Liberty Jail, LDS Church Historic Site
This site is built upon the location of the Liberty Jail, where the Latter-Day Saint church's early leader Joseph Smith was held along with five of his followers between 1838 and 1839. The imprisonment of Smith was a precursor to his martyrdom at the hands of an anti-Mormon assassin in 1844. Smith and other LDS church members had been accused of treason against the United States, a charge that reflects the tensions between church members and local residents in this section of Missouri rather than an actual plot to overthrow the US government. Some of the teachings of the LDS church, as well as the sudden arrival of many LDS members, led to tensions with other residents and church leaders in Missouri and several other states which prompted church leaders to migrate to Utah between 1846 and 1868.
Backstory and Context
Liberty Jail was constructed in 1833, on a plot of land on which the Liberty Jail Historic Site now sits at 216 North Main Street in Liberty Missouri. The 12-foot-high, twenty-two feet wide, and twenty-two and a half feet long stone and rock structure was constructed for only six hundred dollars. The walls of the jail were 4 feet thick: 2 feet of stone and loose rock, as well as 2 feet of oak logs. There were two levels: a jailer’s quarters and a dungeon. Both levels were about 6 feet high. The conditions were hardly suitable for prisoners. The jail was eventually abandoned, but by the 1870s members of the LDS church began to revisit the site. However, in 1900 the land was sold to Homer Stevens for his own home. The LDS church was able to purchase the land in 1939, and the jail and historic site were constructed in the 1960’s.
Inside the Liberty Jail Historic Site, there is a partially reconstructed recreation of the original jail. Completed with the original roof, the jail depicts a scene of Joseph Smith and his followers’ incarceration. Smith, his brother Hyrum, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wright, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin were committed on charges of treason and were transported to Liberty in December 1838. They were imprisoned until April 1839, when their jailers got drunk and allowed them to escape to Illinois. The conditions of their stay were hardly bearable. They slept on dirt floors, and the ceiling wasn’t high enough for some of them to stand upright. Their food was not fit to eat, most times, and often they believed it was poisoned. During the four month stay, Smith spent his time writing letters, and doctrines for his church. Sometimes called the Liberty Jail temple, it is one of the Mormon Churches most holy and historic sites. It was dedicated by Joseph F. Smith, grandson of Hyrum, on September 15th, 1963.
The jail was about 14-feet square and about 6½ feet tall and lacked sanitary facilities.2 Joseph Fielding Smith, grandson of Hyrum Smith, described the prison as follows:
Here they suffered, during that time, many untold hardships. Much of the time they were bound in chains. Their food was often not fit to eat, and never wholesome or prepared with the thought of proper nourishment. Several times poison was administered to them in their food, which made them sick nigh unto death, and only the promised blessings of the Lord saved them. Their bed was on the floor, or on the flat side of a hewn white oak log, and in this manner they were forced to suffer.'
Thompson, Nick. "The Mormon War in Missouri." CBS St. Louis. CBS, 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.
Parkin, Max H. "Missouri Conflict." BYU.edu. Harold Lee Library, Brigham Young
University, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017. <http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Missouri_Conflict>.
"The Missouri Mormon War." Missouri State Archives. State of Missouri, n.d. Web. 1 May 2017.
"Joseph Smith." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.