. To say he was a Nauvoo elite by this time would be overselling the office of elite. He was one of Jo’s closest counselors and advisors in the church. Hingepin Rigdon had been Jo’s right-hand man since 1831; as of January 1841, William Law was Jo’s left-hand man. From that point, this Irish immigrant continued to level up his position in the church and the Nauvoo city government. He’d began as a run of the mill merchant and physician, but in Nauvoo he became a member of the Nauvoo City Council, and aide-de-camp to the Lieutenant-General of the Nauvoo Legion, meaning he was one of Jo’s personal military advisors in addition to being one of his personal religious advisors. He also served a mission to Philadelphia in 1841, which had some marginal success. If the office of prophet worked like the government, William Law was only 2 heartbeats away from being president with Hingepin Rigdon being first in line. William’s wife, Jane, is a historical enigma. Very little documentation survives about her and that documentation is only in reference to Joseph Smith’s proposal to the Laws; he apparently really liked Jane and tried to take her as one of his nearly 3-dozen wives by this point. I wish I could read to you some letters or a journal or really ANYTHING that she left behind, but that’s the unfortunate nature of Mormon history. It was a religion created by men for men and the history was recorded about and by the men. As best we can tell, Jane was present for all of these circumstances. It isn’t a stretch to also speculate that Jane Law and Emma became good friends as well. Whether it was for church functions or city government related issues, the Laws and the Smiths spent a lot of time together. We’ll get back to the Smiths and the Laws momentarily. Let’s discuss William Law’s function in the church and the surviving documentation connected to his name.
One of the earliest documents that survives from the Nauvoo era with William Law’s name attached is a letter written to Jo by his older brother, Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith. The letter is dated 2 Jan, 1840 and it’s about general functions and troubles in the city. As was often the case, Jo and Hyrum were dealing with creditors constantly calling upon them to repay debts. One of the early Nauvoo land purchases from a guy named William White was about to go into default. This letter from Hyrum is attempting to get payment to White in order to abate the collection for another month. The letter, fraught with desperation and ill health, includes a small passage that claims William Law would be able to raise $100 once he gets payment for the land he sold back in Canada before he moved to Nauvoo.
William Law was also responsible for one of the public works projects in Nauvoo that was actually completed. He was put in charge of the grain and sawmill built in the city, which we’ll find out later made him quite wealthy for a while. What is interesting about this grain and sawmill is that it was initially slated to be driven by water power when the canal project was completed. This canal project would have diverted a small amount of water from the Mississippi through the center of Nauvoo’s mercantile district, thus providing endless sources of power for the planned factories that would be built. However, the canal project was conceived and agreed upon, but never got more than a few dozen feet dug before the whole project was abandoned. Instead, a steam-powered motor was purchased and brought to Nauvoo and was hooked up to the grain and sawmill so the Mormons could cut their trees into boards and grind their grain into flour. This grain and sawmill project was conceived in early 1841, but wasn’t tabled for completion until early 1842 where Jo’s Nauvoo journal records that on Monday, January 24, Jo met with William Law to inspect the lots designated for the mill. On that same day, Jo and Emma signed a deed to William Law for $700 for the said lots and the land was officially transferred to William Law with Jo’s younger brother, Samuel H. Smith, acting as Justice of the Peace to notarize the signatures.
William Law was also called as Registrar of the University of Nauvoo. The University of Nauvoo was sanctioned by the Nauvoo Charter, but was never formally created beyond forming a basic curriculum with a few standard textbooks. Whatever the intention of the University of Nauvoo was at inception, the benefits reaped from its existence amounted to granting honorary degrees to people who did favors for the Mormons. Law was the guy who handled the student records of the University. He alone approved people joining the University and their records while they were students. So, if a guy like James Gordon Bennett was printing some great articles about the Mormons in his paper, the New York Herald, William Law was the guy who accepted and processed the paperwork that gave James Bennett his honorary juris doctorate degree, even though the dude never went through law school, much less through the University of Nauvoo’s law school program, which it didn’t even have. This granted Law the ability to scratch the back of anybody who corruptly scratched the collective back of the Mormons, and the powers were exercised in a few notable cases like James Bennett’s.
William Law was also appointed to a criminal justice committee that was formed in October of 1840 as a result of the General Conference that first Sunday. As was required by the Nauvoo Charter, every act or ordinance passed in the city had to be published in the city newspaper immediately before it could take effect. The leadership bent this rule from time to time, but for the most part they stuck with it. Accordingly, printed in the first October of 1840 periodical of the Times and Season, we find the minutes from the conference which includes this:
The president [Joseph Smith] arose and stated that there had been several depredations committed on the citizens of Nauvoo, and thought it expedient that a committee be appointed, to search out the offenders, and bring them to justice.
Whereupon it was resolved, that, Joseph Smith, William Marks, Elias Higbee, Vinson Knight, Charles C. Rich, Dimick Huntington, [and] William Law compose said committee.
This committee was formed when the general topic of discussion during the conference was criminal justice. In the same meeting John C. Wreck-it Bennett spoke on the necessity of the brethren to “stand by each other and resist every unlawful attempt at persecution.” Bennett also added later in the same meeting that “many persons had been accused of crime, and had been looked upon as guilty, when on investigation it has been ascertained that nothing could be adduced against them,”. Criminality in Nauvoo was a constant issue that could never be controlled, but Bennett attempted to instate some form of checks and balances with the criminal underground in Nauvoo by proposing a motion; “it was resolved that no person be considered guilty of crime, unless proved so by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
I’m going to cut to the punchline here and say that the result of this was that William Law was complicit in covering up crime in the city of Nauvoo. How, you may ask? Law was one of the members of the committee for criminal justice in Nauvoo that would bring suspects before the city municipal court to hear cases of “depredations committed on the citizens of Nauvoo”. He would also chair the hearings from time to time. This meant that it was up to the criminal justice committee under William Law to decide what constituted a “depredation”. They might take up your case if they thought there was merit to it, but might not if it would incriminate anybody in the higher ranks. Even if they took up the case, usually theft, you still had to produce two or three witnesses for the committee to be able to prosecute the case. So, if you aren’t on the inside with anybody on the committee, tough steak, you don’t get justice. Inversely, if you didn’t commit any crime, but somebody on the inside didn’t like you or wanted you to go away for whatever reason, they could get their buddy William Law or Elias Higbee to trump up charges and call a hearing on you, witnesses could be easily produced, and then you suffer the criminal penalties for a crime you never committed. In standard practice, the criminal justice committee and the Nauvoo Municipal Court worked for the citizens of Nauvoo in general, but extenuating circumstances could lead to William Law and other Mormon elites effectively putting away their enemies, or covering up for crimes; the results were mixed.
Here are a few examples to illustrate my point.
In a Court Martial hearing on Nov 30, 1841, William Law chaired the hearing which was determining if two guys named David Smith and Joseph Holbrook had committed theft or were accessory thereto. The finding of the court is as follows:
[the court martial is] of the opinion that they are guilty of the charges preferred against them, and our unanimous decisions is that they be cashiered, and their names stricken from the rank roll.
David Smith had one witness against him, Hazen Kimball, but Joseph Holbrook had Bloody Brigham Young and White-out Willard Richards as witnesses against him. Had they actually witnessed the crime being committed, or had they simply been called to testify as witnesses against these guys to put them away? The decision came down from William Law and the other high-ranking members of the Nauvoo Legion chairing the hearing and they recommended to Wreck-it Bennett to punish Holbrook and Smith accordingly, which Bennett sent up the chain of command to his superior in the Nauvoo Legion, Joseph Smith, who approved of the findings and the men were punished.
Whether or not these guys actually committed theft can never be known from the available documentation, but hopefully this illustrates how the system was ripe for corruption and dissuading enemies of the church. In fact, the criminal justice system in Nauvoo was so corrupt that Wreck-it Bennett spent half a chapter of his 1842 expose talking about how crimes were covered up by Mormon elites, especially William Law. The subheading of this section in the chapter titled Joe Smith—His Claims and Character illustrates Bennett’s general opinions of the criminal elite in Nauvoo, of which he was part for a year and a half. This is the subheading title “Character of Joe Smith, and Two of His Accomplices—William Law and John Taylor—For Truth and Honesty”. In this section of History of the Saints (PATREON), it reprints an article published in the Times and Seasons, written by William Law. Please permit a brief reading:
An article appeared in the (Nauvoo) Times and Seasons, of July 1, 1842, from the pen of General William Law, (one of Joe’s Councillors of the First Presidency, selected by special revelation from Heaven, through Joe, as he boasts, for his great piety and unquestioned veracity!) dated June 17, 1842, and headed, “MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING!!” as follows:--
Where is there a record against any of our people for a penitentiary crime? NOT IN THE STATE!! Where is there a record of fine, or county imprisonment, (for any breach of law,) against any of the Latter Day Saints? I know of none in the State! If then they have broken no law, they consequently have taken away no man’s rights, they have infringed upon no man’s liberties.”
Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and John Taylor, the Apostle, (the senior and junior editors of the Times and Seasons,) endorse the statement in an editorial, as follows:--
“The above are plain matters of fact that every one may become acquainted with by reference to the County or State records! We might add that in regard to Moral Principles there is no city in the State or in the United States, that can compare with the city of Nauvoo!!! You may live in our city for a month, and not hear an oath sworn—you may be here as long and not see one person intoxicated; so notorious are we for sobriety, that at the time the Washintonian Convention passed through our city, a meeting was called for them, “etc. etc.
Bennett had seen the criminal element of Nauvoo up close and personal. Needless to say, he took great exception to this article penned by William Law about how Nauvoo was completely free from any wrongdoing or corruption. He even went to the extent of printing a number of criminal cases from the Nauvoo municipal record that showed the contrary to what William Law claimed.
What unblushing impudence, and barefaced lying, in the face of recorded truth! These are a trio of the most Heaven-daring liars the world ever saw, as will appear from the records and facts following:--
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS VS. TIMOTHY LEWIS, (Mormon)
“Indicted for larceny, October 2, 1840. Sentenced to four years imprisonment in the penitentiary—thirty days’ solitary confinement,--for stealing horses.”
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS VS. SALLY CASTILE AND FRANCIS CASTILE (Mormons)
“Indicted for stealing a log-chain, October 5, 1841. These defendants were convicted by a jury of Hancock county for the above theft,--new trial granted—the venue changed to McDonough, where no witnesses appeared, and they were discharged.”
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS VS. ----- JOHNSON (Mormon)
“Arrested for stealing, escaped from the officers.”
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS VS ALANSON BROWN, (Mormon, Danite)
“In jail under process from McDonough county for stealing, and for murdering a man, by stabbing, in Hancock.”
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS VS ------ GEAR, (Mormon)
“In jail for incest and rape on HIS OWN DAUGHTER!!!”
You get the idea. After that Bennett’s book prints more than a dozen public complaints filed against various Mormons for criminal conduct, which were never prosecuted, and he wraps with saying “Hundreds of such cases might be enumerated, but the above will suffice”. William Law was part of the criminal justice machine that could send innocent dissenters to prison on false witness testimony and let the guilty roam free if the church got its share of the spoils. Not only was Law complicit in the criminal aspects of what happened in the shady alleys of Nauvoo, but he participated in the propaganda campaign to cover up these criminal activities of the Kingdom on the Mississippi. To hear his own version of events, as we will very soon, Law attempts to completely scrub his own name from any wrongdoing, but make no mistake, he was complicit in a lot of what was going on in Nauvoo.
During William Law’s time in high-ranking offices within the church, Nauvoo Government, and the Nauvoo Legion, he was highly favored by the prophet. While Jo was in hiding to escape arrest, he recorded in August 1842 a series of visions he received; dreams is probably a better word for what’s recorded. He talks about his loved family, his wife Emma and how “many were the revibrations of my mind when I contemplated for a moment the many scenes we had been called to pass through. The fatigues, and the toils, the sorrows, and sufferings,” yet she “[is] here undaunted, firm and unwavering, unchangeable, affectionate Emma.” He then saw in his visions his brother Hyrum, “a natural brother” with “a faithful heart.” When he received these visions, Jo was on the small island in between Montrose on the Iowa side of the Mississippi, and Nauvoo on the other. A group of the most highly trusted Mormon elites, the who’s who of ultimate Mormons, visited the prophet in his rathole away from the view of the constables then staying in Nauvoo waiting to capture Jo. Whatever happened that night is reflected fondly in Jo’s reminiscences, but he wasn’t kind enough, or graphic enough, to leave behind any description.
My heart was overjoyed as I took the faithful band by hand, that stood upon the shore one by one. William Law, William Clayton, Dimick B. Huntington, George Miller were there. The above names constituted the little group. I do not think to mention the particulars of the history of that sacred night, which shall forever be remembered by me. But the names of the faithful are what I wish to record in this place. These I have met in prosperity and they were my friends, I now meet them in adversity, and they are still my warmer friends.
Something happened though. 1841, William Law and Jo were such good friends that Jo called him to be a counselor to the church presidency. 1842, Jo considered him to be one of his warmest friends who met him in his time of need when Jo was hiding from the law. In late 1843, William Law is openly subverting public declarations by Jo about who the Mormons should vote for. In the February of 1844 Council of Fifty minutes, Jo said “I know it by the Sp[irit] of the H Ghost—there is no man or woman can be saved upon any o[ther] principle—for what we don’t save in this probation we must save them in an[other] & [William] Law & [Robert D.] Foster… will never get out of hell until J[oseph] Smith unlocks it for them.” By May of 1844, William Law was the primary author of the Nauvoo Expositor, the printing press that Jo commanded the city marshal to burn to the ground which led to Joseph and Hyrum Smith arrested in the Carthage Jail, which ended in their untimely demise. 1844 was an even more controversial time for William Law as he was excommunicated by Jo, appointed by his group of dissenters to replace Jo as president of the church, all just two months before the Nauvoo Expositor and Carthage shootout. So, what happened? How did this relationship sour in such a relatively short amount of time? What did Jo do to stop Law from exposing him?
For further information on this we need to turn to a few antagonistic sources, one contemporary second hand, one very late but first hand. First, the contemporary source, Joseph H. Jackson’s 1844 expose. Jackson was the guy who joined the Mormons, got on Jo’s good side, then was sent on a mission to Missouri to break Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell out of prison, a mission he failed. Jackson discusses William and Jane Law extensively because he published his expose just 2 months after the Carthage shootout and the Laws figured so heavily into the causes which led to it.
He begins talking about the Laws in early 1844. This is a bit of a long read, but trust me, it’s well worth it so please bear with me. For the rest of this episode we’re going to have a few long readings but they’re all infinitely fascinating for what they reveal about Nauvoo history. You’ll find a link to Jackson’s entire expose in the show notes along with copies of everything I’m reading from today.
It was shortly after the adventure I have related above, (15th of Jan, 1844) that Joe informed me, in conversation, that he had been endeavoring for some two months, to get Mrs. William Law for a spiritual wife. He said that he had used every argument in his power, to convince her of the correctness of his doctrine, but could not succeed. I then asked him how he dare preach such doctrines to virtuous and well meaning females, in the name of the Lord, and in relation to the particular course he was pursuing towards Mrs. Law, I remarked that it astonished me, to see him profess so great friendship for Law, while at the time he was endeavoring to destroy his happiness by the seduction of his wife. To this he replied, that Law was trying to seduce Emma, and he was determined to beat him. I then asked him if Emma kn[e]w of his having so many spiritual wives; to which he replied that she did, and was knowing to every act of his life, and he believed she was the most virtuous woman on earth; and that she even would not be true to him if she could get a chance; but said he, "I watch her close and mean to, so long as I live." I then asked him if he could blame Law if he should seduce Emma. He seemed to think that Law would not do such a thing. I then reminded that he had just said that Law had tried to seduce Emma, in order to justify his own proceedings with Law's wife, but that now he contradicted himself by expressing so much confidence in Law. To get out of his dilemma, he said that the truth was, Emma wanted Law for a spiritual husband, and that she urged as a reason that as he had so many spiritual wives, she thought it but fair that she should at least have one man spiritually sealed up to her, and that she wanted Law, because he was such a "sweet little man." -- He then tried to persuade me to aid him in his purposes on Mrs. Law, and said that he would employ any stratagem, in order to accomplish his object, and went on to say, that he and Emma had both tried to persuade her of the correctness of the doctrine, but that she would not believe it to be of God. I told him that he must carry his plot himself, for I would have nothing to do with such things; but remarked, that if all parties were agreed, that he and Law had better swap wives. To which he replied that that was all Emma wanted… For the purpose of effecting his object he got up a revelation that Law was to be sealed up to Emma, and that Law's wife was to be his; in other words, there was to be a spiritual swap. Joe had never before suffered his passion for any woman, to carry him so far as to be willing to sacrifice Emma for its gratification; but in this case, no doubt, the object was the more prized because of the difficulty of procuring it.
This is a contemporary antagonistic account published during the most heated time of early Mormon history, the wake of Jo and Hyrum’s deaths during the largest schism crisis the church ever saw. This is a highly disputed claim made by Jackson, but he wasn’t the only person to level the allegation that Jo was attempting a wife-swap with William Law and proposed the idea of cross-sealing. We discussed the possibility of this in our episode about the context of D&C 132, that was episode 149 if you want a refresher. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
What is interesting is that Jackson documents William Law learning of the practice of polygamy and it seems to mark the shift from Jo and Law being buddies to being enemies. It also documents Jo’s reaction to being caught by Law in something that Law wouldn’t go along with. It’s very interesting. Here we go:
He had frequently heard of the spiritual wife doctrine from the Gentiles, but he, not having heard such doctrine taught by Smith, set it down as a slanderous persecution against the church. When, however, this new revelation was made known to him, his eyes were opened, and at once, he indignantly rejected the doctrines as not of God, but of the Devil. Such was his vehemence and indignation, that it became apparent to Joe, that he had presumed too much on Law's faith, and that it would be idle to attempt to stuff him with the doctrine. There was no alternative, therefore for Joe, but to destroy Law's influence, and therefore a great bustle was raised and Law cut off from the holy order. This placed Law, who was particularly sensitive, in an awful dilemma, and so powerfully did the frequent lectures he received, work upon his nerves, that I entertained serious apprehensions that he would become crazed.
One Sunday morning, Joe and I had a long talk concerning Law, in which he avowed, not for the first time, however, his determination to put Law out of the way, for he had become dangerous to the church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints, and that it was the will of God that he should be removed. He, however, wished to proceed in such a manner that he would be able to get Law's wife.
Then it details how Jo set up the Nauvoo city police on a night watch to catch William Law with his guard down, but it never worked. Then Jackson goes on to say:
Not only was his design to remove William Law, but also William Marks. The spite he had against the latter, arose from the fact, that he had endeavored to seduce the daughter of Marks, and she had informed her parents who were very wrathy, and Joe dreaded their influence. For this reason, he said that those individuals, if they were not checked, would ruin the church…
Wm. and Wilson Law having heard, by the vague information they had received, that either one of them, or Marks was the Judas whom Joe sought, armed themselves and went to Joe's house. On seeing them, Joe became desperately alarmed and gave every evidence of his apprehensions. They had a long conversation, in the course of which Joe made some abusive remark, which so exasperated Wilson Law, that he drew his pistol, and made Joe swallow his words in a hurry. So great was the excitement, that it was with difficulty that William Law and Hyrum Smith, could prevent Wilson from firing.
Joe seeing his plans foiled, determined on making capital of the whole affair, by raising the cry of persecution. Accordingly he called the City Council together, and in order to show the public that there was no ground for the rumors that had been afloat concerning the plot against Law, he brought all the forty guards up and questioned every man whether he had ever bound them by a secret oath. Every man appeared perfectly amazed, and not one had ever known of any such thing, nor did they know anything about the conspiracy against Law and Marks. This is part of Joe's game, whenever he is accused of secret plots, he calls his men, who are instructed to appear as foolish as possible, to disprove the accusation. In this instance they endeavored so hard to appear silly, that a sensible man might have detected the trick; but the faithful were convinced that Joe had been vilely persecuted and slandered, and that there was no ground whatever for the accusation against him.
Caught in the lie. Caught trying to kill his enemies who had a lot of public influence and knew about the Cloistered Sisters, and Jo lies for the Lord making his believers keep their safe little blinders on and believe everything he says. This shouldn’t surprise anybody that Jo conducted himself this way.
It should be noted that what we’re about to discuss includes vehement denials that an agreement ever occurred concerning “wife-swapping”, as they called it, from William Law himself and a further corroboration from William’s surviving son who was a judge at the time of the interview.
There are a few ways to interpret the documentation we’re about to read. As is quite common with those who attempted to expose Jo Smith and the salacious realities of Mormonism, Jackson attempted to scrub his own name of any wrongdoing in his expose. Similarly, William Law attempted the same. After he published the Nauvoo Expositor and the Carthage shootout happened, he tried to do everything in his power to leave the whole of Mormonism behind. In fact, in an 1887 letter Law wrote to Wilhelm Wymetal, he seemed surprised that anybody would want to track him down and interview him about the Nauvoo controversy because he’d done his best to leave that chapter of his life closed. He said:
You say it is very important to you to know, "if I am the Law who played such an important part in the Nauvoo events of 1843 and 1844." I am unfortunately the one. I cannot see how you are at all interested in my identity, for I assure you I have retired for ever from the Mormon controversy. When I left Nauvoo I left Mormonism behind, believing that I had done my part faithfully, even at the risk of my life, and believing also, that the Expositor would continue to do the work it was intended to do.
Now to the accusations directly of some kind of agreement between Jo and Emma with William and Jane, William says this speaking of Wilhelm’s Wymetal’s book where he read the accusations of a wife-swapping proposal.
On page 108 you speak of "swapping wives," and state that you have it from one who knows. Now let me say to you that I never heard of it till I read it in your book. Your informant must have been deceived or willfully lied to you. Joseph Smith never proposed anything of the kind to me or to my wife; both he and Emma knew our sentiments in relation to spiritual wives and polygamy; knew that we were immoveably [sic] opposed to polygamy in any and every form; that we were so subsequent events proved. The story may have grown out of the fact that Joseph offered to furnish his wife, Emma, with a substitute for him, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would forever stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in her house and to be well treated, etc.
The great mistake of my [life was my] having anything to do with Mormonism. I feel [it to] be a deep disgrace and never speak of it when I can avoid it; for over forty years I have been almost entirely silent on the subject and will so continue after his.
But, William Law wasn’t entirely silent on the subject. He exchanged 2 more letters with Wilhelm Wymetal and eventually agreed to sit down and be interviewed by Wymetal. These 3 letters and Wymetal’s interview of William Law are some of the most crucial documents historians have access to concerning Nauvoo Mormonism and character sketches of prominent figures in the movement. William Law in the late 1880s was in his late 70s and quite biased against Mormonism and his ever being affiliated with it. He regarded his time in Nauvoo with dark and unpleasant memories, coloring his entire perspective of this chapter of his life in a black cloud of depression, but at least his memories are quite vivid. Let me read a little snippet from his second letter so you can see why his character sketches are so important for historians as well as some of the only biographical information that survives about Jane Law, William’s wife who was the center of this controversy.
My wife (at an early day) burned up the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. She said no Mormon work could find a place in her house. We have lived down a great measure the disgrace following our unfortunate association with the Mormons. We committed a great error, but no crime. This is my consolation, that we only erred in judgment.
I said that in your book you spoke rather favorably of my brother and myself; of my wife, however, your remarks were far from flattering. She, were she living, would consider them insulting. You said she was much "admired and desired" by Smith; that Smith admired and lusted after many men''s wives and daughters, is a fact, no doubt; but they could not help that. They or most of them considered his admiration an insult, and treated him with scorn. In return for this scorn, he generally managed to blacken their reputations--see the case of your friend, Mrs. Pratt, a good, virtuous woman…
My wife is dead over four years, and a truer, purer, more faithful wife never lived. My brother Wilson is also dead, these ten years. He stood by me in all my troubles at Nauvoo, risking his life, defying the "Destroying Angels" and all the rest of them. You would not wonder then that the reputation and memory of such a wife and such a brother, should be as dear to me as life itself…
As to Emma''s deathbed declaration, it was like her life, FALSE. If she ever had any good in her, Smith so demoralized her, that she had none left. Anything for money and power and gratification while she lived, and the same to her sons after her…
As to the history of Joseph Smith, I have but little to add to your knowledge of him. One trait was his jealousy of his friends, lest any of them should be esteemed before him in the eyes of the Church or of the public. He would destroy his best friend for the sake of a few hundred dollars. It was his policy to get away with a man''s money, first, because he wanted it, and second, because he believed that in getting a man''s money he deprived him of power and position, and left him in a measure helpless and dependent. He was a tyrant; self-exaltation and gratification of his grosser passions with an entire disregard of others rights. [sic] And of all morality, led to his destruction at last. Hyrum Smith was as evil as Joseph, but with less ability; he had, I think a little more caution. Joseph had a wonderful memory. Hyrum was short in that; was a very poor public talker, but a pretty good secret worker. Sidney Rigdon was very close. I could never fairly understand him. While I knew him he appeared like a disappointed man, very retired in his ways. He professed to be a great Biblical historian; he was an eloquent preacher. I can hardly think he intended to be a bad man; would be leader if he could. Bennett was a scoundrel, but very smart. I never became closely acquainted with him. Joseph thought he was using him, and he was using Joseph. They were a bad pair. Bennett wrote out the Nauvoo charter and was perhaps the one who got it granted. It was a wonderful charter; gave too much power; it was a curse to the Mormons. The Higbee boys (or young men) were strong supporters of the Smiths until the death of their father; after that event they became bitter enemies; it was whispered that heir father had been foully dealt by, the Smiths being the cause; I never knew the facts; I believe the boys meant to do right.
Dr. Foster was an Englishman, a fine surgeon and a wholehearted man, when I knew him. He was zealous in the cause, until he found out the wickedness of the Smiths and other leaders. He stood by me faithfully throughout our troubles, left Nauvoo with me and remained near me for more than a year, his family and mine being close friends. He afterwards moved south and I lost track of him. I never knew much of Orson Pratt, as he was off on missions most of the time that I was in Nauvoo. Brigham Young was a deep, quiet, wicked man; kept his thoughts mostly to himself; I never understood him.
William Law here denied explicitly that there was any sort of arrangement between the Laws and the Smiths. This was corroborated by Law’s son after the interview we’re about to read was conducted when he said: “What has been said about Joseph having made an attempt on [my mother] is not true. In such a case my father would not have started a paper against him–he would have shot his head off.” Regardless of these denials, something did happen there between the Smiths and the Laws which caused their relationship to shift so quickly. Let’s read on to see if we can tease it out.
You’ll see it come through in the interview questions we’re about to read. Once again this is another long read, but it offers crucial information about Nauvoo Mormonism. Once Wymetal got the interview with William Law, he began with the hard-hitting questions first about Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell and the Lilburn Boggs issue. Law responded by telling Wymetal that Port did pull the trigger. He said: “Let me tell you, that Joe Smith, told me the fact himself. The words were substantially like this, ‘I sent Rockwell to kill Boggs, but he missed him, it was a failure; he wounded him instead of sending him to Hell’”. Then Wymetal asked a few follow-ups about Port with Law calling Port the “lackey of the [Smith] house” who would “shave Joseph, blacken… his boots and dr[i]ve his carriage.” Then Wymetal asks about the origination of the Nauvoo Expositor and Law responds it was his idea with the help of his brother, Wilson. They apparently invested about $2000 into the venture to build the printing office and buy the press and printing supplies. After that Wymetal asks about Law’s financial situation in Nauvoo. You’ll find a link to the entire interview in the show notes.
“Didn’t you have a store and a mill?”
“Yes, we had a large steam flour and saw mill and a store. It would have been the smart thing to do, to remain quiet, sell our property without noise for what we could get and move away. That would have been smart, but I wasn’t cool and smart then. I wanted to do my duty and nothing else, and didn’t care for the consequences, not a bit. Many friends advised me to be smart and remain quiet, but I would not hear of it and spoke my mind whenever an opportunity offered. When the Smiths saw that we were against them, then they applied to us their usual system, that is, to freeze us out. Secret orders went out that nobody could buy property without the permission of Joseph Smith, Hyrum or the authorities, as they called them, so our property was practically worthless.
“The letters you wrote me, made me suppose that the Smiths tried to kill you when they saw an enemy in you?”
“They tried to get rid of me in different ways. One was by poisoning. I was already out of the church when Hyrum called one day and invited me for the next day to a *reconciliation dinner *as he called it, to his house. He said Joseph would come, too. He invited me and my wife. He was very urgent about the matter, but I declined the invitation. Now I must tell you that I, in those dangerous days, did not neglect to look out somewhat for the safety of my person and that I kept a detective or two among those who were in the confidence of the Smiths. That very same evening of the day on which Hyrum had been to my house inviting me, my detective told me that they had conceived the plan to poison me at the reconciliation dinner. Their object was a double one. My going to the dinner would have shown to the people that I was reconciled and my death would have freed them of an enemy. You may imagine that I didn’t regret having declined that amiable invitation.”
“Have you had any knowledge of cases of poisoning in Nauvoo, ordered by the authorities?”
“I know that several men, six or seven, died under very suspicious circumstances. Among them were two secretaries of the prophet, Mulholland and Blaskel Thompson. I saw Mulholland die and the symptoms looked very suspicious to me. Dr. Foster, who was a very good physician, believed firmly that those six or seven men had been poisoned, and told me so repeatedly.”
“What may have been the reason for poisoning the secretaries?”
(With a smile) “They knew too much, probably.”
“I told you that the Smiths tried to poison me. When Joseph saw that I had no great appetite for reconciliation dinners, he tried with the Indians. The plan was, that somebody should use me up who was not openly connected with the church, he was yet afraid of the people because of my influence. Later he would have killed me without any regard. One day about one hundred redskins came to town and twenty or thirty were sent to my house. We tried to get rid of them, but could not and we saw clearly that they had a dark plan for the night. But we had to keep them, gave them blankets and they were all night in our hall. Wilson Law, I and some friends, though, kept good watch all night, with barricaded windows and doors and guns and pistols ready.”
From being in the first presidency, the Nauvoo City Council, Jo’s personal aide-de-camp in the Nauvoo Legion, flush with cash from a successful grain and steam mill, one of Jo’s closest personal friends… from all of that greatness to fearing for his life, staying up all night waiting by the door with his musket for an intruder, evading poisoning attempts, confronting the prophet on the street and thinking a mob of Mormons would lynch him on the spot. I didn’t include this bit because I thought there was already plenty of quote reading this episode, but William didn’t even find out about his excommunication directly. He read it out of the paper and confronted John Taylor about it and said the action was illegal. When William pressed John Taylor for the reason, the only reason Taylor gave him was “Brother Joseph ordered you cut off.” That cutting off apparently meant much more than just removing him from the records.
Throughout all of this, we can’t discuss William Law without briefly talking about his older brother who was the same age as Joseph Smith, Wilson Law. Wilson held high ranks in the Nauvoo Legion and city council like his brother. Wilson, however, was less of a character and didn’t leave behind nearly as much to humanize him as William did. Wilson didn’t join the church when William and Jane did, but later when he moved with them to Nauvoo in 1839. He was a brigadier general in the Nauvoo Legion and then later moved up to major general in August 1842. Wilson was excommunicated at the same time as William and Jane. The reason historians spend much less time on Wilson is he actually did stay silent about Mormonism after publishing the Nauvoo Expositor, instead of going against his better judgement on the matter as William did. Wilson just doesn’t give historians as much to work with as William Law does.
With all this information in mind, what does William Law and the interaction between the Smiths and the Laws tell us about Mormonism? A theme which runs to the very roots of the religion is a concept known as “lying for the lord”. A lot has been written about what it means to lie for the lord but the concept doesn’t necessarily have a strict definition. But if I had to hedge some kind of conservative definition it would be to omit information, tell a half-truth, or outright deceive if it serves the purposes of building the kingdom of god. Mormon scripture is filled with people called of god lying, killing, maiming, and committing genocide to serve the purpose of what they perceived to be building Zion. Whether it was Abraham lying about Saria being his wife to gain the favor of the pharaoh, general Moroni committing prisoners of war to concentration camps and killing political dissenters, or Nephi cutting off the head of a passed-out drunk guy in order to steal his metal book, deception and objectively immoral actions are replete through Mormon scripture and championed as righteous actions falling under this umbrella of lying for the Lord. The Lord’s ways are higher than the ways of the world and we must therefore do whatever God commands even if others perceive it as unlawful or immoral.
But that’s just Mormon scripture. Joseph Smith’s life is marked by his most blatant lies that haunt Mormons from his grave to this day. The entire field of Mormon history has been written in demonstrably false by those with an agenda, yet Boyd Packer has the arrogance to tell members in 1981 that “there is a temptation for the writer or teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” The 6-volume History of the Church by B.H. Roberts, initially written by church historians and completed in 1856 Utah, was written from Joseph’s first-person perspective. This project was conceived of in 1838 when Jo began dictating his history, but more than 60% of it was completed after his death under the direction of Bloody Brigham Young, all written from Jo’s first-person perspective. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the church finally admitted that it was written deceptively this way. That little lie for the Lord lasted nearly a century before the church owned up to it. It wasn’t until Dan Vogel’s 2015 Source and Text Critical Edition of the history of the Church that we see the hundreds of thousands of edits that were made to the source documents before they were included in the 6-volume set. Hundreds of thousands of lies. Hundreds of thousands when this is supposed to be the comprehensive history of the Lord’s one true church. Edits from just small removals of names from the source documents to just completely axing entire documents altogether. Hundreds of thousands of lies.
Catching a person in a lie can mean a lot of things, but their reaction to being caught in a lie is very revealing of who they are. This is why I think William Law’s history is so important because his story illustrates how Jo reacted when he knew he was caught in a lie. William Law became the target of Jo and it’s a wonder he survived when others didn’t. Law offers an explanation of how he thinks he survived: “What saved me from death in 1844 was 1, my caution; 2, the devotion of my detectives and 3, Joseph himself. He had inculcated into the minds of his followers that the rule, that the “heads” of the church must be safe before all. This became a strong superstition in the minds of his people, so strong that they did not dare to touch me. And he himself feared me so much because of my popularity and good standing… At last, however, he became desperate and would have killed me in any manner—but then it was too late in the day.” Meaning Jo died in Carthage before he could kill William Law.
This all means that the founding prophet habitually lied for the lord. When he was caught in those lies, like any dictator worth their salt, he tried to make the problems go away by any means necessary. The entire concept of lying for the lord is seen as moral and apparently necessary in Mormonism. The most frustrating thing about lying for the lord is it’s predicated on the person doing the lying actually communicating with the Lord in order to know what is acceptable to lie about. But it’s never been demonstrated that any of these guys talk to god. So, if you don’t grant the predicate; if you remove the “Lord” part from the lying for the lord equation, all that remains is lying.
Thank Brian for conducting interview.
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