Latter-day Saints Founder Joseph Smith Was 1st US Presidential Candidate Assassinated?

Claim:

Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the first known U.S. presidential candidate to be assassinated.

Historical accounts paint Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a contentious 19th-century religious figure. Some tell the tale of a pious and humble leader, while others claim the young man was a tyrant bent on his ways. 

The claim that Smith was the first U.S. presidential candidate to be assassinated has circulated online for years, appearing on platforms such as Reddit, X and Quora. 

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Snopes read through historical documents and determined that Smith indeed announced a presidential bid in January 1844. Eyewitness accounts confirm Smith was killed by a mob in June of the same year when he was in custody at an Illinois jail. However, Smith’s name did not appear on the national ballot, nor was he endorsed by either major party at the time. Furthermore, his assassination is not recorded in official congressional records. Scholars debate the intentions behind his campaign. 

A 2008 report to Congress, “Direct Assaults Against Presidents, Presidents-Elect, and Candidates,” categorized only three incidents as assassinations or attempted assassinations of U.S. presidential candidates: 

  • Oct. 14, 1912: Former President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), was running for third term when he was wounded by a pistol shot in Milwaukee. 
  • June 5, 1968: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was killed by shots fired from a pistol in Los Angeles. 
  • May 15, 1972: Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace was wounded by a pistol shot in Laurel, Maryland. 

Smith, who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — widely known as the Mormon church — after publishing the Book of Mormon, was born in 1805, according to records published by the church. He went on to serve as the church’s first president and elder before being killed on June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Illinois. 

Smith had launched a presidential campaign in late January of that year, but scholars disagree about whether it was a serious political bid or an attempt to serve as “merely a protest candidate running to raise awareness of the Mormons’ plight,” according to an excerpt published by the Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center. His campaign platform was summarized in a pamphlet titled, “General Smith’s Views on the Power and Policy of Government,” which focused on federal protections for religious worship and abolishing slavery, among other things. 

(Public Domain)

Former Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford published his firsthand account of Smith’s death — and the events leading up to it — was published in 1850 in  “A History of Illinois, from Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847.” 

What was Smith doing in jail in the first place? He had been arrested and charged with treason in connection with his actions while serving as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois. Throughout his term, Smith and fellow church members were at odds with some non-church members who didn’t approve of certain religious practices, including polygamy.

A local paper, the Nauvoo Expositor, published its first and only issue critical of Smith and his church. In response, church leaders, who also held seats on the city council, called for a “trial and destruction of the heretical press,” declaring that the publication was made up of “sinners, whoremasters, thieves, swindlers, counterfeiters, and robbers.” The city council declared the newspaper a public nuisance and ordered its destruction, which led to public outrage. 

Ford notes that Smith and other members of the city council were first charged with inciting a riot, an accusation Smith responded to by declaring martial law. After briefly fleeing Illinois, Smith voluntarily surrendered himself at the county seat in Carthage to face charges of treason. While he was detained at the jail along with his brother Hyrum Smith, an armed mob of around 200 men stormed the building, their faces disguised with wet gunpowder. 

A bullet struck Hryum Smith on the “left side of the nose, entering his face and head. At the same instant, another ball from … outside” the jail hit him in the back. Two other shots subsequently hit Hyrum Smith and as he fell on his back, he exclaimed, “I am a dead man.” Armed with a pistol, Joseph Smith emptied his weapon toward his attackers before jumping from a second-story window. Ford wrote: 

The conspirators came up, jumped the slight fence around the jail, were fired upon by the guard, which, according to arrangement, was overpowered immediately, and the assailants entered the prison, to the door of the room where the two prisoners were confined, with two of their friends, who voluntary bore them company. An attempt was made to break open the door; but Joe Smith being armed with a six-barrelled pistol, furnished by his friends, fired several times as the door was bursted open, and wounded three of the assailants. At the same time several shots were fired into the room, by some of which John Taylor received four wounds, and Hiram Smith was instantly killed. Joe Smith now attempted to escape by jumping out of the second-story window, but the fall so stunned him that he was unable to rise; and being placed in a sitting posture by the conspirators below, they despatched him with four balls shot through his body.

Eye witness” Williams M. Daniels also published his account of the events in 1845. It read, in part: 

When President Smith had been set against the curb, and began to recover, Col. Williams ordered four men to shoot him. Accordingly, four men took an eastern direction, about eight feet from the curb, Col. Williams standing partly at their rear, and made ready to execute the order. While they were making preparations, and the muskets were raced to their faces, President Smith’s eyes rested upon them with a calm and quiet resignation. He betrayed no agitated feelings and the expressions upon his countenance seemed to betoken his only prayer to be, “O, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The fire was simultaneous. A slight cringe of the body was all the indication of pain that he betrayed when the balls struck him. He fell upon his face. One ball then entered the back part of his body. This is the ball that many people have supposed struck him about the time he was in the window. But this is a mistake. I was close by him, and I know he was not hit with a ball, until after he was seated by the well-curb. 

His death was instant and tranquil. He betrayed no appearance of pain. His noble form exhibited all its powers of many strength and healthful agility, yet a muscle seemed not to move with pain, and there was no distortion of his features. 

As Daniels noted, some accounts claim Smith was fatally struck by a bullet before landing on the ground outside of the jail. 

(Public Domain)

Smith’s bid for the presidency — and his downfall and violent death shortly after that — is also detailed in Spencer McBride‘s 2001 book, “Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom.” As a historian and author, McBride is also the managing editor of the documentary project, the Joseph Smith Papers, an “effort to transcribe, contextualize, and publish all [Smith’s] writings and teachings.” 

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