William R. Hamilton served in the Carthage Greys in 1844. His letter to Foster Walker, describing the Smiths' murders in Carthage, was published in Foster Walker's "The Mormons in Hancock County," Dallas City Review (January 29, 1903, p.2).
A Letter from William R. Hamilton (12/24/1902)
Carthage, Ill., Dee. 24, 1902
FOSTER WALKER, -
It would be a long and, I presume, an uninteresting story to relate all I saw of the Mormons and know of their actions and that of the Antis; therefore I shall confine myself to what I know transpired on the day of the killing of the Prophet and Patriarch- that is Joseph and Hyrum Smith- by the mob, without entering into any kind of statements as to causes which had incited the mob to take their lives-which was done at the jail in Carthage at about 4:40 o'clock P.M. on June 27, 1844.
There had been about 1200 troops- state militia- summoned as a "posse comitatus" by a civil officer to assist in arresting them. Charges, writs and legal proceedings are matters of record in the courts. Governor Thomas Ford was here in command. The Smiths had surrendered two days before, and had been kept at my father's hotel until that morning. The governor, presuming all danger of trouble over, ordered the troops to return home and disband except two companies, which he retained- the Carthage Greys and the Augusta Dragoons. The cavalry company he took as an escort and went to Nauvoo, leaving the Carthage Greys to Guard the Smiths. This company was commanded by Captain Robert F. Smith, who in the war of the Rebellion was colonel of the 16th Ill. Inft. I was the youngest member of that company and had not as vet fully learned the lesson of red tape and complete obedience to all orders. Still, in the company I had the name of doing quite well for a boy.
A little after 7:00 A.M. the troops broke camp and left for home. The Governor, with his escort started for Nauvoo, and the Smiths were taken to the jail- there kept under guard by a detail of six men from the company, with an officer in command; the company remaining in camp at the public square. About 11 o'clock A.M., myself and another young man were ordered by the captain to go on top of the court house and keep a sharp lookout for and see if a body of men were approaching the town from any direction; and, if any were seen, to immediately report to the captain personally, at his quarters. We had a large field glass and could clearly see in every direction save due north for several miles. We were especially ordered to keep a strict outlook over the prairies towards Nauvoo. Nothing suspicious was discovered until about 4 P.M. when we saw a body of armed men in wagons and on horses approaching the low timber, a little north of west from the jail, and about two miles distant. This was at once reported to the captain, when we were ordered to keep a strict watch and at once report if they came through the timber. In about a half hour after, a body of armed men- about 125- came out of the woods on foot and started in a single file, behind an old rail fence, in the direction of the jail. They were then about three-fourths of a mile distant. This we at once attempted to report, but could not find the captain; and (not being "muzzled," as soldiers of late date) told another officer, who after considerable delay found the captain who ordered the company to fall into line. By this time the mob had reached the jail and had commenced shooting. I there forgot all about orders to put on accoutrements and fall into line; but immediately started on double quick for the jail.
To digress: For one of the best drilled and equipped companies in the state at that time- on that occasion we would have taken the prize for the best exhibition of an awkward squad in existence. I have always thought the officers and some privates were working for delay. The company finally reached the jail, but not until after the mob had completed their work and left in the direction from which they came. When about fifty yards away I saw Joseph Smith come to the window and fall out. One of the men went to him and partially straightened his body out beside the well curb. Just at this time I got up amongst the men and heard him say, "he's dead," when all the mob immediately left. I went to where Smith was lying and found that he was dead without doubt. I then went up to the room where they had been quartered, where I found Hyrum Smith lying upon the floor on his back, dead. No person was in the room, or came while I was there. He was stretched out on the floor, just as he had fallen after being shot.
The shot that killed him was fired through the door panel by one of the mob, while in the hall, and struck him in the left breast, he falling backward. There were in the room at that time four persons- the two Smiths and Elders Taylor and Richards. Taylor was wounded, being hit several times- all flesh wounds- and was the same night taken to my father's house, where he was cared for until able to be taken to Nauvoo. Richards was not hurt and immediately after the mob left the hall, carried Taylor into the cell department of the jail, which was done just before I went upstairs. The room in which they were is about 16 x 16 feet and had one window in the east side, two in the front or south end, and the door opening from the hall, just at the top of the stairs almost directly opposite the east side window out of which Smith fell. There was a bedstead in the southeast corner of the room, under which Taylor was after the shooting was over. The door opened in such a manner that when forced open it formed a recess in the corner, so that a person there was hid from sight. Richard's position bought [sic] him into the corner. There was no lock, bolt or even latch upon the door, and when the mob started upstairs, those in the room shut the door and attempted to hold it. After those in the hall had tried several times to push it open, Smith having shot at them by putting the muzzle of his old English pepperbox revolver through the opening at the side of the door (made by their efforts) and firing four shots into the hall, one of the men placed the muzzle of his rifle against the door and fired, which shot killed Hyrum Smith, he being behind the panel in a position to do most of the work in keeping the door shut, he falling backward, leaving the door which flew open and hid Richards in the corner. At the same time others in the hall fired into the room, wounding Taylor, who rolled under the bed. Smith, in attempting to escape out of the window was shot from the outside falling outward.
The approach of the mob was made from the rear or north, dividing part to the east and west, meeting at the front, thus completely surrounding the jail. The guards were quietly sitting in front and in the hall below, all of whom were captured without much trouble or danger. Just a little suspicion might be attached to the officer in command. Yet it might be presumed he thought his only duty was to keep the Smiths from coming downstairs. After I had satisfied my curiosity, seen and been among the mob, seen the prophet shot, and seen the dead men, it occurred to me I ought to go home and tell the news. When about 200 yards from the jail I met the company coming ready for business. Nothing was to be done but to "about face," return to camp and be disbanded; which was promptly done in good order, as their prisoners were dead and not likely to run away.
The bodies of the Smiths, after the coroner's inquest, were taken by my father, Artois Hamilton, to his hotel. He had boxes (not coffins) made out of pine boards, in which they were taken to Nauvoo the next day. The news of their death having been sent to Nauvoo, early the next morning two of their brothers, with two other men, came after their bodies in a wagon. The body of Joseph was placed in theirs and that of Hyrum in father's wagon, who with two of my brothers went with them.
This is a true statement of what occurred on that day, so far as the doings of the troops and killing of the Smiths. There are many facts and names of persons connected with that tragedy, which are now lost to the world-where it seems best to let them remain.
Wm R. Hamilton