Joseph Smith’s Extradition Hearings Reenacted in Illinois

Contributed By By R. Scott Lloyd

  • 1 October 2013

Joseph Smith’s extradition hearings were reenacted at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois, on September 24. During the presentation, four actors depicted three habeas corpus hearings from the 1840s that involved the Prophet Joseph Smith.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • Joseph’s efforts to defend himself using habeas corpus will now be studied by schoolchildren and law students in Illinois.
  • Following the reenactment, five distinguished legal experts led a panel discussion of the role of habeas corpus in U.S. history.
  • The reenactment will be repeated in an encore presentation October 14 at the University of Chicago.

“[The event] involves the intersection of two constitutional principles: the individual’s right to habeas corpus vs. the state’s right of extradition.” —Justice Rita B. Garman of the Illinois Supreme Court


During the Nauvoo period of Church history, the Prophet Joseph Smith was dogged by legal troubles stemming from the Missouri persecutions of 1838.

Now his efforts to defend himself by using the legal doctrine of habeas corpus will be studied by schoolchildren and law students in Illinois. This is due to a remarkable partnership involving the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation, with involvement from Church History Department scholars and representatives of Community of Christ and members of the legal community in Illinois.

On September 24, at the Lincoln Museum in downtown Springfield, four professional actors depicted three habeas corpus hearings involving the Prophet Joseph Smith that took place in Illinois in the 1840s. This was followed by a panel discussion involving five distinguished legal experts, including Jeffrey N. Walker, senior adviser for the Joseph Smith Papers and managing director for its legal and business series. Brother Walker was largely responsible for the creation and leadership of the program.

The panel discussed the suspension of habeas corpus and its changing application in America from the 19th century to today, including the use of the writ of habeas corpus for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Introducing the program, Justice Rita B. Garman of the Illinois Supreme Court said, “We certainly extend our deepest thanks to the LDS Church for their help. We obviously could not have put this program together without their support.”

Justice Garman said the evening’s event “involves the intersection of two constitutional principles: the individual’s right to habeas corpus vs. the state’s right of extradition.”

She defined habeas corpus as “the right of an individual to be brought before a court and informed of the criminal charges against him or her and to contest false charges.”

“This long-established right was first under the English common law dating back to the Magna Carta. It’s embodied in the U.S. Constitution.”

She explained that extradition is the right of a state to request another state to transfer a criminal defendant to its jurisdiction where a crime allegedly occurred. “This extradition right is also set forth in the U.S. Constitution,” she added.

While the dramatic presentation was based on actual events from the 1830s and 1840s, “dialogue and scenes have been created for dramatic effect, including some involving Stephen A. Douglas, the great lawyer, jurist, and statesman from Illinois.”

The character of Douglas was something of a narrator in the dramatic presentations, sometimes giving the audience the background of the hearings in which the Prophet was involved.

With no scenery, staging, or special costuming, the actors depicted, in addition to Stephen Douglas and Joseph Smith, Church figures such as Sidney Rigdon, Reynolds Cahoon, William Clayton, Lyman Wight, and Hyrum Smith; lawyers and jurists involved in the hearings; and other prominent figures such as Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs.

Of the three cases in which Joseph Smith sought a writ of habeas corpus, the first involved a warrant of arrest issued against the Prophet and others by Illinois Governor Thomas Carlin seeking their extradition to Missouri on outstanding 1839 indictments.

Stephen Douglas, just 27 years old at the time, heard the case and discharged the defendants on a narrow procedural issue.

The second extradition attempt stemmed from an accusation against Joseph in an assassination attempt against Governor Boggs of Missouri, who had issued the infamous extermination order driving the Latter-day Saints from that state.

The case, heard in Springfield in early 1843, was argued before Judge Nathaniel Pope, who found that the only evidence, Boggs’s affidavit based on his own belief, did not establish fact.

The actors depicted a humorous bit of oratory by Joseph Smith’s attorney, Justin Butterfield. The courtroom, on the second floor of the Tinsley Building, which still exists today, was packed because so many members of the public wanted to attend to get a glimpse of Joseph Smith.

Judge Pope allowed several young women to sit on either side of him on the bench, including his daughter, attorney Butterfield’s daughters, and Mary Todd Lincoln, who had married Abraham Lincoln a few months earlier.

When he rose to speak, Butterfield reportedly said, “May it please the Court, I appear before you today under circumstances most novel and peculiar. I am to address the ‘Pope’ (bowing to the judge) surrounded by angels (bowing still lower to the ladies) in the presence of the holy Apostles in behalf of the Prophet of the Lord.”

The third extradition attempt was for alleged crimes including treason arising from the 1838 conflict with Missouri mobs.

In the hearing, held at Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store in Nauvoo, Joseph was freed after witnesses testified of atrocities that had been committed against the Church members, culminating in their expulsion from Missouri.

Making introductory comments in addition to Justice Garman, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke said the Joseph Smith depiction is the third in a series of annual trial events put on by the sponsoring organizations.

“In 2011, there was a retrial of Mary Surrat, the first woman executed by the federal government for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” she said. “In 2012, Mary Todd Lincoln was also retried for her 1875 insanity hearing.” In that case, her only living son, Robert, petitioned the court to declare his mother insane, due to her erratic behavior. The reenactment last year spotlighted mental health issues that have application today.

Justice Burke added, “One of the primary purposes of these trial presentations is to educate the public about historical issues which have application to our modern-day lives. By studying our past we learn about our present and gather the necessary information to make informed decisions for the future.”

Equally important, she said, is to educate the state’s schoolchildren about history and the law. “This year, we have developed and will develop continuing curriculum materials on habeas corpus based on the Joseph Smith presentations. And if you’re a lawyer or a teacher, this event is available for continuing education credit. The Illinois State Bar Association is providing two hours of continuing legal education, and the Abraham Lincoln Library is providing two hours of teachers credit.”

She added, “Our effort here this evening joins history and jurisprudence in the hope we can provide the public with a fuller understanding of the court’s role in preserving our individual rights.”

The reenactment will be repeated in an encore presentation October 14 at the University of Chicago, along with the panel discussion. In addition to Brother Walker, other panelists are Jeffrey D. Colman, a prominent civil rights attorney who has represented prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; Sue E. Myerscough, an Illinois appellate judge; and Michael A. Scodro, the Illinois solicitor general.

Illinois attorney and state board of education chairman Gery J. Chico moderated the panel in Springfield. The moderator in Chicago will be David A. Strauss, professor of law at the university.