How Joseph Smith Became A Money-digger

The elder Smith, as we have seen, was known as a money-digger

while a resident of Vermont. Of course that subject as a matter

of conversation in his family, and his sons were a character to

share in his belief in the existence of hidden treasure. The

territory around Palmyra was as good ground for their

explorations as any in Vermont, and they soon let their neighbors

know of a possibility of riches that lay within their reach.

The father, while a resident of Vermont, also claimed ability to

locate an underground stream of water over which would be a good

site for a well, by means of a forked hazel switch,* and in this

way doubtless increased the demand for his services as a

well-digger, but we have no testimonials to his success. The son

Joseph, while still a young lad, professed to have his father's

gift in this respect, and he soon added to his accomplishments

the power to locate hidden riches, and in this way began his

career as a money-digger, which was so intimately connected with

his professions as a prophet.

* The so-called "divining rod" has received a good deal of

attention from persons engaged in psychical research. Vol. XIII,

Part II, of the "Proceedings of the Society Of Psychical

Research" is devoted to a discussion of the subject by Professor

W. F. Barrett of the Royal College of Science for Ireland, in

Dublin, and in March, 1890, a commission was appointed in France

to study the matter.

Writers on the origin of the Mormon Bible, and the gradual

development of Smith the Prophet from Smith the village loafer

and money-seeker, have left their readers unsatisfied on many

points. Many of these obscurities will be removed by a very

careful examination of Joseph's occupations and declarations

during the years immediately preceding the announcement of the

revelation and delivery to him of the golden plates.

The deciding event in Joe's career was a trip to Susquehanna

County, Pennsylvania, when he was a lad. It can be shown that it

was there that he obtained an idea of vision-seeing nearly ten

years before the date he gives in his autobiography as that of

the delivery to him of the golden plates containing the Book of

Mormon, and it was there probably that, in some way, he later

formed the acquaintance of Sidney Rigdon. It can also be shown

that the original version of his vision differed radically from

the one presented, after the lapse of another ten years spent

under Rigdon's tutelage, in his autobiography. Each of these

points is of great incidental value in establishing Rigdon's

connection with the conception of a new Bible, and the manner of

its presentation to the public. Later Mormon authorities have

shown a dislike to concede that Joe was a money-digger, but the

fact is admitted both in his mother's history of him and by

himself. His own statement about it is as follows:--

"In the month of October, 1825, I hired with an old gentleman by

the name of Josiah Stoal, who lived in Chenango County, State of

New York. He had heard something of a silver mine having been

opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanna County, State of

Pennsylvania, and had, previous to my hiring with him, been

digging in order, if possible, to discover the mine. After I went

to live with him he took me, among the rest of his hands, to dig

for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a

month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I

prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging for it. Hence

arose the very prevalent story of my having been a moneydigger."*

* Millennial Star, Vol. XIV, Supt., p. 6.

Mother Smith's account says, however, that Stoal "came for Joseph

on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by

which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye"; thus

showing that he had a reputation as a "gazer" before that date.

It was such discrepancies as these which led Brigham Young to

endeavor to suppress the mother's narrative.

The "gazing" which Joe took up is one of the oldest--perhaps the

oldest--form of alleged human divination, and has been called

"mirror-gazing," "crystal-gazing," "crystal vision," and the

like. Its practice dates back certainly three thousand years,

having been noted in all ages, and among nations uncivilized as

well as civilized. Some students of the subject connect with such

divination Joseph's silver cup "whereby indeed he divineth"

(Genesis xliv. 5). Others, long before the days of Smith and

Rigdon, advanced the theory that the Urim and Thummim were clear

crystals intended for "gazing" purposes. One writer remarks of

the practice, "Aeschylus refers it to Prometheus, Cicero to the

Assyrians and Etruscans, Zoroaster to Ahriman, Varro to the

Persian Magi, and a very large class of authors, from the

Christian Fathers and Schoolmen downward, to the devil."* An act

of James I (1736), against witchcraft in England, made it a crime

to pretend to discover property "by any occult or crafty science.

"As indicating the universal knowledge of "gazing," it may be

further noted that Varro mentions its practice among the Romans

and Pausanias among the Greeks. It was known to the ancient

Peruvians. It is practised to-day by East Indians, Africans

(including Egyptians), Maoris, Siberians, by Australian,

Polynesian, and Zulu savages, by many of the tribes of American

Indians, and by persons of the highest culture in Europe and

America.** Andrew Lang's collection of testimony about visions

seen in crystals by English women in 1897 might seem convincing

to any one who has not had experience in weighing testimony in

regard to spiritualistic manifestations, or brought this

testimony alongside of that in behalf of the "occult phenomena"

of Adept Brothers presented by Sinnett.***

* Recent Experiments in Crystal Vision," Vol. V, "Proceedings of

the Society for Psychical Research."

** Lang's "The Making of Religion," Chap. V.

*** "The Occult World."

"Gazers" use different methods. Some look into water contained in

a vessel, some into a drop of blood, some into ink, some into a

round opaque stone, some into mirrors, and many into some form of

crystal or a glass ball. Indeed, the "gazer" seems to be quite

independent as to the medium of his sight-seeing, so long as he

has the "power." This "power" is put also to a great variety of

uses. Australian savages depend on it to foretell the outcome of

an attack on their enemies; Apaches resort to it to discover the

whereabouts of things lost or stolen; and Malagasies, Zulus, and

Siberians" to see what will happen. "Perhaps its most general use

has been to discover lost objects, and in this practice the seers

"have very often been children, as we shall see was the case in

the exhibition which gave Joe Smith his first idea on the

subject. In the experiments cited by Lang, the seers usually saw

distant persons or scenes, and he records his belief that

"experiments have proved beyond doubt that a fair percentage of

people, sane and healthy, can see vivid landscapes, and figures

of persons in motion, in glass balls and other vehicles."

It can easily be imagined how interested any member of the Smith

family would have been in an exhibition like that of a

"crystal-gazer," and we are able to trace very consecutively

Joe's first introduction to the practice, and the use he made of

the hint thus given.

Emily C. Blackman, in the appendix to her "History of Susquehanna

County, Pennsylvania" (1873), supplies the needed important

information about Joe's visits to Pennsylvania in the years

preceding the announcement of his Bible. She says that it is

uncertain when he arrived at Harmony (now Oakland), "but it is

certain he was here in 1825 and later. "A very circumstantial

account of Joe's first introduction to a "peep-stone" is given in

a statement by J. B. Buck in this appendix. He says:--

"Joe Smith was here lumbering soon after my marriage, which was

in 1818, some years before he took to 'peeping', and before

diggings were commenced under his direction. These were ideas he

gained later. The stone which he afterward used was in the

possession of Jack Belcher of Gibson, who obtained it while at

Salina, N. Y., engaged in drawing salt. Belcher bought it because

it was said to be a 'seeing-stone.' I have often seen it. It was

a green stone, with brown irregular spots on it. It was a little

longer than a goose's egg, and about the same thickness. When he

brought it home and covered it with a hat, Belcher's little boy

was one of the first to look into the hat, and as he did so, he

said he saw a candle. The second time he looked in he exclaimed,

'I've found my hatchet' (it had been lost two years), and

immediately ran for it to the spot shown him through the stone,

and it was there. The boy was soon beset by neighbors far and

near to reveal to them hidden things, and he succeeded

marvellously. Joe Smith, conceiving the idea of making a fortune

through a similar process of 'seeing,' bought the stone of

Belcher, and then began his operations in directing where hidden

treasures could be found. His first diggings were near Capt.

Buck's sawmill, at Red Rock; but because the followers broke the

rule of silence, 'the enchantment removed the deposit.'"

One of many stories of Joe's treasure-digging, current in that

neighborhood, Miss Blackman narrates. Learning from a strolling

Indian of a place where treasure was said to be buried, Joe

induced a farmer named Harper to join him in digging for it and

to spend a considerable sum of money in the enterprise. "After

digging a great hole, that is still to be seen, "the story

continues, "Harper got discouraged, and was about abandoning the

enterprise. Joe now declared to Harper that there was an

'enchantment' about the place that was removing the treasure

farther off; that Harper must get a perfectly white dog (some

said a black one), and sprinkle his blood over the ground, and

that would prevent the 'enchantment' from removing the treasure.

Search was made all over the country, but no perfectly white dog

could be found. "Then Joe said a white sheep would do as well;

but when this was sacrificed and failed, he said "The Almighty

was displeased with him for attempting to palm off on Him a white

sheep for a white dog. This informant describes Joe at that time

as "an imaginative enthusiast, constitutionally opposed to work,

and a general favorite with the ladies."

In confirmation of this, R. C. Doud asserted that "in 1822 he was

employed, with thirteen others, by Oliver Harper to dig for gold

under Joe's direction on Joseph McKune's land, and that Joe had

begun operations the year previous."

F. G. Mather obtained substantially the same particulars of Joe's

digging in connection with Harper from the widow of Joseph McKune

about the year 1879, and he said that the owner of the farm at

that time "for a number of years had been engaged in filling the

holes with stone to protect his cattle, but the boys still use

the northeast hole as a swimming pond in the summer."*

* Lippincott's Magazine, August, 1880.

Confirmation of the important parts of these statements has been

furnished by Joseph's father. When the reports of the discovery

of a new Bible first gained local currency (in 1830), Fayette

Lapham decided to visit the Smith family, and learn what he could

on the subject. He found the elder Smith very communicative, and

he wrote out a report of his conversation with him, "as near as I

can repeat his words, "he says, and it was printed in the

Historical Magazine for May, 1870. Father Smith made no

concealment of his belief in witchcraft and other things

supernatural, as well as in the existence of a vast amount of

buried treasure. What he said of Joe's initiation into

"crystal-gazing" Mr. Lapham thus records:--

"His son Joseph, whom he called the illiterate,* when he was

about fourteen years of age, happened to be where a man was

looking into a dark stone, and telling people therefrom where to

dig for money and other things. Joseph requested the privilege of

looking into the stone, which he did by putting his face into the

hat where the stone was. It proved to be not the right stone for

him; but he could see some things, and among them he saw the

stone, and where it was, in which he could see whatever he wished

to see.... The place where he saw the stone was not far from

their house, and under pretence of digging a well, they found

water and the stone at a depth of twenty or twenty-two feet.

After this, Joseph spent about two years looking into this stone,

telling fortunes, where to find lost things, and where to dig for

money and other hidden treasures."

* Joe's mother, describing Joe's descriptions to the family, at

their evening fireside, of the angel's revelations concerning the

golden plates, says (p. 84): "All giving the most profound

attention to a boy eighteen years of age, who had never read the

Bible through in his life; he seemed much less inclined to the

perusal of books than any of the rest of our children."

If further confirmation of Joe's early knowledge on this subject

is required, we may cite the Rev. John A. Clark, D.D., who,

writing in 1840 after careful local research, said: "Long before

the idea of a golden Bible entered their [the Smiths'] minds, in

their excursions for money-digging.... Joe used to be usually

their guide, putting into a hat a peculiar stone he had, through

which he looked to decide where they should begin to dig."*

* "Gleanings by the Way" (1842), p. 225.

We come now to the history of Joe's own "peek-stone" (as the

family generally called it), that which his father says he

discovered by using the one that he first saw. Willard Chase, of

Manchester, New York, near Palmyra, employed Joe and his brother

Alvin some time in the year 1822 (as he fixed the date in his

affidavit)* to assist him in digging a well. "After digging about

twenty feet below the surface of the earth, "he says, "we

discovered a singularly appearing stone which excited my

curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were

examining it, Joseph put it into his hat and then his face into

the top of the hat. It has been said by Smith that he brought the

stone from the well, but this is false. There was no one in the

well but myself. The next morning he came to me and wished to

obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told

him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a

curiosity, but would lend it. After obtaining the stone, he began

to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in

it, and made so much disturbance among the credulous part of the

community that I ordered the stone to be returned to me again. He

had it in his possession about two years. "Joseph's brother Hyrum

borrowed the stone some time in 1825, and Mr. Chase was unable to

recover it afterward. Tucker describes it as resembling a child's

foot in shape, and "of a whitish, glassy appearance, though


* Howe's "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 240.

** Tucker closes his chapter about this stone with the

declaration "that the origin [of Mormonism] is traceable to the

insignificant little stone found in the digging of Mr. Chase's

well in 1822." Tucker was evidently ignorant both of Joe's

previous experience with "crystal-gazing" in Pennsylvania and of

"crystal-gazing" itself.

The Smiths at once began turning Chase's stone to their own

financial account, but no one at the time heard that it was

giving them any information about revealed religion. For pay they

offered to disclose by means of it the location of stolen

property and of buried money. There seemed to be no limit to the

exaggeration of their professions. They would point out the

precise spot beneath which lay kegs, barrels, and even hogsheads

of gold and silver in the shape of coin, bars, images,

candlesticks, etc., and they even asserted that all the hills

thereabout were the work of human bands, and that Joe, by using

his "peek-stone," could see the caverns beneath them.* Persons

can always be found to give at least enough credence to such

professions to desire to test them. It was so in this case. Joe

not only secured small sums on the promise of discovering lost

articles, but he raised money to enable him to dig for larger

treasure which he was to locate by means of the stone. A Palmyra

man, for instance, paid seventy-five cents to be sent by him on a

fool's errand to look for some stolen cloth.

* William Stafford's affidavit, Howe's "Mormonism Unveiled," p.


Certain ceremonies were always connected with these money-digging

operations. Midnight was the favorite hour, a full moon was

helpful, and Good Friday was the best date. Joe would sometimes

stand by, directing the digging with a wand. The utmost silence

was necessary to success. More than once, when the digging proved

a failure, Joe explained to his associates that, just as the

deposit was about to be reached, some one, tempted by the devil,

spoke, causing the wished-for riches to disappear. Such an

explanation of his failures was by no means original with Smith,

the serious results of an untimely spoken word having been long

associated with divers magic performances. Joe even tried on his

New York victims the Pennsylvania device of requiring the

sacrifice of a black sheep to overcome the evil spirit that

guarded the treasure. William Stafford opportunely owned such an

animal, and, as he puts it, "to gratify my curiosity, "he let the

Smiths have it. But some new "mistake in the process" again

resulted in disappointment. "This, I believe," remarks the

contributor of the sheep, "is the only time they ever made

money-digging a profitable business. "The Smiths ate the sheep.

These money-seeking enterprises were continued from 1820 to 1827

(the year of the delivery to Smith of the golden plates). This

period covers the years in which Joe, in his autobiography,

confesses that he "displayed the corruption of human nature. "He

explains that his father's family were poor, and that they worked

where they could find employment to their taste; "sometimes we

were at home and sometimes abroad. "Some of these trips took them

to Pennsylvania, and the stories of Joe's "gazing" accomplishment

may have reached Sidney Rigdon, and brought about their first

interview. Susquehanna County was more thinly settled than the

region around Palmyra, and Joe found persons who were ready to

credit him with various "gifts"; and stories are still current

there of his professed ability to perform miracles, to pray the

frost away from a cornfield, and the like.*

* Lippincott's Magazine, August, 1880.

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