Thomas Ford was a lawyer, judge, and the eighth governor of the State of Illinois, serving from 1842 to 1846. He appears in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when his actions as governor to deal with the unrest in Nauvoo led to the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.
- In Nauvoo, Illinois, conflict that had simmered for years came to a boil when Joseph and the city council ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press. The Nauvoo Expositor was a newspaper published by apostate members of the Church who were opposed to plural marriage, a practice that had been growing in Nauvoo. The paper argued that Joseph Smith “had too much power, that polygamy was whoredom in disguise, and that the Nauvoo charter should be unconditionally repealed.”
- The members of the Nauvoo city council, which was led by Joseph Smith, felt that the paper was slanderous and ruled it a nuisance. By their interpretation of the rights granted to them by the state in the Nauvoo charter, the council believed they were legally justified in destroying the press.
- Upon hearing of the paper’s destruction, residents of neighboring cities Carthage and Warsaw held mass meetings, declaring the act tyrannical. A judge in Carthage issued an arrest warrant for Joseph and Hyrum, charging that destroying the press amounted to inciting a riot.
- Others did not trust the law to resolve the situation. Thomas Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, wrote, “We hold ourselves at all times in readyness to co-operate with our fellow citizens . . . to exterminate, utterly exterminate, the wicked and abominable Mormon leaders.” He even called for an attack on Nauvoo, declaring, “Strike them! For the time has fully come.”
- Joseph called upon Governor Thomas Ford to resolve the conflict. The governor promised to protect Joseph and Hyrum if they would answer the charges against them in Carthage.
In Carthage, the county seat, Joseph and Hyrum were charged with treason. When Ford left Carthage, he took with him the only impartial local militia and left the anti-Mormon militia, the Carthage Greys, who helped murder Joseph and Hyrum on June 27, 1844.
Approximately 100 men were involved in the attack that killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith, but only nine were indicted. None were convicted of murder. “After they were acquitted, each man continued his life as a respected citizen in his community.”
Gordon B. Hinckley, then First Counselor in the First Presidency, spoke about Governor Ford in a general conference talk in 1994. He recalled the connection of Governor Ford to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
- I wish to say a few words about the leading character on each side of that equation at Carthage. On the one side was Joseph the prophet-martyr; on the other, Thomas Ford, governor of Illinois, whose broken pledge culminated in the tragedies of that day.
- Joseph Smith and Thomas Ford were contemporaries. Governor Ford was born in Pennsylvania in 1800. Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in 1805. The governor was five years the Prophet’s senior. My information concerning the Prophet comes from sources with which all of you are familiar. That which I have concerning the governor comes from his own writings and for the most part from a historical introduction to those writings written by M. M. Quaife, as well as an introduction by General James Shields to the first edition of Ford’s History of Illinois. I am indebted to Mrs. Doris M. Davis of Peoria for research help. I give these details so that you may know that what I say comes from sources that may be regarded as reliable.
- Joseph Smith died at the age of 38 in 1844. He would have been 39 the following December.
- Governor Ford died in 1850, a month prior to his fiftieth birthday. He completed his term as governor in 1846, and moved to the farm of his wife’s parents, where he wrote his History of Illinois.
- In this history, he gives a rather detailed account of the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. He concludes with this summary statement: “Thus fell Joe Smith, the most successful impostor in modern times; a man who, though ignorant and coarse, had some great natural parts which fitted him for temporary success, but which were so obscured and counteracted by the inherent corruption and vices of his nature that he never could succeed in establishing a system of policy which looked to permanent success in the future” (A History of Illinois, 2 vols., Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1946, 2:213).
- Such the appraisal of Joseph Smith by Thomas Ford.
- I wish not to be critical of Governor Ford. I feel sorry for him. I regard him as one who sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.
- In April of 1847, when our people began the long westward march from Winter Quarters on the Missouri to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Governor Ford and his family moved to Peoria with the intent that he would there practice law. I now quote from Mr. Quaife:
- “The story of his three-years’ sojourn there is one of unrelieved poverty and defeat. Mrs. Ford, afflicted with cancer, died October 12, 1850, at the early age of thirty-eight. Three weeks later, on November 3, he followed her to the grave. Left behind were five orphan children, penniless and of tender years, to face the world as best they might. To the credit of common humanity all were taken in charge by considerate townsmen and reared in homes which were better than their own father could provide. In his closing weeks he had been an object of charity, and his funeral expenses were met by the gifts of a group of citizens” (ibid., 1:xxvi, xxvii).
- Both he and his wife were buried in the Peoria City Cemetery. Their remains were later moved to the Springdale Cemetery, where the grave remained unmarked until 1896, when the legislature provided an appropriation of $1,200 for the monument that now marks the site of his burial.
- I have stood before that monument and pondered the events and circumstances of which I speak.
- After the governor’s death and after his debts were paid, there remained the sum of $148.06 for distribution among his five children as their inheritance.
- In his introduction to Ford’s History, General James Shields relates: “In 1850 while the author of this work was on his death-bed, he placed in my hands a manuscript, with the contents of which I was then wholly unacquainted, with the injunction that after his decease I should have it published for the benefit of his family. He soon after departed this life, leaving his orphan children in a destitute condition.” The royalties from the sale of the book yielded $750, making it possible for each of his five children to receive $150 as their meager financial inheritance beyond the $29.61 left each by their father.
- The eldest daughter married; her husband died in 1878; she lived until 1910, the last few years cared for by others. The second daughter married, reared a family, and died in St. Louis. The younger daughter, born in 1841, died at the age of 21 of “consumption,” and was buried with her parents. Concerning the two sons, I quote again from Mr. Quaife:
- “In the autumn of 1872 Thomas [the youngest son] was hung as a horse thief near Caldwell, Kansas, by a lynching party. Two years later, in 1874, Seuel [his brother] and two other outlaws were hung from the same branch of a tree near Wellington, Kansas, by another lynching party” (ibid., 1:xxxii). They were buried in unmarked graves on the Kansas prairie.
- I mention these things to say that there was tragedy on both sides of the Carthage problem. Joseph and Hyrum were murdered. Governor Thomas Ford, who had pledged the protection of the state of Illinois, and failed to provide it, fell upon tragic and sorrowful circumstances, dying in abject poverty and leaving a destitute family who for the most part also lived with disappointment and died with much of misery.
- While Governor Ford wrote his dismal appraisal of Joseph Smith, another contemporary, Parley P. Pratt, wrote one of his own. Speaking of Joseph Smith at that time, he said:
- “His work will live to endless ages, and unnumbered millions yet unborn will mention his name with honor, as a noble instrument in the hands of God, who, during his short and youthful career, laid the foundation of that kingdom spoken of by Daniel, the prophet, which should break in pieces all other kingdoms and stand forever” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979, p. 46).
- Parley Pratt wrote with a surer sense of prophecy than did Tom Ford. He wrote out of a spirit of love, yes, but also with something of a vision of this great millennial movement. . . .
- Governor Ford could not see the virtues of this man whose blood stained the floor of the little jail in Carthage. But an angel from heaven years earlier had spoken the destiny of the boy Joseph. Said Moroni: “Your name shall be known among the nations, for the work which the Lord will perform by your hands shall cause the righteous to rejoice and the wicked to rage: with the one it shall be had in honor, and with the other in reproach; yet, with these it shall be a terror because of the great and marvelous work which shall follow the coming forth of this fulness of my gospel” (Times and Seasons, 2:394–95).