In August–November 1838, Mormons and their “Gentile” Missourian neighbors clashed in the Mormon War of 1838. At issue were not only religious differences, but also basic civil liberties. Missourians had expelled the theocratic, bloc-voting Mormons from county after county, and the Mormons in turn had expelled dissenters and Gentiles from their own communities. Both sides had suffered violence and lost land and property. Brewing anger erupted in an election-day brawl in early August that escalated to full-scale war by mid-October.
On October 20 in the Mormon capital of Far West, First Counselor to the First Presidency Sidney Rigdon called a mass meeting at the schoolhouse. Joseph Smith was away at the time, coordinating raids to loot and burn Gentile stores and houses in neighboring Daviess County. Most of the attendees at the October 20 meeting were members of an infamous Mormon paramilitary organization known as “Danites,” after the biblical warrior tribe of Dan. Brigadier General Sampson Avard, second-in-command and First Presidency “spokesman” to the Danite band, assisted Rigdon in presiding over the meeting.
The purpose of the October 20 meeting was to organize the defense of Far West. Mormons expected an imminent invasion by Missourian vigilante groups and state militia. At this meeting Rigdon and Avard created several paramilitary companies, including a spy company under Danite Captain Amasa Lyman and a messenger company under Postmaster W. W. Phelps. (Though not a Danite, Phelps attended this well-guarded meeting at Rigdon’s special invitation.)
Rigdon was an extremist, and his rhetoric had grown more and more violent throughout the Mormons’ confrontation with their neighbors. This October 20 meeting brought out his worst impulses. Besides monitoring enemy activity, he assigned Captain Lyman’s spy company to clandestinely commit acts of arson against the Missourians in retaliation for the burning of Mormon homes. If necessary, the company should burn down the cities of Richmond, Liberty, and Buncombe—the county seats that had dispatched militias to fight the Mormons.
Then someone made an even more disturbing suggestion: that if arson didn’t work, the spy company could poison the Missourians’ food supply. John Corrill, who did not attend the meeting, heard this paraphrase from someone who was present: “they might scatter poison, pestilence, and disease, among the inhabitants, and make them think it was judgments sent from God.” Thomas B. Marsh claimed it was Avard who made this suggestion, but Marsh too got his information second-hand. Burr Riggs was present and heard the use of poison discussed, but he missed part of the conversation and couldn’t identify who had brought it up. W. W. Phelps, who fortunately paid better attention than Riggs, said it was Rigdon who made the poisoning remark.
It’s unclear whether Joseph Smith ever heard about the poisoning proposal. “I also know about the Arsenic you directed to be thrown in the Wells in Missouri,” George M. Hinkle accused him in a letter dated June 12, 1842. But Hinkle didn’t attend the October 1838 meeting, and he made no reference to poisoning when he testified about the war before a court in Richmond that November. Probably he learned about the poisoning proposal from the testimony of other witnesses at the November hearing. Hinkle did testify that Smith had told him about the plan for retaliatory arson, so Smith knew and approved of at least some of the plans from the October 20 meeting. But the only surviving evidence to indicate Smith’s opinion of the poisoning proposal comes from John Corrill, who “accused Smith and Rigdon of it, but they both denied it promptly.”
The Saints, of course, never actually conducted any poison attacks against the Missourians. This was an off-hand suggestion, made in a moment of enthusiasm, probably by Sidney Rigdon. The Saints made many militant remarks during the Mormon War, most of which they never acted upon. The fact that the suggestion was even made, however, is a chilling reminder that the potential for great evil lies within all of us and is no respecter of religion or creed.