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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 12:10 am

When Joseph Smith stood trial in Springfield

Joseph Smith
On Jan. 4, 1843, a throng of curious spectators packed the federal courtroom on the second floor of the Tinsley building in Springfield. Dozens of people – reportedly including newlywed Mary Lincoln – had turned out to catch a glimpse of the man at the center of the trial that day: Joseph Smith, the handsome, charismatic, controversial Mormon prophet.

In 1830, Smith had published the Book of Mormon, which he claimed to have transcribed from ancient writings engraved on golden plates revealed to Smith by an angel of the Lord. This text became the foundation of a new religion, with Smith as its prophet. His followers eventually called themselves the Latter-day Saints, commonly known as “Mormons.”

Stories about Smith had appeared in the Springfield papers since the early 1830s. Illinois readers followed the prophet’s travails through Ohio and Missouri, where church members frequently clashed with the local populations. In the summer of 1838, tensions boiled over into violent skirmishes between Mormons and non-Mormons, leaving 22 people dead. In response, Missouri Governor Lilliburn Boggs issued an executive order stating that Mormons must be exterminated or driven from the state.

As a result, Smith and more than 10,000 of his followers sought refuge in Illinois – first in Quincy, then on land Smith purchased in the small town of Commerce in Hancock County, located on the Mississippi River. Smith rechristened it “Nauvoo” and used his political connections to obtain a liberal city charter from the Illinois state legislature, which granted the city power to pass any laws that did not directly conflict with the state and federal constitutions. (Abraham Lincoln was one of the Illinois state representatives who voted in favor of the Nauvoo City Charter.)

In 1842, an unknown assailant tried and failed to kill Gov. Boggs by shooting him three times in the head. Boggs suspected Smith and his Saints were behind the assassination attempt. He ordered that Smith be extradited from Illinois to Missouri to stand trial for attempted murder. Certain that he would not get a fair trial in Missouri – and fearing that he might well be killed – Smith went into hiding for several months.

Eventually growing tired of being on the run, Smith sent his emissaries to Springfield to consult with judges and lawyers about how he might legally avoid extradition. A delegation led by Smith’s brother, Hyrum, took up lodgings at Springfield’s Globe Tavern in December 1842. Among the other boarders were Abraham and Mary Lincoln, who had been married the previous month.

The Mormon leaders discussed Smith’s case with local attorney Benjamin S. Edwards, brother-in-law of Mary Lincoln’s sister, Elizabeth, and U.S. District Attorney Justin Butterfield of Chicago. They advised Smith to allow himself to be arrested and brought before a federal judge in Springfield for a habeas corpus hearing.

A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring someone who has been criminally convicted in a state court to a federal court to determine if the person’s arrest or imprisonment is lawful. Because Smith hadn’t even been in Missouri when Boggs was shot, Butterfield and Edwards were confident that they could stop Missouri’s attempt to transfer Smith to that state to stand trial.

The Mormon leaders reported back to Smith in Nauvoo, who agreed to Butterfield and Edwards’ advised course of action. Smith and his entourage arrived in Springfield on Dec. 30, 1842. The following day, he surrendered to arrest and petitioned U.S. District Court Judge Nathanial Pope for a writ of habeas corpus.

The hearing began on Jan. 2, 1843. Pope presided over the federal courtroom in Springfield, located on the second floor of what is now the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office building. Among the throng of spectators were a large number of women, Mary Lincoln among them, who for lack of space were seated on the judge’s platform. A witness to the hearing recalled that, when the proceedings began, Butterfield rose and said:

“May it please the Court; I appear before you today under circumstances most novel and peculiar. I am to address the ‘Pope’ [bowing to the judge] surrounded by angels [bowing still lower to the ladies] in the presence of the holy Apostles, in behalf of the Prophet of the Lord.”

Reviewing the evidence, Pope found that Missouri had no basis for demanding extradition, save an affidavit by Gov. Boggs rooted in the governor’s mere belief that Smith was guilty rather than any established fact. The judge ruled in Smith’s favor and quashed the writ of extradition. Smith was free to return to Nauvoo without fear of future arrest.

For the next several months, tensions mounted between Mormons and their non-Mormon neighbors in Hancock County. In June of 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were arrested for inciting a riot and jailed in Carthage, Illinois. On June 27, an armed mob stormed the jail and shot Hyrum in the face, killing him instantly. Smith was shot multiple times as he tried to escape through a window and died shortly after hitting the ground. One hundred and fifty years later, Joseph Smith’s Church of Latter-day Saints would number more than 16 million people worldwide.

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