Joseph Smith made a lot of enemies the last year of his life. People were afraid that he had too much political power. Smith was already the mayor of Nauvoo and the commander of a formidable militia. Then in 1844, he also ran for president and was even coronated “King of Israel.”
Dissent was swelling within Smith’s own ranks as well. William Law, formerly a counselor to Smith in the First Presidency, and other disaffected Mormons joined together and created the Nauvoo Expositor. Its first (and final) issue, published June 7th, 1844, exposed Smith’s practice of polygamy and accused him of theocratic ambitions. Smith and the Nauvoo city council declared the paper a “public nuisance” and ordered its printing press destroyed. They reasoned it was necessary for the public safety of Nauvoo’s citizens. But the Illinois government saw it as an un-American affront to the freedom of press, so Smith, his brother, and fifteen other city council members were imprisoned at Carthage on charges of treason and inciting riot.
Only two days later, a mob intent on killing the Mormon prophet stormed the jail. Smith defended himself with a smuggled-in pistol, but was hopelessly outnumbered. He was shot three times while trying to escape out the second-story window. As Smith fell out the window, he reportedly cried “Oh Lord, my God!” These words begin the masonic distress call, and some suppose that Smith—a Mason himself—attempted this call to ask mercy of the Masons in the mob. If his last words were indeed a cry for mercy, they went unheeded. Smith was fatally shot once he landed from his fall.
Smith became revered as a martyr by his followers, and his death further catalyzed the Latter Day Saint movement. Outside of Mormonism, he is counted among the most inventive and influential religious figures.
I don’t mean to demonize or eulogize Joseph Smith with this post. I just wanted to acknowledge an important day in Mormon and American history.