The study of history is largely the study of the causes and motivations behind past events. Historians want to know why past events happened and why past people acted in the ways they did. Mob violence poses a particular problem for historians because mob members are often anonymous and their individual reasons and motives—even when they can be known—are often subsumed by “groupthink.” Still, it seems lazy to simply chalk up the murder of Joseph Smith to the mass, unthinking prejudice of the Carthage mob. Mobs tend to have instigators and ringleaders, and these people presumably have significant motives for violence even if many of their followers don’t. In this post I’d like to zero in on a single probable ringleader of the Carthage mob, Nauvoo grocer John Eagle.
John Eagle’s participation in the Carthage mob is reasonably certain. According to Wandle Mace, Eagle was seen and recognized by eyewitnesses after the martyrdom with “the black only partially washed off his face.” Pinning Eagle as one of the instigators is more difficult. Willard Richards and William Clayton identified the mob’s ringleaders as the circle of dissenters associated with William Law, but historians generally agree that this was a false assumption and that the Law brothers were not in Carthage at the time of the martyrdom. This should make us skeptical when Richards and Clayton name Eagle as another key conspirator, but in this case their assessment is corroborated by Stephen Markham, who encountered Eagle in a store near the Carthage jail shortly before the martyrdom. Eagle “threw out considerable threats against the Mormons” and against Markham himself. A few minutes later Markham was assaulted by the Carthage Greys (a local anti-Mormon militia that collaborated in the martyrdom), “Eagle in the gang urging them on.” As possible evidence of premeditation, Eagle was one of seven men briefly detained when Joseph declared martial law two weeks before the martyrdom, which implies that Eagle was then already suspected of harboring violent intentions. Moreover, as I shall argue, Eagle’s history of personal conflict with Joseph gave him plenty of motive for violence.
The conflict between Smith and Eagle began on October 23, 1841, when Smith got the Nauvoo city council to declare Eagle’s grocery store a public nuisance and to order its forcible “removal” from the city. The grocery was targeted primarily because its alleged sale of hard liquor violated a city ordinance, but it didn’t help that the building was an eyesore and located near the temple.
Smith probably should have delegated the grocery’s removal to an underling, but instead he personally took charge. Smith had been accused by a prominent anti-Mormon of having “abbetted and approbated” the grocery’s operations, so perhaps his personal involvement in its removal was a political statement. Then again, the fact that he called up “two companies of the Nauvoo Legion” for the task suggests that he expected a fight, so perhaps he wanted in on the action. By all accounts the prophet was a scrapper. If it was a fight the prophet was looking for, Eagle was happy to oblige. When the Legionnaires arrived to carry off his property, Eagle took a swing at John Scott, sending him sprawling. At this point the prophet leapt into the fight. Dodging a punch from Eagle, the prophet counter-punched and knocked him down. Although Eagle was “a tall, raw-boned, stout man that weighed over two hundred pounds” and had a reputation as something of a bruiser, Smith then took him “by the seat of his breeches and the nape of his neck . . . and he pitched him right out, and [said,] ‘That is the way we do it, away down east!’”
If it wasn’t humiliating enough for a proud man like Eagle to be so indecorously bested by the prophet, the Legionnaires then added insult to injury by also destroying his property. Joseph’s orders from the city council had been to put the house on rollers and move it outside the city limits. Instead, the prophet and his men tipped the house into a deep gully and smashed it to pieces against the bottom. Nor did Eagle have much in the way of legal recourse, since the court and city council were one and the same. Eagle was tried for assault and battery with Joseph Smith as one of the presiding judges. The court fined Eagle $35 for the assault, $30 more for contempt of court, and $8 for costs of suit. When Eagle and his business partner petitioned the city council for $125 to cover the loss of their property, the council voted to approve Joseph’s destruction of their property and to award no damages. Eagle did eventually manage to get his fines reduced, but only by $30.
Eagle also butted heads with the prophet on a couple other occasions. The most telling came in May 1844, when a U.S. Marshal came to Nauvoo to arrest one Jeremiah Smith. Jeremiah had approached the prophet toward the end of April, seeking legal help. Joseph became fast friends with Jeremiah, who he soon discovered was a relative and fellow Freemason. Joseph helped Jeremiah make out a writ of habeas corpus, and instead of recusing himself from the case as he should have, the prophet presided over it and audaciously attempted to shield his relative from the Marshal by asserting municipal jurisdiction over federal authority. When the Marshal threatened to bring in federal troops to restore order, the prophet ordered the Marshal arrested for disturbing the peace. Jeremiah eventually submitted to federal authority of his own free will, but he went to the federal judge with a letter from the prophet introducing him as a Freemason. It’s difficult to know whether this blatant attempt to bias the judicial process played any role, but Jeremiah’s cause was ultimately upheld. Eagle’s participation in this episode was as a party to an alleged plot by the Marshal to kidnap Jeremiah out of the prophet’s custody. Although Eagle’s was a bit part in the overall affair, it’s a safe bet that he got an earful from the Marshal about Joseph’s abuse of power.
John Eagle, then, was a man who may have had both personal and ideological reasons to do violence against the prophet. Eagle had been personally humiliated by Smith in physical combat, which in the nineteenth-century culture of honor was not the kind of thing a man forgot. He had seen Smith spitefully destroy his personal property and then manipulate the machinery of justice to prevent him from collecting damages. He had also seen the prophet overstep his civil authority in the case of Jeremiah Smith, which may have convinced Eagle that the prophet was a menace to law and order as well as a personal enemy. Of course, none of this to say that Eagle was innocent in his feud with the prophet—he wasn’t—or that his motives were sufficient to justify murder—they weren’t. But understanding the history between the two men does, I think, make Eagle’s actions comprehensible and cast them in a somewhat different light.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from this story, it may be about the dangers of political monopolies and coercive use of power. People in the nineteenth century often resorted to extralegal violence when they felt that legal recourse was unavailable and that democratic solutions had failed. Thus while Joseph Smith’s monopoly on civil power in Nauvoo did protect him and his followers from many legal threats, it arguably made them a target for violence outside the law. Smith also seems not to have realized how his casual use of force and coercion earned him dangerous personal enemies who sometimes nursed grudges for years. It took nearly a century for the Church to learn how to exercise “soft power” in civil government that gave it influence without animosity, but it’s a lesson well-learned and one that any institution with political ambitions would probably do well to take to heart.
 Some of the mob had blackened their faces with gunpowder mixed with water in order to conceal their identities. Wandle Mace, “Autobiography of Wandle Mace,” 150, New Mormon Studies CD-ROM: A Comprehensive Resource Library (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2009 edition).
 Richards’s list may be found in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1902–32), 7:147, https://byustudies.byu.edu/hc/7/13.html. Clayton’s list may be found in An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, ed. George D. Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1995), 135, New Mormon Studies CD-ROM: A Comprehensive Resource Library (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2009 edition).
 Debra Jo March, “Respectable Assassins: A Collective Biography and Socio-Economic Study of the Carthage Mob,” M.A. thesis, University of Utah, 2009, http://content.lib.utah.edu/utils/getfile/collection/etd2/id/587/filename/1461.pdf.
 Stephen Markham to Wilford Woodruff, June 20, 1856, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~sjensen/jensen/references/ref103.htm.
 For Eagle’s brief detention, see History of the Church, 6:537, http://books.google.com/books?id=JXbZAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA537#v=onepage&q&f=false.
 Minutes of the Nauvoo City Council, October 23, 1841, in The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, ed. John S. Dinger (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), 28–29; “The Neusance,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 2 (November 15, 1841): 599–600, http://www.centerplace.org/history/ts/v3n02.htm. Eagle was co-owner of the grocery with Pulaski S. Cahoon. John Taylor (not the apostle/president, but a different John Taylor) implies the grocery was actually a house of prostitution, but he also associates it with Bennett and the Fosters, so his memory on this point may not reliable. The city council minutes and Times & Seasons make no mention of prostitution. The sources are also unclear as to whether the building was still occupied by the grocers or had been abandoned by them. Perhaps they abandoned it and it began to be used by others for prostitution or sexual hookups; then the grocers only reoccupied it when the building was going to be removed. Hopefully future research will shed further light on this point. John Taylor, testimony at the Temple Lot Case, full transcript, part 1, page 403–4, question 140, quoted at http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.com/NonWivesSexualRelations/24Accusations/MrsWhiteACC.html.
 David Osborn, Autobiography, typescript, http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/DOsborn.html; John Taylor, testimony at the Temple Lot Case; “State of Illinois vs. John Eagle,” Nauvoo Mayor’s Court docket, 12, in Historical Record Book, 1841–74, MS 3434, Church History Library, http://eadview.lds.org/findingaid/viewer?pid=IE1241808, File 24. Osborn says Eagle had a reputation as “quite a bully.” This assessment probably had some truth to it but may also have been influenced by Osborn’s awareness of Eagle’s apostasy and desire to justify the prophet’s actions, so make of it what you will. See also History of the Church, 6:171–72, http://books.google.com/books?id=JXbZAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA171#v=onepage&q&f=false; John Doyle Lee, The Mormon Menace: Being the Confession of John Doyle Lee (New York: Home Protection, 1905), 140, http://books.google.com/books?id=-Vk3AAAAMAAJ&lpg=PA197&pg=PA197#v=onepage&q&f=false. Lee incorrectly conflates the grocery incident with the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor printing press.
 Edwin Brown Firmage and Richard Collin Mangrum, Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 104–5; History of the Church, 6:343, 379, 416–23.
 History of the Church, 6:412.