Dawn — Bewildered in a forest — Beautiful valley — Escape of Phelps — Dialogue — His final escape and arrival in Illinois — Fate of our two friends — Interview between my brother Orson and my wife — She prepares for my reception — Disappointment — Excitement — Search — Suspense — Scenes at the prison — Treatment of Mrs. Phelps — Mr. Follett retaken — His return to prison — Chains — Escape of Mrs. Phelps — Finale of Luman and Phila.
July 5, 1839–July 19, 1839
At length the morning began to dawn, but it proved to be a cloudy day; no mark was left in the heavens to determine the point of compass, while at the same time my road became every moment more obscure, and finally terminated in a deer path, which wound along among the hills and vales of a dense and entirely unsettled forest, and finally disappeared.
It was now broad day. The wild forest extended around far and wide, and no sign of human existence or occupation. I still wandered slowly on, not knowing whether I was every moment travelling nearer to friends, and home, and liberty, or to the place of dreary confinement. The deer and wild turkey occasionally started up before me, and the howl of the wolf was heard in the distance. At length I came to a beautiful clear stream, which seemed to wind through a fine valley. The wild flowers blooming in richest variety sent forth sweet odors, and the birds of the forest were pouring forth in profusion their morning songs.
I now sat down in safety, and took a small biscuit from my pocket which sister Phelps had kindly provided, and which was my only store of food for the journey. With a hearty drink from the crystal stream and this biscuit I made my first breakfast, after my imprisonment, as a free son of Columbia. I recollect that while I sat enjoying this solitary meal, far from friends and home, surrounded with a scenery strange and wild, and without any guide or any knowledge where I should claim the next refreshment, I thought of the sweets of liberty I now enjoyed, and with a thankful and joyous heart I exclaimed aloud, “Thank God for this hour, it is the happiest of my life; I am free, although lost in the wilderness, and if I cannot find myself, thank God nobody else can find me.” In this happy valley the reader may leave me to rest awhile if he chooses, while he looks after the fate of the other prisoners and our two friends, and also, Mrs. Phelps and the affairs of the prison; bearing in mind at the same time that he must return again and accompany me through the whole dangers, toils and incidents of my journey to a land of liberty.
At the time we were separated in the heat of the pursuit, Mr. Phelps made his escape much in the same manner as myself.1 He was at first closely pursued, but at length he out distanced them all, and, once out of their sight, he struck directly into the road, and rode on toward Illinois. He had proceeded a few miles on his way, when he was suddenly surrounded in the darkness of the night by a company of horsemen who were out in pursuit of the prisoners. They immediately hailed him, and cried out, “Say, stranger, G—d damn you, what is your name?” He replied in the same rough and careless manner, “You damned rascals, what is yours?” On finding he could damn as well as themselves, they concluded he could not be a Mormon, while his bold and fearless manner convinced them that he was not a man who was fleeing for his life. They then begged his pardon for the rough manner in which they had accosted him, “Oh, you are one of the real breed. By G—d, no damned Mormon could counterfeit that language, you swear real natteral; hurrah for old Kentuck. But whar mought you live, stranger?” He replied, “just up here; you mout a kno’d me, and then agin you moutn’t. I think I’ve seed you all a heap o’ times, but I’ve been so damned drunk at the fourth of independence, I hardly know myself or anybody else, but hurrah for old Kentuck; and what about the damn’d Mormons?” “What about ’em? egad, you’d a know’d that without axin’, if you’d a seed ’em run.” “What! they are not out of prison, are they?” “Out of prison! Yes, the damn’d rascals raised a flag of liberty in open day, and burst out, and down stars right in the midst of the public celebration, out rassling the damn’d jailer, and outrunning the whole town in a fair foot race. They reached the timber jist as they war overtaken, but afore we could cotch ’em they mounted their nags, and the way they cleared was a caution to Crockett. We tuk one on ’em, and seed the other two a few feet distant, rushin’ their nags at full speed, but we couldn’t cotch ’em nor shoot ’em either; I raised my new Kentucky rifle, fresh loaded and primed, with a good percussion, and taking fair aim at one of their heads only a few yards distant, I fired, but the damn’d cap burst, and the powder wouldn’t burn.” “Well, now, stranger, that’s a mighty big story and seems enemost onpossible. Did you say you cotched one on ’em? Why I’d a tho’t you’d a kilt him on the spot; what have you done with him?” “They tuk him back to prison, I suppose, but it was only the old one. 2 If it had been one o’ them tother chaps we would a skinn’d ’em as quick as Crockett would a coon, and then eat ’em alive without leaving a grease spot.”
This interview over, the horsemen withdrew and left Phelps to pursue his way in peace. He rode on during the night without further molestation; but when day appeared he found himself in rather an awkward fix for a traveller, having lost his hat in the race the preceding day; he was, therefore, bareheaded, besides, his face was somewhat bruised and scratched in the scuffle; however, he concluded to make the best of it, and trust to Providence for the issue. Riding up to a farm house to call for breakfast and to have his horse fed, he began to banter the host to sell him an old straw hat; “For,” said he, “I got such a power of drink last evening at the big doings that I couldn’t ride straight, and tumbled off my horse once or twice, and finally lost my hat.” Judging from his manner, and the dirt and scratches on his face, they readily believed his tale, and furnished him with an old wide-brimmed, miserable looking hat, which served as a very good disguise during the remainder of the journey. Himself and horse refreshed, he renewed his journey, and finally arrived in Illinois in safety, having reached the ferry before his pursuers, and before the news of the escape had spread so far.
By his arrival the news soon spread far and wide that we had made our escape from prison, and that we might be looked for soon. This news was received with a general joy, and produced a lively sensation, not only throughout the Society, but among the public, generally — for all parties had looked upon us as martyrs, doomed to suffer the vengeance of a set of blood-thirsty outlaws and murderers. My brother, O. Pratt, and the young Mr. Clark, who furnished us with the horses, must now be looked after.
When we parted in the thicket, as has been before described, they had only time to flee a few paces, when they found themselves completely surrounded on every hand, and no possibility left them of escape by running; they, therefore, dropped down into a small ravine which had been made by the water during some former freshet, and there lay as close to the earth as a young quail when its nest is disturbed. The enemy passed close by them a number of times, and so very near that they dared not to make the least motion — not even to look up to see whether they were discovered.
At length night came on; the pursuers retired, and they arose and pursued their journey on foot, and arrived safely in Illinois soon after the arrival of Mr. Phelps. My brother immediately repaired to the residence of my wife and children, who were waiting his return in anxious suspense, in hopes to hear some news from me, whom they considered still in prison — not having as yet heard any news of the escape. As he entered the door Mrs. P. raised her anxious and sorrowful eyes, and eagerly inquired:
“Have you seen my husband?”
“Is he yet alive?”
“Is he well?”
“O, thank God for that! Is there any prospect that he will ever get free and return alive?”
“Well, I hope so; for the last time I saw him he was astride a horse in the woods, and headed towards home on a gallop.”
I shall not attempt to describe her feelings at that moment, as the reader can best imagine them; but suffice it to say, after her first transports were over he sat down and related to her the whole affair which had transpired up to the time he last saw me. She was now full of hope and expectation — although mingled with fear and anxiety indescribable. If I eluded the pursuit of my enemies and arrived in safety it was now time to look for my arrival; but if, on the other hand, I was taken back and chained down in a dungeon; or if I was shot down and left without a burial to be a prey to wolves and turkey buzzards, — Oh, dreadful thought! Oh, horrible suspense! Oh, the hope, joy, sorrow, anguish, misery, happiness, frenzy, and feelings undefined which agitate and distract the bosom of a wife and mother at such a moment! If man — hard-hearted, unfeeling man — could read the heart of a woman on such an occasion, he would never more drive, imprison or kill his fellow man.
She soon set about preparing for the reception of her husband, in case he should arrive, faint and exhausted with hunger and fatigue. The table was spread, and food placed upon it; the house was illuminated through the night, during which her anxious and beating heart would not suffer her for one moment to sleep. She watched during the entire night, and on several occasions opened the door and looked abroad; but still the morning dawned and he came not. Surely, thought she, he is slain or again confined in a dungeon, loaded with chains, and kept for a sure prey to glut the vengeance of a furious mob who have been disappointed of the rest of their victims.
The excitement now became general; friends crowded in to inquire the news and to sympathize with her, and to endeavor, if possible to keep up her hopes. They argued that the same God who had delivered him from prison, and strengthened him in the chase, and the same God who prevented the powder from taking fire when the deadly rifle was aimed at him, would also stand by him, and bring him safely to his friends and home. This, in some measure, still kept her spirits from sinking in despair.
Armed men were now despatched in various directions along the river, and into Missouri, to endeavor, if possible, to meet with him and protect him home. Another day and night at length passed away in the same suspense, no tidings having been heard from him nor from any of those who had gone in search. The pursuers, however, were known to be at the ferry on the other side of the river, watching his arrival. The same precaution was taken by them at all the public ferries for some distance up and down the river.
The suspense and anguish of her aching bosom now became intolerable; in vain they continued to assure her that he would be preserved and return in safety. She could plainly see that, while they sought to comfort her with hope, they themselves were half in doubt and beginning to despair of his deliverance. Another long day passed and another night set in, and still no news — except that the ferries on the Missouri side were all strictly guarded, and the entire people on the lookout to take him dead or alive. She had now kept her table spread both day and night, and had watched for three entire nights without sleep. “He cannot be alive and free,” exclaimed she, “or I know he would fly to meet the fond welcome of his wife and children, and relieve their aching hearts.”
We must now return with our readers to the prison at Columbia, and take a glance at the scenes which followed our departure, and learn the fate of Mr. Follett and Mrs. Phelps. As soon as the prisoners had cleared from the jailer, and were fairly under way, Mrs. Phelps, who was still an inmate of the dwelling, became the particular object of their spite and rage. The old jailer and his wife commenced to rail and curse her as the author of all the mischief. They threatened her with instant death, and finally turned her out of doors in the dusk of the evening, and in the midst of a mob who had gathered in great numbers around the prison and raging like so many tigers disappointed of their prey. Being a stranger and without money, friends, or acquaintances in the place, she knew not where to go or what to do. She finally sat down in the open air in the midst of the mob, by whom she was assailed, cursed, insulted, threatened, and abused in the most unfeeling manner for some time.
But she still remained on the spot, and scarcely noticed the slang and abuse of the raging rabble, so intent was she upon the issue of the race — not knowing from one moment to the other whether her husband would be shot down, or whether he would be taken and brought back in triumph. 3
At length, after a watchful glance towards the wilderness, she heard the shout of triumph amidst the hosts of the enemy, and next was reechoed from crowd to crowd, amid vollies of oaths, curses and exulting laughs, “We’ve catched one of the damn’d Mormons and we’ll roast him alive over a slow fire, damn him.” They now rallied around her in great numbers, exulting and threatening, and boasting that they had taken her husband and would kill him on the spot. While they were thus abusing her she saw another crowd coming and a prisoner in the midst, on whom they were venting their rage, as if he would be torn to pieces. As they approached nearer it proved to be Mr. Follett, on Mrs. Phelps’ horse and side-saddle. He had been surrounded, overpowered and taken at the time we were each separated from the other. He was finally rescued from the mob, and thrust alive into the lower dungeon and chained down to the floor. He remained in this doleful situation for a few days, till the wrath of the multitude had time to cool a little, and then he was unchained by the Sheriff and again brought into the upper apartment and treated with some degree of kindness.
They now laughed with him about his adventure, praised him for his bravery, and called him a good fellow. The truth of the matter was, they had no great desire to take the lives of any but those whom they had considered leaders; and since they had discovered that Mr. Follett and Mr. Phelps were not considered religious leaders among our Society, they were in no great danger, except they should happen to be killed in the heat of excitement or passion.
We now leave him in his lonesome prison, with no other society than the old apostate, Luman, and his dear Phila, while we get Sister Phelps out of the trouble she was in. After the fate of the prisoners seemed determined, she sank down exhausted on a block of wood in the open air amid the surrounding darkness. Here she was still mocked and insulted by the unfeeling rabble, till a certain young man, more feeling than the others, declared that he was not accustomed to see a female treated thus in America, and that if she had no home his father and mother would receive her kindly and give her protection under their roof till she could return to Illinois. He then went home, and in a few minutes returned with his mother, by whom she was kindly invited to their dwelling. On arriving there she was treated in the kindest manner for about two weeks, during which time her horse was kept from her and rode in search of the prisoners. They finally restored her horse and saddle to her, and she rode home in peace, where she eventually met her husband, and rejoiced that she had been, in some measure, the means of his deliverance.
And here I might as well inform the anxious reader of the final liberation of the two remaining prisoners. Mr. Follett remained in confinement for several months, and finally was dismissed and sent home to Illinois, where he met his family, who had been expelled from the State of Missouri, in common with others, during his confinement. And, last of all, the old apostate came out by fair acquittal. And should any of our readers have the curiosity to see the charming couple, whose singular courtship and history run through and make a principal thread of our narrative, they will call at the little town of Augusta, a few miles from Fort Madison, Iowa Territory, and inquire for “Luman and Phila,” who were living there in quiet at the last accounts.
1 Morris Phelps, who had spent eight months with Parley in prison, was just three days older than the Prophet Joseph Smith. He later became a patriarch. He met his wife, Laura Clark, when he was nineteen years old and married her March 28, 1826. She played a critical role in the prisoners’ escape. Morris and his wife were brought into the Church by the preaching of Lyman Wight and John Corrill (Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 1:373).
2 The “old one” is King Follett, age fifty-one. In the early nineteenth century the life expectancy of a man was fifty years. Hence, King Follett could have been considered old.
3 Sister Laura Phelps’s bravery, faithfulness, and courage during this time of intense abuse and danger cannot be overstated. She later settled w ith her husband, Morris, in Nauvoo. She passed away at age thirty-six.