Was Joseph Smith convicted of fraud, money digging, or anything similar?
Possibly. Joseph Smith[BIO] appeared in court several times for being a "glass looker" and a "disorderly person." There are contradictory reports published about the results of an 1826 court appearance, but incidents in 1829 and 1830 were dismissed.
What were the allegations against Joseph related to fraud?
Being a "glass looker" and a "disorderly person" in an attempt to defraud Josiah Stowell, his former employer.
Attempting to defraud Martin Harris.
Being a "disorderly person" for pretending to find hidden treasures by means of a stone.
What is money digging or glass looking, and was it illegal?
"Money digging" involved looking for hidden treasure, while "glass looking" was the use of an object (e.g., a seer stone) to find lost treasure. It was a common practice, although it was often mocked as superstitious. It would be considered illegal if one were suspected of defrauding another party, which was the case with the allegations made against Joseph Smith in his March 1826 hearing.
What did the legal term "fraud" mean at the time?
"Fraud" was defined at the time as "an attempt to gain or the obtaining of an advantage over another by imposition or immoral means, particularly deception in contracts."
People accused of fraud were examined by a judge in order to collect information from those bringing charges against the accused.
Timeline of events pertinent to fraud-related judicial proceedings in the life of Joseph Smith.
March 20, 1826
Joseph Smith addresses the charge of his having been a "money digger" in the LDS periodical, Elders' Journal, saying that he was a money digger, but it was "never very profitable."
June 27, 1844
Joseph Smith is killed in Carthage Jail, Illinois, alongside his brother Hyrum.[BIO]
29 years pass.
So, what happened in the 1826 case? Was he convicted?
Possibly. There are multiple contradictory accounts of the 1826 court appearance. (See table below.)
Accounts of the 1826 court appearance
"condemned" but released
Oliver Cowdery, in a letter to W.W. Phelps published in The Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate.
"condemned" but released
Joel King Noble, in a letter to Jonathan Turner said that "Civil authority brought up Jo. . . under the Vagrant act" and he "took Leg Bail. . .all things straight."
Charles Marshall published a purported transcript of the court notes in Fraser's Magazine.
"prisoner was discharged"
William D. Purple, a critic of the Church, attended the hearing in 1826 and wrote about it many decades later in the Chenango Union newspaper.
What are the events surrounding the 1826 hearing?
In 1825, Josiah Stowell hired Joseph Smith to locate a silver mine. After a few weeks, Joseph reportedly persuaded Stowell to give up the effort. In 1826 some of Stowell's relatives felt that Joseph was exercising "unlimited control" over Josiah Stowell and brought Joseph to court, accusing him of "glass looking" and being a "disorderly person" which resulted in the March 20, 1826 hearing.
Do the court records exist for the 1826 hearing?
Is there good reason to believe one of the 1826 accounts over another?
Another factor to consider is that hostile affidavits from people that claimed to know Joseph at the time of the 1826 hearing make no mention of a conviction. These affidavits were published in the 1834 anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed.
What did the witnesses say in the 1826 hearing?
A summary of what witnesses stated, based on the existing reports, during the 1826 hearing are as follows:
Joseph Smith Jr.
Recalled how he found his stone. In the Pearsall account, Joseph recalls how Josiah Stowell hired him, informing Stowell where to find treasures “in the bowels of the earth." Joseph also stated he gave up the practice as it hurt his eyes and he "had always rather declined anything having to do with this business."
Joseph Smith Sr.[BIO]
Spoke of his son's "wonderful triumphs as a seer" and 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," hoping this power would eventually get used correctly.
Described where a purported chest of dollars was buried in Winchester County, of which Joseph marked the size of the chest with leaves on the ground.
Wanted Joseph Smith to display his skills. This resulted in Joseph reading a book he covered with cloth while holding a white stone to a candle. This disappointed Arad who thought it was deception.
Claimed Joseph stated there was a treasure protected by sacrifice. They struck the treasure with a shovel. One man placed his hand on the treasure, but it sunk out of reach.
Stated that he went with Arad Stowel to be convinced of Joseph's skills, but was initially convinced that Joseph was a fraud. He said Joseph pretended he could discern objects at a distance by holding a white stone to the sun or candle and Joseph "rather declined looking into a hat at his dark coloured stone."
According to the Benton account, Joseph Smith confessed to Austin that he could not truly see any buried money, and knowingly engaged in such deception "to get a living."
Testified that Joseph "looked through stone and described [my] house and out houses, while at Palmyra at Sampson Stowell's correctly, that he had told about a painted tree with a man's hand painted upon it by means of said stone." William Purple witnessed the testimony and recalled, “The testimony of Deacon Stowel could not be impeached. Prisoner was discharged.”
In the 1826 hearing was Joseph fined by the court?
No, probably not. The bills from Judge Neely and Constable De Zeng[BIO] do not indicate any fine, and were for court costs, which were directed to the County for payment of witnesses and other costs.
Did Joseph Smith ever say anything about the 1826 hearing?
No, not specifically. However, in the July 1838 issue of the Elders' Journal, Joseph admits that he was a "money digger" but "it was never a very profitable job to him, as [he] only got fourteen dollars a month for it." Joseph also admitted that, as a youth, he was guilty of "many vices and follies.”
What do we know about the 1829 hearing?
Not much. The only documentation about it is from a second-hand recollection from Lucy Mack Smith.
What were the 1830 cases about?
In the summer of 1830, Joseph was charged in New York with being a "disorderly person" in two cases in South Bainbridge and in Colesville.
What is known about the 1830 South Bainbridge case?
The charges against Joseph before Justice Joseph Chamberlain[BIO] in South Bainbridge are not entirely clear. According to Joseph Knight Sr., Benton swore out the warrant for Joseph's "pretending to see under ground," and according to Joseph Smith, it was, at least to some degree, related to the earlier charges of his being a money digger as well as purportedly disturbing the peace when he "cast a devil" from Newel Knight.
What is known about the 1830 Colesville case?
The second case in 1830 was tried before a three Justice of the Peace court—a Court of Special Sessions in Colesville. After the first hearing, Joseph received a warrant for the same crimes from a constable from Broome County for the second hearing. According to John S. Reed,[BIO] witnesses were examined until 2 a.m., and the case was argued for another two hours until Joseph was acquitted.
What did the witnesses say in the 1830 trials?
The following is a listing of the witnesses and a summary of what they said concerning the 1830 trials:
Joel K. Noble[BIO]
Joel K. Noble said the warrant issued against Joseph was for "breach of the peace against the state of New York, by looking through a certain stone to find treasure" adding that Joseph "was discharged; he had not looked in the glass for two years to find money, &c.,—hence it was outlawed."
Reed noted that after Joseph was found "not guilty" and discharged at the first trial, he was arrested again for a second trial in Colesville, where Joseph was also found "not guilty." The judges would reprimand Joseph "on account of his religious opinions."
Do the court records exist for the 1830 trials?
No, the court records for the 1830 trials have not been found.
Did Joseph Smith ever say anything about the 1830 trial?
Yes. In his history, Joseph recalled the 1830 trials, recalling that it was about "scandalous falsehoods" and that many witnesses "swore to palpable falsehoods" and that he was acquitted on both occasions.