Question: Was Joseph Smith ever charged with adultery under Illinois law?

Table of Contents

Question: Was Joseph Smith ever charged with adultery under Illinois law?

William and Wilson Law charged Joseph with adultery in the case of Maria Lawrence

Joseph Smith was, in fact, once charged with adultery under Illinois Law. This occurred shortly before his death, when Robert Foster, William Law (Joseph's former counselor in the First Presidency) and Law's brother Wilson charged Joseph with adultery in the case of Maria Lawrence.[1]:403,414 Joseph took an aggressive stance in the defense of himself and Maria, which would be surprising if Illinois law was as detrimental to his case as many have assumed.

For example, as soon as Joseph was charged, two days later he and his supporters "rode to Carthage, intent on having" the charge "'investigated.'"[1]:404

Illinois law only criminalized adultery or fornication if it was "open"

It is vital to understand, however, that:

Joseph Smith could not have been properly convicted of adultery under the law of Illinois in 1844. Illinois law only criminalized adultery or fornication if it was "open". Had Joseph lived to face trial on this charge, he would have had good reason to expect acquittal because his relationships with his plural wives were not open, but were kept confidential and known by a relative few. Given a fair trial on this indictment, Joseph could have relied on several legal defenses.[1]:402

Joseph's relationships with his plural wives did not meet this definition

The same author emphasized:

The term "open" in [the Illinois Criminal Code of the day[2]] is a key element of this crime. The meaning of this term was then and still today is generally understood in law to cover conduct that is "notorious," "exposed to public view," or "visible," and which is "not clandestine." Joseph's relationships with his plural wives did not meet this definition.[1]:408

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 M. Scott Bradshaw, "Defining Adultery under Illinois and Nauvoo Law," in Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith's Legal Encounters, edited by Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2014), 401–426.
  2. Bradshaw cites Criminal Code, section 123, Revised Laws of Illinois: "Any man or woman who shall live together in an open state of adultery or fornication, or adultery and fornication, every such man and woman shall be indicted...." (Bradshaw, 407, emphasis added).