Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lucy Harris vs. Joseph Smith: The 1829 Proceedings - The Legal Details


The Legal Details

Lucy's case was based on proving that "Joseph never had the Record which he professed to have, and that he pretended to have in his possession certain gold plates, for the express purpose of obtaining money."69 If Lucy could prove this in court, Joseph could face jail time in a state prison. The New York statutes stated, that "whoever, with intent to defraud another, designedly, by colour of any false token or writing, or other false pretence, obtains any signature of any person to any written instrument, or obtains from any person any money or valuable thing, is punishable in a state prison not exceeding three years, or in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding three times the value of the money or thing so obtained, or by both such fine and imprisonment."70 The allegation fell under the status of being a criminal charge.

Her devious plan was well crafted. If she could convince the judge that Joseph was pretending to maintain these plates in order to deceive Martin from his money, the plates could be brought forth in trial as evidence to the matter. It seems that Lucy had a full-proof plan: she would either satisfy her curiosity and finally see the plates, or she would substantially disrupt Joseph's work by potentially sending him to jail while maintaining the family assets and ending Martin's involvement.

In order to carry out her plan, she "mounted her horse, flew from house to house through the neighborhood, like a dark spirit, making diligent inquiry wherever she had the least hopes of gleaning anything, and stirring up every malicious feeling which would tend to subserve her wicked purpose." She was clearly ambitious in this undertaking. "Having ascertained the number and strength of her adherents, she entered a complaint against Joseph before a certain magistrate of Lyons."71

Feme Covert and Next Friend

"Feme covert" and "next friend," are two significant legal terms applicable during the early 19th century that are relevant in considering Lucy Smith's last comment. "Femme couverte" (Fr. "covered woman") was an expression that referred to a married female. "At Common Law husband and wife have always been looked upon as one person, and, in consequence of this legal fiction, actions between them have never been allowed in a court of law during the continuance of the married state."72 This legal perspective may have carried over from the old English laws. Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, state that, "by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything..."73 As such, all legal actions would have been performed by Martin; however, since he was subpoenaed as a witness,74 it is clear that he would not have been party to entering the complaint.

The exception to this scenario relates to any cases in chancery, wherein, "the duality of husband and wife has always been recognized [in matters of equity], and whenever the interests of the two are conflicting the wife is allowed to bring a suit against her husband, or the husband against his wife, as if they were sole and unmarried,"75 including suits for divorce.76  In the case of Wood v. Wood (1831), the Court of Errors heard an appeal, wherein, the wife was suing her husband for divorce. One of the questions addressed by the chief justice of the court related to whether the woman had the right to file a bill of divorce in her name without a "next friend." The opinion of the judge was that a history of cases brought by married women in suits for divorce provided a sufficient precedent to allow her to represent herself.77  Ultimately, these types of cases brought about changes in the legal system as "legal capacity [was given] to the wife, where there was none before; it enabled her to do what before some friend must have done for her; it enabled her to bring a suit in her own name."78

In 1829, Lucy Harris would not have been able to enter a criminal complaint against Joseph Smith in her own name as the above scenario applied to domestic charges only. Since she was considered "one" with Martin by the law, and Martin was not a participant in the complaint, Lucy would be required to obtain male representation, or a "next friend." Chief Justice John Savage stated, "at the common law, a feme covert could not prosecute as plaintiff without her husband or a next friend, and when the next friend brought the suit, he was liable for costs..."79 She was to be represented by a "responsible person," which was defined as somebody who was "possessed of property sufficient to pay the costs which may be adjudged against him, if, in the end, it should appear that the suit was instituted without any reasonable or justifiable cause."80 The question of who assisted Lucy in entering the complaint is, at this point, purely speculative; without some form of substantial evidence we cannot identify her "next friend" with any degree of certainty.

A certain magistrate of Lyons

The publication of Lucy Mack Smith's family biography states that the complaint was entered "before a certain magistrate of Lyons."81 The manuscript, however, states that "she entered a complaint before grand befor a magistrate at lyons [Sic]."82 This difference in wording is significant since the plaintiff's residency is primary in determining jurisdiction. Assuming "of" means "from," the justice of the peace would have been a resident of Lyons. Considering that the manuscript version says "at" Lyons, it appears reasonable that as the court house was in Lyons, the complaint was simply entered there, probably before a justice of the peace. The statutes stated 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."83 Since Lucy lived in Palmyra, it appears reasonable that a justice of the peace from Palmyra would have primary jurisdiction in presiding over the proceedings. As Joseph was living out of state, the second option can be dismissed; however, the third option may be applicable and complicates the issue since a host of potential candidates could be included for consideration as to determining the magistrate's identity.

Assuming for a moment that Lucy's name was entered as plaintiff in the case, rather than her next friend, there were four justices of the peace from Palmyra that could have heard the complaint:84

  • Frederick Smith
  • Ambrose Salisbury
  • William Wilcox
  • Alexander R. Tiffany85
However, her representation was likely named as plaintiff since he would have been held responsible for the costs associated with the proceedings. If the complaint was entered before a magistrate of (from) Lyons, it appears reasonable that her next friend could have been from Lyons. If such were the case, the following Justices of the Peace from Lyons (in 1829) could each be considered as the potential magistrate over these proceedings:

  • Andrew Dorsey
  • William Voorhies
  • Lysander C. Grover
  • Hugh Jameson86
As mentioned above, the third option for identifying the magistrate involved in the case, is to identify the Justices of the Peace in the towns in Wayne County that are adjacent to Palmyra (assuming that Lucy Harris was identified as (a) plaintiff), as well as the other towns in Wayne County, since the identification of her next friend cannot be ascertained, and consequently, the residence of her next friend is unknown as well; as such, all towns within Wayne County become potential locations for determining the possible identity of the Justice of the Peace.

Wayne County, circa 1830.87

The following list comprises Justices of the Peace in Wayne County in 1829:88

  • Hezekiah Dunham
  • H. Bannister
  • George W. Scott
  • Theodore Partridge
  • Marvin Rich
  • Thomas Lakey
  • Isaac R. Sanford
  • Martin Moore
  • "It has been impossible to obtain much accurate information concerning the early town meetings and officers. Many of the names of supervisors are noted a little further on, and many others are ommitted because of the incompleteness of the records."89
  • John F. Packard
  • Ira Hill
  • Alexander Purdy
  • Isaac Durfee
  • John Stevens
  • John Stolp II
  • George Boynton
  • Joseph Patterson
  • Robert Alsop
  • Daniel Granden
  • Daniel Poppin
  • Andrew Cornwell
  • James Edwards
  • Thaddeus Bancroft
  • Israel Armes
  • Alanson M. Knap
Port Bay
  • Norman Sheldon
  • Jedediah Wilder
  • James York
  • David Gates
  • Elizur Flint
  • Dorman Munsell
  • Philander Mitchell
  • Peter Valentine
  • Charles F. Smith
  • Hiram P. Jones
  • John Foot
  • Frederick Boogher
  • Edward Bivins
  • Jonathan Beadle
  • Nehemiah Bunyea
  • Samuel G. Gilbert
  • Ebenezer Fitch
  • Thomas Hall
  • Jesse Viele
  • Ethan W. Allen
  • David Arne, Jr.
  • John Decker
  • Amon Snyder
  • Daniel Roe, Jr.
While I had previously surmised that Judge Alexander R. Tiffany was the likely candidate to fill the role as magistrate in this case, there are actually numerous possibilities. Without some substantial evidence linking a specific Justice to this case, it might not be possible to associate any individual magistrate to these proceedings with any reasonable degree of assurance.90

The Complaint

Lucy Harris would be required to submit a written affidavit in entering her complaint. This process is described in the Gazetteer of the State of New York, published in 1836:

Upon complaint in writing, on oath, to such magistrates, that any person has threatened to commit any offense against the person or property of another, he may examine the complaint as directed by law, and if there be just reason to fear the commission of such offense, by the person complained of, cause him to be apprehended and brought before him; and may require him to enter into recognisance, in a sum not exceeding $1000, with one or more sureties, to appear at the next court of general sessions, &c., and in the mean time to keep the peace towards the people, and particularly towards him requiring the security.91
Lucy Smith's history states that after entering her complaint, Lucy Harris requested Lyman Cowdery (Oliver's brother) to "come thither." Should the decision be against Joseph, his assistance might prove especially helpful to the officers in locating Joseph in Pennsylvania for securing and confining him for prison. Lyman was not an officer of the law; however, in 1828 he was "appointed Marshal of the Court Marshal of the 39th regiment of Infantry, of which Col. Ambrose Salisbury was President [and Palmyra Justice of the Peace]." His responsibilities related to taking court warrants and collecting fines for military delinquencies.92 While it wouldn't be his responsibility to bring Joseph into custody, his experience with court warrants and his relationship with Oliver could prove invaluable, an asset likely recognized by Lucy.

Normally in order to issue a warrant outside of the county, the magistrate would need to obtain endorsement from a Justice of the Peace from the county in which the defendant resided. As Joseph was out of state, however, a verdict against him would be required in order to bring him into custody, at which point the case would probably rise to a trial by jury in the Court of General Sessions. As such, the witnesses were examined despite Joseph's absence.93 In connection with Lucy's complaint, certain witnesses were identified to be subpoenaed for the case, foremost among them was her own husband Martin.

The Subpoenas

There were at least three other witnesses subpoenaed in addition to Martin who testified during the proceedings. Lucy Smith's account is silent as to who these other witnesses were and how many witnesses were actually subpoenaed. It was probably not too difficult to obtain a sufficient number of witnesses considering the opposition to Joseph and his family throughout Palmyra and vicinity. Certain individuals later stated that they believed Joseph was guilty of fraud. Reverend John A. Clark told Martin Harris, regarding the Book of Mormon translation, that the "whole thing appeared to me so ludicrous and puerile, that I could not refrain from telling Mr. Harris, that I believed it a mere hoax got up to practice upon his credulity, or an artifice to extort from him money..."94 A collection of testimonies against Joseph Smith and his family written in late 1833 was assembled by Philastus Hurlbut, and published by Eber D. Howe in his 1834 publication, Mormonism Unvailed.95 One wonders if the published testimonies may have been provided by some of the same individuals subpoenaed for the court proceedings.

The Court Proceedings

In court, the witnesses were sworn in, having previously declared their intentions to obtain a verdict against Joseph. Each witness was consistent in declaring that Joseph Smith had been deceiving the people. The third witness added that Joseph had already obtained two or three-hundred dollars, and his intentions were to "get Martin Harris's money away from him." Next, Mrs. Harris' affidavit was presented, which 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 interrupted the examination of other witnesses to swear in Martin Harris and to hear his testimony. After being sworn in, Martin, boldly testified that Joseph Smith never obtained one dollar from him by persuasion, that he gave Joseph $50 under his own free will and accord, that Joseph provided a reasonable compensation for all monies that he received, and as for the plates that Joseph professed to have, that it was true and would prove the damnation for those who refused to believe and continued to resist the truth.96

Martin's testimony was sufficient to settle the case. Immediately afterwards, the magistrate took the testimonies given and tore them all to pieces. He told the people to go home, and to "trouble him no more with such ridiculous folly."97 It is interesting that the judge acted in this manner. If there were any hint of bias against Joseph Smith, or any curiosity to see the plates, it would have been easy enough to pass over Martin's testimony as being delusional, in light of the other witnesses and his own wife's testimony! The magistrate could have satisfied his own curiosity in issuing a warrant for Joseph Smith's detainment and obtaining the plates as evidence in the case, but he simply dismissed the whole matter. It appears that Martin must have been convincing in his argument and that the magistrate was not influenced by ulterior motives. Martin's response to these circumstances reflect his reaction to the March revelation, wherein, the Lord told him to humble himself through prayer and faith (D&C 5:24). It is clear that he was back on the path to becoming a witness, as conditionally promised.

It is interesting that Lucy Harris stated that she believed Joseph's intent was to defraud Martin of all his property. Considering that Martin subsequently mortgaged his land to publish the Book of Mormon, her statement alludes to the idea that she was aware of Martin's intentions at the time of the trial. Thus, it appears that this may have been a catalyst to instigate these proceedings, as previously mentioned.

This trial is an excellent case study in seeing the Lord 's dealings with mankind in establishing His kingdom. Should Martin have betrayed Joseph in trial, there could have been a significant disruption in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. The only person willing and capable of providing means for the publication would have thrown in the towel, and foregone his opportunity to see the plates. Joseph could have been detained and the plates subject to public scrutiny. Instead, the March revelation probably gave inspiration to Martin Harris to repent of his sins and to seek the Lord, the result of which was the Lord's gift to Martin of becoming one of the three witnesses to see the plates and hear the voice of God. Martin did mortgage his property to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon, despite Lucy's attempts to thwart the work. Martin's testimony, sacrifice, and witness has been a great blessing to all mankind.



69 Biographical Sketches, 132
70 Gazetteer of the State of New York (1836), 297. Under the criminal code, if the charge against Joseph for defrauding Martin was valued at $25 or less, the crime would have been petty larceny. Defrauding any "person of property, by means in themselves criminal, or by means which if executed would amount to a cheat, or to obtaining money or property by false pretences," could result in punishment by imprisonment in the county jail and fines not exceeding $100, or both (Ibid, 301). Considering Lucy had given $28 to Joseph, and Martin had given $50, the charge under the criminal code would have been classed as "arson of inferior degrees" (Ibid, 294).
71 Biographical Sketches, 132
72 The Encyclopaedia of Pleading and Practice: Under the Codes and Practice Acts, at Common Law, in Equity, and in Criminal Cases (William M. McKinney; Edward Thompson Company, Long Island, NY, 1898), 10:195
73 Commentaries on the Laws of England (4 Vols., Sir William Blackstone; Geo. T. Bisel Col., Philadelphia, PA, 1922), 1:411
74 Biographical Sketches, 132
75 The Encyclopaedia of Pleading and Practice: Under the Codes and Practice Acts, at Common Law, in Equity, and in Criminal Cases (William M. McKinney; Edward Thompson Company, Long Island, NY, 1898), 10:195
76 Report of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Judicature and in the court for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors of the State of New York (John L. Wendell; Gould, Banks, & Co., New York, NY, 1839), 8:361. Conflicting information from this period makes it difficult to ascertain what the "actual" practice of the law entailed. According to the Court of Chancery Rule 163: "No bill shall be filed in the name of a feme covert, to obtain a sentence of nullity declaring void her marriage contract, or to obtain a decree for a separation or limited divorce, unless the suit is prosecuted by a responsible person as the next friend of the complainant, who shall be responsible to the defendant for such costs as may be awarded by the court, if it shall appear that the suit was commenced without any reasonable or justifiable cause" (Rules and Orders of the Court of Chancery of the State of New York, William Gould & Co., Albany, NY, 1829, pgs 75-76).
77 Wood v. Wood (Albany, December 1831) in Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Judicature and in the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors of the State of New York (John L. Wendell; Gould, Banks, & Co., New York, NY, 1839), 8:361-362
78 Ibid, 8:362
79 Ibid, 8:361
80 A Treatise on the Practice of the Court of Chancery, with an Appendix of Precedents (2 Vols., Oliver L. Barbour; Wm. & A. Gould & Co., Albany, NY, 1844), 2:250
81 Biographical Sketches, 132 (emphasis added)
82 Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir (Lavina Fielding Anderson; Signature Books Publishing, LLC; available online at:; accessed on May 7, 2010; emphasis added)
83 The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, 2:226
84 Gazetteer of the State of New York (1836), 279; The Revised Statutes of the State of New York, 1:97
85 The New York State Register (1830), 277; also see Town of Palmyra Minutes 1828, per, and 1829, per April 11, 2010)
86 The New York State Register (1830), 277. Larry E. Morris has noted that the Hugh Jameson docket book (January 1, 1828 through July 21, 1829) includes information relating to a judgment rendered against Oliver and Lyman Cowdery for a debt owed on a $22 note ("The Conversion of Oliver Cowdery," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies; Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, 2007; Vol 16, Issue 1, pgs 9, 81). As this docket book covers the timeframe for the case in question, and as there has been no noted mention of the case from Jameson's docket book, it appears reasonable that he was not the magistrate involved in the hearing.
87 Image of Wayne County map provided courtesy of Dale R. Broadhurst, per: My sincere appreciation.
88 The New York State Register (1830), 276-277
89 Landmarks of Wayne County, New York (Hon. George W. Cowles; D. Mason & Company, Syracuse, NY, 1895), 395
90 It is of interest that Frederick Smith, a Palmyra Justice of the Peace, signed his name and position to certain statements made by Palmyra neighbors Willard Chase and David Stafford in 1833, that were critical of Joseph Smith, perhaps to add credibility to such accusations (Mormonism Unvailed: Or A Faithful Account of that Singular Imposition and Delusion, From its Rise to the Present Time. With Sketches of the Characters of its Propagators, and a full detail of the manner in which the Famous Golden Bible was Brought Before the World, by E.D. Howe; Painesville, Ohio, 1834), 248, 250. Based on this connection, it may indicate that Justice Smith is a less likely candidate as the magistrate in the Lucy Harris proceedings.
91 Gazetteer of the State of New York (1836), 305
92 "More Falsehoods Chased Home," Western Argus, November 7, 1832 (certification of Lyman Cowdery)
93 Gazetteer of the State of New York (1836), 287-288; hearings before a Justice of the Peace included "cases of judgments" wherein judgments were issued "whether the defendant was present at the trial or not."
94 Gleanings By The Way, Rev. John A. Clark, D.D., (W.J. & J.K. Simon, Philadelphia, PA; Robert Carter, New York, NY, 1842), 224
95 Mormonism Unvailed, 231-269
96 Biographical Sketches, 132-134
97 Biographical Sketches, 134-135

No comments:

Post a Comment