Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined
by Rodger I. Anderson
The Deming Affidavits
[p.63] Next in his reappraisal of Joseph Smith’s New York reputation, Richard Anderson describes the depositions collected by Arthur B. Deming in the mid-1880s as “biased” and “one-sided.” Anderson accuses Deming of “Hurlbut-like prompting or editing” and dismisses Deming’s firsthand reports of Joseph Smith’s drinking and fighting because their language is “standard enough to have come from a common compiler.” He alleges that the reports contain no actual observation of Smith’s money digging. Deming himself Anderson characterizes as “neurotically resentful” and “a pathetic reincarnation of the disgruntled Hurlbut.”1
Of these various charges, most simply lack serious thought. Among Deming’s informants was one who described Smith’s mother Lucy Mack as a kind old woman who “doctored many persons in Palmyra” and another who described Smith’s younger brother Samuel as “a good, industrious boy.”2 Obviously these are not “one-sided reports from biased people,” nor do they lend credence to Anderson’s claim that Deming used Hurlbut-like tactics in [p.64] collecting his depositions. According to Anderson, Hurlbut’s methods of gathering information resulted in the “unmodified condemnation of Joseph Smith and his entire family,” yet Anderson admits that Deming “does not totally damn the Smiths as Hurlbut-Howe.”3 Deming is thus condemned because he displays Hurlbut-like qualities which Anderson admits are not really Hurlbut-like at all.
Actually, few early writers on Mormonism are less deserving of the epithet “Hurlbut-like” than Deming. There exists no evidence that Deming adversely influenced his witnesses, edited their recollections, or contacted only those unfriendly to the Smiths. Not only do the depositions themselves belie such charges, but evidence exists suggesting that Deming was aware of such possible objections and had taken precautions against them. Having acted as moderator and research consultant for Clark Braden during the latter’s famous debate with E. L. Kelley in 1884, Deming was more than aware of the Kelleys continuing efforts to discredit all unfavorable testimony about the character of Joseph Smith. He had not long been engaged in the work of collecting affidavits about Smith when he discovered that the Kelleys had interviewed at least one of his witnesses before him.4 Deming consequently tried whenever possible to have the affidavits attested to by more than just the interviewee. Most were notarized, witnessed by friends or relatives present at the time, and printed complete with addresses of the original testators.5 In this manner Deming not only guaranteed the authenticity of the statements but also provided potential critics with the information necessary to discredit him if they suspected that any of the statements were false.
In Deming’s case, a few supporting documents have survived which better enable one to evaluate his competence as an historian. In the Chicago Historical Society are the original of one published deposition and other [p.65] statements which Deming had no opportunity to publish.6 None support Anderson’s allegation that Deming led his witnesses or improperly edited their remarks. The original statement of K. E. Bell, published in the first issue of Deming’s newspaper, seems to be in Bell’s own hand and is signed by the author, witnessed by another person, and notarized by a justice of the peace. It does not differ significantly from the printed version. In other statements Deming apparently acted as an amanuensis for his witnesses, but even in these instances I can find no evidence that he recorded more (or less) than his testators remembered. The statement of Eber D. Howe, for example, is signed by Howe, witnessed by Deming and a grandson, and concludes: “This statement was read in presence of Mr. Howe his daughter and grand son before being signed.”7 Also among this collection is the unpublished statement of J. C. Dowen, which similarly concludes: “I have heard Mr. Deming read this statement distinctly and make it as the last important act of my li[fe].” The statement was then witnessed by a granddaughter and grandson, notarized by a justice of the peace, and concluded with a note from that same justice: “At J. C. Dowen’s request I was present and heard A. B. Deming read distinctly this statement to Mr. Dowen before being signed, which he said was correct.”8
After studied analysis, Deming’s report must stand as one of the most careful, conscientious, and energetic efforts to gather information about Joseph Smith from still living witnesses. Deming’s methods would not be considered satisfactory today, but they were for the time above the norm and reveal a determination on his part to escape the sorts of criticisms leveled against Hurlbut. The effort cost Deming heavily in time and money, and he later came to deeply regret the “nearly four years hard labor, self-denial, and persecutions” he underwent while completing the project.9 Deming’s primary deficiency was that he had [p.66] to depend upon witnesses separated from the events they were narrating by sixty or more years. This is one reason why Deming should be read in conjunction with Hurlbut, whose witnesses, however hostile, were removed by only a few years from actual contact with the Smith family.
Deming’s depositions, together with the statements collected by Hurlbut, are important for two reasons. First, they reveal that some of Hurlbut’s witnesses were less than candid about their own relationship with the Smiths. For example, when Willard Chase wrote his affidavit in 1833, he did not bother explaining his interest in the “singularly appearing stone” dug from his well, only that it “excited my curiosity.” Deming’s witnesses, however, describe Chase himself as a money digger and his sister as a seeress. If true, such facts would explain Chase’s initial interest in the stone and his repeated efforts to get it back. Neither does Joshua Stafford in the statement he prepared for Hurlbut admit that he was himself once a money digger who dug with “the infamous Joe Smith.” Smith’s notoriety as a money digger may have made both men reluctant to admit publicly their own faith in seer stones and buried treasures.
If Deming’s statements reveal something of what Hurlbut’s witnesses chose not to divulge about themselves, they at the same time lend additional credence to some of Hurlbut’s statements. The Chase stone episode, Stafford’s black sheep story, and Barton Stafford’s testimony that Smith got drunk while haying for Stafford’s father, William, were described by S. F. Anderick and Christopher and Cornelius Stafford. Besides such direct confirmations, Deming’s witnesses also provided additional statements about drinking and money digging. “I have frequently seen old Jo drunk,” Isaac Butts recorded. Cornelius R. Stafford remembered seeing “Jo in drunken fights; father and son were frequently drunk.” And Christopher M. Stafford testified: “Jo got drunk [p.67] while we were haying for my uncle, Wm. Stafford; also at a husking at our house, and stayed overnight. I have often seen him drunk.”
On the matter of money digging, many described the divining rod and seer stone and told of their use by Smith in locating buried treasures. Conversations about money digging are recounted, and at least two people claimed to have seen Smith hunting for “lost and hidden things” while in Pennsylvania. Wrote Henry A. Sayer, “I became acquainted with Jo, Hyrum, and Bill [William, a younger brother] Smith, whom I often saw hunting and digging for buried money, treasure, or lost and hidden things.” W. R. Hine remembered seeing Joseph Smith hunting salt with his seer stone for at least two summers. Not only did this occur “near and in sight of my house,” but when it rained Hine and his wife “made beds for them on the floor in our house.”10
Anderson wants to ascribe to Deming the accounts of Smith’s drinking and fighting, but he concentrates on what he sees as authentic statements implicating the Chases and Staffords in money digging. However, the fact that many of Deming’s witnesses also dug for treasure does not defuse their testimony. In addition, many of the witnesses were not money diggers and passively observed both the Smiths and other neighbors in this activity. Mrs. S. F. Anderick, who described Sally Chase as a seeress, remembered Joseph Smith saying that “he could tell where lost or hidden things and treasures were buried or located with a forked witch hazel,” adding that “he deceived many farmers and induced them to dig nights for chests of gold.” Isaac Butts, who claimed that Joshua Stafford “told me that young Jo Smith and himself dug for money in his orchard and elsewhere nights,” also described Smith’s “forked witch-hazel rod with which he claimed he could locate buried money” and his “peep-stone which he put into his hat and [p.68] looked into.” Butts added, “I have seen both.” Cornelius R. Stafford implicated John and Joshua Stafford in money digging but noted that “Jo Smith kept it up after our neighbors had abandoned it” and also repeated his uncle William’s story of the sacrificed sheep. Christopher M. Stafford admitted that his stepfather and some of his neighbors had dug for money and added that Smith also searched for treasure with a witch hazel stick and peep-stone and told him “there was a peep-stone for me and many others if we could only find them.” Stafford’s statement is similar to a remark made by Smith to Brigham Young, and recorded in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, that “Every man who lived on earth 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.”11 Christopher Stafford remembered that Smith was a “fortune teller” and “told mine by looking in the palm of my hand and said among other things that I would not live to be very old.”12
Anderson’s final objection to Deming’s affidavits is that they “reveal no direct knowledge that the Smiths were involved” in money digging.13 In order for this statement to count as true, Anderson must make two qualifications. First, by “direct knowledge” he must mean “observed actions.” Second, he must exclude the testimonies of Henry A. Sawyer and W. R. Hine, both of whom claimed to have actually seen the Smiths digging for “lost and hidden things” in Pennsylvania.
To this one might answer that statements such as those of Sayer and Hine pertain to the Pennsylvania phase of Joseph Smith’s career and are thus irrelevant to determining Smith’s Palmyra-Manchester reputation. Such a saving distinction, however, cannot be granted for a variety of reasons. First, for at least five of the ten years that Smith lived in Manchester, he made extended visits to [p.69] Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, where he worked for Josiah Stowell, attended school, met and courted Emma Hale, and engaged in other activities including money digging which he later admitted in the Elders’ Journal and the Times and Seasons.14 In December 1827, Smith moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, as a permanent resident, although he often returned to his parents’ home in Manchester to conduct business relative to the printing of the Book of Mormon.
Besides Smith’s many peregrinations between New York and Pennsylvania, there is considerable evidence connecting his activities in the two states. In 1825, when Josiah Stowell hired Smith as a seer to help him locate buried treasure in Pennsylvania, it was because Stowell had already heard of the reputation Smith had established locally in New York as a seer of hidden treasures. Smith himself, according to reports of the “legal examination” in 1826 as a “glass looker,” admitted to Justice of the Peace Albert Neely that while still at Palmyra he had by means of his stone “frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years.”15 Martin Harris later acknowledged that Smith dug for money with Stowell not only in Pennsylvania but also in Palmyra, Manchester, and other places.16 It is thus a contrivance to try to distinguish between Smith’s New York and Pennsylvania activities.
There is another consideration which makes the Pennsylvania evidence relevant to the question of Smith’s New York reputation. If, as Anderson argues, the statements taken in Palmyra-Manchester are untrustworthy because they were possibly infected by popular rumor, then statements made by people less familiar with Smith’s prior reputation should be more reliable. The Pennsylvania statements, however, do not differ significantly from statements [p.70] gathered a hundred miles away in Palmyra-Manchester. The charges of lying, drunkenness, and money digging occur with the same frequency and are often based on personal contact with Smith. Many charged Smith with lying because of his promise that they could see the gold plates at a specified time. Frederick Mather noted in 1880 that “All accounts agree that Smith drank freely, both in the Susquehanna and in the Harpersville neighborhoods.” He provided examples of occasional inebriation related to him by Jacob Skinner.17 Most of the Pennsylvania statements also mentioned Smith’s money digging. Besides acknowledging himself a “glass looker” before a justice of the peace, Smith told Isaac Hale that “he had given up what he called ‘glass-looking’, and that he expected to work hard for a living and was willing to do so,” a conversation also remembered by Hale’s son Alva and Peter Ingersoll. Use of the same seer stone also later became important in receiving revelations and in translating the Book of Mormon.18
W. R. Hine’s knowledge of Smith’s “glass looking” was based on the sights Smith told him were revealed through the medium of the stone, including one in which Smith saw “Captain Kidd sailing on the Susquehanna River during a freshet, and that he buried two pots of gold and silver.”19 The salt spring digging described by Hine was witnessed by George Collington, who saw Smith and four other men “in the act of dodging through the woods with shovels and picks upon their shoulders, their object being to discover a salt-spring by the agency of the peek-stone.”20 Collington talked with the men, observed part of their digging, and helped perpetrate a hoax on the diggers by secretly introducing salt into the pit. A number of people, some apparently eyewitnesses, told of a dig in which Smith ordered a whole hill tunnelled through in order to immobilize a very lively treasure which “waltzed [p.71] around … in a manner to defy the dexterity of pick and shovel.”21
From this and other evidence it appears that Joseph Smith was viewed by many of his neighbors and contemporaries both in New York and in Pennsylvania as an occasionally intemperate village seer who led his followers in various occult adventures but produced little in the way of promised treasure. [p.75]
4. This was W. R. Hine, who told Deming (1:2) “that the Kelly’s Mormon elders from Kirtland, called on him the day of the Ohio State election in Oct., 1884, and asked him questions and he replied, They wrote down something but did not read it to him and he does not know that it is correct.”
5. Deming originally meant to preserve the originals of all his depositions but was prevented from doing so when many were lost in Chicago. Letter of A. B. Deming to A. C. Williams, 13 Jan. 1885, Painsville, Ohio, on file in the Western Reserve Historical Society.
6. There is also one statement preserved in the Western Reserve Historical Society among the A. C. Williams papers. Deming had forwarded to Williams his notes of a conversation with a Mrs. S. W. Hanson, requesting Williams to read it to her “and amend to suit her and request her signature when you have made a new copy.” This Williams did, and Deming published the corrected version in the second issue of his Naked Truths about Mormonism (p. 3). Significantly Mrs. Hanson did not change Deming’s rough draft except to rearrange it into more orderly form.
17. Lippincott’s Magazine 26 (1880): 203; Mather’s article, entitled “The Early Mormons: Joe Smith Operates at Susquehanna,” on file in the Susquehanna Historical Society, was printed some time in 1880 in either the Montrose Republican or the Broome County Republican, but the incomplete files of these papers make exact identification impossible. The article is significant because Mather identifies his sources of information much more clearly than he did in the Lippincott’s article.
18. See Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven L. Walker, “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer 1982): 48-68; James E. Lancaster, “‘The Gift and Power of God’: The Method of Translation of the Book of Mormon,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 3 (1983): 51-61; D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 27-52, 112-49.
20. Lippincott’s Magazine 26 (1880): 202. In the Republican article cited above, Mather characterized Collington as a most conscientious witness who “was very careful not to appear to know overmuch about the Mormons.”
21. Ibid. Other references to Smith’s activities in the Colesville, Bainbridge, and Harmony areas include a letter by John Sherer, dated 18 Nov. 1830 (original in the Amistad Research Center, Dillard University, New Orleans); [A. W. Benton], “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, 9 April 1831, 120; a letter of Joel King Noble, dated 8 March 1842 (reproduced in Walters, “From Occult to Cult with Joseph Smith, Jr.,” 133-37); Emily C. Blackman, History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, & Haffelfinger, 1873), 577-82; the recollections of W. D. Purple in the Chenango Union (Norwich, NY), 2 May 1877; the exchange of letters between Hiel and Joseph Lewis and Edwin Cadwell in the Amboy Journal, issues of 30 April, 21 May, 4 June, 11 June, 9 July, 30 July, and 6 Aug. 1879; the Salt Lake Daily Tribune 23 April 1880; and Emily M. Austin, Mormonism; or, Life among the Mormons (Madison, WI: M. J. Cantwell, Book and Job Printer, 1882), 31-33.
Of these various sources, Emily Austin, who lived in the area from her birth in 1813 until she joined the Mormons in 1830, described Smith on his first appearance in the country as a fortune teller and money digger, and remembered one occasion in which she and her sister, Sarah Knight, visited the place where Smith, Joseph Knight, Sr., and others had dug over in their quest for buried treasure. The Daily Tribune article contains what is claimed to be a signed document, dated 1 November 1825, pledging Smith and others to equitable shares “if anything of value should be obtained at a certain place in Pennsylvania … supposed to be a valuable mine of either Gold or Silver.…” The Amboy Journal articles contain much information about Smith’s activities in the Harmony area, including an abortive attempt on Smith’s part to join the Methodist church in 1828. Joshua McKune and Joseph Lewis successfully contested his membership on the ground that Smith was “a practicing necromancer, a dealer in enchantments and bleeding ghosts.” The Chenango Union article contains an account by W. D. Purple of Smith’s court hearing as a “glass looker” in 1826. Purple, who attended the hearing and took notes at the request of his friend Justice Neely, repeats much of what was said on the occasion, including a moving speech by Joseph Smith, Sr., in which the old man lamented the fact that his son’s “wonderful power … should be used only in search of filthy lucre, or its equivalent in earthly treasures.…” Emily Blackman recorded the testimony of some who had known Smith during his stay in Susquehanna County, and provided a detailed diagram identifying the holes Smith had ordered sunk during his association with Josiah Stowell. The letter by J. K. Noble, who was one of the justices involved in Smith’s 1830 Colesville trial, contains information about Smith’s money digging and describes his general character as that of “a Vagrant idler Lazy (not Drunkard) but now and then Drunk Liar Deceiver.” The Benton article, like the accounts of Noble and Purple, asserts that Smith was convicted in 1826 of money digging and repeats testimony later given by Josiah Stowell demonstrating Stowell’s faith in Smith’s occult talents. The Rev. John Sherer’s letter, written from Colesville, New York, only a few months after Smith had left the area, contains the statement: “This man has been known, in these parts, for some time, as a kind of juggler, who has pretended, through a glass, to see money under ground, &c, &c.”