Joseph Smith’s Personal Feud with a Probable Ringleader of the Carthage Mob

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.

The martyrdom of Joseph Smith by the Carthage Mob.

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.”[1] 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,[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Smith probably should have delegated the grocery’s removal to an underling, but instead he personally took charge.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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!’”[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.

 

NOTES

I owe a huge thank-you to John Dinger for his assistance in locating several of the sources cited in this post.

[1] 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).

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] Stephen Markham to Wilford Woodruff, June 20, 1856, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~sjensen/jensen/references/ref103.htm. 

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Minutes of the Nauvoo City Council, October 23, 1841, in The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, 28–29.

[8] “The Neusance,” 599.

[9] History of the Church, 4:442; D. Michael Quinn, “The Culture of Violence in Joseph Smith’s Mormonism,” Sunstone 164 (October 2011): 26–27.

[10] 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.

[11] John Taylor, testimony at the Temple Lot Case.

[12] Minutes of the Nauvoo City Council, October 30 and November 1, 1841, in The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, 30–34; “State of Illinois vs. John Eagle,” Nauvoo Mayor’s Court docket, 12.

[13] 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.

[14] History of the Church, 6:412.


Comments

Joseph Smith’s Personal Feud with a Probable Ringleader of the Carthage Mob — 23 Comments

  1. Thanks, Christopher. Very interesting post. It seems that a number of people had motives to be involved with the mob at Carthage. The evidence in the trial of Joseph’s and Hyrum’s murderers focused on people from Warsaw, but certainly people from other places (including Carthage) were involved. If Eagle was a “ringleader,” however, you wonder why he wasn’t indicted. The grand jury didn’t hesitate to finger other prominent men. It would be interesting to go through the records again and see if Eagle was mentioned at all in the trial.

  2. It does seem strange that Eagle wasn’t indicted, but the prosecution in that trial made a real hash of it, so maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising. I think they also relied heavily on militia rolls and witnesses from Warsaw to make their case, which may be why Eagle got overlooked.

  3. “The grocery was targeted primarily because its alleged sale of hard liquor violated a city ordinance.”

    Didn’t Smith (and Rockwell) sell hard liquor in the Mansion House? How did this not appear in court as conflict of interest?

    Excellent article, Chris, as usual.

  4. Marcello, Smith started selling liquor at the Mansion House in 1843. Eagle’s establishment was demolished in 1841, so the conflict of interest didn’t exist yet. (Not that Joseph would have been greatly concerned about such a conflict of interest even if it existed. In 1844 he passed a special law giving himself a monopoly over liquor sales within his precinct of the city, essentially on the grounds that only he was wise enough to handle that responsibility. He also legislated monopolies for himself in other industries, such as boat traffic across the Mississippi.)

  5. Pingback: Insights into the Murder of Joseph Smith | Runtu's Rincón

  6. Chris, there’s a book you might be interested in. It’s called “Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling” by Barbara Holland. It covers the history of personal duels of honor, including periods that line very close to Joseph Smith’s own era. Holland has a dry southern wit, and is highly entertaining to read. And the stories of doctors in New Orleans butchering each other down at the “dueling oaks” over medical debates and other nonsense is both chilling and amusing at the same time.

    Not too long a read and definitely worthwhile.

  7. Chris, thank you for this very interesting research and addition to church history.

    I am curious to know if John Eagle was ever an active member of the church? I see where a “John C. Eagle” is listed as a member of the Nauvoo 3rd Ward (Church membership records, 1830-1848). I also see a “John Eagle” listed as a member of the Nauvoo Legion as one of the “Aides de Camp” (dated 12 Mar. 1842).

    Thanks again! I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this.

  8. Excellent question, Allie. It’s not something I’ve investigated. There were non-Mormons in the Nauvoo Legion, so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But judging from your find in the membership records, I’d say yes! He was, at least at some point, a Mormon! :)

  9. Chris, I just thought I’d add that in a later record, I found that Eagle is listed as an “apostate”. (Here is the source: Page 120; Author: Church of Jesus Christ; Title: History of the Church, 6 volumes. 4:442; Page 177; Author: Taylor, Samuel W. ; Title: Nightfall at Nauvoo, 239.)

    Here is another source that mentions the name “John C. Eagle”:
    Page 166; Author: Platt, Lyman D. ; Title: Nauvoo, 1839-1846. 1:56; Page 120; Author: Church of Jesus Christ; Title: History of the Church, 6 volumes. 5:290

  10. Interesting post Chris.

    I thought this was pretty funny — but shows how the tension must have been building between the two — as recorded on Joseph Smith’s journal, Feb 27, 1843:

    “… signed a writ or search warrant for Bro Dixon to search— Fidlers & John Eagles house for a box of shoes.”

  11. Hey Chris- What a wonderful bit of detective work. This is a fascinating story. After reading it, I had a few questions. In studying the mob action against Joseph Smith, the data seems to IIRC point to the largest bolus of the mob forming from Warsaw’s militia which decided not to disband, but instead to make their way to Nauvoo. This may have been in response to plans to “deal” with Joseph Smith that had developed in the previous days (for example see Junius and Jospeh). With regards to John Eagle, I can see him being an insider on what was planned, but I wonder how you view Eagle’s role in the broader actions that led up to and included the raid on the jail. It seems obvious to be that Eagle didn’t rile up the townsfolk to march on the jail as the main body of the mob came from outside the town. Where do you see Eagle being involved?

  12. George, the Markham account shows Eagle urging on the Carthage Greys, so I think he qualifies as an instigator or ringleader of that group. Whether he was in on the Warsaw conspiracy leading up to the event, I can’t say. Wouldn’t terribly surprise me, but I have no proof.

  13. There’s one important thing missing from this article.

    Any sort of indication that Eagle was the actual “bad guy” even prior to the mob events in question.
    The Prophet doing this or that was perfectly normal in those times. There wasn’t the strict “rules” then as there are now. Leaders, judges, etc. always had a lot of leeway. Them exercising authority doesn’t automatically translate into an abuse of authority. If Eagle was the actual bad guy, and Joseph and Nauvoo council tried to work with the guy, and he caused problems, then clearly Eagle was at fault.

    This article simply assumes that Joseph was the “bad guy” for his actions against Eagle.
    There’s ZERO in the article indicating anything Eagle did wrong.

    I don’t call this scholarship.

  14. Eagle sold alcohol in violation of city ordinances; that makes him at the very least a lawbreaker. Eagle punched first; that makes him the aggressor. Eagle helped murder Joseph; it’s hard to be much more of a “bad guy” than that. Especially if he did it out of a desire for revenge for the way Joseph humiliated him. Anyway, I didn’t set out to say who was the good guy or the bad guy. I just wanted to explain what may have motivated Eagle to commit murder.

  15. I pretty much got that message from your post Chris. Which is why my apologist mode didn’t activate on this post. I just took it as more historical insight on a famous event.

    I do kind of wonder though if selling alcohol without the town blessing was all Eagle was doing. Those sorts of legal actions – in any town – don’t happen without a lot of behind the scenes unrest. Perhaps Eagle was a bad neighbor? Or perhaps it was simply due to bitterness that he’d left the church from the Mormons? Or maybe the Mormons had been slighting him as an outsider?

    Any number of possibilities and opportunities to assign wrongdoing.

  16. Undoubtedly, Seth. If you read the footnotes, you’ll find some suggestions as to what those “behind the scenes” things might have been. Unfortunately the sources are somewhat sketchy and contradictory on these points, so I struggled to nail down anything definitive.

  17. Chris,

    I really enjoyed this article.

    How about something on Joseph H. Jackson? I was always fascinated by him, and he also was fingered as one of the mob at Carthage.

    I think that would make a fascinating article. There is not much about him out there that is very comprehensive. His own works are very biased, as are the statements made against him before and after Carthage. Why would Joseph hire such a person as his land agent? What led to that? The History of the Church doesn’t give a very complete picture, other than Joseph felt sorry for him and wanted to help him.

  18. Good call, grindael. Jackson would make a fascinating case study, and I’ve toyed with the idea. But not right now. I’ve got a dissertation to write. :)

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  19. Another thing that may have infuriated Eagle was this ordinance that was passed in January of 1844:

    Whereas, the use and sale of distilled and fermented liquors for all purposes of beverage and drink by persons in health are viewed by this City Council with unqualified disapprobation:

    Whereas, nevertheless the aforesaid liquors are considered highly beneficial for medical and mechanical purposes, and may be safely employed for such uses, under the counsel of discreet persons: Therefore,

    Sect. 1. Be it ordained by the City Council of the city of Nauvoo, that the Mayor of this city is hereby authorized to sell said liquors in such quantities as he may deem expedient.

    Sect. 2. Be it further ordained, that other persons not exceeding one to each ward of the city, may also sell said liquors in like quantities for medical and mechanical purposes by obtaining a license of the Mayor of the city. The above ordinance to be in full force and effect immediately after its passage,—all ordinances to the contrary notwithstanding.

    Passed January 16, 1844.

    Joseph Smith, Mayor.

    W. Richards, Recorder.

    This action may have brought the old conflict with Joseph to the forefront of Eagle’s mind.

  20. I’m late coming to this post, but for the record I just wanted to add that John Eagle was raised a Master Mason in the Nauvoo Lodge in April of 1842. Make of it what you will, but I’m assuming that he was still an LDS member of good standing at that point, or he wouldn’t have received the approval necessary to join that particular Lodge.

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