“Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial,” Church History Topics
“Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial”
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