Hancock County: A New Play about the Trial of the Murderers of Joseph Smith
Playwright Tim Slover probes the drama behind the trial of the murderers of Joseph Smith. Hancock County plays at the Pardoe Theater on the BYU Campus Tuesdays through Fridays from February 15 to March 2.
Questions swirl around the trial of the murderers of the prophet, Joseph Smith. Of course, there is no question that on June 27, 1844, some time after 5:00 in the afternoon, a mob, their faces painted black to disguise their identity, stormed the Carthage Jail and shot Joseph and Hyrum Smith multiple times. What is perplexing, however, is how five men from the mob, charged with the murder, walked away from the trial not just acquitted, but untarnished.
The possibilities for a courtroom drama with lies, intrigue, mysteries and moral compromise are pregnant in the trial, but there is more. Playwright Tim Slover said, “My research for the play led me to the conclusion that it was a story about a place, a not unusual place in the America of either the 19th or 21st Centuries, where diverse cultures with potentially competing interests must try to coexist, if not harmonize, as each pursues its vision of American life. In Hancock County in the 1840s, the experiment failed. But the fear and intolerance which marked that failure might be instructive.”
The genesis and funding for the project came from Don Oscarson who had a passion for The Carthage Conspiracy, written by Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin Hill. However, to transform a history into a drama that captured the heart of the characters, Tim Slover had to ask probing questions, because “the answers would give me the play.”
“My chief question was why Brigham Young and the Church didn’t have more to do with the trial. It seems like they could have had any number of people testify, among them John Taylor and Willard Richards who had both been at the Carthage Jail. They don’t make any kind of appearance at the trial.
“It must have been so wrenching for Brigham as the leader of the Church. Everyone knows the incredible love he had for Joseph Smith. His name was the last word on his lips when he died.
Wouldn’t he want to vigorously involve himself in the trial of the men who murdered his beloved friend?
“I had another question,” said Slover. Why was the prosecution so haphazard?. Why was it so ineffective? That question particularly focused for me on the close of the trial. In the end, why did Josiah Lamborn, the states attorney and prosecutor, renounce all of his witnesses-even a woman whose testimony was completely reliable whom the defense had tried to rattle? She had been a witness to the boasting of members of the mob, because she worked at a tavern in Warsaw where they came after the assassination, growing more drunken and inflamed by the minute Sixty of them stayed for hours and ordered meals. She heard them say, “We killed old Joe.”
Slover discovered that though many had conjectured, there were no cut and dried answers to his questions. “I tried to examine Brigham’s character to see how it might fit in to his reticence to be involved in the trial, and I finally came up with some answers that are credible to me.
“Brigham was a young man in his early 40’s who had inherited a church that was in grave danger. Nauvoo is such a pretty place, and it was quite beautiful in its day and the largest city in Illinois. It’s easy to forget what physical danger the Mormons were in. Night riding was common; old settlers came and burned down Mormon settlements. He’d inherited a situation that was volatile and an unfinished temple which he felt a great passion to finish. The most dynamic, charismatic figure in the history of Mormondom was dead. He couldn’t have been involved in the trial-not just for time, but for the safety of his people.”
Then there was the woman whose testimony Lamborn trashed after begging for her story. Eliza Graham was a Mormon, who didn’t live in Nauvoo, but in Warsaw, the heart of anti-Mormonism and home of Thomas Sharp’s Warsaw Signal whose news articles screamed for the assassination of Joseph Smith.
Slover said, “She seemed to live a bit incognito about her religion. In October 1844 there had been a grand jury trial at which she had testified that she knew nothing. It is pretty clear that she was afraid because of so many bad feelings about Mormons. Yet when the trial started in May, 200 spectators came to the trial, most armed. It was like going to a military muster instead of a trial. Now, for some reason, even though she’s supposed to go along with the testimonies of the other witnesses and facing this kind of group, she renounced her grand jury testimony and told the truth. Why was she not admitting to being a Mormon? Why had she left the church, and what brought her back? She left when it was difficult to be a Mormon, but she came back at an even more difficult time.
“Finally, Josiah Lamborn, the prosecuting attorney had his own secrets. In those days the circuit courts were entertainment that happened once or twice a year. Like the trials on TV, much of the discovery was done right in the court. Everything had to be done in a week People came as spectators. In that environment attorneys had to be fast on their feet, skilled as orators and persuaders. This murder trial was huge. Newspapers from all over were covering the trial.
“Lamborn had a reputation for being plain spoken, getting right to the heart of the issue and convincing the jury. In a previous case, he had convinced a jury that two brothers had killed their father-and then he showed up at court. He had been the state attorney general under Thomas Ford, suspected of bribery during his tenure, and he didn’t get re-elected. There had been a failed attempt to disbar him, and he had turned to drink Everybody knows he’s brilliant but he’s done things that are suspect.
“The lead attorney for the defense,” continued Slover was Orville Browning, a very religious man, who, ironically had defended Joseph Smith so ably four years earlier in 1841 that he had left the jury in tears. He was a man of political ambitions who later became one of the founders of the Republican party and Secretary of the Interior under Andrew Johnson. How could he, on the one hand, do such a job defending Joseph Smith, and then do whatever it took to get his murderers off? That led me to some conclusions about his character.
“The judge Richard Young had his own ambitions and was planning to run for governor as a democrat. To what extent did those political ambitions influence the way he conducted the trial? Those ambitions seemed to tilt him toward the defense and he let them get away with a lot. It makes for an amazing group of people to put on stage.
“The quirkiest fact about the trial,” noted Slover, “is that whoever was accused was going to get off. Sometimes a jury nullifies a law because of public sentiment. Everybody knew that somebody had killed Joseph Smith, but they set it aside because they sympathized more with the alleged perpetrators than they did with the victim.”
Because accused murderers in those days did not need to be in either jail or the court during the trial, Slover chose to feature just one of the accused-the infamous Thomas Sharp, the most rabid, anti-Mormon in the county. A last set of mysteries hang around him. Just why did he despise the Latter-day Saints with such viciousness? Marvin Hill thinks maybe he was just a hateful, evil man. Tim Slover wonders if his rage wasn’t motivated by economics. As a land speculator, he felt that the Mormon purchase of the swamp that became Nauvoo had hurt his business. Then he bought the Warsaw newspaper, and found that its rakish anti-Mormonism sold papers. The more he bellowed at the Mormons, the more readers he got. He claimed a sort of super patriotism, claiming to be an ardent defender of the republic against the “tyrant” Joseph Smith.
Hancock County has surprises, reversals, and riveting character analysis, and Slover pays special tribute to the cast whom he calls superb (including Meridian’s own Marvin Payne who plays Josiah Lamborn).
Hancock County opens at the Pardoe Theatre on the BYU campus Feb. 15 and plays Tuesdays through Saturdays until March 2. Curtain is 7:30 PM with a 2:00 PM matinee on Saturday, March 2. Tickets are $12. There are two half-price preview performances Feb. 13 and 14.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.