John Taylor gave the following description of his feelings during the fateful minutes right before the Prophet Joseph Smith was killed at Carthage Jail: “Streams of fire as thick as my arm passed by me as these men fired, and, unarmed as we were, it looked like certain death. I remember feeling as though my time had come, but I do not know when, in any critical position, I was more calm, unruffled, and energetic, and acted with more promptness and decision.”1
This watch was in John Taylor’s vest pocket during that ordeal at Carthage Jail, and Brother Taylor, who later became President of the Church, believed that it saved his life. After fighting off the guns at the door with a walking stick, Brother Taylor ran to the window, hoping to find a chance of escape outside:
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 think some prominent nerve must have been severed or injured, for as soon as the ball struck me I . . . lost entirely and instantaneously all power of action or locomotion. I fell on to 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.2
After being saved from falling out the window, Brother Taylor crawled toward the bed to climb under it for protection. Three more bullets struck him on the way—in his knee, arm, and hip. Soon Joseph Smith was shot and fell out the window, and their attackers retreated. Brother Taylor was moved to a nearby hotel to recover. Fearing that his watch and wallet would be stolen if he kept them with him, he sent them with Willard Richards back to his family in Nauvoo. Brother Taylor’s family was surprised when they saw the watch:
My family . . . were not a little startled to find that my watch had been struck with a ball. 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, and that it was this force that threw me inside. I had often remarked to Mrs. Taylor the singular fact of finding myself inside the room, when I felt a moment before, after being shot, that I was falling out, and I never could account for it until then; but here the thing was fully elucidated, and was rendered plain to my mind. I was indeed falling out, 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. . . . I felt that the Lord had preserved me by a special act of mercy; that my time had not yet come, and that I still had a work to perform upon the earth.3
Considering the minimal damage to the watch, however, some have wondered whether it was actually hit by a bullet. In comparison, a bullet passing through Hyrum Smith’s body destroyed the watch that was in his vest pocket:
From the holes in his vest . . . and shirt, it appears evident that a ball must have been thrown from without, through the window, which entered his back on the right side, and passing through, lodged against his watch, which was in his right vest pocket, completely pulverizing the crystal and face, tearing off the hands and mashing the whole body of the watch.4
Historian Glen M. Leonard presents an alternate explanation for how John Taylor’s watch was damaged after he was shot in the thigh:
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.5
While this explanation clears up how the watch was damaged, it does not explain how John Taylor avoided falling out the window. As he related in the passage quoted above, “I felt myself falling outside of the window, but immediately I fell inside.”6 If the bullet did not push Brother Taylor back into the room, what miraculous occurrence did? Also, the extent of his injuries was relatively minor. To be shot at from all sides and receive only flesh wounds is a miracle in itself.
John Taylor did have “a work to perform upon the earth.”7 He later served several missions to Europe and the eastern United States, and in 1880 he was sustained as President of the Church.8
Regardless of how this watch was damaged, it stands as a testament to the protecting power of God in preserving John Taylor’s life.