The Farm Boy And The Angel

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Torches flared on the ridges above the valley towns while the diggers recited incantations to break the spells laid upon the ground into which they sank their spades. Then, as spring began, one, Peter Bridgeman, intolerant of such goings-on, swore out a warrant for the arrest of Joseph Smith as “a disorderly person and an impostor.”

Joseph was brought before a justice of the peace at Bainbridge on March 20, 1826. Of the five witnesses at his trial, three told of their certainty that the defendant could “divine things” by “looking into a hat at his dark-colored stone.” One of these said that Joseph had told him how a money trunk was situated, and that after he had dug down several feet for it he struck upon something sounding like a board or plank. At this moment, the witness testified, Joseph remembered that the last time he looked into his stone he had seen the two Indians who had buried the trunk quarreling until one slew the other and threw his body into the hole beside the trunk where it remained as a spirit-guard. It had proved its protective power, the witness continued, for as the digging went on the trunk kept sinking and remained constantly at about the same distance from the diggers.

Despite the testimony of the three who believed in Joseph’s mystic powers, however, two scoffers appearing for the prosecution found more favor with the judge. The trial record states, “The Court finds the ; defendant guilty.”

No report of the sentence has been found. If there was one, it must have been either light or suspended, for Joseph continued his work on the Stowel farm throughout the rest of the year. Isaac Hale, on being asked by Joseph for consent to his marrying Emma, replied with a stormy No. No stranger, he said, and certainly not a glass-looker, could marry a daughter of his. And so throughout the summer of 1826 Joseph, whenever he could leave the Stowel farm, made journeys southward that ended in clandestine lovers’ meetings.

It was in the Indian summer days of Joseph’s courtship of Emma Hale that there befell a third event which would have an even greater aftereffect on him than the pomp and show of the two pageants that had stirred the countryside. Whether the young lover was at his father’s home during the second week of September, 1826, or surreptitiously meeting his sweetheart by Susquehanna’s winding stream is not known, nor is it very important, for the story of what happened in western New York during those few days was to shock the whole nation and influence the thoughts not only of Joseph Smith but of thousands of other Americans for years to come.

William Morgan, a hotheaded Virginian who had served as captain under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, had settled with his wife and children at Batavia, official seat of Genesee County. Morgan claimed to be a high ranking member of the Ancient Order of Masons and persuaded neighboring fellow members to apply to a chapter of Royal Arch Masons in nearby Le Roy for permission to establish a similar lodge in Batavia. Somehow, perhaps because he was a hard-drinking, boastful man, the applicants suspected that Morgan was not as high in the fraternity as he claimed, and would not allow him to sign their petition. The insult enraged him and, under his Virginian’s code, cried for revenge. A friend of his, Colonel David Miller, was also a veteran of the recent war and a dissident Mason. Miller was owner of the town newspaper, and the two ex-soldiers made no secret of the fact that they planned to print an exposé of the secret rites and purposes of Masonry.

In the middle of the night of Friday, September 8, forty masked men in fantastic dress marched in quick, catlike steps in the dust of a Batavia street and halted before Miller’s print shop. At once flame leapt within it, and the vandals took up again their muffled tread. A tramp who had chosen to sleep in an empty stagecoach broke the silence then with loud cries. Lamps flickered on in the windows of Batavia, and doors slammed as men raced from their homes. Their attack on the blaze succeeded. The presses were saved and could still print Morgan’s book.

The Masons who had decided to take into their own hands the carrying out of such horrific penalties for violation of their fraternal pledges met secretly to plan other ways of thwarting their enemy. On Sunday morning a Canandaigua magistrate issued a warrant for Morgan’s arrest on charges of stealing a shirt. A constable and a posse of five reached Batavia that night. In the morning they arrested Morgan, beating down Colonel Miller’s frantic efforts to protect him, and began their return journey with their prisoner. The next day Morgan pleaded that he had only borrowed the shirt and was released, but his prosecutors quickly charged him with failure to pay a tavern bill of $2.69 when last in Canandaigua and he was remanded to jail.

On the heavy, hot night of Tuesday, September 12, repeated knocking brought the jailer’s wife to her door, where suave men told her they had come to pay Morgan’s debt and procure his release. The woman said her husband was absent, and that releases late at night were not customary, but the men finally persuaded her to let the prisoner go. As Morgan walked down the jail steps, there was a sudden scuffle, then a man’s voice crying “Help! Murder!” to the quiet, moonlit town. A yellow, curtained carriage drawn by a team of fast-trotting grays flashed into the empty street and drew up to the jailer’s curb. For a moment men struggled in its black shadow. Then there were no more cries—only the sound of horses’ hoofs beating the powderlike, crumbling earth of the road’s surface.