The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith

Russell Anderson
August 2002

The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith

In the Summer of 2002, I traveled with my family to visit Nauvoo, Illinois. We were anxious to get a chance to tour the new Nauvoo temple. I didn’t see much anti-Mormon activity, but I did take an opportunity to stop in for a brief visit to a Christian bookstore. I went in to browse, and see what was available in their store. Prominently displayed on the counter was a copy of the charges by Judge Neely for 1826.1

Judge Neely Bill

Judge Neely Bill

The critical section has the following:

Same [meaning People]
Joseph Smith
the Glass Looker
March 20, 1826
For my fees in examination
of above cause

I asked the storeowner about that image and Colleen Ralson explained: “Our good friend Wes Walters said that he found those bills in the courthouse. All of the rest of the records were damaged, but these were preserved. He said it was as if God had preserved them for his purpose.”

I thought her statement interesting since I knew that Walters had written that the reason they had taken the documents from the Courthouse basement was to preserve them. If they were in such great shape “as if God had preserved them”, why did Walters need to remove them?

Walters published the following statement, “Because the two 1826 bills had not only suffered from dampness, but had severe water damage as well, Mr. Poffarl hand-carried the documents to the Yale University’s Beinecke Library, which has one of the best document preservation centers in the country.”2 The problem with this action is, once you have removed a document from a historical setting and then try to restore it to the same setting, you can’t prove that you have not altered the document.

The actions of Walters and Poffarl compromised the documents. By having the documents removed and only returned under threat of a lawsuit by the County, it opened the possibility that they could be forged documents. They are generally considered to be authentic, but now there is always room for doubt

Why would the storeowner think that this was so damaging to the prophet Joseph Smith that she would have it prominently displayed on the counter. Let us look at several things to come to a better understanding of that question.

  1. What is the 1826 trial of Joseph Smith?
  2. Why is the 1971 discovery of the Neely and De Zeng bills significant?
  3. Why do the critics think that this event discredits Joseph Smith?
  4. What does it actually tell us?

In the spring of 1825 Josiah Stowell visited with Joseph Smith “on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.”3 Josiah Stowell wanted Joseph to help him in his quest to find treasure in an ancient silver mine. Joseph was reluctant, but Stowell persuaded Joseph to come by offering high wages. According to trial documents, Stowell says Joseph, using a seer stone, “Looked through stone and described Josiah Stowell’s house and out houses, while at Palmyra at Sampson Stowell’s correctly, that he had told about a painted tree with a man’s hand painted upon it by means of said stone.”4

Joseph and his father traveled to southern New York in November of 1825. This was after the crops were harvested and Joseph had finished his visit to the Hill Cumorah that year. They participated with Stowell and the company of workers in digging for the mine for less than a month. Finally Joseph persuaded him to stop. “After laboring for the old gentleman about a month, without success, Joseph prevailed upon him to cease his operations.”5

Joseph continued to work in the area for Stowell and others. He boarded at the home of Isaac Hale and met Emma Hale, who was one “treasure” he got out of the enterprise.

The 1826 Trial

In March of the next year, Stowell’s sons or nephew (depending on which account you follow) brought charges against Joseph and he was taken before Justice Neely. The supposed trial record came from Miss Pearsall. “The record of the examination was torn from Neely’s docket book by his niece, Emily Persall, and taken to Utah when she went to serve as a missionary under Episcopalian bishop Daniel S. Tuttle.”6 This will be identified as the Pearsall account although Neely possessed it after her death. It is interesting that the first published version of this record didn’t appear until after Miss Pearsall had died.

William D. Purple took notes at the trial and tells us, “In February, 1826, the sons of Mr. Stowell, …were greatly incensed against Smith, …saw that the youthful seer had unlimited control over the illusions of their sire… They caused the arrest of Smith as a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood.”7

Whereas the Pearsall account says: “Warrant issued upon oath of Peter G. Bridgman, [Josiah Stowell’s nephew] who informed that one Joseph Smith of Bainbridge was a disorderly person and an imposter…brought before court March 20, 1826”8

So, we have what has been called “The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith”, even though the records show that this wasn’t actually a trial. For many years LDS scholars Francis Kirkham, Hugh Nibley and others expressed serious doubts that such a trial had even taken place. They thought that the critics might be confusing it with the later 1830 trial, which is well documented.

The critics enjoy quoting Hugh Nibley as saying, “You knew its immense value as a weapon against Joseph Smith if its authenticity could be established… If this court record is authentic, it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith”9

It was easy to cast doubt on the reality of the 1826 trial until the bills from Judge Albert Neely and Constable Philip De Zeng were found in 1971. The critics now assumed that this was very damaging to Joseph Smith when combined with the statements by Nibley, Francis Kirkham and others. But what did Nibley actually say?

Let us take a closer look at the full statement from The Myth Makers. The underlined portions are not included when Nibley is quoted.

You knew its immense value as a weapon against Joseph Smith if its authenticity could be established. And the only way to establish authenticity was to get hold of the record book from which the pages had been purportedly torn. After all, you had only Miss Pearsall’s word for it that the book ever existed. Why didn’t you immediately send her back to find the book or make every effort to get hold of it? Why didn’t you “unearth” it, as they later said you did? … The authenticity of the record still rests entirely on the confidential testimony of Miss Pearsall to the Bishop. And who was Miss Pearsall? A zealous old maid, apparently: “a woman helper in our mission,” who lived right in the Tuttle home and would do anything to assist her superior. The picture I get is that of a gossipy old housekeeper. If this court record is authentic, it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith. Why, then, [speaking to Tuttle] was it not republished in your article in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge after 1891? …in 1906 Bishop Tuttle published his Reminiscences of a Missionary Bishop in which he blasts the Mormons as hotly as ever…yet in the final summary of his life’s experiences he never mentions the story of the court record – his one claim to immortal fame and the gratitude of the human race if it were true!10

Nibley never really considered the 1926 trial to be very significant and definitely not a blow to the credibility of Joseph Smith. But he is telling Tuttle that if he really did think it was significant, why didn’t he use it.

Early Critics Ignore the Trial

Another factor about the 1826 trial is that the early critics essentially ignored it.

  1. They didn’t bring it up in another trial in the same area in 1830.
  2. It was not mentioned in any of the affidavits collected by Hurlbut in 1833. Even though he was diligently looking for every piece of dirt he could find.
  3. Although the trial was briefly mentioned in 1831, it was not mentioned again in a published record for 46 years.

Why? What changed from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century when suddenly there started to be a significant interest?

Let me suggest that the reason some critics think that these claims are important now and they didn’t in 1830s is because society had changed. In the 1820s what Joseph did was a consistent part of the culture. Actions that were accepted and understandable by people in the first part of the 19th century are no longer considered normal.

  • Society had changed
  • Seer Stones were no longer acceptable
  • Treasure digging is considered abnormal
  • Spiritual gifts assigned to the occult

One of the Internet sites mentioned, “The reason the 1826 trial is so devastating to the claims of Mormonism is that it links Joseph Smith to the occult.”11 But what could that mean? What is Occult?

A dictionary definition gives the following:

  1. Of, relating to, or dealing with supernatural influences, agencies, or phenomena.
  2. Beyond the realm of human comprehension; inscrutable.
  3. Available only to the initiate;
  4. Hidden from view; concealed.

All of these definitions could describe Christianity. In fact, many of the special spiritual gifts mentioned in the Bible could be considered occult. Today the word “occult” carries much power and is not generally associated with Christian beliefs or practices.


Before we could build a home on a couple of acres in Utah, we needed to get the property Perk tested. We also knew about nearby springs and were a little concerned about the problems of underground water. We didn’t want to have trouble with our planned basement. A friend at work indicated that he had good success dowsing for water. He explained that he could tell where there was water, and even how deep it was. So I invited him to our lot.

He used two steel rods bent like a long L. He held the rods loosely in his hands and walked across the property. They started to cross as he approached underground water. He said that the distance from when they started to cross, to where they fully crossed was the distance below the ground that you would find water. It appeared that we had about three streams that went under our property, but they were down about twelve feet, which was just a little further than we could dig with the backhoe.

Was he actually successful in finding water? I don’t really know. But he reported several other times that his prediction was within a foot of where they found water. He gave me the rods and I found that they performed similarly for me.

Dowsing has been ridiculed and generally ignored by the scientific community; however Duane Chadwick at Utah State did an interesting study concerning it. He postulated that maybe dowsers were responding to the changes in the magnetic field introduced by water below the surface. So he compared the results of various individuals with high precision measurements using a magnetometer. There was a slight correlation, but his test didn’t make any attempts to actually find people who professed ability for dowsing. Unfortunately he never published his data in a refereed journal, which he later regretted.

Folk Magic

In the early 19th century there were many that used dowsing rods for more than just looking for water. In addition there were some that had seer stones. With these stones they claimed to find lost objects and buried treasures.

Fundamental [was]…the concept that successful use of the divining rod was a godly gift, whether exercised to locate underground water or buried treasure, to identify criminals, or to reveal answers to specific questions.12

We need to be careful that we examine the life of Joseph Smith from the perspective of his environment. We can read the following from the Palmyra Herald, July 24, 1822, when Joseph was 16 years old.

“digging for money hid in the earth is a very common thing and in this state it is even considered as honorable and profitable employment”

“One gentleman…digging…ten to twelve years, found a sufficient quantity of money to build him a commodious house.

“another…dug up…fifty thousand dollars!”

You can imagine how you would respond to this type of information if you were 16 at the time and read this in the newspaper? You would likely find yourself out there digging as other fairly respectable people were doing. Let’s think about how Joseph Smith fits into the 1825 timeframe. That is the key, to not put our environment on Joseph Smith, but to look at Joseph Smith in his own environment.

Seer Stones

Before we can examine the 1826 trial we need to deal with Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone. It is clear from friendly sources that Joseph had at least one seer stone and probably several.

Brigham Young is reported to have said, “the seer stone which Joseph Smith first obtained He got in an Iron kettle 25 feet under ground. He saw it while looking in another seers stone which a person had. He went right to the spot & dug & found it.”13

B.H. Roberts tells us about another seer stone: “A chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well…for Mr. Clark Chase.”14

Culture of the 1800s

In discussing the various affidavits gathered by the apostate Philastus Hurlbut, Richard Bushman comments that,

They provide a glimpse into a netherworld of magical belief and practice that polite members of society had long ago repudiated but that many people still believed in. The stories told in the affidavits so rarely corroborate one another that it would be presumptuous to reconstruct a narrative of events, but taken as a whole they certainly attest to fascination with spirits, treasure, and magic.15

And he further states, “The so-called credulity of the money diggers can be read as a sign of their faith in the reality of invisible powers described in scripture. Christian belief in angels and devils made it easy to believe in guardian spirits and magical powers.”16

Mike Ash has observed,

“Many people of the 1800s did not see any differences between their sincere magic practices and those recorded in the Bible–such as Joseph’s silver cup (see Gen. 44:2, 5) in which ‘he divineth’ (which was also practiced by the surrounding pagans [Quinn, 3] and referred to as hydromancy), or the magical rod of Aaron (Exodus 7:9-12). The casting of lots, or sortilege (see Acts 1:26), to choose a new Apostle was also a pagan practice (Quinn, 3). The Bible records that Jacob used rods to cause Laban’s cattle to produce spotted, and speckled offspring (see Gen. 30:37-39)–I can only imagine what the critics would say should Joseph have attempted such a thing. In Numbers 5:11-31, 21 we read about a magical test for adultery in which the priest would give the suspect a potion to drink. If the woman was guilty, her thigh would swell. Even some of Christ’s miracles had familiar tones to the surrounding pagans. Jesus’ healing of the deaf man by putting his fingers in his ears (Mark 7:33-35) and his healing of the blind man by touching his eyes with spittle and clay were also common practices of the surrounding pagans (Quinn, 4.)”

In Joseph Smith’s own day other Christian leaders were involved in practices which today’s critics would call ‘occultic.’ Quinn, for instance, observes that in “1825, a Massachusetts magazine noted with approval that a local clergyman used a forked divining rod…. Similarly, a Methodist minister wrote twenty-three years later that a fellow clergymen in New Jersey had used a divining rod up to the 1830s to locate buried treasure and the ‘spirits [that] keep guard over buried coin’….” (Quinn, 25).17

So this is another thing that really changed. The clergy and religious people modified their views of acceptable behavior.

LDS Church leader Dallin H. Oaks has cautioned, “We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours.”18

Records of 1826 Trial

Let us see if we can get a better understanding concerning the time of Joseph Smith and what the examination in 1826 actually tells us.

We have five records of the 1826 trial. And these were published in eight documents.

  1. Apr. 9, 1831 – A W. Benton in Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate
  2. Oct. 1835 – Oliver Cowdery in Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate
  3. 1842 letter from Joel K. Noble (not published until 1977)
  4. Record torn from Judge Neely docket book by Miss Emily Pearsall (niece)
    1. Feb. 1873 – Charles Marshall publishes in Frazer’s Magazine (London)
    2. Apr. 1873 – Frazer’s article reprinted in Eclectic Magazine (N.Y.)
    3. 1883 – Tuttle article in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
    4. Jan. 1886 – Christian Advocate vol. 2, no. 13 (Salt Lake City, UT)
  5. May 3, 1877 – W. D. Purple Chanango Union

It may be that Purple saw the publication in the Eclectic Magazine and that is why he published his account a few years later. There are no complete overlaps in the accounts; we will look at the similarities and differences.

Finally, we have the bills by Judge Neely and Constable Da Zeng which provide some additional useful details.

Judge Neely Record

We don’t have the actual record that Miss Pearsall had, but the claimed trail of events leads as follows:

  1. Miss Pearsall tears the record from the docket book of her uncle Judge Neely
  2. She takes the record with her to Utah when she went to work with Bishop Tuttle.
  3. Miss Pearsall dies in 1872.
  4. Charles Marshall copies the record and has it published in Frazer’s Magazine in 1873.
  5. Ownership falls to Tuttle after Miss Pearsall’s death
  6. Tuttle published in 1883 Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia.
  7. Tuttle gave it to the Methodists who published it in 1886
  8. Then the record was lost.

It will be noticed with interest, that although Bishop Tuttle and others had access to the Pearsall account for several years it was not published until after her death. That combined with the fact that the torn leaves were never allowed to be examined, would cast some doubt on the completeness or accuracy of that which was published.

Mr. Purple – from his memory

The only other significant account of the trial is given to us by W. D. Purple in 1877, after more than 50 years had elapsed. Since Mr. Purple says that he was asked to make a record at the time of the trial, what he wrote could possibly be the very record that was acquired by Miss Pearsall. We don’t really know, but it is unlikely that there was a second record made of the trial. Mr. Purple doesn’t use his notes but instead he tells us, “The scenes and incidents of that early day are vividly engraven upon his memory, by reason of his having written them when they occurred, and by reason of his public and private rehearsals of them in later years. He will now present them as historical reminiscenses of old Chenango, and as a precursor of the advent of the wonder of the age, Mormonism.”19

From Fawn Brodie’s notes we have the following obituary about Dr. Purple.

“He was blessed with a most retentive memory and was thoroughly conversant with the county’s history. He was a man of strictest integrity and uprightness of character.”

“Dr. Purple possessed a remarkably retentive memory, characterized, also, by a surprising facility for the recollection of dates, statistics, and historical occurrences, so that he was called sometimes, as veritably he was, a walking encyclopedia. He could tell at once the names of the candidates, the year of their nominations, the names, methods, and characteristic and management of all parties, and the principle history of nearly all political leaders during every year of the past eighty years.”20

Do We Have a Court Record?

We know that the supposed “court record” obtained by Miss Pearsall can’t be a court record at all.

  1. Misdemeanor trials were not recorded, only felony trials
  2. No witness signatures–they were required in an official record
  3. It appears to be a pretrial hearing
  4. Pretrial hearings cannot deliver guilty verdicts

Let’s take an overview of what these various records tell us about this examination in 1826. We will examine these various records under the following categories.

  1. Why the record is recorded
  2. Who brought the charges
  3. What the charge was against Joseph Smith
  4. Number of witnesses
  5. Verdict

Reason for the Record

First of all the reasons for the record. This is the reason that the people stated for why they were putting forth this information.

  1. Benton: more complete history of their founder
  2. Cowdery: private character of our brother
  3. Noble: explain the character of the Mormons
  4. Marshal: preserve a piece of information about the prophet
  5. Purple: as a precursor of the advent of the wonder of the age, Mormonism
  6. Tuttle: [to show] In what light he appeared to others
  7. Judge Neely: to collect fees

So we can see here that most people who gave us these accounts had an agenda. We are not looking at an event through the eyes of an unbiased observer.

Person Bringing Charges

If we look at the individuals bringing the charges, we have the following:

  1. Benton (1831): The Public
  2. Cowdery (1835): very officious person
  3. Noble (1842): Civil authority
  4. Marshall (1873): Peter G. Bridgman
  5. Purple (1877): sons of Mr. Stowell
  6. Tuttle (1883): Peter G. Bridgman
  7. Judge Neely: The Public

Note that the agreement of Marshall and Tuttle is misleading because they are essentially quoting the same source.

Whether it was Josiah Stowell’s sons or his nephew Peter G. Bridgman, it seems to be close family members. We don’t know why Peter G. Bridgman brought the charges, but it could easily have been because he was worried that his uncle was accepting Joseph Smith in his religious claims. Josiah did join the church organized by Joseph Smith and stayed faithful his whole life. As for Peter Bridgman, “Within a month after the trial he was licensed as an exhorter by the Methodists and within three years had helped establish the West Bainbridge Methodist Church. Upon his death in 1872 his fellow ministers characterized him as ‘an ardent Methodist and any attack upon either the doctrines or the polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, within his field of labor, was sure to be repelled by him with a vigorous hand.”21

Is it possible that the trial of Joseph Smith was just one of his first attempts to apply a “vigorous hand?”

The Charge

The charge is listed in the various accounts as:

  1. Benton (1831): a disorderly person
  2. Cowdery (1835): a disorderly person
  3. Noble (1842): under the Vagrant act
  4. Marshall (1873): a disorderly person and an imposter
  5. Purple (1877): a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood
  6. Tuttle (1882): a disorderly person and an imposter
  7. Judge Neely: a misdemeanor

Hugh Nibley indicated how it would be strange that he could be charged without visible means of livelihood, since he was being employed by Stowell and others.

The portion of the statute that would seem to apply was enacted by New York in 1813.

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.22

What is a juggler? It used to be that a person skilled in sleight of hand was called a juggler, whereas today we would call them a magician. Something like this, where I can seemingly pass two rubber bands through each other. In our vernacular we would say a sleight of hand magician instead of a juggler.

But what if you weren’t pretending to discover lost goods. What if you actually had a gift where you “could discern things invisible to the natural eye” Could you then be judged guilty of this statute?

Number of Witnesses

As far as the number of witnesses we have the following:

  1. Benton (1831): not mentioned
  2. Cowdery (1835): not mentioned
  3. Marshall (1873): Five quoted, charges for seven witnesses
  4. Tuttle (1882): Six
  5. Purple (1877): Four
  6. Constable Philip De Zeng: Twelve

What is particularly interesting here is that Tuttle and Marshall are supposedly quoting from the same document. Marshall only quotes 5 witnesses, but at the end, the charges are listed for seven witnesses. The fee was 12-1/2 cents per witness. Eighty-seven and Ω cents divided by twelve Ω cents per witness, gives us seven witnesses. By combining the Purple and Pearsall accounts we can arrive at seven witnesses, and also a motive for not including all the witnesses or letting the record be examined. It is unknown why the constable would have listed twelve witnesses, unless that is the number he summoned to the proceedings. Seven would seem to be the correct number of those that testified.

Purple does add a witness that hadn’t been included by Marshall or Tuttle: Joseph Smith, Sr. Maybe they didn’t want to include the testimony of Joseph’s father because his testimony was more religious in nature. He spoke of Joseph’s “wonderful triumphs as a seer”, that “both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre,” and “he trusted that the Son of Righteousness would some day illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him.” It is easy to see why this testimony wouldn’t be included in a record where you are trying to show that Joseph Smith was a person trying to acquire work as a money digger. Which might be the reason the Tuttle and Marshall omitted the Joseph Smith Sr. testimony.


Let’s look at the verdict:

  1. Benton: tried and condemned … designedly allowed to escape
  2. Cowdery: honorably acquitted
  3. Noble: was condemned, took leg bail
  4. Marshall: guilty?
  5. Tuttle: guilty?
  6. Purple: discharged
  7. Constable De Zeng: not a trial

Noble’s statement is hearsay, since there is no evidence that he actually attended this trial. Besides His statement and Benton’s statement can’t be taken as an indication that Joseph was judged guilty. For example in Joseph’s 1830 trial he was acquitted, The court said that they, “find nothing to condemn you, and therefore you are discharged.” Then Mr Reid testifies, “They then proceeded to reprimand him severely, not because anything derogatory to his character in any shape had been proven against him by the host of witnesses that had testified during the trial.”23

The verdict indicated by Marshall and Tuttle is questionable. It seems to be appended as an afterthought. Throughout the document Joseph is referred to as the “prisoner”, then after the last testimony, we have one sentence in which he is named a defendant, “And thereupon the Court finds the defendant guilty.” Here we have suddenly a declaratory statement that is completely out of character with the rest of the Pearsall document. Also, if this were actually a trial, Joseph wouldn’t have testified against himself as the first witness.

Wesley P. Walters has demonstrated that this is not a trial. The Constable’s charges of “19 cents attached to the mittimus marks it as the pre-trial ‘commitment for want of bail’ …and not the post-trial ‘warrant of commitment, on conviction, twenty-five cents.”24

In the Tanners’ Salt Lake City Messenger, they stated, “Wesley P. Walters had convincingly demonstrated to us that we were dealing with ‘an examination.’ In a New Conductor Generalis, 1819, page 142, we learn that in an ‘examination’ the accused is not put under oath but that the witnesses are'”25

In all cases but one the witnesses were “sworn”, whereas Joseph was examined. Judge Neeley’s charges actually uses that precise terminology, “in examination of above cause”. Therefore, since this wasn’t a trial, you can’t have a guilty verdict.

Although Marshall, Tuttle and the Utah Christian Advocate all published from the same source document, there are some interesting the errors in the different accounts. The Utah Christian Advocate seems to be the more accurate record.

SCHAFF-HERZOG article by Tuttle:

“prisoner did offer his services; that he never deceived him”

These two phrases don’t seem to go together. The Utah Christian Advocate resolves this discontinuity by including an important word that apparently was left out by Tuttle.

Utah Christian Advocate:

“prisoner did NOT offer his services; that he never deceived him”

We have another example from Tuttle’s SCHAFF-HERZOG article:

“Horace Stowel sworn. Says he see prisoner look into hat through stone”

This is a very strange sentence structure. But the awkwardness of these words is resolved when we see the statement as published in the Advocate.

Utah Christian Advocate:

“Horace Stowel sworn. Says he see prisoner look into that strange stone”

Joseph’s Ability as a True Seer

If Joseph actually did possess the ability as the witnesses testified would he be judged guilty of glass looking? Yes. But wouldn’t that also mean that he was innocent of deception and the reason the law was created?

Does this give us a clue as to why the results of this trial was not used against him in the 1830 trial or any anti-Mormon literature in the 1830s. Because to use these trial results would give support to the fact that Joseph did indeed possess supernatural talents. This can also explain why there are discrepancies among the verdicts. In reality, he was both guilty and innocent.

The witnesses don’t seem to be presenting two sides of a charge for deliberation. All of the witnesses testified that Joseph demonstrated the ability to observe things in his stone. Although Arad Stowel and McMaster were disgusted at Joseph’s demonstrations where he read from a book with his back turned or told about objects from a distance. They didn’t tell us why they didn’t believe; they only said that the deception was palpable. Maybe they were so convinced that he couldn’t do what he claimed that they wouldn’t accept any demonstration.

Cases where Joseph found objects with his stone

Martin Harris tells us, “I…was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw… We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him–I said, ‘Take your stone.’ … He took it and placed it in his hat–the old white hat–and place his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look to one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin.26

Martin Harris also tells us that Joseph used the seer stone to find the gold plates. “In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by means of this stone he first discovered these plates.”27

Henry Harris says, “He [Joseph Smith] said he had a revelation from God that told him they [the Book of Mormon plates] were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit.”28

A Mr. Wanderhoof reports that Joseph used his seer stone to find a stolen mare for his grandfather.29

The “trial” also provides evidences of Joseph’s abilities. Purple tells us that, “Josiah Stowell provides several examples and has absolute faith in his ability.” Now Purple didn’t give us those examples, but he records that Josiah Stowell provided them.

Summary of Testimonies

First of all Joseph Smith’s testimony. In the Purple account he tells about finding his stone and he exhibits his stone. In the Pearsall record it talks about how Stowell came and got Joseph, “had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school;” He informed Stowell where to find treasures, and buried coins and that he did it for the previous three years. But Joseph did not solicit and declined having anything to do with the business.

Joseph Smith Sr.’s testimony is only in the Purple account. We discussed earlier how he felt this power showed that Joseph was a seer and that Joseph Sr. was mortified by the use of the sacred power and that he hoped that eventually it would get used correctly. Since this testimony puts Joseph in a positive light it is understandable why it wasn’t included in the published versions of the Pearsall account.

In the Josiah Stowell testimony in the Purple account Josiah said that Joseph could see 50 feet below the surface, described many circumstances to confirm his words. He said, “do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief: I positively know it to be true.”

We go to the Pearsall record, for a slightly different account of the Josiah Stowell testimony. It tells how Joseph “looked through stone, and described Josiah Stowel’s house and out-houses while at Palmyra, at Simpson Stowel’s, correctly; that he had told about a painted tree with a man’s hand painted upon it, by means of said stone;” Josiah tells about Joseph’s being employed part time. It also contains the part that “he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and professed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone.” He talked about finding something for Deacon Attelon that looked like gold ore. Josiah talked about Mr. Bacon burying some money and that Joseph described how there was a feather buried with the money. They found the feather but the money was gone. Josiah said that he “had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in prisoner’s skill.”

Horace Stowell is only found in the Neely record. It is a short testimony that describes where a chest of dollars was buried in Winchester County and that Joseph marked the size of the chest with leaves on the ground.

Arad Stowel went to see Joseph and wanted Joseph to display his skill. He laid out a book on a cloth. While holding a white stone to a candle, he read the book. Arad said that he was disappointed and went away because to him it was obviously a deception, but he doesn’t tell us why he thought it was a deception. It would have been nice if he had told us why he thought that. Was it just that he had his mind made up before he went to see Joseph?

There are only three testimonies that are duplicated in both the Purple and Pearsall accounts. They are Joseph Smith, Josiah Stowel and Jonathan Thompson. In the Purple account Thompson said that he could not remember finding anything of value. He stated that Joseph claimed there was a treasure protected by sacrifice and that they had to be armed by fasting and prayer. They struck the treasure with a shovel. One man placed his hand on the treasure, but it gradually sunk out of reach. Joseph believed there was a lack of faith or devotion that caused the failure. They talked about getting the blood from a lamb and sprinkling it around.

Now that same witness in the Pearsall record says that Joseph indicated where the treasure was. He looked in the hat and told them how it was situated. An Indian had been killed and buried with the treasure. So that kind of matches with the Purple account. The treasure kept settling away. Then Joseph talked about salt that could be found in Bainbridge and described money that Thompson had lost 16 years ago. Joseph described the man that had taken it and what happened to the money. There is nothing mentioned about sacrificing sheep or not having sufficient faith and so forth. The Pearsall record is supposedly a more complete written record, but it doesn’t have the bleeding sheep, or fasting and prayer that characterizes the Purple account.


  • It wasn’t a trial, it was an examination
  • Likely initiated from religious concern.
  • Seven witnesses.
  • Editing of witness testimonies.
  • Most witnesses testified that Joseph did possess a gift of sight
  • We can accept Joseph in his culture and time.

What we can obtain from the conclusions are first of all that it wasn’t a trial, it was an examination. It was likely initiated not so much from a concern about him being a money digger, as it was that Joseph was having an influence on Josiah Stowell. Josiah Stowell was one of the first believers in Joseph Smith. His nephew was probably very concerned about that and was anxious to disrupt that relationship if possible. It is likely that there were seven witnesses. It is also probable there was some editing of the witnesses’ testimonies. All witnesses however, testified that Joseph did possess a gift, though there is some variation about how strong that gift was. The key issue is that we can accept Joseph Smith. When we put him in this early 19th century culture, he is consistent with that environment. We can accept that what he did was part of that culture, his age and experience, and it doesn’t have any impact or discredit that fact that he was a prophet of God.


Bushman, Richard L., Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Hill, Marvin S. “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” Brigham Young University Studies, 12 (Winter 1972), 223-233.

Kirkham, Francis W. A New Witness For Christ in America, Vol 1, Independence, Missouri: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1951.

Marquardt, H. Michael, and Wesley P. Walters. Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record. Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994.

Nibley, Hugh. Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 11, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991.

Quinn, D. Michael, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987.

Smith, Lucy Mack. Biographical Sketches of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his Progenitors for Many Generations, Lamoni, Iowa (Republished in 1969 by Herald Publishing House), 1912.

Tanner, Gerald and Sandra. Salt Lake City Messenger, July 1988.

Vogel, Dan. Early Mormon Documents Volume 4, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002.

Walters, Wesley P., “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials” The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2, 123-155, 1974.

Appendix A

Comparison of testimonies in the Purple and Peasall accounts.

Joseph Smith Jr. Testimony

Purple Account Miss Pearsall Account
Mr. Smith was fully examined by the Court. It elicited little but a history of his life from early boyhood, but this is so unique in character, and so much of a key-note to his subsequent career in the world, I am tempted to give it somewhat in entenso. He said when he was a lad, he heard of a neighboring girl some three miles from him, who could look into a glass and see anything however hidden from others; that he was seized with a strong desire to see her and her glass; that after much effort he induced his parents to let him visit her. He did so, and was permitted to look in the glass, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light. He was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off. It soon became luminous, and dazzled his eyes, and after a short time it became as intense as the mid-day sun. He said that the stone was under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm, situated about a mile up a small stream that puts in on the South side of Lake Erie, not far from the Now York and Pennsylvania line. He often had an opportunity to look in the glass, and with the same result. The luminous stone alone attracted his attention. This singular circumstance occupied his mind for some years, when he left his father’s house, and with his youthful zeal traveled west in search of this luminous stone.

He took a few shillings in money and some provisions with him. He stopped on the road with a farmer, and worked three days, and replenished his means of support. After traveling some one hundred and fifty miles he found himself at the mouth of the creek. He did not have the glass with him, but he knew its exact location. He borrowed an old ax and a hoe, and repaired to the tree. With some labor and exertion he found the stone, carried it to the creek, washed and wiped it dry, sat down on the bank, placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing-Eye. He arose with a thankful heart, carried his tools to their owner, turned his feet towards the rising sun, and sought with weary limbs his long deserted home.

On the request of the Court, he exhibited the stone. It was about the size of a small hen’ a egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.”

“Says that he came from town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowel in Bainbridge most of time since; had small part of time been employed in looking for mines, but the major part had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school; that he had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold-mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times, and informed him where he could find those treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them; that at Palmyra he pretended to tell, by looking at this stone, where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra he had 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, but of late had pretty much given it up on account its injuring his health, especially his eyes – made them sore; that he did not solicit business of this kind, and had always rather declined having any thing to do with this business.”

Joseph Smith Sr. Testimony

Purple Account Miss Pearsall Account
Joseph Smith, Sr., was present, and sworn as a witness. He confirmed, at great length all that his son had said in his examination. He delineated his characteristics in his youthful days–his vision of the luminous stone in the glass–his visit to Lake Erie in search of the stone–and his wonderful triumphs as a seer. He described very many instances of his finding hidden and stolen goods. He swore that both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre, or its equivalent in earthly treasures, and with a long-faced, “sanctimonious seeming,” he said his constant prayer to his Heavenly Father was to manifest His will concerning this marvelous power. He trusted that the Son of Righteousness would some day illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him. These words have ever had a strong impression on my mind. They seemed to contain a prophetic vision of the future history of that mighty delusion of the present century, Mormonism. The “old man eloquent,” with his lank and haggard vissage–his form very poorly clad–indicating a wandering vagabond rather than an oracle of future events, has, in view of those events, excited my wonder, if not my admiration.

Josiah Stowell Testimony

Purple Account Miss Pearsall Account
The next witness called was Deacon Isaiah Stowell. He confirmed all that is said above in relation to himself, and delineated many other circumstances not necessary to record. He swore that the prisoner possessed all the power he claimed, and declared he could see things fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plain as the witness could see what was on the Justices’ table, and described very many circumstances to confirm his words. Justice Neeley soberly looked at the witness, and in a solemn, dignified voice said: “Deacon Stowell, do I understand you as swearing before God, under the solemn oath you have taken, that you believe the prisoner can see by the aid of the stone fifty feet below the surface of the earth; as plainly as you can see what is on my table?” “Do I believe it?” says Deacon Stowell; “do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief: I positively know it to be true.” Josiah Stowel sworn. Says that prisoner had been at his house something like five months. Had been employed by him to work on farm part of time; that he pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were, by means of looking through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes, – once to tell him about money buried on Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for a salt-spring, – and that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and professed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone: that he found the digging part at Bend and Monument Hill as prisoner represented it; that prisoner had looked through said stone for Deacon Attelon, for a mine – did not exactly find it, but got a piece of ore, which resembled gold, he thinks; that prisoner had told by means of this stone where a Mr. Bacon had buried money; that he and prisoner had been in search of it; that prisoner said that it was in a certain root of a stump five feet from surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail-feather; that said Stowel and prisoner thereupon commenced digging, found a tail-feather, but money was gone; that he supposed that money moved down; that prisoner did not offer his services; that he never deceived him; that prisoner looked through stone, and described Josiah Stowel’s house and out-houses while at Palmyra, at Simpson Stowel’s, correctly; that he had told about a painted tree with a man’s hand painted upon it, by means of said stone; that he had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in prisoner’s skill.”

Horace Stowell Testimony

Purple Account Miss Pearsall Account
Horace Stowel sworn. Says he see (sic) prisoner look into hat through stone, pretending to tell where a chest of dollars were buried in Windsor, a number of miles distant; marked out size of chest in leaves on ground.”

Arad Stowell Testimony

Purple Account Miss Pearsall Account
Arad Stowel sworn. Says that he went to see whether prisoner could convince him that he possessed the skill that he professed to have, upon which prisoner laid a book open upon a white cloth, and proposed looking through another stone which was white and transparent; hold the stone to the candle, turn his back to book, and read. The deception appeared so palpable, that went off disgusted.”

McMaster Testimony

Purple Account Miss Pearsall Account
McMaster sworn. Says he went with Arad Stowel to be convinced of prisoner’s skill, and likewise came away disgusted, finding the deception so palpable. Prisoner pretended to him that he could discern objects at a distance by holding this white stone to the sun or candle; that prisoner rather declined looking into a hat at his dark-colored stone, as he said that it hurt his eyes.”

Jonathan Thompson Testimony

Purple Account Miss Pearsall Account
Mr. Thompson, an employee of Mr. Stowell, was the next witness. He and another man were employed in digging for treasure, and always attended the Deacon and Smith in their nocturnal labors. He could not assert that anything of value was ever obtained by them. The following scene was described by this witness, and carefully noted: Smith had told the Deacon that very many years before a band of robbers had buried on his flat a box of treasure, and as it was very valuable they had by a sacrifice placed a charm over it to protect it, so that it could not be obtained except by faith, accompanied by certain talismanic influences. So, after arming themselves with fasting and prayer, they sallied forth to the spot designated by Smith. Digging was commenced with fear and trembling, in the presence of this imaginary charm. In a few feet from the surface the box of treasure was struck by the shovel. on which they redoubled their energies, but it gradually receded from their grasp. One of the men placed his hand upon the box, but it gradually sunk from his reach, After some five feet in depth had been attained without success, a council of war, against this spirit of darkness was called, and they resolved that the lack of faith, or of some untoward mental emotions was the cause of their failure.

In this emergency the fruitful mind of Smith was called on to devise a way to obtain the prize. Mr. Stowell went to his flock and selected a fine vigorous lamb, and resolved to sacrifice it to the demon spirit who guarded the coveted treasure. Shortly after the venerable Deacon might be seen on his knees at prayer near the pit, while Smith, with a lantern in one hand to dispel the midnight darkness, might be seen making a circuit around the spot, sprinkling the flowing blood from the lamb upon the ground, as a propitiation to the spirit that thwarted them. They then descended the excavation, but the treasure still receded from their grasp, and it was never obtained.

Jonathan Thompson says that prisoner was requested to look Yeomans for chest of money; did look, and pretended to know where it was, and that prisoner, Thompson, and Yeomans went in search of it; that Smith arrived at spot first (was in night); that Smith looked in hat while there, and when very dark, and told how the chest was situated. After digging several feet, struck upon something sounding like a board or plank. Prisoner would not look again, pretending that he was alarmed the last time that he looked, on account of the circumstances relating to the trunk being buried came all fresh to his mind; that the last time that he looked, he discovered distinctly the two Indians who buried the trunk; that a quarrel ensued between them, and that one of said Indians was killed by the other, and thrown into the hole beside of the trunk, to guard it, as he supposed. Thompson says that he believes in the prisoner’s professed skill; that the board which he struck his spade upon was probably the chest, but, on account of an enchantment, the trunk kept settling away from under them while digging; that, notwithstanding they continued constantly removing the dirt, yet the trunk kept about the same distance from them. Says prisoner said that it appeared to him that salt might be found at Bainbridge; and that he is certain that prisoner can divine things by means of said stone and hat; that, as evidence of fact, prisoner looked into his hat to tell him about some money witness lost sixteen years ago, and that he described the man that witness supposed had taken it, and disposition of money.”


1 Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” Brigham Young University Studies, 12 (Winter 1972), 225.

2 Wesley P. Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials,” The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 153.

3 Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his Progenitors for Many Generations (Lamoni, Iowa, 1912; republished by Herald Publishing House, 1969), 103.

4 Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents Volume 4, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 252-253.

5 Smith, Biographical Sketches of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 103.

6 H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994), 227.

7 Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness For Christ in America, Vol 1 (Independence, Missouri: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1951), 479.

8 Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents Volume 4, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 248-249.

9 Hugh Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 11, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 246.

10 Ibid.


12 D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 30.

13 Ibid., 39.

14 B.H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol. 1 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 129.

15 Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 70.

16 Ibid., 72.


18 Dallin H. Oaks, “Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” Ensign (May 1996), 72.

19 Kirkham, A New Witness For Christ in America, 476.

20 Special Collections, BYU.

21 Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials,” 141-142.

22 Emphasis added.

23 Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol. 1, 211.

24 Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials,” 140, note 36.

25 Gerald and Sandra Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger, 68 (July 1988), 9.

26 Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859, 163.

27 Ibid.

28 Kirkham, A New Witness For Christ in America, 133.

29 Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 39.

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