In 1826, Josiah Stowell hired Joseph Smith to help look for lost Spanish silver near the border of New York and Pennsylvania. Someone in the community, possibly a member of Stowell’s extended family, accused Joseph of gazing into a stone to discover lost property. As a result, Joseph was ordered to appear before justice of the peace Albert Neely in Chenango County, likely on charges of disorderly conduct. His arrest appears to have been based on a statute in New York state law outlawing “pretending . . . to discover where lost goods may be found.”1 Four accounts describe this hearing, all of which suggest Joseph suffered no serious legal consequences in its aftermath. Other details vary and sometimes contradict each other.2
In his testimony, Joseph readily agreed he had used his seer stone off and on to look for lost property, but he had given up the practice—it hurt his eyes, he said. He had never solicited such work and “had always rather declined having anything to do with this business.”3 The judge inspected the stone and questioned other witnesses, including Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., and Joseph’s employer, Josiah Stowell.
Joseph Sr. and Josiah Stowell testified that Joseph had responded to requests to use his seer stone only to assist friends or, in Stowell’s case, to help Stowell and other contracted workers on a treasure dig. Stowell trusted Joseph and appreciated his work. Joseph Sr. hoped his son would not abuse the gift in searching for earthly treasures and prayed God would reveal His will to the young man. Some other witnesses who testified believed in Joseph’s skill; others did not.4 The outcome of the hearing remains a puzzle. A purported court record indicates the judge found Joseph guilty. A neighbor of Josiah Stowell claimed the court “condemned” Joseph but allowed him to escape on account of his youth. A friend of the judge who claimed to have taken notes at the hearing wrote that the judge accepted Stowell’s testimony and discharged Joseph. Oliver Cowdery, who did not attend the hearing (he met Joseph Smith about three years later), mentioned the most likely result in light of missing documentation, that Joseph was acquitted of being a disorderly person.5
1 “An Act for Apprehending and Punishing Disorderly Persons,” in Laws of the State of New-York, Revised and Passed at the Thirty-Sixth Session of the Legislature, with Marginal Notes and References, Furnished by the Revisors, William P. Van Ness & John Woodworth, Esquires, Pursuant to the Act, Entitled “An Act for Publishing the Laws of this State,” Passed April 13th, 1813, 2 vols. (Albany: H. C. Southwick, 1813), 1:114–17, especially sec. I.
2 The four accounts are Abram W. Benton, “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, vol. 2, no. 15 (Apr. 9, 1831), 120; William D. Purple, “Joseph Smith, the Originator of Mormonism,” Chenango Union, vol. 30, no. 33 (May 2, 1877), 3; “State of New York v. Joseph Smith,” in Charles Marshall, “The Original Prophet,” Fraser’s Magazine, vol. 7, no. 38 (Feb. 1873), 229–30; and Oliver Cowdery, “Letter VIII,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, vol. 2, no. 1 (Oct. 1835), 195–202.
Abram Benton lived near Josiah Stowell’s farm, but it is unclear whether he attended the hearing. William Purple claimed he and Judge Neely were close friends and that the judge asked him to take notes at the hearing. Charles Marshall said he obtained the court record from the judge’s niece, Emily Pearsall. Pearsall is not mentioned by name in the Marshall account, but her identity is confirmed in the Utah Christian Advocate, vol. 2, no. 13 (Jan. 1886), 1. The Utah Christian Advocate refers to Pearsall tearing the leaves out of the judge’s docket book, whereas Marshall’s account in Fraser’s Magazine states Pearsall lent the papers to Marshall from which he copied the judicial proceedings. Judge Neely’s docket book and the pages Pearsall purportedly removed are not extant. Oliver Cowdery did not mention where he had obtained information about the hearing, but he could have easily learned details from one of the principals involved and reflected their observations of the event.
The accounts do not agree on who brought accusations and charges against Joseph Smith. Benton states the public charged Joseph as a disorderly person; Purple claims Stowell’s sons had Joseph arrested as a vagrant; the court record, according to Marshall, says Stowell’s nephew Peter Bridgeman had Joseph arrested as a disorderly person. The accounts also disagree over who testified at the hearing. Benton mentions only Josiah Stowell; Purple mentions Joseph Jr., Joseph Sr., Stowell, and a Mr. Thompson (identified in Fraser’s Magazine as Jonathan Thompson); the court record according to Marshall omits Joseph Sr. and mentions Joseph Jr., Stowell, Thompson, and three witnesses not mentioned in the other accounts.
3 “State of New York v. Joseph Smith,” 229–30.
4 Purple, “Originator of Mormonism,” 3.
5 “State of New York v. Joseph Smith,” 229–30; Benton, “Mormonites,” 120; Purple, “Originator of Mormonism,” 3; Cowdery, “Letter VIII,” 201. Had the judge proceeded with a criminal trial or otherwise rendered a guilty verdict, New York law would have required he do two things: send Joseph to a “bridewell” (also called a poorhouse) and file a document naming the defendant and the charge, along with a statement of the conviction and enforced penalty. In this case, the judge did neither. The nearest bridewell contains no mention of Joseph Smith for the year 1826, and no courthouse records name Joseph, associate any charges against him, or connect a conviction or punishment to him (Gordon A. Madsen, “Being Acquitted of a ‘Disorderly Person’ Charge in 1826,” in Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch, eds., Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Studies, 2014], 89–90).