God can use a thunderstorm. Or Porter Rockwell.
One reason why I have always loved history is that it is so often wilder and more colorful than fiction. A very colorful part indeed of American history is that which records the events of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, and in that history no portion is more colorful than the life of Orrin Porter Rockwell. Throughout his life legends began to cluster about him and it is not easy to keep fact and fable in his biography separate.
Born on June 28, 1813, in Belchertown, New Hampshire, he was one of the earliest followers of Joseph Smith, being baptized into the church in 1830. Powerfully built, he served as a bodyguard for Smith. In 1838 he may have attempted to assassinate the Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, after Boggs issued an order calling for the expulsion of the Mormons from Misssouri or their extermination. The order was prompted by the Missouri Mormon War of 1838.
Rockwell was held in jail for eight months, but no grand jury would indict him due to lack of evidence. Rockwell defended himself with such statements as “I never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot!” and “He’s alive, ain’t he.” in reference to Governor Boggs. After his release from jail, Rockwell traveled to the house of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, a town built by the Mormons, arriving there on Christmas Day 1843. A Christmas party was underway and Rockwell looked like a dirty tramp, his hair grown out during his imprisonment and his clothes and his body unwashed. Smith purportedly made the following prophecy upon seeing Rockwell: “I prophesy, in the name of the Lord, that you — Orrin Porter Rockwell — so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to thy faith, need fear no enemy. Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee.” Rockwell wore his hair long thereafter until he cut it to make a wig for a woman who lost her hair from typhoid fever.
Rockwell was a Danite, a secret Mormon organization dedicated to carrying out acts of violence on behalf of the Mormon religion. In 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were indicted for treason against the state of Illinois, the culmination of ever growing tension between Mormons and non-Mormons in Illinois. On June 27, 1844 a mob stormed the jail in Carthage, Illinois where the Smiths were being held and murdered them. Rockwell had been away on a mission for the Mormon church at the time, and wept like a child according to witnesses when he learned of the death of Joseph Smith.
In the chaos that ensued after the death of Smith, the Mormons often engaged in battles with mobs of non-Mormons. On September 16, 1845 Rockwell was hastily deputized by the Sheriff of Hancock County Illinois, Jacob Blackenstos. Blackenstos was a non-Mormon but was friendly to the Mormons. He was being chased by an anti-Mormon mob led by Frank Worrell, who had been in charge of the militia unit that failed to protect Joseph Smith when he was murdered. Rockwell took out his rifle and stopped the mob by shooting to death Worrell. Worrell thus became the first man killed by Rockwell, a total that would grow to 40-100, no one is certain, by the end of Rockwell’s life.