BYU

BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY

Topic(s): Joseph Smith
What was the legal setting for Joseph Smith's 1826 trial?
In March 1826, Joseph Smith was brought before a justice of the peace in South Bainbridge, New York, and charged with being a "disorderly person." Attorney Gordon A. Madsen analyzes several aspects of the trial in light of the legal context of the day: the charge, the court system, the legal terms, and the elements of the crime. First, Madsen looks at the New York statute that defined a "disorderly person"; Joseph, who was then helping Josiah Stowell find buried treasure, was likely being charged as a person "pretending to have skill . . . to discover where lost goods may be found." Madsen then describes the three types of New York courts with which Joseph dealt. He also determines that the trial notes—those taken by Justice Neely himself and those taken by a friend of Justice Neely—are unreliable, not even stating conclusively whether Joseph was acquitted or found guilty. However, Madsen uses the notes and an understanding of common court procedure of the day to reconstruct what might have happened in the court. He also records some legal precedents for Joseph's acquittal and concludes that Joseph was not convicted of being a "disorderly person."
Written By:
Gordon A. Madsen -
Gordon A. Madsen has been an attorney practicing in Salt Lake City.
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