Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined
by Rodger I. Anderson
The Hurlbut Affidavits, Part One
[p.27]When Brigham Young University religion professor Richard L. Anderson’s “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised” appeared in Brigham Young University Studies in 1970, it provided for many, readers the long-awaited scholarly answer to “Hurlbut’s hurlings,” offering evidence where others had offered only conjecture.1 “Anderson’s findings confirm what should have been suspected all along,” one of Anderson’s colleagues at BYU afterwards wrote, that “they [Hurlbut’s affidavits] were at best highly colored and at worst deliberately misrepresentative accounts.”2 Hailed as a minor classic in Mormon historiography, Anderson’s analysis has since been relied on as the last word in primary scholarship on the subject of Joseph Smith’s New York reputation.3
Superior as it is to Nibley’s analysis in method and scholarly apparatus, Anderson’s article still falls short on several counts. Its errors may be summarized under three main headings: misrepresentation of the contents and circumstances surrounding the compilation of the [p.28] affidavits; failure to consider alternative interpretations for the evidence; and invalid conclusions based on faulty premises. In Anderson’s analysis these errors recur regularly and sometimes flagrantly.
Anderson’s first charge of substance is that Hurlbut either composed or heavily edited the depositions he collected. Anderson finds evidence of this contention in the similar structuring of the affidavits and the use of certain recurring words: “acquainted with,” “entitle,” “digging for money,” “addicted to,” “lazy,” “liar,” “intemperate,” “pretended,” “visionary,” “general employment,” etc. What Anderson did not mention is that other statements about Joseph Smith dating from the early 1830s, statements which Hurlbut did not collect and which are not dependent on him, display many of the same characteristics. In the Pennsylvania statements made during the same period certain words recur: “acquainted with,” “pretended,” “liar,” “digging for,” “money-diggers.” In an 1833 letter written by Jesse Townsend, minister of Palmyra’s Presbyterian church, the following words appear: “intemperate,” “pretended,” “digging for money,” and “visionary.” This letter is similar in structure with Hurlbut’s general Palmyra statement and also with the statement of Parley Chase.4 The structure and wording of all of these statements seem to reflect more about the period, geographic location, and level of education than an undisclosed common authorship.
Even if Hurlbut did contribute to the style and structure of the affidavits, it does not necessarily follow that he “contaminated” them by interpolation. Similarities such as those noted by Anderson may only mean that Hurlbut submitted the same questions to some of the parties involved. The question “Was digging for money the general employment of the Smith family?” repeated to each witness would explain Peter Ingersoll’s “The general employment of the family, was digging for money,” William [p.29] Stafford’s “A great part of their time was devoted to digging for money,” Parley Chase’s “Digging for money was their principle employment,” and David Stafford’s “The general employment of the Smith family was money-digging and fortune telling.”5 This kind of question would not pass contemporary standards of opinion polling, but neither would statements gathered by Joseph Smith, including the testimonies of the witnesses to the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, for example. One must remember the time and place and disregard the polemics which colored most of the writing of the period.
Other questions which Hurlbut could have submitted include: How long were you acquainted with the Smith family? What was the general reputation of the Smiths? Was it such as to entitle them to respectability among their neighbors, or were they addicted to indolence, intemperance, or lying? Were the pretended revelations of the Smiths accepted by the community in which they lived or was the family notorious for visionary projects? Answers to questions such as these would explain all the similarities in structure and language noted by Anderson without making Hurlbut the author of the statements and only indirectly responsible for their sometimes similar phraseology.
Even if Hurlbut had written out some of the statements after interviewing those concerned, the individuals either signed the statements, thus affirming their supposed accuracy, or swore to the statements before a magistrate. For example, Peter Ingersoll appeared before Judge Thomas P. Baldwin “and made oath according to law, to the truth of the above statement.” William and Barton Stafford appeared before the same judge, affirmed, and then signed their respective statements. Willard Chase and David Stafford each appeared before Frederick Smith, a local justice of the peace, and “made oath that the foregoing statement to which he has subscribed his name, is true, according to [p.30] his best recollection and belief.” Henry Harris similarly attested to the truthfulness of his statement before a justice of the peace, Jonathan Lapham.6 Not all of Hurlbut’s statements are in the form of affidavits, but all were signed by the respective parties as true reflections of their beliefs, and none of them ever corrected the statements or accused Hurlbut of misrepresentation.7
Besides these considerations, there is another which suggests that Hurlbut was not the unprincipled purveyor of false information depicted by Anderson. When Hurlbut submitted his collected statements to newspaper editor Eber D. Howe for publication, Hurlbut was embroiled in legal difficulties with Joseph Smith which made Howe suspect Hurlbut’s motives. The Mormons were also denouncing Hurlbut’s statements as fabrications, a charge which Howe had no way of controverting without independently verifying Hurlbut’s statements. Accordingly Howe decided upon a “spot check” of Hurlbut’s affidavits, hoping thereby to determine their authenticity without having to reinterview every witness. He first wrote to Isaac Hale and received in reply a long notarized statement and an affidavit from Hale’s son Alva testifying that the notarized statement was “correct and true.”8 Howe then traveled to Conneaut, Ohio, to see if the statements Hurlbut had collected there accusing Smith of plagiarism in writing the Book of Mormon were authentic. While there he “saw most of the witnesses … and was satisfied they were not … mistaken in their statements.”9 Apparently this was enough to satisfy Howe of the integrity of Hurlbut’s reports. He promptly published them as part of his book, Mormonism Unvailed.10
Anderson is most concerned with the general Palmyra and Manchester statements, arguing that somebody had to write them “and Hurlbut is the best candidate”11 Granting this, however, does not mean that the statements are inaccurate reflections of their signers’ [p.31] intentions. Abel Chase’s reaffirmation of the general Manchester statement has already been discussed, and although Chase at the time did not claim to remember much beyond “general character,” he clearly did recall Smith borrowing a stone from his brother Willard, which was never returned.12 This recollection probably formed the basis of the general statement’s claim that the Smiths were men whose “word was not to be depended upon.”13
Jesse Townsend, who on 4 December 1833 joined his name with fifty others on the general Palmyra statement, wrote a letter to Phineas Stiles on 24 December which was more strident than the collective statement. In the letter Townsend accuses Joseph Smith of being “a person of questionable character, of intemperate habits, and latterly a noted money-digger.… He has had a stone, into which, when placed in a hat, he pretended to look and see chests of money buried in the earth. He was also a fortune teller, and he claimed to know where stolen goods went—probably too well.” Townsend describes Mormon benefactor Martin Harris as an “industrious farmer” but also a “visionary fanatic” who beat his wife and “is considered here to this day, a brute in his domestic relations, a fool and dupe to Smith in religion, and an unlearned, conceited hypocrite, generally.” Townsend concluded, “I know of no one now living in this section of the country that ever gave them credence.”14
Although more inflammatory than the general statement, the similarities between Townsend’s letter and the collective Palmyra statement he signed only weeks earlier seem to confirm Hurlbut’s abilities as a reporter. In that statement the Smiths are accused of being money diggers and addicted to “vicious habits”; Townsend calls them “intemperate habits.” In the general statement Martin Harris is described as an honest businessman but “perfectly visionary” on the matter of religion; Townsend describes [p.32] him as an “industrious farmer” but possessed of a “visionary mind.” Finally, Townsend’s observation that no one then living in the area “ever gave them credence” is reflected in the general Palmyra report’s condusion: “we know not of a single individual in this vicinity that puts the least confidence in their pretended revelations.” Such parallels in themselves do not prove anything about the character of Joseph Smith, but they do indicate that Hurlbut was probably not as careless a reporter as Anderson indicates.
Anderson’s second major finding is that Hurlbut’s shorter affidavits contain nothing detrimental to the character of Joseph Smith, especially on the charge of money digging. In reaching this conclusion, Anderson first rejects a few of the affidavits. For example, Joshua Stafford claimed that Smith showed him a piece of wood from a money box which moved under the earth and remembered that Joseph Smith had claimed to have discovered a box full of watches, but Anderson dismisses this report on the ground that Stafford himself was a money digger, “which renders such indirect evidence against Joseph Smith suspect.” Anderson rejects Joseph Capron’s statement because Capron did not explicitly say that he observed the Smiths digging for treasure. He likewise discards Barton Stafford’s recollection of Smith engaging in a drunken brawl because it is not dear “whether this is a story or an observation.”15
Although Barton Stafford did not specifically say that he personally observed Joseph Smith in a drunken brawl, other members of the Stafford family also described the incident, one concluding explicitly, “I have often seen him [Joseph Smith] drunk.”16 Similarly, the fact that Joseph Capron did not say he actually saw the Smiths digging for treasure does not mean that his report contains “no personal observation.” As a neighbor of the Smiths, Capron was certainly in a position to know something of their activities, especially since he states that Smith “would often [p.33] tell his neighbors of his wonderful discoveries, and urge them to embark in the money digging business.” He also recounts a conversation with the elder Smith which clearly implicates the family in money digging.17 Capron unfortunately is not equally clear on the source for the “fantastic dig” he so vividly describes but was at least confident enough of the story to name a confirming witness, Samuel Lawrence, whom Capron identifies as one of the chief actors in the drama. Lawrence resided in the area for many years after Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed appeared and was consequently available to anyone who might question the truthfulness of Capron’s statement.
Similarly deficient is Anderson’s claim that Joshua Stafford’s statement is “suspect” because Stafford had once dug for money with Smith, although he “alleges no personal observation” in his report. Considering Smith’s notoriety as a money digger, it would not be surprising that Stafford was less than eager to be counted among that “selected audience of ignorant and superstitious persons” who were popularly regarded as Smith’s “dupes.”18 The fact that Stafford and Smith had dug for money together also indicates that Stafford was speaking from personal knowledge when he recounted the “marvelous stories” Smith told “about ghosts, hob-goblins, caverns, and various other mysterious matters.”19 It would likewise explain why Smith asked Stafford to provide security on a horse he wanted to borrow. According to Stafford, Smith “said he would reward me handsomely, for he had found a box of watches, and they were as large as his fist, and he put one of them to his ear, and he could hear it ‘tick forty rods.'” Stafford was probably one of the few people in Manchester who would seriously consider accepting such unusual collateral.
Anderson dismisses other witnesses on the ground that their statements are “limited to reported (and possibly garbled) conversations with Joseph Smith, not [p.34] observations on any act of the Mormon founder.”20 Thus he rejects Henry Harris’s conversation with Smith because it is “close enough to the prophet’s own claims to be garbled in the telling.” He impugns Roswell Nichol’s exchange with Joseph Smith, Sr., on the ground that it resembles the latter’s “known belief in the Book of Mormon.”
It is certainly possible that Henry Harris’s report could be a “garbled” account of Joseph Smith’s “own claims,” but Anderson neglects to mention that the only evidence we have of Smith’s “own claims” from this early period from both sympathetic and unsympathetic sources supports Harris’s “garbled” account in every particular. Nor does Anderson explain how Nichol’s exchange with the elder Smith about money digging and the Book of Mormon can be explained on the basis of the latter’s “known belief in the Book of Mormon,” when Nichol expressly states that he had many conversations with Smith about money digging in which no reference was made to a “Gold Bible.” In fact it was this which impressed Nichol most about one conversation, when Smith “stated their digging was … for the obtaining of a Gold Bible,” because this so directly contradicted the earlier claims, often repeated to Nichol, that they were digging “for money.”21 Anderson also does not mention the distinct possibility that Smith’s “known belief in the Book of Mormon” may have involved a belief in money digging. The Book of Mormon contains several references to “slippery” treasures capable of moving through the earth,22 which is precisely what Hurlbut’s witnesses said the Smiths had been seeking since at least 1820.
Anderson’s blanket assertion that all remembered conversations are “possibly garbled” and thus inadmissible as evidence is unacceptable for several reasons. For one, without some independent reason to suspect distortion, the possibility that a conversation has been “garbled” in the remembering is no more likely than that it has been [p.35] recalled accurately, especially in those cases in which a witness claims to have had a more than passing association with the subject. For another, the argument cannot explain why so many reported conversations with the Smiths should display similarly same “garbled” qualities. Knowing that a hundred people testified separately to conversations with Smith about his money digging and the “ghosts, infernal spirits, mountains of gold and silver” which he claimed to be able to see through his stone, Anderson must have considered in his own mind the possibility that the witnesses were testifying with varying degrees of accuracy to actual admissions made by Smith in conversation. Add to these supposed admissions firsthand testimonies such as that of William Stafford (discussed below), documents such as the 1826 court record wherein Smith confessed to being a “glass looker,”23 and the fact (admitted by Smith and many of his followers) and the inadequacy of Anderson’s “garbled” argument becomes apparent. More than the fallibility of human memory is needed to explain why so many individual memories should be faulty on the one particular also supported by more direct testimony.24
Anderson’s method of dealing with reports alleging direct contact with Smith is hardly more satisfactory. For instance, he dismisses David Stafford’s account of a fight he once had with Smith on the grounds that it is different from what Anderson supposes is Joseph Smith’s description of the same event. According to Stafford, while he and Smith were digging a coal pit, “a dispute arose between us, (he having drinked a little too freely) and some hard words passed between us, and as usual with him at such times, was for fighting. He got the advantage of me in the scuffle, and a gentleman by the name of Ford interfered, when Joseph turned to fighting him. We both entered a complaint against him and he was fined for the breach of the Peace.”25 Anderson quotes Smith’s account [p.36] of what he claims is the same event: “While supper was preparing Joseph related an anecdote. While young, his father had a fine large watch dog, which bit off an ear from David Stafford’s hog, which Stafford had turned into the Smith corn field. Stafford shot the dog, and with six other fellows pitched upon him unawares. And Joseph whipped the whole of them and escaped unhurt, which they swore to as recorded in Hurlburt or Howe’s book.” Since, Anderson concludes, “the above incident takes on such a different context in being told by Stafford or Smith, it is a striking reminder that controversial events cannot be settled by hearing only one side.”26
Considering the differences in the two stories—one occurring at a coal pit involving three individuals, the other in a corn field involving eight people—it is likely that the two men are describing different experiences. Nevertheless, Anderson does not consider which of the two stories, if they are in fact descriptions of the same event, is the more plausible. Stafford’s recollection dates from a decade earlier than Smith’s and is presented in the form of a sworn affidavit, whereas Smith’s is presented as a before-supper anecdote, as a rebuttal to the Stafford statement, although Smith does not seem to accurately remember the content of the Stafford account.27 Stafford’s account of the fight has Smith vanquishing two men in succession, whereas Smith presents himself as thrashing seven men simultaneously and escaping unhurt, an improbability even if allowance is made for athletic prowess. In addition, Stafford had reason to be more careful in his reporting than Smith. He not only names a witness to the incident but refers to a legal report which could have easily proven him a liar if his story did not accord with the facts. Smith, on the other hand, is far distant in time and place from the alleged event and is surrounded by loyal followers.
Anderson attempts to further discredit Stafford’s [p.37] affidavit by stating that if Stafford “took his complaint to the local justice of the peace, the extant record does not show it, though it covers only the years 1827-1830.”28 According to Stafford, however, the incident took place prior to Smith’s “going to Pennsylvania to get married,” which occurred some time in late 1826.29 It should come as no surprise that extant records would contain no mention of the action.
Anderson’s final point concerning Stafford’s affidavit is that the surviving legal records reveal that Stafford “was plaintiff in three suits and defendant in six suits of collection, a record in the locality. With this streak of cantankerousness, one is not inclined to think that Joseph Smith was necessarily the guilty party in quarreling with David Stafford.”30 The fact that Stafford was defendant in six suits is irrelevant in determining “cantankerousness,” since Stafford did not initiate the actions. The three suits initiated by Stafford pertain only to financial obligations and prove nothing concerning “quarrelsomeness.” What they do prove is that Stafford was not above resorting to legal remedies for assumed wrongs. Thus it would have been in character for him to enter a complaint against Smith for “breach of the Peace.” [p.43]
3. For evidence of Anderson’s continuing influence on the historiography of early Mormonism, see the relevant sections of James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976); Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1977); Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience … (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979); and Dean Jessee, “Joseph Smith’s Reputation among Historians,” Ensign 9 (Sept. 1979): 57-61. For a dissenting voice, see Wesley P. Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials,” Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter 1974): 152-53; and D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 41-52, 125-28.
4. Townsend’s letter, dated 24 December 1833, originally appeared in Pomeroy Tucker, The Origin, Rise and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 288-91. Later on 16 August 1834, Townsend wrote another letter containing essentially the same information. A copy of this second letter, clipped from an unidentified newspaper, which reprints it from the Sacket’s Harbor (NY) Courier, is in the J. B. Turner collection in the Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Illinois.
7. This was through no lack of opportunity. Mormon missionaries periodically visited the region throughout the lifetimes of those interviewed by Hurlbut, and some of them actually went from house to house in an effort to controvert Hurlbut’s witnesses. Apparently none of these efforts resulted in anything that could be used against Hurlbut, for nothing appeared in the Mormon press on the subject until the Kelleys published their doubtful report in 1881. Their failure, coupled with this almost total silence, argues in favor of Hurlbut’s own statement of 1879: “All the affidavits procured by me for Mr. Howe’s book, including all those from Palmyra, N.Y., were certainly genuine.” Statement of D. P. Hurlbut, 19 Aug. 1879, Gibsonburg, OH, in Ellen D. Dickinson, New Light on Mormonism (New York: Funk & Wagnails, 1885), 260.
10. It is regrettable that Howe did not contact any of the Palmyra-Manchester witnesses, but his oversight is understandable considering the issues involved. The main target of the Mormon attack was the statement of Isaac Hale, which Howe had already authenticated, and the statements alleging that the Book of Mormon had been copied from a novel by Solomon Spaulding, which again Howe had verified.
12. Chase had earlier repeated this charge in a statement made on 2 May 1879, Palmyra, Wayne County, NY; cited by William Wyl, Mormon Portraits … (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing & Publishing Company, 1886), 230-31.
14. Tucker, 228-90. Unfortunately, Townsend did not say how much of his letter was based upon personal observation and how much upon hearsay, though it is unlikely that Townsend was merely reporting groundless rumors. His description of Martin Harris appears unusually accurate to anyone acquainted with the facts of Harris’s life, and in at least one place he reveals information about Harris which was not generally known at the time. In discussing Smith’s mysterious “gold plates,” he quotes Harris’s claim to have seen them with “spiritual eyes,” a claim Harris repeated over the years to a number of people. Significantly, Townsend’s letter, written in 1833 but not published until 1867, is the earliest of these reports.
19. Howe, 258. Among the “marvelous stories” Smith allegedly told Stafford was one in which he “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.” This story is significant because two of Smith’s earliest and closest associates, Martin Harris and Orin Porter Rockwell, told a similar story years later in Utah. According to their independent reports, while digging for money in Palmyra, they uncovered a box of treasure. Anxious to secure the chest before it could slip back into the earth, one of their party struck the box with a pick, but the blow only succeeded in breaking off a piece of the lid. The treasure fled into the earth, leaving the diggers standing dumbfounded in the dark. Their only memento of the adventure was the piece of lid that had broken off the chest when struck. For these accounts, see Brigham Young et al., Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855-86), 19:37, and the statement of Ole A. Jensen, July 1875, Clarkston, Utah, archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
23. [Charles Marshall], “The Original Prophet,” Fraser’s Magazine 7 (Feb. 1873): 229-30. Although the authenticity of this trial record has been vigorously questioned, most historians now accept it as authentic. For a review of the matter, see Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” Brigham Young University Studies 12 (Winter 1972): 223-33.
24. Rejecting reported conversations as inadequate, Anderson is left only with observed actions upon which to base his assessment of Joseph Smith’s early reputation. Such a principle, if conscientiously applied, may have a certain usefulness but as used by Anderson, its only purpose is to preempt the point. By stating at the outset what he shall accept as evidence and what not, Anderson not only eliminates the host of witnesses who claimed significant conversations with Smith but also creates a model of evidence which by definition cannot be satisfied. To prove involvement in money digging, he argues, the witness must actually have seen Smith digging, and since “one might observe one of the Smiths digging and completely misinterpret his reasons for doing so” (p. 302), the witness must also have heard Smith say he was digging for money. Since, however, reported conversations are “notoriously open to mistaken interpretation, recollection, and amplification” (p. 297), then it is possible that Smith’s words were “garbled” and thus are unacceptable as evidence. In this manner Anderson constructs a model of evidence which guarantees the conclusion he is apparently seeking, namely that no report, however well authenticated, can prove that Smith was a money digger.
26. Anderson, 292. The quotation Anderson makes is from Joseph Smith’s journal as kept by Willard Richards, entry for 1 January 1843, in Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books and Smith Research Associates, 1987), 267.
27. The fact that Smith only imperfectly remembered Stafford’s affidavit is found in his remark that the seven men who attacked him were the ones who signed the statement, whereas in fact Stafford was alone in making the deposition.