“The possibility of finding buried treasure fascinated many in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. Reports of searching for such riches were widespread in the Palmyra [New York] area, and extant accounts show that treasure was generally sought through supernatural means. Locations for buried wealth and lost Spanish mines were sometimes located through dreams. Treasures could also be located by using divining rods, often made from ‘witch hazel,’ or by looking in special stones or crystals. Sometimes when a stone was used, a person would place the stone in a hat and then conjure the guardian treasure spirit. After finding a spot where the cache was supposedly hidden, the seekers would draw a magic circle on the ground around the hidden treasure. Sometimes they would maintain absolute silence, but other times they would recite magical charms or religious verses used as charms. Whatever the means, money-diggers needed to overcome the guardian spirit who had enchanted the treasure, otherwise the treasure would slip back into the earth.” (H. Michael Marquardt & Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record, page 63)
This is the trouble had by Joseph Smith in 1826. A money-digger by occupation and reputation, Joseph got into trouble when the treasure he had been hired to find continually eluded the treasure hunters. Here’s what happened.
Josiah Stowell was a well-to-do farmer in Bainbridge, New York. Believing Spaniards had once hidden a mine in northern Pennsylvania, Mr. Stowell decided to try to find it. Because of the Smith family’s reputation for having the ability to locate buried treasure, Mr. Stowell sought their help late in 1825. According to Mr. Stowell’s testimony, while still in New York, Joseph looked into his peep stone and said he could see the treasure Mr. Stowell was looking for; it could be found in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Therefore, Mr. Stowell hired 19-year-old Joseph to find the buried treasure.
After several months of unsuccessful digging, Mr. Stowell’s nephew, Peter Bridgman, became concerned that his uncle was being swindled. Peter brought a formal charge against Joseph Smith, resulting in Joseph’s arrest. As part of his own defense, Joseph made a statement, which said:
“Prisoner examined: says…That he had a certain stone which he occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance underground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel[l] several times,… That at Palmyra he pretended to tell by looking at this stone where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account of its injuring his health, especially his eyes, made them sore;…” (Inventing Mormonism, page 72)
Court records from Chenango County, New York show that Joseph Smith appeared before Justice Albert Neely for examination (a pre-trial hearing) on March 20th, 1826. After hearing testimony by witnesses and the defendant himself, according to Marquardt and Walters,
“the court concluded that there was enough evidence to indicate that the prisoner, Joseph Smith the Glass Looker, had claimed to have the skill to discover lost goods, a misdemeanor under the Vagrant Act, and had not actually found anything. Neely wrote in his court record, ‘And therefore the Court find the defendant [Joseph Smith] guilty.'” (page 74)
No further action appears to have been taken. Joseph was not sentenced to any penalty. There is some evidence to suggest that, due to Joseph’s young age, the court decided not to pursue the case any further.
The following year, 1827, Joseph claimed he found gold plates in the earth. According to his story, he brought the plates home and translated the text engraved on them into what would become the Book of Mormon. Early in the history of the LDS Church Mormons understood that Joseph located the gold plates by gazing into his seer stone, and used the stone in the Book of Mormon “translation” process (Inventing Mormonism, page 75).
To recap: Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration, admitted to using a peep stone to find buried treasure and other lost items. He confessed that he sometimes pretended to see treasure while looking at his stone. He was known and sought after as a money-digger/glass-looker. It was in this context that Joseph Smith announced he had found ancient plates of gold buried in the earth which contained the very words of God.
Ten years ago, then LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley was puzzled. He said, “I can’t understand why those of other faiths cannot accept the Book of Mormon.” Perhaps Joseph Smith’s reputation as a glass-looking money-digger could be understood as one reason non-Mormons question the authenticity of the book Joseph and his seer stone produced.