Question: What are the details of Joseph Smith's 1826 "trial" for "glasslooking"?

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Question: What are the details of Joseph Smith's 1826 "trial" for "glasslooking"?

What records of the court hearing exist?

We have five records of the 1826 hearing. 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)

  • Feb. 1873 - Charles Marshall publishes in Frazer's Magazine (London)
  • Apr. 1873 - Frazer's article reprinted in Eclectic Magazine (N.Y.)
  • 1883 - Tuttle article in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
  • Jan. 1886 - Christian Advocate vol. 2, no. 13 (Salt Lake City, UT)

5. May 3, 1877 - W. D. Purple Chenango 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.

Document provenance

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.

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.

Why were the various records made?

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

Unsurprisingly, those who provided these accounts had an agenda. We are not looking at an event through the eyes of an unbiased observer, and most of that bias is directed against Joseph Smith.

Who brought the charges?

If we look at the individuals bringing the charges, we have the following: Benton (1831): The Public Cowdery (1835): very officious person Noble (1842): Civil authority Marshall (1873): Peter G. Bridgman Purple (1877): sons of Mr. Stowell Tuttle (1883): Peter G. Bridgman 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." [1]

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

What was the charge against Joseph Smith?

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.

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 "sleight of hand magician." Thus, a "juggler" was a con man; someone using his 'stage magic' talents to defraud. [2]

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?

How many witnesses testified?

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 ½ cents divided by twelve ½ 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.

What witness is excluded from some accounts?

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.

What verdict was brought against Joseph?

  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. Furthermore, 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." [3]

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.

The examination was not a trial

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." [4]

In the Tanners' anti-Mormon 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'" [5]

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, one cannot have a guilty verdict.

Summary of testimony

  • Joseph Smith, Jr.: 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.: This 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.
  • Josiah Stowell: His employer's testimony in the Purple account has Josiah say 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."

Stowell joined the Church in 1830, and died in full fellowship, planning to join the Saints "in Zion."[6]

  • Horace Stowell: This testimony 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 Stowell: This witness 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.

Interestingly, the 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 this detail 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.


  1. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 141–142.
  2. Note too D. Michael Quinn's efforts to distort the clear meaning of this statute as discussed in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]. See also FairMormon Answers link here.
  3. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:211. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  4. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 140, note 36.
  5. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger 68 (July 1988): 9.
  6. Larry C. Porter, "Stowell, Josiah," in Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History, edited by Donald Q. Cannon, Richard O. Cowan, Arnold K. Garr (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co., 2000).