Early on June 24, 1844, the prophet and his brother Hyrum, along with members of the Twelve Apostles named Willard Richards and John Taylor, traveled to nearby Carthage, Illinois, where they were put in custody by a militia of 60 mounted men. "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter," said the prophet, "but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men. If they take my life I shall die an innocent man, and my blood shall cry from the ground for vengeance."
Carthage was full of riotous and angry citizens from throughout western Illinois who had been calling for the arrest of the Smith brothers, and who had spent the day drinking and brawling. Joseph and Hyrum Smith were charged with treason for having put the city of Nauvoo under martial law, and then paraded before the crowds who subjected them to threats of death and vulgar insults.
The brothers were brought to an upstairs room in the Carthage jail where Apostles Richards and Taylor were allowed to stay with them. Near midnight as several men surrounded the jail and some were heard coming up the stairs, one of the Mormons brandished a pistol that had been smuggled inside, and the prophet bellowed, "Come on ye assassins we are ready for you, and would as willingly die now as at daylight."
The next afternoon, an armed mob of 100 men arrived led by a preacher, their faces painted either black or in a style mimicking Native Americans. Hearing a scuffle among the guards downstairs, the prophet handed his brother a single-shot pistol, and stood at the ready with a six-shooter that had been smuggled in that morning. The four men attempted to block the door as it was pushed open from the other side, but members of the mob used their muskets to keep the door from closing.
Apostle John Taylor, armed with only a cane, attempted to deflect the muskets being pushed through the door, encouraged by the prophet who said to him, "That’s right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can." When he could fend them off no longer, Taylor attempted to jump out the second story window, but was shot four times, with one of the bullets striking his pocket watch, pushing him back inside.
Willard Richards took over beating back the mob with a cane as Joseph Smith dropped his discharged pistol and leapt out the same window John Taylor had tried to use to escape. "Oh Lord, my God!" exclaimed the prophet as he was simultaneously struck by bullets fired through the door and from members of the mob below. By the time his body hit the ground, the mortal life of Joseph Smith Jr. had come to an end.
Amid the pandemonium, a mistaken Carthage housewife began spreading the alarm that the Nauvoo Legion was on the way. The mob quickly dispersed under cries of "The Mormons are coming!" Apostles Richards and Taylor had survived, and the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were brought back to Nauvoo, and more than 10,000 gathered to pay their last respects to the beloved prophet and his brother.
Ten of the Twelve Apostles were away on missions to the East Coast, but on the day the prophet died, each felt an unexplainable depression come over them. In Boston, Orson Hyde fell into tears. In New York, Parley Pratt recalled "a strange and solemn awe came over me, as if the powers of hell were let loose." And George A. Smith could not sleep that night and heard a fiend whisper in his ear "Joseph and Hyrum are dead; ain't you glad of it?"
John Taylor, survivor of the assault on the Carthage jail, eulogized the prophet at his funeral, saying words that would later be recognized as scripture: "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it." Indeed, what he accomplished in the service of mankind is truly incalculable.