Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Fake Death of Martin Harris

February 16, 2012
by Tim Barker

Martin Harris died in Clarkston, Utah, in 1875, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In 1837 he had been excommunicated from the Church and spent most of his life in Kirtland, Ohio, until he was rebaptized in 1870, after which he moved to Utah where he spent the remainder of his life.  As one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon (having seen the plates with the engravings thereon, and having heard the voice of God testify that it was translated by His gift and power), Martin's life was often under spotlight.  He had been given considerable attention during the early days of the Church because he mortgaged his farm to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon.  Pomeroy Tucker, a resident of Palmyra, stated that "nothing could be done in the way of printing [The Book of Mormon] without his aid..."1  In 1841, Reverend John Clark, also of Palmyra, recalled a conversation with Harris after he had returned from meeting with Charles Anthon in 1828.  Clark noted that Harris was willing to "take the spoiling of his goods" in support of Joseph Smith and the publication of the Book of Mormon.  He insisted that Martin, "was determined that the book be published, though it consume all his worldly substance."2 

For many years afterwards, Harris was continually ridiculed for his assistance in publishing the Book of Mormon.  In 1858, for example, the NY Albany Evening Journal referred to Harris as Joseph Smith's "chosen dupe for the payment of expenses [for the Book of Mormon publication]."3   Despite continual ridicule, Brother Martin Harris stayed true to his testimony of the Book of Mormon throughout his life, including the intervening time between his excommunication and rebaptism.During these intervening years, Martin remained in Kirtland, Ohio, where he felt that "the Lord required him to stay...and bear testimony to the Book of Mormon and the first principles..."5

An interesting event occurred in 1841.  While many of the Saints had relocated from Ohio and Missouri to Nauvoo, news came to them that Martin Harris was reported as having been shot through the head.  Citing the New York Journal of Commerce, the New York Evening Post reported on June 19, 1841, that Harris, "one of the witnesses to the book of Mormon, and who has been for some time lecturing in Illinois against the Mormons, was found dead last week, having been shot through the head.  He was no doubt murdered."6  The New York Sun repeated this same information on June 21, 1841,7  the Lowell Mass Courier repeated it on June 22, 1841,8 the Mohawk Courier on June 24, 1841,9 and again by the Perry Democrat on July 1, 1841.10  A number of other papers also repeated the same information, some of them embellished upon the event, and pointed blame at the Mormons.11  By the time the news came around to Latter-day Saints, a response was published in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo, and then in the Millennial Star in England.

The response as reported in the Times and Seasons, is as follows:12
   The above we copy from the New York Journal of Commerce, and which has been copied in many of the eastern papers.
   It is an old adage that persons should go from home to hear news, but in this age of rail roads and steam boats we are privileged to hear sufficient while remaining at home.
   According to the above article the Mormons must be a lawless banditti, a set of desperadoes.  But what are the facts?--Let our neighbors who are not connected with the church, who mingle in our society and are acquainted with our proceedings and movements, let them speak out; and they will with us deny the false and malicious statements which have been palmed upon the Journal of Commerce, and which has been seized upon with avidity by those who seek our overthrow.
   The correspondent of the Journal of Commerce was aware that such things would not gain credence here, but knowing the gullibility of the eastern press, he was satisfied they would swallow his lies.
   Now, we would say, that the entire statement, with the exception of the arrest of Joseph Smith, is a tissue of lies, got up by a malignant and depraved heart for the worst and most diabolical purpose, and when we read it we could not but blush for humanity.
   We pretend to no claim to any land, but what is according to the law and constitution of the United States.
   The statement with regard to the murder of Martin Harris, is the climax of iniquity, and gives evidence of corruption the most foul, and a heart as black as sin and the devil can make it.  It is utterly false!
   These are the weapons that are used by our enemies to stop the march of truth, to raise predjudice [sic] in the minds of the people and to bring upon us the wrath and indignation of a people who know nothing respecting us, save what they learn through the medium of a corrupt press.
   Ye editors of newspapers, who ought to be the lights of the land, and communicate truth and correct intelligence, particularly on matters which concern the peace and safety of your fellow man, we ask you, if there is any sense of justice remaining--a latent spark of humanity quivering in your bosoms--if moral honesty and virtue are yet lingering in your midst, before they take their final flight, to contradict these cruel and false statements.
   We ask no right, no privilege, no immunity, but what the constitution guarantees to all its citizens, and we hold ourselves at all times amenable to the laws of the land for our conduct. This we call upon the most fastidious to deny.
The response as reported in the Millennial Star, is as follows:13
I cannot close these remarks without noticing another plain and palpable misrepresentation of facts, to be found in the closing paragraph of the Courier. It reads thus—"Without note or comment we append the following paragraph from a letter to the 'Boston Traveller.'"
"Cruel Murder.Martin Harris, one of the earliest supporters of the Latter-Day Saints, and the only wealthy man among them in their origin, has been murdered. He spent all he was worth in supporting the delusion under which he laboured, furnishing all the funds for the publication of the Mormon Bible.
    "He abandoned the Mormons not long since, and delivered some lectures in opposition to their doctrines, and two or three weeks ago was found dead, having been shot through the head with a pistol."
    Now what an unluckly [sic] circumstance it was that Martin Harris would not stay murdered! The cup containing the very quintessence of all that is lovely is placed to the lips of the Boston Traveller, the Saturday Courier, and Spirit of the Times, and snatched away again ere they have drank half of its contents. The murder of Martin Harris! Why nothing could have happened so opportunely, and a standing article that was to overthrow Mormonism is knocked into pi by the stubbornness of that bad man, who would not stay killed, but still preaches "Mormonism.''
    The Courier, in which this letter from the Boston Traveller is published, was issued from the press on the 10th day of July, and the reported murder of Martin Harris was officially contradicted by numerous persons who had seen and conversed with that gentleman two weeks at least before the 10th of July, and no person in the country was better informed of the existence in the flesh of Martin Harris than the editors of the Courier at the very time they published the account of his murder without comment.
    Alas! to what base uses are the faculties which God hath given to man sometimes employed!
   Were the people to examine for themselves the writings of the enemies of the Latter-Day Saints with that care and circumspection that other subjects receive, (some, too, of far less importance) they would soon discover who it is that mocks them and practice gross and wicked impositions.
    The persecution of the people called Latter-Day Saints commenced by the mob in Missouri. Their remote habitations were sacked and burned, and the inhabitants were either butchered or taken captive and confined in dungeons—their property was confiscated to the cupidity of lawless ruffians, and, what was most remarkable, the press throughout the country commended the act, and legislators and grave senators in Congress echoed the war cry of extermination: it appeared that mercy had left her seat and fled to brutish beasts, and men had lost their reason.
    The same spirit of persecution has been fanned and kept alive by hired priests of certain sects, and supported and encouraged by a portion of the public press professing a religion in unison with the clergy. These facts should operate as a warning to other religious denominations, comparatively few in number, to look well to the rights bequeathed to them by the framers of the constitution.

To a portion of our brethren, even now, the sacred rights guaranteed to every American citizen have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
Some papers later responded by noting that Harris did not actually die.  The Western Argus, reported on July 14, 1841, that Harris was not dead, as "canonized in an obituary notice by the Rochester Democrat, is alive and well and at his residence in Kirtland, Lake co., Ohio, where he has been all this season."14  Other reports, while clarifying Harris' mortality, nevertheless felt compelled to maintain an antagonistic slant towards Joseph Smith and Mormonism.  In the American Masonic Register and Literary Companion, it was reported that "Martin Harris, the lieutenant of Joe Smith, the Mormonite is not 'shot through the head,' as was reported.  He is "all alive"--hates his captain Joe, but does not eschew Mormonism.  N.B. Newspapers do not always tell the truth."15  However, the fake death of Martin Harris was not subsequently corrected in most relevant newspapers, leaving many readers to assume that Mormons were very likely responsible for a murder that never happened to a man who ended up returning to the Church. 

1 The Origins, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, Pomeroy Tucker (D. Appleton and Company, New York, NY, 1867), 51
2 Gleanings By The Way, Reverend John A. Clark (Robert Carter, New York, NY, 1842), 230; this information was previously printed
in The New York Herald, August 10, 1841.
3 New York Albany Evening Journal, May 29, 1858
4 Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Richard L. Anderson (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT, 1981)
5 The World, New York, September 30, 1870, pg 3
6 New York Evening Post, Saturday, June 19, 1841
7 The New York Sun, Monday, June 21, 1841
Lowell Mass Courier, June 22, 1841
9 Mohawk Courier, Little Falls, June 24, 1841
10 Perry Democrat, Perry, Wyoming Co., NY, Thursday, July 1, 1841
11 See Uncle Dale's Readings in Early Mormon History:
12 Times and Seasons, 2/18 (Thursday, July 15, 1841): 480.  The arrest of Joseph Smith was reported as follows: "Joe has been arrested by the authorities of Illinois, on the requisition of the Governor of Missouri." The New York Sun, Monday, June 21, 1841.  See "Joseph Smith Papers Project: Court Cases" from News For the Mormon Legal Community:
13 "Anti-Mormon Slanders Refuted," by J.L., The Millennial Star 2/8 (Dec 1841): 119-120
14 The Western Argus, Lyons, NY, Wednesday, July 14, 1841
15 American Masonic Register and Literary Companion, Albany, NY, 2/45 (Saturday, July 10, 1841): 358

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