Question: What part did Laura Clark Phelps play in the escape of her husband, Parley P. Pratt, and King Follett from Columbia, Missouri, Jail?
Answer: Laura Clark was born 28 July 1807, in New Fairfield, Fairfield, Connecticut to Timothy Caldwin Clark and Polly Keeler. She married Morris Phelps 12 April 1825 in Lawrence, Illinois.
In the summer of 1831 the life of Laura’s parents changed due to a letter their son-in-law, Morris Charles Phelps, had received from his wife, Laura. Laura’s letter explained about some new scripture coming from some gold plates found in New York, and there was a new prophet. Furthermore some Mormon preachers were coming soon to visit them. Morris also shared Laura’s letter with friends and business associates Charles C. Rich and Sanford Porter.
Laura and her husband joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in August 1831, and were baptized in the Dupage River, Cook County, Illinois. Newly converted to the restored gospel, Laura and Morris, arrived in Independence, Missouri, on March 6, 1831, and on April 7, 1832, their third baby girl was born in Lyman Wight’s tent, so they named the baby Harriet Wight. She was the first Mormon girl to be born in Independence.
The Phelps family was soon driven with the rest of the Saints from Jackson County into Clay County. In the fall of 1833, murderous mobs gathered and drove the Saints from their homes. Morris and Laura gathered what little they could and fled to Clay County. Morris rented a farm there. During this time they became well acquainted with the Prophet Joseph.
Then on September 20, 1834, Morris left his family and went on a mission with Apostle David Patten and others. Laura worked hard and, by teaching school and acting as a midwife, was able to support her family. Morris built up two branches of the Church of Calhoun and Cook Counties, Illinois. He baptized Laura’s parents and many more of her large family.
Then during the dark and threatening times in 1837/38, Laura’s husband, Morris, was arrested and thrown into the Richmond Jail with Joseph and Hyrum and others. After this Joseph and Hyrum Smith and five others were taken to Liberty Jail. Parley P. Pratt, Morris Phelps, and others remained in Richmond Jail. There they remained suffering the untold hardships and deprivations in that jail for six months.
Amazingly under such circumstances, Laura managed to visit her husband every two weeks and take him provisions so he had something to eat besides the prison food. On one of those occasions, she discovered that Heber C. Kimball had also come to visit the prisoners. He recalled the event in his journal: “When my life was sought at Richmond, and my brethren in prison had great anxiety on my account, she [Laura Phelps] interceded with my pursuers, who were nearly thirty in number, and actually convinced them that I was another person, altogether, and the pursuit was stopped.” Laura’s courageous spirit may have saved his life.
After Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued the infamous extermination order, Laura packed up her children and what few possessions she could and left Missouri. With her husband still in jail, she drove a wagon from Far West, Missouri across the Mississippi River to Quincy, Illinois.
Despite the distance, Laura was determined to return to Missouri to see her husband and attend his trial. Her brother, John Wesley Clark, joined her for the 150 mile journey on horseback. They arrived in Columbia, Boone County, Missouri, where Morris, Parley P. Pratt, and King Follett had been transferred. Laura found that Orson Pratt, brother of Parley, had also come to attend the court proceedings. Parley recorded that before Orson and Laura arrived, “The Lord had showed me in a vision of the night the manner and means of escape [from jail]. Mrs. Phelps had the same things shown to her in a vision previous to her arrival.”
The daring escape attempt required great courage and resolve. At the bottom of the prison cell door was a small door just large enough to accept a small coffee pot and a plate of food. On July 4, 1838, Laura obtained a tall coffee pot to provide coffee for the prisoners, too tall to fit in the small door at the bottom of the larger prison door. When the jailer opened the full prison door to give the coffee pot to the prisoners; that was the signal for the prisoners to barge through the prison door. Laura’s horse, along with her brother John’s horse and Orson Pratt’s horse, were in place for the three prisoners to make their escape. The breakout was carefully planned. The prisoners were to await the opening of their upstairs cell door by the jailer.
Parley P. Pratt recounted the strategy:“Mr. Follett was to give the door a sudden push, and fling it wide open the moment the key was turned. Mr. Phelps being well skilled in wrestling was to press out foremost, and come in contact with the jailer; I was to follow in the center, and Mr. Follett, who held the door, was to bring up the rear, while sister Phelps was to pray.”
Laura’s daughter related the adventure:“She thought she was whispering a prayer, but they said she hollered just as loud as her voice would let her, and she said, ‘Oh! Thou God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, deliver Thy Servant.’ Father said he felt as strong as a giant when he heard those words; he just pushed the jailer and his wife off as if they were babies and cleared himself.” Meanwhile, Orson and Laura’s brother John held the horses at the agreed-upon meeting point, and the prisoners were able to escape.
A little boy who witnessed the scene heard the jailer threaten to “put [Laura] out of the way” if she were not gone by dark. The boy ran home and returned with his parents, who were appalled at the cruelty directed at Laura. The Richardson family took pity on her and gave her refuge in their home. . . . They proved to be true friends. The next day they returned to the jail and collected items belonging to Morris. . . . Laura was determined to return to her family in Iowa, despite the Richardsons’ concerns about the dangers for a woman traveling alone through unsettled country where bandits roamed. Finally, they all agreed that Laura would travel a good part of the way with the mail boy, settling out early in the morning and ride late into the night. Leaving the Richardsons with a Book of Mormon and a hymnbook, Laura began the journey.
With the help of friends, Laura was able to gradually make her way back to Quincy, where she was reunited with her husband. Laura’s daughter Mary Ann recalled: “We then moved to a town twenty miles from Nauvoo called Macedonia, here we located...We lived there about a year and a half, which were the happiest days of our lives; then my mother was taken sick and died on February 9, 1842, leaving her five children, three girls [Paulina, Mary, Harriet] and two boys [Joseph and Jacob]. [The baby Jacob died at age two in March 1843]. We were all heartbroken and did not know how to manage without mother.
She was buried in Nauvoo.” Laura was buried in the Old Nauvoo Pioneer Cemetery on the East side of town on Mulholland Street.
The Prophet Joseph Smith and their kind friend, Heber C. Kimball, preached her funeral sermons. Joseph, in comforting words, told of her life that had been short in years, but full of noble accomplishments. He said “her exaltation was assured.” Heber C. Kimball wrote her obituary in the “Times and Seasons” in March 1, 1842. An entry about her in the compiled History of the Church concluded simply, “Her rest is glorious.”
In 1843, Morris and Laura’s daughter, Paulina, married Amasa M. Lyman and, in 1845, daughter, Mary, married Apostle Charles C. Rich. Harriet married James Holmes, Jr in 1848, and Joseph married and had several children.
Source: Excerpts from “Life History of Morris and Laura Clark Phelps, LDS Church Archives; “Brief Life Story of Laura Clark Phelps” By Dan T. Holmes; FamilySearch.org; “The Woman Who Faced a Mob Alone to Help Parley P. Pratt Escape from Jail,” LDSLiving.com