Education Week: Separating facts from fiction about the Prophet's death
PROVO, Utah — The size of the bullet hole in John Taylor’s pocket watch that was with him in Carthage Jail was the last detail Joseph Lynn Lyon needed in his research about the 1816 muskets that were likely used by the mob.
The pocket watch had been damaged during the shootings that resulted in the deaths of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum and the hands had stopped at 5:16.
The answer he received: “There isn’t a hole in John Taylor’s watch.”
That started a new search to separate the facts from the myths surrounding the events of that day in Carthage, Ill., on June 27, 1844, Lyon said during a BYU Campus Education Week presentation on Aug. 16.
“Some well meaning people want to enhance such an event by adding the miraculous,” Lyon said. “While others want to attack it to destroy faith.”
Fortunately, there is still evidence from the shootings, including the jail with the original doors and the room still intact, the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum, and photographs of their skulls, Hyrum’s clothes and watch, John Taylor’s watch and statements from those who survived or treated the men.
John Taylor’s watch
To see how a watch would withstand being shot, Lyon, a University of Utah professor, began buying old watches for a MythBusters-style test.
With a similar caliber musket that the attackers would have used and uncooked pork chops, Lyon simulated distances of one foot to 100 feet and a grazing shot.
The watches were all severely damaged and blown apart, Lyon said.
Hyrum’s watch, which was hit by a musket ball that went through his body, was severely dented and split.
“Had John Taylor’s watch been struck, there would be
visible damage,” Lyon said.
More likely, the pocket watch’s glass was broken when John Taylor likely fell after he was shot.
The safety of the prisoners was the jailer’s responsibility, Lyon said.
“He had some real concerns,” Lyon said. An eight-man guard from the Carthage Greys was assigned protection detail.
The jailer had moved his prisoners to the second floor bedroom so firing through the ventilation system would be impossible, Lyon said.
The mob included primarily men from the Warsaw, Ill., militia, who had been discharged that morning, and at the time, militias were issued 1816 muskets that had a .69-calliber bullet and the muskets were 57.5 inches long. A few muskets had bayonets attached to them.
This size bullet matches the holes in the door and in Hyrum’s clothes, Lyon said.
“That puts a limit of how many can fit in a tight space,” Lyon said of the length of the musket and how it fired. “You can’t get real close without some risk.”
At just about 5 p.m., the Warsaw militia members, who apparently had the guards’ cooperation, came to Carthage. They only had a few minutes and expected to find the four prisoners in the jail cell where there was no place to hide and could be killed with two or three volleys, Lyon said.
They then went up to the bedroom, where the prisoners had two pistols and a walking stick as a defense. The first shot was at the door latch.
“A shot was fired, hitting the outer edge of the bedroom door,” Lyon said. The piece of wood with the bullet markings was apparently cut out but later returned.
The mob was likely crowded in the hallwaym and they had to shoot over their shoulders as the rifles were too long for the hallway’s width.
In the end, there were about a dozen wounds among the four men.
Hyrum was shot first through the door as he tried to brace the door, and the evidence and Lyon’s tests suggest he was shot in his face, and it exited through his neck. Hyrum was also shot in the back as he fell to the floor.
Lyon and others used laser pointers to track the trajectory of the bullets through the door and examined photos of Hyrum’s skull when it was exhumed in the 1920s. They also used an artifical skull, like those surgeons practice on, to replicate Hyrum’s injuries.
The door opens, and Joseph shoots around the door, injuring some of their attackers, Lyon said as he detailed the account.
John Taylor ran to a bedroom window and was shot in his left thigh, falling to the floor. He was shot several more times as he ran to the bed for safety.
“I think Joseph makes the decision to sacrifice himself,” Lyon said. After Joseph was shot twice and fell from the window, the mob quickly left as it had taken longer than they had anticipated it would.
And there isn’t any evidence of a firing squad outside the jail, Lyon added.
The bullets and the blood
Joseph’s attorney, J.W. Wood, counted 35 bullet holes in the room the day after the shooting, according to his written statement. Lyon and his group were allowed to use a metal detector in the room in 1999 but didn’t find anything under the plaster, Lyon said. Scavengers had likely gotten to the bullets first.
A bloodstain thought to be from Hyrum was on the floor, and at one point the caretakers had put a clear box over it to protect it, Lyon said.
In the 1980s, church leaders had the stain removed.
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