When news of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith reached New York City and was published in the major New York newspapers on July 8th, Church members in the city were initially cautious about the news. Reports of Joseph Smith’s death or some other tragedy had appeared before and turned out to be incorrect.
The Latter Day Saint newspaper in New York, The Prophet, had already cautioned members on June 29th (probably because of the scandalous news reports similar to what was published in the Nauvoo Expositor, which were then reaching New York City) “not to credit the many tales afloat respecting our people, we have had no intelligence of trouble, and doubt very much the truth of these statements.”
But church members received confirmation of the martyrdom by July 20th, which left them wondering how to mourn for the fallen prophet.
Apparently some members felt that wearing black crape was the world’s way of mourning, and unseemly for the saints. The Prophet responded this way:
Many of our brethren are of opinion that the wearing of crape as a sign of grief, owes its origin to sectarian innovations—not so—it was a custom in the earliest ages of the Church of God, to mourn for the death of those God had exalted in the Church as Prophets or Patriarchs, and to manifest to the world their respect for the deceased by appropriate symbols, among which was the use of black crapes.
While I’m not completely sure how accurate The Prophet’s views were, the idea that mourners wear black is certainly has been common practice in the Church, and I assume is often done among members today; although we tend not to mourn as long as was the custom in the 19th century.
In contrast to the views The Prophet disabused, saints in Philadelphia apparently decided wearing black was appropriate, for The Prophet reported, in the same number under the headline “Token of Respect”:
The Philadelphia Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ voted unanimously that the Brethren wear a crape on their left arm for thirty days, and the Sisters use such mourning as they deem suitable, as a token of their respect for the departed Prophet and Patriarch of the church.
At this time, The Prophet’s editor (at least in name) was William Smith, the prophet’s brother and an Apostle. He was likely assisted by Samuel Brannan and perhaps by other brethren in the New York branch (and perhaps even by some in the Williamsburgh/Brooklyn branch). How much that might have influenced The Prophet’s reaction, I’m not entirely sure.
Regardless, it seems clear that the saints in New York City also mourned, and at this point, 168 years ago, some of them were wearing black.