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A notorious gunslinger, wanted man, and devout Church member, Orrin Porter Rockwell led a life of paradox. His lethal accuracy with a shotgun and policy to “always shoot first . . . that way they know you’re armed” made his time as a lawman controversial at best. Charged with murder or attempted murder on three occasions, Porter was acquitted twice and died before the last charge could come to courts. Despite his rough-and-tumble attitude, Porter Rockwell remained unshakably faithful to the Church and its leaders until his death in June 1878, serving as a body guard to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The incongruities and myths surrounding Rockwell’s life have drawn the fascination of Mormons and non-Mormons alike. But here are a few curious tidbits you might not have known about Orrin Porter Rockwell.
1. He was known as the “Destroying Angel”
Porter Rockwell killed more outlaws than Wyatt Earp, Doc Holladay, Tom Horn, and Bat Masterson combined, earning him the menacing title, the “Destroying Angel.” Rockwell’s hawk-like vision was so acute he could spot landmarks along the trail days before his fellow pioneers. His accuracy was so deadly he once shot a bank robber attempting to escape on horseback in the pitch-black of night. It didn’t take long for Rockwell’s legendary abilities to draw the attention, and sometimes even the competition, of outlaws all throughout the Wild West.
2. He assisted in Joseph Smith’s attempted jail break from Liberty Jail
Porter Rockwell and Joseph Smith grew up on neighboring farms in Palmyra, New York. Despite their eight years difference in age, both men had a noticeable limp that cemented their close friendship—Joseph’s resulted from a childhood surgery and Rockwell’s resulted from an improperly set bone that left one leg two inches shorter than the other. When Joseph became imprisoned at Liberty Jail, Rockwell served as his personal messenger and smuggler, sneaking two augers into the jail that the prophet used to chisel a hole through the four-foot wall. When Joseph Smith was finally released from Liberty Jail, he had progressed so far in his digging that only a few inches stood between the inmates and freedom. Rockwell remained close to Joseph until the end of the Prophet’s life, saying when he learned of Joseph’s death, “They killed the only friend I ever had.”
3. He never cut his hair or beard
After a nine-month stint in Missouri awaiting trial for the attempted assassination of Governor Lilburn Boggs (the same Governor Boggs who signed the Mormon extermination order), Porter Rockwell showed up at Joseph Smith’s house in Nauvoo on Christmas night, shaggy and skeletal. Joseph Smith ordered the gruff-looking ruffian out only to find it was his childhood friend, Porter Rockwell. After hearing Rockwell’s story, Joseph Smith made a Samson-like prophecy: as long as Rockwell did not cut his hair and remained faithful to the Gospel, his enemies could never touch him. Rockwell lived by the prophet’s promise, cutting his hair only once to make a wig for Joseph’s widowed sister-in-law recovering from typhoid fever. And until his dying day, the prophecy held true for Rockwell who escaped dozens of showdowns with notable marksmen without a scratch. On one such occasion, sharp-shooter Loren Dibble unloaded both his guns at Rockwell on Lehi Main Street in broad daylight without even ruffling Rockwell’s composure.
(Rockwell always professed his innocence in the Governor Boggs’ assassination attempt, using as his evidence, “I’ve never shot at anybody. If I shoot, they get shot. He’s still alive, isn’t he?”)
To read the full article on LDSLiving, click here.