Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined
by Rodger I. Anderson

Chapter 6
The Kelley Interviews

[p.75] According to Richard Anderson, the published account of the 1881 interviews with old citizens from the Palmyra-Manchester, New York, area conducted by Reorganized Mormons William H. and E. L. Kelley, “can be trusted as the most comprehensive investigations ever made there.”1 The reason for this is William Kelley’s published report of an interview he conducted with David Whitmer, an early Mormon and one of three “witnesses” to the reality of the Book of Mormon gold plates. Because Kelley’s report “is detailed and minutely agrees with known writings and comments of the Book of Mormon witness,” Anderson considers it a fair test of Kelley’s ability at note-taking. However, in the case of the Palmyra-Manchester interviews there is considerable disparity between Kelley’s original notes and the published report based on those notes. Furthermore, Anderson has not taken into account Kelley’s own possible prejudice as an apostle of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which, like its Utah cousin, bases its faith claims on Joseph Smith’s teachings. As a believer in [p.76] the Book of Mormon, Kelley would have little reason to misinterpret or embellish Whitmer’s testimony. But it does not necessarily follow that Kelley would retain the same impartiality when recording hostile testimony.2

Another consideration which lessens Kelley’s reliability is the fact that he published his reconstruction of the interviews without supporting documentation. Unlike Deming, Kelley did not write up the account of his interviews at the time and then have the person interviewed read it for correctness, sign it, and have it attested by independent witnesses. Rather Kelley took only brief notes, later using these and his own memory to reconstruct what had been said. The notes themselves and the responses of some of those interviewed show that Kelley sometimes depended upon imagination as well as memory.

In his analysis of the Kelley interviews Anderson relegates the story of these negative responses to a footnote, remarking that only one interview “raises a significant issue on Kelley misquotation.”3 This judgment seems particularly inept to anyone familiar with the historical circumstances prompting the Kelley report and the reaction which followed it. About a year before the Kelley brothers visited the Palmyra-Manchester area to “hear the worst, let it hurt whom it would,” there appeared in a Michigan newspaper an article purporting to contain reminiscences of the Smiths from former neighbors. These statements, collected by the Reverend C. C. Thorne, described the Smith family as “too low to associate with” and Joseph Smith as “a lazy drinking fellow, and loose in his habits in every way.”4

The Kelleys believed these statements were “a trumped up thing” and decided to reinterview the three parties “and ascertain whether this pious Rev. told the truth about what they said or not.”5 The first of the three former neighbors they called upon was William Bryant, although for some unknown reason the Kelleys did not record [p.77] having asked him about the statement he allegedly signed for Thorne. The next party they called upon was Danford Booth, to whom they reportedly posed the question:

Do you know Rev. Thorn, a Presbyterian minister at Manchester?

“Yes; I know him.”

What kind of a fellow is he?

“He is a pretty sharp fellow, and will look after his bread and butter, you may depend on that.”

Did he ever interview you on this subject?

“No, sir; he never did.”

Did he not call to see what you knew about the Smiths and Cowderys about a year ago?

“No, he never did to my recollection.”

Did you know he had a statement of yours published in Michigan in regard to this, last year?

“No, sir; I never heard of it before.”

Did you ever give him one to publish?

“I never did—did not know he wanted one.”

He will look out for himself, will he?

“He will that; that is him.”6

Also among those the Kelleys called upon was Orin Reed, with whom the Kelleys reportedly had the following conversation:

Do you know Mr. Thorn, the Presbyterian minister at Manchester, over here?

“Yes, I know him slightly.”

Did you not make a statement to him in regard to the character of these men; that they were low persons, and not good associates, or something of the kind?

“I never did.”

[p.78] Did he call on you to find out what you knew about it?

“No, sir, he never did; at least he never let me know anything about it, if he did.”

Did you ever see a statement he sent to Michigan, last year, and had published, purporting to be what you and others knew about the Smiths and Cowderys?

“No, I never did; did not know that one was ever published before.”7

When Orin Reed, his wife Amanda, and Danford Booth read the account of these questions and answers in the Reorganized church’s official Saints’ Herald, they promptly made affidavits before a justice of the peace accusing the Kelleys of lying.8 Reed testified that the statement he had signed for Thorne was authentic and that “the matters set forth therein alleged to have been stated by deponent to said Thorne were so stated by deponent at the time and as mentioned in said published article.” His wife, Amanda, testified that she was a witness to her husband’s interview with Thorne, and “that the statements alleged to have been made by said Thorne as published in the Cadillac Mich Weekly News … were in fact so made, and that the language employed by her said husband was substantially as therein set forth.” Danford Booth confirmed that he had been interviewed by Thorne and that the statement published by the minister was correct, and denied the Kelleys’ report of his remarks about Thorne. He did not even recall their having asked him about the subject. Anderson’s only remark concerning these statements is that the publication of the Kelley interviews “sparked a skirmish of affidavits.” Incredibly, he denies that these affidavits cast any suspicion on the Kelleys as competent reporters.

The only statement Anderson does address that could raise doubts about the Kelley interviews is that of John H. Gilbert, principal typesetter for the Book of [p.79] Mormon. In an affidavit Gilbert said he had been “grossly misrepresented in almost every particular, words being put into his mouth that he never uttered, and the answers to questions he did give, totally at variance from the answers given by him.” In this affidavit Gilbert did not go into particulars, but in a letter to Thomas Gregg, written only days after he received William Kelley’s article in the Saints’ Herald, Gilbert claimed a number of specific errors.9 Below are extracts from Kelley’s purported interview with Gilbert and from Gilbert’s letter to Gregg. Gilbert’s alleged responses to Kelley are in quotation marks:

Kelley Interview   Gilbert’s Letter
“[Hyrum Smith] said at the time it was translated by the power of God.”   [This is] utterly false. I never had any conversation with Hyrum in regard to the translation.
Why did you not change it [the Book of Mormon] and correct it?”Because they would not allow us to; they were very particular about that. We never changed it in the least. Oh, well; there might have been one or two words that I changed the spelling of; I believe I did change the spelling of one, and perhaps two, but no more.”   In regard to the change of spelling two words, he words my answer entirely different from what I said to him. I told him distinctly that I changed the spelling of one word, which occurred twice in one form—no believing about it. The word changed was “travail,” spelled “travel” in both instances, showing that the copyist did not know the difference.
Did you set all of the type, or did some one help you? “I did the whole of it myself, and helped to read the proof, [p.80] too; there was no one who worked at that but myself.”   I did not tell him I set all the type, as he reports me saying.
“If you ever saw a Book of Mormon you will see that they changed it afterwards.… Here on the title page it says,” (reading) “‘Joseph Smith, Jr, author and proprietor.’ Afterwards, in getting out other editions they left that out, and only claimed that Joseph Smith translated it.”Well, did they claim anything else than that he was the translator when they brought the manuscript to you?”Oh, no; they claimed that he was translating it by means of some instruments he got at the same time he did the plates, and that the Lord helped him.”   In regard to Smith claiming to be the author, etc., I told him I understood in later editions he only claimed to be translator, etc.; the balance of the story in regard to this authorship, is all his own coining and answering.

“I told [Lorenzo Saunders] about [James] Cobb, of Utah, and asked him if he would and Cobb his affidavit that he saw [Sidney] Rigdon before the book was published, if he (Cobb), would write to him; he finally said he would, and I wrote to Cobb about it, and gave Saunders’ address, and after a long time, I got a letter from [Cobb], saying he had written three letters to Saunders, and could get no [p.81] answer. I then sat down and wrote Saunders a letter myself, reminding him of his promise, and wrote to Cobb also about it; and after a long time Cobb wrote me again, that Saunders had written to him; but I have never learned how satisfactory it was, or whether he made the affidavit or not.”

  The long paragraph in relation to Mr. Cobb and Lorenzo Saunders is a mixed mess of truth and falsehood.

If you could only connect Sidney Rigdon with Smith some way, you could get up a theory [to explain the Book of Mormon].

“Yes; that is just where the trouble lies; … But I think I have got a way out of the difficulty now. A fellow that used to be here, by the name of Saunders, Lorenzo Saunders, was back here some time ago, and I was asking him about it. At first he said he did not remember of ever seeing Rigdon until after 1830 sometime; but after studying it over a while, he said it seemed to him that one time he was over to Smiths, and that there was a stranger there he never saw before, and that they said it was Rigdon.”

  When I asked Mr. S[aunders] if he knew whether [Sidney] Rigdon was hanging around Smith previous to the publication of the M[ormon] B[ible], he said, “Yes, at least eighteen months before.” There was no hesitancy about it; and this is what I told Kelley.You can see how he reported the matter.

[p.82] What will you take for your copy of the Book of Mormon; or will you sell it? … “I will take Five Hundred Dollars for it, and no less; I have known them to sell for more than that.”

  I did not tell Kelley that I had known a copy or copies of the M.B. to sell for $500, or more than that; that is one of his misrepresentations.

“Oh, I don’t think the Smiths were as bad as people let on for. Now Tucker, in his work, told too many big things; nobody could believe his stories.”

  What he charges me with saying about the Smiths and Tucker’s book, is all his own coining.

From the interview with Hyram Jackway:] “Joe and his father got drunk once.…”

What did they drink to make them drunk? “They drank cider.”

Got drunk so they could not walk, on cider, did they?

  Mr. Jackaway tells me he did not tell Kelley that Joe and his father got drunk on cider, but on whiskey.

In a footnote Anderson observes that Gilbert’s letter “is a source of confirmation of the basic accuracy of the Kelley reports.” He writes: “Without claiming perfection for the Kelleys (or any other nineteenth-century interview), one can see that Gilbert admits the main direction of conversation, and quarrels with certain details. Some of Gilbert’s ‘misrepresentations’ are trivial.”10

Considered as an answer to Gilbert’s letter, this statement is inadequate. Gilbert never denied that the Kelleys contacted him and asked certain questions; rather, he charged them with putting words in his mouth and reporting answers differently from those he in fact gave them. [p.83] Anderson has done nothing to correct this except to note that some of Gilbert’s denials are “trivial,” an implicit admission that others are not. The larger issue of William Kelley’s accuracy in reporting the words of others is ignored, while readers are left with the impression that Gilbert’s criticisms of Kelley misquotations are insignificant.

Actually, even Gilbert’s most “trivial” corrections are not wholly irrelevant to the issue of Kelley misquotations. The errors Gilbert alleges might be unimportant if the Kelleys had claimed to report only the gist of their conversation, but both claimed far more than that. William emphasized that the interviews were reprinted “just as they occurred,” and his brother later remarked that the language of those interviewed “was taken down at the time—the parties own words.”11 Gilbert’s complaints are thus serious ones. If what he says is correct, either the Kelleys were exceptionally poor note-takers or they were exaggerating when they claimed to be reporting the exact words of those interviewed.

It now seems apparent that the Kelleys were guilty on both counts. The notes from which they constructed these interviews are on file in the archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri. These notes consist mainly of brief entries only a few words long and are rarely sufficiently comprehensive to give a respondent’s exact words. For example, only about one hundred words were used to construct Gilbert’s lengthy interview, often brief entries like “James L. Cob of Salt Lake corresponds with Colonel Gilbert.”12 From this the Kelleys constructed the lengthy paragraph which Gilbert later branded “a mixed mess of truth and falsehood.” Statements Gilbert claimed he never made do not appear in the notes, and others are so abbreviated as to be all but useless in accurately reconstructing conversations. Such inadequate methodology characterizes [p.84] the reporters Anderson praises for their precise note-taking abilities.

Many of William Kelley’s errors can be ascribed to simple carelessness. Equipped only with his inadequate notes, Kelley was forced to rely on his own evidently often unreliable memory to retrieve the information. Vaguely recalling that Gilbert had qualified his remark about not changing the Book of Mormon, Kelley no doubt added the account of changing one or two words, forgetting that Gilbert had said he changed the spelling of one word.13 Possessing the brief note, “Major Gilbert of Palmyra Sat up the type of B. of M.,”14 Kelley interpreted this to mean that Gilbert alone had set the type, which Gilbert refuted.15 Kelley’s errors in reporting Gilbert’s statements about Cobb and the cost of an original edition of the Book of Mormon are probably related to the same problem of abbreviated notes and imprecise memory.

Kelley’s note-taking and faulty memory may thus explain some of Gilbert’s charges, but they do not excuse all of them. In fact, Gilbert called Kelley a “great falsifier” and “the champion liar of America” and charged him in an affidavit with gross and willful falsification.16 A further comparison of Gilbert’s letter and the Kelley notes tends to support Gilbert’s allegation. For example, according to Kelley, Gilbert maintained that the Smiths were not “as bad as people let on” and that Tucker “told too many big things; nobody could belive his stories.” Gilbert denied having said this and nothing appears in Kelley’s notes which might have prompted such a recollection. Either Kelley was remembering something Gilbert said but could not remember, which is unlikely considering how carefully Kelley recorded in his notes each and every favorable mention of the Smiths, or Kelley created the exchange for the express purpose of increasing the number of witnesses who did not share the prevailing opinion of the family. Add to this [p.85] the fact that Gilbert was interviewed many times on the subject of Mormonism, and that in none of these did he venture an opinion of the Smiths like that attributed to him by Kelley, and it becomes evident that the remark cannot be assigned to Gilbert as an authentic reflection of his views. It seems more likely that Gilbert said nothing about the Smiths’ general reputation, a silence which Kelley interpreted to mean he thought well of the family.

This tendency to “interpret” his witnesses in order to have them say things that in Kelley’s estimation should have been said is evident in other parts of his interview with Gilbert. For example, in that part of the interview in which Gilbert and Kelley supposedly discussed the question of whether Smith claimed to be “translator” or “author” of the Book of Mormon, Gilbert is made to bring up the objection that Smith changed the title page of the Book of Mormon. To this Kelley responded, “Well, did they claim anything else than that he was the translator when they brought the manuscript to you?” Gilbert answered in the negative, thus disposing of one common objection to the Book of Mormon. The argument appears even tighter when the reader remembers Gilbert’s earlier remark about Hyrum Smith claiming that the book had been “translated by the power of God.”

The problem with this exchange has nothing to do with the merits of Kelley’s argument; rather, the question is whether Gilbert said any such thing as Kelley alleges. Gilbert admitted that he made a remark about Smith claiming in later editions to be only the “translator” of the Book of Mormon, but claimed that “the balance of the story in regard to this authorship, is all his [Kelley’s] own coining and answering.” He further denied having had any conversation with Hyrum Smith about the translation, which if true means that Kelley indulged in dramatic license to make a point. Gilbert’s remembered remark about the [p.86] change on the title page of the Book of Mormon gave Kelley an opportunity to refute what was then a common objection to the book, and it apparently mattered little to him whether he and Gilbert had actually discussed the matter. The opportunity to confound his critics was simply too good to miss.

If Kelley was writing a dramatic dialogue whose primary purpose was to persuade and convince, there would of course be no question concerning the propriety of such an argument. Kelley, however, was writing a report professing to be a sober recital of facts “just as they occurred.” He did allow “for a possible mistake, or error, arising from a misapprehension, or mistake in taking notes,”17 but he did not grant himself the freedom to have those interviewed say what could or should have been said. It was probably for this reason that Kelley did not afford those interviewed the chance to read or confirm their testimonies. If Kelley had wanted to gather only authentic information, he would probably have granted his informants this courtesy.

Another example of Kelley’s, manipulation can be seen in his report of Hyram Jackway’s story about Joseph Smith’s drinking. According to that report, Jackway remembered seeing Smith and his father drunk in a hayfield. “What did they drink to make them drunk?” Kelley asked. “They drank cider,” Jackway answered. To this Kelley replied, “Got drunk so they could not walk, on cider, did they?” Kelley here implied that Jackway was exaggerating, since cider was not generally classified at the time as an “ardent spirit.” According to Gilbert, however, Jackway said the Smiths did not get “drunk on cider, but on whiskey.”

Gilbert’s letter suggests a tendency on the part of Kelley to “play down” any statement potentially harmful to his faith. In discussing the origin of the Book of Mormon, for example, Kelley has Gilbert express considerable uncertainty about the testimony of Lorenzo Saunders, who [p.87] Gilbert names as his source for the theory that Sidney Rigdon helped Smith write the Book of Mormon. According to Kelley’s rendering of the conversation, Gilbert said that Saunders initially could not remember seeing Rigdon with Smith before the book came off the press in 1830, and only “remembered” seeing the two men together before that time after repeated promptings by Gilbert. Why Kelley should choose to report the conversation in this way when Gilbert said that Saunders responded promptly, with none of the “hesitancy” reported by Kelley, was obviously to discredit the then dominant theory that Smith had help in writing the Book of Mormon. By altering Gilbert’s words Kelley provided readers with a good reason to discount the theory on the basis of one of its chief exponent’s own admissions.

It is, of course, possible that Saunders was mistaken in his recollection, but there is little ground for supposing that the mistake—if mistake it was—was due to Gilbert’s having planted the idea in the first place. The notes from which Kelley constructed this part of the interview read simply, “Lorenzo Saunders says Rigdon was in the neighborhood before B of M was published 18 months.”18 There is nothing here indicating the uncertainty Gilbert allegedly attributed to Saunders, nor does Gilbert, in a letter he wrote some months before his interview with Kelley, indicate hesitancy on the part of Saunders: “says he knows that Rigdon was hanging around Smith’s for eighteen months prior to the publishing of the Mormon Bible.”19 Finally, in 1885 and 1887 Saunders himself wrote two statements in which he described his alleged meeting with Rigdon in the spring of 1827, and in neither did he hint that he was less than certain about the recollection.20

There is additional evidence which throws light on Gilbert’s conversation with Saunders. On 17 September 1884, William Kelley was in Reading, Michigan, and there [p.88] spoke with Lorenzo Saunders himself about his knowledge of the Smith family and his memory of seeing Rigdon in Palmyra before 1830. On this occasion Kelley was considerably more careful than he had been in the past, for he wrote out the report on the spot and had Saunders sign it as being correct.

Kelley asked Saunders if he had seen Rigdon in the Smiths’ neighborhood before 1830, and Saunders answered, “Yes. In March 1827.” Kelley asked if Saunders knew Gilbert, to which he replied, “Yes. Four years ago I went to Palmyra to see my Brothers, and I met Gilbert. He wanted to know if I remembered seeing Sidney Rigdon in that neighborhood previous to 1830 when he come preaching the Mormon Bible.… Says I to Gilbert Sidney Rigdon was about Smiths before 1830 in my opinion. Gilbert asked me if I would make affidavit that I saw Rigdon at Smiths before that time? I told him I would think the matter over.… When I got ready to come home Gilbert said he wanted to see me before I left.… He came to me as I was about to start home and it was then that I told him that I had thought the matter over and made up my mind that I could swear that I saw Rigdon in the neighborhood in the spring of 1827.”21

Two observations should be made concerning Saunders’s statement. First, there is no mention of Saunders’s initial inability to remember seeing Rigdon before 1830. He answered Kelley promptly and remembered saying to Gilbert, “I saw Rigdon in the neighborhood in the spring of 1827.” Had Kelley been able to persuade Saunders to admit that he could not initially remember seeing Rigdon before 1830, Kelley would certainly have done so. But Saunders was firm in his recollection despite Kelley’s questions about the time, place, and circumstances of the alleged meeting. Second, in Kelley’s published report of his conversation with Gilbert, Gilbert is said to have [p.89] mentioned that Saunders hesitated and implies that Saunders was trying to remember something he could not remember. According to Saunders, he “studied it over” before committing to an affidavit because he wanted to be certain of the date. When he recalled the exact circumstances of their meeting, he felt confident enough to appear before a magistrate. Of course the issue is not whether Saunders’s recollection was correct but whether Kelley represented correctly what Gilbert said about Saunders’s recollection. Gilbert denied the suggestion that Saunders could not initially remember seeing Rigdon, and none of his or Saunders’s various statements indicate that Gilbert was lying. Significantly Kelley made no effort to publish the report of his own interview with Lorenzo Saunders.

When E. L. Kelley was told of Gilbert’s affidavit charging William Kelley with misrepresentation, he responded by calling Gilbert a liar. “The fact is,” he said, “Major Gilbert, if he made that affidavit, lied, and I know that he did. I am willing to face him in Palmyra, or any other place, and say that it is not true because I know his language was taken down at the time.” Gilbert, he continued, “does not state a single thing wherein he has been misrepresented. Was it in the statement that he had been trying for fifty years to collect evidence against the Book of Mormon? Was it in that he said he had a way out of the difficulty now he thought; that he had spoken to Saunders to testify that Rigdon was there, and afterwards had written him, but Saunders had not received it? Was it in that he is reported as disbelieving in the Bible?”22

A number of objections can be raised against Kelley’s rebuttal. First, Kelley was there with his brother at the original interview, so he must have been aware of some inaccuracies in the published report. Second, if Kelley’s list of guesses as to what specific charges Gilbert had in mind reflects Kelley’s own memory of the conversation, his [p.90] statement confirms rather than denies Gilbert’s version of the exchange. Gilbert’s list of claimed misrepresentations does not include one specific item mentioned by Kelley. Finally, there is no evidence that Gilbert ever told less than the truth on the subject of Mormonism. If one deletes the remarks Gilbert denied making, he told Kelley the same story he had repeated on many occasions—a story he did not embellish despite many opportunities to do so. Nor was Gilbert, as Kelley alleges, one who would defend a popular cause at the price of his own honesty. He never pretended to know more than he actually did about the origin of Mormonism and once repudiated a statement which, if true, would have lent credibility to the claim that Joseph Smith was a fraud.23

Gilbert was not the only one to charge Kelley with misrepresentation. Three others accused him of taking undue liberties with their words. Further evidence suggests that at least two others may have been similarly dissatisfied. In answer to the objection that this only proves collusion on the part of Kelley’s critics are Kelley’s own notes. These demonstrate that the complaints of Gilbert, Danford Booth, and Orin and Amanda Reed were not contrived, for comparing Kelley’s notes with his published reports provides independent support for the same accusations.

Gilbert’s first accusation was that Kelley’s report was anything but a stenographic record giving the respondents’ “exact language taken at the time; written in their presence.”24 Conversations containing thousands of words in Kelley’s published report were reconstructed from notes of not more than fifty words, notes often not even mentioning subjects addressed in the published report. In the published interview with Ezra Pierce, for example, Kelley asks about Joseph Smith’s drinking, education, money digging, and alleged counterfeiting. In addition, he also [p.91] engages Pierce in a long theological debate from which Kelley emerges the winner. However, in the forty-seven words “taken at the time,” there is no hint of talk about theology, money digging, or counterfeiting. All, it appears, are topics introduced by Kelley to show his religion in the best possible light, demonstrating not only the theological superiority of his faith but the duplicity of those who make unsupported accusations against Smith. Even if these additions could be ascribed to Kelley’s memory, the question still remains of just what Pierce actually said. As will be shown below, there are serious questions concerning Kelley’s accuracy even in reporting statements based on his own notes.

Kelley’s notes provide abundant evidence that he was guilty of deliberate misreporting when the subject was Joseph Smith’s character—especially the matter of Smith’s and his associates’ alleged intemperance. For example, Kelley’s published interview reports that he asked Danford Booth if Oliver Cowdery drank, and Booth replied, “Every body drank then. I never saw Cowdery drink.”25 In his notes, Kelley only wrote, “Was Cowdry a drunkard[?] Every body drank then.”26 The printed version corrects the implication in the notes that Cowdery drank along with everyone else by adding, “I never saw Cowdery drink.”

In other interviews Kelley substituted “drink” for the word “drunk” which appeared in his notes, a substitution which often resulted in a significant change of meaning. For example, in the published version, William Bryant answers “no” to Kelley’s question, “Did you ever see Joe Smith drunk, or drinking?”27 But according to Kelley’s notes, Bryant only said that he had never seen Smith drunk—not that he had never seen Smith drinking. A similar change occurs in Kelley’s interview with Ezra Pierce. Kelley’s notes show that Pierce said he “Has pulled sticks with Joes for a gallon of Brandy but never knew [him] to get drunk.”28 In [p.92] the published article, this notation is expanded into a long question-and-answer exchange in which Pierce volunteers the information that “Every body drank them times” but that he had never seen “young Joe drink.”29 Again the substitution of the word “drink” for “drunk” changes the meaning of the exchange.30

Kelley deviated most from his notes when respondents said something Kelley interpreted as being clearly detrimental to the character of Joseph Smith or his associates. According to Kelley’s notes, Mary Bryant said, “Cowdrys were low shacks.” Danford Booth called Oliver Cowdery a “low pettefogging lawer.”31 These statements were similar to those collected by the Rev. Thorne, and Kelley did not let them stand unadorned. In the published interview Bryant is made to emphatically claim that Lyman Cowdery and his family were the only Cowderys she ever knew. Since Lyman Cowdery was never a Mormon or even very sympathetic to Mormonism, such a claim did not damage the faith. Booth’s description of “O. Cowdery” as a “low pettefogging lawer” was also transmuted into a statement about Lyman Cowdery. In addition, Booth was made to explain that by “pettifogger” he did not mean a trickster but rather a lawyer who “took small cases and practiced before justices of the peace. We call them pettifoggers here.”32 This explanation removed much of the sting from the statement Orin Reed supposedly made for Rev. Thorne, “I was acquainted with Oliver Cowdery. He was a low pettifogger, the cat’s-paw of the Smiths to do their dirty work.”33

However brief and incomplete, Kelley’s notes were still sometimes too complete for his purposes. Two comments appear in his notes which find no parallel in the published report, probably because Kelley found both offensive. In John Stafford’s generally favorable report, he said, according to Kelley’s notes, “[Smith] was a little [p.93] contentious but never saw him fight—known him to scuffle.”34 In the published report, Stafford says only, “Never saw him fight; have known him to scuffle.”35 The phrase “he was a little contentious” would have spoiled what Richard Anderson later interpreted as “the distinction between brawling and playful wrestling.”36 Kelley also deleted the latter part of Gilbert’s statement, “Harris was a very honest farmer but very superstitious—He saw the Book with his spiritual eyes.”37 Since anti-Mormon writers had long been using Martin Harris’s comment about witnessing the Book of Mormon gold plates in a vision to cast doubt upon the objective reality of the plates, Kelley simply removed the comment.38

Another problem is Kelley’s marked tendency to “improve” statements reflecting favorably on the Smiths. For example, in the notes of his conversation with Thomas Taylor, Kelley recorded only, “Says nothing has been sustained against Smith.”39 From this Kelley constructed a lengthy panegyric which even Smith’s most devoted followers would have been hard-pressed to match. Smith’s only fault, according to Kelley’s Taylor, was that he was “ahead of the people.” “There was something about him they could not understand; some way he knew more than they did, and it made them mad.” The Smiths were hated because they had “the manhood to stand up for their own convictions,” and those who claim otherwise are nothing more than “a set of d——d liars” who “love a lie better than the truth.” Smith’s story of the gold plates Taylor also unhesitatingly affirmed: “Right over here, in Illinois and Ohio, in mounds there, they have discovered copper plates since, with hieroglyphics all over them; and quite a number of the old settlers around here testified that Smith showed the plates to them—they were good, honest men, and what is the sense in saying they lied?” Kelley does add a disclaimer of sorts, for Taylor is a non-Mormon: “Now, I [p.94] never saw the Book of Mormon—don’t know anything about it, nor care.”40 This is the same statement Kelley had put in the mouth of Orlando Saunders when he, too, had waxed overly enthusiastic.

Anderson’s argument that the Kelley report provides a reliable source for contemporary information about Joseph Smith has been thoroughly discredited. Kelley claimed to be reporting the facts “impartially—just as they occurred—the good and the bad, side by side,” yet he deleted or amended derogatory remarks, embellished or deliberately created favorable recollections, and sometimes invented dialogue. He claimed that his report was a verbatim transcript, when in fact it was a reconstruction based partly on notes, partly on memory, and partly on a determined will to discredit Philastus Hurlbut.

While Kelley’s published report may contain more hagiography than history, his notes are of particular interest in relationship to the evidence gathered by Hurlbut. Despite the differences in purpose of the two men, and the differences of opinion between the people they contacted, the fact is that their witnesses rarely dissented from each other on specific grounds of experience. For example, according to Kelley’s notes of those asked about the Smiths’ drinking habits, two replied that the Smiths drank but they did not remember seeing them drunk, one did remember seeing Joseph Smith and his father “Drunk in a hay field,” and another recalled Joseph Smith getting drunk on boiled cider.41 A number said that the Smiths were good workers if hired by someone else but if left to themselves were “shiftless” and “poor managers.”42

On the matter of the Smiths’ money digging, only one witness claimed to know anything about it, and he told much the same story as Hurlbut’s witnesses. Dr. John Stafford, who probably knew more about the Smiths than anyone else interviewed by Kelley, recalled that “old Joe [p.95] claimed he understood Geology and could tell all kinds of minerals,” and he remembered an unsuccessful attempt by Lucy Smith to borrow his father’s seer stone.43 When asked about his personal knowledge of the Smiths’ money digging, he responded, “Smiths with others were hunting for money previous to obtaining plates.… Saw them dig 3 or 4 years before B[ook] was found—Joe not there.”44 Stafford may here be referring to the same dig described by his father nearly fifty years before. On that occasion Joseph Smith was not at the digging site but supervising from the house, “looking in his stone and watching the motions of the evil spirit.”45

Stafford was hardly the kind of malicious gossip-monger which Anderson denominates Hurlbut’s witnesses. Stafford in fact called Joseph Smith “a real clevy [clever] jovial boy” and thought Pomeroy Tucker’s derogatory comments on the family “false absolutely.”46 But he agreed with Tucker that Smith was a money digger who sometimes drank too much.

Nor was Stafford alone in his opinion. When Frederick Mather traveled to Pennsylvania in 1880 to interview people there who had known Joseph Smith, four of the nine people he talked with regarded Smith as “a good and kind neighbor,” but many of these same people stated that he was also an intemperate and superstitious money digger. Clearly when sympathetic and antagonistic witnesses tend to agree on a story, there is every reason to accept that story as true.

One report which Anderson claims cannot be reconciled with Hurlbut’s early affidavits is the statement of Orlando Saunders, who described the Smiths as good workers and “the best family in the neighborhood in case of sickness.”47 Saunders’s report is certainly valuable for emphasizing the Smith family’s charity, but it does not conflict with statements collected by Hurlbut. The Smith [p.96] family could have been involved in money digging and still have been “kind in sickness.” Similarly, the fact that Saunders did not mention money digging does not mean that the Smiths were not money diggers. Kelley may not have asked Saunders about money digging or he may have failed to record an answer.

Saunders’s statement that the Smiths were “good fellows to work” also does not contradict Hurlbut’s accusation of shiftlessness in connection with their money digging. If Saunders’s contact with the family predated their most intensive money-digging period, then his claim harmonizes with the statement of Joshua Stafford, who recorded that the Smiths “were laboring people” until sometime after they “commenced digging for hidden treasures.”48 But it is not necessary to thus limit Saunders’s contact in order to harmonize the reports. Hurlbut’s witnesses did not accuse the Smiths of unqualified laziness. As several reports make clear, the Smiths were considered “indolent” not because they were idlers but because they devoted a disproportionate share of their time to the profitless business of money digging. They seemed, at least to their neighbors, more interested in pursuing “visionary projects” than in successfully earning a traditional living.

While much of what Saunders said about the Smiths is not strictly in conflict with Hurlbut’s description of the family, there still remain some remarks which resist harmonization. In every case, however, these seemingly irreconcilable statements cannot definitely be ascribed to Saunders. For example, Anderson cites one of Saunders’s comments in order to disprove “the Hurlbut contention that the Book of Mormon was Joseph Smith’s inconsistent adaptation of his treasure seeking,”49 but the statement he cites cannot be located among the notes Kelley took at the time of the original interview. Anderson also quotes an alleged recollection as evidence that the Smiths paid their [p.97] debts, but again the statement is found only in the printed version of Kelley’s interview with Saunders.50 Considering Kelley’s “evident editorializing talents,” such remarks are clearly of little value unless confirmed by independent evidence.

Despite Kelley’s attempt to “improve” on Saunders’s recollection, there is still no reason to think that Saunders’s opinion of the Smiths was less than favorable. This, however, in no way supports Anderson’s contention that Hurlbut’s witnesses are untrustworthy; it only shows that Saunders’s experience differed on some points from theirs. Clearly, because a witness like Saunders found the Smiths industrious and temperate does not prove them to have been so at all times and in all places, just as the fact that those who saw them drunk when they should have been working does not prove them always to have been drunken laggards. It seems more likely that all of these witnesses were telling the truth insofar as they knew it, and that the Smiths are simply being described from the particular perspective of the witnesses’ contact with the family. Saunders’s recollection that the Smiths drank but never got drunk means only that they never got drunk in his presence, which of course does not mean that a witness like C. M. Stafford was lying when he claimed to have seen Smith drunk often, especially since he recalled one specific incident also described by Barton and John Stafford.

The same may be said of Saunders’s and Stafford’s recollections of the Smiths’ working habits. Saunders described the male Smiths as “good workers” and singled out Samuel Smith as the best; Stafford also called Samuel an “industrious boy” but remembered Joseph Smith as “the laziest one of the family.” Stafford may only have meant that Joseph was not as diligent a worker as his brother, but Stafford had other reasons for this opinion. [p.98] On two separate occasions Smith had had too much to drink while working with Stafford, which would hardly recommend him as a dependable worker in Stafford’s eyes.

In this same regard it is interesting to compare Orlando Saunders’s impressions of the Smiths with those of his brother Lorenzo, who knew the Smiths equally well but did not share Orlando’s favorable opinion of the family. Orlando remembered Lucy Smith primarily because of her kindness during his father’s illness, but Lorenzo was also impressed with the fact that she “could not tell a straight story” and was “industrious but nasty,” evidently referring to the type of work she sometimes did. Orlando mentioned the elder Smith only in passing, but Lorenzo remembered him as a profoundly superstitious man who “would go to turkey shoots and get drunk pretend to enchant their guns so they could not kill a turkey.” Orlando did not refer to Joseph Smith except to include him with the other Smiths as a good worker, but Lorenzo recalled meeting him on a number of specific occasions. He described Smith’s seer stone and recalled asking him if “he could not look into futurity? Joe said he could not look into any holy thing.” Orlando admitted that he had never seen them digging for money but claimed he once witnessed them digging in a hill “said to be for that purpose; that young Joe could look in his Peep Stone and see a man sitting in a gold chair. Old Joe said he was King i.e. the man in the chair; a King of one of the tribes, who was shut in there in the time of one of their big battles.” Lorenzo agreed with his brother that the Smiths “were pretty good fellows in their way” but in his opinion were not respectable because “they were shiftless and were in the money digging business.”51

The unanimity of contemporary, firsthand opinion on these two points—money digging and drinking—from the Smith family’s closest acquaintances is impressive. Lorenzo Saunders thought that Joseph Smith, Sr., [p.99] drank too much and that his son Joseph Jr. was a shiftless money digger. Isaac Butts and Christopher M. Stafford, who both attended school with Joseph Jr. and worked with him on numerous occasions, described the elder Smith as a drunkard and his namesake as a frequently intoxicated money digger. Isaac Hale, who perhaps knew Joseph Smith as well if not better than anyone outside Smith’s immediate family, condemned his son-in-law as a money-digging imposter. And Hale’s son Alva, who knew Joseph Smith almost as well, shared his father’s opinion, adding that he believed Smith proved himself dishonest when he backed out of his promise to show Hale the gold plates.

Although the impressions of Joseph Smith by his early acquaintances are phrased in subjective, sometimes hostile language, they are not, as Richard Anderson maintains, contradictory. Anderson’s assumption that complimentary reports negate what he sees as derogatory comments is unconvincing.52 If our intent is the beatification of the young Joseph Smith, we may suspect collusion among dishonest witnesses. But if we are willing to accept the reminiscences at face value, as all available evidence suggests, we can clearly see the surprise and resentment of neighbors who saw in Smith a nondescript, even disreputable, young man from a poor family who had sent himself up as the leader of a new religious movement. [p.107]


1. Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 305.

2. The Saints’ Herald 29 (March 1882): 68.

3. Anderson, 305n47.

4. Cadillac (MI) Weekly News, 6 April 1880, in E. L. Kelley and Clark Braden, Public Discussion of the Issues Between the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Christ (Disciples) … (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Co., 1884), 119. I have been unable to locate an original copy of this newspaper.

5. William H. Kelley, “The Hill Cumorah … The Stories of Hurlbert, Howe, Tucker, &c. From Later Interviews,” Saints’ Herald 28 (1 June 1881): 162.

6. Ibid., 162-63.

7. Ibid., 165.

8. The following affidavits are copied from the originals in the Ontario County Clerk’s Office:

State of New York
County of Ontario

Danforth Booth, of the town of Manchester in said County, being duly affirmed deposes and says, that he has read the article published in the Cadillac Mich Weekly news of April 6, 1880, respecting “Cowdery and the Smith family” over the signature of C. C. Thorne, that the interview therein mentioned, between deponent and said Thorne, did in fact take place, and that the matters set forth therein, alleged to have been stated by deponent to said Thorne were so stated by deponent.

Deponent further says that he has read a paper called the “Saints Herald” purporting to give an interview between one Wm H Kelley and another person and deponent, in which they state that deponent informed them that said Thorne and deponent never had an interview as alleged by said Thorne. Deponent says that he did not so inform them, and has no recollection of such question being asked him.

[Signed] D. Booth
Subscribed and affirmed
to before me July 1, 1881

N. K. Cole
Justice of the Peace

State of New York
County of Ontario

Orrin Reed of the town of Manchester, in said County being duly affirmed, deposes and says,—that his age is 77 years,—that he was born in the town of Farmington, and about four miles from Mormon Hill (so called) that for forty six years last past he has resided in said town Manchester, and in the same school district in which Joseph Smith, and family—of Mormon notoriety—resided and three fourths of a mile from Mormon Hill aforesaid. Deponent says that he has read the article published in the Cadillac (Mich) Weekly News of April 6, 1880, respecting “Cowdery and the Smith family” over the signature of C. C. Thorne,—that the matters set forth therein alleged to have been stated by deponent to said Thorne were so stated by deponent at the time and as mentioned in said published article.

[Signed] Orin Reed
Affirmed and subscribed
to before me June 29, 1881

N. K. Cole
Justice of the Peace

State of New York
County of Ontario

Amanda Reed being duly affirmed deposes and says that she is the wife of Orin Reed, whose deposition appears above, that she was present and heard a conversation between her said husband and C. C. Thorne—that the statements alleged to have been made by said Thorne as published in the Cadillac Mich Weekly News, over the signature of said Thorne were—in fact so made, and that the language employed by her said husband was substantially as therein set forth.

[Signed] Amanda Reed
Affirmed and subscribed
to before me June 29, 1881

N. K. Cole
Justice of the Peace



9. Letter dated 19 June 1881, Palmyra, NY, in Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of Mormon Polygamy (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Co., 1914), 37-38.

10. Anderson, 305.

11. Kelley, “Interviews,” 168; Braden and Kelley Debate, 122.

12. Kelley, “Notes,” back of p. 9, archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri.

13. Compare Gilbert’s letter to Cobb, 10 Feb. 1879, Palmyra, Wayne County, NY: “In one instance he [Cowdery] was looking over the manuscript, when the word ‘travail’ occurred twice in the form, but spelled in the manuscript travel. Mr. Grandin when reading the proof pronounced the word correctly, but Cowdery did not seem to know the difference.” Original in the New York Public Library. Gilbert also alluded to this same change in a letter to Clark Braden, dated Palmyra, 27 Feb. 1884, in Braden and Kelley Debate, 382.

14. Kelley, “Notes,” back of p. 5.

15. In numerous statements, Gilbert was careful to explain that he did not set all of the type. See, for example, the Detroit Post & Tribune, 3 Dec. 1877.

16. In his 27 February 1884 letter to Braden, Gilbert maintained: “Mr. Kelley misrepresented me in every important particular in his article.… If Mr. Kelley has to resort to falsehood and mis-representation to defend Mormonism, he had better leave them and become an honest man if possible.”

17. Kelley, “Interviews,” 168.

18. Kelley, “Notes,” 9.

19. Letter of J. H. Gilbert to James T. Cobb, dated Palmyra, 14 Oct. 1879, in William Wyl, Mormon Portraits … (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing & Publishing Co., 1886), 231.

20. Saunders’s statements appeared in Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of the Book of Mormon (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Co., 1914), 134-35; and Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism 1 (Jan. 1888): 2.

21. Unpublished statement of Lorenzo Saunders, 2, 4-5, 13, RLDS church archives.

22. Braden and Kelley Debate, 123.

23. Gilbert to James T. Cobb, 16 March 1879; original in New York Public Library. Gilbert refuted the statement of J. N. T. Tucker, first published in the Signs of the Times, 8 June 1842, and later in John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints … (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 123.

24. Braden and Kelley Debate, 122.

25. Kelley, “Interviews,” 162.

26. Kelley, “Notes,” 3.

27. Kelley, “Interviews,” 162.

28. Kelley, “Notes,” 4.

29. Kelley, “Interviews,” 163.

30. Another example of Kelley’s manner of handling the charge of drinking occurs in his interview with Abel Chase. According to the published article, Chase said nothing about the Smiths’ drinking habits, but in Kelley’s notes appears the entry, “Every one drank” (p. 10). Since this comment immediately follows a list of the members of the Smith family (which in the article is taken from the mouth of Chase and put into the mouth of Orlando Saunders, evidently to make the sympathetic Saunders appear to know the Smiths better than the unsympathetic Chase), it probably refers to the Smiths’ collective drinking habits, not those of their neighbors.

31. Kelley, “Notes,” 2, 3.

32. Kelley, “Interview,” 162. It is possible that Bryant and Booth were confusing Lyman with Oliver Cowdery, but nothing appears in Kelley’s notes to indicate this. It appears that Kelley decided to have his witnesses correct themselves rather than correcting them by way of editorial comment. In this way Kelley could remove the bite from such remarks yet still claim his interviews were published “without comment.”

33. Cadillac Weekly News, 6 April 1880, in Braden and Kelley Debate, 119.

34. Kelley, “Notes,” 14.

35. Kelley, “Interviews,” 167.

36. Anderson, 306.

37. Kelley, “Notes,” 10.

38. Gilbert repeated Harris’s remark at least three times to others, once in his 16 March 1879 letter to Cobb (original in New York Public Library), once in a memorandum dated 8 September 1892 (original in the Palmyra King’s Daughters Free Library, Inc.), and again in an interview reported in the New York Herald, 25 June 1893. Other references to Harris’s statement are found in John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia: W. J. & J. K. Simon, 1842), 256-57; Pomeroy Tucker, The Origin, Rise and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1867), 71, 290; Braden and Kelley Debate, 173; A. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism 2 (April 1888):1, 3; A. Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast.… (Malad, ID: By the Author, 1888), 70; and Stephen Burnett’s letter to Lyman E. Johnson, 15 April 1838, Orange Township, Geauga County, Ohio, archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. For evidence that David Whitmer may have held much the same opinion, see Emily Dickinson, New Light on Mormonism (New York: Funk & Wagnails, 1885), 261-62, and Gene A. Sessions, ed., A View of James Henry Moyle: His Diaries and Letters (Salt Lake City: n.p., 1974), 28-30.

39. Kelley, “Notes,” 1.

40. Kelley, “Interviews,” 167.

41. Kelley, “Notes,” 11, back of p. 13.

42. Ibid., 7, 14.

43. Ibid., back of p. 14, 15, back of p. 13. Compare this last recollection to the statement of Samantha Payne, “She [Lucy Smith] once came to my mother to get a stone the children had found, of curious shape. She wanted to use it as a peepstone.” Cited in Braden and Kelley Debate, 350.

44. Ibid., 13, back of p. 15. Kelley changed little of this when preparing his report for publication except to weaken the force of Stafford’s recollection by inserting a qualifying, “I think,” into his account of seeing the Smiths in a treasure dig. Anderson pounces upon this phrase as casting doubt on Stafford’s recollection.

45. William Stafford also dates this dig as occurring some time before the Smiths “pretended to find a gold bible.” Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed … (Painesville, OH: Printed and published by the author, 1834), 239.

46. Kelley, “Notes,” 13.

47. Ibid., 6.

48. Howe, 258.

49. Anderson, 309.

50. In Kelley’s notes the only entry which could have formed the basis for such a remark is attributed not to Saunders but to Hyram Jackway, who told Kelley that “Hyram and his father owed Mr. Jaynes 150$” (p. 12).

51. Unpublished statement of Lorenzo Saunders, 1-3, 7-8, RLDS church archives.

52. See Anderson, 312.