by Orson F. Whitney, in History of Utah, Vol. 4
Upon the roll of honored names whose records as Pioneers and State-builders make up the early history of our commonwealth, few shine as luminously as that of Willard Richards, physician, theologian, historian, journalist and statesman. A member of the historic band led by Brigham Young from the Missouri River to Salt Lake Valley in 1847, from that time until the day of his death he was intimately associated with the great man in the arduous and stupendous labor of establishing the feet of his people in their new-found home in the wilderness; in carving out of the desert and the rock the State whose sovereign star is forty-fifth on the flag of the Union.
Dr. Richards was Secretary of the Provisional Government of Deseret, and after the organization of the Territory of Utah, for several years did most of the business of the Territorial Secretary; at the same time presiding over the Council branch of the Legislative Assembly. He was the first editor and proprietor of the Deseret News, and at the time of his death, Postmaster of Salt Lake City. During the last six years of his life he was one of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, holding simultaneously the office of Church Historian.
Willard Richards was not only a Pioneer of Utah; he was also the pioneer in Mormonism of a numerous and distinguished family, numbering among its members some of the foremost citizens of the State. An Apostle of the Church from April, 1840, he shared with John Taylor, also an Apostle, the tragic honor of being a fellow prisoner with Joseph and Hyrum Smith when they fell pierced with the bullets of assassins in Carthage jail. On that occasion, when the bodies of the two martyrs, with that of Apostle Taylor, were riddled with balls, one of the missiles grazed Willard’s neck, carrying away the tip of his left ear; otherwise ho was unhurt, though right in the midst of the massacre. He was a close friend and confidante of the Prophet, and acted in the capacity of his private secretary up to the very moment of the martyrdom.
Willard Richards was born at Hopkinton, Middlesex county, Massachusetts, June 24, 1804. Ho was the youngest of eleven children, whoso parents were Joseph and Rhoda Howe Richards. His older brothers, Phineas and Levi, who followed him into the Church,- and also came to Utah, were both able and worthy men, but Willard was the master mind of the-family, his father was a Revolutionary soldier, and in time of peace a fairly well-to-do New England farmer. He and his wife belonged to the Congregational church in Hopkinton, but their children were roared mostly under Presbyterian influences. When Willard was about nine years old the family removed to Richmond, in Berkshire county, where his previous training in the common schools was supplemented with courses of instruction in the high school at that place.
At the early age of sixteen he taught school at Chatham, Columbia county, New York, and subsequently had charge of schools at Lanesbovough, Massachusetts, and other places. He had an active and penetrating mind, and was given to scientific investigation. In his leisure hours he studied medicine, electricity and other kindred subjects, delivering lectures thereon. In 1834 he entered the Thompsonian Infirmary at Boston, and practiced under Dr. Samuel Thompson, founder of the Botanic or Thompsonian school of medicine. Next year he practiced his profession at Holliston, Massachusetts, where he resided at the home of Albert P. Rockwood.
It was here that Mormonism found him. Though susceptible to religious influences from childhood, he had paid but little attention to churches and creeds, and had supposed at one time that his indifference to such things was due to a reprobate condition of mind. In his despair he feared that he had committed the unpardonable sin. A great light burst upon him, he says, when in the summer of 1835 he read the Book of Mormon, a copy of which had been left by his cousin, Brigham Young, with another cousin, Lucius Parker, at Southborough. Up to this time Willard had never seen a Latter-day Saint, and his knowledge of them amounted to nothing more than that “a boy named Joe Smith, somewhere out West, had found a gold Bible.” Opening the book at random, he had read less than half a page of its contents, when he declared, “God or the devil had a hand in that book, for man never wrote it.” He read it twice through in about ten days, and was so impressed that he immediately resolved to visit the headquarters of the Church, seven hundred miles distant, and give Mormonism a thorough investigation. The execution of his purpose was delayed by an attack of palsy until October of the year following, when he arrived at Kirtland, Ohio, in company with his brother, Dr. Levi Richards, who attended him as physician. They were cordially received and entertained by their cousin Brigham, who was one of the Twelve Apostles.
Willard was baptized at sunset on the last day of December, 1836, Brigham Young officiating in the ceremony, which was also witnessed by Heber C. Kimball and others who had spent the afternoon cutting the ice in order to prepare for the baptism. Soon afterward he was ordained an Elder. Having formed a partnership with Brigham Young, hr accompanied him on a special business trip to the East, from which he returned just in time to start with Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Joseph Fielding and others on a mission to England, June 13, 1837. Abroad, his early field of labor was the Bedford district. When Apostles Kimball and Hyde returned to America, in April, 1838, they left Joseph Fielding, Willard Richards and William Clayton in charge of the British Mission.
While in England Willard met and married Miss Jennetta Richards, daughter of the Rev. John Richards, Independent Minister, at Walker Fold, Chaidgley, Lancashire. The young lady had been converted to Mormonism by Heber C. Kimball, who, after baptizing her, met his friend, who had not yet seen her, and said, “Willard, I baptized your wife today.” Some time later, Willard, having formed Jennetta’s acquaintance, remarked to her, “Richards is a good name; I never want to change it, do you, Jennetta!” “No, I do not,” she replied, “and I think I never will.” A few months later—September 24, 1838—they were married. Their first child, a son named Heber John, died suddenly soon after his birth. Another son was born to them October 11, 1840, and him they also named Heber John. He is today Dr. Heber John Richards, of Salt Lake City.
At Preston, April 14, 1840, Willard Richards was ordained an Apostle by President Brigham Young, assisted by ,others of the Twelve, then upon their first mission as a quorum in foreign lands. He had been called to the Apostleship by revelation, July 8,1838. Willard assisted his brother Apostles in their great work of broadening and strengthening the foundations of the British Mission. For a while he edited the Millennial Star, then published at Manchester, during the temporary absence of Parley P. Pratt, who had returned to America for his family.
Returning across the Atlantic in May, 1841, Apostle Richards visited his old home in Massachusetts, and leaving his family in care of his sisters there (his parents had both died while he was in England) he proceeded on to Nauvoo, Illinois. He located temporarily at Warsaw, where he sold lands for the Church, received immigrants, and counseled the Saints who had settled in that part; at the same time attending to his other duties as a general officer of the Church. In October he was elected a member of the city council of Nauvoo, and on the 11th of December removed to that place. It had previously been voted by the Apostles in council that he should take charge of the publication of the limes and Seasons. Two days after his arrival at Nauvoo he was appointed by the Prophet his private secretary; he also became his general clerk, the recorder for the Temple, and for the city council, and clerk of the municipal court. “He is a great prop to me in my labors,” wrote the Prophet to Willard’s wife, while she was still in Massachusetts. He kept Joseph’s private journal, and made an entry therein only a few minutes before the tragedy that terminated the earthly life of his beloved leader.
When the Prophet, in the absence of most of the Apostles, felt the toils gathering round him, and knew that his only safety lay in flight from the murderous mobs that were thirsting for his blood, Willard Richards was one of those, who on the night of June 22nd, 1844, crossed the Mississippi with him in a skiff, and started for the Rocky Mountains. When, yielding to the importunities of faint-hearted friends, Joseph returned and surrendered himself into the power of the wretches who had planned his destruction, Willard still clung to him, and was imprisoned with him, his brother Hyrum and John Taylor in Carthage jail.
Just before the murder of the two brothers (their jailor having suggested, in view of certain rumors, that they would be safer in the cell of the prison than in the apartment they then occupied) the Prophet said to Dr. Richards, “If we go into the cell, will you go in with us?” The Doctor answered, “Brother Joseph, you did not ask me to cross the river with you—you did not ask me to come to Carthage—you did not ask me to come to jail with you—and do you think I will forsake you now? But I will tell yon what I will do; if you are condemned to be hung for treason, I will- be hung in your stead, and you shall go free.” Joseph said, “You cannot.” The Doctor replied, “I will.”
His subsequent experience in the prison, when it was assaulted by the band of blackened assassins who imbrued their hands in the blood of the Prophet and the Patriarch, is graphically told in his own thrilling narrative, originally published in the limes and Seasons, and entitled “two minutes in jail:
“Possibly the following events occupied near three minutes, but I think only about two, and have penned them for the gratification of many friends.
Carthage, June 27,1844.
“A shower of musket balls were thrown up the stairway against the door of the prison in the second story, followed by many rapid footsteps.
“While Generals Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Mr. Taylor and myself, who were in the front chamber, closed the door of our room against the entry at the head of the stairs, and placed ourselves against it, there being no lock on the door, and no catch that was useable.
“The door is a common panel, and as soon as we heard the feet at the stairs head, a ball was sent through the door, which passed between us, and showed that our enemies were desperadoes, and we must change our position.
“General joseph smith, Mr. Taylor and myself sprang back to the front part of the room, and General Hyrum Smith retreated two-thirds across the chamber in front of and facing the door.
“A ball was sent through the door which hit Hyrum on the side of the nose, when he fell backwards, extended at length, without moving his feet.
“From the holes in his vest (the day was warm, and no one had their coats on but myself,) pantaloons, drawers and shirt, it appears evident that a ball must have been thrown from without, through the window, which entered his back on the right side, and passing through lodged against his watch, which was in his right vest pocket, completely pulverizing the crystal and face, tearing off the hands and mashing the whole body of the watch. At the same time the ball from the door entered his nose.
“As he struck the floor he exclaimed emphatically, ‘I’m a dead man.’ Joseph looked towards him and responded, ‘Oh dear! Brother Hyrum,’ and opening the door two or three inches with his left hand, discharged one barrel of a six shooter (pistol) at random in the entry, from whence a bail grazed Hyrum’s breast, and entering his throat passed into his head, while other muskets were aimed at him and some balls hit him.
“Joseph continued snapping his revolver round the casing of the door into the space as before, three barrels of which missed fire, while Mr. Taylor with a walking stick stood by his side and knocked down the bayonets and muskets which were constantly discharging through the doorway, while I stood by him, ready to lend any assistance, with another stick, but could not come within striking distance without going directly before the muzzles of the guns.
“When the revolver failed, we had no more firearms, and expected an immediate rush of the mob, and the doorway full of muskets, half way in the room, and no hope but instant death from within.
“Mr. Taylor rushed into the window, which is some fifteen or twenty feet from the ground. When his body was nearly on a balance, a ball from the door within entered his leg, and a ball from without struck his watch, a patent lever, in his vest pocket near the left breast, and smashed it into ‘pie,’ leaving the hands standing at 5 o’clock, 16 minutes, and 26 seconds, the force of which ball threw him back on the floor, and ho rolled under tho bed which stood by his side, where he lay motionless, tho mob from the door continuing to fire upon him, cutting away a piece of flesh from his left hip as large as a man’s hand, and were hindered only by my knocking down their muzzles with a stick; while they continued to reach their guns into the room, probably left-handed, and aimed their discharge so far round as almost to reach us in the corner of the room to where we retreated and dodged, and then I recommenced the attack with my stick.
“Joseph attempted, as the last resort, to leap the same window from whence Mr. Taylor fell, when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered the right breast from without, and he fell outward, exclaiming, ‘O Lord my God!’ As his feet went out of the window my head went in, the balls whistling all around. He fell on his left side a dead man.
“At this instant the cry was raised, ‘He’s leaped the window!’ and the mob on the stairs and in the entry ran out.
“I withdrew from the window, thinking it of no use to leap out on a hundred bayonets, then around General Smith’s body.
“Not satisfied with this I again reached my head out of the window, and watched some seconds to see if there were any signs of life, regardless of my own, determined to see the end of him I loved. Being fully satisfied that he was dead, with a hundred men near tho body and more coming round the corner of the jail, and expecting a return to our room, I rushed towards the prison door, at the head of the stairs, and through the entry from whence the firing had proceeded, to learn if the doors into the prison wore open.
“When near the entry, Mr. Taylor cried out, ‘Take me.’ I pressed my way until I found all doors unbarred, returning instantly, caught Mr. Taylor under my arm, and rushed by tho stairs into the dungeon, or inner prison, stretched him on the floor and covered him with a bed in such a manner as not likely to be perceived, expecting an immediate return of the mob.
“I said to Mr. Taylor, ‘This is a hard case to lay you on the floor, but if your wounds are not fatal, I want you to live to tell the story. ’ I expected to be shot the next moment, and stood before the door awaiting the onset.”
The expected almost happened. While Willard was caring for his wounded friend in the inner part of the prison, a portion of the mob again rushed up stairs to finish the fiendish work already more than half completed. Finding only the dead body of Hyrum Smith in the front apartment, and supposing the other prisoners to have escaped, they were again descending the stairs when a loud cry was heard, “The Mormons are coming!’ Thinking the inhabitants of Nauvoo were upon them, to avenge the murder of the Prophet, the whole band of assassins broke and fled, seeking refuge in the neighboring forest. Their groundless fear was shared by the people of Carthage’ in general, who fled pell mell, terrified by the thought of a wrathful visitation from the betrayed and stricken community.
Dr. Richards’ marvelous escape from death in the midst of the fiery shower to which his three friends succumbed, fulfilled a prediction made to him by the Prophet over a year previously, when he told him that the time would come when the balls would fly round him like hail, and he would see his friends fall upon the right and upon the left, but there should not be a hole in his garment. As during that terrible ordeal he was the personification of calm courage and collected heroism, so in the events immediately following he manifested the highest wisdom and discretion. Writing from Carthage to Nauvoo, he advised the people to be patient, to trust in God, and not seek to avenge themselves upon their enemies. He and the Prophet’s brother, Samuel H. Smith, with the wounded John Taylor, then superintended the removal of the bodies of the martyrs to Nauvoo for burial.
In all subsequent movements of the Church Willard Richards was a recognized power. He assisted in the inauguration and conduct of tho exodus from Illinois, helped to raise the Mormon Battalion on the Missouri River, and was one of tho first enrolled among the Pioneers who accompanied Brigham Young to the Rocky Mountains.
After the return of the Apostles to Winter Quarters, when the First Presidency was again organized (December 27, 1847), Willard Richards was chosen second counselor to President Brigham Young. In the following summer, when the main body of the migrating Saints crossed the plains, President Richards led one of the three grand divisions into which the numerous companies were organized.
At the election held for officers of the Provisional Government of Deseret, March 12, 1849, Willard Richards was chosen Secretary of State, and served as such until the organization by Congress of the Territory of Utah and the arrival of the Territorial Secretary, B. D. Harris, of Vermont, who did not reach Salt Lake City until late in July, 1851. After the summary departure of Mr. Harris, in September of that year, Dr. Richards again took up the burden of the Secretary’s business—if, indeed, he had laid it down—and continued to carry it for another year or more, when Secretary Benjamin G. Ferris appeared upon the scene. Again, after that official’s premature departure, Dr. Richards was Secretary ad interim.
June 15, 1850, witnessed the publication of the first number of the Deseret News, of which Willard Richards was editor and proprietor. The News was then a small quarto, issued weekly, but what it lacked in size it made up in vigor, thanks to the pungent pen of the ready writer occupying the editorial sanctum. He continued to edit the News as long as he lived. His incumbency of the position of postmaster covered about the same period. He had the confidence of the Postmaster General, who respected his judgment touching postal arrangements throughout the mountain territories.
September 22, 1851, the first Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah convened at Salt Lake City. Willard Richards was a member of the Council. In 1852 he presided over that body, and succeeded himself at the two following sessions of the Legislature, which then met annually. The last time that he left his house—a retired little cottage now on Richards Street, and then only a few rods from the Council House, where the Legislature convened—it was to discharge his duty as President of the Council on the final day of the session ending January 20, 1854. In his effort to walk these few rods from his residence he said to a bystander, “I will go and perform this last duty, if like John Quincy Adams I die in the attempt.” He was suffering from dropsy. He died on the 11th of March following.
Dr. Richards magnified to the last, along with his other duties, his office as one of the First Presidency of the Church, enjoying to the full the love and confidence of Presidents Young and Kimball, his associates. The latter once said of* him, referring to his humility and deferential regard for his seniors, ‘‘He would never so much as go through a doorway ahead of me.” President Richards, in other words, was a gentleman. His death, in the prime of life, was regarded, in view of his many gifts and general usefulness, as a public calamity.
His immediate descendants—the issue of several marriages—are his sons Heber J., Willard B., Joseph S., Calvin W. and Stephen L.; and his daughters, Rhoda Ann Jenetta (Mrs. Frank Knowlton) deceased; Sarah Ellen (wife of President Joseph F. Smith); Paulina (Mrs. A. F. Doremus); Alice Ann (widow of the famous Lot Smith); Asenatli (widow of Judge Joel Grover); Mrs. Phebe Peart and Mrs. Mary Ann VanFleet. Three of his sons embraced their father’s early profession—medicine; and two of them are still active practitioners at Salt Lake City.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in