Home The Catalog of Accusations

Was Joseph Smith a Scam Artist?
by Woody Brison

Accusation: Joseph Smith was a scam artist.

Answer: This incorrect idea stems from gossip over the gold plates. It triggered thoughts of riches, buried treasure, and monetary schemes, and many people assumed Joseph Smith was running some kind of a fraud. This natural tendency was spurred by antimormons.

In the decades just previous to Joseph Smith, there were at least three charlatans who operated in upper New York State, who were immortalized by antis:

1. Luman Walters conned men to pay him to locate treasure for them to dig. He must have had a hard time keeping a straight face, sitting on a stump smoking his pipe while they grunted and sweat, digging away by the light of a lantern. The trick was to milk the thing as long as possible, coming up with creative reasons why the treasure wasn't where he said, and extract yet another fee for finding a new spot; and to know when to skedaddle when their credulity finally snapped.

At right I have provided the text of Abner Cole's article about Walters from the 1831 Palmyra Reflector.

Cole provides a lot of detail about Walters but doesn't say how he knows so much about him. He's also attacking Joseph Smith here, trying to connect him to Walters, but he doesn't give any evidence to connect them - just "It is well known that..." and "There remains but little doubt..." Cole didn't know much about Joseph, he gets details about him wrong - for instance, in the first half of the first paragraph, he tells us that Joseph didn't meet with, but he did meet with, the angel or guardian spirit.

This kind of thing was not unusual; the gossip about Joseph was inconsistent. He himself told one consistent story, but Cole didn't go get that story. He relied on gossip.

Joseph Smith said that as a young man, he hired out as a laborer, doing farm work, digging wells and cellars; and one of his employers, Josiah Stoal, had him on a crew digging for treasure. Joseph finally persuaded the old man to give it up. That was away off in Pennsylvania, at least a hundred miles away. Cole says this digging happened right there in Manchester. It wasn't the same treasure hunt.

Why did Cole attack Joseph Smith? He attacked Joseph, he attacked Walters, he attacked other targets after he moved to Rochester later. Cole was on a crusade to expose frauds.


One of the places Walters had men digging was Abner Cole's property, so it seems probable that Cole himself had been one of Walters' credulous dupes. See how he calls Walters' scam a diabolical farce?

That would explain how Cole knew so much about his methods, and why he doesn't say how he knew this - it was very embarrassing. And that's why he hated frauds.

And he misidentified Joseph Smith as one.

And he accused Joseph of being in cahoots with old Luman Walters, even tho he knew it wasn't true - Joseph Smith wasn't anywhere around when Cole was digging away, guided by the fraud Walters.

This is yellow journalism, ie. falsehood.

If it sounds like early Americans must have been always ready to jump at the mention of gold or buried treasure, remember that the whole continent was colonized by Europeans, many of whom came to get exactly that.

"It is well known that Jo Smith never pretended to have any communion with angels, until a long period after the PRETENDED finding of his book, and that the juggling [ie. swindling] of himself or father, went no further than the pretended faculty of seeing wonders in a "peep stone," and the occasional interview with the spirit, supposed to have the custody of hidden treasures; and it is also equally well known, that a vagabond fortune-teller by the name of Walters, who then resided in the town of Sodus, and was once committed to the jail of this country for juggling, was the constant companion and bosom friend of these money digging impostors.

"There remains but little doubt, in the minds of those at all acquainted with these transactions, that Walters, who was sometimes called the conjurer, and was paid three dollars per day for his services by the money diggers in this neighborhood, first suggested to Smith the idea of finding a book. Walters, the better to carry on his own deception with those ignorant and deluded people who employed him, had procured an old copy of Cicero's Orations, in the Latin language, out of which he read long and loud to his credulous hearers, uttering at the same time an unintelligible jargon, which he would afterwards pretend to interpret, and explain, as a record of the former inhabitants of America, and a particular account of the numerous situations where they had deposited their treasures previous to their final extirpation.

"So far did this imposter carry this diabolical farce, that not long previous to the pretended discovery of the "Book of Mormon," Walters 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 the laborers, with the point of an old rusty sword, and using sundry other incantations, for the purpose of propitiating the spirit, absolutely sacrificed a fowl, "Rooster," in the presence of his awe-stricken companions, to the foul spirit, whom ignorance had created, the guardian of hidden wealth; and after digging until daylight, his deluded employers retired to their several habitations, fatigued and disappointed. ..." (Palmyra Reflector of 1831 Feb 28, as quoted in Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:73-74.)

"As my father's worldly circumstances were very limited, we were under the necessity of laboring with our hands, hiring out by day's work and otherwise as we could get opportunity. Sometimes we were at home, and sometimes abroad, and by continued labor, were enabled to get a comfortable maintenance. ... In the month of October, 1825, I hired with an old gentleman by the name of Josiah Stowel, 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 to him, been digging, in order, if possible, to discover the mine. After I went to live with him, he took me, with 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 after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money digger." -Joseph Smith, History of the Church 1:17
Question 10. Was not Jo Smith a money digger.
Answer. Yes, but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.
  -Elders' Journal, Joseph Smith, editor; Far West Mo. July 1838

2. An earlier Smith family had a son who was said to locate buried treasure with a magic stone.

At right I've provided the text of an 1830 Rochester, NY paper. First there was an account of the Book of Mormon (much distorted by embellishment), then this.

In this account we are informed that a Smith boy in the Rochester, New York area used a stone to find treasure. It wasn't our Joseph Smith who was born in 1805; this young man was about a decade older, lived in a different place, and the author indicates they were not the same. The author here is trying to connect them... but they were never connected.

In the stories told about Joseph Smith and his family by antagonistic neighbors, every one of these elements are included. Since those stories appear to be contrived, we may well suppose that the neighbors were simply adapting the older tales to discredit the real prophet, whom they did not want to believe. Certain details of the story must have naturally suggested this usage to them: the name of the family, their having a son, his finding a stone, etc. (Joseph Smith found with the Book of Mormon plates an instrument which had two "stones", for the purpose of translating them, and apparently for seeing other things as well.)

Joseph Smith always denied the money-digging, with the exception of the one occasion detailed above. He said that he actually persuaded the old gentleman to abandon the search, so he couldn't have been a very avid money-digger, in fact this persuasion terminated his employment and source of income at that time. This says that rather than being devious and avaricious, he was open and truthful, and not over-concerned about money.

It was only Joseph's enemies who told these outlandish tales of money-digging, glass-looking, etc., and they were the source of the contradictions and aburdities.
This story brings to our mind one of similar nature once played off upon the inhabitants of Rochester and its vicinity, near the close of the last war [the War of 1812]. During the war, we were subject to many inconveniences at this place, and were in constant danger of attack from the enemy. Those who lived here at that time, can well remember the frequent attempts made by the enemy to land at the mouth of the Genesee, at which point our army had deposited heavy stores. Our village was then young, and the abodes of men were 'few and and far between.' If we remember aright, it was in the year 1815, that a family of Smiths moved into these parts, and took up their abode in a miserable hut on the east bank of the river, now near the late David K. Carter's tavern. They had a wonderful son, of about 18 years of age, who, on a certain day, as they said, while in the road, discovered a round stone of the size of a man's fist, the which when he first saw it, presented to him on the one side, all the dazzling splendor of the sun in full blaze--and on the other, the clearness of the moon. He fell down insensible at the sight, and while in the trance produced by the sudden and awful discovery, it was communicated to him that he was to become an oracle--and the keys of mystery were put into his hands, and he saw the unsealing of the book of fate. He told his tale for MONEY. Numbers flocked to him to test his skill, and the first question among a certain class was, if there was any of Kidd's money hid in these parts in the earth. The oracle, after adjusting the stone in his hat, and looking in upon it some time, pronounced that there was. The question of where, being decided upon, there forthwith emerged a set, armed with "pick-axe, hoe and spade," out into the mountains, to dislodge the treasure. We shall mention but one man of the money-diggers. His name was Northrop. He was a man so unlike anything of refined human kind, that he might well be called a demi-devil sent forth upon the world to baffle the elements of despair, and wrestle with fate. As you will suppose, he was an enemy to all fear. Northrop and his men sallied out upon the hills east of the river, and commenced digging-the night was chosen for operation--already had two nights been spent in digging, and the third commenced upon, when Northrop with his pick-axe struck the chest! The effect was powerful, and contrary to an explicit rule laid down by himself he exclaimed, "d-----m me, I've found it!"

The charm was broken!--the scream of demons,--the chattering of spirits--and hissing of serpents, rent the air, and the treasure moved! The oracle was again consulted, who said that it had removed to the Deep Hollow. There, a similar accident happened-- and again it was removed to a hill near the village of Penfield, where, it was pretended the undertakers obtained the treasure.

About this time the enemy's fleet appeared off the mouth of the Genesee, and an attack at that point, was expected--this produced a general alarm--There are in all communities, a certain class, who do not take the trouble, or are not capable of thinking for themselves, and who, in cases of alarm, are ready to construe every thing mysterious or uncommon into omens of awful purport. This class flocked to the oracle. He predicted that the enemy would make an attack; and that blood must flow.--The story flew, and seemed to carry with it a desolating influence--some moved away into other parts, and others were trembling under a full belief of the prediction. At this time a justice of the peace of the place visited the oracle, and warned him to leave the country. He gravely told the magistrate that any one who opposed him would receive judgments upon his head, and that he who should take away the inspired stone from him; would suffer immediate death! The magistrate, indignant at the fellow's impudence, demanded the stone, and ground it to powder on a rock near by--he then departed promising the family further notice.

The result was the Smiths were missing--the enemy did not land--the money-diggers joined in the general execration, and declared that they had had their labor for their pains--and all turned out to be a hoax! Now in reference to the two stories, "put that to that, and they [this story and the Book of Mormon story] are a noble pair of brothers."

Source: The Rochester Gem, 1830 May 15, quoted in A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:47-48.

3. A son of the Belcher family. Hugh Nibley mentions him, and other sources say that Joseph purchased Belcher's seer stone. I will present more information on this soon.

Hugh Nibley, The Myth Makers (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 1991, vol. 11) p.188.

The bottom line is this: "The excitement, however, still continued, and rumor with her thousand tongues was all the time employed in circulating falsehoods about my father's family, and about myself. If I were to relate a thousandth part of them, it would fill up volumes." -Joseph Smith, History of the Church 1:19


1. Woody Brison is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but this website is not affiliated with the church. It may be thought of as an additional, somewhat independent witness.

2. I want this page to be as accurate as I can make it. If you have a correction, please email me.

3. All biblical quotations are from the King James unless otherwise noted.

Copyright 2013 Woody Brison. All rights reserved.