Journal of Sarah Stoddard (1805-1846)
A diary written by Sarah Stoddard about some of the experiences of her son Charles Stoddard while he served as a houseboy for Joseph and Emma Smith when they lived in Nauvoo, Illinois
Charles stopped in for a few minutes today. Said Sister Emma was worried about the prophet being arrested so frequently. This is the umpteenth time in the past few months. Of course they never can hold him for any length of time since he isn’t guilty of any of the charges brought against him. We hear rumors of more violent mob action and the rumors seem more persistent. Perhaps that is why Sister Emma is worried.
Charles is surely privileged to have the opportunity of being so closely associated with the prophet and sister Emma. He admires and loves them both. The prophet is such a kindly man though Charles says he has seen his anger rise. All he has to contend with, is it any wonder? Wrathful outsiders as well as weak and selfish people right among our own ranks. Being a prophet of the Lord, I guess, makes him able to deal with all those whom he comes in contact in a just and noble way. There are many among us who would gladly give our lives that the prophet might be spared the humiliations he has to undergo at the hands of the so-called “law.” Seems like people either love the prophet or hate him. Suppose that is because he is such a great man – yes, for he is our prophet.
Charles had a dreadful experience last night. Porter Rockwell escaped from jail. He was taken there on mistaken identity of the prophet. When the sheriff finally discovered the mistake, he kept Porter in jail to teach him a lesson, so he said. Many months he was unjustly held. They gave him very meager fare, mostly just bread and water. He was terribly thin and weakened; his hair was long and matted with filth and his body swarming with lice. Not once did they give him anything with which to clean himself, but left him to stench in his own dirt. Charles said the prophet cried when he saw Brother Rockwell and he hugged him in spite of his condition like he was a beloved child. Charles and Brother Richards helped to clean Brother Rockwell after they had burned the rags he had one time called clothes. They had a terrible time with his hair; it was so snarled and filthy. They had decided the best thing to do was to shave his head but the prophet intervened and then he promised Brother Rockwell that as long as he did not cut his hair our enemies would have no power over him. Porter Rockwell is an uncouth man, even vile of tongue but the prophet discerns men for what they are inside and though Charles says he reprimands Brother Rockwell at times for his bad language he still loves and respects him and trusts him as much as he does anyone, even the apostles.
Charles is young to be given so much responsibility (just turned 14), but his experiences have made him old for his years. I hate to see Charles put in such a precarious position but if this is where the prophet thinks he can be of greatest service then it must be so. I have never doubted but what the prophet knows what is best for us all. May my faith ever be as strong as it is now though we have very little of worldly goods having moved from New Jersey to Ohio to Nauvoo in so short a time. Still our physical needs are provided. We feel rich in the spirit and our faith in God and in His church grows with each passing day. But back to Charles. Mr. William Law is known to be wanting a houseboy, so the prophet has told our son to take the position and to keep his eyes and ears open. The prophet feels Mr. Law bodes only evil to him and to the Church, him being so resentful to the prophet and having been excommunicated.
Charles doesn’t like his work at the Laws. He says the riffraff of Nauvoo drink and carouse all night and lay plans for what unpleasant things they can do to the Mormons in general and the prophet in particular. The boy looks tired, up most of the night so he can keep the prophet posted on Mr. Law’s plans and then working by day. He’s growing so fast right now, too, and should be getting his rest.
Charles had another faith promoting experience. Early this morning, even while the darkness still hemmed out the light of day, Mr. Law, after he had been drinking and planning with his associates through the night, got Charles out of bed to clean and oil his gun for he said he was going to shoot the prophet, only William Law called him “old Joe Smith.” Poor Charles was frightened beyond description but Mr. Law stood over him and prodded him with his foot when Charles hesitated through fright and anxiety. Finally when Mr. Law was satisfied with the way the gun was working, he put one bullet in. He boasted that he could kill the prophet with one shot and sent Charles to bring the prophet.
He ran as fast as he could and delivered the message but begged the prophet not to go to Mr. Law’s as Mr. Law was drunk and Charles was afraid he would carry though on his threat to shoot the prophet in cold blood. In spite of Charles’ protestations the prophet rose from bed and dressed.
It was breaking dawn by this time. As they walked the few blocks from the mansion house to the Law residence the prophet reassured Charles that no harm would come to him that day. Charles was frightened and he said it kept racing through his mind “I am the one that cleaned the gun that is going to be used to kill the prophet” until he was sick with fear. The prophet in a final attempt to calm my dear son uttered the fateful words, “Mr. Law may some day kill me, Charles, but it won’t be today’
As they approached their destination Mr. Law came staggering out of the house and his only greeting was angry boasts of what he intended to do. The prophet said kindly and unafraid, “You sent for me, Mr. Law?” to which Mr. Law replied with oaths that he had and that he was now going to do Nauvoo, Illinois, and indeed the whole world a great favor by disposing of the prophet with one shot.
Calmly the prophet unbuttoned his shirt and bared his chest, then said, “I’m ready now, Mr. Law.” Charles said at this point he nearly fainted. Fear strangled him until he was speechless and paralyzed, unable to move a muscle.
Mr. Law paced a few steps, turned, aimed, and pressed the trigger. There was complete silence, then the air rang with profanity and Mr. Law turned on Charles, accusing him of fixing the gun so it would not go off and threatening to kill even Charles, my innocent, frightened, but faithful son. The prophet, to divert Mr. Law’s blame of Charles suggested that a can be placed on the fence post for Mr. Law to take a practice shot. Relieved, Charles ran for a can and laid it on its side on the post. Mr Law paced back, took aim and fired. His ‘one shot’ streaked through the exact center of the bottom of that can. Mr. Law is well-known for his marksmanship even when drunk. Even Mr. Law was quiet as if stunned.
The prophet buttoned up his shirt, gave Charles a meaningful look and then said, “If you are finished with me now, Mr. Law, I have other things needing to be done. Good morning.”
That was her last entry in the diary. The prophet was martyred in June, 1844. The next entry is headed Montrose, Iowa, 1847, and was written by Charles’ sister who was younger.
More than three years have passed since Mother made her last entry in this diary. I’m sure she never realized what a bulwark of strength it would be to her children when she jotted down her thoughts. Oft times during the past few years I’ve had doubts, sometimes serious doubts. Then I’d read from Mother’s diary and I could feel strength and faith and hope creep back into my being. Mother didn’t make any entries in her diary for months before the evacuation of Nauvoo. I suppose there was no time nor peace of mind enough to sit down quietly with your thoughts and record them. She was so worried about Charles all that time. Then she gave birth to Michael, making a total of six of us children. Mother told us many times that all during those last hectic months when the prophet was taken prisoner and after his escape here to Montrose, his return and voluntary recapture, the martyrdom and the consequent unrest and confusion, that the one time of complete peace and the upsurging of faith and hope was when the prophet’s mantle fell over Brigham Young and it appeared to the thousands assembled that Joseph the prophet stood once more before them. In spite of all the hardships and sacrifices she, father and the other thousands had to undergo during the evacuation of Nauvoo and the perilous crossing of the Mississippi, never did her faith waiver. She knew what she thought was right and where the road of faith would lead her and well as the peril and hardships that lay in wait along that road.
After the baby died and while she and Father laid at death’s door of pneumonia brought on by hunger and exposure, they extracted a promise from Charles and I that we would take the three younger children west where Zion was to be built under the guidance of God and the leadership of our president, Brigham Young. I was resentful of that promise after the sting of losing both my parents had eased away. How was I, a girl of 15 and Charles only a few years older with nothing but a few personal things we could carry across the river that terrible and ghastly night be expected to carry out such a promise.
But Charles, as young as he was, had faith enough for both of us for those few months. Finally with the Lord’s help we got these two rooms, such as they are, to live in and Charles secured a job on a river boat that plied up and down the great Mississippi. I tended the children being father and mother to them and I’ve managed to help a few others, too, as they paused here to get ready for the western trek. As payment I have picked up some bolts of cloth and various other supplies and now after two years we have enough accumulated to get equipped with the bare necessities and we are ready at last to start west. We’ve seen so many thousands depart for that long-sought land of freedom and now we are ready, we five Stoddard children, to keep the promise to our parents. So now I close my mother’s diary here at Montrose, Iowa, where she was laid to rest beside my Father and baby Michael, adding my testimony to hers. I know this is God’s church and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the Lord, as is Brigham Young, with whom we now set ourselves out to join in the West.