John Taylor’s Pocket Watch

by Jeffrey Tucker, Church History Library
12 September 2023

Historians from the Church History Department recently concluded a multi-year investigation into President John Taylor’s watch. Learn how to access their findings.

The Church History Library holds many collections related to John Taylor, the third President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For example, if you are interested in researching President Taylor’s personal history and letters, the John Taylor collection (MS 1346) is a massive repository of documents. The library also holds President Taylor’s personal journal (MS 7277), as well as the correspondence sent and received from his office during his tenure as Church President (CR 1 180). We even have a sizable collection of portrait photographs taken of President Taylor between 1870 and 1887 (PH 4468).

Now we are excited to announce the availability of a new collection related to John Taylor: the John Taylor Watch Committee research files, 2020–2023 (CR 100 8).

Recently, researchers from the Church History Department undertook an investigation into one of the oldest and most frequently discussed items in the department’s collection: John Taylor’s pocket watch, famously worn by President Taylor in his vest during the attack on Carthage Jail that took the lives of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. President Taylor was also shot four times in the attack, and he believed that the watch had crucially blocked a fifth—potentially lethal—bullet from penetrating his chest. As President Taylor explained after the attack, “I sent for my vest, and, upon examination, it was found that there was a cut, as if with a knife, in the vest pocket which had contained my watch. In the pocket the fragments of the glass were found literally ground to powder. It then occurred to me that a ball had struck me at the time I felt myself falling out of the window.”1

John Taylor, as he appeared during his tenure as President of the Church (ca. 1880).

The story of President Taylor’s watch has been retold countless times since that fateful day. The watch has occasionally been on display in the Church History Museum, and, over time, several visitors to the museum asked if a bullet truly caused the damage done to it. (Hyrum Smith’s watch was also shot in the Carthage attack, and its damage was much more extensive.2) Accordingly, in 1998, the museum launched an investigation into the watch, which concluded that it had not, in fact, been hit by a bullet. Instead, the investigators hypothesized that the damage had been caused by a windowsill that President Taylor fell onto after being shot. This became the dominant version of the story for many years.3

Beginning in 2020, seeking to use the latest forensic methods available, Church History Department researchers again turned their attention to the watch. The results of this new investigation are chronicled in CR 100 8, which contains hundreds of digitized documents that can be viewed online. These documents include research articles that have previously been written about the watch; X-rays taken of the watch’s components; field test results, in which watches of a similar age and manufacture were shot, dropped, and struck with rocks and wooden boards; and reports from various other scientific analyses, such as electron microscopy.

A period-correct watch used for ballistic testing. 

The tests, while exhaustive, were unable to definitively say how President Taylor’s watch had been damaged. However, in a presentation at the 2023 Mormon History Association Conference, Brian Warburton, a Church History Department historian, said that the most likely cause of the damage was a small projectile traveling at approximately 200 miles per hour, such as a bullet that had ricocheted or already passed through a solid object, thus reducing its velocity. In other words, it very well could have been a bullet that hit President Taylor’s chest, although the bullet would have been traveling more slowly than usual. (It still would have hurt him, though, had it not been stopped by the watch.)

We are grateful for the hard work and research of the John Taylor Watch Committee into an artifact from one of the most pivotal moments in Church history.

Top image: President John Taylor’s pocket watch as it appeared in 1898 (PH 952).