Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor
Joseph Smith on Trial in 1826
[p.321]One of the questions of most critical importance for the beginnings of Mormonism is whether or not Joseph Smith was tried in March 1826, Chenango County, New York, on charges of being “a disorderly person and an imposter.” Although reference to such a trial has been made in the literature, it is only since the publication in 1945 of Fawn M. Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, that it has become recognized as of major importance.
In behalf of the church, the alleged court record of 1826, which if valid would give Joseph Smith an ante-Mormon history entirely at variance with his later claims as a religious leader, was attacked by Albert E. Bowen, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in an unsigned review of Brodie’s book published in the Deseret News, May 11, 1946. Bowen objected:
The author produces no court record at all, though persistently calling it such….She carefully avoids saying that it was found among the records of the court, though she clearly intended that the casual reader would assume that it was….Why didn’t she produce it instead of a secondary source, on its face discredited? A justice’s court is not what the lawyers call a court of record, the testimony of witness is usually not taken down nor-preserved as a part of the record in the case. This alleged record is obviously spurious because it has Joseph testify first, giving the defense before the prosecution has made its case. Indeed there is no record that the prosecuting witness testified at all, nor that any witness was sworn [sic]. Joseph didn’t have to testify against himself at all, but here he is doing it before there is any proof against him. Then the recital is that the court “finds the defendant guilty.” Of what? He was charged with being “a disorderly person and an impostor.” Which was he guilty of?…More wonderful still, the record does not tell what the judgment or sentence of the court was. The really vital things which a true record must contain are not there, though there is a lot of surplus verbiage set out in [p.322] an impossible order which the court was not required to keep.
This record could not possibly have been made at the time as the case proceeded. It is patently a fabrication of unknown authorship and never in the court records at all.
Francis W. Kirkham also reacted to the challenge implicit in this court record and in the Improvement Era, March 1947, pp. 182ff., branded it a forgery, “written by a person totally unfamiliar with court procedure.” Contemporary justice of the peace records, Kirkham maintained, “contain only the names of the plaintiff, the defendant, the statement of the case, the date of judgment, the amount of judgment, the cost and fees.” And he concluded, “No record exists and there is no evidence to prove one was ever made in which [Joseph Smith] confessed in a justice of the peace court that he had used a seer stone to find hidden treasures for purposes of fraud and deception.”
These conclusions Kirkham incorporated into a new edition of his A New Witness for Christ in America (Independence, Missouri, 1947). Meanwhile, Brodie had uncovered in southern New York an account of the 1826 trial written by a reputable eyewitness, Dr. William D. Purple; and Stanely S. Ivins of Salt Lake City discovered what purported to be a transcript of an agreement concerning the Smiths’ money-digging in Pennsylvania, as well as fresh information on the provenance of the court record itself. These documents, placed at the disposal of Kirkham, were included in a last minute supplement to his book. The facts developed clearly controverted his argument, so to rebut them he dwelt on inconsistencies between the court record and the reminiscent account of the trial, arguing also that pages “claimed to be taken from a forty-five-year-old book are not valid evidence until the book and the pages are identified.” In the absence of any contemporary evidence of such a trial, he declared, there was no reason to think it had ever taken place; the record was a forgery; and reminiscences of Joseph Smith as a money-digger were nothing but folklore springing up in the wake of an anti-Mormon book, Mormonism Unvailed, published in late 1834.
The attacks made upon the court record by these spokesmen for the church had an essentially legalistic basis. While such objections may quite properly be made, it does not follow that a justice of the peace court in rural New York in 1826 proceeded with the nicety of a supreme court session, or that it did not exhibit any unortho-doxy, according to the custom of the neighborhood or the temperament and practice of the justice. Moreover, this negative attitude toward the purported record ignores the question of internal evidences. If the persons named as figuring in the trial can be consistently identified, the court record cannot be dismissed out of hand as a cheap fabrication. In here reprinting it, that annotation has been performed.
[p.323] The value of the court record is clearly heightened by the discovery of Dr. Purple’s reminiscences, which not only corroborate but explain and illuminate it. The chief lack in the pattern of evidence has been a contemporary allusion to the trial. That lack I am fortunately able to supply, a letter published April 9, 1831, which is corroborative of both the other documents and in its provenance as far removed from either of them as they are from each other.
The documents as here reprinted come from secondary sources. It is to be hoped that this emphasis placed upon their importance may serve in bringing the originals to light: the justice of the peace record from which the pages were cut, the excised pages themselves, and the articles of agreement drawn up in 1825.
The Money-Digging Agreement, 1825
The following document, as reprinted from the Susquehanna Journal of March 20, 1880, was discovered by Stanley S. Ivins in the Salt Lake City Daily Tribune of April 23, 1880. Although the story ties in directly with the accounts of the 1826 trial, the articles of agreement are not necessarily adverse to the claims of the church, Joseph Smith himself having admitted that in the fall of 1825 he engaged in money-digging activities at the instance of Josiah Stowell.
The earliest Mormon account of this episode was by Oliver Cowdery, writing in Joseph Smith’s behalf in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835. Employed as a common laborer by a gentleman from Chenango County, Cowdery explained that Joseph Smith
visited that section of the country; and had he not been accused of digging down all, or nearly so, the mountains of Susquehannah, or causing others to do it by some art of nicromancy, I should leave this for the present, unnoticed. You will remember, in the mean time, that those who seek to vilify his character, say that he has always been notorious for his idleness. This gentleman, whose name is Stowel, resided in the town of Bainbridge, on or near the head waters of the Susquehannah river. Some forty miles south, or down the river, in the town of Harmony, Susquehannah county, Pa. is said to be a cave or subterraneous recess, whether entirely formed by art or not I am unreformed, neither does this matter; but such is said to be the case,—where a company of Spaniards, a long time since, when the country was uninhabited by white settlers, 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 part still in the cave, proposing 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. This, I believe, is the substance, so far [p.324] as my memory serves, though I shall not pledge my veracity for the correctness of the account as I have given.—Enough however, was credited of the Spaniard’s story, to excite the belief of many that there was a fine sum of the precious metal lying coined in this subterraneous vault, among whom was our employer; and accordingly our brother was required to spend a few months with some others in excavating the earth, in pursuit of this treasure.
In what it details of a mine and money coined therefrom, this account by Oliver Cowdery is fully in accord with the agreement hereafter reprinted. Joseph’s own account of his association with Josiah Stowell implies that he worked as a mere day laborer for a wage of fourteen dollars a month, and this is Cowdery’s assertion also. The agreement that follows has nothing to say of such an arrangement, which it is conceivable may have applied to actual work on Stowell’s farm; instead, it provides that Joseph and his father were to be given two-elevenths of all the wealth that might be found, for services that remain unspecified but may readily be inferred.
Yellowstone Valley, Mr.
Apr. 12, 1880
Eds. Tribune: Knowing how interested you are in any matter pertaining to the early history of our Church, I enclose a slip cut from the Susquehanna, (Pa.) Journal of March 20, which will throw some light on the subject. The Journal is published near the scene of our martyred Prophet’s early exploits.
The following agreement, the original of which is in the possession of a citizen of Thompson township, was discovered by our correspondent, and forwarded to us as a matter of local interest.
The existence of the “buried treasures” referred to was “revealed” to Joe Smith jr., who with his father the Prophet, at that time resided on what is now known as the McCune farm, about two miles down the river from this place, and upon the strength of which revelation a stock company was organized to dig for the aforesaid treasure. After the company was organized, a second communication was received by Joseph, jr., from the “other world,” advising the treasure seekers to suspend operations, as it was necessary for one of the company to die before the treasure could be secured.
Harper the peddler, who was murdered soon after, near the place where the Catholic cemetery in this borough is now located,1 was one of the original members of the company, and his death was regarded by the remainder of the [p.325] band as a Providential occurence, which the “powers” had brought about for their special benefit. The death of Harper having removed the only obstacle in the way of success, the surviving members recommenced operations, and signed an “agreement,” giving the widow Harper the half [sic] of one-third of all the treasures secured. The following is the agreement, written by the old humbug, Joseph Smith, himself:
ARTICLES OF AGREEMENT
We, the undersigned, do firmly agree, & by these presents bind ourselves, to fulfill and abide by the hereafter specified articles:
First—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 or Silver, and at wich 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.
Second—And we further agree, that in consideration of the expense and labor to which the following named persons have been at (John E Shephard, Elihu Stowell and John Grant) to consider them as equal sharers in the mine after all the coined money and bars or ingots are obtained by the undersigned, their shares to be taken out from each share; and we further agree to remunerate all the three above named persons in a handsome manner for all their time, expense and labor which they have been or may be at, until the mine is opened, if anything should be obtained; otherwise they are to lose their time, expense and labor.
Third—And we further agree that all the expense which has or may accure until the mine is opened, shall be equally borne by the proprietors of each third and that after the mine is opened, the expense shall be equally borne by each of the sharers.
Township of Harmony, Pa., Nov. 1, 1825
In presence of
Chas. A. Newton
Jos. Smith, Sen.
Jos. Smith, Jr.
Wm. I. Riley2
The place where treasure was supposed to lie buried was on the place now owned by J. M. Tillman, near the McKune farm, then the property of Wm. Hale. Excavations [p.326] were also made on Jacob Skinner’s farm, some of which remain well marked to-day. It was while pursuing this unsuccessful search for treasures that Prophet Smith pretended that he unearthed his famous “tablets.”
(Brother Wade may have made a mistake in directing his letter to the proper Church journal. If he has, Granny [the Deseret News] has our permission to copy the above by giving The Tribune proper credit.)
The 1826 Court Record
As published by Fawn Brodie, the record of the trial at Bainbridge, New York, on March 20, 1826, was derived by an article on Mormonism contributed by Daniel S. Tuttle, Methodist Episcopal Bishop for Utah, to the Religious Encyclopedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology Based on the Real Encyclopedia of Herzog, Plitt, and Hauck, edited by Philip Schaff, and published by Funk & Wagnals, New York, 1883, vol. 2, p. 1576. Bishop Tuttle evidently thought this to be the first publication of the document, but Stanley Ivins has demonstrated its appearance in print ten years earlier.
The record was evidently first printed in an English periodical, Fraser’s Magazine, Feb. 1873, vol. 7 (New Series), pp. 229-30, as a part of the text of an article entitled, “The Original Prophet,” printed over the signature “C. M.” From this source it was immediately reprinted in an American periodical, The Eclectic Magazine, April 1873, vol. 17 (New Series), p. 483. The author of the article was presumably Charles Marshall, who contributed other articles to Fraser’s Magazine on the basis of a visit to Utah he made in 1871. In printing the court record, Marshall said of it, “The original papers were lent me by a lady of well-known position, in whose family they had been preserved since the date of the transactions.”
This “lady of well-known position” was identified by Bishop Tuttle when he again printed the court record in the Utah Christian Advocate for January 1886: “The Ms. was given me by Miss Emily Pearsall who, some years since, was a woman helper in our mission and lived in my family, and died here. Her father or uncle was a Justice of the Peace in Bainbridge Chenango Co., New York, in Jo. Smith’s time, and before him Smith was tried. Miss Pearsall tore the leaves out of the record found in her father’s house and brought them to me.” Tuttle’s Reminiscences of a Missionary Bishop (New York, 1906), p. 272, notes that Miss Pearsall had come from Bainbridge to Salt Lake City in 1870 to assist her church as a “Sister” or “Woman missionary,” that she died after two years’ faithful service, and that she was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery. More precise vital statistics are provided by a History and Genealogy of the Pearsall Family in England and America, edited by Clarence E. and Hattie May Pearsall and Harry L. Neall (San Francisco, 1928), vol. 2, [p.327] pp. 1,143 and 1,151, from which it appears that Emily was born January 25, 1833, and died November 5, 1872. Her father’s sister, Phoebe Pearsall, married Albert Neely, who as will be seen from the reminiscences of Dr. Purple, presided over the 1826 trial.
The version of the court record printed in the Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia, and reprinted by Brodie, did not include the costs which follow the finding of the court. Otherwise, except for small typographical variations, all printed versions are alike. The text now reprinted is that of the Utah Christian Advocate, with some corrections in brackets illustrating variations found in the published version of 1873:
Exact copy trial and conviction of Joseph Smith author of
Book of Mormon March 20, 1826, Bainbridge, New York.
PEOPLE OF STATE OF NEW YORK,
Warrant issued upon written complaint upon oath of Peter G. Bridgman3 who informed that one Joseph Smith of Bainbridge was a disorderly person and an Impostor. Prisoner brought before court 20 March. Prisoner examined, says, that he came from town of Palmyra, and, had been at the house of Josiah Stowels in Bainbridge most of time since, had small part of time been employed in looking for mines,—but the major part had been employed by said Stowell on his farm, and going to school. That he had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were, that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowell several times and informed him where he could find those treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them—that at Palmyra he had pretended to tell by looking at this stone, where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra he had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he has occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for 3 years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account of injuring his Health, especially his eyes, made them sore-that he did not solicit business of this kind, and had always rather declined having anything to do with this business.
Josiah Stowel sworn, says that, prisoner had been at his house, something like 5 months, had been employed by him to work on farm part of time—that he pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone—that Prisoner had looked for him some times once to tell him about money buried on Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for Salt Spring4 and that [p.328] he positively knew that the Prisoner could tell and possessed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone—that he found the digging part at Ben and Monument Hill, as prisoner represented it—that prisoner had looked through said stone for Deacon Attlton [Attleton or Attelon]5—for a mine did not exactly find it but got a (piece) of oar which resembled gold, he thinks; that Prisoner had told by means of this stone where, a Mr. Bacon6 had buried money, that he and prisoner had been in search of it; that prisoner said that it was on a certain Root of a stump 5 feet from surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail feather that said Stowel and prisoner thereupon commenced digging, found a fail feather, but money was gone, that he supposed that money moved down—that prisoner did not offer his services; that he never deceived him,—that Prisoner looked through stone and described Josiah Stowels house and out houses, while at Palmyra at Simpson Stowels7 correctly, that he had told about a painted tree with a man’s hand painted upon it by means of said stone; that he had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in Prisoners skill.8
Horace Stowel9 sworn, says he see Prisoner look into that strange stone, pretending to tell where a chest of dollars were burried in Windsor a number of miles distant, marked out size of chest in the leaves on ground.
Arad Stowel10 sworn, says that he went to see whether Prisoner could convince him that he possessed the skill that he professed to have, upon which prisoner laid a Book open upon a White Cloth, and proposed looking through another stone which was white and transparent; held the stone to the candle, turned his back to book and read, the deception appeared so palpable that went off disgusted.
McMaster,11 sworn, says he went with Arad Stowel, to be convinced of Prisoner’s skill, and likewise came away disgusted, finding the deception so palpable. Prisoner pretended to him that he could discern objects at a distance by holding this white stone to the sun or candle; that prisoner rather declined looking into a Hat at his dark-colored stone as he said that it hurt his eyes.
Jonathan Thompson,12 says that Prisoner was requested to look Yoemans13 for chest of money—did look and pretended to know where it was, and that Prisoner, Thompson and Yoemans went in search of it; that Smith arrived at Spot first, was in night, that Smith looked in Hat while there and when very dark, and told how the chest was situated—after digging several feet struck upon something sounding like a board or plank—Prisoner would not look again pretending that he was alarmed, the last time that he looked on account of the circumstances relating to the [p.329] trunk being buried came all fresh to his mind, that the last time that he looked, he discovered distinctly, the two Indians who buried the trunk, that a quarrel ensued between them and that one of said Indians was killed by the other and thrown into the hole beside of the trunk, to guard it as he supposed—Thompson says that he believes in the prisoners professed skill, that the board he struck his spade upon was probably the chest but on account of an enchantment, the trunk kept settling away from under them while digging, that notwithstanding they continued constantly removing the dirt, yet the trunk kept about the same distance from them, Prisoner said that it appeared to him that salt might be found in Bainbridge, and that he is certain that Prisoner, can, divine things by means of said Stone and Hat; that as evidence of fact—Prisoner looked into his hat to tell him about some money Witness lost 16 years ago, and that he described the man that Witness supposed had taken it, and disposition of money. And therefore the court find the defendant guilty—cost Warrant, 19cts, complaint upon oath 25.7 [25 1/2] Witnesses 87 1/2, Recognizance 25, Mittimus 19, Recognizance or [of] witness 75, Subpoena 18—$268 [$2.68].
Reminiscences of the Trial by Dr. W. D. Purple
The account of the trial by Dr. William D. Purple, as published in the Norwich Chenango Union, May 3, 1877, was brought to light through field researches undertaken in Chenango County by Fawn M. Brodie. The same account, reprinted in an unidentified publication, is to be found in a scrapbook in the New York Public Library complied by Charles L. Woodward, “The First Half Century of Mormonism.” It also served as the basis of a discussion of Mormonism in James H. Smith, History of Chenango and Madison Counties, pp. 153-55.
In a latter work Smith had this to say: “Dr. Purple possesses a remarkably retentive memory, and his mind is a rich store-house of facts and incidents connected with the early settlements in this locality, with which he is probably more conversant than any other individual in the southern part of the county.” He also noted that Dr. Purple was admitted to the Chenango County Medical Society on May 10, 1825, having been licensed the preceding October 1, and that he later, in 1838-39, served as president of that society.
Fuller information about Dr. Purple was developed by Mrs. Brodie from a scrapbook found in the public library at Greene, New York. This scrapbook contained medical articles by the doctor, most of them published in the Transactions of the New York State Medical Society; two articles clipped from the Chenango Union entitled “Reminiscences of the Town of Greene;” the article on Joseph Smith here reprinted; and four or five obiturary notices.
[p.330] These obiturary remarks are important because they go far to establish the credibility of Dr. Purple as a witness. He was born, it appears, in 1802 and died May 18, 1886, at the age of 84. He came to Greene, New York, in 1807, and began to practice medicine in Bainbridge in 1824. In 1830 he moved from Bainbridge to Coventry, and then to Greene, where he practiced medicine until his retirement. He then became postmaster, a position he held for some years. He was a liberal contributor to medical literature, was president of the Chenango County Medical Society, and in 1849 received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the Regents of the State Medical Society.
One obituary notice said of him: “He was blessed with a most retentive memory, and was thoroughly conversant with the county’s history. He was a man of the strictest integrity and uprightness of character.” Another remarked: “His articles on current topics contained apt and appropriate matter, often expressed in crisp style…. His medical writings were dignified, and contained much originality and sound philosophy, and were so free from technicalities that they were readily comprehended. Many of them are to be found in the ‘Transactions of the N.Y. State Medical Society’ and the ‘Chenango County Medical Society; and one of his medical articles was translated into French and published abroad…. Dr. Purple possessed a remarkably retentive memory, characterized, also, by a surprising facility for the recollection of dates, statistics, and historical occurences, so that he was called sometimes, as veritably he was, a walking encyclopedia. He could tell at once the names of candidates, the year of their nominations, the names, methods, and characteristic, and management of all parties, and the principle history of nearly all political leaders during every year of the past eighty years; would one ascertain the number of miles distance between Utica and Rochester, or Buffalo and Albany, Dr. Purple had it at his tongue’s end; also the year and frequently the month when almost any important event had happened in his own country, as well as much that transpired in more remote localities during the period of his lifetime.”
In comparing Dr. Purple’s reminiscences with the court record, it will be seen that discrepancies appear, some of them no doubt explained by the lapse of half a century. He remembered the trial to have taken place in February 1826; the court record shows the date to have been March 20, 1826. Dr. Purple recalled that Stowell’s sons had “caused the arrest of Smith,” whereas the court record says the warrant was issued on oath of Peter G. Bridgman, though of course it does not therefore follow that Stowell’s sons may not in this manner have “caused the arrest.” Dr. Purple’s recollection was that Stowell’s sons made affidavit or gave their testimony before Joseph Smith was examined; the court record shows that it was the other way around. Dr. Purple remembered the elder Joseph Smith to have followed his son to the witness chair; the court record is silent as to this. In turn, the court record shows the testimony of one McMaster, concerning whom Dr. Purple is silent. The court record and Dr. Pruple’s [p.331] reminiscences agree that the principal witnesses, Joseph Smith, Jun., Josial Stowell, and Jonathan Thompson were examined in that order.
The recollections of the testimony given are fuller than the information that is developed by the laconic court record, and it is not impossible that there had been some enlargement of Dr. Purple’s memory with the passing years. But it may also be noted, painful as the idea may be to Mormon sensibilities, that though the fantastic story of the search after a seer stone is not verifiable in other sources, it by no means follows that this story, true or false, was not related to the court. Mormon and non-Mormon accounts alike agree that the youthful Joseph Smith had a remarkable imagination and a well-developed talent as a teller of tales:
JOSEPH SMITH, the Originator of Mormonism
Historical Reminiscences of the Town of Alton
by W. D. Purple
More than fifty years since, at the commencement of his professional career, the writer spent a year in the present village of Afton, in this [Chenango] County. It was then called South Bainbridge, and was in striking contrast with the present village at the same place. It was a mere hamlet, with one store and one tavern. The scenes and incidents of that early day are vividly engraven upon his memory, by reason of having written them when they occurred, and by reason of his public and private rehearsals of them in later years. He will now present them as historical reminiscences of old Chenango, and as a precursor of the advent of that wonder of the age, Mormonism.
In the year 1825 we often saw in that quiet hamlet, Joseph Smith, Jr., the author of the Golden Bible, or the Books of Mormon. He was an inmate of the family of Deacon Isaiah [Josiah] Stowell, who resided some two miles below the village, on the Susquehanna. Mr. Stowell was a man of much force of character, of indomitable will, and well fitted as a pioneer in the unbroken wilderness that this country possessed at the close of the last century. He was one of the Vermont sufferers, who for defective titles, consequent on the forming a new State from a part of Massachusetts, in 1791, received wild lands in Bainbridge. He had been educated in the spirit of orthodox puritanism, and was officially connected with the first Presbyterian church of the town, organized by Rev. Mr. Chapin. He was a very industrious, exemplary man, and by severe labor and frugality had acquired surroundings that excited the envy of many of his less fortunate neighbors. He had at this time grown up sons and daughters to share his prosperity and the honors of his name.
[p.332] About this time he took upon himself a monamaniacal impression to seek for hidden treasures which he believed were buried in the earth. He hired help and repaired to Northern Pennsylvania, in the vicinity of Lanesboro, to prosecute his search for untold wealth which he believed to be buried there. Whether it was the
“Ninety bars of gold
And dollars many fold”
that Capt. Robert Kidd, the pirate of a preceding century, had despoiled the commerce of the world, we are not able to say, but that he took his help and provisions from home, and camped out on the black hills of that region for weeks at a time, was freely admitted by himself and family.
What success, if any attended these excursions, is unknown, but his hallucination adhered to him like the fabled shirt of Nesus, and had entire control over his mental character. The admonition of his neighbors, the members of his church, and the importunities of his family, had no impression on his wayward spirit.
There had lived a few years previous to this date, in the vicinity of Great Bend, a poor man named Joseph Smith, who with his family had removed to the western part of the State, and lived in squalid poverty near Palmyra, in Ontario County.14 Mr. Stowell, while at Lanesboro, heard of the fame of one of his sons, named Joseph, who by the aid of a magic stone had become a famous seer of lost or hidden treasures.15 These stories were fully received into his credulous mind, and kindled into a blaze his cherished hallucination. Visions of untold wealth appeared through this instrumentality, to his longing eyes. He harnessed his team, and filled his wagon with provisions for “man and beast,” and started for the residence of the Smith family. In due time he arrived at the humble log-cabin, midway between Canandaigua and Palmyra, and found the sought for treasure in the person of Joseph Smith, Jr., a lad of some eighteen [twenty] years of age. He, with the magic stone, was at once transferred from his humble abode to the more pretentious mansion of Deacon Stowell. Here, in the estimation of the Deacon, he confirmed his conceded powers as a seer, by means of the stone which he placed in his hat, and by excluding the light from all other terrestrial things, could see whatever he wished, even in the depths of the earth. This omniscient attribute he firmly claimed. Deacon Stowell and others as firmly believed it. Mr. Stowell, with his ward and two hired men, who were, or professed to be, believers, spent much time in mining near the State line on the Susquehanna and many other places. I myself have seen the evidences of their nocturnal depredations on the face of Mother Earth, on the Deacon’s farm, with what success “this deponent saith not.”
[p.333] In February, 1826, the sons of Mr. Stowell, who lived with their father, were greatly incensed against Smith, as they plainly saw their father squandering his property in the fruitless search for hidden treasures, and saw that the youthful seer had unlimited control over the illusions of their sire. They made up their minds that “patience had ceased to be a virtue,” and resolved to rid themselves and their family from this incubus, who, as they believed, was eating up their substance, and depriving them of their anticipated patrimony. They caused the arrest of Smith as a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood. The trial came on in the above mentioned month, before Albert Neeley, Esq., 16 the father of Bishop [Henry Adams] Neeley, of the State of Maine. I was an intimate friend of the Justice, and was invited to take notes of the trial, which I did.17 There was a large collection of persons in attendance, and the proceedings attracted much attention.
The affidavits of the sons were read, and Mr. Smith was fully examined by the Court. It elicited little but a history of his life from early boyhood, but this was so unique in character, and so much of a key-note to his subsequent career in the world, I am tempted to give it somewhat in extenso. He said when he was a lad, he heard of a neighboring girl some three miles from him, who could look into a glass and see anything however hidden from others, that he was seized with a strong desire to see her and her glass, that after much effort he induced his parents to let him visit her. He did so, and was permitted to look in the glass, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light. He was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off. It soon became luminous, and dazzled his eyes, and after a short time it became as intense as the mid-day sun. He said that the stone was under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm, situated about a mile up a small stream that puts in on the South side of Lake Erie, not far from the New York and Pennsylvania line. He often had an opportunity to look in the glass, and with the same result. The luminous stone alone attracted his attention. This singular circumstance occupied his mind for some years, when he left his father’s house, and with his youthful zeal traveled west in search of this luminous stone.
He took a few shillings in money and some provisions with him. He stopped on the road with a farmer, and worked three days, and replenished his means of support. After traveling some one hundred and fifty miles he found himself at the mouth of the creek. He did not have the glass with him, but he knew its exact location. He borrowed an old ax and hoe, and repaired to the tree. With some labor and exertion he found the stone, carried it to the creek, washed and wiped it dry, sat down on the bank, placed it in [p.334] his hat, and discovered that time, place, and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing Eye. He arose with a thankful heart, carried his tools to their owner, turned his feet towards the rising sun, and sought with weary limbs his long deserted home.
On the request of the Court, he exhibited the stone. 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. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.
Joseph Smith, Sr., was present, and sworn as a witness. He confirmed at great length all that his son had said in his examination.18 He delineated his characteristics in his youthful dayshis vision of the luminous stone in the glasshis visit to Lake Erie in search of the stoneand his wonderful triumphs as a seer. He described very many instances of his finding hidden and stolen goods. He swore that both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre, or its equivalent in earthly treasures, and with a long-faced, sanctimonious seeming, he said his constant prayer to his Heavenly Father was to manifest His will concerning this marvelous power. He trusted that the son of Righteousness would some day illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him. These words have ever had a strong impression on my mind. They seemed to contain a prophetic vision of the future history of that mighty delusion of the present century, Mormonism. The “old man eloquent” with his lank and haggard visagehis form very poorly cladindicating a wandering vagabond rather than an oracle of future events, has, in view of those events, excited my wonder, if not my admiration.
The next witness called was Deacon Isaiah [Josiah] Stowell. He confirmed all that is said above in relation to himself, and delineated many other circumstances not necessary to accord. He swore that the prisoner possessed all the power he claimed, and declared he could see things fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plain as the witness could see what was on the Justice’s table, and described very many circumstances to confirm his words. Justice Neeley soberly looked at the witness, and in a solemn, dignified voice said, “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?” “Do I believe it?” says Deacon Stowell, “do I believe it? no, it is not a matter of belief. I positively know it to be true.”
[p.335] Mr. Thompson, an employee of Mr. Stowell, was the next witness. He and another man were employed in digging for treasure, and always attended the Deacon and Smith in their nocturnal labors. He could not assert that anything of value was ever obtained by them. The following scene was described by this witness, and carefully noted: Smith had told the Deacon that very many years before a band of robbers had buried on his flat a box of treasure, and as it was very valuable they had by a sacrifice placed a charm over it to protect it, so that it could not be obtained except by faith, accompanied by certain talismanic influences. So, after arming themselves with fasting and prayer, they sallied forth to the spot designated by Smith. Digging was commenced with fear and trembling, in the presence of this imaginary charm. In a few feet from the surface the box of treasure was struck by the shovel, on which they redoubled their energies, but it gradually receded from their grasp. One of the men placed his hand upon the box, but it gradually sunk from his reach. After some five feet in depth had been attained without success, a council of war against this spirit of darkness was called, and they resolved that the lack of faith, or of some untoward mental emotion, was the cause of their failure.
In this emergency the fruitful mind of Smith was called on to devise a way to obtain the prize. Mr. Stowell went to his flock and selected a fine vigorous lamb, and resolved to sacrifice it to the demon spirit who guarded the coveted treasure. Shortly after the venerable Deacon might be seen on his knees at prayer near the pit, while Smith, with a beacon in one hand to dispel the midnight darkness might be seen making a circuit around the spot, sprinkling the flowing blood from the lamb upon the ground, as a propitiation to the spirit that thwarted them. They then descended the excavation, but the treasure still receded from their grasp, and it was never obtained.
What a picture for the pencil of Hogarth! How difficult to believe it could have been enacted in the nineteenth century of the Christian era! It could have been done only by the hallucination of diseased minds, that drew all their philosophy from the Arabian nights and other kindred literature of that period! But as it was declared under oath, in a Court of Justice, by one of the actors in the scene, and not disputed by his co-laborers it is worthy of recital as evincing the spirit of delusion that characterized those who originated that prince of humbugs, Mormonism.
These scenes occurred some four years before Smith, by the aid of his luminious stone, found [published] the Golden Bible, or the Book of Mormon. The writer may at some subsequent day give your readers a chapter on its discovery, and a synopsis of its contents.19 It is hardly necessary to say that, as the testimony of Deacon Stowell could [p.336] not be impeached, the prisoner was discharged,20 and in a few weeks he left the town.
Greene, April 28, 1877.
A Contemporary Account of the Trial
The following letter is the earliest printed reference to the 1826 trial that has so far come to light. No files of Chenango County newspapers for March and April 1826 are known to exist, and it may be that proceedings before a mere justice’s court in any event would not, in a town which itself had no newspaper, have been found worthy of an editor’s attention. No more nearly contemporary printed reference to the trial than this now reprinted may ever be found.
The letter is the more interesting for its bearing on the admission made by Oliver Cowdery in 1835 that Joseph Smith had indeed been hauled before a magistrate’s court in Chenango County during the period of his association with Josiah Stowell, and before he claimed to have come into possession of the golden plates. Cowdery wrote: “While in that country, some very officious person complained of him [Joseph] as a disorderly person, and brought him before the authorities of the county; but there being no cause for action he was honorably acquitted.” It can hardly be argued again that Cowdery had reference to an entirely different affair of which there is no other record. Though the outcome of the trial may be disputed, the fact of its having been held, and the nature of the proceedings, will now doubtless be accepted.
The letter under discussion was published in a Universalist weekly, the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, April 9, 1831, vol. 2, p. 120. This periodical, which was published at Utica, New York, on February 5, 1831, had printed a caustic account of the Book of Mormon which called forth the present letter. The writer signed it only by his initials, “A. W. B.,” but his identity is established in the Magazine and Advocate for 1834, which publishes three communications on temperance dated South Bainbridge and signed “A. W. Benton.” Further details about him are to be had from Smith’s History of Chenango and Madison Counties, p. 144, where it is noted, “Abraham Benton, brother of Orange Benton, studied medicine with Dr. Boynton at Bettsburgh and settled in the village on the east side of the river, where he practiced several years nearly fifty years ago. He sold out in 1837 to Elam Bartlett and removed to Illinois.” His views on temperance were also recalled.
In Joseph Smith’s account of the trials to which he was admittedly subjected in Chenango County in 1830, he makes reference to “a young man named Benton” who “swore out the first warrant against me” (History of the Church, 1:97). This may more likely have been Orange than Abraham Benton, as the author of the present was clearly a Universalist, whereas Joseph Smith declares the other Benton to have been of the Presbyterian faith. [p.337]
For the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate.
Messrs. Editors—In the sixth number of your paper I saw a notice of a sect of people called Mormonites; and thinking that a fuller history of their founder, Joseph Smith, jr., might be interesting to community, and particularly to your correspondent in Ohio, where, perhaps, the truth concerning him may be hard to come at, I will take the trouble to make a few remarks on the character of that infamous imposter. For several years preceding the appearance of his book, he was about the country in the character of a glass-looker: pretending, by means of a certain stone, or glass, which he put in a hat, to be able to discover lost goods, hidden treasures, mines of gold and silver, x. Although he constantly failed in his pretensions, still he had his dupes who put implicit confidence in all his words. In this town, a wealthy farmer, named Josiah Stowell, together with others, spent large sums of money in digging for hidden money, which this Smith pretended he could see, and told them where to dig; but they never found their treasure. At length the public, becoming wearied with the base imposition which he was palming upon the credulity of the ignorant, for the purpose of sponging his living from their earnings, had him arrested as a disorderly person, tried and condemned before a court of Justice. But considering his youth, (he being then a minor,) and thinking he might reform his conduct, he was designedly allowed to escape.21 This was four or five years ago. From this time he absented himself from this place, returning only privately, and holding clandestine intercourse with his credulous dupes, for two or three years.
It was during this time, and probably by the help of others more skilled in the ways of iniquity than himself, that he formed the blasphemous design of forging a new revelation, which, backed by the terrors of an endless hell, and the testimony of base unprincipled men, he hoped would frighten the ignorant, and open a field of speculation for the vicious,22 so that he might secure to himself the scandalous honor of being the founder of a new sect, which might rival, perhaps, the Wilkinsonians, or the French Prophets of the 17th century.
During the past Summer he was frequently in this vicinity, and others of baser sort, as Cowdry, Whitmer, etc., holding meetings, and proselyting a few weak and silly women, and still more silly men, whose minds are shrouded in a mist of ignorance which no ray can penetrate, and whose credulity the utmost absurdity cannot equal.
In order to check the progress of delusion, and open the eyes and understandings of those who blindly followed him, [p.338] and unmask the turpitude and villa[i]ny of those who knowingly abetted him in his infamous designs; he was again arraigned before a bar of Justice, during last Summer, to answer to a charge of misdemeanor. This trial led to an investigation of his character and conduct, which clearly evinced to the unprejudiced, whence the spirit came which dictated his inspirations. During the trial it was shown that the Book of Mormon was brought to light by the same magic power by which he pretended to tell fortunes, discover hidden treasures, x. Oliver Cowdery, one of the three witnesses to the book, testified under oath, that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.
So much for the gift and power of God, by which Smith says he translated his book. Two transparent stones, undoubtedly of the same properties, and the gift of the same spirit as the one in which he looked to find his neighbor’s goods. It is reported, and probably true, that he commenced his juggling by stealing and hiding property belonging to his neighbors, and when inquiry was made, he would look in his stone, (his gift and power) and tell where it was. Josiah Stowell, a Mormonite, being sworn, testified that he positively knew that said Smith never had lied to, or deceived him, and did not believe he ever tried to deceive any body else. The following questions were then asked him, to which he made the replies annexed.
Did Smith ever tell you there was money hid in a certain glass which he mentioned? Yes. Did he tell you, you could find it by digging? Yes. Did you dig? Yes. Did you find any money? No. Did he not lie to you then, and deceive you? No! the money was there, but we did not get quite to it! How do you know it was there? Smith said it was! Addison Austin was next called upon, who testified, that at the very same time that Stowell was digging for money, he, Austin, was in company with said Smith alone, and asked him to tell him honestly whether he could see this money or not. Smith hesitated some time, but finally replied, “to be candid, between you and me, I cannot, any more than you or any body else; but any way to get a living.” Here, then, we have his own confession, that he was a vile, dishonest impostor. As regards the testimony of Josiah Stowell, it needs no comment. He swears positively that Smith did not lie to him. So much for a Mormon witness. Paramount to this, in truth and consistency, was the testimony of Joseph Knight, another Mormonite. Newell Knight, son of the former, and also a Mormonite, testified, under oath, that he positively had a devil cast out of himself by the [p.339] instrumentality of Joseph Smith, jr., and that he saw the devil after it was out, but could not tell how it looked!
Those who have joined them in this place, are, without exception, children who are frightened into the measure, or ignorant adults, whose love for the marvellous is equalled by nothing but their entire devotedness to the will of their leader; with a few who are as destitute of virtue and moral honesty, as they are of truth and consistency. As for his book, it is only the counterpart of his money-digging plan. Fearing the penalty of the law, and wishing still to amuse his followers, he fled for safety to the sanctuary of pretended religion.
A. W. B.
S. Bainbridge, Chen., co., March, 1831.
[Editor’s note: The contemporary documentation for the 1826 trial which eluded Dale Morgana bill of costs and a writ of mittimuswas unearthed in the early 1970s by Wesley P. Walters and is discussed at some length in Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” Brigham Young University Studies, Winter 1972.]
1. The murder of Oliver Harper on May 11, 1824, is celebrated in the annals of Susquehanna county. He was about fifty years old, the owner of a large farm, and was also engaged in lumbering. He had taken a raft of lumber down the Susquehanna River and was returning with about $800 when he was robbed and murdered. Jason Treadwell of Harmony (now Oakland), Pennsylvania, was charged with the crime, arrested, tried in Montrose, September 1-5, 1824, and executed the following January 13, on the only gallows ever erected in Susquehanna County. See Emily C. Blackman, History of Susquehanna County (Philadelphia, 1873), pp. 97, 582; Phamanthus M. Stocker, Centennial History of Susquehanna County (Philadelphia, 1887), p. 573; and J. B. Wilkinson, Annals of Binghamton (Binghamton, New York, 1840), pp. 147-48. A short notice of Harper’s murder appears in the Philadelphia National Gazette, May 21, 1824. The 1820 census returns, now in the National Archives, show Harper to have lived in Windsor Township, Broome County, New York.
2. Most of the names appearing in this document are readily verifiable, though the 1820 census returns for Susquehanna County are not available for cross-checking. John Grant is shown by the 1830 census to reside in Colesville Township, Broome County, New York. Isaac Hale, subsequently Joseph Smith’s father-in-law, and one of the earliest settlers in Harmony, made affidavit in 1834 regarding his participation in this treasure-hunting and his eventual revulsion against it. David Hale, a son of Isaac, was the tax collector for Harmony in 1820 and later settled in Amboy, Illinois, where he furnished information printed in Emily Blackman’s History of Susquehanna County, pp. 103-104. William Hale was listed in the 1830 census as residing in Colesville, New York. The two Newtons were possibly sons of Thaddeus Newton, who settled at Bainbridge, New York, about 1790; a son named Charles is reported by James H. Smith, History of Chenango and Madison Counties (p. 163), to have died at Oxford, New York, about 1841. One Charles Newton was found in Bainbridge by the 1820 census, and he may be both the son of Thaddeus and the Charles A. of the money-digging agreement. John R. Shephard may have been a son of John Shepherd who was, according to Wilkinsoh’s Annals of Binghamton (p. 115), one of those who settled at Tioga Point in 1780. Josiah (or sometimes spelled Isaiah—the last name is also variantly spelled Stowel and Stoal) Stowell appears in Mormon annals as having been responsible for Joseph Smith’s “employment” at fourteen dollars a month for money-digging; he is listed by the census in 1820 and 1830 as a resident of Bainbridge. Calvin and Elijah (also spelled Elihu) Stowell were both listed at Bainbridge in the 1820 census, Calvin having been, according to Smith’s history of Chenango County (p. 150), the first presiding officer of the “South Presbyterian Society and Meeting-House of the town of Bainbridge” on its organization in 1819. “William Wylie” was located at Bainbridge by the 1820 census.
4. A salt water spring or deposit known to the Indians in the vicinity of the Great Bend of the Susquehanna was often vainly searched for by the white settlers. See J. B. Wilkinson, Annals of Binghamton, pp. 103-104. The search for such a spring in the vicinity of Bainbridge was no doubt spurred by the finding of a salt spring in 1824 on a branch of Snake Creek seven miles northeast of Montrose, Pennsylvania. See the account of it in Zion’s Herald, April 21, 1824.
8. With this testimony compare the statement of W. R. Hines in Naked Truths About Mormonism, Jan. 1888: “Jo Smith, who became the Mormon prophet, and his father came from Palmyra or Manchester, N.Y., and dug for salt two summers, near and in sight of my house. [Hines was born at Colesville on February 11, 1803, and lived seven miles above Isaac Hale on the Susquehanna River.] The old settlers used to buy salt from an indian squaw, who often promised to tell the whites where the salt spring was, but she never did. Jo Smith claimed to be a seer. He had a very clear stone about the size and shape of a duck’s egg, and claimed that he could see lost or hidden things through it. He said he saw Captin Kidd sailing on the Susquehanna River during a freshet, and that he buried two pots of gold and silver. He claimed he saw writing cut on the rocks in an unknown language telling where Kidd buried it, and he translated it through his peepstone. I have had it many times and could see in it whatever I imagined. Jo claimed it was found in digging a well in Palmyra, N.Y. He said he borrowed it…. He had men who did the digging and they and others would take interests. Some would lose faith and others would take their places. They dug one well thirty feet deep and another seventy-five at the foot and south side of the Aquaga Mountain, but found no salt. My nephew now owns the land he dug on. Asa Stowell furnished the means for Jo to dig for silver ore, on Monument Hill. He dug over one year without success. Jo dug next for Kidd’s money, on the west bank of the Susquehanna, half a mile from the river, and three miles from his salt wells….He dug for many things and many parties, I never knew him to find anything of value.”
10. Arad Stowell is located at Bainbridge by the census returns of both 1820 and 1830. Smith, History of Chenango and Madison Counties (pp. 150-51), shows him to have been a trustee of the “South Presbyterian Society and Meeting-House of the town of Bainbridge” on its organization in 1819, and again a trustee when it was reorganized on February 7, 1825, as the South Bainbridge Presbyterian Church.
11. David McMaster was a co-trustee with Arad Stowell for the South Bainbridge Presbyterian Church in 1825, and was listed at Bainbridge in the census of 1830. He thus appears as the McMaster most probably referred to; but in his autobiography, alluding to trials to which he was subjected in Chenango and Broome counties in the summer of 1830, Joseph Smith speaks bitterly of “Cyrus McMaster, a Presbyterian of high standing in his church, [who] was one of the chief instigators of these persecutions” (History of the Church, 1:97).
12. One J. S. Thompson was listed as the head of a household in Bainbridge by the 1830 census, but more probably Jonathan Thompson appears in the census list without name, in the household of Josiah Stowell. In 1830, as in 1826, Thompson testified in Joseph’s favor during proceedings against the latter. See History of the Church, 1:90.
15. It is most reasonable to suppose that Stowell had heard about Joseph’s pretensions to seership either by letter from or while visiting his son Simpson Stowell, who had removed to Palmyra sometime after 1820. The ingenuous Mormon explanation of why Stowell should have desired to hire Joseph Smith for money-digging is that he had heard some rumor of Smith’s being shown the golden plates by the Angel Moroni and consequently thought him suited to seeking out the hidden things of the earth.”
16. James H. Smith’s History of Chenango and Madison Counties (pp. 168-69) recalls Albert Neely as one of the first owners of a mercantile business in Afton, opening a store about 1820 and going west a few years later. As has been seen in the introduction to the court record, he married Phoebe Pearsall, aunt of Emily Pearsall to whom we are indebted for the court record.
17. It may be a reasonable presumption that Dr. Purple made these notes in the justice of the peace record itself. That he was equipped for clerical responsibilities is evidenced by the fact that he was, on May 5, 1829, elected first town clerk of Bainbridge Village.”
18. Is it possible that Dr. Purple’s recollection is inexact, that these remarks by the elder Joseph Smith were made, not before the court, but in casual conversation to interested listeners before or after the trial?”
19. Evidently this was never done. No clipping of such an article was preserved in the Purple scrapbook, and, at the insistance of Dr. Kirkham, Mrs. Helen L. Fairbanks of the Guernsey Memorial Library, Norwich, New York, searched the files of the ” Chenango Union through 1880 without finding an article of the kind.
21. Here are harmonized the discrepant accounts of the court record and the Purple reminiscences as to the outcome of the trial. Joseph Smith would appear to have been given the equivalent of a suspended sentence. He was, as asserted, a minor at the the time, not reaching the age of twenty-one until December 23, 1826.”