Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Bloody Autumn at Nauvoo (Mormon Town), Illinois in 1845.

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Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon Church in 1830, lived with his followers in Missouri, where they had various conflicts with locals, including an armed skirmish with the state militia. In 1838, Governor Lilburn Boggs signed a military order directing that the Mormons be expelled or exterminated: "The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be driven from the state or exterminated, if necessary, for the public good."
Smith and the Mormons fled across the Mississippi to Nauvoo, Illinois (aka Mormon Town), quickly becoming the second most populous town in the 1840s. The population was such that Nauvoo rivaled Chicago for the "biggest city in Illinois." One statistical comparison is that in the fall of 1845, Nauvoo's violent crime rate likely surpassed Chicago's.
Nauvoo: The Mormon Temple is in the background. Date unknown.
In 1845, crime in Chicago was such that the city had only four men responsible for keeping the peace: one marshal and three assistants. The Nauvoo police force, in January of 1845, numbered 500 men. While there were extenuating circumstances in Nauvoo necessitating many peacekeepers, in the fall of 1845, Nauvoo's policemen were often the source of violent crime.

There were conflicts and tensions in Nauvoo as well. When a local newspaper printed editorials claiming that the religious leader was a fraud, Smith sent a group of followers to destroy the newspaper office. He was then arrested and sent to jail, where a lynch mob tracked him down and killed him.
The Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. c.1845
Brigham Young quickly took command of the church and its followers and tried to stifle dissent and banish his rivals. The killing of Phineas Wilcox was part of his consolidation of power. 

In his book, One Nation Under Gods, Richard Abanes details some of these events from September 1845. He writes:
“A halt to the violent conflict between Mormons and anti-Mormons lasted but a brief period of time after Smith was killed. Armed mobs of Illinoisans, incited by endless newspaper articles covering Mormon issues, soon began to conduct raids against isolated church settlements. Mormons were threatened, Latter-day Saints' homes were burned, rumors about various Mormon atrocities circulated, and militias were called out by the governor. Church dissenters and critics, meanwhile, continued to expose aspects of Mormonism that church leaders did not want revealed. The Saints retaliated with verbal intimidation, religious condemnation, and acts of physical violence… More disturbing were the many murders, vicious beatings, and intimidating assaults perpetrated by the Nauvoo police against perceived enemies of the church. Policeman Alan J. Stout summed up the rational of the Saints on these matters, explaining that to his mind such activity was nothing more than avenging the blood of Joseph and Hyrum. In reference to the Mormon dissenters remaining in Nauvoo, Stout expressed a common sentiment: ‘I feel like cutting their throats.’” 
Here are just a few accounts of those violent crimes from September of 1845:

On September 14, the Nauvoo police had three men flogged because they were not in good fellowship with the church.

On September 16, Phineas Wilcox was stabbed to death by fellow Mormons in Nauvoo because he was believed to be a Christian spy. Wilcox was last seen as he was led toward the Masonic Hall by three Mormons. Wilcox's stepfather, Orrin Rhodes, inquired after him and searched for him for a week, concluding, "Wilcox has been murdered by… Mormons."
Phineas Wilcox
Frank Worrell, a Carthage Jail guard who failed to protect Joseph Smith, was murdered on September 16 and shot out of his saddle by Porter Rockwell.

Again on September 16, Rockwell also killed four unnamed "anti-Mormons" at Highland Branch, near Warsaw.

Andrew Daubenheyer disappeared on the road to Carthage on September 18. He was later found buried in a shallow grave near a campsite on the Carthage road "with a musket ball through the back of his head." In due time Daubenheyer was given a proper burial with a headstone that reads, "Killed by the Mormons."
The Andrew Daubenheyer Headstone.
Later in September, "several Saints captured a young man called McBracking," accused of burning Mormon homes. McBracking's friends found his body the next day and reported, "After shooting him in two or three places, they cut his throat from ear to ear, stabbed him through the heart, cut off one ear & horribly mutilated other parts of his body."

Mormon apostles Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde ordered the killing of apostate Lambert Symes, who subsequently "disappeared without a trace."

Nauvoo's bloody autumn of 1845 could have been much worse, but as it was, it clearly demonstrated that the Mormons and non-Mormons of Hancock County would never learn to live together in peace. "Therefore," wrote Brigham Young, "we propose to leave this county next spring, for some point so remote, that there will not need to be a difficulty with the people and ourselves…." 

Tensions with other communities continued to escalate, and a year later, over 2,000 armed anti-Mormons marched on Nauvoo. Young decided it was no longer wise to stay in the area, leading his flock west in 1846. 

Completing a treacherous thousand-mile exodus, an ill and exhausted Brigham Young and fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints arrived in Utah's Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. This is fascinating. I knew bits and pieces of this but had no idea of the full extent, nor even that this town still existed! (Clearly I don't know that part of that state well.)

    Thank you as always for getting this info out there. Great reading.

  2. Yes, I knew that Nauvoo existed, and that there was considerable trouble, but I did not know the depth of it. It is on my bucket list for a tour of So. IL. BTW, maybe you'd want to do a follow-up article on Beaver Island, MI. I know it's not IL, but there seem to be a lot of similarities.

    1. Sorry Chuck, Michigan is not on my radar. Just Illinois topics for this Journal.

    2. Well worth the visit if you get a chance to go Chuck.

  3. Very interesting article, surprised at the violence by the Mormons.

  4. Violence in the name of God....unfortunately, seems to be a common pattern throughout history.

  5. This is a new revelation to me! I was actually IN Nauvoo back in the mid-1960s. My parents took me to visit my two younger sisters who were enrolled in a strict Catholic boarding school just outside of the 'city' limits. Operated by nuns in full habits...

    The trip there was an 'experience'. Back then there were no major highways or interstates. We took state highways, and for hours all I saw on the trip was corn and more corn and MORE corn! I was in high-school at the time, and it was a revelation to me - just how far 'out' (from Chicago) Navoo is...

    Back in the 1960s Navoo was a SMALL town. ONE hotel, if you could really call it that. More like a bed-and-breakfast today. It was the ONLY place that served alcohol. They had a tiny 'restaurant', and my mother ordered a cocktail with dinner. When the waitress brought it, she referred to it as a "drinkee-poo" (!!!). So apparently a VERY 'dry' community.

    The only place that was in any way relaxing or 'entertaining' was a soda fountain, where you could get burgers and ice cream. We took my 2 sisters there, and they were thrilled to be 'released' (on parents' recognizance) into the town. There were no movie theaters, or any other 'entertainment' venues that I recall.

    I learned a small amount about the Mormons having settled there, and then moved west. But this article was a revelation to me. If back in the 1800s it was a 'booming' community beset with crime - by the mid 1900s it had become a small 'sleepy' community. And considering that Catholic grammar school... clearly VERY 'Christian'.


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