Nauvoo prospered, and with that prosperity came ease and comfort and a measure of peace to most of the Saints in Nauvoo. The Higbees--whom Lyman Wight had found as fishermen on the Ohio River at Cincinnati, who had been won as friends by the rough pioneer Apostle when he helped them with their nets, and who listened to him preach when the day's work was over, as he stood clad in his working clothes, barefooted, as they were, and told them of the gospel--were men of prominence in Nauvoo, who sent their sons to study law in college.
Joseph Smith himself--as interested in education and as eager to learn as he had been years before in Kirtland, when Oliver Cowdery returning from New York had brought him a Hebrew Lexicon, and he had spent the entire day examining it and learning the alphabet--now saw prospects of a fulfillment of his dearest dream, education for everybody. The plan he visioned was for public schools that would take Latter Day Saint children from the elementary grades through the university, a public school system on so grand a plan that no child would be handicapped as he had been by insufficient learning. A board of regents was chosen, and while no buildings were erected, a faculty was selected and some classes were held.
Soon after coming to Nauvoo, John Cook Bennett, quartermaster of the State of Illinois, joined with the church and was heralded as a great convert by the Saints. Immediately he was accorded all prominence, both in the city and the Legion, and was even chosen to act in Rigdon's place as counselor during his illness. He wrote lengthy articles for the Times and Seasons and chose as his nom de plume the suggestive title, "Joab, general in Israel." In Kirtland the church had its Judas in Doctor Hurlbut, and in Missouri, Sampson Avard, it seemed, came in to play the villian's role, but neither of these could be compared with John Cook Bennett, a cautious and cunning soul to whom openness and straight dealing did not appeal. When a young man in Ohio, Bennett had shown some promise. He studied medicine with his uncle, Doctor Samuel P. Hildreth of Marietta, Washington County, Ohio, and was said to have a diploma, as well as recommendations from some of the principal physicians of Marietta. He married a daughter of Colonel Joseph Barker near Marietta. The young couple soon united with the Methodist Church, in which he became a local preacher, but was never satisfied long in one location or position. He lived at different times in Barnesville, McConnelsville, and Malta, Ohio; Wheeling, West Virginia; Colesville, Pennsylvania, and places in Indiana and has been traced as a resident of at least twenty towns in the Middle Atlantic States. He had a great ambition to dominate any situation in which he found himself, and by means of subtle flattery was almost always able to succeed in insinuating himself into the good graces of any class of people where he saw a chance of good living and a fair measure of popularity for himself. He had, even before his unfortunate meeting with the Latter Day Saints, been able to push himself into places and situations much beyond his actual abilities and from which he extricated himself by simply disappearing, only to turn up elsewhere. He was said to have connected himself with several colleges and universities, become more or less prominent, and then, getting himself into deep water in one way or another, vanished. He was not without a certain sort of ability, and was likely to turn up anywhere in almost any kind of role. He was, among other things, a Christian preacher. At the time he began a siege of flattery upon the Latter Day Saints, having noted their rising popularity, he was quartermaster of the State of Illinois. Bennett's wife for a time followed him from town to town, but at length, after repeated infidelities on his part, returned with her several children to her father in Marietta and persistently refused to give him the "bill of divorcement" he craved. His career was marked all the way by immoralities which he sought to excuse, when they became known, by most ingenious philosophies. Among his many and versatile characteristics was a capacity for intrigue, with which the honest and straightforward men of the church could not successfully cope.
Bennett became the first mayor of Nauvoo and was prominent in military affairs but, ere long, fell into moral delinquency and was expelled from the church. On May 17, 1842, he resigned as mayor, and Joseph Smith was elected.
In the meantime, on the 6th of May, ex-Governor Boggs, while at his home on Pleasant Street1 in Independence, was shot through the window by an assassin. Though severely wounded, he recovered. He filed a complaint, charging Joseph Smith with being an accessory to the attempted murder, charging the actual shooting to Orin Porter Rockwell, who was alleged to have been employed in Independence at that time. Both Smith and Rockwell were indicted, and Governor Reynolds made requisition oil Governor Carlin of Illinois for their surrender. Governor Carlin issued the necessary warrant, and both men were arrested in Nauvoo. They immediately secured a writ of habeas corpus from the Municipal Court at Nauvoo,2 and were discharged from custody. This angered the Missouri executive, who persuaded Carlin to issue a warrant for their rearrest. Both Smith and Rockwell kept in hiding for some months, but at length, by advice of counsel, Joseph Smith surrendered himself, was taken to Springfield where the Circuit Court of the United States of the District of Illinois was sitting, and with Justin Butterfield, one of the most powerful attorneys in Illinois, as counsel, appealed for a writ of habeas corpus. His release was ordered by the court (Judge Nathaniel Pope) on the ground that he could not be extradited and tried for a crime committed in Missouri, when he was not out of Illinois during the time the crime alleged was committed.
In those days, the holding of circuit court in any town was the event of the year. The circuit judge usually rode horseback from the town in which court was held to the next, followed by most of the district lawyers, also on horseback, who rode circuit with the judge in order to pick up cases. The best hostelry in town was newly decorated and cleaned for the occasion, and needless to say, the judge's choice of a hotel invariably voiced the mind of knowing lawyers as to their choice of a transient home. The lawyers always scrambled to get coveted seats next to the judge in the long dining room, or perhaps near the foot of the table, where they might have a better chance of picking up a client. Prospective jurors, and even men under bond to be tried for criminal charges, sat at the long common table and gathered in the evening afterward in the taproom. The whole town turned out to attend court, and many were the witty sallies and bits of high-flown eloquence that marked the occasion of court week. Justin Butterfield was noted for his wit, and he started his plea in defense of Joseph Smith by saying that it was a momentous occasion in his life to appear before the Pope (bowing to judge Pope) in defense of a prophet of God (bowing to Joseph Smith) in the presence of all these angels (bowing to the ladies in attendance). From then on he had his house with him.
Missouri authorities, not wishing to be outmaneuvered, revived the old charge of murder and treason. They repeated their requisition for the extradition of Joseph Smith and succeeded in arresting him at Dixon. By kidnaping him, the officers attempted to rush him across the river into Missouri, but the Saints prevented this; and the sheriffs again were compelled to bring their prisoner before the Municipal Court of Nauvoo, where he was again released. The sheriffs now asked Governor Ford to call out the militia to apprehend Smith and escort him to the Missouri border. This the governor (Ford) declined to do, and the matter had to rest there. Joseph Smith in 1841 appeared before Judge Douglas on this charge and was exonerated.
Rockwell was subsequently arrested in Saint Louis and taken to Independence. While waiting trial he broke jail but was recaptured. Alexander W. Doniphan undertook his defense and pleaded his case in the midst of an inflamed populace. No evidence was found to connect him with the crime, so he was tried for breaking jail, and after listening to Doniphan, the jury found him guilty and assessed a penalty of five minutes in jail. In the interviews in later years, Doniphan expressed his genuine conviction that Rockwell was innocent of the assault upon Boggs.
The difficulties of the Saints with the State of Missouri had occupied two years. The trial before Judge Pope occurred on December 31, 1842. It was June 23, 1843, when Joseph was kidnaped and arrested and an attempt made to take him across the river. He was released from custody on July 2. The appeal was immediately made to the Governor, who declined the order, for a military force to escort Smith to Missouri borders on July 26, 1843.3
Owing to this constant anxiety, and the periods of time when Joseph Smith must keep in hiding, many things happened in Nauvoo without his personal consent or knowledge. During this period, the reins of government more or less slipped from his fingers. Some things were tolerated that when brought to his attention later, he denounced publicly or by letter. While willing to undergo any process of law in Illinois, where he had confidence in the courts, neither he nor his attorneys thought he could exercise the same trust in the courts of Missouri.
By the time the Missouri matter was finally checked, the trouble with Bennett had grown to such an extent that he had been expelled from the church. Joseph Smith says:
It may be asked why it was that we would countenance him so long after being apprised of his iniquities, and why he was not dealt with long ago. To this we would answer that he has been dealt with from time to time; when he would acknowledge his iniquity, ask and pray for forgiveness, beg that he might not be exposed, on account of his mother, and other reasons, saying he should be ruined and undone. He frequently wept like a child and begged like a culprit for forgiveness, at the same time promising before God and angels to amend his life if he could be forgiven. He was in this way borne with from time to time until forbearance was no longer a virtue.4
Bennett declared open warfare on the Saints and proceeded to publish a book containing affidavits against Joseph Smith's character and other damaging material. In some cases these affidavits were from women whose names had been linked in Nauvoo with that of Bennett himself.
1 The Boggs property was across Pleasant street from the Campus, with
the house facing east on Spring street.
2 It has often been charged that the city of Nauvoo made an improper use of the writ of habeas corpus when they claimed under their city charter the right to arrest process issued by the State's circuit court by habeas corpus proceedings, and proceeded to pass judgment upon the sufficiency of writs under which arrests were made, and even to go behind the writs and try the cases upon their merits.
But these critics fail to consider that the Latter Day Saints were claiming these rights by virtue of advice from Illinois statesmen. Both Cyrus Walker, the Whig candidate for Congress, and Joseph P. Hoge accorded them this right, and even Governor Thomas Ford himself when answering the request of Missouri to rearrest Joseph Smith, took refuge behind the aforesaid proceedings of the Municipal Court at Nauvoo to the extent of saying "no process, officer, or authority of the State of Illinois has been resisted or interfered with." It was on this basis that he refused to call out the militia to rearrest Joseph Smith.
Governor Ford, however, in his inaugural address of December 6, 1842, pointed out what he considered as objectionable features in the Nauvoo charter. He then recommended its modification. In a letter to Nauvoo, he placed the blame where it belonged when he said, "You have also assumed to yourselves more power than you are entitled to in relation of habeas corpus under your charter. I know that you have been told by lawyers for the purpose of gaining your favor that you have this power to any extent. In this they have deceived you for their own base purposes. Your charter supposes that you may pass ordinances, a breach of which will result in the imprisonment of the offender. For the purpose of giving more speedy relief to such persons, it was given to the municipal court of Nauvoo to issue writ of habeas corpus in all cases arising under the ordinances of the city. It was never supposed by the legislature, nor can the language of your charter be tortured to mean that a jurisdiction was intended to be conferred which should apply to all cases of imprisonment under the general laws of the State, or of the United States, as well as the city ordinances."
Joseph Smith replied: "Whatever power we have exercised in the habeas corpus has been done in accordance with the letter of the Charter and Constitution as we have confidently understood them; and that too with the ablest counsel; but if it is so that we have erred in this thing, let the Supreme Court correct the evil. We have never gone contrary to constitutional law as we have been able to learn it."
3 See also Governor's Letter Book of Illinois.
4Times and Seasons, Volume 3, August 1, 1842, page 869.