When the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were returned to Nauvoo following their martyrdom in Carthage, Illinois, a public funeral was held with a burial in the city cemetery. Known to only a very few, very trusted people was the fact that the caskets buried in the cemetery held only bags of sand or stone. The bodies had been removed from those caskets for secret burial.
As published in the Deseret News in 1857:
The coffins were then taken out of the boxes into the little bedroom in the northeast corner of the Mansion, and there concealed and the door locked. Bags of sand were then placed in each end of the boxes, which were then nailed up, and a mock funeral took place, and the boxes deposited in a grave with the usual ceremonies.
This was done to prevent the enemies of the martyred prophet and patriarch getting possession of the bodies, as they had threatened they would do.
About midnight the coffins containing the bodies were taken through the garden, around by the pump and were conveyed to the Nauvoo House, and buried in the basement story.
After the bodies were interred, and the ground smoothed off, a most terrific shower of rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, occurred and obliterated all traces of the fact that the earth had been newly dug.
The bodies remained in the cellar of the house until fall, when they were removed to a point near the Mansion and buried side by side. The Bee House was then moved and placed over their graves.
However surprising this announcement may have been to LDS readers in 1857, it must have been old news to later generations of Latter-day Saints who studied their own history. In 1884 B.H. Roberts published a similar account in his book Rise and Fall of Nauvoo, and in 1904 Joseph F. Smith confirmed to David O. McKay that “the story about the bodies of the Prophets Joseph and Hyrum Smith having been brought to this country by the pioneers is a fallacy; they were buried in Nauvoo, and their resting place remains undisturbed.” It was probably discussed on other occasions (although it is undocumented, surely, for example, when the party of Church leaders visited Nauvoo on their return from the 1905 dedication of the Joseph Smith Monument in Vermont).
But it isn’t surprising, I suppose, that most members of the Church were unfamiliar with this detail of history – just as many things that are quite familiar and available to students of Mormon history today remain unknown to the majority of Church members.
In mid-January, 1928, at the direction of Frederick M. Smith, grandson of Joseph Smith and president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, workmen probing the known burial site located the skeletonized remains of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The bones were carefully taken up, their identity confirmed by the clear evidence of a bullet hole near Hyrum’s nose and through other details (remains of clothing, including marked undergarments), and the remains reinterred, along with those of Emma Smith, in new, well-marked graves on the original Joseph Smith properties in Nauvoo.
Personally, and from the perspective of 2013, I have few objections to the actions of the then-RLDS church. The original graves, unmarked except for a collapsed and decayed building, were not marked or able to be honored. No matter how many people knew of their approximate location, with the passage of time and the obliteration of old landmarks it became more and more likely that their location would be lost to knowledge. I don’t even mind the photographing of the remains, although I could wish that they had not been promiscuously displayed in 1928 and made an object of sensation. About my only real complaint, I suppose, is that the descendants of Hyrum Smith were not consulted or included in the decision to disinter and move the remains of their grandfather.
Public awareness of the relocation of the graves was made in an Associated Press release, followed by many articles based on that release, sometimes supplemented by additional information – or additional imaginative inventions – which appeared in newspapers all across the country. (I have posted transcriptions of some of those articles here; since the newspapers and dates of publication were not attached to most of the clippings I’ve read, excuse me, please, for not including those facts.)
Members of the Church from coast to coast read those articles, considered them, then mailed them off to Church leaders in Salt Lake City, both to be sure they were aware of the news and to ask whether it was true.
“Please let me know if this is true,” wrote George Cole of Gridley, California. Demonstrating how sudden awareness of an historical fact can stir doubt and criticism among Church members, even when the facts were available had it occurred to Church members to ask, Mr. and Mrs. C.W. Hubbard of Corrine, Utah, wrote, “This announcement has created quite a question in many minds and was the object of quite a discussion among a number of friends the other evening … We would like to know why the burial place of these leaders of our church has not been made public to church members or anyone else for that matter.” Florence Shepherd of North Clarendon, Vermont; Mary O. Griffin of LaGrange, Illinois (and a granddaughter of Hyrum Smith); and Carrie M. Beecher of Detroit, Michigan, also sent in clippings and asked for clarification – the news and its sensation were that broadly covered.
The Associated Press interviewed Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith and assistant Church Historian B.H. Roberts, and prepared a follow-up article that was published just as widely as the original article; I’ve posted a transcription of that here. Joseph Fielding Smith was indignant, B.H. Roberts more restrained. Copies of this article were apparently mailed to correspondents who sent in clippings of the first articles and asked for more information.
Church members who had taken the trouble to be sure that Church headquarters were aware of the news sometimes received personal responses. One letter over the signature of Heber J. Grant assured the correspondent that “When I was in Nauvoo two or three years ago the spot where the bodies of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum were buried was pointed out to me. There has been no secret about the matter.” Others learned that “The bodies of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were not lost. We have known exactly where they were buried, and there was no real justification for the remains being taken up and re-buried.”
Some responses betrayed a shade of irritation directed at the actions of the RLDS leadership. “We knew where the bodies of the Prophet and Patriarch were buried, and years ago President Joseph Smith of the Reorganized Church talked some of removing them to Independence, and President Smith, the son of the Patriarch, protested and insisted that they be left where they were. It is annoying to the grandchildren of the Patriarch, all of whom reside here, that the body of their grandfather was disturbed by the present head of the Reorganized Church.”
Still others attempted to downplay the sensational response stirred by the original AP article and its myriad of historical errors. “Our good friends have been careful to see that the supposed find of the bodies of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother came to our attention. Where they were located and buried was known to President [Joseph F.] Smith years ago, and the claims of a great discovery amounts to nothing.” “There was no mystery at all as to where the bodies of the Prophet and his brother were buried.” “We knew where the bodies of the Prophet and Patriarch were buried, and years ago President Joseph Smith [III] of the Reorganized Church talked some of removing them to Independence, and President [Joseph F.] Smith, the son of the Patriarch, protested and insisted that they be left where they were. It is annoying to the grandchildren of the Patriarch, all of whom reside here, that the body of their grandfather was disturbed by the present head of the Reorganized Church.”
The days are long past when Church members could expect a personal answer from a Church leader in response to some item in the newspaper. What hasn’t changed, I think, is our (the Mormon people’s) interest in our history and in what “outsiders” write about us, and our gut reaction both to sensationalism and to new information that we somehow feel we should have known all along.