Eliza Jane Graham may be the bravest woman in church history that you have
never heard of. Eliza, a member of the church, was just 19 years old when she
became the star witness for the prosecution in the trial of those charged in the
death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
It all started when Eliza was a teenager. Her family joined The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. Her aunt and uncle,
Samuel and Ann Graham Fleming, not church members, moved to Warsaw,
Eliza figures most prominently as a surprise, last-minute witness in the trial of Joseph Smith’s accused murderers. On the day the Smith brothers were killed (June 27, 1844) in Carthage Jail, Eliza was working as a waitress in the Warsaw House Inn, owned by Samuel and Ann Fleming. Ann was Eliza’s aunt. As you probably know, most of those who were involved in the murder of the Smiths were from Warsaw, a bitterly anti-Mormon town. The editor of the Warsaw newspaper was the infamous Thomas Sharp. On night the Smiths were killed, a large number of the men of the Warsaw militia were on the road to Carthage. A messenger met them and conveyed Governor Ford’s order to disband and return to Warsaw, but most went on to Carthage anyway and formed the nucleus of the mob. When they returned from Carthage to Warsaw, many took dinner at the Warsaw House. Eliza waited on them.
Almost a year after the killings, five men were tried in Carthage for being part of the conspiracy to kill the Smiths. Most of these defendants were from Warsaw; in fact, they were among the leading men of that town (including Thomas Sharp). By this time, Eliza had moved to Nauvoo. Although Brigham Young and the Mormons did not cooperate in the trial, the prosecuting attorney apparently learned that Eliza had been at the Warsaw House at the time of the murders, interviewed her, and put her on the stand to testify against the defendants. There were only three witnesses (of the thirty or so total witnesses) who could be considered favorable to the prosecution. Of these, Eliza was by far the most compelling. She testified she had heard some of the defendants come back to the Warsaw house and brag about killing Joseph and Hyrum. The defense then called Eliza’s aunt, Ann Fleming (who was not a Mormon) to rebut Eliza’s testimony. Fleming must have felt considerable pressure to say what the defendants wanted her to say, as her livelihood depended on future patronage of her inn.
In the end, all of the defendants were acquitted notwithstanding Eliza’s testimony. All of this is written and commented on at length in the book Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith, by Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill. One interesting discrepancy – Elder Oaks says in his book that Eliza was in her early 30s. I’m not sure where he got this information, which is contradicted by the Bitton book. If Bitton is correct (and I think he probably is) Eliza would have been only 19 years old when she testified at the trial, which makes her composure all the more remarkable.
Morris A. Thurston
Joseph Smith Papers Project (Legal Team)
Moving to Utah
Shortly after the trial, Eliza became a plural wife of John Pack, an illustrious
pioneer and famous Mormon settler. While walking across the plains from
Nauvoo to Salt Lake City, John Pack felt his wives’ dresses were too long and
kicked up too much dust. Pack demanded that his wives cut their dresses so they
would not kick up so much dust. Eliza refused. Angered, Pack took Eliza over his
knee like a child and cut her dress shorter. When they arrived in Utah, she
obtained a divorce.
Once settled in Utah, John Pack helped found the University of Utah. At the “This
is the Place” monument outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, a cabin with some of
John Pack’s items on display still stands.
After her divorce, Eliza then married Robert Porter and had five children. For a
time they settled in Salt Lake. Feelings over the conflicting testimony at the trial
in Carthage must have healed because the Flemings sold the Warsaw House and
decided to move to California as part of the Gold Rush of 1849. During their move
West, the Flemings went out of their way to pay a visit Eliza in Salt Lake City.
Although Ann Fleming was partly responsible for the mob leader’s acquittal, she
was treated respectfully and cordially on her visit to Utah.
Eliza and Robert eventually moved to Wyoming. They settled on a ranch about
eighteen miles south of Evanston near Hillyard on the Bear River. Sadly, Eliza
died during the childbirth of her daughter Sady. At the time of this birth, a group
of Indians had trapped the family in their home. Because they feared these
Indians, Eliza’s family was forced to bury her in an unmarked grave near their
Eliza Jane Graham stands as a hero in church history. She stood by her story of
what she saw and heard in the most intimidating courtroom setting imaginable.
And although she risked potential physical harm for showing up at the trial in
Carthage, and suffered her courtroom testimony being belittled and discredited,
and not believed, Eliza stood true. Perhaps more importantly, Eliza stayed true
to her larger convictions of the truth of the restored Gospel. She died a faithful
member of the church and her posterity has been blessed by her example and