Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor

Chapter 2
A Stone in a Hat

[p.233] The precise by-path by which Joseph Smith reached the highroad of his calling has been obscured by the dust of time, but from the perspective of 1830, the Palmyra Reflector considered that he had followed in the steps of a local conjurer, “Walters the magician.”

A vagabond fortune-teller who lived at Sodus and had once been committed to the county jail for “juggling,” Walters was said to have been paid three dollars a day for the services he rendered to the early seekers after buried treasure. With his rusty sword, his peepstone, his stuffed toad, and other paraphernalia no less impressive, Walters carried a copy of Cicero’s Orations in Latin, from which, said the Reflector, “he read long and loud to his credulous hearers, uttering at the same time an unintelligible jargon, which he would afterwards pretend to interpret, and explain, as a record of the former inhabitants of America, and a particular account of the numerous situations where they had deposited their treasures previous to their final extirpation…. Walters assembled his nightly band of money-diggers in the town of Manchester, at a point designated in his magical book, and drawing a circle around the laborers, with the point of an old rusty sword, and using sundry other incantations, for the purpose of propitiating the spirit, absolutely sacrificed a fowl, (‘Rooster’)in the presence of his awe-stricken companions, to the foul spirit, whom ignorance had created the guardian of hidden wealth; and after digging until day-light, his deluded employers retired to their several habitations, fatigued and disappointed.”1

There were, in the neighborhood, other practitioners of the necromantic arts.2 From all of them Joseph may have derived instruction, but with his lively fancy, his abounding faith in himself, and above all his will to be foremost, he soon had a peepstone and a clientele of his own. Before he was done, he all but obliterated his rivals from Palmyra’s collective memory.

How Joseph found his peepstone, or as Mormon annals call it indignified reproof, his “seerstone,” was related by his father in 1830 to two curious callers. Some years before, he said, his son had happened upon a man who looked into a dark stone and told people where to dig for money and other things. “Joseph requested the privilege of looking into the stone, which he did by putting his face into the hat where the stone was. It proved to be not the right stone for him, but he could see some things, and among them, he saw the [p.234] stone, and where it was, in which he wished to see.” The place where he saw the stone was not far from their house; and, under pretense of digging a well, they found water and the stone at a depth of twenty or twenty-two feet. After this, Joseph spent about two years looking into this stone, telling fortunes, where to find lost things, and where to dig for money and other hidden treasures.3

Joseph clung to this seer stone the rest of his life, even after his first employment of it had become a memory to be curtained off by his will, and as late as 1841 he exhibited it to some of his followers. “Every man who lived on the earth,” Joseph said to them, “was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make evil use of it.”4 The persistence of peepstones among the early Saints, and also this view of them, was attested by Priddy Meeks, who has explained that “seer stones, or peepstones, as they are more commonly called” were the connecting link between the visible and the invisible worlds. “It is not safe,” he stipulates, “to depend on [a] peepstone in any case where evil spirits have the power to put false appearances before [the seer] while looking in a peep-stone. If evil influences will not interfere, the verdict will be as true as preaching. That is my experience in the matter; also the Patriarch, Hiram Smith, the brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, held the same idea, but stated that our faith was not strong enough to overcome the evil influences that might interfere, but seemed to think that [that] time would come…. I believe a peepstone is of the same piece with the Urim and Thummim, if we understand it.”5

Joseph’s own stone was found, as his father was to say, during the digging of a well on the Chase farm in Manchester, sometime in the year 1822.6 Willard Chase, working with Alvin and Joseph Smith at the digging, says that when they reached a depth some twenty feet below the surface of the earth he discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat. It has been said by Smith, that he brought the stone from the well; but this is false. There was no one in the well but myself. The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alledging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but would lend it. After obtaining the stone, he began to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in it, and made so much disturbance among the credulous part of [the] community, that I ordered the stone to be returned to me again. He had it in his possession about two years. I believe, some time in 1825, Hiram Smith (brother of Joseph Smith) came to me, and wished to borrow the same stone, alleging that they wanted to accomplish some business of importance, which could not very well be done without the aid of the stone. I [p.235] told him it was of no particular worth to me, but merely wished to keep it as a curiosity, and if he would pledge me his word and honor, that I should have it when called for, he might take it; which he did and took the stone. I thought I could rely on his word at this time, as he had made a profession of religion. But in this I was disappointed, for he disregarded both his word and honor….[O]n [my] going to Smith’s [in the fall of 1826] and asking him for the stone, he [Hyrum] said, “you cannot have it;” I told him it belonged to me, repeated to him the promise he made to me at the time of obtaining the stone; upon which he faced me with a malignant look, and said, “I don’t care who in the Devil it belongs to, you shall not have it!”… In April, 1830, I again asked Hiram for the stone which he had borrowed of me; he told me I should not have it, for Joseph made use of it in translating his Bible. I reminded him of his promise, and that he had pledged his honor to return it; but he gave me the lie, saying the stone was not mine nor never was.7

Pomeroy Tucker remembered this remarkable stone to have had a peculiar shape resembling that of a child’s foot,8 and William D. Purple, who saw the stone in 1826, said that it was “about the size of a small hen’s egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it” and was very hard and smooth.9 Descriptions of the stone vary with individual memories, but Hosea Stout had seen it within a few hours when he wrote in his diary on February 25, 1856, that it was apparently “a silecious granite dark color almost black with light colored stripes some what resembling petrified poplar or cotton wood bark…about the size but not the shape of a hen’s egg.”10 Joseph’s own wife remembered it as “a small stone, [which was] not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”11 These descriptions are consistent except that Tucker describes the stone as “of a whitish, glassy appearance, though opaque, resembling quartz.” It may be that Tucker confused the first stone with the one Joseph used later.12 The church Joseph Smith founded has not cared to exhibit either stone with the other relics of its early history, and these contemporary descriptions must suffice.

The remarkable occupation which Joseph called “glass-looking”13 has a history old if not always honored. To recover the lost, divine the unknown, and reveal the future, the ancient Greeks employed magic mirrors, sacred springs, and even pure water in a goblet. Round pieces of rock crystal and other stones of strange shape or color were used by scryers in Europe at least from the second century, and three hundred years before Joseph’s time, a “cristal stone wheryn a chylde shall loke, and see many thyngs” was an object of curious note in England.14 Divining rods, which usually were forked twigs cut from witch hazel, willow, peach, or some other favored tree, have a similar antiquity, dating back to the times of the Medes and the Persians, but the employment of rhabdomancy [p.236] specifically for locating mines and buried treasure seems to have developed about the fifteenth century in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The practice was brought to Cornwall by German miners in Elizabethan times, and became general in England and western Europe during the next century.15 The evolution of practice and belief in America has not been the subject of a scholarly investigation,16 but the matured folklore as it found expression at the backwoods level was graphically described in the Palmyra Reflector early in 1831:

Mineral rods and balls, (as they were called by the imposter who made use of them,) were supposed to be infallible guides to these sources of wealth—“peep stones” or pebbles, taken promiscuously from the brook or field, were placed in a hat or other situation excluded from the light, when some wizard or witch (for these performances were not confined to either sex) applied their eyes, and nearly starting their balls from their sockets, declared they saw all the wonders of nature, including of course, ample stores of silver and gold.

It is more than probable [said the Reflector in the skeptical tradition to which it was dedicated] that some of these deluded people, by having their imaginations heated to the highest pitch of excitment, and by straining their eyes until they were suffused with tears, might have, through the medium of some trifling emmision of the ray of light, receive[d] imperfect images on the retina, when their fancies could create the rest. Be this however as it may, people busied themselves in consulting these blind oracles, while the ground nightly opened in various places by men who were too lazy or idle to labor for bread in the day time, displayed a zeal and perserverance in this business worthy of a better cause.17

To probe the mysteries of his own stone, Joseph placed it in the depths of a battered white stovepipe hat and buried his face in the hat.18 The wonders developed were many—chests of money, bars of gold and silver, lost property of all kinds, and even spirits of malevolent disposition. William Stafford and Rosewell Nichols were two neighbors who listened in fascination to stories of “keys, barrels and hogsheads of coined silver and gold—bars of gold, golden images, brass kettles filled with gold and silver—gold candlesticks, swords, &c &c.” Nearly all the hills in this part of New York, it was impressed upon them, had been thrown up by human hands. In these hills were large caves containing gold bars and silver plates19—and spirits in ancient dress, in whose charge these treasures remained. One evening, William Stafford relates, the senior Joseph came to see him and told me, that Joseph, Jr. had been looking in his glass, and had seen, not many rods from his house, two or three [p.237] kegs of gold and silver, some feet under the surface of the earth; and that none others but the elder Joseph and myself could get them. I accordingly consented to go, and… repaired to the place of deposit. Joseph, Sen. first made a nice circle, twelve or fourteen feet in diameter. This circle, said he, contains the treasure. He then stuck in the ground a row of witch-hazel sticks, around the said circle, for the purpose of keeping off the evil spirits. Within this circle he made another, of about eight or ten feet in diameter. He walked around three times on the periphery of this last circle, muttering to himself something which I could not understand. He next stuck a steel rod in the centre of the circles, and then enjoined profound silence upon us, lest we should arouse the evil spirit who had the charge of these treasures. After we had dug a trench about five feet in depth around the rod, the old man by signs and notions, asked leave of absence, and went to the house to inquire of young Joseph the cause of our disappointment. He soon returned and said, that Joseph had remained all this time in the house, looking in his stone and watching the motions of the evil spirit—that he saw the spirit come up to the ring and as soon as it beheld the cone which we had formed around the rod, it caused the money to sink. We then went into the house, and the old man observed, that we had made a mistake in the commencement of the operation; if it had not been for that, said he, we should have got the money.20

The spirits in whose charge the treasures had been left were pertinacious in the discharge of their trust. Joseph Capron describes another unavailing effort to outwit them, after Joseph’s peepstone discovered, near Capron’s house in Manchester, a buried chest filled with gold watches. A number of large stakes were driven in a circle, several rods in circumference, around the place where the treasure was deposited, after which, a messenger having brought from Palmyra a polished sword, Samuel E Lawrence, with sword in hand, marched around and around to frighten off the devil. Meanwhile the rest of the money-diggers dug for the watches, working until they were exhausted. But despite their earnest labors, their bulwark of stakes, and their formidable defender, the devil came off victorious and carried away the treasure.21

What made the seeking so peculiarly difficult was the facility with which the treasures moved around the earth. It was the opinion of Joseph, Senior, as we have seen, that the heat of the summer sun could pull chests of money up through the earth to the surface of the ground, but magic also could affect this subterranean movement, and with far greater celebrity. Often the treasures were wisked away from the diggers at the very moment of seeing triumph. No lesser authority than Brigham Young preserved for us the memory of such a happening. He once told a Mormon congregation: [p.238] Or[r]in P. Rockwell is an eye-witness to some powers of removing the treasures of the earth. He was with certain parties that lived near by where the plates were found that contain the records of the Book of Mormon. There were a great many treasures hid up by the Nephites. Porter was with them one night where there were treasures, and they could find them easy enough, but they could not obtain them…. He said that on this night, when they were engaged hunting for this old treasure, they dug around the end of a chest for some twenty inches. The chest was about three feet square. One man who was determined to have the contents of that chest, took his pick and struck into the lid of it, and split through into the chest. The blow took off a piece of the lid, which a certain lady kept in her possession until she died. That chest of money went into the bank. Porter describes it so [making a rumbling sound]; he says this is just as true as the heavens are. I have heard others tell the same story. I relate this because it is marvelous to you. But to those who understand these things, it is not marvelous.22

Marvelous or not, in this treasure-seeking it invariably turned out that some mistake had been made, or that some uncontrollable spirit or impenetrable enchantment met with. Once only, in Palmyra’s remembrance, were the Smiths’ efforts clearly rewarded. The scene of this exploit, the hill called “Old Sharp,” is still pointed out. One day the elder Joseph came with one of his sons to tell William Stafford that Joseph had discovered some treasures which could be procured in one way only. It would be necessary to take a black sheep to the ground where the riches lay concealed, and after cutting its throat, lead it around a circle while bleeding. Thus the wrath of the evil spirit might be appeased and the treasures obtained.24 “To gratify my curiosity,” Stafford says, “I let them have…[the] sheep. They afterwards informed me that the sheep was killed pursuant to commandment; but as there was some mistake in the process, it did not have the desired effect.” There remained the mutton, gratefully received on the Smith table, which in Stafford’s view signalized this as “the only time they ever made money-digging a profitable business.”25

In later years Joseph found it expedient to ignore the tales by his old neighbors at Palmyra. His followers have improved upon his example.26 Their prophet gave them a sufficient history of his youth to run a church on, and they have never been willing to go back of that history. It has been easier to believe there was no one of any [p.239] integrity in the whole town of Palmyra than to open the door upon doubt. Even the most responsible of the Mormon historians, B. H. Roberts, simply waved aside the universal testimony of Palmyra concerning their old neighbor—mere idle stories, dark insinuations, anything to discredit the prophet.27 It may be, as Joseph once maintained, that he engaged in his glass-looking only at the importunities of others,28 and it is certainly true that the more extravagant stories of what he could see in his stone issued from other members of his family. But the picture of Joseph, his family, and their friends as indefatigable searchers after buried treasure, limned in contemporary newspapers and the recollections of their neighbors, stands forth clearly after every discount has been made for malice and dislike.29

During the two years after the finding of the seerstone, the fortunes of the family progressed only from bad to worse—whether an effect or a cause of the unremitting treasure-seeking it is impossible now to say.30 The loss on November 19, 1823, by what would appear to have been acute appendicitis, of the eldest son, Alvin, not only cost the family their most energetic wage earner but soon made them the butt of a cruel wit directed, it is obvious, at their nocturnal excavations. It was bruised about that body-snatchers had made off with the corpse, and in September 1824 the elder Joseph had the grave opened to establish that Alvin lay undisturbed, a fact he publicized with a pathetic notice in the village paper which attributed the reports in circulation more to “a desire to injure the reputation of certain persons than a philanthropy for the peace and welfare of myself and friends.”31

The same day Joseph had his son’s grave opened, September 25, 1824, the Methodists began a historic two-day camp-meeting in Palmyra. The town had been smoldering with religious unease since early in the spring, and now it caught fire. Through the fall of 1824 and the winter and spring of 1825 a powerful revival raged, catching up the Smiths with the other townsfolk, and eventually bringing Lucy and some of the elder children into the bonds of Christian fellowship. Joseph and his father hesitated on the fringe of conversion, half persuaded by the arguments of the Methodists, but finally turned their backs upon this opportunity for salvation.32 It seems likely that for some months the hectic treasure-seeking was neglected, for the revival plunged the community into anxious pre-occupation with th[e]ir and standing before the Lord, and the Palmyra Register speaks of a time anterior to the first rumors about the golden plates “when the money-digging ardor was somewhat abated;”33 moreover, Willard Chase has said that for a time he reclaimed the peepstone from Joseph, apparently in 1824.34 But this is an interregnum only; late in the summer of 1825 an old Vermonter by the name of Josiah Stowell, who made his home in the Susquehanna Valley, heard from his son at Palmyra of the wonders Joseph could see in the stone, and journeyed north to talk with the seer. Sending Hyrum to borrow the peepstone from Willard Chase, [p.240] Joseph gave the old man so convincing a demonstration of his powers—first describing Stowell’s house and out-buildings at Bainbridge, and then descrying the whereabouts of buried money which so much engrossed the old man—that Joseph was engaged upon the spot. He and his father were assured, as a minimum, of a wage of fourteen dollars a month for labor through the winter on Stowell’s farm; Joseph would have the opportunity of going to school while there, and he and his father would receive a share amounting to two-elevenths of all the treasures that should be brought to light.35

Since the money-digging he did for Josiah Stowell is the sole activity of the kind to which Joseph ever made anything resembling forthright confession, it is instructive to see what his autobiography makes of the episode. All he has to say, actually, is that he “hired with an old gentleman by the name of Josiah Stowell, who…had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanna county, state of Pennsylvania; and had, previous to my hiring, been digging in order, if possible, to discover the mine. After I went to live with him, he took me, with the rest of his hands, to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it.”36

In the autobiography of any but a prophet of God, the experiences Joseph thus lightly passes over would provide one of its most fascinating chapters. Just why Stowell was seeking Joseph was more clearly set forth in 1835, with Oliver Cowdery serving him as spokesman. Some forty miles south of Stowell’s home at Bainbridge, in the township of Harmony, just below the Pennsylvania border, Cowdery explained, there was said to be “a cave or subterraneous recess” of some kind. “A company of Spaniards, a long time since, when the country was uninhabited by white settlers, [had] excavated from the bowels of the earth ore, and coined a large quantity of money: after which they secured the cavity and evacuated, leaving a large part still in the cave, purposing to return at some distant period. A long time elapsed and this account came from one of the individuals who was first engaged in this mining business. The country was pointed out and the spot minutely described.” Enough was credited of the Spaniard’s story to excite belief in many “that there was a fine sum of the precious metal lying coined in this subterraneous vault,” and among those so persuaded was Stowell.37

Active digging in search of this treasure seems to have begun in 1822, only to be suspended when the seer who directed operations informed the seekers that the enchantment resisting their efforts could not be dissolved except through the death of one of their number. Providentially, as it was thought, one of the band of treasure-hunters was murdered early in 1824,38 but from some cause, the diggers were no better able than before to locate the object of their search, and the work had reached a standstill when Stowell heard of Joseph’s singular powers and came to seek his aid.

[p.241] Stowell and the two Smiths arrived back in the Susquehanna country late in October 1825. A few days later the parties concerned drew up a curious document to apportion the anticipated rewards of their labors. Among other things it provided: That if anything of value should be obtained at a certain place in Pennsylvania near a Wm. Hale’s, supposed to be a valuable mine of either Gold or Silver and also to contain coined money and bars or ingots of Gold and Silver, and at which several hands have been at work during a considerable part of the past summer, we do agree to have it divided in the following manner, viz.: Josiah Stowell, Calvin Stowell and Wm. Hale to take two-thirds, and Charles Newton, Wm. I. Wiley, and the Widow Harper to take the other third. And we further agree that Joseph Smith, Sen. and Joseph Smith, Jr. shall be considered as having two shares, two elevenths of all the property that may be obtained, the shares to be taken equally from each third.

Generously, the agreement also provided that three men who had dug unavailingly prior to this time should be considered equal sharers in the mine after all the coined money and bars or ingots obtained had been removed. This agreement was drawn up at Harmony on November 1, 1825, doubtless at the home of Issac Hale, who signed it as witness.39

Hale was one of the most famous hunters in the Susquehanna country, his celebrity attested even on the worn stone that marks his grave today in the little cemetery south of Oakland, Pennsylvania, but it was game rather than buried treasure that took him so often into the hills. A one time Vermonter, he had at first a lively interest in Stowell’s project and willingly boarded the treasure seekers at his home, but soon decided that it was all nonsense. In a statement a few years later he declared: I first became acquainted with Joseph Smith, Jr., in November, 1825. He was at that time in the employ of a set of men who were called “money-diggers;” and his occupation was that of seeing, or pretending to see by means of a stone placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face. In this way he pretended to discover minerals and hidden treasures. His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man—not very well educated, and very saucy and insolent to his father. Smith, and his father, with several other (money-diggers) boarded at my house while they were employed in digging for a mine that they supposed had been opened and worked by the Spaniards, many years since. Young Smith gave the (money-diggers) great encouragement, at first, but when they had arrived in digging, to hear the place where he had stated an immense treasure would be found—he said the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see. They then became discouraged, and soon [p.242] after dispersed. This took place about the 17th of November, 1825; and one of the company gave me his note for $12.68 for his board, which is still unpaid.40

In his autobiography Joseph passes delicately over the outcome of this treasure-seeking, saying only that after working unsuccessfully for nearly a month, he prevailed with Stowell to cease digging. So far as it went, this was indeed the case. But if Joseph returned with Stowell to spend the winter working upon the latter’s farm at Bainbridge, and attending school there, he was not done with glass-looking. Throughout the winter, the scenes familiar to Palmyra were reenacted with a fresh cast of characters—digging for money buried on Bend Mountain, seeking after gold on Monument Hill, tramping through the night in quest of a salt spring. Joseph could translate Indian pictographs without the smallest hesitation; and if an inquirer would know what miscreant had made off with money missing these sixteen years, Joseph could inform him. (It turned out to be the person suspected all along.) Besought to say where a chest of dollars lay buried in Windsor, Joseph looked into his stone to find out, and even marked out its dimensions with leaves on the ground. As had happened at Palmyra, the diggers came near seizing this treasure, only to have it sink into the ground.41

By now Joseph was a grown man, at the threshold of his majority. A lithe six feet in height, blonde hair darkened to light brown, his blue eyes curiously mild, even innocent, in his pale, expressionless face, he was a figure to bring a second glance from any woman. At Palmyra his name had not, so far as his contemporaries have left record, been coupled with that of any girl, but in Bainbridge there were curious eyes to note that he was keeping company with the Stowell girls, and malicious tongues to find fault with his association with Eliza Winters, to the point of saying, even, that he had attempted to seduce her.42 Presently it became apparent that it was not these girls but Issac Hale’s second daughter, the tall, dark, hazel-eyed Emma, who had caught his eye.

The courtship proceeded under difficulties, for Hale had come to the blunt opinion that Joseph was a lazy whelp who would never be good for anything. Emma herself must have been troubled what to make of this young man so unlike anyone else she knew, and was disturbed by her father’s contempt for him. But in her twenty-second year Emma was still unmarried, the specter of spinsterhood following her ominously about, and her heart took no heed of his prospects. Perhaps she would have married him that spring. Late in the winter, however, Joseph’s wooing was brought up short. Charging him with being “a disorderly person and an imposter,” Josiah Stowell’s sons haled him before a magistrate, thereby plunging him into the first great crisis of his career.

The trial took its painful course in Bainbridge March 20, 1826, before Albert W. Neely, a pioneer merchant who also served the town in the capacity of justice of the peace. Joseph unhesitatingly [p.243] admitted to possession of his peepstone, and exhibited it to the court; he also admitted to its uses, but maintained that he had largely given up looking through the stone, having found it injurious to his eyes. Far from soliciting such business, he said deprecatingly, he had always rather declined having anything to do with it. Stowell himself testified to the glass-looking Joseph had done for him, but denied that the seer had either pressed his services upon him or deceived him in their use. When the justice asked incredulously, “Deacon Stowell, do I understand you as swearing before God, under the solemn oath you have taken, that you believe the prisoner can see by the aid of the stone fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plainly as you can see what is on my table?”, Stowell answered stoutly, “Do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief. I positively know it to be true!” Stowell’s hostile sons described how Joseph had undertaken to locate, through the use of his dark stone, the chest of dollars reputedly buried in Windsor, and a “palpable deception” by which he had undertaken to demonstrate the qualities of his white stone. Stowell’s hired man, however, was as convinced as his employer of Joseph’s rare powers, and said so bluntly.43

It was an awkward decision for the justice to make; apart from this aberration, Josiah Stowell was a respected member of the community, and a pronouncement of guilty must be a verdict upon the intelligence of the old man. In the fact that Joseph was still a minor, nine months short of his twenty-first birthday, the justice seems to have found a way out of the dilemma. He pronounced Joseph guilty, but, as it appears, saved the situation by placing him on probation with a stern warning to end his conduct.44

The fact of the trial, as much as its outcome, must have shaken Joseph Smith to his center. During the three years he had communed with his stone in the depths of his white stovepipe hat, he had enjoyed an awe and consideration no other youth of his age could command, and had experienced the strange, intoxicating power of being able to move men as he would. The experience had been astonishing and gratifying, lifting him out of the tuck of common humanity. But it had ended by bringing him to this contretemps: what had happened in Bainbridge could happen again, in Palmyra or anywhere he went. In December he would reach his majority, and his youth would not serve him again if brought to the bar of justice.

It must have been with a feeling as of a world come apart at the seams that Joseph returned, without Emma, to take up once more at Palmyra the depressing burden of the farm.


1. See the accounts of Walters in the Reflector for June 12, July 7, 1830, and Feb. 26, 1831, the quotations being from the latter issue. Walters is also mentioned in a letter signed by ten citizens of Palmyra under date of March 12, 1831, in the Painseville, Ohio, Telegraph, March 22, 1831. In his debate with E. L. Kelley at Kirtland in 1884, the Campbellite preacher, Clark Braden, remarked that Walters was of British birth and knew something of mesmerism (The Braden-Kelley Debate [St. Louis, 1884]). The existence of such a person having been called in question by Mormon writers, it is interesting to note that Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York, 1867), p. 38, includes among “the pioneer Mormon disciples” one Luman Walters of Pultneyville, New York. The census returns for 1830, in the National Archives, show the presence in Sodus Township of “Luman Walters,” aged between thirty and forty, and having a wife and five children. There was no separate return for Pultneyville, then part of the township of Sodus.

2. See the sworn statement of Mrs. C.R. Smith, a sister of the celebrated Orrin Porter Rockwell, in Naked Truths about Mormonism, April 1888: “There was considerable digging for money in our neighborhood by men, women, and children. I never knew of their finding any. I saw a large hole dug on Nathaniel Smith’s farm, which was sandy. I saw Joshua Stafford’s peep-stone which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center. Sallie Chase, a Methodist, had one and people would go to her to find lost and hidden things.” Sally Chase’s stone was described by her brother Abel in March 1881 as “dark looking…a peculiar stone” (Saints’ Herald, June 1, 1881), while Lucy Mack Smith has referred to it as “a green glass” (Biographical Sketches [Liverpool, 1853], p. 109).

3. [La]Fayette Lapham, “Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago,” ” Historical Magazine 7 (May 1870): 305-306. Conceivably the seer alluded to was Walters.

4. Brigham Young described the occasion in his journal under date of Dec. 27, 1841, in Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 26:118, 119. Therefore Joseph did not give this famous stone to Oliver Cowdery in 1830, as David Whitmer asserted in his An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Missouri, 1887), p. 32. It is possible that the seerstone Cowdery preserved was a whitish stone Joseph made use of later, before and during the writing of the Book of Mormon. This stone was carried off to Utah by Cowdery’s brother-in-law, Phineas Young, after the death of the former in 1850 (see the letter of Cowdery’s daughter, Maria L. Johnson, to David Whitmer, South West City, Missouri, Jan. 24, 1887, the original of which is preserved in the library of the Reorganized LDS church). Phineas was an elder brother of Brigham Young, and it therefore is quite likely that the church in Salt Lake City today has both of Joseph’s stones.

5. “Joumal of Priddy Meeks,” Utah Historical Quarterly 10 (1942): 179, 180. Hyrum Smith also told Priddy that in ancient times the Nephites (the name given by the Mormons to certain American aborigines) had “had the advantage of their enemies by looking in the seerstone which would reveal whatever they wished to know.”

6. On Pomeroy Tucker’s authority, the date is usually given as September 1819, but Willard Chase, clearly the best authority, gives the year as 1822. That date squares well with the court record printed in Appendix A and with what Joseph Smith, Sen., told LaFayette Lapham in 1830. Martin Harris has said that the stone “was dug from the well of Mason Chase, twenty-four feet from the surface,” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 163-70. Both a Clark and a Mason Chase are shown resident in Manchester by the census returns, the former with many children, the latter with none; Clark seems better to answer the requirements of the sources, and he is named by Pomeroy Tucker. The site of this historic well, which continued in use until filled up in the 1880s, is pointed out by Thomas L. Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity (Palmyra, 1930), p. 238.

7. Affidavit of Willard Chase, Dec. 11, 1833, in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834), pp. 241-42, 247.

8. Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, p. 19.

9. See the reminiscences of Dr. Purple reprinted in Appendix A.

10. Brigham Young on this evening had exhibited the stone to Stout and other regents of the University of the State of Deseret in Great Salt Lake City as being “the Seer’s stone with which The Prophet Joseph discovered the plates of the Book of Mormon.” See Stout diary, Feb. 25, 1856. Orasmus Turner, History of Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, 1851), p. 216, says the stone was horn blende, which is one of the green, brown, or black forms of the mineral amphibole.

11. Emma Smith Bidamon to Mrs. Charles Pilgrim, Nauvoo, Illinois, March 27, 1871, original letter in the library of the Reorganized LDS church.”

12. See the court record of 1826 reprinted in Appendix A. Arad Stowell mentioned a second stone “which was white and transparent,” and McMaster testified that Joseph claimed he “could discern objects at a distance by holding this white stone to the sun or candle,” and “rather declined looking into a Hat at his dark-colored stone as he said that it hurt his eyes.” The white stone reappears prominently in connection with the translation of the Golden Plates.”

13. This was the term Joseph used when, in 1827, he promised his father-in-law, Issac Hale, that he would turn to other pursuits. See Hale’s affidavit, March 20, 1834, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 264.

14. Theodore Besterman, Crystal-Gazing: A Study in the History. Distribution, Theory and Practice of Scrying (London, 1924), and compare Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science During the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, 6 vols. (New York, 1923-41), 6:498-99, 520. A work by Johannes Rivius of Attendorn, published in 1541, says Thorndike, “admitted to a few vestiges of superstition remaining even among the Protestants, some of whom still sought hidden treasure by crystal-gazing or employed incantations and arts of divination.” Besterman and Thorndike develop something of the early history of crystal-gazing, but provide no information of any value on its later spread to and development in America.

15. Arthur J. Ellis, The Divining Rod: A History of Water Witching, U.S. Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 416 (Washington, 1938). The faith tenaciously held by the elder Joseph Smith in divining rods has not perished; see Life Magazine’s story on the American historical novelist, Kenneth Roberts, “Can He Find Water?”, Oct. 4, 1948.

16. Cultural anthropologists have traveled to the ends of the earth to enquire into rain rituals among the Toradya, the power of bonga among the Ho, and the making of magicians among the Kaingang, but none have been found, so far as I can learn, willing to travel six blocks by streetcar to begin some investigations into the character and cultural persistence of horoscopy, numerology, palm-reading, crystal-gazing, and kindred practices and beliefs. A fortune-teller in Chicago in 1950, say, strikes me as no less interesting and perishable within a societal complex than a rain-maker in Zuni, and I think the narrow preoccupation of anthropolgists with primitive man should be broadened to include those studies of modem society without which other studies lose much of their meaning.

17. Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 1, 1831. These remarks, made in the third of a series of six articles on the “Gold Bible,” appear to have been made not by the editor, as has been inferred, but by a correspondent living in Farmington. See the Reflector, Jan. 6, 1831.

18. As described to Frederick G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine 26 (Aug. 1880): 199, “When ‘peeking’ he (Joseph Smith) kneeled and buried his face in his white stovepipe hat, within which was the peek-stone. He declared it to be so much like looking into the water that the ‘deflection of flight’ [i.e. deflection of light] sometimes took him out of his course.” Martin Harris mentions “the old white hat,” and John C. Bennett, History of the Saints (Boston, 1842), even prints a letter purporting to have been written by Joseph, signed “Old White Hat.” Without specifically describing the hat, Joseph Smith’s later father-in-law, Issac Hale, similarly pictures Joseph’s methodology with his stone, which was “placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face.”

19. The emphasis on great caverns not only in the literature of the money-digging but later on in Mormon folklore owed in some part to a “stupendous cavern” discovered near Watertown, New York, in the spring of 1822, which was widely publicized in the contemporary press, e.g., Nile’s Weekly Register 22 (June 22, 1822): 270, 271, and the Palmyra Herald, and Canal Advertiser, June 19, 1822. Other caverns had been described in the press from time to time, but without making quite such an impression.

Willard Chase, in his affidavit of Dec. 11, 1833, pictures Joseph as declaring, at a later date, that he “had discovered on the bank of Black River, in the village of Watertown, Jefferson County, N.Y., a cave, in which he had found a bar of gold, as big as his leg, and about three or four feet long.” This allusion clearly derived from the newspaper story of 1822, whether the mind of origin is held to be that of Joseph Smith or Willard Chase. See Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 244.

It may be convenient here to point out that various stories published in the newspapers through the early 1820s were by no means of a kind to discourage seekers after treasure. From Vermont to Georgia, pirate treasure and gold and silver mines were universal objects of search. The gold deposits discovered in North Carolina in 1823 were enough to confound the complacence of those who supposed it long since since settled that the United States were barren of this yellow metal. There were reports of a silver mine found in Indiana, another in Westchester County, New York, and even, to give spice to the possibilities, twenty-nine guineas found by a wood-chopper in the trunk of a tree near Utica, all these discoveries duly chronicled in the village paper.

20. See Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 238-39, 257-58.

21. Affidavit of Joseph Capron, Nov. 8, 1833, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 258-60. This affair of the gold watches was among the better remembered of Joseph’s treasure-hunting exploits; it is mentioned by Joshua Stafford and by the Palmyra Reflector, July 7, 1830.

22. Discourse by Brigham Young at Farmington, Utah, June 17, 1877, Journal of Discourses (Liverpool, 1878), 19:37-38. Young vouched for Rockwell’s veracity: “When he tells a thing he understands, he will tell it just as he knows it; he is a man that does not lie.” Joshua Stafford declared in 1833 that “Joseph once showed me a piece of wood which he said he took from a box of money, and the reason he gave for not obtaining the box, was, that it moved.” Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 258.

23. These are of course the rituals of magic everywhere, the magic circle, and the magic force of blood in sacrifice. The latter reappears in Joseph’s church at a later date, in connection with the doctrine of blood atonement. Stafford had a black wether both large and fat, but though promised a four-fold share in the treasure, he was unconvinced of the necessity for the sacrifice of this wether until it was pointed out to him that because the treasures were to be obtained through the black art, none but a black sheep would do.” The Prophet of Palmyra (New York, 1890), p. 56.

24. Stephen S. Harding heard this detail while in Palmyra in the summer of 1829. See his letter of February 1822 to Thomas Gregg, printed in the latter’s The Prophet of Palmyra (New York, 1890), p. 56.

25. William Stafford tells the story himself in his affidavit of Dec. 8, 1833, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 239. The adventure of the black sheep recurs in every reminiscent account of Palmyra. Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity, p. 222, on the authority of an old resident, Wallace W. Miner, who had known Stafford well, adds a fresh detail. According to this version, after the sacrifice of the sheep, Joseph came to Stafford and offered to make the latter a number of sap-buckets in repayment; this he did to Stafford’s satisfaction.

26. It has remained for a later generation of believers to deny the stories altogether. Joseph himself never denied that he had been a seer in peep-stones before establishing himself as a prophet of God. In the Mormonism Unvailed, p. 239. The adventure of the black sheep recurs in every reminiscent account of Palmyra. Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity, p. 222, on the authority of an old resident, Wallace W. Miner, who had known Stafford well, adds a fresh detail. According to this version, after the sacrifice of the sheep Joseph came to Stafford and offered to make the latter a number of sap-buckets in repayment; this he did to Stafford’s satisfaction.

27. Brigham H. Roberts, Latter Day Saint’s Messenger and Advocate, October 1835, speaking through Oliver Cowdery, he admitted to having spent “a few months with some others in excavating the earth,” in pursuit of treasure down in the Susquehanna country. Again, in the Elder’s Journal, July 1838, replying in the third person to the question whether he had ever been a money-digger, Joseph said, “Yes, but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” This may well be taken as a literal statement of so much of the truth as he admitted. Still later, writing in his autobiography of this employment in the Susquehanna country which had paid him the fourteen dollar wage, he concluded somewhat disingenuously, “Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.” At no time did he ever squarely meet the question whether he had used his peepstone in the country roundabout Palmyra for treasure seekers of that neighborhood. As a matter of fact, such early converts to Mormonism as the Rockwell and Beman families had been actively associated with him in the treasure-hunting at Palmyra and Manchester, and others, like Martin Harris, were well informed about it and accepted it naturally as a part of his history.

28. See his testimony in his trial at Bainbridge, New York, in March 1826, reprinted in Appendix A. Comprehensive History of the Church, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, 1930), 1:41. Roberts accepted the incontrovertible fact that Joseph had a seerstone, but came only reluctantly to the admission that it was the stone from the Chase well. Compare his Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City, 1907), 1:257, and his Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:129.

29. The only effort ever made to vindicate the Smiths through interviewing old residents of Palmyra was by William and E. L. Kelley in March 1881. Their inquiries developed little more than that the Smiths had been neither much better nor much worse than their contemporaries. Three of the persons questioned alluded to Joseph’s use of a peepstone for money-digging purposes, but detailed inquiries were apparently made only of Abel Chase, brother of Willard, who was too young to be able to say he had seen the stone himself. “

30. The stringency of the times is at least suggested by an item in the Saints’ Herald, June 1, 1881. The accuracy of the Kelleys’ report of the interviews was shortly after attacked by some of those who had been interviewed. Their statements are to be found in Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of Mormon Polygamy (Mendora, Illinois, 1910), pp. 39-43.

More characteristic of the Mormon reaction to the Palmyra stories has been the vilification of the affiants, “a set of blackguards, liars, horse jockeys and drunkards.” See, e.g., Benjamin Winchester, The Origin of the Spaulding Story (Philadelphia, 1840).

31. This notice appears in the Western Farmer, June 20, 1821, “It appears by a letter written near Cadiz (Ohio) dated April 30, 1821,—that the times there if possible are more embarrasing than here; that wheat will fetch but from 12 1/2 to 25 cents per bushel-Money is not to be had—no means whatever will extort it. Lawsuits are generally stopped as property will not buy money at any rate.”

32. See Chapter 3. Wayne Sentinel from Sept. 29 through Nov. 3, 1824. It had been supposed on his mother’s authority that Alvin died in November 1824, but this card in the Sentinel, like his actual gravestone in the Church Street cemetery in Palmyra, demonstrates that the death occured a year earlier. See Willard W. Bean, A.B.C. History of Palmyra and the Beginnings of “Mormonism” (Palmyra, 1938).

33. It seems likely that for some months the hectic treasure-seeking was neglected, for the revival plunged the community into anxious preoccupation with thir state and standing before the Lord, and the Palmyra Reflector speaks of a time anterior to the first rumors about the golden plates “when the money-digging ardor was somewhat abated;” Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 14, 1831.

34. See his statement in Howe, ” Mormonism Unvailed.

35. Compare the testimony of Stowell and Joseph himself at Joseph’s trial in Bainbridge early in 1826, reprinted in Appendix A. Joseph’s mother writes in her Biographical Sketches, pp. 91, 92, that Stowell journeyed to Palmyra “with the view of getting Joseph to assist him in digging…. He came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.” This is the nearest any member of the Smith family ever came to the outright admission that Joseph had a peepstone which he used for the benefit of treasure seekers. Martin Harris, who faced the facts more frankly, mentioned not only the peepstone but the money-digging: “There was a company there in that neighborhood, who were digging for money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients. Of this company were old Mr. Stowell—I think his name was Josiah—also old Mr. Beman, also Samuel Lawrence, George Proper, Joseph Smith, Jr., and his father, and his brother Hiram Smith. They dug for money in Palmyra, Manchester, also in Pennsylvania, and other places. When Joseph found this stone, there was a company digging in Harmony, Pa., and they took Joseph to look in the stone for them” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 164. Three of the money-diggers mentioned by Harris—Lawrence, Proper, and the elder Smith—are shown as residents of Manchester by the census returns of 1830, and Alva Brown is located by the same census at Fivonia.

It is assumed that Joseph and his father were given advanced assurances of the fourteen dollar wage, though the only evidence that he was paid such an amount is his statement in Elders’ Journal, July 1838. There is no reason to think they were seriously concerned about meeting the payments on the farm, and that this was a controlling consideration in their agreement to accompany Stowell back to his home.

36. Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 1:17. Joseph first published this version of his association with Stowell in Times and Seasons 3 (May 2, 18421: 772.

37. Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835.

38. See Appendix A and particularly Note 1.

39. For the flail text of this agreement, see Appendix A. The original, the present whereabouts of which is unknown, is declared to have been in Joseph’s own hand.”

40. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 262-63. At the time Hale swore to this statement, March 20, 1834, he had become Joseph Smith’s father-in-law. Though published by Howe in 1834, Hale’s statement seems to have been published earlier in the Montrose, Pennsylvania, Susquehanna Register, and the New York Baptist Register. W. R. Hines, whose statement is reprinted in part in Appendix A, Note 8, says that D. P. Hurlbut wrote Hale at his suggestion to obtain the affidavit, and that thereafter he, Hines, publicly defended Hale in Kirtland, Ohio, against Mormon detractors. The embarrassed reaction of the Saints to Hale’s story is evidenced by Oliver Cowdery’s remarks in the Evening and Morning Star, Sept. 1834, and again in Latter Day Saints’, Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835.

41. In addition to the records reprinted in Appendix A and the contemporary statements printed by Howe, there are many reminiscent accounts of Joseph’s experiences as a seer in the country about the Great Bend of the Susquehanna. See, especially, Emily C. Blackman, History of Susquehanna County (Philadelphia, 1873), pp. 577-82; Frederick G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine 26 (Aug. 1880): 198-204; James H. Smith, History of Chenango and Madison Counties (Syracruse, 1880), pp. 153-55; and Naked Truths about Mormonism, January 1888. Some of these accounts picture Joseph as having been in the region for a year or two prior to 1825, probably a misapprehension arising from the fact that he lived there intermittently from 1825 to 1830.

42. There are only oblique allusions in the sources to Joseph’s sexual maturation, which is interesting and important for its bearing on his later history. He himself mentions the Stowell girls (History of the Church, 1:90), while Eliza Winters figures in one of the statements printed in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 268. Under her married name, Eliza Winters Squires, she was one of these who about 1879 gave information to Frederick Mather, concerning the early days of Mormonism in the Susquehanna country. Her life is briefly sketched in Rhamanthus M. Stacker, Centennial History of Susquehanna County (Philadelphia, 1887), p. 537.

43. See the testimony in detail in Appendix A.

44. In A. W. Benton’s language (see Appendix A), “considering his youth, (he being then a minor,) and thinking he might reform his conduct, he [Joseph] was designedly allowed to escape,” though condemned. Oliver Cowdery, through whom alone Joseph ever admited to the fact of such a trial, wrote in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, “some very officious person complained of him (Joseph) as a disorderly person, and brought him before the authorities of the country; but there being no cause for action he was honorably acquitted.” Cowdery makes it clear that this occurred during the time of Joseph’s association with Stowell, and before he became involved with the Book of Mormon.

From the point of view of Mormon history, it is immaterial what the finding of the court was on the technical charge of being “a disorderly person and an imposter;” what is important is the evidence adduced, and its bearing on the life of Joseph Smith before he announced his claim to be a prophet of God.