Was Joseph Smith Arrested For Fraud & Treasure-Hunting?

Oliver Cowdery wrote in the Messenger and Advocate about Joseph Smith’s 1926 arrest: “Some very officious person complained of him as a disorderly person and brought him before the authorities of the county but there being no cause of action he was honorably acquitted.”

All other information we have about the incident relies on unreliable information and possible forgeries. There are six accounts of the 1826 hearing:

  1. Benton Account, 1831 – Anti-Mormon Abraham W. Benton studied medicine under Nathan Boynton, who married the sister of one of the 1826 hearing witnesses, Arad Stowell. I’m not sure how this made Benton qualified to know anything about the 1826 trial, but apparently he knew enough to write an article about it in the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate. He allegations coincidentally reflect details from unrelated allegations by Obediah Dogberry published earlier that year in the local paper
  2. Noble Account, 1842 – Presiding judge for Joseph Smith’s later 1830 trial, Joel K. Noble, allegedly wrote a letter he to anti-Mormon Socialist Jonathan B. Turner. Why wasn’t this letter wasn’t known about until 1973? In the alleged letter, Noble does not explain how he knows anything about the trial. Maybe he just read Benton’s Account in the local newspaper.
  3. Marshall Account, 1873 – Charles Marshall, a journalist from England, claimed that he copied this account from the original “judicial proceedings” which an anonymous woman in Salt Lake City had shown him. No explanation of who the woman was, where he got the proceedings, or how he verified them.
  4. Purple Account, 1877 – William D. Purple – He claimed to be a friend of Justice Neeley, who presided at the hearing, and he claimed he coincidentally took copious notes of the trial. He also just happened to be a rabid anti-Mormon who called Mormonism a “giant evil” that threatened “to subvert all principles of law and order.” Then why did he wait over 50 years to mention anything about the trial?
  5. Tuttle Account, 1883 – Bishop Daniel Tuttle of the Utah Episcopalian mission published what he claimed was the “official court record,” which he claimed to have received from Emily Pearsall, the niece of Justice Neely. But then he claimed that he gave it to a Methodist group and the “official court record” mysteriously disappeared. Also, this coudn’t have been a “court record,” as misdemeanor trials were not recorded.
  6. Walters Court Bills – In 1971, anti-Mormon Wesley P. Walters “found” the court bills from Justice Neely and Constable De Zeng in the Norwich county jail house in New York. Instead of notifying a historian or scholar, Walters stole the documents, which coincidentally happened to suffer severe water damage, making them highly suspect to be forgeries, and published them in anti-Mormon propaganda. The timing is also curious, as this was around the time expert forger Mark Hofmann started passing off phony early Mormon documents.

Contradictions

These accounts are all filled with serious contradictions.

Who brought the charges?
Cowdery: A very “officious” person
Benton: The public
Noble: Civil authority
Marshall: Peter G. Bridgman
Purple: Sons of Mr. Stowell
Tuttle: Peter G. Bridgman
Walter Bills: The Public
What were the charges?
Cowdery: Disorderly person
Benton: Disorderly person
Noble: Vagrancy
Marshall: Disorderly person & imposter
Purple: Vagrancy, without visible means of livelihood
Tuttle: Disorderly person & imposter
Walter Bills: A misdemeanor
How many witnesses?
Marshall: 5, billed for 7
Purple: 4
Tuttle: 6
Walter Bills: 12
What Was The Verdict?
Cowdery: Honorably acquitted
Benton: Tried and condemned
Noble: Condemned, took bail
Marshall: Guilty
Purple: Guilty
Tuttle: Discharged
Walter Bills: Never went to trial
Joseph Smith’s defense?
Marshall: Spent most of his time farming, going to school, and little time money digging. Used a stone to look for treasure, but no longer solicited this kind of work.
Purple: A girl with a stone helped him find his stone buried beneath a tree, and it gave him the power of an “all seeing eye.”
Who Was The Second Witness?
Marshall: Josiah Stowell
Purple: Joseph Smith Sr. – “Mortified” that his son used “this wonderful power” for “filthy lucre.”
Who Was The Last Witness?
Marshall: Jonathan Thompson – Found treasure chest buried by Indian who killed his friend to guard it.
Purple: Jonathan Thompson – A group of robber enchanted a treasure, and they sacrificed a lamb to get it.

Phony Charges By A Religious Competitor – It is likely that there was some kind of arrest, as Oliver Cowdery admits it happened. But the case was thrown out in a pre-trial hearing.

The reason Peter Bridgman brought charges of being a “disorderly person” was because his uncle Josiah was joining with the Mormon church and he didn’t like it. Bridgman was licensed as an “extorter by the Methodists, and within three years had helped establish the West Bainbridge Methodist church.” He had religious reasons for bringing down Joseph Smith.

There is discrepency across the board about what the complain actually was. It appears to have been about vagrancy or disorderly conduct–not fraud or anything of that sort. The alleged bill from the judge lists the charge simply as a “misdemeanor,” which is unusually vague for a court document. Perhaps they weren’t settle on what the charge should be? If it was vagrancy, obviously Joseph Smith had a home and was not vagrant, so that’s ridiculous. Vagrancy was defined by the 1813 New York legal code:

“…all persons who not having wherewith to maintain themselves, live idle without employment, and also all persons who go about from door to door, or place themselves in the streets, highways or passages, to beg in the cities or towns where they respectively dwell, and all jugglers, and all persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science, or pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found; … shall be deemed and adjudged disorderly persons.”

It is weird that they would accuse Joseph Smith of pretending to discover lost goods from town to town when Joseph Smith obviously had a home and did not beg. He obviously had “visible means of livelihood,” as he was a farmer. Perhaps this is why the case was so quickly thrown out.

According to the accounts, Joseph Smith had been employed by Josiah Stowell to help search for a lost silver mine and do some other work, and he reportedly used a seer stone. But there is no solid evidence from this trial that Joseph Smith did use a seer stone. The alleged court bill labels Joseph Smith “the glasslooker,” but this is a title it gives him, not an accusation. It doesn’t charge him with “glass looking.” I can’t find any serious explanation of what a “glass-looker” actually is–presumably it has something to do with seer stones–but it is curious that this is given as a title for Joseph Smith instead of the charge against him.

There was no trial, no court record, and no guilty verdict.

Not A Family BusinessCES Letter claims:

“Many people believed in buried treasure, and the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere. This is why treasure digging existed. Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother (Hyrum) had a family business treasure hunting from 1820-1827.” (CES Letter)

Not true. The family business was farming, not treasure hunting, and they were quite successful farmers. In fact, the anti-Mormon alleged account even admits that Joseph Smith Sr. was “mortified” by Joseph Smith’s activities and urged him to use his seer abilities correctly. His family had nothing to do with it. So even if it happened, it was not at all a “business.” Newspapers in Joseph Smith’s area were filled with accounts of successful treasure digging. It would make sense if a young teenager got caught up in the excitement and tried his hand at it.

Joseph Smith was arrested again in 1830 in the same fashion, on charges of vagrancy, after baptizing locals into the Mormon church, causing religious competition. Charges were again dismissed, as he clearly had a home and did not move around like a conman would.

Unrelated To Visions – None of the rumours and charges of treasure seeking and seer stones are credible. The rumours probably came from somewhere, yes. The church has a stone in its vaults, after all, which was passed down as a “seer stone” so it is likely that Joseph Smith had one. Maybe he used it as a kid to seek out a silver mine and people’s lost items. Maybe he was even successful at it; the supposed victim of this 1826 hearing, Josiah Stowell, defended Joseph Smith and joined the church, according to these accounts. But Joseph never used it to “see spirits and their dwelling places.”

The alleged seer stone activities were always unrelated to his spiritual visions and translations. The allegations themselves are not very credible, as they rely on shaky quotes and possibly forged documents.

CES Letter Logical Fallacies

Falsehood CES Letter claims Joseph Smith was arrested “for trial on fraud.” But none of the accounts claim that the charges were “fraud.” The hearing could not have possibly been a “trial.” There is no evidence that he was arrested–though it is likely to have happened, as a pre-trial examination likely did take place.

There is no evidence that the Smith family ran a “treasure hunting business” or that Joseph looked for precious items as early as 1820.

Shifting Goalposts Earlier, CES Letter suggested that people of the time were excited about looking for treasure because of Captain Kidd novels. But now it is because they were superstitiously seeing spirits and their dwelling places. Of, CES Letter ignores the newspaper accounts of people actually acutally discovering treasure in the area.
Guilt By
Association
CES Letter reasons treasure hunting existed because people claimed to see spirits in the hills and associates this to Joseph Smith.
Affirming The
Consequent
CES Letter reasons treasure hunting existed because people claimed to see spirits in the hills and associates this to Joseph Smith. Not only is this guilt by association, but this typical argument is a logical leap of a consequent: Treasure hunting existed because people were superstious; Joseph Smith was arrested after looking for a silver mine; therefore, Joseph Smith was superstitious.
Post Hoc CES Letter uses Joseph Smith’s mention of Josiah Stowell in his ‘history’ as evidence for the argument, but Joseph Smith never said anything to back up this argument.
Ad Hominem The entire point of this argument, and the reason he was arrested in the first place, was to smear his character.
Appeal To Ignorance When very little is known about an event, it is easy for skeptics to fill in the blank, as people overwhelmingly believe negative opinions before they believe positives. We know very little of the seer stone activities, if they happened at all. The only slightly-credible allegations of “treasure hunting” is Joseph Smith finding some lost coins and looking for a silver mine.
Tu Quoque CES Letter‘s ideology is essentially one of superstition, where we should rely on dubious quotes that are found on the internet, yet Mormonism is what is “rooted in folk magic and superstition”?
Charged Language Notice that CES Letter calls it treasure “hunting,” a subtle use of violent imagery, and act like there aren’t any treasure hunters today because we don’t believe in spirits like they did back then.

Dehumanizing – This argument begins in a very disturbing fashion, where CES Letter potrays the entire 19th century New England community as a superstitious and backwards community, different from us today. They push the entire community into the ‘out-group’ in order to make it look like Mormons are still part of that ‘out-group.’ This is like a racial supremacist who says another culture is ‘degenerate’ or ‘primitive.’

As others have pointed out, these were people who were pushing the frontier of civilization. They were trailblazers, inventers, and farmers who were much closer to the land than we are today. Maybe, just maybe, they know more about superstition is or isn’t than does CES Letter?

It is so easy for us today to sit in judgement of these 19th century trailblazers, in our cushy office chairs, our convenience stores and air conditioned homes, and to brag about how advanced they are above those superstitious Mormons. But how would it be for one skeptic or anti-Mormon make the trek across the open plains and build a civilization out of barren salt flats? How would they deal with the persecution and fear, with death waiting around every corner? Joseph Smith did not have time to parse his words so fragile Millenials of our day wouldn’t get offended.

If the allegations are true, so what? What if Josiah Stowell did hire Joseph Smith to find a silver mine? Does that justify him getting arrested?

I find it ironic that the same skeptics who complain about Mormons ‘stifling free speech’ or patroling people’s behavior attack the victim of this, someone who got arrested for free speech. Did it ever cross CES Letter‘s mind that it was wrong to arrest Joseph Smith on these charges, even if the charges were true? Or should we start going around arresting psychics and card readers? In their zeal to attack Joseph Smith, CES Letter adopts a mindset of a Dark Age church inquisitor.

Bullying – This argument is the kind of argument that a bully uses against someone he beats up. “If you are so smart, nerd, why can’t you do anything about it?” Joseph Smith allegedly gets arrested for practicing what he considered spiritual abilities, and CES Letter blames him for it? Blaming the victim?

CES Letter builds a narrative where Joseph Smith had to be pure as the white snow as a kid or he isn’t a real prophet. If the people really were all about looking for treasure using rocks, isn’t that something a kid would try to do? Isn’t that the kind of thing a religious competitor would exploit to get him in trouble over? If Joseph Smith really did have prophetic powers to translate ancient documents, couldn’t that manifest in other ways, perhaps in an ability to find coins in the ground? I imagine a future version of CES Letter 200 years from now looking back at a prophet and screaming, “Look, he played with Pokemon Cards in his teenage years!!”

Isn’t it interesting that Mormons need science to verify every single part of their narrative, yet CES Letter gets to make all kinds of guesses based on dubious quotes? We need to prove that every single animal mentioned in the Book of Mormon existed in Book of Mormon times, but CES Letter gets to make all kinds of claims based on a tiny piece of paper some guy supposedly stole from a county courthouse? This is science?

Actually, I think it would be detrimental to Mormonism if undeniable evidence were found, because it would shift our narrative away from matters of faith toward unspiritual confirmation of a historical event from physical evidence. And that’s what CES Letter is trying to do. The shift away from faith serves Satan’s intentions because a person who relies on superstition is not practicing personal agency, but being total reliant on others for his beliefs and actions. I prefer a religion where the prophet is human. I prefer a leader who makes mistakes, who is controversial, and who has some mystery.

Attacking All Mormons – This isn’t just an attack on Joseph Smith. CES Letter brings the whole Smith family into it. Treasure hunting was a “family business.” Maybe all Mormons are conmen, disorderly imposters, and frauds? We are all liable now to be lawbreakers who need to be arrested and locked up.

CES Letter tells us people looked for treasure because they were seeing spirits in the local hills, like some kind of character out of “The Hills Have Eyes.” Nobody ever looked for treasure before? People looked for treasure because there were lots of stories of buried treasure, as CES Letter already touched on in their argument about Captain Kidd. People continue to look for treasure today. The phony association between spiritual visions and treasure hunting is designed to smear any spirituality as a money-making scheme and con. But this is totally baseless, as Joseph Smith never conned anybody. Nobody brought charges against him on conning them. Nobody even really talked about the 1826 arrest for 50 years! Joseph Smith did not make money from the church and he never used “folk magic.”

For people who insist on sound physical evidence, I am stunned that CES Letter would attack a man–the entire 19th century New England civilization–based on such shaky evidence.