Jun 162009

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)

 Posted by at 4:23 pm