If your mental image of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s stay in Liberty Jail does not feature a 230-lb English mastiff, you’re picturing it wrong.
LDS scholar, Alexander L. Baugh presented various documents at the Mormon History Association Conference on June 2 that tell us a lot about the Prophet’s beloved canine, Old Major. Baugh even revealed that the dog spent time in Liberty Jail with Joseph Smith, refusing to leave his side.
The first account of the dog’s presence comes from George A. Smith, who wrote that the dog was given to Joseph for protection, by a man known as Father Baker. George A. Smith observed the dog’s countenance and love for his master:
“The dog was greatly attached to Joseph and was generally by his side, keeping watch over everything that approached the camp.”
The prophet’s son, Joseph III also attested to Old Major’s attachment to his father. Reminiscing about his childhood, Joseph III wrote, “I remember Father starting away from the house and our white dog Major jumping from an upper window in a platform below to follow him off.”
From the recently uncovered collection of Iowa documents, two letters from Aaron W. Harlan to the Keokuk Daily Post in Keokuk, Iowa, dated Feb. 17 and March 2, 1888, report various meetings with the Prophet. In the final letter, Harlan comments on Old Major’s health and weight:
“I have ate with him at his table and played with his dog, and on noticing the dog was getting old, I said to Mr. Smith, ‘Your dog is unusually fat.’ ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Smith, ‘he lives as I do and shall as long as we both live,’ and then added that when he was prisoner in Missouri, that dog could not be separated from him and for months when he slept that dog always remained awake by his side.”
Inez Smith Davis, great-granddaughter of the Prophet, recounts the prophet’s departure to Carthage jail, “All seemed to sense an approaching tragedy, at least those nearest and dearest to Joseph and Hyrum felt impending calamity. Even Joseph’s great mastiff, Major, for the first time in his faithful life, refused to obey orders to ‘go back home’ and insisted on staying close to his master.”
Old Major is thought to have been around 10 years old when the Prophet was martyred at Carthage.