Joseph Smith was subjected to five legal proceedings in New York, being accused of such things as being a religious impostor, con-artist, or treasure seeking fraud. Of these, four of the outcomes are not in dispute with Joseph triumphing against his conspiring enemies.
1826 South Bainbridge, Chenango, NY Joseph is accused of being a disorderly person or vagrant pretending “to discover where lost goods may be found” while in the employ of Josiah Stowell. I will discuss the outcome of this hearing below.
March 1829 Lyons, Wayne, NY While Joseph lived in Harmony, Lucy Harris brought a suit against him for defrauding her husband by faking the plates. The magistrate “tore [a record of Lucy's witnesses] in pieces before their eyes, and told them to go home about their business, and trouble him no more with such ridiculous folly.”
May 1829 Broome, NY or Susquehanna, PA Joseph Smith arrested for “being a false prophet and deceiving the people.” The prosecuting attorney asks for the case to be dismissed after Joseph successfully answers religious questions.
June 1830 South Bainbridge, Chenango, NY Joseph is again accused under the disorderly person act and of being a false prophet. Joseph’s character and conduct was examined in order to “open the eyes and understandings of those who blindly followed him.” Joseph was acquitted, but was tried again in Broome county the next day.
July 1830 Broome, NY A trial with similar charges and witnesses was held before three J/Ps. Joseph found not guilty.
The best historical reconstruction is that Joseph Smith was brought before a justice of the peace for an “examination” or pre-trial hearing. This is conceded by Dan Vogel and Wesley Walters, easily the top scholarly critics who have written on the subject. One can not be found criminally guilty at a pre-trial hearing. There are mixed reports about the outcome of the hearing as this link shows:
1. Benton [anti-mormon, 1st hand]: tried and condemned … designedly allowed to escape
2. Cowdery [mormon, 2nd hand]: honorably acquitted
3. Noble [anti-mormon, late]: was condemned, took leg bail
4. Marshall [anti-mormon, some editing]: guilty?
5. Tuttle [anti-mormon, some editing]: guilty?
6. Purple [non-mormon, late]: discharged
7. Constable De Zeng [non-mormon]: not a trial
8. Neely’s bill [I am adding this one to the wiki list, non-mormon]: fees [not a fine!] consistent with an examination not a trial
Only 4-5 claim he was guilty and those two really have the same source. The story goes that a page was tore out of docket book and published with some editorial discrepancies. So it has long been suspected that the part about being “guilty” was fraudulently added. Vogel argued that “guilty” just meant that the justice of the peace found enough evidence to hold Joseph over for trial. He found an Ohio legal code that uses “guilty” in that sense.
Two of the anti-mormon accounts indicate that Joseph was “condemned” (1 and 3). That does not mean Joseph was found criminally guilty of a misdemeanor. Rather it appears to mean something like Joseph was scolded. In the 1830 Broome County trial Noble was one of the 3 justices of the peace. He was said to have “condemned” Joseph, despite the J/Ps deciding Joseph was not guilty. John Reed, one of Joseph’s attorneys, felt the reprimand was “unlawful and uncalled for” and done solely “to please his accusers.” I think a similar ploy happened in the 1826 hearing, where the case against Joseph had as little merit then as it did in 1830.
Benton said that Joseph in 1826 was allowed to escape and Noble said he took leg bail. One of the ways to avoid prosecution in those days was to flee the territory. People that wanted to defend their reputation might have incentive to stick around and face trial. It is clear that Joseph was let go and a rumor (propagated by Noble) claimed Joseph was afraid to stand trial and hence left the area. But it is clear that Joseph was not too shy about returning to the area. For example he married Emma in January 1827 through a J/P there! The other indication that Joseph was let go and not fleeing the law comes from the constable’s bill (see this FARMS Review article):
And what was the outcome of the hearing? Your friend relies upon the so-called court record, as well as the equally suspect account of Judge King Noble, in claiming that Joseph was bound over for trial. Noble, although a judge, did not hear the case, and is not a primary source. Without anything more substantial to go on than his own and Walters’s wishful thinking, your friend confidently declares that the hearing “would have resulted in a later full trial had Joseph Smith not taken what Joel K. Noble called ‘leg bail’ (i.e., he fled the area)” (p. 124). In reality, the evidence points toward Joseph’s having been acquitted.
The court record your friend relies on so heavily actually does include some valid details, although badly garbled. I mentioned Justice Neely’s costs of $2.68. There is also an amount of $.19 listed as “warrants.” Another document that Walters ran down was a bill presented by Constable De Zeng 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 2 (October 1835): 202
I will dispute the idea attributed to Walters above, because I think the 1826 pre-trial hearing did in fact result in a full trial in 1830. In 1830, Joseph was captured in a neighboring county and dragged to Bainbridge, presumably because that is where the original complaint had been filed in 1826. The trial failed in part because of the statute of limitations (4 years had lapsed the 3 year limit). So Joseph’s persecutors changed the venue back to the county he was captured at and brought up the same charges. Again they failed to convict Joseph despite trying to throw the kitchen sink at him. So if one sees the 1830 trials as a continuation of the 1826 hearing then the conclusion to the whole episode was that Joseph formally found “not guilty” twice in 1830 in addition to being informally “honorably acquitted” and “discharged” in 1826.
Hence our modern day critics would be well-advised to stop claiming that Joseph Smith was a convicted con-artist. Their 19th century counterparts in New York had 5 years to build their case and utterly failed to do so, despite being given 5 opportunities.
See my blog posts The Bainbridge Conspiracy for more details on how these early trials were manifestations of religious persecution and Seer or Pious Fraud? for a discussion of Joseph Smith’s gift of seeing.