The Farm Boy And The Angel

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From these descriptions emerges a personality not at all inconsistent with the New England whence Joseph Smith came nor the area in which he grew to manhood. The narrator who told exaggerated tales with a straight face was a widely admired figure of the time. The title “biggest liar in the county” was highly prized and eagerly sought by every narrator of popular oral fiction. Joseph’s grandfather, Solomon Mack, was just such a storyteller. The superstitions of his neighbors had given Joseph’s impressionable and eager mind fascinating materials, and from them he had fashioned a world of miracle and wonder. Hence, he could well be grieved when Parson Reed confused his creative literary imaginings with immoral lying. A psychiatrist today might add a note to modern concepts of the boy upon reading a contemporary’s testimony that “At times he was melancholy and sedate, as often hilarious and mirthful,” though the sentence can hardly be accepted as justifying any conclusion.

Since the great majority of his community identified all semblances of the supernatural as the works of either the devil or the Lord, it was inevitable that he should do the same. A contemporary said that Joseph told him his power to use his peep-stone as an instrument of clairvoyance came from God. If he believed this, his occult practices after his first vision, which were harshly criticized, would seem consistent. Since he was more sensitive, fanciful, and articulate than those who inhabited the small suspicion-ridden world in which he lived, it is not surprising that he won spreading fame for supernatural gifts. Among those who later turned against him with bitter words were men whose greed for buried gold had led them to believe that he possessed occult powers and to employ his services as a clairvoyant.

Whatever his motivations, Joseph was still susceptible to the wonder of small stones. In 1822, he and others were digging a well for the Chase family in nearby Manchester, when, at a depth of more than twenty feet, appeared an opaque stone “of a whitish glassy appearance” and shaped “like a child’s foot.”

This gleaming grotesque so captured his speculative mind that he bought it at once and enlisted its magic. When it was in his hat and his face was down over it to exclude all light from outside, said neighbor Joseph Capron, he could see by its radiance objects of great wonder—“ghosts, infernal spirits, mountains of eold and silver.”

Apparently the discovery and purchase of the “child’s foot” stone added to Joseph’s reputation. Though only seventeen, he possessed the recognized implements of a glasslooker, and his was the name that came immediately to mind throughout the region whenever there was talk of buried treasure and the spells exerted over it by concealers long dead. According to later testimony of his neighbors, he had acquired much of his comprehensive knowledge of occult lore from a peripatetic magician, conjurer, and fortune teller named Walters, who had no sooner wandered into the nearby town of Sodus than he had been jailed for the crime of “juggling.” J Undiscouraged by the coldness of his welcome, Walters let it be known that for three dollars a day he would make use of his supernatural gifts, his divining rods (”peach, witch-hazel, and mineral”), his crystal spheres, and his stuffed toads, in finding Indian gold and chests of Spanish coins lying beneath the surface of many an otherwise unproductive farm. A disapproving local journal, the Palmyra Reflector , reported that Walters once “assembled his nightly band of money-diggers in the town of Manchester, at a point designated in his magical book, and drawing a circle around laborers with the point of an old sword and using sundry other incantations” sacrificed a rooster to propitiate the spirit of the place, but all his ritual proved to no avail.

When Walters had resumed his vagabondage, the Reflector ironically and jocosely suggested that the mantle of the town’s former mystic had fallen upon young Joseph Smith. When in 1833 Joseph, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, excommunicated from that body in Kirtland, Ohio, handsome Philaster Hurlbut for “unchristian conduct” toward the females of the sect, Philaster raced to Palmyra to beg from more than a hundred of the prophet’s former neighbors affidavits exposing Joseph’s sinful conduct in the years before he claimed the discovery of the golden plates.

While the statements obtained are highly suspect (since most of them do not repeat information given by others, and since all are couched in Hurlbut’s style) they furnish an authoritative manual of the wildly poetic folk-concepts with which Joseph’s brain boiled during his adolescence. Many who testified against their erstwhile companion (Willard Chase among them) had firmly believed in the superstitions they now jealously cited as proofs of the wickedness and deceit of the boy whose mind had absorbed them. According to the affidavits, Joseph had at various times offered the following suggestions to treasure diggers:

The best time for digging money is the summer when the sun’s heat draws ancient coffers “near the top of the ground.”

A chest of gold watches lay in the earth of Joe Capron’s farm, but it was retrievable only if a man brandishing a burnished sword marched the surface above it to protect the diggers from assaults by the devil himself.