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1826 Trial (Hearing) of Joseph Smith — abridged version of lightplanet article

1826 Trial of Joseph Smith

For many years it appeared that the 1826 trial of Joseph might have been confused with the 1830 trial and therefore didn't occur. But with the discovery of Judge Neely's and Constable DeZeng's charges for the 1826 trial, it can now be stated  that there was a trial in 1826, or at least a hearing...

Events Leading up to March 20, 1826

In October, 1825, while Josiah Stowell visited with Simpson Stowell of Palmyra he heard about Joseph Smith. He went to see Joseph to request that he assist him in digging for a silver mine...They signed an agreement to share any wealth recovered. About November 17th 1825 Joseph persuaded Stowell to abandon the project, but Joseph stayed on to work for Stowell.

Mr. Stowell continued to be interested in Joseph's work and was in attendance at the Smith home in Palmyra, the night that Joseph [supposedly] brought home the plates of the Book of Mormon. He dictated a letter in 1843 where he said, "he has never staggered at the foundation of the work, for he knew too much concerning it" Even though they had stopped digging for burried treasure in November, for some reason Joseph was charged and taken before a Judge in March of 1826. We don't know what event precipitated this action, but it might have been related to Josiah Stowell's interest in the Joseph's work and the Book of Mormon.

The Trial Accounts

  1. The first account was published in 1831 by A.W. Benton:
    "At length the public, becoming wearied with the base imposition which he was palming upon the credulity of the ignorant, for the purpose of sponging his living from their earnings, had him arrested as a disorderly person, tried and condemned before a court of justice. But, considering his youth, (he then being a minor), thinking he might reform his conduct, he was designedly allowed to escape."
  2. The second account of this trial is from Oliver Cowdery in The Messenger and Advocate, October 1835:
    "On the private character of our brother I need add nothing further, at present, previous to his obtaining the records of the Nephites, only that while in that country, 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 acquited."
  3. William D. Purple was asked to take notes, and it has been assumed that they are the source of the record in Judge Neely's docket book. But for his published record he used his memory. "The scenes and incidents of that early day are vividly engraven upon his memory, by reason of his having written them when they occurred".
  4. Although William D. Purple claims to have told about the trial: "and by reason of his public and private rehearsals of them in later years", it is not used to discredit Joseph Smith by any of the anti-Mormon authors until the trial record was published in 1873.
  5. Judge Neely's bill and Constable Philip DeZeng bill for the 1826 trial was found and published in 1971, which shows that Joseph did appear before Judge Neely on March 20, 1826.
  6. "Four years before Dr. Purple's account was published the actual trial record taken from Albert Neely's Docket Book was made public. This official trial record had been torn from Mr. Neely's book by his niece, Miss Emily Pearsall, and taken to Utah with her when she went to serve as a missionary under Bishop Daniel S. Tuttle. Before her death in 1872, Charles Marshall, a British journalist visiting Salt Lake City, was shown the document, copied it and upon returning to England published it in Fraser's Magazine in 1873.
  7. After Miss Pearsall's death, Bishop Tuttle fell heir to the Neely trial record, and unaware of its previous publication by Marshall, announced he was publishing it for the first time in his article that appeared in the 1833 New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia. . . . Before the Bishop left Utah in September of 1886, he turned the record over to the Methodists
  8. . . . after the Methodists received and made their own printing of it, the document itself disappeared." (Joseph Smith Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials, Wesley P. Walters, p. 134-137)

Each of the accounts have some differences. (The Fraser's and Tuttle accounts use the same source)

Person Bringing charges.  
  Benton (1831) The Public
  Cowdery (1835) very officious person
  Fraser's (1873) & Tuttle (1882) Peter G. Bridgman (nephew of Josiah Stowell)
  Purple (1877) the sons of Mr. Stowell
Judge Neely bill The Public
The Charge  
  Benton (1831) as a disorderly person
  Cowdery (1835) complained of him as a disorderly person
  Fraser's (1873) & Tuttle (1882) a disorderly person and an imposter
  Purple (1877) as a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood
Number of Witnesses  
   Benton (1831) not mentioned
  Fraser's (1873): (5) Joseph Smith Jr., Josiah Stowel, Arad Stowel, McMaster, Jonathan Thompson
   Tuttle (1882) (6) Joseph Smith Jr., Josiah Stowel, Horace Stowel, Arad Stowel, McMaster, Jonathan Thompson
   Purple (1877) (4) Joseph Smith Jr., Joseph Smith Sr., Deacon Isaiah Stowell, Mr. Thompson
  Constable bill 12 witnesses
Witness testimonies (besides Joseph Smith)  
  Benton (1831) not mentioned (See: article written by A. W. Benton)
  Cowdery (1835) no cause of action
  Fraser's (1873) & Tuttle (1882) Josiah Stowel (never deceived him, . . . most implicit faith in prisoner's skill), Arad Stowel (deception appeared so palpable. . . went off disgusted), McMaster (likewise came away disgusted) Thompson (believes in prisoner's skill) (See: article written by Bishop Tuttle containing these testimonies)
  Tuttle (1882) extra witness Horace Stowel (marked out size of chest in the leaves on ground)
  Purple (1877) Joseph Smith Sr. (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), Isaiah Stowell (He swore that the prisoner possessed all the power he claimed), Thompson (He could not assert that anything of value was ever obtained by them).  (See: Purple account containing these testimonies)
  Benton (1831) tried and condemned . . . designedly allowed to escape
  Cowdery (1835) being no cause of action he was honorably acquited
  Fraser's (1873) & Tuttle (1882) the Court finds the defendant guilty  There is serious doubt that this could be the verdict.
  Purple (1877) as the testimony of Deacon Stowell could not be impeached, the prisoner was discharged

There was some conflict among the accounts about the charges, but is there a common theme among the testimony of the witnesses? In a trial you would expect there to be witnesses for the prosecution and witnesses for the defense. But this does not appear to be a trial, mainly because the accounts show that Joseph testified first. If it was a trial, why did Joseph Smith testify first. Wesley P. Walters says, "When Joseph was arrested on the warrant issued by Albert Neely, he would have been brought before Neely for a preliminary examination to determine whether he should be released as innocent of the charges or, if the evidence seemed sufficient, brought to trial." (Wesley P. Walters, Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials, p. 139) The order of the witnesses in the trial records would seem to indicate these accounts are dealing with a preliminary examination and not a trial. The records of charges also supports the fact that this is a hearing.

Since this is a preliminary hearing and not a trial, there is no way that the proceedings would result in a verdict. It is only in the two accounts that come from the record obtained by Miss Emily Pearsall that it mentions a guilty verdict. And that seems out of place. After the last testimony with no comments from the judge or any other information these accounts simple end with the declarative statement, "And thereupon the Court finds the defendant guilty." or  "And therefore the Court find the Defendant guilty". In light of the testimony and the other records, this would seem to be an addition provided by Tuttle or Marshall. At least it definitely is out of place in the record of a preliminary hearing.

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 demonstations 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.

We know that under a New York law it was a crime "to tell fortunes, or where lost or stolen goods may be found" (see the legal definition of "Disorderly Persons," The Justice's Manual, Albany, New York, 1829, p. 144) But what if a person actually could tell where "lost or stolen goods may be found"? Would it be a crime to tell the truth?


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 this trial results would give support to the fact that Joseph did indeed possess extra talents. This can also explain why there is discrepancies among the verdicts. Because he was both guilty and innocent.

What else do the facts show.

  1. Misdemeanor trials were not recorded in New York at that time, just felony trials, which is confirmed with the rest of Judge Neely's record.
  2. In addition to Justice Neely’s costs of $2.68. There is also an amount of $.19 listed as “warrants.” Constable De Zeng presented a bill for that amount. Now it happens that $.19 was the prescribed amount for a pretrial mittimus (warrant of commitment to prison for lack of bail), as set down in A Conductor Generalis of 1819. In other words, it was the amount the constable would charge for bringing an accused person in. If Justice Neely had found that there was a case for Joseph to answer, he would have ordered him bound over for trial at the next court of General Sessions, and De Zeng would have charged an additional $.25, which was the prescribed amount for a posttrial warrant of commitment. But that charge was not levied; therefore, Joseph was not remanded to the custody of the constable, and so he was, in all probability, acquitted. That is precisely what Oliver Cowdery reported in Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate