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"Unspoken Testimony": How the Carthage Jail Continues to Change Lives 175 Years After the Martyrdom

Ryan Olsen will never forget his first visit to Carthage Jail.

It happened in 1989, just before he left to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That day he was with his father, Ken Olsen, a truck driver who was hauling a load to Wisconsin. Along the way, they were able to stop and visit Church history sites in Nauvoo and Carthage, Illinois.

Years earlier, Ryan Olsen had played the parts of both the young Joseph Smith in the First Vision and Hyrum Smith in the martyrdom scene of Manti's Mormon Miracle Pageant. Those memories, mixed with his tender feelings for the brothers, came back as he stood next to his father in a packed upper room of the Carthage Jail, listening to a recording of "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief."

Joseph Smith's personal hymnal from which John Taylor sang a hymn in Carthage Jail. Credit: Kenneth Mays, Deseret News.

"The feeling I had in that second-story room was so powerful," Ryan Olsen said. "I heard gunshots that day as I saw in my mind's eye the martyrdom unfold. It continues to affect me."

Like Olsen, many have felt such spiritual feelings while touring the sacred grounds of the Carthage Jail, including Nauvoo Illinois Mission President Mark J. Lusvardi. Feelings and testimony come at the actual location of the event like nowhere else, he wrote in an email.

"Carthage has a certain reverence about the site," President Lusvardi said. "Guests feel the importance of the life and mission of Joseph Smith in a unique way."

A room inside Carthage Jail. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

June 27 marks the 175th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his older brother Hyrum.

President Lusvardi recalled his own special first visit to Carthage Jail with his sons. They arrived shortly after the site closed but a kind senior missionary granted them a private tour. At the end of their visit, the missionary surprised Lusvardi with an invitation to share his testimony, which he did.

"It was a sweet experience and it changed our whole conversation as we drove away from Carthage and talked late into the night," President Lusvardi wrote.

The room in Carthage Jail where Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith and John Taylor were shot. Credit: Kenneth Mays, Deseret News.

Years later, one of his sons referenced their visit to Carthage Jail while speaking in sacrament meeting. He said hearing his father's testimony helped him to gain his own testimony of the Savior, Joseph Smith, and the Restoration.

"I was grateful for a missionary who had listened to the prompting to invite me to do something that was not a part of the regular outline," President Lusvardi wrote. "We encourage the missionaries to listen for promptings from the Holy Ghost pertaining to what guests need most."

For many missionaries of the Nauvoo Illinois Mission, serving at Carthage Jail has deepened faith and strengthened testimonies of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Several missionaries shared observations and memorable experiences while guiding tours at the jail in timing with the 175th anniversary of the martyrdom.

Eldred G. Smith, patriarch emeritus of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, points at bloodstains on a shirt that was worn by Hyrum Smith when he and Joseph Smith were killed in the Carthage Jail. Credit: Mike Terry, Deseret News.

Sister Leslie Bush, a missionary from El Paso, Texas, served at Carthage Jail during the summer of 2018. As she and her companion finished guiding one tour, Sister Bush saw a little boy turn to his father and say, "That man (Joseph Smith) really loved Jesus, didn't he?"

"That's what we want people to realize!" Sister Bush wrote in an email. "That the Prophet Joseph Smith loved the Savior Jesus Christ and was willing to sacrifice anything to follow him, even his own life."

Sister Emily Petersen, of Lehi, was moved to see a mother turn to her children in tears and say, "I want you to know that I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God."

Elder Bradley Weatherholtz, left, and Christian Burton, right, converse, with the statue of brothers Joseph and Hyrum Smith in the background. Credit: Joshua GardynikSource, Nauvoo Illinois Mission.

Before departing on her mission, Sister Claire Swaney of Salt Lake City wrote a letter to herself saying she wanted to say "I know" in her testimony and really mean it. After guiding tours during the summer of 2018, Sister Swaney recorded in her journal: 

"There are no words to describe the strong, powerful feeling and almost tangible spirit that is in that place. I went in feeling one way and finished the tour feeling completely different. I can now say firmly that I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God."

Elder Halmer Weldon, of Hutto, Texas, said the spirit at the jail can penetrate where words cannot. He told about one young man dressed in a hoodie who toured the jail with his youth group. He seemed to be there against his will, Elder Weldon noted, but before the tour was over, the young man broke down and sobbed.

Bullet holes remain in the door at Carthage Jail where the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred on June 27, 1844. Credit: Jeffrey Allred, Deseret News.

"Most all, somewhere in the tour, have to fight back a tear," Elder Weldon wrote. "We love to hear parents talk about how the Spirit has touched their children and say, 'That's why we came.'"

For Elder Paul J. Robbins, of St. George, Utah, serving a mission with his wife at Carthage has been rewarding in many ways, including the following:

  • Seeing unruly children completely alter their demeanor when being in the upper bedroom.
  • A young girl being moved to want to serve a mission.
  • A mother brought to tears (like many) and sharing her joy at finally coming to grips with her own son's death after hearing Lucy Mack Smith's journal entry of seeing her dead sons and hearing the comfort of the Lord.
  • A family sacrificing food so they could buy gasoline just to get to Carthage.
  • Many testimonies and spontaneous statements of revelatory moments.
  • Visitors accepting a copy of the Book of Mormon with a promise to read and pray about its truthfulness.

Writing in the back by Joseph F. Smith says that this was the Book of Mormon Hyrum Smith took to Carthage Jail, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Credit: Tom SmartDeseret News.

"Doing all of this with my companion has changed my life forever," Elder Robbins wrote.

Elder Randy Holt and his wife, Sister Mary Holt, of South Jordan, told of one man who was quite vocal about his disagreements with the church at the beginning of the tour. But by the end, he had changed. The man told the missionary couple he felt something in the jail because "the hairs on his arms were standing on end," the Holts wrote.

"There is just an unspoken testimony that comes from touching, seeing, and feeling the place where events took place," the Holts wrote. "One special thing we have come to know and feel is that Carthage is not a place of sadness, but a place of celebration, a place where we remember and celebrate the valiant life of a servant of Christ who was willing to give his all." 

Carthage Jail is the site where the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob during the afternoon of June 27, 1844. Credit: Kenneth Mays, Deseret News
 Lead image by Jeffrey Allred, Deseret News.
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