American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

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Overview


On June 27, 1844, a mob stormed the jail in the dusty frontier town of Carthage, Illinois. Clamorous and angry, they were hunting down a man they saw as a grave threat to their otherwise quiet lives: the founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. They wanted blood.

At thirty-nine years old, Smith had already lived an outsized life. In addition to starting his own religion and creating his own “Golden Bible”—the Book of Mormon—he had worked as a water-dowser and treasure ...

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American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

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Overview


On June 27, 1844, a mob stormed the jail in the dusty frontier town of Carthage, Illinois. Clamorous and angry, they were hunting down a man they saw as a grave threat to their otherwise quiet lives: the founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. They wanted blood.

At thirty-nine years old, Smith had already lived an outsized life. In addition to starting his own religion and creating his own “Golden Bible”—the Book of Mormon—he had worked as a water-dowser and treasure hunter. He’d led his people to Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois, where he founded a city larger than fledgling Chicago. He was running for president. And, secretly, he had married more than thirty women.

In American Crucifixion, Alex Beam tells how Smith went from charismatic leader to public enemy: How his most seismic revelation—the doctrine of polygamy—created a rift among his people; how that schism turned to violence; and how, ultimately, Smith could not escape the consequences of his ambition and pride.

Mormonism is America’s largest and most enduring native religion, and the “martyrdom” of Joseph Smith is one of its transformational events. Smith’s brutal assassination propelled the Mormons to colonize the American West and claim their place in the mainstream of American history. American Crucifixion is a gripping story of scandal and violence, with deep roots in our national identity.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Most Mormons and non-Mormons know that believers of the Church of Latter-Day Saints were driven out of several states before settling in Utah and that Joseph Smith, their founding prophet, was killed while he was a prisoner. For many, however, the context that led to the fatal June 1844 confrontation in Carthage, Illinois remains vague. Alex Beam's American Crucifixion moves beyond generalities to vividly present both sides of the escalating tension between Smith's Nauvoo state-within-a-state and the enemies that surrounded it. His narrative will not completely please either the LDS faithful or their disparagers, but it does clarify the chronology leading to this tragic event. Editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
01/20/2014
Aside from the fact that Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in jail by gunfire, not nailed to a cross as the title indicates, Beam’s tale brings alive a cast of early 1840s characters as strange, flawed, and significant as any in American history. Beam (Gracefully Insane) presents Smith as an inventive, narcissistic visionary hounded for beliefs that ran counter to those of most Americans. If his new bible, The Book of Mormon, wasn’t enough to condemn him, his belief in plural gods and practice of polygamy surely would. But in Beam’s balanced telling of Smith’s tumultuous final years, it was the prejudice and intolerance of others as much as Smith’s strangeness that condemned him to early death and his new religion to enduring battles. Few Mormons and “Gentiles” get off lightly here, and Beam makes a strong case that they shouldn’t. That may not endear the book to all readers, whatever their beliefs, but it reveals how the fight over Mormonism, one built both on its distinctive claims and its enemies’ intolerance, extends into our day. Better, Beam implies in this lively telling, to try to understand its sad and violent origins than to condemn or praise it outright. Illus. Agent: Inkwell Management. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

Benjamin Moser, New York Times Book Review“The story Beam tells is full of dramatic detail: the precautions the Mormons took to prevent the Smiths’ bodies from being snatched; Emma Smith’s dogged, pathetic delusion that she was Joseph’s only wife; the capers of the kangaroo court that acquitted the murderers; the Mormon fantasies about divine punishments meted out.”

Wall Street Journal
“A remarkably fair account of the origins and trajectory of Mormonism itself...Mr. Beam displays a fine sense of narrative pacing...American Crucifixion is an excellent book about the life and death of this utterly uncategorizable man.”

Chicago Tribune
“Fascinating…While "American Crucifixion" masters its setting and era, the book's greatest contribution is its dramatic account of the events, as acted out by many memorable characters… "American Crucifixion" paints a brilliant picture of religious experimentation, public intolerance and the making of a martyr.”

Los Angeles Times
“It's a brutal yet absorbing slice of history that Alex Beam captures well in his new book, "American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church." While Beam wraps in some essential early church history, this is at heart a journalistic account of a murder that tells us as much about religious intolerance and the low flash point of mob violence as it does about Mormonism.”

Daily Beast
“An evenhanded and fast-paced history… Focusing on the days surrounding the perversion of justice that took place in Carthage, Beam makes every effort to contextualize Joseph Smith in American history.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[A] colorful account of the amazing rise and untimely demise of this fascinating figure… [Smith] was one-of-a-kind, to be sure, but Beam insightfully analyzes him in the broader context of Jacksonian America’s raucously democratic and frequently violent frontier…A compulsively readable tale of Smith’s life and times, ‘American Crucifixion’ also serves as an intriguing study of why people are moved to abandon themselves, both to devout religious belief and unreasoning fear and hatred of ‘the other.’ ”

Library Journal, Starred review
“The murder of Mormon religious leader Joseph Smith is compelling on its own terms and is made all the more so here by Beam’s thorough research and riveting storytelling… Beam’s page-turner will appeal to history (not just religious history) buffs, as well as find a place on specialists’ shelves owing to its examination of primary sources.”

Booklist, starred review
“Beam offers a captivating saga of Smith’s rise and fall and of a colorful cast of characters who contributed to the internal politics and rivalries that led to Smith’s death and drove the Mormons forward to their destiny. Anyone interested in the formation and transformation of Mormonism as well as the intersection of religion, politics, and U.S. history will enjoy this fascinating book.”

Kirkus Reviews
“Beam is the consummate journalist, precise about his research and offering judgment only where there is ample proof of wrongdoing. He treats Smith with journalistic objectivity but doesn’t hesitate to point out that ‘Joseph received so many revelations that they inevitably conflicted.’ With so much history to tackle, from the roots of Mormonism to the economic, political and moral climate in which hatred of the new religion developed, it is impressive that Beam maintains narrative tension and excitement while injecting personality…A fascinating history that, while particularly appealing to those interested in religion, is sure to inform a far wider audience.”

Publishers Weekly
“Beam’s tale brings alive a cast of early 1840s characters as strange, flawed, and significant as any in American history…[R]eveals how the fight over Mormonism, one built both on its distinctive claims and its enemies’ intolerance, extends into our day. Better, Beam implies in this lively telling, to try to understand its sad and violent origins than to condemn or praise it outright.”

Maclean’s
"In his nuanced and engrossing tale of the first Mormons’ alternating periods of triumph and despair along the original American frontier—on both sides of Huck Finn’s antebellum Mississippi River—Beam illuminates not just their history but their nation’s."

Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars
“High drama as one of America’s greatest—and most mystifying—characters, Joseph Smith, meets one our most incisive writers, Alex Beam, at a crossroads of our history.”

T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
“If Mormonism is the most American of religions—and it is—then the story of its founding is an American epic. In this gripping book, Alex Beam tells the story of the fate of Joseph Smith amid the Mormons’ rising tensions with ‘gentile’ neighbors—and among themselves. With an acute eye for character, he depicts Smith, Brigham Young, and their enemies as vivid, complicated human beings, immersed in struggles over money, power, survival, and the controversial doctrine of polygamy. With its dramatic and consequential ending, this book throws new light on the trek to Great Salt Lake and the birth of the LDS Church we know today.”

Gary Krist, bestselling author of City of Scoundrels
American Crucifixion is an engrossing, powerful account of the rise and fall of one of the most remarkable figures in American history. Alex Beam’s portrait of Joseph Smith—equal parts P. T. Barnum, Huey Long, and the prophet Jeremiah—captures the man in all of his contradictions and complexities.”

Standard Examiner (Ogden, Utah)
“I recommend “American Crucifixion” to readers. Like the Joseph Smith biography, “Rough Stone Rolling,” it does in part convey the isolation of Illinois, as well as the savage bloodlust that was allowed to flourish. The recap of the murders are terrifying. It captures the deliberate killings, as well as the temporary satiation of deadly impulses that the deaths accomplished… The book’s account of the murders and the ensuing trial makes it worth a read.”

Under the Radar
“The book is well researched and informative, its narrative as fascinating as any in American history… American Crucifixion is a gripping tale of a strange era in American history.”

Rational Faiths
“The book is great; it reads more like a novel than a dry history book; it’s fair in its treatment of history although it sacrificed historical nuances (Mormons and “Mormon-haters” are each likely to find interpretations they disagree with) in favor of a narrative flow."

From the Publisher

“High drama as one of America’s greatest—and most mystifying—characters, Joseph Smith, meets one our most incisive writers, Alex Beam, at a crossroads of our history.”—Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars

“If Mormonism is the most American of religions—and it is—then the story of its founding is an American epic. In this gripping book, Alex Beam tells the story of the fate of Joseph Smith amid the Mormons’ rising tensions with ‘gentile’ neighbors—and among themselves. With an acute eye for character, he depicts Smith, Brigham Young, and their enemies as vivid, complicated human beings, immersed in struggles over money, power, survival, and the controversial doctrine of polygamy. With its dramatic and consequential ending, this book throws new light on the trek to Great Salt Lake and the birth of the LDS Church we know today.” —T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

American Crucifixion is an engrossing, powerful account of the rise and fall of one of the most remarkable figures in American history. Alex Beam’s portrait of Joseph Smith—equal parts P. T. Barnum, Huey Long, and the prophet Jeremiah—captures the man in all of his contradictions and complexities.”—Gary Krist, bestselling author of City of Scoundrels

Library Journal
★ 03/15/2014
One of the great stories in American religious history is given balanced coverage by Beam (columnist, Boston Globe; A Great Idea at the Time). The murder of Mormon religious leader Joseph Smith is compelling on its own terms and is made all the more so here by Beam's thorough research and riveting storytelling. He sets the stage by providing a capsule biography of Smith and a history of his church up to the Mormon arrival in Nauvoo, IL, in the early 1840s. Wherever Smith went, controversy followed, and Nauvoo was no exception. Though initially welcomed, Mormon immigrants, by their sheer numbers, intimidated the area's previous settlers. Beam characterizes Smith as a complex figure but often a braggart who did not endear himself to the local citizenry. Then the doctrine of plural marriage was added to Mormon practice; although it was supposed to be a secret, it was not a very well-kept one. Finally, Smith ordered the destruction of Nauvoo's only opposition press and the already combustible situation exploded. Add to this mess anti-Mormon mobs, the Mormon's own homegrown army—the Nauvoo Legion—and an indecisive governor and you have the making of a true-crimes thriller. VERDICT Beam's page-turner will appeal to history (not just religious history) buffs, as well as find a place on specialists' shelves owing to its examination of primary sources.—David Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Libs., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-16
An account of the Illinois Mormon settlement Nauvoo and the events that precipitated the church's flight to Utah. When Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune columnist Beam (A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, 2008, etc.) introduces Joseph Smith (1805–1844), founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith is on the run again. The author examines the reasons for his desperate Mississippi River crossing and what led to previous, similar episodes. The founder of a brand of Christianity that still fascinates and polarizes the world today, Smith was no less divisive a figure in his own time. The author notes that the very idea of a new religion was disturbing enough to Smith's contemporaries, but he also focuses on the doctrine of polygamy as the truly alienating issue that led to the downfall of the Mormons' Illinois "Zion" and Smith's own death. The rift in the church following Smith's revelations about taking more than one wife legitimized the long-standing hostility of their neighbors. Beam is the consummate journalist, precise about his research and offering judgment only where there is ample proof of wrongdoing. He treats Smith with journalistic objectivity but doesn't hesitate to point out that "Joseph received so many revelations that they inevitably conflicted." With so much history to tackle, from the roots of Mormonism to the economic, political and moral climates in which hatred of the new religion developed, it is impressive that Beam maintains narrative tension and excitement while injecting personality. The author's use of antiquated language—even outside historical documents—adds color to his writing but may also be a source of confusion for some readers—e.g., when he calls the governor of Illinois Thomas Ford "Pecksniffian." A fascinating history that, while particularly appealing to those interested in religion, is sure to inform a far wider audience.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781610393133
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 4/22/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 56,074
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author


Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe and for the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of two works of nonfiction, Gracefully Insane and A Great Idea at the Time, both New York Times Notable Books. He has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, Slate and Forbes/FYI. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and three sons.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 25, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of

    American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church by Alex Beam is an enlightening and absorbing account of the Illinois Mormon settlement Nauvoo and the events that triggered the church’s flight to Utah. Readers with a Mormon-inclination and those who are keen on knowing more about the history of this controversial brand of Christianity will find the book of great interest.

    Alex Beam, who is a columnist for Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune, paints a compelling and truly fascinating history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its founder Joseph Smith and his followers angered the local population and they had to make a desperate crossing of the Mississippi River without any choice. The book is compelling, and takes the reader on a journey through the years, months, days and hours leading up the murder of Smith, and the chain of events that unfolded following his death.

    Written with objectivity, this balanced and well-researched work provides a window into the world of Mormonism, especially its founder Joseph Smith and its system of beliefs.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 7, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    This is neither the hagiography that Mormons learn in Sunday Sch

    This is neither the hagiography that Mormons learn in Sunday School nor the lurid polemic of an anti-Mormon; rather it is a well-written journalistic description of the complicated life and times of Joseph Smith Jr. It covers the political, including the concentration of power in the Mayor (Joseph) under the Nauvoo Charter (so much for separation of powers) to Joseph’s quixotic presidential campaign.  It covers Joseph’s paranoid overreactions to criticism, including most notably the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor based on "public nuisance" for its single edition criticisms.  (Personal note, I am descended from one of the people Joseph dispatched to burn the type).  And polygamy, oh polygamy.  Beam's treatment of the obfuscations, lies (presenting Emma as his sole wife in public, etc.), dynastic marriages (Eliza Snow and others being sealed to both Joseph and Brigham Young), and overall creepiness of it (so many young girls) is lucid and well documented.  The book also put the broader history in context, in terms of national and international affairs, such as Joseph's interactions with Stephen Douglas (of Lincoln-Douglas fame). Beam also sees it as a murder, in which the government of Illinois was either complicit or negligent.  His discussion of the trial of Smith’s killers is fascinating in terms of (bad) legal strategy.  And Beam does an excellent job of tracing the aftermath of the killing, including the splintering of those who claimed Joseph’s mantle.  Joseph was a complicated man of obvious charisma, hubris, and passions both religious and sexual.  Highly recommended. 
     

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