Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “Killed by Mistake”: The Murder of Martin Harris, 1841

“Killed by Mistake”: The Murder of Martin Harris, 1841

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 17, 2012

Late in June, 1841, this notice began appearing in newspapers all over the United States. Although I am not certain which paper printed it first (perhaps New York’s Journal of Commerce), some of them credit the news to “a letter written somewhere in the neighborhood of Nauvoo, the Mormon city”:

Martin Harris, who was one of the witnesses to the book of Mormon, and who has been for some time lecturing in Illinois against the Mormons, was found dead last week, having been shot through the head. He was, no doubt, murdered.

Although no new source of information is ever cited, the story is quickly fleshed out by naming the obvious culprits. This, from Philadelphia:

Martin Harris, one of the earliest of the Mormon sect, has recently been murdered by these fanatics. He had recently abandoned them and was exposing their wickedness in Illinois, when he fell a victim to their ferocity.

An editor in western New York who had personally known Martin Harris contributed this obituary, which quickly appeared in many other papers:

We have ever regarded Mr. Harris as an honest man. We first became acquainted with him at Palmyra, in the spring of 1828, shortly after the plates from which the Book of Mormon is said to have been translated, were found. At that time Jo. Smith had a mere handful of followers, most of whom were as destitute of character and intelligence as the “Prophet” himself. Mr. H., however, was an exception. Though illiterate and naturally of a superstitious turn of mind, he had long sustained an irreproachable character for probity. He became an early believer in the doctrines of Mormonism, and neglected no opportunity of inculcating them, even at the expense of his pecuniary interest. By his neighbors and townsmen with whom he earnestly and almost incessantly labored, he was regarded rather as being deluded himself, than as wishing to delude others knowingly; but still he was subjected to many scoffs and rebukes, all of which he endured with a meekness becoming a better cause.

Mr. Harris was the only man of wealth among the early Mormons, and many were the calls made upon his purse for the purpose of feeding Smith and fostering his humbug in its incipient stages. The heavier taxes to which he was at first subjected, were for two journies to Pennsylvania, by command of Smith, who was then in that state, and who had received, if we are to credit him, a revelation from the Lord, to the effect that the suffering condition of the Gentiles in that region demanded of Mr. H. these visits.

That Smith’s pecuniary sufferings at least were relieved, is certain. The next was for a journey to Dr. Mitchill of New York, and other men of science in the eastern states, to ascertain whether they were sufficiently profound to render into English the hieroglyphic characters which had been intrusted to Mr. H., and represented as fac similes of those on some of the plates which Smith pretended to have found. But the most severe tax upon Mr. H.’s purse, was for the publication of the Book of Mormon. To secure the printer he mortgaged his farm, one of the best in the town, and ultimately lost it. The work did not meet with as ready a sale as was anticipated; but had those to whom its sale was entrusted, appropriated the proceeds as honesty would have dictated, he would probably have been enabled to redeem his farm.

A few years after this we saw Mr. Harris in Lyons, and found him as firm as ever in his belief in the purity of Mormonism, notwithstanding he had been fleeced of his goodly estate. He had just arrived from Liberty, Missouri, the then “promised land,” and soon afterward returned to that place. We have not seen him since, and supposed until we saw the announcement of his death, and the cause of it conjectured, that he was still among the most zealous and conspicuous of Jo. Smith’s followers. But we were wrong. Mr. Harris’s native honesty had gained the mastery of his credulity. He had been so long a confidant of Smith and his leading associates, and had seen so much of their villainy that he undoubtedly felt it a duty to expose them and their debasing doctrines. – Hence his lectures against Mormonism in Illinois, and hence, too, his probable murder by some of that sect.

Mr. Harris was about 55 years of age. His first wife died in Palmyra some four or five years since, having refused to accompany him to the “Promised land,” about a year after which he returned to Wayne county, and married again.

Ah! But not so fast! The Painesville Telegraph of Ohio quickly announced:

Statements of the same purport, relative to Martin Harris, we have seen in several papers. The Rochester Democrat has a long article, predicated upon the statement of Harris’ death, in which he is eulogized for his honesty, and lamented for the sacrifices which he has made to his credulity, &c.

This is all very well, and concurs with our own opinion of him. But the best of the affair is, that Martin Harris is a living witness of what shall be said of him after his death. He is now, or was two days since, alive and well, at his residence in Kirtland, in this county. He has not been absent at all this season, unless on a journey to the eastward.

As to his present relation to the Mormons — Martin Harris believes that the work in its commencement was a genuine work of the Lord, but that Smith, having become worldly and proud, has been forsaken of the Lord, and has become a knave and impostor. He expects that the work will be yet revived, through other instrumentalities. This we had sometime since from Harris himself, and it has been repeated to us within the last week by a brother of his.

This report immediately made the rounds of the newspapers, in highly condensed form. From Pennsylvania again:

Killed by Mistake

The Painesville Telegraph – Painesville is in Ohio – says that Martin Harris the Mormon has not been found dead any where, but is alive and hearty, at his residence in Kirtland. He still believes in Mormonism, but not in Joe Smith, who he says has become proud and worldly and is forsaken by the Lord.

Even so, some editors didn’t get the word very quickly and were still perpetuating the faulty news through mid-July. A newspaper in Hartford, Connecticut, reported on July 10:

Martin Harris, one of the earliest supporters of the Mormons, and the only wealthy man among them, in their origin, has been murdered. He spent all he was worth in supporting the delusion under which he labored, furnishing the funds for the publication of the Mormon Bible. He abandoned the Mormons,  not long since, and delivered some lectures in opposition to their doctrine, and two or three weeks ago, was found dead, having been shot through the head with a pistol. No doubt was entertained of his having been murdered.

Martin Harris, of course, despite the best efforts of rumor-mongers, managed to live on to 1875, when he died at age 92. Having been out of the Church for more than 30 years, Harris had come to Cache County, Utah, in 1870, and had been rebaptized.

The new online Mormon journal Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture published an article recently, “Mormonism and Wikipedia”, on how the “wiki wars” affect the public telling of the Mormon story. Martin Harris’s entry is a good example of the tug-of-war between believers and worse-than-non-believers who fight for control. Those who must find an explanation – any explanation – to dismiss Martin Harris as a witness to the divinity of the Book of Mormon strive mightily to cast doubt on his unwavering testimony by pretending that second- or third-hand recollection from acquaintances is as valid as the testimony of Harris himself. In 1871, that testimony was:

[N]o man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates; nor the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, under the administration of Joseph Smith Jun., the prophet whom the Lord raised up for that purpose, in these the latter days, that he may show forth his power and glory. The Lord has shown me these things by his Spirit – by the administration of holy angels – and confirmed the same with signs following, step by step, as the work has progressed, for the space of fifty-three years. [Latter Day Saints’ Herald, 15 October 1875, 630]

That’s the testimony of the man himself. Anything else in the Wikipedia entry – anything that Harris “seems to have admitted” or that unnamed neighbors “said that Harris told them” or that Harris is “said to have said” – is hardly as credible as what the man himself dictated for his own signature. Sometimes Wikipedia, helpful as it can be, brings to mind the case of the newspaper editors who killed Martin Harris “by mistake” in 1841.



  1. Interesting story and good advice. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — September 17, 2012 @ 8:55 am

  2. This is fascinating Ardis. I had never heard about this.

    Wikipedia’s rules, unfortunately, require editors to prioritize secondary sources over primary sources. Wiki editors are supposed to include authors’ opinions regarding the person being discussed, but they are discouraged from including the actual words of that person. Thus an article on Joseph Smith will talk about what everyone else thinks about him, but it will not include many of Joseph’s own words. What you end up with is a collection of “facts” in a wiki article that are actually the opinions of various authors who have written about the subject.

    Comment by Roger Nicholson — September 17, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  3. It sounds like the truthiness of that age. :-(

    Comment by Julia — September 17, 2012 @ 9:52 am

  4. Very interesting connection. I also had not heard about this.

    Comment by Ben S — September 17, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  5. Oh my. I get to be the first person to quote Mark Twain?

    “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

    Speaking of Wikipedia, perhaps Martin Harris should be added to the “List of premature obituaries“.

    And, also about Wikipedia, the standards that Roger mentions in comment two result in some very peculiar arguments, such as the one over whether Todd Compton is of sufficient reliability to be quoted on Wikipedia. (The answer to that question is yes.)

    Comment by Amy T — September 17, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

  6. Good story! Thanks.

    Comment by Adam G. — September 24, 2012 @ 5:35 pm