Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined
by Rodger I. Anderson
The Recollections of Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith
[p.107]Richard Anderson’s final argument in his defense of Joseph Smith’s New York reputation is that the recollections of Smith’s own family provide the best refutation of the Hurlbut and Deming affidavits. Certainly the Smiths were in a better position to report accurately on young Joseph s activities and character than Hurlbut’s or Deming’s witnesses, but granting this does not mean that they necessarily did so. Indeed, from evidence to follow, the family was as intent on concealing certain facts as Hurlbut’s and Deming’s witnesses were to reveal them. The Smith family reminiscences, while valuable, cannot therefore be opposed to the testimony of more hostile witnesses simply on the grounds of their unsupported say-so.
An illustration of how the Smiths reacted to adverse criticism may be found in William Smith’s recollection of the family’s drinking habits. According to him, “I never knew my father Joseph Smith to be intoxicated or the worse for liquor, nor was my brother Joseph Smith in the habit of drinking spiritous liquors.”1 William’s [p.108] statement, made in 1875, was intended to contradict the many witnesses claiming to have seen Joseph Smith and his father drunk, but William only succeeded in proving himself either uniformed or deliberately untruthful. Besides the host of witnesses contradicting William’s recollection, there also exist other evidences proving his statement less than candid. If his family was not “in the habit of drinking spiritous liquors,” it is difficult to explain the entries in neighborhood grocer Lemual Durfee’s account book recording the sale of numerous barrels of “cider liquor” to Joseph, Hyrum, and Samuel Smith during the years 1827-28.
Similarly, if Joseph Smith, Sr., was never “intoxicated or the worse for liquor,” it is difficult to explain a remark he made on 9 December 1834, while giving a blessing to his son Hyrum. On that occasion the elder Smith said regarding himself, “Though he has been out of the way, through wine, thou hast never forsaken him nor laughed him to scorn.”2 William Smith was certainly in a position to report truthfully on this and other matters, but such apparently intentional misrepresentations prove him to be more concerned with defending his family’s reputation than with writing authentic history.
Much the same may be said of the recollections of Lucy Mack Smith. According to one Mormon writer, her reminiscence of her famous son “reveals personal pride and much concern for the social status of her family,”3 qualities which would hardly encourage her to report fully on such activities as money digging. Thus in explaining why Joseph Stowell hired her son in 1825, she says only that Stowell “came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain means, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.”4 She does not explain what it was her son possessed which enabled him to see things otherwise invisible, nor does she specify what rumors prompted Stowell, a known money digger, to seek out the [p.109] services of her son in locating a lost silver mine. Lucy does not provide these particulars because to do so would be admitting that her son possessed a seer stone in which he could see “wonders,” a practice she condemns in others as “ridiculous.”5
Lucy further tries to minimize her son’s early reputation as a scryer by claiming that all the stories of his money digging are traceable to his brief employment by Stowell in Pennsylvania. But as previously noted, Smith himself confessed that he had dug for “lost property” prior to his employment by Stowell, and Martin Harris said that Smith dug for money in New York for some time after his return from Pennsylvania. Harris also reported that when Smith brought home the gold plates, “Mr. Stowel was at this time at old Mr. Smith’s, digging for money,” and related many stories told him by the diggers about the “strange sights” they had witnessed in their quest for buried treasures.6 Lucy, however, says only that Stowell came to help the family with certain legal difficulties and mentions nothing about the money digging. Like her son Joseph, she admitted the charge of money digging but attempted to make it appear far less extensive than it evidently was.
In addition to Lucy Mack Smith’s selective memory, the editors of her dictated reminiscences, Martha and Howard Coray, deleted from the published account such ambiguous statements as Lucy’s denial that she and her family “stopt our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing magic circles, or sooth saying, to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation.”7 The implication is that the family did engage in a bit of “sooth saying”—just not to the extent claimed by their neighbors. Lucy’s editors, however, deleted the remark so as not to give credibility to the many stories linking the Smiths to the practice of magic.
[p.110] These attempts by Lucy Mack Smith, William Smith, and the Corays to present the Smith family in the best possible light do not discredit their accounts. One expects some selectivity in autobiographies, even if in the end this is unnecessary. Lucy Smith could have admitted both her family’s occult activities and their more “religious” pursuits, correctly maintaining that there is no necessary disharmony between the two. However, because many of her neighbors found the roles of money digger and prophet contradictory, Lucy apparently felt obligated to emphasize the latter role over the former.
William Smith responded in a similar way to criticisms about his family’s drinking habits. The fact that his father had a drinking problem is unfortunate but ultimately irrelevant to the religious claims of Joseph Smith, just as Smith’s own occasional indulgences do not prove his visions mere subjective fantasies. However, rather than present to the world a photograph from life, Lucy and William chose to offer an idealized portrait of their family—a task which has since been assumed by Hugh Nibley, Richard Anderson, and others. [p.113]
1. Notes written on Chambers’ Miscellany, 6, in Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 314. Born in 1811, William was in his teens during much of the 1820s.
2. Durfee’s account book is in the Palmyra King’s Daughters Free Library, Inc. Joseph Smith Sr.’s remark occurred as part of a patriarchal blessing to Hyrum Smith; original in the Hyrum Smith papers, archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. Durfee’s account book lends some support to Martin Harris’s charge, made in 1834, “that Joseph drank too much liquor when he was translating the Book of Mormon.” Later, when called to account for the remark, Harris amended his statement to mean “this thing occurred previous to the translating of the book.” Times and Seasons 6 (15 Aug. 1845): 992.
6. Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (Aug. 1859): 165. Richard Anderson attempts to dismiss Harris’s remarks by claiming “contamination” from the reporter, Joel Tiffany, who may have read Eber D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed before interviewing Harris. Such a conjecture is unlikely for the simple reason that much of the information contained in Tiffany’s report is not found in Howe. This includes most of the money-digging and scrying incidents, which while compatible with Hurlbut’s evidence, clearly come from another source. Nor is there much mystery about who this other source was. Tiffany stated that it was Martin Harris who wanted the account written up and that the narration was taken not from Tiffany’s memory but “from the lips of Martin Harris, and read … to him after it was written, that we might be certain of giving his statement to the world” (p. 163). Harris, it should be noted, at no time denied the accuracy of Tiffany‘s report.