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


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.

about Alex Beam

  • 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.


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

Tour Dates

    • Washington, DC, 4/29/14, Politics & Prose, 7 PM
    • Exeter, NH, 5/7/14, Water Street Books, 7 PM

other editions

  • eBook | ISBN 9781610393140
    Pub date: 2014-04-22 | Price: $26.99/30.00 Canada
    6.125 x 9.250 | 352 Pages
    History / United States / 19th Century
    Religion / Christianity / Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)
    Biography & Autobiography / Religious
    Request reprints and permissions
  • Hardcover | ISBN 9781610393133
    Pub date: 2014-04-22 | Price: $26.99/30.00 Canada
    6.500 x 9.500 | 352 Pages
    History / United States / 19th Century
    Religion / Christianity / Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)
    Biography & Autobiography / Religious
    Request reprints and permissions