Satan Rages with Tar and Feathers


(This is an excerpt from the book The Savior in Kirtland by Karl Ricks Anderson.)

The adversary seemingly followed Joseph and Emma as they moved from place to place. In September 1831, they relocated from Kirtland to Hiram, Ohio, a day’s journey away. They lived for one year with John and Elsa Johnson, who loved them dearly.

Satan raged there one night, forever altering the lives of Joseph and Emma. On the night of March 24, 1832, Joseph’s life was almost taken. A mob of about forty men gathered outside the Johnson home. Twelve of the group dragged Joseph Smith, kicking and struggling, out of his bedroom into the freezing darkness of the night. The mob threatened several times to kill him. Emma, convinced that they would kill him, screamed, “Murder.”34 No doubt it was to get the attention of their hosts, the Johnson family, who were sleeping.

Joseph pleaded with the mob not to kill him. The mob responded by saying, in effect, that only God could spare him because “we’ll show ye no mercy.”35 Someone in the mob seized Joseph by his throat until he lost consciousness. Then they beat him, scratched him with sharp fingernails, and tore off all of his clothes except his shirt collar. Some tried to force a tar-paddle into his mouth as well as a vial of nitric acid, which he broke with his teeth, cutting his lip and burning his mouth. According to Joseph’s son, Joseph III, they hauled “him over the frozen ground, pounding, scratching, and otherwise maltreating him. . . .

“ . . . Some held him, others beat him.”36 They applied tar and then the added humiliation of feathers from a pillow taken by one of the mob. Joseph then began to pray. At this point, according to George A. Smith, the mob “heard an alarm which made them think they were about to be surprised, and left suddenly.”37 Joseph came to and slowly found his way back to the Johnson home. Emma opened the door and fainted, thinking the tar was blood. Joseph III wrote, “A number of his immediate neighbors had gathered [at the house], roused by the cries of his wife. He presented a ghastly appearance.”38

Joseph bore the effects of this satanic deed throughout his life as a constant reminder of the hatred of Satan. The mob had pulled a clump of hair out of his head by the roots, leaving his scalp bare.39 Afterward, Joseph combed his hair in a different way to hide the bare spot. He spoke with a lisp for several years, until in Nauvoo, Alexander Neibaur fixed the tooth. The mob apparently broke several of his ribs as well. Two and a half years later, Joseph described this injury to his side in a letter to William, his younger brother, after William physically attacked him:

You were too quick for me, and having once fallen into the hands of a mob, and been wounded in my side, . . . my side gave way. . . . [W]ith a lame side . . . I returned home, not able to sit down or rise up without help. . . .

. . . I am older than you and have endured more suffering, having been marred by mobs . . . persecutions and injuries . . . all serve to debilitate my body; and it may be that I cannot boast of being stronger than you.40

The full extent of Joseph’s injuries that night is shown by a little-known account recorded by Joseph III, who must have heard the details from one or both of his parents. Joseph was so near dying that he had a near-death experience. He was “beaten into insensibility . . . and left for dead.” Joseph III related that Joseph’s “spirit seemed to leave his body, and that during the period of insensibility he consciously stood over his own body, feeling no pain, but seeing and hearing all that transpired.”41 After the tarring and feathering, Joseph “found himself scarcely able to move, but managed to clear the tar from his mouth and nostrils so that he could breathe more freely, and then dragged himself back to his home.”42

To add to the tragedy, Joseph and Emma’s almost ten-month-old adopted son, Joseph, who was sick with measles, became “chilled from the cold draft, rapidly grew worse and died the next week.”43 As bad as the mobbing was for Joseph, it was terrifying for Emma, who was pregnant with Joseph III. This same son later said, “It was some time before Mrs. Smith recovered from the shock and exposure of that terrible night.”44 Emma’s oldest grandson, Frederick Alexander Smith, said that Emma “made very little reference to any persecutions. [But he] Heard her tell about the mob in Hiram, O[hio]. She [was in] terror, prayed, [and] never expected to see him [Joseph] again.”45 She also made reference to Joseph’s “skinned [and] bruised [body].”46 This frightening experience, in which the Lord interceded and preserved Joseph’s life, was both a great sacrifice and valuable training for them. The probable heaven-sent alarm stopped the mob action and sent them scurrying away. Had the mob not been frightened by the sound of the alarm, they might have killed Joseph outright.


34. Joseph describes the events of this night in his history (History of the Church, 1:261–65).

35. History of the Church, 1:262.

36. Joseph Smith III, “Biography of Emma Smith, Prepared 1892–1893 for Recollections of the Pioneers of Lee County,” typescript, 4, Community of Christ Archives, Independence, Mo.

37. George A. Smith, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 11:5.

38. Smith, “Biography of Emma Smith,” 4.

39. Hancock, Autobiography, typescript, 50.

40. History of the Church, 2:341–42; Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 1:156.

41. Joseph Smith III, in Recollections of the Pioneers of Lee County [Illinois](Dixon, Ill.: Inez A. Kennedy, 1893), 98.

42. Smith, “Biography of Emma Smith,” 4.

43. Smith, “Biography of Emma Smith,” 5.

44. Smith, “Biography of Emma Smith,” 5.

45. Buddy Youngreen, Reflections of Emma: Joseph Smith’s Wife (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1982), 93.

46. Youngreen, Reflections of Emma, 103.


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