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Liberty Jail

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Interior of Liberty Jail


Exterior of Liberty Jail


Painting depicting the jail

Liberty Jail is a former jail in Liberty, Missouri, USA where Joseph Smith, Jr. and other associates were imprisoned from December 1, 1838 to April 6, 1839 during the Mormon War.

It is sometimes described as the "Prison-Temple" because of revelations Joseph had at the jail. He was to record them in Sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

The site at 216 North Main two blocks northwest of the Clay County, Missouri courthouse in downtown Liberty is now owned by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which has the entire reconstructed jail housed at its original location within a museum.


Missouri settlements

Followers of Joseph Smith from the Kirtland Temple were among the first settlers in the Kansas City metropolitan area locating about 15 miles (24 km) southeast of the jail in Independence, Missouri south of the Missouri River in Jackson County, Missouri in 1831. After Smith proclaimed that Independence was the Biblical Garden of Eden and the City of Zion should be located there, Smith followers flowed into Jackson County. Other settlers, fearing losing control of the county, resisted, destroying a printing plant and fighting a gun battle on the banks of the Blue River (Missouri) before Smith's followers temporarily relocated to Clay County in 1833.

In 1836 Smith followers then moved 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Liberty to establish Far West, Missouri in Caldwell County, Missouri. A few settlers led by Lyman Wight moved about 15 miles (24 km) further north to Daviess County, Missouri where Wight established a ferry across the Grand River (Missouri) north of Gallatin, Missouri at Adam-Ondi-Ahman.

On May 18, 1838, Smith proclaimed that the land around Wight's ferry was the land where Adam was banished after leaving the Garden of Eden and that it would be a gathering spot during the Last Judgment. Within three months the population at the Daviess County site exploded to 1,500.

Mormon War

Other settlers in Daviess County fearing that they would lose control of the county attempted to prevent the Smith followers from voting during the Gallatin Election Day Battle on August 6, 1838. This was the first skirmish in what became known as the Mormon War in which men were killed and property destroyed by both sides.

On October 27, 1838, Lilburn W. Boggs, governor of the state of Missouri, issued the Extermination Order.

"The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace... their outrages are beyond all description."

Smith Surrender

General Samuel D. Lucas, leading a militia of 7000 men informed the Mormons at Far West that "...they would massacre every man, woman and child..." if Joseph Smith and several others were not given up. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt, Lyman Wight, and George W. Robinson surrendered on November 1.[1]

A secret court martial was held. Joseph Smith and his companions were not even aware of the proceeding until after it was over. At about midnight of November 1, General Lucas issued the following order to General Alexander William Doniphan:

"Sir:-- You will take Joseph Smith and the other prisoners into the public square at Far West, and shoot them at 9 o-clock tomorrow morning."

General Doniphan refused to obey the order.

"It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning at 8 0'clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God."[2]

General John Bullock Clark had been appointed by Governor Boggs to enforce the extermination order. He arrived and took command of the combined force on November 4th. On November 5th, he had an additional 56 men arrested and gave a speech in the public square at Far West. He outlined the terms of the treaty that General Lucas had previously negotiated which stripped the Saints of all their arms and property, and required them to leave the state immediately. He then said:

"The orders of the governor to me were, that you should be exterminated, and not allowed to remain in the state, and had your leaders not given up, and the terms of the treaty complied with, before this, you and your families would have been destroyed and your houses in ashes...
If I am called here again, in case of a non-compliance of a treaty made, do not think that I shall act any more as I have done-- you need not expect mercy but extermination for I am determined the governor's order shall be executed.
As for your leaders, do not once think - do not imagine for a moment - do not let it enter your mind that they will be delivered, or that you will see their faces again, for their fate is fixed - their die is cast - their doom is sealed."[3]

First Trial

On November 9th Colonel Sterling Price and a force of seventy men took Joseph Smith and his companions to Richmond, Missouri for trial. Austin Augustus King presided over the trial which began on November 13th and continued for approximately two weeks.[4]

The defense attorneys consisted of Doniphan and David Rice Atchison.

During the trial, Joseph Smith and his companions were not allowed to call any witnesses for their defense and were abused in various ways. Parley P. Pratt recorded one such incident in his autobiography:

"It was one of these tedious nights we had lain as if in sleep until the hour of mid-nite had passed, and our ears and hearts had been pained, while we listened for hours to the obscene jests and horrid oaths, the dreadful blasphemies and filthy language of our guards, Colonel Price at their head, as they recounted to each other their deeds of rapine, murder and robbery which they had committed among the Mormons, while at Far West and vicinity. They even boasted of defiling by force, wives and daughters and virgins, or of shooting and dashing out the brains of men, women and children.
I had listened until I became so disgusted, shocked and horrified and filled with the spirit of indignant justice that I could scarcely refrain from rising on my feet and rebuking the guards, but had said nothing to Joseph, or anyone else, although, I lay next to him and knew that he was awake. On a sudden he rose to his feet and as near as I can recollect, spoke the following words:
"Silence, ye Fiends of the infernal pit! In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and hear such language. Cease such talk or you or I die this instant!"
He ceased to speak. He stood erect in terrible majesty. Chained and without a weapon; calm, unruffled, and dignified as an angel; he looked upon the quailing guards, whose weapons were lowered or dropped to the ground; whose knees smote together, and who, shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet until the change of guards.
I have seen ministers of justice, clothed in magisterial robes, and criminals arraigned before them, while life was suspended on a breath in the courts of England; I have witnessed a Congress in solemn session to give laws to nations; I have tried to conceive of kings, of royal courts of thrones and crowns; and of emperors assembeld to decide the fate of kingdoms; but dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at mid-nite in a dungeon in an obscure village in Missouri."[5]

On or about November 30, 1838, the Richmond court committed Joseph Smith, Jr., and his companions, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, Caleb Baldwin, and Sidney Rigdon to Liberty Jail.[6] They were taken from Richmond, Missouri to Liberty Jail in Liberty, Missouri in a large heavy wagon.

Many residents of Liberty and the surrounding area turned out to watch their arrival and some expressed their disappointment in their ordinary appearance. As the prisoners climbed the stairs and entered the jail, Joseph Smith paused on the platform at the top of the stairs, turned to face the crowd, raised his hat and said "Good afternoon, gentlemen" before entering the jail.[7]

While Joseph Smith and his companions were incarcerated in the lower dungeon room, the upper room was used by their guards.

Change of Venue

On January 25, 1839, Sidney Rigdon was released from jail following an eloquent self-defence in the Clay County Courthouse. Because of threats, however, he stayed until February 5, 1839.

On April 6, 1839, Smith and the prisoners were transferred to the Daviess County Jail in Gallatin where a Grand Jury was investigating. The Grand Jury was to indict them on murder, treason, burglary, arson, larceny, theft, and stealing. Smith and the followers were to appeal for a change of venue to Marion County, Missouri in the northeast corner of the state near the village of Nauvoo, Illinois. However, the venue was changed to Boone County, Missouri.[8]

On April 15, 1839, en route to Boone County, Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin were allowed to escape after the sheriff and three of their guards drank whiskey while the fourth guard helped them saddle their horses for the escape.

Following is the description of the escape in History of Joseph Smith by his Mother:[9]

They fitted us out with a two-horse wagon and horses, and four men, besides the sheriff, to be our guard. There were five of us. We started from Gallatin in the afternoon, the sun about two hours high, and went as far as Diahman that evening, and stayed till morning. There we bought two horses of the guard, and paid for one of them in our clothing which we had with us, and for the other we gave our note.
We went down that day as far as Judge Morin's, a distance of some four or five miles (8 km). There we stayed until the morning when we started on our journey to Boone County, and traveled on the road about twenty miles (32 km) distance. There we bought a jug of whiskey, with which we treated the company, and while there the sheriff showed us the mittimus before referred to, without date or signature, and said that Judge Birch told him never to carry us to Boone County, and never to show the mittimus 'and,' said he, 'I shall take a good drink of grog, and go to bed, you may do as you have a mind to.' Three others of the guard drank pretty freely of whiskey, sweetened with honey; they also went to bed, and were soon asleep, and the other guard went along with us and helped to saddle the horses.
Two of us mounted the horses, and the other three started on foot, and we took our change of venue for the state of Illinois, and, in the course of nine or ten days, we arrived in Quincy, Adams County, Illinois...

They arrived in Quincy, Illinois on April 22 and from there were to regroup at Nauvoo.


While incarcerated in Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith, Jr. recorded what became Sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.[10][11][12]

Doctrine and Covenants 121 begins with Joseph's plea to The Lord for relief of the suffering of the Latter-day Saints:

1 O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
2 How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?

Joseph's record of The Lord's response includes the following verses from the contemporary Doctrine & Covenants, but is not limited to them (the full letter from Liberty Jail includes stirring language not found in the canonized scripture):

7 My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
8 And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.

Section 121 then goes on to teach important lessons about righteous and unrighteous dominion:

34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

Doctrine and Covenants 122 contains prophecies about Joseph's future, as well as further admonition to endure his trials well:

6 If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb;
7 And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.
8 The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?
9 Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee; for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.

Doctrine and Covenants 123 contains instructions to document the sufferings of the Latter Day Saints and provide an opportunity for the government to redress these wrongs.

The Jail


Liberty Jail was a double walled, masonry and timber structure, with outside dimensions of twenty-two and a half feet long, twenty-two feet wide, and twelve feet tall. Inside dimensions were fourteen and a half feet long, fourteen feet wide. The building was divided into two levels, with a six and a half foot ceiling in the lower level and a seven foot ceiling in the upper room.

The outer walls were stone masonry construction, two feet thick. The inner walls and ceilings were hewn oak logs, about a foot square. There was about a foot of space between the outside masonry walls and the inside oak walls. This space and the space above the upper ceiling were filled with loose rock to discourage escape.

The only openings in the lower level were two iron barred windows, two feet wide and six inches (152 mm) high, and an opening in the ceiling to the upper room with a heavy wooden door. The upper room had two larger iron barred windows, two feet wide by one foot tall, along with a heavy oak door. Outside the door was a small platform with a stairway down to ground level.[13]


Joseph Smith, Jr., and his companions were imprisoned in Liberty Jail for four and a half months during the coldest part of the Missouri winter.

Food was scanty, of poor quality and frequently poisoned. Some of the prisoners suspected that they were sometimes fed human flesh, but comments by the guards regarding 'Mormon beef' probably had reference to cattle stolen from the Mormons. Fortunately, their friends on the outside were occasionally able to bring them wholesome food in spite of the many persecutions they were suffering.

No bedding was provided so the prisoners were forced sleep on the stone floor with only a bit of loose straw for comfort.[14]


The prisoners were allowed visitors from time to time. Alexander McRae recorded visits by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Don C. Smith, Benjamin Covey, James Sloan, Alanson Ripley, and Orrin P. Rockwell.[15]

Mary Smith visited her husband Hyrum Smith in February with their three month old son, Joseph F. Smith who was named and blessed by his father in custody. Her sister, Mercy Fielding Thompson accompanied her and later wrote:

"It would be beyond my power to describe my feelings when we were admitted into the jail by the keeper, and the door was locked behind us. We could not help feeling a sense of horror on realizing that we were locked up in that dark and dismal den, fit only for criminals of the deepest dye, but there we beheld Joseph, the Prophet, the man chosen of God, in the dispensation of the fulness of times, to hold the keys of His kingdom on the earth with power to bind and loose as God should direct, confined in a loathsome prison, for no other cause or reason than that he claimed to be inspired of God to establish his Church among men."[16]

Emma Smith also visited her husband Joseph multiple times with their children.[17]


The jail was torn down although the walls and "dungeon" were still visible when a house was built over it. In 1939 the church bought the property and in 1963 Joseph Fielding Smith presided over the establishment of a partial reconstruction of the jail wholly within a museum. The reconstructed jail includes a front limestone facade on the east side and a cut away on the west side so visitors see the upper area and the lower dungeon which has mannequins representing Smith and the prisoners.


  1. Life of Heber C. Kimball, Whitney (1888) p. 229
  2. History of Caldwell County
  3. History of Caldwell and Livingston Counties, p. 140
  4. The Refiner's Fire, Alvin R. Dyer, (1978) p. 257
  5. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, pp. 228-230
  6. The Refiner's Fire, Alvin R. Dyer, (1978) p. 272
  7. The Historical Record, Andrew Jenson, ed. (1888) Vol 7 & 8 p. 667
  8. Dale R. Broadhurst's Mormon Chronology
  9. History of Joseph Smith by his Mother
  10. Doctrine and Covenants 121
  11. Doctrine and Covenants 122
  12. Doctrine and Covenants 123
  13. The Historical Record, Andrew Jenson, ed. (1888) Vol 7 & 8 p. 670
  14. The Refiner's Fire, Alvin R. Dyer, (1978) p. 281-282
  15. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period 1 (1948) Vol. III, p 257
  16. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period 1 (1948) Vol. III, p 257
  17. The Refiner's Fire, Alvin R. Dyer (1978) p 289

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