On our first Sunday in Nauvoo, our family made the short drive to Carthage, Illinois. For my non-Mormon audience, this is where the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were assassinated in 1844. Today the jail is preserved as a visitor's center for the LDS Church.
Visitors begin the tour with a short film that highlights the life of Joseph Smith. Then they tour the restored jail, including the room where the Smiths were killed.
The church works hard to preserve a reverent, sacred environment for telling the Joseph Smith story; however, the day we visited, multiple busloads of tourists also arrived. Hundreds of people stood in the hot sun and waited for their turn to tour the jail. Families jockeyed into position to pose for photographs below the infamous window where Joseph fell to his death. Once inside the jail, still others elbowed their way to the front. Finally, in the Martyrdom Room, a mother yelled at her kids to get out of the way so she could photograph the infamous window. For me, the crowds distracted somewhat from the spirit of that place.
Once inside the jail, we visited the dungeon cell - still preserved with bars and stone walls. Joseph and Hyrum stayed only briefly inside the cell. It was so hot that day, that the jailer allowed them to stay in an upstairs bedroom while they waited for trial.
The tour culminates in a visit to the Martyrdom Room. While Joseph and his party waited, a mob of several hundred men stormed the jail, ascended the steps to the second story, and opened fire on the bedroom door. One bullet penetrated the door and struck Hyrum Smith in the face.
Joseph Smith ran to the window, perhaps intending to jump, but the mob shot him in the back from inside the bedroom. Some of the mob also shot him from the ground below. Smith fell head-first from the second story window and died.
To the tourists and visitors, this window assumed an almost mythical status. Most everyone spoke in hushed tones, except for the mother yelling at her kids to get away from the window. But in fairness to that mom, the tour guides did rush us out of the room to make space for the next tour group. This may have been her last chance to photograph a cherished family memory. Besides, after she got her children to move, she also gave me a clear view of the window.
Of course, I was also one of those obnoxious tourists who forced my son to pose below the window. I have to be fair with everyone.
Sometimes I hesitate to write about spiritual experiences, especially if they might appear different than the norm, but I want to say something about my own spiritual reaction to Carthage.
As mentioned, the crowds distracted somewhat from the reverent atmosphere. In addition, some of the tour guides seemed to overwork the emotion of Joseph's death. But I wanted to experience the spirit of Carthage Jail on my own terms - independent of the correlated church curriculum or popular expectations.
In all the different parts of the tour, I stopped, closed my eyes, and checked my feelings. To be honest, most of the tour seemed blank. From time to time, I felt the weight of history and the grief of the early saints, but I was looking for something I couldn't name.
Finally, I stood on the exact location where Joseph Smith fell to his death. Whatever opinions people may have regarding Joseph or the religion he established, no one can argue that he started a movement that now touches the whole world. Most everyone has been affected - in big and small ways - by what happened in Carthage and Nauvoo. So I stood on that spot and closed my eyes. It's difficult to describe, but I felt an electrical current emanating from a place just beneath the cobblestones. It flowed upwards, toward the sky. This may sound a strange, but it felt like I was standing in a stream of energy. I have no idea what it means, but all the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end.