Newspaper wars can be great fun, at least if you are on the winning side. Ink-stained battles have enlivened American history since a colonial governor threw Peter Zenger in jail in 1734 for publishing "divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections" in the New York Weekly Journal. Representation of conflicting and wide-ranging viewpoints has been the lifeblood of American democracy.
Such struggles are not without dramatic consequences. For example, there is the 1844 newspaper war that was instrumental in bringing the Latter-day Saints to the West. The recent conflict between The Salt Lake Tribune and the LDS Church-owned Deseret News has evoked a number of references to this long-ago controversy, but few Utahns know the story of the Nauvoo Expositor.
Founded in 1839 on the Mississippi River as a gathering place for Mormons, Nauvoo was home to several newspapers, including the Times and Seasons, an official church newspaper edited by Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, and the more lively Wasp that operated under Apostle John Taylor. Hancock County had other papers with a distinctly different point of view, most notably Thomas Sharp's notorious Warsaw Signal.
By his own account, Joseph Smith occasionally tested the virtue of the wives of Nauvoo, but he got into trouble when he propositioned the spouse of William Law of the church's First Presidency. After a secret council excommunicated Law, he and his brother Wilson launched the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper whose avowed intention was to expose Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet. In its first issue, the Expositor denounced polygamy and Smith's "political schemes and intrigue." The editors also pledged: "We will not acknowledge any man as king or lawgiver to the church" and promised to "tell the whole tale" of Smith's political plans in their next issue. There would be no more editions of the Expositor.
Early LDS Church leaders had survived such unpleasantries before, but this one was too dangerous to ignore, especially since it was, for the most part, true. The Nauvoo City Council accused the Expositor's editors of seduction, pandering, counterfeiting and thievery. Mayor Smith ordered the press destroyed as a public nuisance that offended local moral standards. Warned that his press would be wrecked, William Law wrote: "I could not even suspect men of being such fools."
The Nauvoo Legion marched to the Expositor office, wrecked the press and burned the remaining papers. For Joseph Smith, it was a fatal mistake. Illinois Governor Thomas Ford called it an unconstitutional outrage upon the liberties of the people and Law swore out warrants for Smith's arrest.
Resentment of Mormon power had long simmered in northern Illinois but when the prophet mobilized the Nauvoo Legion, hostility exploded into hysteria. "Such excitement I never witnessed in my life," a state militia officer recalled. "We all felt the time had come where either the Mormons or the old citizens had to leave." The Warsaw Signal denounced Joseph Smith as a tyrant and proclaimed "war and extermination is inevitable!"
Within days, a mob had killed Smith and his brother in the Carthage jail. Anti-Mormons assumed this would be the end of his church, but the brutal murder had sealed the prophet's work with his blood. The tragic outcome of this bitter newspaper war ultimately forced the Mormons to seek a refuge in the Great Basin, forever changing Western history.
Will Bagley is a Salt Lake City author and historian.