Monday, April 26, 2010

Lucy Harris vs. Joseph Smith: The 1829 Proceedings

April 26, 2010
by Tim Barker

Note: A more detailed and expanded study of this subject is available here.

Lucy Mack Smith's Account

The only known source describing a court case regarding Joseph Smith's character, as instigated by Martin Harris' wife Lucy, is the Joseph Smith family biography dictated by Lucy Mack Smith in 1844-1845.  Orson Pratt published the manuscript in London in 1853, and entitled it, "Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations." 

About a year after the loss of the 116 pages, Martin Harris wanted to visit Joseph in Harmony, PA, to see how the work was progressing.  Lucy Smith explained that in order to prevent Martin from visiting Joseph during the summer of 1829, Lucy Harris went from house to house stirring up trouble, and after ascertaining the "number and strength of her adherents, she entered a complaint against Joseph [Smith], before a certain magistrate of Lyons."  She explains the day of the proceedings as follows:

When the day of the trial came on, the neighbours came and informed us, that the witnesses had gone to Lyons with the declared intention to obtain a verdict against Joseph, if it could be done by swearing....
In the evening the proceedings of the court were rehearsed to us, which were as follows :--
The witnesses, being duly sworn, the first arose and testified, that Joseph Smith told him that the box which he had, contained nothing but sand; and he, Joseph Smith, said it was gold, to deceive the people.
Second witness swore, that Joseph Smith had told him that it was nothing but a box of lead, and he was determined to use it as he saw fit.
Third witness declared, that he once inquired of Joseph Smith what he had in that box, and Joseph Smith told him that there was nothing at all in the box, saying, that he had made fools of the whole of them, and all he wanted was, to get Martin Harris's money away from him, and that he (witness) was knowing to the fact that Joseph Smith had, by his persuasion, already got two or three hundred dollars.
Next came Mrs. Harris's affidavit, in which she stated, that she believed the chief object which Joseph Smith had in view, was to defraud her husband out of all his property, and that she did not believe that Joseph Smith had ever been in possession of the gold plates which he talked so much about.
The magistrate then forbid the introduction of any more witnesses, until Martin Harris should be sworn.  Martin being called upon, testified with boldness, decision, and energy, to a few simple facts.  When he arose, he raised his hand to heaven, and said, "I can swear, that Joseph Smith never has got one dollar from me by persuasion, since God made me.  I did once, of my own free will and accord, put fifty dollars into his hands, in the presence of many witnesses, for the purpose of doing the work of the Lord.  This, I can pointedly prove; and I can tell you furthermore, that I have never seen, in Joseph Smith, a disposition to take any man's money, without giving him a reasonable compensation for the same in return.  And as to the plates which he professes to have, gentlemen, if you do not believe it, but continue to resist the truth, it will one day be the means of damning your souls."
After hearing this testimony the magistrate told them they need not call any more witnesses, but ordered them to bring him what had been written of the testimony already given.  This he tore in pieces before their eyes, and told them to go home about their business, and trouble him no more with such ridiculous folly.  And they did go home, perfectly discomfited.1
As Lucy's account is the only known description of these events, many details are unknown, such as the date of the proceedings,2 the identity of the magistrate, the identity of the other witnesses, the existence of any court minutes, etc. With high expectations and great anticipation for the Joseph Smith Papers - Legal and Business Records, I wrote to several individuals involved with the project, and inquired if there were any other known sources regarding the case.  Unfortunately, the responses were unanimous in identifying Lucy's book as the only known source to document the event.3

Ultimately, the timing of the case and the other details really have little to do with Joseph Smith's mission and prophetic calling.  However, for those of us who love history, and especially that of the Prophet's, all details add insight into piecing together his life's story.  In my mission to pursue further knowledge regarding this particular case, I have discovered some information indicating the possible identity of the magistrate, as well as the timing of the proceedings.  Without more concrete evidence, it is difficult to be certain; however, the circumstantial evidence available has led me to some preliminary conclusions.

Wayne County and the Lyons' Courthouse

As Lucy had indicated, the proceedings were held in Lyons, New York. Lyons is approximately 15 miles east of Palmyra, and is the seat of Wayne County.  The following sketch of Lyons is from a publication in 1842.4

"With the creation of Wayne County in 1823, Lyons was chosen as the County seat and a Court House was constructed on the east side in what is now the Village Park.  The building was later removed and in 1854 a new Court House was completed on the north side of Church Street and has been in continuous use since then."5 

The following image is the earliest known depiction of the county courthouse in Lyons.  This image, however, is of the new court house, and is included as a matter of interest, as no images are available of the old court house.6

Likewise, the following image is the earliest known picture of the new courthouse, and is also included as a matter of interest.  It was originally printed in the Lyons Republican, and subsequently reprinted in "Grip's" Historical Souvenir of Lyons, in 1904.7

Appointments and New York Laws

As the county was organized in 1823, there was a need to appoint certain positions in order to meet the needs of the new county.  Fortunately, these appointments have been documented, and later published in various books.

The Records at Albany show the following appointments for new county of Wayne. We add, also, a few of the more important officers through subsequent years...:
April 18, 1823, Governor and Senate appointed:
William Sisson, David Arne, Jonathan Boyington, Judges of the County Courts of the county of Wayne.
Ambrose Hall, also nominated by the Governor for Judge was not confirmed.
Subsequently, John S. Tallmadge was nominated in the place of Hall and confirmed.
April 18, 1823, John S. Tallmadge was confirmed as Surrogate.
April 19, 1825, Jacob W. Hallett was confirmed as first Judge of the county of Wayne.
January 11, 1826, the Senate confirmed Frederick Smith to be Surrogate of Wayne county, vice Tallmadge, deceased.
March 10, 1826, the Senate confirmed Graham H. Chapin to be Surrogate of Wayne county.
March 23, 1825, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Truman Heminway and Henry Yersington to be auctioneers of the county of Wayne.
April 9, 1824, the Senate confirmed the appointment of George Culver to be Inspector of beef and pork for the county of Wayne.
February 21, 1824, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Martin W. Wilcox to be Inspector of distilled spirits for the county of Wayne.
March 23, 1827, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Alexander R. Tiffany to be First Judge of the Courts of Wayne county.
January 29, 1830, the appointment of William Sisson First Judge was confirmed by the Senate.8
For almost three years, Alexander R. Tiffany served as "First Judge" in Wayne County, including 1829, the year of the case in question.  Among his responsibilities, Judge Tiffany presided over the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of General Sessions of the Peace.  "Under the statutes then existing, each county was entitled to five county judges, one of them to be called the first county judge.  The others were simply county judges....The common pleas could be held by any three of the county judges, the first judge always presiding when present.  The court of general sessions of the peace was also held by not less than three county judges, or in a contingency by one judge and two justices of the peace.  The court of general sessions was practically the criminal side of the court of common pleas."9  The judges were appointed by the Governor and Senate, generally for a term of five years.10 

The scope of the Court of Common Pleas included the power to "hear, try and determine, according to law, all local actions, arising within the county for which such court shall be held..."  As described above, the Court of General Sessions of the Peace was directed more towards handling criminal related matters.  "Every court of general sessions of the peace shall have inquire, by the oaths of good and lawful men of the county, of all crimes and misdemeanors committed or triable in such county..."  However, these courts were limited in that any crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment were excluded, and outside of their jurisdiction.11 

The judges in place during 1829, included First Judge Alexander R. Tiffany, and County Judges William Sisson, David Arne, Jr., Byram Green, and Frederick Smith.12  The county clerk was John Barber, Jr., and the district attorney was William H. Adams.13  As mentioned above, if judges were unavailable for general sessions, justices of the peace were able to serve, so long as one judge was present.  "Each town was entitled to four justices of the peace to be elected by the people..."14  Justices of the peace from Palmyra, included Alexander R. Tiffany, Ambrose Salisbury, William Wilcox, and Frederick Smith.15  The justices of the peace from the town in which the plaintiff resided were generally given primary jurisdiction over a case when they were involved in court proceedings.16  As Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were likely in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Lucy Harris resided in Palmyra, it appears reasonable that if the justices of the peace were involved at all, they would most likely be those elected from Palmyra.

In relation to whether the case was under the Court of Common Pleas, or the Court of General Sessions of the Peace, the timing of the case would be the same.  These sessions were held periodically, as opposed to on an as needed basis.  "The courts of common pleas and general sessions in the several counties of this state, shall be held in every year, at the times and places following to wit: ...In the county of Wayne, the courts of common pleas and general sessions, on the fourth Tuesdays of January, May and September."17  Assuming that Lucy Harris' case was no exception, the proceedings were likely held on Tuesday, May 26, 1829.  Also, in light of the circumstances, it is reasonable to suppose that First Judge, and Palmyra Justice of the Peace, Alexander R. Tiffany presided during the case, and presumably took the written testimony given, tore it to pieces, and dismissed the case.

With the limited documentation available, it is difficult to conclude that Judge Tiffany was indeed, the Judge who dismissed this case.  However, with no documentation to the contrary, and considering these courts were only held three times a year, it is reasonable to suppose that the presiding judge would be present.  As previously noted, based on the circumstantial evidence available, I have made the preliminary conclusion that Judge Tiffany presided at this hearing, and that it occurred on May 26, 1829.  

Alexander R. Tiffany

The Hon. Alexander R. Tiffany was born in Niagara, Canada, October 16, 1796.  His family moved to Canandaigua, New York when he was young, where his father established a newspaper.  "Before he was tall enough to stand on the floor and reach the type in the case, would sit on a high stool and set type for the paper."18  After learning the art of printing, as a young man, he "commenced the study of law, and became a student in the office of the Hon. John C. Spencer, at that time one of the ablest and best lawyers in New York, and who was subsequently Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of that State.  After Mr. Tiffany was admitted to the bar, he commenced the practice of his profession in Palmyra, New York, where he was soon after elected justice of the peace, and served in that capacity several years.  About the year 1823,19 he was appointed first Judge of the County Court of Wayne county, New York, which office he filled until failing health compelled him to resign.  In October 1832, he came to Michigan, and settled in the village of Palmyra, this county [Lenawee]."20 

Regarding the character of Hon. Alexander R. Tiffany, he was described as a "lawyer of learning and ability, and was possessed of that culture, refinement and kindness of hear which eminently fitted him for the discharge of the delicate and responsible trust. He had pursued his legal studies with the Hon. John C. Spencer, at that time one of the ablest lawyers in New York....Before coming to Michigan, Judge Tiffany had for some years held the office of county judge of Wayne county, New York, thus acquiring a judicial experience which admirably fitted him for judge of the probate court in a new county, where he had few precedents to guide him."21  He was also described as a "man of giant intellect, a learned lawyer and a conscientious attorney....He wrote and studied beyond his strength, and during those memorable years wrote and published "Tiffany's Justice Guide" and "Tiffany's Criminal Law," which are today considered of great practical value in justice's courts, and to practicing attorneys generally in the state."22  It should also be noted that he published A Treatise on the Powers and Duties of the Justices of the Peace in the State of Michigan, Under Chapter Ninety-Three of the Revised Statutes, with Practical Forms;23 however, this may be one and the same as "Tiffany's Justice Guide."

Tiffany had also served in Palmyra, New York, with Ambrose Grow and Theron R. Strong as Commissioners of Common Schools in 1828, and with Ambrose Grow and Nathaniel H. Beckwith in 1829.24  In Michigan, he later became prosecuting attorney, judge of probate for the county for eight years, and a member of the constitutional convention in 1850, and a legislature of the state.25  Hon. Tiffany died in 1868 at the age of 72.26  After his passing, it was said that he was "one of the best common law lawyers, a close student, a zealous and able advocate, an honest man; his memory is revered and held in warm affection by our people."27

Judge Tiffany's character is presented above, as it seems fitting for the judge who dismissed the Lucy Harris case.  Realizing that the case testimony's that were given were wanting, and that Martin Harris' testimony was more than sufficient to settle the dispute, the "magistrate" dismissed the case.  There is no hint of bias against Joseph Smith, or prejudice in his ruling.  It seems reasonable that the character of the ruling seems to be consistent with an individual possessing those characteristics describing Alexander R. Tiffany. 

Rollin Robinson

Of further interest, Judge Tiffany relocated to Michigan in 1832, settling in "Palmyra," Michigan.  His brother-in-law, Rollin Robinson, followed shortly thereafter.  Rollin was born in 1810, and "learned to set type in the office, and at the age of seventeen, went into the office as an apprentice.  He stayed there only about two years, during which time he assisted in the printing of the first edition of the "Book of Mormon," or Gold Bible, for the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was "backed" by Martin Harris, a wealthy farmer of Palmyra township, and one of the original "three apostles."  Mr. Robinson was well acquainted with Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and its first Prophet, his father's family being a neighbor."28  Lucy Mack Smith mentions Robinson's help in informing Oliver Cowdery of a discussion he overheard, wherein, several individuals planned to prevent the Book of Mormon from being published.29 

Robinson may have assisted Oliver, as he was neighbor to the Smith's, and may have had a good relationship with them.  He may also have been of the same character as Judge Tiffany, his brother-in-law, and resented the plan of those individuals desiring to disrupt the printing.  He may also have simply been concerned about continued employment.  The impact, if any, of the decision made by Judge Tiffany in the Lucy Harris case, upon Rollin Robinson, as it relates to his impression of the Smith's, or of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, cannot be ascertained. 

Preliminary Conclusions

As stated in the introduction, I have come to preliminary conclusions, regarding Alexander R. Tiffany as the magistrate referred to by Lucy Mack Smith, as well as the date of the proceedings on May 26, 1829.  There were numerous judges and justices of the peace that could have been involved in the proceedings, and four other judges may have been responsible for dismissing the case.  Additionally, if numerous cases were scheduled for hearing, the Lucy Harris case may have been shortly after May 26, 1829.  Until further research has provided additional details regarding this case, the conclusions I have reached thus far, appear reasonable in light of the circumstantial evidence available.  I believe this is a starting point for further investigation.

1 Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and his Progenitors for Many Generations, ed. Orson Pratt (Liverpool, England: S.W. Richards, 1853), 132-135; an edited and revised version of this book was reprinted in the Improvement Era 5/1 (November 1901):1; see Improvement Era 5/7 (May 1902):481-484
2 While Lucy does indicate that this was during August 1829 (BSJS 132), all circumstantial evidence points to a date preceding June 1829.  See Melchizedek Priesthood - Restoration Timeline  for further analysis of the dating of this event.
3 E-mail correspondence from Joseph Bentley, dated August 8, 2009; e-mail correspondence from Morris Thurston, dated March 17, 2010; and e-mail correspondence from Gordon Madsen, dated March 26, 2010.
4 John W. Barber and Henry Howe, Historical Collections of the State of New York (New York, NY: S. Tuttle, 1842), 579; I could not locate a picture, or sketch of Lyons from the west, which would have been the view seen by those coming from Palmyra.
5 Village of Lyons home page: (accessed on October 7, 2009); also see John Homer French, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Syracuse, NY: R. Pearsall Smith, 1860), 688-689
6 Image courtesy of Mark L. De Cracker; used by permission (accessed on January 7, 2010). The image is dated 1850 which precedes the new court house by four years; however, a comparison of this picture with modern pictures clearly shows a similarity indicating that this image should be dated to 1854 or later.  A description of the new court house in 1860 also describes the image above.  "The courthouse is a fine cut stone building, fronting Church St.  It has an Ionic portico, and is surmounted by a large dome"  It was also "built of lockport limestone."  The old court house is described, as a brick edifice (Gazetteer of the State of New York, 689).  It was a two-story, brick building in the center of the village square, with the court room on the second floor.  ("Wayne County Court House" from; accessed on October 7, 2009).
7 "Grip's" Historical Souvenir of Lyons, Historical Souvenir Series No. 18, Lyons, N.Y. and Vicinity (Lyons, NY: The Lyon's Republican Print, 1904), 28
8 Lewis H. Clark, Military History of Wayne County, N.Y.: The County in the Civil War (Sodus, NY: Lewis H. Clark, Hulett, & Gaylord, 1863), 12-13 (emphasis added); Stephen C. Hutchins, Civil List and Constitutional History of the Colony and State of New York (Albany, NY; Weed, Parsons & Co. Publishers, 1880), 354, wherein, Judge Tiffany is recorded as being elected on March 28, 1827 as County Judge; also see Civil List and Forms of Government of the Colony and State of New York (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1879), 107; also see Hon. George W. Cowles, Landmarks of Wayne County (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Company, 1895), 107
9 Alden Chester, Legal and Judicial History of New York (New York, NY: National Americana Society, 1911) 3:387
10 Civil List and Forms of Government of the Colony and State of New York, 103
11 The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, 3 Vols. (Albany, NY: Packard and Van Benthuysen, 1829), 2:208; cases outside the jurisdiction of general sessions were to send indictments to the court of oyer and terminer, there to be determined according to law (ibid, 209).
12 Roger Sherman Skinner, The New York State Register For the Year of Our Lord 1831 (New York, NY: Dewey's Press, 1831), 182
13 Military History of Wayne County, NY, 14-15; also see "Grip's" Historical Souvenir of Lyons, 57; and see The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, 2:210
14 Legal and Judicial History of New York, 3:387; The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, 2:208
15 Town of Palmyra Minutes - 1828, per and 1829, per (accessed on April 11, 2010).  It should also be noted that during the public hearing in 1829 that 26 individuals were voted to serve as "Overseers of Highways for the several districts for which they are respectively chosen;" Martin Harris being the 13th person chosen.  This meeting was held April 7, 1829, the same day Oliver Cowdery began transcribing for Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Mormon.
16 George C. Edwards, A Treatise on the Powers and Duties of Justices of the Peace and Town Officers, in the State of New York, Under the Revised Statutes; with Practical Forms (Ithaca, NY: Mack, Andrus, and Woodruff, 1836), 7; also see The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, 2:226, wherein it states, that "every such action shall be brought before some justice of the town, wherein either, 1. The plaintiffs, or any one of them reside: or, 2. Where the defendants, or any one of them, reside: or 3. Before some justice of another town in the same county, next adjoining the residence of the plaintiff or defendant."
17 The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, 2:211, 214
18 W.A. Whitney and R.I. Bonner, History and Biographical Record of Lenawee County, Michigan (Adrian, MI: W. Stearns & Co., 1879), 1:523-524
19 While the biographical sketch states his appointment of First Judge in "about" 1823, the previous citations are based on actual records kept, and therefore, appear to be more credible, especially since the dating is provided in general terms.
20 History and Biographical Record of Lenawee County, Michigan, 1:523-524
21 Richard I. Bonner, Memoirs of Lenawee County Michigan, 2 Vols. (Madison, WI; Western Historical Association, 1909), 1:596
22 Ibid, 1:200 
23 Alexander R. Tiffany, A Treatise on the Powers and Duties of the Justices of the Peace in the State of Michigan, Under Chapter Ninety-Three of the Revised Statutes, with Practical Forms (Detroit, MI: S.D. Elwood, 1859)
24 Town of Palmyra Minutes - 1828, per  (accessed on April 11, 2010).  It is interesting to note that Hyrum Smith was one of the trustees for a district school; however, he lived in Manchester, Ontario County, and probably did not interact with the Palmyra Commissioners of Common Schools, at least professionally (BSJS, 128).  Wayne County and Ontario County border each other, and Hyrum's home was about 100 yards from the Joseph Smith, Sen. home, which was in Palmyra, Wayne County. Nathaniel H. Beckwith was one Palmyra resident particularly opposed to the Smith's, and later, Mormonism (see John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints or an Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston, MA: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 80).
25 Pioneer Collections: Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan (Lansing, MI; W.S. George & Co. 1884), 5:442
26 Memoirs of Lenawee County, Michigan, 1:200
27 Pioneer Collections, 5:442
28 History and Biographical Record of Lenawee County, Michigan, 1:379-380; also see, Memoirs of Lenawee County, Michigan, 1:303; and see Portrait and Biographical Album of Lenawee County, Mich. (Chicago, IL: Chapman Brothers, 1888), 1103.
29 Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, 143-144; for additional information regarding the printing of the Book of Mormon, and those individuals who participated in the printing, see Larry C. Porter, "The Book of Mormon: Historical Setting For Its Translation and Publication," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, Vol. 17 Monograph Series, Ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1993), 49-64


  1. Lucy had common sense and easily showed Joseph Smith to be a phony.

  2. wow....thank you for doing all this work. this is actually one of the most informative pieces ive read on the subject of the trial.

  3. Anonymous - thank you. This was my first attempt. At the top of the post, I refer the reader to another post that I did on the subject. It kind of became something of an obsession for awhile, and grew big enough, I broke it out into four parts (four posts). Some of my preliminary conclusions above are modified. As one of my friends told me, it was the most boring article he ever read :)
    If you decide to read it, hopefully you get as much out of it, as I did studying it. Thanks for your comment! - Tim

  4. Thanks so much for doing all this legwork! I certainly hope more documentation surfaces for this event. Sadly the only other known document was "torn in pieces before their eyes" which always makes the novice historian in my shudder. Thanks again!