Friday, September 16, 2005



Okay, this may be a long post, so settle in.

On April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr. founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has long been the target of criticism by critics of every stripe (secular and sectarian, Protestant and Catholic, you name it). One particular criticism relates to an arrest and trial of Joseph Smith in South Bainbridge, New York in 1826. At lease three non-identical (and, in some respects, mutually contradictory) versions of the trial exist, but in the early 1970s a Reverend Wesley Walters, an ardent critic of the LDS Church, brought some new information to light, as discussed in a 1972 BYU Studies article written by Marvin S. Hill (footnotes omitted):
Reverend Wesley P. Walters of the United Presbyterian church in Marissa, Illinois, discovered some records in the basement of the sheriff's office in Norwich, New York, which he maintains demonstrate the actuality of the 1826 trial and go far to substantiate that Joseph Smith spent part of his early career in southern New York as a money digger and seer of hidden treasures. A periodical in Salt Lake City which heralded Walters's findings said they "undermine Mormonism" and repeated a statement by Hugh Nibley in The Myth Makers, "if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith."

Judge Albert Neely's bill of costs

Walters's discovery consisted mainly of two documents. The first was a bill of costs presented to local authorities by Justice Albert Neely in 1826 which identified Joseph Smith as "The Glass Looker" and indicated that he was charged at the trial with a "misdemeanor." Neely's bill reported that his total charges for the case were $2.68, the precise amount shown in Fraser' s Magazine.

Walters's second find was a bill by the local constable, Philip DeZeng, dated 1826, which indicates that not only was a warrant issued for Joseph Smith's arrest but also a mittimus, which Walters believes must have been issued after the trial ordering the sheriff to escort Joseph out of the county. Walters contends that the mittimus thus proves that Joseph Smith was found guilty.

A preliminary investigation by the writer at the sheriff's office in Norwich, New York, confirmed that Walters had searched thoroughly the bills of local officials dated in the 1820s, many of which were similar to the two bills in question. The originals, however, were not at the sheriff's office but in Walters's possession. Presumably they will be available for study at a later date. Until then, the final question of their authenticity must remain open.
Let us now fast-forward a few decades to a news article that just appeared online today (September 16, 2005):
A historian in New York state has rediscovered historical records that detail how Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, a native of Vermont, was arrested on four occasions in the mid-1820s.

Chenango County Historian Dale Storms says she turned over the newly found documents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Partial records of the arrests had long been in the possession of the county and known to historians, but Storms says the documents fill in some historical holes.

The Mormom church says it's pleased the original papers of Smith's court proceedings in 1826 and 1830 have been returned.
But the church says they don't reveal anything new about the Mormons' founder.

The documents include arrest warrants, court transcripts and legal bills from four separate charges. The cases detail Smith's involvement in glass looking, or treasure seeking, and being a disorderly person.
This didn't seem particularly noteworthy until I came across another article that had some interesting additional details (emphasis added):
One of the documents includes a bill from then-South Bainbridge Justice Albert Neely to the county for services rendered. Included in the bill is a $2.68 charge for fees in examining the case of "Joseph Smith, the glass looker."

Smith was born in Sharon, Vt., in 1806.

Storms said the records were turned over to the county recently by Norwich resident Richard Smith (no relation to Joseph Smith), whose mother was the county historian until 1997 and secretly had the records in her possession for the last three decades, Storms said.

The former historian squirreled them away in the early 1970s after they were taken without permission from the basement of the county sheriff's office in 1971 by Wesley P. Walters, a deceased pastor of the Marissa Presbyterian Church in Marissa, Ill. Storms said Walters took the papers because he thought they were unsafe where they were and might be destroyed.
I find it interesting that Rev. Walters absconded with public records (albeit very old ones) out of concern they "might be destroyed." Destroyed by whom? If these records reveal nothing new about Joseph Smith's legal troubles, who would want to get rid of them? (There's also a wee bit of irony in Rev. Walters attacking Joseph Smith's character with evidence he (Walters) took without permission - stole - from the sheriff's office, but I digress...)

And then there's the problem Rev. Walters breaking the "chain of evidence," so to speak. How many documents did Rev. Walters "take without permission" from the county sheriff's office? Did the previous county historian (Mrs. Smith, mentioned above) conspire with Rev. Walters? If so, what was the point and purpose of the conspiracy? Was she hiding the documents (her son seems to think so, as she "secretly had the records in her possession for the last three decades")? If so, why? What legitimate purpose could a public servant have for taking private possession of public records for thirty years?

Did Mrs. Smith and Rev. Walters retain all the records relating to the Joseph Smith trial? Or did Rev. Walters vet them to make sure that only those records lending credence to his antagonistic portrayal of Joseph Smith saw the light of day? Were there any records that contravene Rev. Walters' characterization of the trial? If so, would Rev. Walters have had a motive to destroy them?

We don't know the answers to these questions, and it's very likely we never will know one way or the other. (I wonder if Mrs. Smith is still alive, though. Perhaps she could shed some light on this.) However, the fact is that Rev. Walters broke the chain of custody of evidence. He had a vested interest in making Joseph Smith look as bad as possible. He did, in fact, use some of these records for that purpose. His conduct therefore gives rise to not-untenable suspicions about whether the complete body of evidence made it through his hands.

UPDATE: I just came across an online discussion of this news item here.