Joseph Smith’s Indictment for Adultery and Fornication: Some Answers but Many Questions

On May 20, 1844, Nauvoo Stake President William Marks was subpoenaed and selected to serve on the grand jury of Hancock County. This Circuit Court was held twice a year, for two weeks in May and October. Described as being “better than a travelling circus,”[1] Grand Jurors were selected throughout the whole county, meaning Mormons would be mixed with their non-Mormon neighbors. Eighteen jurors were selected, including two Mormons, William Marks and Edward Hunter. Also included was a Mormon friend, Daniel H. Wells. Grand jurors were likely expecting to hear testimony of ordinary crimes, such as counterfeiting, larceny, burglary, and assault. It likely came as a surprise when they began hearing testimony regarding the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith. On May 23, and again on May 24, the grand jury heard testimony from William and Wilson Law accusing Joseph Smith of the crimes of adultery and fornication.

The surviving documents in this case include an arrest warrant, an indictment from May 23, 1844, an indictment from May 24, 1844,[2] a list of potential witnesses,[3] and docket books from Hancock County.[4] There is no record of the testimony from the Law brothers, only the indictment by the grand jury. Meaning, the jurors found “good and sufficient evidence” to Indict Joseph Smith. However, little in this case is clear. The extant documents raise as many questions as they provide answers for.

Setting the Stage

In May 1844, adultery and fornication were illegal in the state of Illinois under a statute passed in 1833 entitled “Offenses against the public Morality, Health, and Police.” This law stated, in applicable part

Any man and woman who shall live together in an open state of adultery or fornication, or adultery and fornication, every such man and woman shall be indicted, and on conviction, shall be fined in any sum not exceeding two hundred dollars each, or imprisoned not exceeding six months. This offence shall be sufficiently proved by circumstances which raise the presumption of cohabitation and unlawful intimacy[.] [5]

While the terms adultery and fornication were not defined by the statute, they did have a common usage at the time. Adultery was “the unfaithfulness of any married person to the marriage bed,” while fornication was “incontinence or lewdness of unmarried persons…[or]… the criminal conversation of a married man with an unmarried woman.”[6] Thus, a married man could be guilty of both adultery and fornication for having sexual relations with the same woman.

In 1844 the Illinois Grand Juries were governed by a statute passed by the legislature in 1827. Prior to any session of the court, the county commissioners are

to select twenty-three persons, . . . and as nearly as may be, a proportionate number from each township in their respective counties . . . , to appear before the said circuit court, . . . to serve as grand jurors, any sixteen of whom shall be sufficient to constitute a grand jury[.][7]

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After these sixteen men are sworn, they are to hear the testimony of witnesses, and “when the grand jury or any twelve of them find a bill of indictment, to be supported by good and sufficient evidence, to endorse thereon “a true bill[.]”[8] In the modern legal world, grand juries apply a standard of probable cause. In 1844 grand juries applied a lower standard and only had to find “good and sufficient evidence” to indict. But similar to today, only twelve of the sixteen grand jurors are need to indict the defendant for whom they are hearing evidence.

The law stated, “No grand jury shall make presentments of their own knowledge, . . . unless the juror giving the information, is previously sworn as a witness[.]”[9] This meant that while Marks, a non-polygamist, but a polygamy insider in May 1844, was not able to tell the other grand jurors what he knew about Joseph Smith’s marital or sexual practices. It was unlikely that Hunter knew of polygamy in May 1844, as he did not marry his first plural wife until December 15, 1845.

The Indictments

On Thursday May 23, 1844, the grand jury heard testimony and indicted cases dealing with mayhem, kidnapping, and adultery. The most shocking indictment of the day was The People of the State of Illinois v. Joseph Smith Sen. for adultery and fornication.[10] When Joseph Smith Sr. died in 1840, Joseph the prophet started referring to himself as Joseph Smith Sr. in legal matters and some personal matters. [11] William and Wilson Law were the only witnesses that provided testimony to the jury that day. While the testimony given was not recorded, the jury found “good and sufficient evidence” on three counts. The indictment stated:

The Grand Jurors chosen selec-

ted and sworn in and for the county of Han-

cock in the name and by the authority of

the people of the state of Illinois upon [?]

oaths present, that Joseph Smith senior

late of said county and State, on the fifteenth ^twelfth^

day of December ^October^ in the year of our Lord on

^and divers other days & times before that day & the day of find-^

thousand eight hundred and forty three ^ at

^ing the indictment^

and within said County of Hancock and State

of Illinois unlawfully and contrary there and

then did live ^together^ with one Maria Lawrence ^then of said county^ in an

^with one Maria Lawrence there of said county^

open state of adultery & contrary to the form of

the statutes in such case made & provided

and against the peace & dignity of the same people

of the State of Illinois.

2 And the Grand Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths

aforesaid do further present state afterwards, to

wit, on the day and year last aforesaid at and

within the county of Hancock aforesaid and State

of Illinois aforesaid, the said Joseph Smith

senior late of said County of Hancock as a-

foresaid and certain women to the jurors unk-

nown unlawfully then & there did cohabit togeth-

er unlawfully then & there did live together in an

open state of adultery and fornication contrary

to the form of the statutes in such case made

and provided and against the peace & dig-

nity of the same people of the state of

Illinois.

3 And the Grand Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths

aforesaid do further present that afterwards

to wit – on the ^first^ day of January in the year of

our Lord one thousand eight hundred and

forty four, at and within the County of Han-

cock aforesaid in the state of Illinois aforesaid

the said Joseph Smith senior, late of said

county as aforesaid unlawfully there and then

did live with certain women to the jurors un-

known in an open state of adultery, contrary

to the form of the statute in such case

made & provided and against the peace &

dignity of the same people of the state of

Illinois.

  1. A. Thompson

States attorney[12]

The first count dealt with the crime of adultery. It stated that Joseph Smith did live together in open adultery with Maria Lawrence on October 12, 1843, but that he also did this “divers other days & times before” October 12, 1843 and up until the finding on the indictment. Count two was less specific and dealt with the twin crimes of adultery and fornication. This count charges Joseph Smith with living in open state of adultery and fornication with “certain women to the jurors unknown” On October 12, 1843. The final count dealt only with adultery and charged that Joseph Smith lived in an open state of adultery with women unknown on January 1, 1844.

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Joseph Smith, Senior

On that same date, Joseph Smith likely learned of the indictment. Willard Richards records in his journal, “soon after messenger arrived from Carthage – told me an attachment for me would be here soon. I walked over to the prophet. and staid all night. – walked out with the prophet about 10 eve.”[13] The History of the Church records the event in a slightly different manner. It records, “A.A. Lathrop came to my clerk, Dr. Richards, and told him an officer was on his way with an attachment for him, and that the grand jury had found a bill against me for adultery, on the testimony of William Law; he had come from Carthage in two hours and thirty minutes to bring the news. Dr. Richards came to my house and stayed all night.”[14]

Any worry Joseph felt about this first indictment was unnecessary because the following morning on May 24, the first indictment was dismissed by the State’s attorney E.A. Thompson. The Docket Book records that “the States Attorney . . . says that he is unwilling further to prosecute this suit on the Indictment found herein heretofore whereupon it is ordered that the said defendant be discharged and that he go hence without delay.”[15] However, that was not the end of the case. William and Wilson Law again testified before the grand jury and secured a second indictment, “The People of the State of Illinois v. Joseph Smith Sen.” for “Adultery & Fornication.”[16] Smith was also indicted for perjury.

The second indictment was more specific and contained five counts. It reads:

The Grand Jurors chosen selected and

sworn in and for the County of Hancock, in the name and

by the authority of the people of the State of Illinois upon

their oaths present that Joseph Smith Senior usually called

the Mormon Prophet late of said County of Hancock in said

State of Illinois, on the twelfth day of October in the year

of our Lord one thousand eight hundred & forty three, and

on divers other days and times between that time and

the day of finding this indictment, at and within the

said county of Hancock and State of Illinois unlawf-

-ully then & then did live together in an open state of

adultery with one Maria Lawrence, then of said County

contrary to the form of the statute in such case made

and provided and of against the peace and dignity of

the same people of the state of Illinois.

2          And the Grand Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths

aforesaid, do further present that the said Joseph Smith

Senior usually called the Mormon Prophet, Late of said County

of Hancock in said State of Illinois on the twelfth day of

October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and

forty three, and on divers other days and times between that

day, and the day of finding this indictment at and within

the said County of Hancock and State of Illinois unlawfully

there & then did live together in an open state of fornication

with one Maria Lawrence then of said County, contrary

to the form of the statute in such case made and provided,

and against the peace and dignity of the same prophet of the

State of Illinois.

3          And the Grand Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid do

further present that the same Joseph Smith Senior usually

called the Mormon Prophet, late of said County of Hancock

in said State of Illinois, on the twelfth day of October in the

year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred & forty three

and at divers other days, and times present to the times of

finding this indictment, at and within the said County

of Hancock, and state of Illinois unlawfully there & then

did live together in an open state of fornication & adultery

with one Maria Lawrence, then of said County, contrary

to the form of the statute in such case made and provided,

and against the peace and dignity of this same people

of the state of Illinois.

4          And the Grand Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths afore-

-said do further present, that afternoon on the tenth

day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hun-

-dred & forty three and on divers other days and times previous

to the day of finding this indictment, the said Joseph

Smith Senior usually called the Mormon Prophet late of

said County of hancock, in said State of Illinois ^at and within in County of Hancock^, with

certain women to the jurors unknown, there of said County

of Hancock in said State of Illinois, unlawfully did there

& then live together, in an open state of adultery and

fornication contrary to the forms of the statutes in

said case made and provided, and against the peace

and dignity of the same people of the state of Illinois.

And the Grand Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid

do further present, that on the tenth day of July in the year

of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty three, and

on divers other days and times within eighteen months

from the day of finding this indictment, at the said county

of Hancock in the said State of Illinois, the said Joseph

Smith Senior, usually called the Mormon Prophet late of

of said County of Hancock in said State of Illinois, with certain

women to the jurors unknown, then of said County of Hancock,

did there & then live together in an open state of adultery

and fornication contrary to the form of the statute in such

case made and provided, and against the peace

and dignity of the same people of the State of Illinois.

  1. A. Thompson

States attorney

The second indictment was similar and also different than the first. The first count alleged that between October 12, 1843 and May 24, 1844, Joseph engaged in the crime of adultery with Maria Lawrence. Count two dealt with the same parties and times, but alleged the crime of fornication. The third count stated the Joseph committed the crime of adultery with Maria Lawrence on the specific date of October 12, 1843. The fourth count charged Joseph with adultery and fornication between October 12, 1843 and May 24, 1844 with unknown women. Finally, the fifth count charged Smith with adultery and fornication with unknown women between July 10, 1843 and an eighteen month period after the finding of the indictment.

As stated, the grand jury found “good and sufficient evidence,” on all five counts and bail was set in the amount of $300.[17]

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William Law

Smith learned of this second indictment, and an indictment for perjury, on May 25, 1844. Willard Richards recorded, “Brethren returned from Carthage.”[18] Joseph’s journal provides significantly more detail. It was recorded that he was “Keeping out of the way of expected arrests from Carthage,” regarding the first indictments. However, later that night “the grand jury [members] Hunter [and] Marks returned from Carthage,” and “ [They] informed me [there] were 2 indictments found against me. One for false swearing by R[obert] D. Foster and Joseph Jackson and one for polygamy or something else by the Laws, the particulars of which I shall learn more hereafter.”[19] Later, Smith held a council regarding his legal troubles with many of those he trusted, including Edward Hunter, William Marks, Willard Richards, Shadrach Roundy, Hyrum Smith, and one of his attorneys, Almon W. Babitt. After discussing his legal troubles he decided “not to keep out of their way any longer,” but face his accusers.

The following day, May 26th, Smith addressed the Saints and spoke about his legal troubles. Smith told the Saints, “I shall always beat them . . . When facts are proved, truth and innocence will prevail at last.” He told them “I think the grand jury have strained at a gnat and swallowed the camel. . . .” He also specifically spoke in a mocking way of William Law:

Another indictment has been got up against me. It appears a holy prophet has arisen up, and he has testified against me: the reason is, he is so holy. . . . 375I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made one proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives. I mean to live and proclaim the truth as long as I can. 375 – 376This new holy prophet has gone to Carthage and swore that I had told him that I was guilty of adultery. This spiritual wifeism! Why, a man dares not speak or wink, for fear of being accused of this. … What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.

He continued and told the gathered crowd that “I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; I can prove them all perjurers.”[20]

The following day, Smith and a group of supporters rode to Carthage. Willard Richards recounted in his journal, “To Carthage with Joseph. to hear his trial on perjury and adultery.”[21] Smith also recounted his journey to Carthage, he stated he “pursued my course towards Carthage, thinking it best for me to meet my enemies before the Circuit Court, and have the indictments against me investigated.”[22] Even the anti-Mormon paper, the Warsaw Signal, noted Smith’s trip to Carthage. The paper recorded, “it was the general impression that Joe would never submit to be tried on these indictments, . . . the general opinion appears to be, that he thought to catch his enemies napping, and by a bold stroke, defeat them.”[23]

Many historians have used Smith going to Carthage in order to argue his innocence regarding Maria Lawrence. Most notably, apologist M. Scott Bradshaw in his recent article arguing Smith’s relationship and marriage to Maria Lawrence was legal, or rather not illegal, under Illinois law, wrote, “Joseph and his entourage of friends and guards confidently rode to Carthage, intent on having both indictments ‘investigated[,]’ however, “the efforts of Joseph’s attorneys to have the adultery charge investigated did not lead the prosecutor to drop the second charge[.]”[24]

However, Bradshaw’s claim is not supported by the evidence. First, Smith himself claims he went to Carthage, but only to contest and force a trial on the indictment for perjury. His journal recounts:

My lawyers, Messrs. Richardson, Babbitt, and Skinner, used all reasonable exertions to bring forward my trial on the charge of perjury; but the prosecuting party were not ready,—one Withers, a material witness (as they asserted in court), being absent. My attorneys frequently called on me to report the state of things in court, and I was ready to go in at a moment’s warning, being anxious for my trial; but the case was deferred till next term. I was left to give bail to the sheriff at his option. He told me I might go home, where he would call and take bail at his own convenience.[25]

Smith additionally makes no mention of his Indictment regarding Maria Lawrence, only the crime of perjury. Second, Hancock County historian Thomas Gregg recounted Smith’s trip to Carthage as well. He wrote in a later recollection:

. . .In addition to the four above named civil actions, two indictments were found against him by the grand jury—one for adultery, and one for perjury. To the great surprise of all, on the Monday following, the prophet appeared in Court and demanded trial on the last named indictment. The prosecutor not being ready, a continuance was entered to the next term.[26]

Finally, the court records present the most persuasive evidence that Smith never attempted to force a trial, prove his innocence, or “investigate” the indictment during the May term. A review of the official court docket book show that Smith only appeared dr-carthagein one case on May 27, the case of Charles A. Foster v. Joseph Smith.[27] In fact, the case of The People of the State of Illinois v. Joseph Smith Sen. – Indictment for Adultery and Fornication was called on May 27, when Smith was in Carthage, but he did not appear. The two primary witnesses, William and Wilson Law, appeared and promised to be present for trial at the October 1844 term of the Circuit Court. Not only did Smith not appear, but there is no objection noted from his attorneys.[28] Any claim he went to Carthage to prove his innocence for the crimes of adultery and fornication, is not supported by the court docket.

Smith was murdered exactly one month later on June 27, and thus, never brought to trial. His criminal cases were dismissed at the next court session in October. While this ended the indictment, there are still many questions that need to be answered regarding this incident in Smith’s history.

Questions

Who was Maria Lawrence and what was the nature of her relationship with Smith?

Maria Lawrence is one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives that we know the least about. Historian, Todd Compton has described her as “a virtual shadow,” and that we only know of “a hint of her personality.”[29] Maria was born on December 18, 1823 in Ontario, Canada making her twenty years old at the time of the indictment. In 1836, Parley P. Pratt was proselytizing in the area and converted William Law, a friend to the Lawrence family. In 1837, Joseph Smith, with Sidney Rigdon and John Taylor visited the area and converted the Lawrence family, including thirteen year old Maria. Before immigrating to America to join the main body of the Saints, the Lawrences and Laws worshiped together in the “little branch down at Bro. Larances.”[30]

The Lawrence family left Canada intending to settle in Missouri, but ended up in Lima, Illinois. They were there by March 1840, as that is the place and time her father died. By early 1841 the surviving Lawrences moved to Nauvoo and in June 1841, Joseph Smith was appointed Maria’s guardian and trustee for her estate. In the spring of 1842 Maria was living with her mother, according to the Nauvoo ward census, however, by the spring of 1843 she was living in Joseph Smith’s household. It was at this time, in late spring 1843 that Smith married nineteen year old Maria (and her seventeen year old sister Sarah) polygamously. This was one of the few marriages that was approved and sanctioned by Emma Smith, though she later changed her mind.[31]

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Benjamin F. Johnson

While Maria did not leave any affidavits or testimony, it is very likely that she did engage in sexual relations with Joseph Smith. First, Benjamin F. Johnson, a polygamy insider, recollected, “I do know that at his [Smith’s] Mansion home was living Maria and Sarah Lawrence . . . as his plural wives with the full knowledge of his wife, Emma, of their married relations to him.”[32] Lucy Walker, another one of Smith’s plural wives, stated, “I am also able to testify that Emma Smith, the Prophet’s first wife, gave her consent to the marriage of at least four other girls [including Maria] to her husband, and that she was well aware that he associated with them as wives within the meaning of all the word implies.”[33] Finally, Emily Partridge, another plural wife of Smith recorded, “She [Emma] afterwards gave Sarah and Maria Lawrence to him, and they lived in the house as his wifes.”[34]

Maria’s reaction to the indictment is unknown, as much of Maria is unknown. After Smith’s murder, she stayed in Nauvoo where she died of consumption after 1848. It was later recorded that she “suffered her doubts, her fears, her uncertainty as to whether she was acting right or wrong….”[35] Arguably, her plural marriage to Smith weighed on her throughout her short and difficult life.

What is the significance of July 10, 1843?

This date was significant to the Laws and the grand jury, but it is unknown why it was used. Like October 12 (see below), in looking at journals and histories at the time, nothing significant happened on this date. However, it is likely that Law was actually meaning to refer to July 12, 1843, where something very significant happened.  On July 12, William Clayton transcribed the “Revelation on Celestial Marriage,” as dictated by Joseph Smith. Clayton recorded, “This A.M. I wrote a Revelation consisting of 10 pages on the order of the priesthood, showing the designs in Moses, Abraham, David and Solomon having many wives & concubines.”[36] Clayton spoke of this many times and recalled in 1874 the event,

On the morning of the 12th of July, 1843, Joseph and Hyrum Smith came into the office, in the upper story of the brick store, on the bank of the Mississippi River. They were talking on the subject of plural marriage. Hyrum said to Joseph, “if you will write the revelation on Celestial marriage, I will take and read it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.” Joseph smiled, and remarked, “you do not know Emma as well as I do.” Hyrum repeated his opinion and further remarked, “the doctrine is so plain, I can convince any reasonable man or woman of its truth, purity and heavenly origin,” or words to their effect. Joseph then said, “well, I will write the revelation, and we will see.” He then requested me to get paper and prepare to write.[37]

While it is clear that Law got the date wrong, he was shown this document in early to mid-July 1843. He recorded

I hereby certify that Hyrum Smith did, (in his office,) read to me a certain written document, which he said was a revelation from God, he said that he was with Joseph when it was received. He afterwards gave me the document to read, and I took it to my house, and read it, and showed it to my wife, and returned it next day. the revelation (so called) authorized certain men to have more wives than one at a time, in this world and in the world to come. It said this was the law, and commanded Joseph to enter into the law.—And also that he should administer to others. Several other items were in the revelation, supporting the above doctrines.[38]

This seems to be the reason for the July 10, 1843 date used in the indictment. Law was not present when the revelation was recorded, but likely knew it was around that time period. It is also likely that this is the reason for the date as this revelation would have been significant evidence to prove fornication and adultery under the law of Illinois.

What significance does the date October 12, 1843 have?

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John Benbow

Clearly, when the Law testified to the grand jury, the date of October 12, 1843 was significant. Reading the journals and histories recorded on that date do not seem to indicate why Law chose that day. Historian Brian Hales wrote, “It is unclear why Law chose the starting date of October 12, 1843. Thus far, no evidence has been found to suggest that anything specific happened then. It may represent the date that Joseph had confided his relationship with Maria to William.”[39] While nothing significant has been found on October 12, there was something significant that happened the day before.

William Clayton recorded that on October 11, “P.M. at Prest J’s. he is gone to Benbows to dine &c….”[40]  While not the greatest source, the History of the Church gives additional information about this meeting. It records, “Wednesday, 11.-I was at home this morning. In the afternoon I went with my brother Hyrum, William Law, and our wives, to Brother John Benbow’s.”[41] John Benbow was baptized in 1840 by Wilford Woodruff and immigrated to Nauvoo in 1840. He settled in an area eight miles outside of Nauvoo, known as “The Mound.”[42] Benbow was a wealthy man who helped facilitate the printing of first European Book of Mormon by contributing a significant amount of money for the printing.[43]

Why Smith, Hyrum, Law, and their wives took the long trip out to “The Mound,” is unknown. It is also unknown what occurred when they were there. The fact that they took the trip with wives is strange as it would have required a long rough ride in a buggy. What is known and what is significant, is October 11 was the last positive mention of Law in the historical record from Smith’s perspective. Whatever occurred at the Benbow’s home, set Law toward a path that led to the indictments and the Nauvoo Expositor. After this date, Law is no longer noted in the History of the Church, in Willard Richard’s Diary, in any meetings of the Quorum of the Anointed, and only mentioned once in William Clayton’s diary.[44] The next time Law surfaces in Smith’s history, is at a contentious City Council meeting in January 1844 where Law believed his life was in danger and that he was considered a “Brutus” or a traitor.[45]

Hales’ statement, “It may represent the date that Joseph had confided his relationship with Maria to William,” seems very likely. It seems more likely considering Smith’s statement to the people in Nauvoo that Law “swore that I had told him that I was guilty of adultery.”[46] While Law knew of Joseph’s marital practices before this date, the disclosure of Maria would have been particularly hard on Law because he knew Maria as a child in Canada and because of Law’s and (William Law had significant fiduciary responsibilities with Maria and her family) Smith’s fiduciary responsibilities to Maria. While we do not know for sure what happened on October 11, we know October 12 was the date Law was no longer accepted by Joseph Smith as trustworthy or worth any positive mention.[47]

What would have happened at trial?

With the murder of Joseph Smith, the case was dismissed and we will never know what evidence William and Wilson Law were in possession of. However, besides the Laws, four other individuals were subpoenaed to testify at the trial. These were Alexander Sympson, Robert D. Foster, John Snyder, and Joseph H. Jackson. Smith was never able to issue subpoenas before his death, so it is difficult to know what type of defense he would have mounted or whom he would have called as witnesses.

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William Marks

While Alexander Sympson was no friend to Joseph Smith, there is no record of him speaking out about polygamy, adultery, or fornication. He did write a letter to the Warsaw Message accusing Smith of false imprisonment and lying under oath.[48] It is unknown why he would have testified at a trial for fornication or adultery. Robert D. Foster’s personal knowledge of polygamy is also unknown. He was a partner in the Nauvoo Expositor, but did not produce an affidavit like many others did. He did, however, certify the affidavits of William Law, Jane Law, and Austin Cowles, as a justice of the peace. Thus, we do not know what he would have testified to, had he been given the chance, but it is unlikely he had first-hand knowledge of adultery or fornication. It is also unknown to what John Snyder would have testified. He was an active Latter-day Saint and went west with the Brigham Young.

Joseph H. Jackson did leave a record and in it made many claims about Smith and polygamy. Much of what he said is debated by historians, and it can be difficult determining what is true, what is false, and what is a mixture of both. He claimed that Smith “took me to houses where he kept his spiritual wives, and introduced me to them all.”[49] However, he did not or could not name any of Smith’s wives. He did name Smith’s sister, Mrs. Milligan (Lucy Smith Millikin) as an attempted plural wife. He also claimed that Smith told him that he was trying “to get Mrs. William Law for a spiritual wife,” but was unable “to convince her of the correctness of the doctrine.”[50]

Another one of Jackson’s claims involved President William Marks, who was on the grand jury. According to Jackson, Smith was attempting to make Sophia Marks one of his plural wives at the time. He wrote, “[Joseph Smith] had endeavored to seduce the daughter of [William] Marks, and she had informed her parents who were very wrathy, and Joe dreaded their influence.”[51] According to the 1842 census, Marks only had one daughter living with him at the time and that was Sophia. She was christened in Livingston, New York on August 20, 1828 making her approximately 15 years old.  While Jackson’s claims are often viewed with skepticism, there is other evidence that supports this. Eliza Jane Churchill Webb wrote in a letter in 1876, “William Marks an influential man in the church, left because Joseph was determined to have his daughter Sophia Marks sealed to him.”[52] Also, in January 1843, Smith started taking more of an interest in Marks and his family, specifically Sophia. On January 13, Smith “went to Bro[ther] W[illia]m Marks to see Sophia who was sick. Heard her relate the vision or dream of a visit from her two brothers who were dead—Touching the associations and relations of another world.”[53] Also, the following day he convened a “special council in the chamber—to pray for Sophia Marks.”[54] At this time, Smith was not actively seeking plural wives (the last person he married was Martha McBride in August 1842).  But, in March of 1843, he started marrying again, including many teenagers (Partridge 19 years old, Woodworth 16 years old, Kimball 14 years old, and Walker 17 years old) which were similar in age and status to Sophia Marks.

Regardless of whether Jackson’s claims are true or false, it does seem he would have had something to say to a Hancock County jury if given the chance. It seems he would have testified about the “women unknown.”

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William Clayton

As stated before, we don’t know what Smith’s defense would have entailed, but in Bradshaw’s recent article he argues many possibilities. First, he argues that the relationship was not “open” or “notorious,” and thus not illegal.[55] This seems unlikely to prevail as the statute only requires proof “by circumstances which raise the presumption of cohabitation and unlawful intimacy.” Also, the grand jury clearly believed the relationship was “open” and “notorious,” at least to William and Wilson Law. Second, Bradshaw claims Smith could have made a challenge on the lack of “witnesses to one or more sexual acts[,]” which “would have been needed.” This is not true, as stated above, one only need “circumstances which raise the presumption.”[56] Third, he argues that Smith could have subjected Maria to gynecological exam to prove her virginity.[57] This would have been incredibly invasive and embarrassing to Maria, and as Brian Hales has also pointed out on this matter, “virginity cannot always be proven by physical exam even if the woman has never experienced intercourse.”[58] Fourth, he argues that Smith could have challenged the credibility of the State’s witnesses.[59] This is true; however it would have gone both ways with the jury determining credibility. Fifth, he claims that “the Law’s statements that Joseph admitted to adultery could have been challenged,” based on federal hearsay law.[60] This is very unlikely because federal hearsay law, which was unsettled at the time, did not apply to state courts. Also, because Smith was the criminal defendant, his statements would almost assuredly be admitted into evidence. Sixth, he claims Smith could have “attempted to invoke his rights of religious liberty, under state or federal law.”[61] This also seems unlikely. It is almost unfathomable to imagine a state circuit court would overrule a state statute, making fornication and adultery legal. Also, Smith was denying polygamy existed. He would have had to admit the relationship and claim it was his “religious liberty” to do so. Finally, Bradshaw argues Smith could have sought protection under the Nauvoo city ordinances regarding religious societies, adultery, or marriage.[62] This too would be unlikely, as Nauvoo was only able to pass laws that were “not repugnant to the Constitution of the United States or of this State.”[63] Thus, no law passed by the Nauvoo City council could overrule a state statute.

Conclusion

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Hancock County Courthouse Today

Like many incidents in history we are left with more questions than answers. However, attempting to understand is important. Smith’s indictment is significant in many ways to Latter-day Saints. First, it serves as evidence that Smith was involved in polygamy and Maria Lawrence was one of his wives. Those denying Smith’s involvement in polygamy must accept that a grand jury indicted him for these activities in 1844. Deniers of Smith’s polygamy often claim there are few if any contemporary documents proving Smith engaged in polygamy. This case provides contemporary documents showing this relationship existed.

Second, it shows that Smith respected the legal process in making an appearance at trial and facing his accusers head on, rather than avoiding and evading arrest. It also gives significant context to the last months of Smith’s life showing the people of Hancock County were aware of rumors of strange and illegal Mormon marital practices, providing background to their mistrust and dislike of those in Nauvoo. Similarly, it gives significant context to the Law brother’s actions in the final months of Smith’s life, showing how much they abhorred the practice of polygamy. Not only were they willing to publish their knowledge of polygamy through the Nauvoo Expositor, they were also willing to have their claims subjected to burden of proof established by the legal system.

While we can now debate what the outcome of the trial would be, had it been held, it certainly would have been Smith’s most significant trial had he lived to defend himself in court.

________________________________________________

[1] Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The trial of the accused assassins of Joseph Smith. (University of Illinois Press, 1979) 1.

[2] Joseph Smith Indictment and Arrest Warrant, MS 3464 LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[3] Wilford Wood collection, MS 8716, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[4] Hancock County Circuit Court Book D 1843-1847, Hancock Co., IL, Circuit Court, Civil and Criminal Files, Family History Library, Salt Lake City.

[5] Laws of Illinois (1833) sec. 123.

[6] Webster, Noah. Noah Webster’s first edition of an American dictionary of the English language. Foundation for American Christian Education, 1828. There was no American legal dictionary in print at the time of this indictment.

[7] AN ACT prescribing the mode of summoning Grand and Petit Jurors, and defining their qualifications and duties. (1827) sec. 2.

[8] Ibid., sec. 3.

[9] Ibid., sec. 5.

[10] People vs. Joseph Smith, May 23, 1844, Circuit Court Record, Hancock County, Book D,

[11] While Mormons generally refer to Joseph the Prophet as Joseph Smith Jr., legally he was known as Joseph Smith Senior by 1843. On June 30, 1843, the Municipal Court convened with “William Marks . . . elected President pro tem,” because Reynolds, a law enforcement officer from Jackson County, Missouri, had arrested Joseph Smith the prior week. The court adjourned, but met the following day, July 1, still with William Marks as the presiding judge. Marks heard testimony from Hyrum Smith, Parley P. Pratt, Brigham Young, George Petkin, Lyman Wright and Sidney Rigdon. While these witnesses testified that Smith had not committed treason or murder in Missouri, these arguments were not used by Marks to free Smith. The warrant, upon which Smith was arrested, was directed to Joseph Smith Jr., a technicality he exploited.   When Joseph Smith Sr. died in 1840, Joseph Smith the prophet claimed he was now Joseph Smith Sr. He stated to Marks:

The said supposed warrant so issued by the Said Governor of the State of Illinois as aforesaid does not confer and authority to arrest your petitioner, for what it commands the officers therein named to arrest one Joseph Smith, Junior ^whereas the name of you petitioner is Joseph Smith, Senior ^ and your petitioner avers that he is not known and reputed by the name of Joseph Smith Junior.

Hyrum Smith similarly testified “Said that the defendant now in court is his brother, and that his name is not Joseph Smith, Junior, but his name is Joseph Smith, Senior and has been for more than 2 years past.” Ultimately, Smith was discharged from arrest

[12] Joseph Smith Indictment and Arrest Warrant, MS 3464.

[13] Willard Richards Journals and Papers 1821-1853, Journal (Vol. 10) 1844 March-August, May 23, 1844, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[14] Joseph Smith, et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by B. H. Roberts, 7 vols., 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948 printing), 6:403.

[15] People vs. Joseph Smith, May 24, 1844, Circuit Court Record, Hancock County, Book D

[16] Ibid.

[17] Joseph Smith Indictment and Arrest Warrant, MS 3464.

[18] Willard Richards Journals and Papers 1821-1853, Journal (Vol. 10) 1844 March-August, May 25, 1844.

[19] Scott Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah, Signature Books, 1989) 483.

[20] Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Vol. 6. Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980. May 26, 1844, 375.

[21] Willard Richards Journals and Papers 1821-1853, Journal (Vol. 10) 1844 March-August, May 27, 1844.

[22] Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 483.

[23] Warsaw Signal, May 29, 1844 p. 2

[24] Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch, Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2014) 404-406. See specifically, Chapter 17: Defining Adultery under Illinois and Nauvoo Law, by M. Scott Bradshaw.

[25] Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 483.

[26] Gregg, Thomas. “History of Hancock County.” Illinois (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman, 1880) 323 (1880). 301-302

[27] Hancock County Circuit Court Book D 1843-1847.

[28] People vs. Joseph Smith, May 27, 1844, Circuit Court Record, Hancock County, Book D. The entry state

The People of the State of Illinois v. Joseph Smith Sen. – Indictment for Adultery and Fornication

This day Came Wilson Law & William Law and acknowledged themselves ^jointly & severally^ to give deed be indebted to the People of the state of Illinois in the sum of one hundred Dollars to be levied of their goods, chattels, Lands, tenements, and real estate or the payment of the same conditioned that of the said Wilson Law and William Law shall personally by and appear before the Circuit Court of Hancock County to be holden at this Court House in Carthage on the third Monday in the month of October next there and there to give testimony in the above entitled Cause and not depart the without leave thereof thru this recognizance to be void otherwise to be and remain in full force and virtue

[29] Compton, Todd. In sacred loneliness: The plural wives of Joseph Smith. Signature Books, 1997, 473-74.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Johnson, “More Testimony,” March 9, 1904.

[33] Jensen, Plural Marriage, 230

[34] Emily Dow Partridge Young, “Incidents in the Life of a Mormon Girl,” n.d.

[35] Mary B. Norman to Ina Coolbirth, Feb. 3, 1911, P13, f1078, RLDS Archives, as quoted in Compton, In Sacred Loneliness.

[36] The Nauvoo Diaries of William Clayton, 1842-1846, Abridged (Salt Lake City: Privately Published, 2010) July 12, 1843, 22.

[37] William Clayton Statement, February 16, 1874.

[38] Nauvoo Expositor pg. 2.

[39] Hales, Brian C., and Don Bradley. Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History vol 2. Greg Kofford Books, Salt Lake City Utah, 2013, 235.

[40] The Nauvoo Diaries of William Clayton, 1842, Oct 11, 1843, 34.

[41] History of the Church, 6:53

[42] Leonard, Glen M. Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002, 185.

[43]  Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898, Typescript, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 9 vols. (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983-1984), 2:455. May 14 and 19, 1840.

[44] The William Clayton diaries for November 2, 1843 record him present at a political meeting, “Afterwards in council with J. Hyrum Wm Law, B. Young, Jno. Taylor & H.C. Kimball on political matters, upon a letter sent by Jos L. Heywood of Quincy.” However, other sources do not place William Law at that meeting and it is likely he was mistaken.

[45] John S. Dinger, ed., The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), 199-210., see also Lyndon W. Cook, William Law: Biographical Essay, Nauvoo Diary, Correspondence, Interview, (Orem, UT: Grandin Book) 1994, 38.

[46] Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 375.

[47] Tom Kimball is currently working on the life of William Law and has significantly developed this argument regarding dates and the visit to Benbow’s farm.

[48] Reprinted in Gregg, Thomas. History of Hancock CountyIllinois (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman, 1880) 299-300.

[49] Jackson, Joseph H. A Narrative of the Adventures and Experience of Joseph H. Jackson in Nauvoo. Warsaw, Illinois (1844), 12.

[50] Ibid., 19.

[51] Ibid., 22.

[52] Eliza J. Webb [Eliza Jane Churchill Webb], Lockport, New York, Letter to Mary Bond, April 24, 1876.

[53] Scott H. Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989) 292.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Madsen & Walker, Sustaining the Law, 412.

[56] Ibid., 412-413.

[57] Ibid., 414.

[58] http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/maria-lawrence-evidences-of-sexuality/ accessed on July 29, 2015

[59] Madsen & Walker, Sustaining the Law, 414.

[60] Ibid., 414-15.

[61] Ibid., 415.

[62] Ibid., 416.

[63] Nauvoo Charter sec. 11.

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John S. Dinger is a graduate of the S. J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, where he was on the Utah Law Review. In addition to a juris doctorate, he holds degrees in political science and history from the University of Utah. He has published in the Journal of Mormon History, John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Idaho Law Review, and Utah Law Review. His book, The Nauvoo High Council and City Council Minutes (Signature Books, 2011), won the Best Documentary Book Award from the Mormon History Association and the Best Book Award from the John Whitmer Historical Association. In 2013 he published Significant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon: The First Printed Edition Compared to the Manuscripts and to the Subsequent Major LDS English Printed Editions (Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2013). He is presently a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Ada County in Boise, Idaho and a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children taskforce.

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