Latter-day Saints Isaac and Sarah Scott were married in Massachusetts in 1843. They moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they became eyewitnesses to the events surrounding the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Sarah wrote to her in-laws beginning on July 22, 1844, a few weeks after the murders; Isaac added a short note at the end. Their letter provides a rare and personal narrative from those dark days in Nauvoo.
The Scotts began to distance themselves from the main body of the Church in early 1844. Their candid account of the murders of the Smith brothers dispels some myths that are usually included in the standard LDS telling of this event. For Mormons, the story has become a legend; for the Scotts, it was a turbulent and trying time through which they lived.
I have minimally edited their personal account here as indicated by ellipses. You will find the entire text of the Scott’s letter in Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois, John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius, pages 256-259.
July 22, 1844.
My Dear Father and Mother:
I supposed you received our letter and was somewhat prepared, when you heard of the dreadful murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in Carthage jail. Little did we think that an event like that would ever transpire. The Church believed that he would be acquitted as he had been on former occasions, and Joseph prophesied in the last Neighbor [LDS newspaper] that was published before his death that they would come off victorious over them all, as sure as there was a God in Israel. Joseph also prophesied on the stand a year ago last conference that he could not be killed within five years from that time: that they could not kill him till the Temple would be completed, for that he had received an unconditional promise from the Almighty concerning his days, and he set Earth and Hell at defiance; and then said, putting his hand on his head, they never could kill his Child. But now that he is killed some of the Church say that he said: unless he gave himself up. My husband was there at the time and says there was not conditions whatever, and many others testify to the same thing.
I suppose you have heard from Mr. Haven and Martha before this and have learned their mind concerning Joseph and Hyrum, but I cannot help believing that had they been innocent, that the Lord would not have suffered them to fall by the hands of wicked murderers. I believe they would have been living men to-day, had they been willing for others to enjoy the same liberties they wish for themselves.
The governor visited Nauvoo the day that Joseph and Hyrum were killed and made a speech. He told the people of Nauvoo the burning of that press [dissenter’s newspaper the Nauvoo Expositor] was arbitrary, unlawful, unconstitutional, and that they had hurt themselves more than ten presses could have injured them in ten years.
The governor was met on his return to Carthage by a messenger informing him of the assassination. Many of the Mormons blame the governor for not bringing them with him and others do not. I think it looks strange his leaving a guard of only eight men with them and taking so many with himself. I have no doubt however but he was afraid of his own life or he would not have taken the number of men he did with him. I heard there were three hundred. The governor did not dare to stop in Carthage that night, and men, women, and children fled from there. I believe there was only three or four men that stopped in the place that night. I think the people of Carthage so far have suffered more than the Mormons. Who the vile murderers were I suppose never will be known till the day when all flesh shall stand before God to answer for the deeds done in the body. Many of the Mormons lay it on the Missourians, others to the apostates, as they call them. If it is apostasy from Mormonism to come out against the doctrines of more Gods than one, more wives than one, and many other damnable heresies that they have taught, I hope and pray that I and all the rest of the Church may become apostates.
Mr. Haven told me last spring before I was married that those doctrines tried his faith very much till he heard Hyrum Smith explain them and now or then he thought it was right. But a few weeks before the murder Hyrum denied that Joseph had the revelation concerning it but said that it referred to ancient times; and it was published [so] in the Neighbor. After I saw it I said to Mr. Haven: “What do you think of that? Is it not a plain contradiction to what you told me? What do you think of it?” He said that he supposed Hyrum saw what a disturbance it was making and thought he would say it on account of their being much excitement.
When the news reached the governor of the destruction of the press and of the trouble in Nauvoo, he hastened here as fast as possible just in time to save an attack upon the city of Nauvoo. Writs were then issued for the Smith’s and others to bring them before the proper authorities for trial. When they were taken to Carthage, it was with difficulty the governor saved their lives. The repeated outrageous laws they had made, made the inhabitants hate the very sight of them. One example: whoever was heard speaking against the [Nauvoo] city council, charter, or ordinances should be fined five hundred dollars…
Dear Mother: I have seen some sorrowful days since I left you and some happy ones. But I can tell you it is a sorrowful time here at present. Those that stood up for Joseph before his death are getting divided among themselves.
I have since learned that it was a mistake concerning the governor leaving only eight men with Joseph, but that he left a large company. Willard Richards and John Taylor were in jail with them.
August 9: Yesterday I attended a conference in Nauvoo. I suppose Martha will give you the particulars of it. The twelve were appointed to take charge of all the concerns of the Church both spiritual and temporal. Brigham Young said that if he had been here, he wouldn’t have consented to give Joseph up and he would be damned if he would give himself up to the law of the land. He would see them all in hell first; the Church, and then he said he would see all Creation in Hell before he would. These statements are correct, and they needn’t any [of them] attempt to deny them. If they do, they are ignorant of the matter or they are willful liars…
At my wife’s request I write a few words…Joseph and Hyrum Smith are murdered; Samuel is dead and buried. The Smiths are all gone the way of all the earth except William, and why all this murder and death in the Smith family? I believe it is because they taught the people of God to transgress His holy laws as did the sons of Eli of old;…
You will likely hear a great deal about Joseph’s innocence such as: “I go like a lamb to the slaughter, and if I die, I die an innocent man.” All these statements, I believe, are false and got up for the purpose of reconciling the minds of the Church. I believe they had not the least idea that they were going to be murdered. Hyrum said the last time I heard him preach, which was only a few days before he and Joseph were taken to Carthage, that their enemies could not kill brother Joseph, for he had a great work to accomplish yet. There was also considerable said in Carthage which proves beyond dispute that they did not expect death. They blame the apostates, as they term them, with being accessory to the murder of the Smiths. This is not the case: the Laws and Fosters were not in the state at the time the murder was committed, and if they had been here, they would have been the last to stain their hands with human blood!
Remember me to all your family in the kindest manner…