John Taylor's Pocket Watch Saving His Life + Other Popular Myths About the Early Church You Thought Were True

John Taylor's Pocket Watch

John Taylor's pocket watch

Another commonly related story in the Church tells how John Taylor’s pocket watch miraculously saved his life during the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. A picture of the watch shows the timepiece to be preserved almost perfectly, except for a small, roundish blemish just under the “I” mark—a blemish that has long been identified as a hole made by a bullet aimed at Taylor.

This conclusion was made by Taylor himself—but only after the events of June 27, 1844. This is what Taylor later recorded:       

"I think some prominent nerve must have been severed or injured [after he was shot in the thigh] for, as soon as the ball struck me, I fell like a bird when shot, or an ox when struck by a butcher, and lost entirely and instantaneously all power of action or locomotion. I fell upon the windowsill and cried out, “I am shot!” Not possessing any power to move, I felt myself falling outside of the window, but immediately I fell inside, from some, at that time, unknown cause. . . . The doctor [Willard Richards] had taken my pantaloon's pocket, and put the watch in it with the purse, cut off the pocket, and tied a string around the top; it was in this position when brought home. My family, however, were not a little startled to find that my watch had been struck with a ball. I sent for my vest, and, upon examination it was found that there was a cut as if with a knife, in the vest pocket which had contained my watch. In the pocket the fragments of the glass were found literally ground to powder. It then occurred to me that a ball had struck me at the time I felt myself falling out of the window, and that it was this force that threw me inside."

But forensic analysis shows Taylor’s assessment to be highly unlikely. Most convincing is the evidence of J. Lynn Lyon, a professor of medicine at the University of Utah. Lyon was doing research on the muskets used by the mob when he discovered there was no hole at all in the watch. Instead, the enamel face was damaged, but intact.

Lyon then conducted an extensive Mythbusters-style analysis on watches shot with muskets: he got a hold of muskets similar to those used by the mob as well as comparable pocket watches, and he shot the watches with the muskets from distances of 1 to 100 feet. All the watches were blown to pieces. Hyrum’s own watch, which was hit by a bullet that had already passed through his body, was split and severely dented after the massacre. “Had John Taylor’s watch been struck, there would be visible damage,” Lyon said last year at BYU’s Education Week.

In his book Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, Mormon historian Glen Leonard sets forth a likely series of events that caused the watch to break and blemish that afternoon: 

"Without any way to shoot back, and certain death threatening from the landing, Taylor suddenly dashed toward the east window, intending to jump. A ball from the landing behind him struck Taylor in the left thigh, grazed the bone, and pushed within half an inch of the other side. He collapsed on the wide sill, denting the back of his vest pocket watch. The force shattered the glass cover of the timepiece against his ribs and pushed the internal gear pins against the enamel face, popping out a small segment later mistakenly identified as a bullet hole."

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