Ep 164 – Blade, Nor Bullet, Nor Poison Can Harm Them

On this episode, we start with discussing whether or not Emma Smith poisoned Joseph Smith. If she didn’t, who did? If it wasn’t poison, what could it have been? Is there enough evidence to conclude that Emma attempted to kill her first husband? After that we discuss the Christmas party of 1843 at the Nauvoo Mansion when a drunk, Missouri-lookin’ guy comes in and crashes the party. Joseph Smith gives a revelation that came true: “I prophesy, in the name of the Lord, that you—Orrin Porter Rockwell—so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to thy faith, need fear no enemy. Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee!”


Emma Smith Lore Reconsidered by Linda Newell

JS November 1843 journal

Jacob Bigelow 1822 Materia Medica

Helen Mar Kimball Smith Whitney Reminiscences

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“I have never seen a woman in my life, who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year, with that unflinching courage, zeal, and patience, which she has ever done; for I know that which she has had to endure—she has been tossed upon the ocean of uncertainty—she has breasted the storms of persecution, and buffeted the rage of men and devils, which would have born down almost any other woman.”

-Lucy Mack Smith

He carried the day, but I had to stay at home, as my father had been warned by the Prophet to keep his daughter away from there, because of the blacklegs and certain ones of questionable character who attended there. His wife Emma had become the ruling spirit, and money had become her God.

-Helen Mar Kimball


The most well-regarded biography of Emma Hale Smith that exists to date is Mormon Engima, written by Valeen Avery and Linda Newell. When this book came out in 1984, it turned the realm of Mormon history concerning Emma Smith on its head. Never before had scholars so unabashedly dealt with Emma’s perspective of church history, and never had it been conducted by women prior to this book. This was the 1980s and the field of Mormon history. Women were just beginning to gain a legitimate foothold in the field and being recognized for their contributions beyond just mere tokenism.

The reason I bring this book up is for the title. Mormon Enigma, Emma Hale Smith. It’s simply perfect. Emma is an enigma in the historical sense. Her first husband, Joseph Smith, is a phenomenon, but he’s anything but enigmatic. He’s hard to understand and nail down, but the documentation that exists about him is so extensive that multiple biographies have been written, all with slightly differing perspectives, to create a fairly wholistic perspective of the guy. Emma, on the other hand, much more is left to mystery and speculation. What historians have about Emma is a few dozen letters to and from loved ones or prominent figures, and plenty of second-hand descriptions from those close to her. Unfortunately, Emma never kept a journal as far as historians are aware. Her scribe, Eliza R. Snow, had disagreements with Emma concerning the practice of polygamy and therefore never provided scribal duties to Emma the way William Clayton or White-out Willard Richards did for Jo.

Somebody as enigmatic as Emma can be molded to fit many differing historical models. Was she the stonefaced pillar of support for Jo as many claimed her to be? Or was she prone to flying off the handle in extreme situations? Was she kind, loving, and praiseworthy, or was she cold-hearted, shrew and reclusive? Was her marriage to the prophet all sunshine and roses, or did they fight like rapid chimps even including physical abuse? Did she fully participate in all the ordinances of the church at her own behest, or was she cajoled into them by Jo when he used them as bargaining chips to get more wives? Did Emma try to kill Joseph Smith?

Due to the simple lack of documentary evidence, quotes can be mined all day to create a version of Emma that fits into each of these molds. What complicates matters further when trying to identify the historical Emma is the way she was slandered and perceived by the Salt Lake church during and after her life following the schism crisis. Emma and Joseph III represented the single greatest threat to Bloody Brigham Young’s claims to prophetic succession. He acted as on would expect somebody who had everything to lose would act and the propaganda campaign that destroyed her character persists in Mormon culture to this day.

Needless to say, as a result of all these factors, a lot of lore has grown around Emma, much of it based on contemporary sources, yet exaggerated, amplified, and sometimes even fabricated. With this in mind, we’re going to attempt to discuss the supposed poisoning incident. In 1866, Bloody Brigham Young said this from the pulpit:

The sympathies of the Latter-day Saints are with the family of the martyred prophet. I never saw a day in the world that I would not almost worship that woman, Emma Smith, if she would be a saint instead of being a devil. I feel so today. There is no good thing in a temporal point of view that I would withhold from her; anything that is in my power to do for her, I would willingly do with all my heart, and with an open hand.

There are a few here that knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and some of them are apostatizing from the work, which the Lord commanded him to found, to run after Young Joseph Smith, the second son of the Prophet, who has no more authority to set himself up as a president and teacher of a people than any other man has in the sectarian world who possessed nothing of the priesthood of the Most High. Young Joseph Smith does not possess one particle of this priesthood. The Twelve Apostles and the other authorities of this Church would have been exceeding glad if the Prophet's family had come with us when we left Nauvoo for the valleys of these mountains. We would have made cradles for them if they had required them, and would have fed them on milk and honey. Emma is naturally a very smart woman; she is subtle and ingenious, and she has made all her children believe that myself, brother Kimball, and the other members of the Twelve laid the plot which terminated in the death of the Prophet. This charge is especially laid to myself. At the time that Joseph was killed I was in the city of Boston, a number of hundred miles away from the scene of the martyrdom. She has made her children inherit lies. To my certain knowledge Emma Smith is one of the damdest liars I know of on this earth; yet there is no good thing I would refuse to do for her, if she would only be a righteous woman; but she will continue in her wickedness.

Not six months before the death of Joseph, he called his wife Emma into a secret council, and there he told her the truth, and called upon her to deny it if she could. He told her that the judgments of God would come upon her forthwith if she did not repent. He told her of the time she undertook to poison him, and he told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she. He told her where she got the poison, and how she put it in a cup of coffee; said he, "You got that poison so and so, and I drank it, but you could not kill me." When it entered his stomach he went to the door and threw it off. He spoke to her in that council in a very severe manner, and she never said one word in reply. I have witnesses of this scene all around, who can testify that I am now telling the truth. Twice she undertook to kill him…

JOSEPH HIMSELF TESTIFIED BEFORE HIGH HEAVEN MORE THAN ONCE THAT SHE HAD ADMINISTERED POISON TO HIM. THERE ARE MEN AND WOMEN PRESENT TODAY WHO CAN BEAR WITNESS that more hell was never wrapped up in any human being than there is in her. She gave him too heavy a dose and he vomited it up and was saved by faith.

Consider the context in which this sermon was given by Bloody Brigham Young. The dude was always jealous and outspoken about his tenuous claims to the mantle of prophet. This was given in 1866, barely half a decade after Joseph III took the mantle of prophet of the Reorganized church. Alexander Smith, Emma’s second to youngest son, had just visited the Utah territory to bring people from the Brighamite church into the RLDS. Jo 3.0 may have been prophet, but Emma had a heavy hand in everything that happened in the church. She was the matriarch of the religion and was treated with respect and reverence by the RLDS folk, which meant she was treated with vitriol and vilification by Bloody Brigham.

So that’s the accusation from 22 years after Jo was assassinated, but is there any contemporary source for Emma poisoning Joseph? Sort of, but it’s not clear cut. Jo’s journal from 5 Nov 1843 reads as follows, and we’ll parse out some possible interpretations after reading it.

Sunday November 5— 1843.— Rode out with my Mother & others for her health. was taken suddenly sick at the dinner table. went to the door & vomited. <​all dinner​> jaws dislocated,— & raised fresh blood.—— eve[r]y symptom of pois[o]n[.] Prayer meeting eve at the Hall over the store. [[Joseph did not dress <​nor Emma​>]]

Could this have been a poisoning? It’s plausible, but not very probable. Let’s discuss why. This discussion is about to go a bit morbid for the next few minutes so please bear with me.

First, was there anybody close to Jo during that dinner who may have wanted him dead? Yes, absolutely. Jo had a lot of enemies in late 1843 Nauvoo, including Emma to some extent. It’s not really a matter of if somebody had motive, but who of many possible suspects was it that had access to his food or coffee without his notice. Emma had plenty of motive to get rid of her husband with everything she was dealing with. Her feelings toward Jo had shifted by mid-1842. She’d threatened divorce multiple times and Jo considered the threat to have merit. She had enough of Jo’s property in her name that she was going to be fine financially if he was removed so there’s really nothing that could have held her back from dosing him aside from love, but love can be a double-edged sword in these matters.

A conversation about somebody poisoning Jo isn’t complete without enumerating a few more possible suspects. The Laws were on their way from stalwart faithful members to hated enemies of the church at this time. Joseph H. Jackson could have tried it but he strikes me as too dumb to pull it off. The Higbee brothers, who later became copublishers of the Nauvoo Expositor, suspected at this time that Jo had their father poisoned, and Jo had just preached that funeral sermon only a month prior to November 1843, so the timing matches up. John C. Wreck-it Bennett certainly wanted Jo dead, but he didn’t have access to Jo’s food or drink at this time because he was mostly living in Missouri by late 1843. Sidney Rigdon certainly wanted Jo gone long before late 1843, but he doesn’t strike me as somebody who would be so subversive as poisoning Jo, in spite of his warlike sermons during the Mormon war in Missouri 5 years prior. However, Rigdon had a fairly solid claim to the throne once Jo died, so that’s plenty motive in and of itself. Another half dozen other people had gone mysteriously missing or died under unexpected circumstances in Nauvoo and they all had families, some of which certainly suspected foul play and wanted to retaliate. Add in to this the entire line of people who had some level of rightful claim to the throne beyond Rigdon and the list of people who wanted Jo dead is nearly as long as a rap sheet of his crimes. Hell, Bloody Brigham himself is just as likely a suspect for poisoning as Emma.

The motive and suspects are there for this to be a poisoning, what about the substance and symptoms? The most likely potential substances are strychnine, cyanide, arsenic, or atropine. Each of these individually propose possibilities. Strychnine was often mixed with hard liquor and sold to Natives as firewater. However, the symptoms don’t match because strychnine causes seizure-like symptoms with spasms, back arching, appendage rigidity, paranoia, stuff like that. However, it can cause a person’s jaw to lock up, which Jo may have misconstrued as his jaw dislocating, so that sort of fits. But a dosage that would affect him so quickly also would have sent him into a coma in half an hour which doesn’t fit with him going to the prayer meeting that same evening.

What about cyanide? Cyanide is actually a better candidate. The onset is immediate and symptoms include violent vomiting, possibly even to the point of fresh blood as Jo’s journal states, but the other symptoms don’t seem to be there. He didn’t say anything about feeling otherwise ill with symptoms that might lead to cyanide poisoning like chest pain, abdominal pain, paranoia and anxiety, skin rashes, etc.

What about arsenic? Arsenic has been widely used as a poison since before the fall of the western Roman empire. In white powder form, arsenic is often referred to as “inheritance powder” because of its frequent use to remove powerful people from their positions of power without any trace. Onset takes 30 minutes, which fits with the timeline from when Jo ingested the candidate to when he was vomiting fresh blood. Headaches, confusion, diarrhea, excess saliva and sweating, convulsions, stomach cramps and vomiting are all symptoms of arsenic poisoning, usually sending the target into convulsive shock and then coma before death. Basically, Joffrey Lannister without the bleeding eyes. If Jo had been hit with enough arsenic to cause him to vomit blood, he wouldn’t be going to prayer meeting that evening.

What about the final candidate, atropine? Atropine is distilled from the nightshade family. The berries of belladonna are juiced and crystallized which makes it water-soluble without any scent or trace. Belladonna was widely used as a medicine in herbal medical books of the day. Here’s Jacob Bigelow’s section on it from his 1822 Materia Medica published in Boston:

The Atropa Belladonna has bell-shaped flowers of a brownish or dusky colour, yellow at base on the inside. The berries are of a dark purple colour. The leaves have a nauseous subacrid taste, without smell… A peculiar akali has been announced by M. Brandes, as existing in this plant, and which he calls atropia. It is white, shining, crystallizable in needles, insipid, little soluble in water or alcohol, and capable of neutralizing a considerable quantity of acid to form salts. It is highly powerful, and even its vapour is injurious. The whole of the plant is poisonous, producing, in large doses, intoxication, attended with thirst, nausea, insensibility of the retina, causing a dilated pupil, constriction of the throat, coma or delirium, convulsions, and the other dangerous symptoms of narcotics. In fatal cases the stomach and bowels are found inflamed and gangrenous, and the whole body becomes swollen and highly purtrescent.

Belladonna was widely-known to be a deliriant and poison of the day, as were its cousin plants like datura and potatoes. It was common knowledge that the nightshade family of plants, which includes nearly 3,000 species, contain nasty stuff that can get you really high or kill you. Bigelow’s Materia Medica even says to dose carefully beginning with “the commencing dose is a grain, to be gradually increased till its effect on the stomach and head becomes perceptible, by nausea and vertigo.” Jo vomiting his guts up fits with atropine poisoning, but he didn’t mention anything of vertigo or delirium, although I would postulate he was quite well-acquainted with these effects long before 1843 and would have known how to deal with them, probably not finding them notable enough to include in his journal entry for that day, especially if he was headed to prayer circle that night where other deleterious substances may have been present. Still, enough atropine to cause an immediate fit of vomiting likely would have sent him to bed with visions of angels dancing on pinheads for the night, which didn’t happen so it’s not a perfect fit. Besides, anybody with a passing knowledge of botanical medicine, of which there were plenty in leading roles in Nauvoo Mormonism, had the expertise to distill and crystallize the stuff.

My point is, there were plenty of candidate poisons Jo could have been hit with. There were also plenty of people who wanted him dead, both enemies and perceived friends who actually had access to his food or coffee. All three criteria of means, motive, and opportunity are present for this to be a poisoning with intent to kill. It’s completely and totally plausible.

Now the question is, how probable is it that Jo was poisoned, whether by Emma or any of the other dozens of people who wanted him dead? The probability increases with each and every person added to the list that wanted him dead and had access to him. Remember, we’re only 6 months out from when he was actually assassinated. Judging the probability simply requires introducing other plausible conclusions.

Now that my search history has the NSA following me, right Kerry? What about other less salacious explanations? Well, food poisoning is one. Food thermometers weren’t really a thing and undercooked pork or chicken was a common affliction in 19th-century America. This easily could have caused the immediate bout after eating. He may have even had some undercooked bacon for breakfast and it hit him during this lunch when he thought he was poisoned. Violent vomiting along with diarrhea sure fit the entry in his journal and once he got it out of his system, he could have been well enough to attend prayer meeting that night.

What about a medical explanation? Turns out that Jo was under a lot of stress at this time in his life and also had a lot of partners he was physically active with. The bacterium that causes peptic ulcers can be transferred orally through a loving kiss shared by one of his dozens of wives and the stress of running a church, a city, guarding against assassins from within and without high church ranks, wanted by two states, among many other pressures could have lowered his immune system’s resilience. He gets an ulcer from all of it, then pukes up blood after eating some spicy food.

Myriad explanations have been explored to remove any probability of Emma actually poisoning Jo. Linda King Newell, one of the authors of Mormon Enigma, wrote a Dialogue article in 1989 titled “The Emma Smith Lore Reconsidered,” in which she attempts to dispel some myths that have grown around Emma as a result of the anti-Emma anti-RLDS propaganda from the Brighamite church. Here’s Newell’s take on the situation:

Joseph would subsequently experience periodic bouts of sudden nausea and vomiting. Many ailments could cause such symptoms, including acute indigestion, food poisoning, ulcers, gallstones, but only poisoning, bleeding ulcers, or (rarely) food poisoning would have led to such an acute episode. Moreover, the 1844 poisons strong enough to cause hemorrhaging in the stomach as rapidly after ingestion as Joseph's diary indicates, would not leave the victim well enough to attend a meeting just a few hours later. According to Joseph's diary, "domestic concerns" kept him busy the next morning.26 Perhaps Emma was able to convince her husband that she had not attempted to poison him. The previous evening, according to Brigham, Emma had cried when Joseph lashed out at her. Tears rather than an open defense are in keeping with at least one other occasion when she endured a public rebuke from Joseph. When Joseph was suffering from violent vomiting the next month, he reported that Emma "waited on me, assisted by my scribe, Willard Richards, and his brother Levi, who administered some herbs and mild drinks. I was never prostrated so low, in so short a time, before; by evening was considerably better."

Valeen Avery, the other author of Mormon Enigma also interviewed two physicians at the time they were writing Mormon Enigma who said they couldn’t diagnose a patient who’s been dead for 140 years but that Jo’s symptoms are most consistent with ulcers “considering Joseph’s stress during this period.”

Did Emma try to poison Joseph Smith? We can’t know for sure. Some of his symptoms are consistent with poison, but can be better explained medically without the need for poison. But is the fact of whether or not he was actually poisoned by Emma what really matters here? Does it actually matter if Emma really put the inheritance powder in his coffee? At face value these seem like big questions, but I think there’s a more important discussion at the root of this conversation.

It may be helpful to reframe the question. What set of circumstances would have led to Joseph Smith suspecting his own beloved first wife to have poisoned him? The loving Emma, who’s been by his side through thick and thin for nearly 17 years by this point, trying to kill her husband? I don’t think any rational person could conclude that Emma was happy in her marriage by late 1843. If that was the case, what was her exit strategy?

The truth is, Emma, and every other woman in antebellum America, didn’t have much control over their own lives. If they found themselves in a situation that made them miserable, there wasn’t much they could do without serious and unpleasant consequences. Being a divorced mother in America today holds a stigma and society has come a long way since the 1840s. During this Nauvoo period, a woman couldn’t legally sign contracts. She could be gainfully employed, but women made so little compared to men that it was hard to provide for children. Legally speaking, divorce put the children into the custody of the husband. Children always had to have a male guardian. If Emma divorced Jo, that would mean her children, Julia (13), Joseph III (11), Frederick G Williams (8), and Alexander (5), would all be given to Jo by the state. Not only did Emma want out of the situation herself, but she wanted her children safe from the criminal kingpin. If she filed for divorce, that would take away any legal ability she might have give them a better life. Divorce was out of the question, even though she threatened it multiple times.

Another option she had would be to run away. But Jo had friends who would bring her and the kids back, they wouldn’t get out of the state before his boys found her; then how would Jo punish her for trying to leave? He had total control over her and such insubordination would threaten his power; she wouldn’t be treated well. Emma was Skylar White; she had no way out and nowhere to turn. Every person in Nauvoo she might turn to was under Jo’s control or was one of his spies. She was an island.

The final option would be to have Jo removed. If he died, yes the children would be legally given to one of his brothers, but Emma could likely make a hell of an argument that her surviving older brother, Alva, should be the custodian of the children. She could move back to Pennsylvania and continue to raise her children, find another nice man to wed so she could legally be the guardian of her own children again and life would go on.

Out of all these options, Joseph Smith dying presented the best possible option for Emma to get her and her kids out of this dangerous situation. At the end of the day, Jo probably had stomach ulcers. But the fact that a reasonable person could conclude that Emma poisoned her own husband means the situation was so far beyond salvageable or reasonable for her. The Overton window of her life and the possible decisions she could make had been dragged so far in the direction of insane by Joseph Smith that poisoning him was a reasonable option. Beyond that she was poised in a financial situation that she could feed the kids for years even if Jo’s income from the church suddenly dried up.

However, Emma wasn’t completely powerless. She was still the elect lady of Mormonism. She still held sway in the Relief Society. She watched out for the welfare of polygamous wives and other women in Nauvoo, especially her fellow elites. Even in the home she held a certain amount of power, even if Jo only begrudgingly ceded ground. An interesting case where this power dynamic is revealed has to do with the Nauvoo Mansion and the bar Jo kept on the ground floor. This bar was for entertaining dignitaries and visitors as well as his closest friends who could bend the word of wisdom rules at their leisure. When it became too rowdy one evening in early 1844 Emma requested Jo close the bar, which he did in order to keep the peace. There were enough nearby grogshops for the Mormons and visitors to satisfy their palate so the bar was removed and Emma could no longer bother Jo with incessant requests to have it taken out.

The Smith family had moved into the Nauvoo Mansion around August of 1843. There’s some evidence to indicate that they were living there part-time as early as March of that year, but it isn’t included in Jo’s journal that they moved until early August. One of the first installations into the completed home was this bar because it was set to be the Nauvoo Marriot with all the amenities expected of any nice hotel in any major city.

The Nauvoo Mansion continued as a successful hotel business for the months of September through December with the bar intact. Christmas day festivities brought together a large gathering of friends and family, which is recounted in the History of the Church. I’m reading from the 2015 Dan Vogel edition where it begins telling about some inconsiderate Christmas carolers who showed up on the doorstep of the Nauvoo Mansion at 1 in the damn morning! The lovely Christmas festivities are interrupted by a brawl with a faceless drunkard in the late evening.

Monday, 25.—This morning about 1 o’clock, I was aroused by an English sister, Lettice Rushton, widow of Richard Rushton, senior, (who ten years ago lost her sight) accompanied by three of her sons, with their wives, and her two daughters with their husbands, and several of her neighbors, singing, “mortals, awake, with angels join,” &c., which caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul. All of my family and boarders arose to hear the serenade, and I felt to thank my Heavenly Father for their visit, and blessed them in the name of the Lord. They also visited my brother Hyrum, who was awakened from his sleep; he arose and went out of doors. He shook hands with, and blessed each one of them in the name of the Lord, and said that he thought at first that a cohort of angels had come to visit him; it was such heavenly music to him.

At home all day. About noon gave counsel to some brethren who called on me from Morley Settlement, and told them to keep law on their side, and they would come out well enough. (hollow words to people whose homes would be on fire less than 2 years in the future)

At two o’clock, about 50 couples sat down at my table to dine; while I was eating, my scribe called, requesting me to solemnize the marriage of his brother, Dr. Levi Richards, and Sarah Griffiths; but as I could not leave, I referred him to Prest. B. young, who married them.

A large party supped at my house, and spent the evening in music, dancing, &c., in a most cheerful and friendly manner. During the festivities, a man with his hair long, and falling over his shoulders, and apparently drunk, came in, and acted like a Missourian. I requested the captain of the police to put him out of doors, a scuffle ensued, and I had an opportunity to look him full in the face, when to my great surprise and joy untold, I discovered it was my long-tried, warm, but cruelly persecuted friend, Orrin Porter Rockwell, just arrived from nearly a year’s imprisonment, without conviction in Missouri.

Pistol Packin Porter Rockwell decided to crash the Christmas party in the Nauvoo Mansion. As soon as Jo realized who this long-haired drunkard was, he was elated to see his childhood friend here in Nauvoo instead of continuing to languish in a Missouri prison where he’d spent nearly a year. Why was he in a Missouri jail? Well the state suspected him in the assassination attempt on former Governor Lilburn W. Boggs. Go back to episode 109 where we discussed the documentation linking Port with the assassination attempt. Then Port went into hiding for about 9 months to keep from arrest and extradition to face the broken Missouri legal system. All the while, the Bennett Meltdown transpired as Wreck-it Bennett published articles about Jo and the Mormons while he collected affidavits from citizens of Nauvoo. Port confronted Benentt in that same episode 109 to try and get Bennett to stop publishing his accusations that Jo sent Port to Missouri to kill Boggs. After hiding out for those 9 months, Port finally let down his guard in episode 142 and was unexpectedly arrested as he attempted to board a ferry to Nauvoo. Since early 1843 he’s been caught in the cogs of the Missouri legal system. Jo sent Joseph H. Jackson to break Port out of prison in Spring of 43 but the mission wasn’t successful. Now, Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell was somehow here in Nauvoo, drunk, smelly, unkempt, and looking for a brawl if anybody steps between him and the bar at the Nauvoo Mansion.

But how did he get here? What happened? Well, because the Mormons were and still are incessant record keepers, after the party started back up and Port had a few more in him, then slept off the hangover, he was put down in front of a scribe to tell his story.

He tells of how he was arrested in St. Louis as he was boarding a ferry to take him to Nauvoo. He then was put in a jail for two days with iron hobbles around his ankles. During the journey from St. Louis to Jefferson City, a guy was behind Port in the stagecoach was being annoying and poking him in the back with something. When Port reacted, the man’s wife whispered something in his ear, probably telling him he was bothering the guy who shot Lilburn Boggs, and the man immediately ceased his operations. Apparently the coach driver was so drunk he ran them into a tree and a ditch, so Port eventually took over for him. Then he tells about their arrival to Independence where a preliminary hearing was held to ascertain whether or not the state had enough evidence to move forward with a case against Port. He was committed to the Independence Jail for safekeeping because the Judge expected a mob to form and lynch ol Port.

Here in Independence, Pistol Packin’ Port tried his first escape attempt when a guy was committed to his same cell with his saddle bags.

They contained some fire-steels, gun-flints, and articles of Indian trade. I sawed the irons nearly off with one of the fire-steels; he got the negro girl to get him a knife and I finished cutting the fetters with it; he would frequently call for a good supper and pay for it, which was allowed him, but not allowed me. He was very anxious to escape, and urged me to undertake it with him; he ordered a good supper, and he ate very hearty. I would not eat, telling him that he could not run if he ate so much. Nearly dusk, as the jailer came in to get the dishes, we sprang to the door, and I locked him in, and threw the key into the garden. In coming down stairs we met the jailer’s wife; I told her that her husband was unharmed, I had only locked him up. We had a board fence to climb over, which was about 12 feet high: I climbed it, and ran about 20 rods, when he called me to come back and help him over, which I did; if I had not, I should have escaped. The pure air had so great an effect upon me, that I gave out and slacked my pace; the populace of the place came up, and I told them to run, they would soon catch him, and that I had given out and could not run; they soon returned with him: I fell into the crowd and walked back to the jail yard.

Sheriff J.H. Reynolds laid his hand upon my shoulder, he being the first to approach me; asked where the key was, I told him in the garden.

Port’s escape attempt failed. The excited crowd that gathered knew who he was. This is the guy who tried to kill their hero, Lilburn Boggs. The same Boggs who got rid of the Mormon problem; these people loved Boggs. A guy named Smallwood Nowlin was the first guy to call for lynching. The same sheriff who would arrest Joseph Smith in June of 1843, Sheriff Reynolds, saw the crowd’s excitement.

When Reynolds gave me a push towards the crowd, and said, “there he is, God damn him, do what you damn please with him.” Nowlin’s son in-law (by marrying one of his Mulatto wenches,) a Mexican stepped up to me to lay hold of me, when I told him to stand off or I would mash his face; he stepped back.

The people knew that Port wasn’t going to go to the gallows without a fight. Sheriff Reynolds took him to the upstairs of the jail and asked for the tool Port used to cut off his ankle irons. The angry mob followed them up the stairs and filled the small jail room. It was time to lynch public enemy number one.

I went to the saddle-bags and handed him the knife and fire-steel; while feeling for them I got hold of a piece of buckskin that had some three or four pounds of bullets tied up in it, which I intended to use in mashing in the head of any one that should attempt to put a rope on my neck. A rope was passed along over the heads of the people into the room to a bald-headed man. About this time pistols could be heard cocking in every part of the room, and bowie-knives were produced as if for fight.

Whatever transpired in this tense situation, the historical record is unclear because we only have Port’s recounting of the events. He claims the crowd simply dispersed. I would be willing to bet that Sheriff Reynolds stepped forward and said that Port is a prisoner in the custody of the state of Missouri and will have a fair trial before we put him to the gallows. But, Sheriff Reynolds was an avowed enemy of the Mormons and I wouldn’t expect Port or any Mormon scribes to include such a favorable thing coming from him. Port somehow evaded a mob lynching that night, but Sheriff Reynolds wasn’t messing around anymore. He hobbled Port by locking his right arm to his left ankle and left him like that for a month before his next trial.

The next trial was hearing the criminal suit against him for breaking out of prison. When asked if Port had any legal counsel, he selected Alexander Doniphan, long-time friend of the Mormons who represented Jo and the other Mormon elites in their November 1838 Court of Inquiry. Doniphan had Port transferred to Liberty Jail, close to his home, making it much easier for Doniphan to meet with Port periodically through his forthcoming legal troubles. He spent about ten days in Liberty Jail, which was more accommodating than every other jail he’d been in before, although it was still horrible. But it wasn’t long-lived because after those ten days he was remanded back to Independence for his hearing.

Port spent the next two months in the Independence Jail. This was spring of 1843. Sheriff Reynolds paid Pistol Packin’ Porter a visit in the jail to gloat about a new set of documents he had in hand that would get Jo legally arrested and extradited to Missouri. This was in late June of 43 and Reynolds was about to leave for Nauvoo to arrest Jo. He thought that maybe he could get Port to do his dirty work for him with a little offer in exchange for Port’s freedom.

During this time Joseph H. Reynolds, the sheriff, told me he was going to arrest Joseph Smith, and they had received letters from Nauvoo which satisfied them that Joseph Smith had unlimited confidence in me, that I was capable of toling him in a carriage or on horseback anywhere that I pleased; and if I would only tole him out by riding or any other way, so that they could apprehend him, I might please myself whether I stayed in Illinois or came back to Missouri, they would protect me, and any pile that I would name, the citizens of Jackson county would donate, club together and raise, and that I should never suffer for want afterwards; “you only deliver Jo Smith into our hands, and name your pile.” I replied, “I will see you all damned first, and then I won’t.”

Of course Port wouldn’t sell out his childhood friend and religious and military leader, but Reynolds was smart to give it a try. Jo trusted very few people with his life, but Port was one of them. If Sheriff Reynolds could just get Port to take Jo to the right place at the right time, it would make his job of extraditing Jo to Missouri much easier. But, understandably, Port was loyal and refused to sell out Jo. The feelings of powerlessness and inevitability overcame him. But, Port’s feelings were allayed when he saw a sign he interpreted as divine.

About the time that Joseph was arrested by Reynolds at Dixon, I knowing that they were after him, and no means under heaven of giving him any information, my anxiety became so intense upon the subject, knowing their determination to kill him, that my flesh twitched on my bones; I could not help it, twitch it would. While undergoing this sensation, I heard a dove light on the window in the upper room of the jail, and commence cooing, and then went off. In a short time he came back to the window, where a pane was broken; he crept through between the bars of iron, which were about 2 ½ inches apart.

I saw it fly round the trap-door several times; it did not alight, but continued cooing until it crept through the bars again, and flew out through the broken window.

I relate this, as it was the only occurrence of the kind that happened during my long and weary imprisonment; but it proved a comfort to me,--the twitching of my flesh ceased, and I was fully satisfied from that moment that they would not get Joseph into Missouri, and that I should regain my freedom. From the best estimates that can be made, it was at the time when Joseph was in the custody of Reynolds.

In a few days afterwards, Sheriff Reynolds came into the jail, and told me that he had made a failure in the arrest of Joseph.

Pistol Packin’ Porter continued to languish for another 2 months in the Independence Jail when he was then conveyed back to Liberty Jail. While there, he received a very kind visit from his mother, who gave him $100 so he could pay Doniphan’s legal fees.

In Liberty, Port attempted his next escape, not the first Mormon to try to break out of Liberty Jail. Instead of trying to dig through the walls like Joseph Smith had attempted, Port instead removed the smoke stack from the potbelly stove in the dungeon and crawled through the exhaust hole. Unfortunately for him, though, he could barely fit through the hole to the main floor, but couldn’t break out the door. He gave up and laid down on the floor of the main story and waited for the jailers to find him there the next morning. They did and “it caused quite an excitement.”

Port’s final trial was scheduled for two weeks in the future. Somebody appeared in the night and offered him freedom, but Port decided it best to stick it out for the two weeks and go to trial instead of escaping jail and continuing to have the state of Missouri on his tail. This was a good decision. Yes, Port had to stand trial for trying to break out of jail, but the state simply didn’t have any evidence that he pulled the trigger on Boggs back in May of the previous year. All the state had was Boggs affidavit that pointed the finger at Port and Jo, but Boggs didn’t see the assassin, he was just sitting in his study and bullets crashed through the window unexpectedly. He was struck in the head and neck by the buckshot and never saw who was on the other side of the window. There was no hard evidence connecting Port to the attempt, and Port knew that. His legal counsel, Doniphan, knew that. The state prosecutor knew that the state didn’t have proof. He was best to just deal with being in jail for another 2 weeks.

His trial came, and this is how Pistol Packin’ Port tells the story.

The trial came according to my last notification; I was tried for breaking Independence jail; and although the law of Missouri reads that in order to break jail, a man must break a lock, a door or a wall, still Judge King ruled that it was breaking jail to walk out when the door is open, and under this ruling the jury brought in a verdict of “five minutes” imprisonment in the county jail, but I was kept there four or five hours, during which time several attempts were made to get up some other charge against me.

Why did the court find that five minutes of jail time was a fitting punishment for trying to break out of jail? Why did it simply decide to let Port go? The answer is simple, mob law. Orrin Porter Rockwell was public enemy number one of Missouri and he was in state custody. Once he was released, he had a journey of a few hundred miles before he reached the safety of Illinois, and the people knew that. He’d have to travel home upon his release which provided plenty opportunity for the mob to catch up and have their way with him. Sure, Port wasn’t found guilty, but the court of public opinion had ruled the death sentence for Port a year and a half ago. They’d certainly enforce their own ruling as soon as he was out of state custody. This sentiment was not lost on Port or his legal counsel, Doniphan.

About 8 p.m., on December 13, General Doniphan took me out, and told me I must take across the country on foot, and not walk on any traveled road, unless it was during the night, as they would be apt to follow and again take me, as they did not care on what grounds, so they could make me trouble.

I accordingly started, accompanied by my mother, and went to the house of a widow, where I obtained my first supper in freedom for more than nine months. We then traveled two miles and obtained $4.

I then took through the woods to the road, where I heard two men riding on horseback: I hid behind a shady tree, and overheard one of them say, “he has not been gone many minutes, we shall soon overtake him.”

I went round the houses and traveled in the fields by the side of the road. The moon was in its first quarter, and I traveled during the night about 25 miles. I carried a little food with me, and next day traveled on the road, and walked past Crooked river to a Mr. Taylor’s with all the skin off my feet.

Port continued his journey. He traveled largely by night and never on well-traveled roads. He stayed with some nice people, gave them 50 cents here and there for boarding him for the night and providing him with food. A nice man even provided Port with some whiskey for one of his nights. He occasionally hired drivers and people with horses to carry him some distance, which he says “was a very great relief to my weary feet.” He also popped in to Haun’s mill to pay his respects to his fallen brothers in the covenant. After two weeks of walking and riding back roads towards Nauvoo, his journey through hostile territory finally came to its end.

I then continued my journey about 30 miles, where I rested three days to recruit my feet. I was then carried 25 miles on horseback, and walked the same day 25 miles. The day following I walked 40 miles, and then waited another day; and engaged a man to carry me to Montrose, to which place I was three days in going. I immediately crossed the river to Nauvoo in a small boat, and came straight to the Mansion.

What a glorious reunion on Christmas day this was. Jo’s primary enforcer was now free from the Missouri mobocrats. He’d spent a year and a half away from the Kingdom on the Mississippi, over 9 months in various jails all over Missouri, facing trials, attempting to escape, evading lynch mobs against all odds, and now, Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell made his triumphant return. He was unkempt, dirty, and undernourished. While what we read was recorded the day after Port’s return to Nauvoo, he was the center of the Christmas party when his return was discovered. He recounted the above story to everybody in attendance while the drinks flowed freely.

When he concluded his regaling, Jo pronounced a prophecy that has become iconic when discussing Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell in Mormon history, and it’s one of Jo’s few prophecies that actually came true in spite of all odds.

“I prophesy, in the name of the Lord, that you—Orrin Porter Rockwell—so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to thy faith, need fear no enemy. Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee!”

The exact wording of this prophecy was never recorded in any official church publication, but Port carried those words with him to his grave in Utah decades later and frequently told friends and family of the prophecy placed upon his head. This turned Pistol Packin’ Port into the Samson of Mormonism. He went through the rest of his life, through many altercations, dozens of assassinations, frequent battles with Native Americans, and he was never shot or stabbed his entire life after this prophecy was given. He died an old man in 1878, an outlaw, a bastard, with a bloody life behind him. He only cut his hair once before his death in order to make a wig for Agnes Coolbrith Smith, widow of Don Carlos and Joseph Smith.

Now, if anybody, Emma or anybody else, tried to poison or harm the prophet in any way, they would once again fear a midnight visit from the destroying angel of Mormonism.


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