Joseph Smith in an 1842 painting. Writer Alex Beam talked about his new book about Smith, called American Crucifixion.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Beam On Mormon Leader Joseph Smith

April 25, 2014

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam was back on Boston Public Radio for his weekly Open Mic segment. Beam discussed his new book American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.

For more information, head to Alex Beam's website, follow him on Twitter, or hear the interview below.

Questions have been edited and condensed. Beam's responses are edited where indicated (...).

How much anxiety did you have over this?

I've been lucky enough to undertake projects that were really fun for me to do, that were really consuming and interesting. And so (...) you have to tell yourself: the book may fail.  Am I okay with how I spent these last two years? If you can't answer that question 'yes,' you're doing the wrong thing.

(...) There's a point where someone in the real world has got to read book and pass judgment on it. (...) I got great pre-publication reviews. Publisher's Weekly — which is a really serious publication — liked the book.

Tell us about the murder of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church.

Joseph Smith found himself and his 10,000 followers in Southwestern Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River. This was their refuge of last resort — they were chased out of Ohio, they were chased out of Missouri — they were very successful missionaries, so that's why they had such a huge following in this oddly-named town called Nauvoo. (...)

They just alienated everybody around them. This is the American frontier. They alienated people for a variety of reasons. They voted in blocs, so they controlled all the politics of the counties they were in. That really got people angry. They were viewed as heretics. The notion that somebody had handed to [Smith] a third canonical Bible in a relatively religious land — the United States of the 1830s and 1840s — is just way beyond the pale. That's an insane heresy! (...)

Polygamy — the word was out. All across the nation, from the East coast to the Mississippi River (...) he was known as 'Old Mormon Joe with his seraglio.' He had a 'harem.' Somehow, even though polygamy was secret, [it was known that] he had dozens of wives.

Dozens of wives?

My favorite footnote in my book [was], 'Historians disagree as to the number of wives Joseph Smith [had].'

(...) There's a chapter in my book called 'Everybody Hates the Mormons.' That's the situation they found themselves in in 1844 in Illinois. Everybody hated them. They were economically self-sufficient — I described them as 'economically autarchic' — and it's an incredibly insular culture and religion. They were economically divorced from the country around them. Mormons did business with Mormons, they helped out other Mormons, and they did not help out non-Mormons. So that's why everyone hated the Mormons. (...)

They had some relatively dubious reason for getting him inside a jail in Carthage, Illinois, and once they got him inside the jail — as many predicted — they simply lynched him, or in this case they filled him full of bullets. (...)

Did they try his killers?

He was murdered in broad daylight with hundreds of witnesses. The thugs that killed Joseph Smith, as Mark Twain would say, they 'let out for the territory.' They crossed the Mississippi River and disappeared into Missouri, which is a locus centris for Mormon-haters. They put nine other people on trial, people that didn't actually kill Joseph Smith. People just hated Mormons on principle. There was this month-long trial, and they were acquitted.

And he fell from a second story window, too, right?

The mob invaded his jail cell, started firing at him, and there was a window there on the second floor. Joseph was the only one who tried to climb out the window, although he was shot both from the door of his own jail cell, [and] simultaneously (...) from the ground. He tumbled — some would say lifeless, there's a huge dispute — but the key thing is that before he tumbles out the window he says, 'Lord, is there no help for the widow's son?' [That's] the Masonic call for distress — he called out to the male Masons in the mob. A Mason cannot bear arms or harm another Mason. (...) Joseph Smith embraced Masonry in part to ingratiate himself with the movers and shakers in Illinois. It's incredible that his last words were [that]. (...) The Masons just kept shooting him, that's how much they hated him.

For more on Joseph Smith and to hear the rest of Alex Beam's interview, click the player below.

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