By April 1879 Standing was the presiding Elder of the Georgia Conference, responsible for overseeing all church affairs in the state. That same month, at a general conference of the church in Salt Lake City, 22-year-old Rudger Clawson was called with seven other men to serve in the Southern States Mission. Clawson was assigned by mission president John Morgan to be Standing’s companion.
Clawson may have been aware of the church’s situation in Georgia prior to his arrival. By at least 1876, Standing’s letters were periodically published in the Deseret Evening News. One published on April 30, 1878 provides insight into his experiences in the post-Reconstruction South;
"A person traveling among the Southern people realizes that though they have been whipped by the North, yet there is a feeling of enmity existing in their bosoms, which only needs a little breeze to inflame their passions to deeds of carnage and strife.
Local opposition to Mormonism increased as Standing and other elders increasingly gained converts in rural areas in North Georgia. Mormons missionaries were seen by some as spiritual carpetbaggers, deceivers who preyed on the poor and uneducated. The majority of those who were baptized into the faith followed the church’s council to “gather with the Saints” and left their homes for Mormon settlements in Utah and Colorado.
"In traveling through the section about Dalton, embracing particularly the lower part of Chatooga, the upper part of Floyd and Walker, Catoosa and Murray counties, I was astonished to find what a hold the Mormons have on various communities. In each of these counties they have staunch believers and in most of them small congregations. Elders canvas through these counties continually and preach regularly. Every few months they send off bunches of converts for Utah. One of the strangest features of the whole matter is that no one can explain why the Mormon elders have chosen this section for their field of operations. They can be heard of no where in Georgia, Alabama or the Carolinas outside of this mountainous area, covering a dozen or so counties. It may be because these counties are off the railroad, comparatively inaccessible and inhabited in certain localities by uneducated people.”
As the threat of violence toward Mormons increased, Standing sent a letter to Georgia Governor Alfred H. Colquitt on June 12, 1879 briefly outlining the activities of armed mobs in Whitfield County and requesting assistance.
“I am fully aware dear Sir, that the popular prejudice is very much against the Mormons, and that there are minor officers who have apparently winked at the condition of affairs above referred to. But I also am aware that the laws of Georgia are strictly opposed to all lawlessness and extend to her citizens the right of Worshipping God according the dictates of conscience. . . A word or line from the Governor would undoubtedly have the desired effect. Ministers of the Gospel could then travel without fear of being stoned or shot and the houses of the Saints would not be entered into in defiance of all good law and order.”
Through his secretary J. W. Warren, Governor Colquitt replied;
“The Governor directs me to say that your statement is entirely correct. . . Under the provisions of our Sate Constitution, the reformation of religious faith, or of opinion on any subject, cannot legitimately be the object of legislation, and no human authority can interfere with the right to worship God according to the requirements of conscience. So long as the conduct of men shall conform to the law, they cannot be molested, and, even for non-conformity thereto, they cannot be interfered with only as the law may direct. . . The Governor regrets to hear the report you give from Whitfield County. He will instruct the State Prosecuting Attorney for the District to inquire into the matter, and if the report be true, to prosecute the offenders.”
“The government of the United States is against you, and there is no law in Georgia for Mormons.”
The mob led them into woods and stopped at a spring. It does not appear that it was the intention of all in the mob to kill them. James Faucett told them; “I want you men to understand that I am the captain of this party, and that if we ever again find you in this part of the country we will hang you by the neck like dogs.” According to Clawson, after an hour of “desultory conversation… of which the vilest accusations were laid against the “Mormons,” [and] the beastly talk of the mobbers,” three men who had left on horseback returned and directed Standing and Clawson to go with them.
Although it is not clear where they intended to take them, all accounts agree that Standing resisted by turning towards the mob and in a loud voice commanded them to “Surrender.” When he made this declaration he was holding a pistol a member of the mob had left unguarded on a near by tree stump. In response, Standing was immediately shot in forehead “directly above the nose”. Another member of the mob then pointed to Clawson and said “Shoot that man.” Clawson folded his arms and said “Shoot.” All though he appeared calm and maintained composure, he nearly passed out in the anxiety of the moment. For reasons unknown, the same man who moments ago told the mob to shoot Clawson now said “Don’t shoot.” As Clawson examined Standing, one man said; “This is terrible; that he should have killed himself in such a manner,” claiming that Standing accidentally shot himself “while bringing his weapon into position.”
Clawson convinced the group that he should leave for help to remove Standing’s body. He contacted Henry Holston, two miles (3 km) away, and Holston agreed to go to the site of the incident and look after Standing’s body while Clawson road a horse to Catoosa Springs to contact the coroner (approximately from Holston’s home). Before returning with the coroner, Clawson sent the following telegram to Governor Colquitt in Atlanta; “Joseph Standing was shot and killed to-day, near Varnell’s, by a mob of ten or twelve men.” He sent the same message to John Hamilton Morgan in Salt Lake City with the additional line; “Will leave for home with the body at once, Notify his family.”
When they reached the spring, the mob had dispersed and a crowd of spectators were gathered around Standing’s body. The body now had more than 20 bullet wounds in the face and neck. It is believed this was done by the mob to protect the original shooter from conviction by having each man participate in the crime. Following the shooting the Atlanta Constitution called Standing “fat and beardless, and with not a very bright look, judging from his picture” and reported that those in the community became “alarmed for fear some member of their family might fall a victim to the seductive arguments and pleadings of the young Mormon[s]… [their] services were regularly attended by those who every week became more and more inoculated with the pernicious creed.” In spite of this perception Clawson told a reporter he believed the actions of the mob were not in harmony with the sentiments of the general population.
Accompanied by John Morgan, Clawson returned to Dalton, Georgia for the trial in October. Henry Holston, Mary Hamlin, and Jonathan Owensby testified in behalf of the prosecution. The latter two interacted with the mob while Standing and Clawson were in the mob’s custody prior to the shooting. On October 19, three days after the trial began, the accused were acquitted of murder. On October 29 the Deseret News reported that the accused had also been acquitted of “riot.”
The Atlanta Constitution reported that seven of the twelve men were Christians and at least one a member in good standing in a local church. John Morgan wrote to the paper; “If these men are Christians; if they and their advisers and abettors are to be admitted into the city that “lieth four square," we beg the privilege of locating in the other place, as we think it much preferable." The paper replied;
“We agree with Elder Morgan in his sentiments about the pious "Christians," recognized members and communicants of churches who imbrue their hands in the blood of innocence and mutilate the dead. If heaven is to be their place of abode in the great hereafter region, we shall prefer a home in another region, where murders cannot enter and hypocrites find no rest.
In 1880, the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association of Salt Lake City placed a monument of Italian marble over Standing’s grave. By the 1980s the obelisk had cracked in half and rested beside the grave. It was replaced in 2001 with a new marker, a replica of the original, including iron fencing around the base. The text on the south side of the monument was written by Orson F. Whitney.
“This Memorial Park and monument honor the memory of Elder Joseph Standing of Salt Lake City, Utah, a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Mormon) who was killed here by a mob July 21, 1879. His companion, Elder Rudger Clawson who later became president of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church was unharmed. The cooperation of W. C. Puryear and family who donated the land and were most helpful in other ways, made this memorial possible.”