John Taylor’s Watch: Holy Relic, Cultural Artifact

By September 27, 2013

Alan Morrell, a curator at the Church History Museum, contributes this installment in the JI’s material culture month. Alan is completing a doctorate in American History at the University of Utah, and he has degrees from BYU and Villanova. 

I have an iPhone because I once missed an appointment. I was so engulfed in my research, I forgot about a meeting and didn’t realize it until it was already over. My wife teases me about being absent-minded, but she wasn’t amused when I told her what had happened. After years of marriage to a poor grad student, she was thrilled that I had a paying job. She worried that I’d screw it up so she went out and bought me something that could keep me on track. Now, the time and my schedule are always available, with reminders of upcoming appointments.

In our hyper-connected modern world, we quickly learn to become time conscious. David S. Landes, author of Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World considered the mechanical clock to be “one of the great inventions in the history of mankind – not in a class with fire and the wheel, but comparable to movable type in its revolutionary implications for cultural values, technological change, social and political organization, and personality.”[1]

Historian Alexis McCrossen examined the records of watch repairmen in 19th-century western Massachusetts and observed that “Americans had been living with watches and clocks for decades without fully tapping into the potential they provided for coordination and maximization of time.”[2] This changed in the 1820s when the volume of pocket watches in the United States increased drastically. By the 1840s, the price of a clock or watch had dropped to the point that even a person of modest income could afford one.

John Taylor. Courtesy Wikimedia

John Taylor. Courtesy Wikimedia

This was the world of John Taylor. Born on November 1, 1808 in Milnthorpe, Westmorland, England, he moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1832. Six years later, he was a Mormon apostle. I do not know when John Taylor started carrying a watch. The multiple appointments of a Latter-day Saint leader would have certainly required that Taylor be conscious of the time. The narrative history that Joseph Smith started in 1838 demonstrates that time consciousness was an essential part of the Mormon community. Recorders noted the times of events such as the departure of the “Maid of Iowa” at 10 A.M. on May 1, meetings of Church leaders from 2 to 6 and again from 8 to 10 P.M. the next day, or a court martial at 9 A.M. on May 4.[3]

It is not surprising, then, that on the evening of June 27, 1844, John Taylor was wearing his watch as he sat with Joseph and Hyrum Smith and Willard Richards. The previous days had been busy as he met with the governor, lawyers, and leading citizens in an effort to free the Smith brothers. Readers know the story of the martyrdom. Within minutes, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were dead and John Taylor was severely injured. Taylor described getting shot, “As I reached the window, and was on the point of leaping out, I was struck by a ball from the door about midway of my thigh. . . . I fell upon the window-sill, and cried out, ‘I am shot!’ Not possessing any power to move, I felt myself falling outside of the window, but immediately I fell inside, from some, at that time, unknown cause”[4]. He was badly wounded. Four bullets had ripped through his body, one tearing away a portion of his hip the size of his hand. Willard Richards who escaped the barrage without injury dragged Taylor into a cell, covered him with a mattress in an effort to hide him, and said he hoped Taylor would survive as he expected to be killed within a few moments. The mob, perhaps fearing that the Mormons were coming, fled. Both Taylor and Richards were spared.

taylor watch

John Taylor’s Watch. Courtesy PBS

Willard Richards had John Taylor moved to Hamilton’s tavern and then went about the business of preparing for the removal of Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s bodies. When Richards left for Nauvoo, John Taylor asked him to take his watch and purse with him, as he feared they would be stolen. Several days later, Taylor was at his home in Nauvoo still convalescing when he was once again reunited with his watch. At this moment, the watch was transformed from a mere timepiece to a holy relic. His family discovered that the watch had been “struck with a ball” and examination of his vest revealed a cut in the vest pocket that had contained his watch. He later explained, “I was indeed falling out [of the window at Carthage Jail], when some villain aimed at my heart. The ball struck my watch, and forced me back; if I had fallen out I should assuredly have been killed, if not by the fall, by those around, and this ball, intended to dispatch me, was turned by an overruling Providence into a messenger of mercy, and saved my life.” He concluded, “I felt that the Lord had preserved me by a special act of mercy; that my time had not yet come, and that I had still a work to perform upon the earth.”[5]

The story of John Taylor’s miraculous preservation spread quickly. Within a few weeks, several accounts mentioned that Taylor’s watch had been hit by a ball.[6] The watch become an integral part of the telling of the martyrdom; the story spread wide and far. The relic remained in the family until 1934 when John Taylor’s grandson, Alonzo Eugene Hyde, Jr., gave it to LDS President Heber J. Grant, who forwarded it to the museum at the Bureau of Information, a precursor of the Church History Museum.[7] Since 1990, the John Taylor watch has been on public display at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, a highlight for visitors of the museum’s “A Covenant Restored” exhibit.

By the latter part of the 90s, several individuals began to research and write about their questions surrounding the long-accepted story of the John Taylor watch. They could not believe that a musket ball would do so little damage to a watch. In Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise, Historian Glen Leonard cited the unpublished research of Neal and Gayle Ord when he wrote that after John Taylor was first shot in the leg, “He collapsed on the wide sill, denting the back of his vest pocket watch. The force shattered the glass cover of the timepiece against his ribs and pushed the internal gear pins against the enamel face, popping out a small segment later mistakenly identified as a bullet hole.”[8] Joseph L. and David W. Lyon’s 2008 BYU Studies article “Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What it Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith” is probably the most exhaustive published scholarship arguing this position.[9] A couple years later, Joseph Lyon’s scholarship received popular attention after his presentation at BYU Education Week.[10] Kenneth W. Godfrey’s interview for the KJZZ Joseph Smith Papers television series furthered this narrative for a popular audience.[11]

A search of sources, both popular and scholarly, online and in print, shows that both stories are alive and well today. This begs several questions. Has the window sill explanation become the new master narrative for scholars? Has this narrative moved out of scholarly circles into the Mormon mainstream? Does the window sill remove the miraculous from the story? Do some individuals use this as another example of scholars just trying to destroy faith? Is there any evidence of deceit by those who originated or propagated the original story? Regardless of the answers to these questions, we should be grateful that John Taylor believed the watch saved his life. It may be the only reason it is still around. What good is a watch that doesn’t keep time?

______

[1] David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1983), p. 6.

[2] Alexis McCrossen, “The ‘Very Delicate Construction’ of Pocket Watches and Time Consciousness in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” Winterthur Portfolio Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring 2010)

[3] Historian’s Office history of the Church 1839-1882. http://eadview.lds.org/findingaid/CR%20100%20102, Book F1

[4] “The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith” by President John Taylor (http://archive.org/stream/cityofsaintsacro00burt#page/517/mode/2up), Appendix III.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jenetta Richards letter to her family, 8 July 1844, in Our Pioneer Heritage, vol. 3, p. 130; Times and Seasons 15 July 1844; Nauvoo Neighbor 24 July 1844; and Times and Seasons 1 August 1844

[7] Deseret News, 8 November 1934

[8] Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise, Deseret Book, 2002, pp. 397-98.

[9] Joseph L. Lyon and David W. Lyon, “Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What It Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” BYU Studies 47:4. https://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=7980

[10] “Education Week: Separating Facts from Fiction about the Prophet’s Death,” Deseret News, Sept. 7, 2010, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705385933/Education-Week-Separating-facts-from-fiction-about-the-Prophets-death.html?pg=all

[11] “John Taylor’s Watch – The Real Story” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOlH26SE55k

 

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Material Culture Popular Culture


Comments

  1. Great stuff, Alan. I can only speak for myself, but when I found out that the watch wasn’t actully dented by a bullet, I knew then and there the entire history of the church I’d been told was false…

    But on a serious note, has there been any in-depth look done on how the watch served as a relic over the years? Did it serve the same function as the canes made out of JS coffin?

    Comment by Ben P — September 27, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

  2. Great article Alan(even if it meant you were late to our meeting today)! What a interesting history and very meaningful questions at the end. Good job.

    Comment by Laura H. — September 27, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  3. Also, your article reminded me of this old book I read years ago:

    “In this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people, but different fates for those people. In time, there are an infinity of worlds.”
    ? Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

    Comment by Laura H. — September 27, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

  4. Wonderful question, Ben. I must confess that I’ve spent relatively little time researching the watch. This post was an opportunity to do a little digging. I am not aware of any mystical powers, such as protection, attributed to the possessor of the watch. And I’m not aware of anyone being healed by touching it. Though that would certainly fit 19th century Mormonism. It would be wonderful if I was wrong. If anyone out there has evidence of that, please send it my way. I think it was more a symbol of God’s protection of His future Church president.

    Comment by Alan — September 27, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  5. Well, my GD class a few weeks ago heard the window sill theory, which I accept. (Years ago Don Enders told me about the forensic testing on the effects a musket ball would have had on the watch, and the window sill explanation immediately made sense to me and I’ve held to it since.)

    I don’t think it has really made its way to the mainstream yet, but I believe it will eventually.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 27, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

  6. Interesting, Alan! I love stories about objects that saved lives… bibles, watches, etc. What I find interesting about this story is that the watch only obtains its holiness after the martyrdom. It’s a regular object made holy rather than an item with intrinsic spiritual value.

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 28, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  7. I’ve always been interested in the “relics” of Church Presidents. Thanks for your thoughts, Alan. I wonder if Hyde or HJG have any notes about the church receiving the watch, or the conversation that the two men had when Grant accepted it?

    Comment by J Stuart — September 28, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  8. Kevin, good points. I think forensic work made a lot of converts to the window sill explanation. At one point, they took the watch apart and identified the internal “pins” that likely punctured the face of the watch. They lined up perfectly. In searching LDS.org, a recent Friend article, I believe it was, just said that the watch was damaged at the time of the martyrdom. In another instance, they replaced that part of the story with ellipses, but the question for the students still referred to the miracle of the ball striking the watch. I think we are in the midst of a gradual move, even officially, towards the new interpretation. I heard something about some researchers who had issues with the Lyon’s article. Hopefully they’ll get their arguments out there.

    Comment by Alan — September 28, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  9. J Stuart, Annie Taylor Hyde, the first president of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and a first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, was Alonzo E. Hyde, Jr.’s mom. These were prominent people whose journals, letters, etc. may very well be preserved in local archives. It’s easy to trace the spread of the story, more difficult to trace the watch’s history. I, too, would love more work done on the migration of the watch from Taylor’s house in Nauvoo to where it is today, with particular interest in the John Taylor, Annie Taylor Hyde, Alonzo E. Hyde, Jr. years. Did any of John Taylor’s grandchildren remember their grandpa pulling out the watch and telling the story? Of all of Taylor’s children, how did Annie become the caretaker? Some fun questions to answer.

    Comment by Alan — September 28, 2013 @ 10:11 am

  10. Thanks for posting this, Alan. I think an analysis of the stories told by Taylor and others would provide a fascinating window into the Saints’ providential worldview during the 19th century. Was Taylor, for example, aware that Hyrum Smith’s watch had been shattered by a bullet? Would that have even mattered–perhaps Taylor believed that the Lord had transformed the watch into a shield of sorts that blocked the bullet that providentially saved him from falling from the window. Teasing out these implications would be very interesting.

    Comment by David G. — September 28, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  11. Thanks, Alan. This is great.

    Comment by Christopher — September 28, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  12. David, whenever I’m reading anything written or spoken by John Taylor, I’ll probably keep my eyes open for evidence that he believed God had spared him for some great purpose. Did this instill a fearlessness in him? What does this do to a person’s psyche? To have “proof” that God knows you and wants you around? So many fun ways to play with this.

    Comment by Alan — September 28, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

  13. Thanks, Alan. A nice essay.

    Comment by Ryan T. — September 28, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

  14. Really good stuff, Alan. And a lot of fascinating questions about motivation.

    Comment by WVS — September 29, 2013 @ 10:27 pm

  15. I’m coming to this a bit late, but I wanted to thank you Alan. The shifting narrative is interesting (the Sunday School at my congregation read through the miracle of the 18 year-olds at the Sweetwater yesterday). And count me as one who would be absolutely stoked if ever evidence for miraculous cures resulted from the watch.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 30, 2013 @ 2:39 pm


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