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Episode Four:
Murderous Threats and Plots, 1835-1837

by Dale R. Broadhurst
---(  March 2001 )---

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  (This Web-Page is Still Under Construction)


Section 2: 1837 Trial Record
With Historical Analysis

2-A Edwin Brown Firmage & Richard Collin Mangrum
Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church...
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988

[p. 55]
Nothing in Ohio injured the reputation of the Prophet Joseph more than the failure of the [Kirtland Safety] Society. Hostility often surfaced in the form of litigation. Grandison Newell, for example, commenced an action in May 1837 against Joseph Smith for attempted murder; Newell alleged that Joseph wanted him dead for Newell's impugning the integrity of the founders of the Kirtland Safety Society.

The preliminary hearing, held 3 June 1837 at the Painesville Methodist Church, was widely publicized and well attended. Newell, a resident of Mentor, located two miles from Kirtland, in May had filed the complaint in Painesville, located nine miles from Kirtland. There was speculation that his purpose in doing so was to harass the Mormons, as well as have the case tried before Painesville's Justice of the Peace Flint, whose political associations promised a favorable result.

  • Comment 1: Firmage and Mangrum present a logical sounding thesis here. There can be no doubt that Grandison Newell expected to "harass the Mormons" with his filing a complaint against Joseph Smith, Jr. for conspiracy to commit murder. It is also quite probable that Newell hoped that some of testimony he anticipated would come out in the court room would help vilify Joseph Smith, Jr. and thus deepen the already substantial split then evident within the top Mormon leadership. But it is doubtful that Newell's motivation in filing the charges of conspiracy against Smith ended with these superficial goals. If the prosecution were able to assemble sufficient evidence to prove that Smith ordered his murder in 1835, Newell stood a good chance of seeing the Mormon leader put behind bars for many years. Such an event, following in the wake of the Kirtland banking fiasco, and during a time of considerable dissatisfaction with Smith among the Latter Day Saint ranks, might prove sufficient to destroy the Mormon gathering in Kirtland altogether.

  • Comment 2: The authors are probably also correct in stating that Newell hoped to gain a more favorable hearing before a Whig Justice of the Peace in Painesville than before a Democrat counterpart in Kirtland. While Newell could have probably secured a writ for Smith's arrest in practically any town in Geauga county, having a writ returnable in Painesville was obviously to his advantage. What Newell could not be certain of is to whom the case would go if the hearing in Painesville resulted in Smith being bound over to a session of the State Court of Common Pleas, which was convened periodically in the county seat of Chardon. If the judge presiding over the state trial at Chardon were a Democrat or a sympathizer to the Mormon cause, that contingency might well decrease the chance of obtaining a conviction and sentencing for the Mormon leader.

  • At the commencement of the hearing, General Charles C. Paine, a leader of the Federalist Party in the county in which Painesville was located, sat next to Mr. Newell. He passed notes throughout the hearing suggesting questions to be put to the witnesses and occasionally made remarks favorable to the prosecution. Grandison Newell's allegations, taken from his letter to the editor, printed in the Painesville Telegraph, May 26, were that

    two of the saints of the latter-day, by concert, and under the express direction of the prophet, this high priest of Satan, met in the night, at a little distance from my house, with loaded rifles, and pistols, with a determination to kill me. But as they drew near the spot where the bloody deed was to be performed, they trembled under the awful responsibility of committing a murder, a little cool reflection in darkness and silence, broke the spell of the false prophet -- they were restored to their right minds, and are now rejoicing that they were not left to the power of the devil and co-adjuter Smith, to stain their souls with a crime so horrible.
    Joseph's alleged co-conspirators, according to Newell, were Solomon Denton and Mr. Davis.

    [p. 56]
    During the hearing Luke Johnson, Mr. Whitney, Warren Parrish, Mr. Hyde, and Solomon Denton testified for the prosecution, while Hyrum Smith, Mr. Cahoun, and Sidney Rigdon, among others, testified for the defense. The hearing concluded with Justice Flint requiring Joseph Smith to post a $500 bond to keep the peace, pay Mr. Rigdon, Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Denton $50 witness fees, and appear for trial at the next term of the Court of Common Pleas. [[17 Painesville Republican, June 5, 1937; The Ohio Statesman, July 5, 1837; Painesville Telegraph, June 3, 1834; Cleveland Herald and Gazette, June 2, 1837; Ohio Repository, June 22, 1837; Painesville Republican, July 6, 1837; Painesville Telegraph, May 26 and June 9, 1837. ---- Solomon Denton, as his testimony was reported by the newspaper, claimed to have first met Joseph Smith in New York in 1830; from there he came to Kirtland in 1831 and "embraced" the religion. Subsequently he moved to Missouri and then returned to Kirtland in 1833 or 1834, where he worked in the printing business with Davis, Rigdon, Cowdery, and Smith. Sidney Rigdon testified Denton had been excommunicated two or three months prior to the trial. -- The only information known about Davis is that Solomon Denton claimed he was engaged in a printing business with him in Kirtland. Sidney Rigdon also testified that Davis had "never been strictly subservient to the rules of the society." -- Luke Johnson testified that Joseph Smith had said that if Newell or any other man should head a mob against the Mormons, he "ought to be put out of the way, and it would be our duty to do so." -- Mr. Whitney testified that he had heard Grandison Newell's name mentioned often at the bank but had never heard Joseph Smith threaten his life. Warren Parrish, a clerk at the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, testified only that he heard Grandison Newell's name mentioned several times at the bank. B. H. Roberts states that "much reliance had been placed on Parrish's testimony by Grandison Newell, but when put on the stand and asked 'whether he knew anything in the character or conduct of Mr. Smith which is unworthy of his profession as a man of God,' he answered -- 'I do not'" (CHC 1:405 n.32). -- Mr. Hyde testified that he had been at the Kirtland Safety Society Bank one day and had heard people speculating that suit might be brought against the bank, and Mr. Newell might be the person to do it. At that time, Joseph Smith said Mr. Newell should be "put out of the way" and that "destroying" Grandison Newell would be justifiable before God, but later apologized for using such language. -- Denton testified that in April or May, Davis came to him and told him that Joseph Smith wanted them to kill Grandison Newell. He subsequently borrowed a pistol from Sidney Rigdon. Later, Joseph Smith told him, "I know where you are going and what your business is." Denton also testified that Smith "said that he had seen Davis and told him I would be a good hand to go with him, said this was a good work, and we must be very wise; then spoke of Newell, said he had injured the society, and that it was better for one man to suffer than to have a whole community disturbed; that it was the will of Heaven that Newell should be put out of the way." -- Hyrum Smith testified that he had heard Denton was plotting on Grandison Newell's life, and when he confronted Denton, he denied it. -- Mr. Cahoun testified as did Mr. Rigdon. The newspaper account reported the witness's name was "Mr. Cahoun." It is not clear whether this was a reference to Reynolds Cahoun, a prominent Mormon leader of the day. Sidney Rigdon testified that about two years previously he had heard that Davis and Denton were conspiring against Grandison Newell, but had no indication that Joseph Smith instigated or approved of the conspiracy (Painesville Telegraph, June 9, 1837). end17]]

    On 9 June 1837 the case went to trial before Justice Humphrey of the Court of Common Pleas; the court discharged Joseph on the grounds of the insufficiency of the evidence. [[18 CHC 1:405 n.32.]]

    Commenting on both proceedings, the Painesville Republican carried the following report:

    I attended the trial and took down the evidence, but was much surprised to find that no testimony appeared, on which, any reliance could be placed, that went in the least degree to crimination [sic] the respondent, but rather to raise him in the estimation of men and candor. But the Justice of the Peace who had been selected to try the question, decided otherwise, and Mr. Smith was held to bail in the sum of $500, to appear at the Court of Common Pleas, at the next term, which commenced the Monday following, being last week. The trial again came on before the County Court, on Friday last, and resulted in the entire acquittal of Joseph Smith, Jr. of the charges alleged against him. This is said to be the thirteenth prosecution which has been instituted against Joseph Smith, Jr. for the prejudice against him, he has never in a single instance been convicted, on a final trial. This fact shows on the one hand, that a spirit of persecution has existed, and on the other hand it certainly furnishes some evidence that he has for some reason, been falsely accused, and that he is indeed and in truth better than some of his accusers. [[19 Painesville Telegraph, { sic - read: Republican} May 26, 1837.]]
    This newspaper account suggests that Joseph by this time had defended a number of questionable claims. The fact he successfully prevailed and that the reporter was favorably impressed demonstrates that religious prejudice was not so pervasive as to make fair trials impossible....

  • Comment 3: Firmage and Mangrum provide a straightforward, well documented account of the hearing and trial, based upon what little documentation survives concerning those two events. However, the authors avoid establishing the wider context for these legal proceedings and fail to accentuate the sometimes critical importance local party politics could play in determining the outcomes of such trials. They do not establish who Justice Humphrey was or what his political affiliations were --whether he was then seeking public office or whether he was later found to be a corrupt judge. Such things would be well worth appending to their brief account.

  • 2-B State of Ohio
    The Painesville Telegraph
    June 9, 1837

    "The State of Ohio vs. Joseph Smith, Jr."

    [Introduction to Report of 1837 Smith Trial]

    Much interest and anxiety seemed to be manifested by the good people of Painesville, on Saturday, the 3d of June inst., in consequence of a suit instituted in behalf of the state of Ohio, on complaint of Mr. Grandison Newell against the defendant, charging him with an attempt to take the life of said complainant, by inducing two individuals to lay in wait for said Newell, near his dwelling in order to shoot him: -- which trial was held on the day, at the town-house in this village, before Justice Flint. Below will be found a brief, but we trust, substantially correct account of the trial.

    alias, THE PROPHET.

    Jas. H. Paine, Counsel for the Prosecution,
    B. Bissell, and Wm. L. Perkins, Defendant's Counsel....

  • Comment 1: James H. Paine was a leading light in the old Federalist party in Geauga county. Presumably Grandison Newell was a Whig. The policies of the two parties were pratically indistiguishable in 1837, and Democrat partisans delighted in calling the newly emerging Whigs "Federalists." Benjamin Bissell and William L. Perkins were well known Geauga county Democrat lawyers. As the Kirtland Mormons were block-voting Democrats, Bissell and Perkins were their natural poltical allies.

  • Comment 2: The court transcript's summary of Grandison Newell's complaint filed against Joseph Smith, Jr. makes no mention of Newell then being in fear that his life would be taken by Mormon assassins. Rather, his complaint appears to be a straightforward demand that justice be done in a case of serious legal transgression: the felony of attempted murder. It appears, however, that Smith was actually tried on the similar, but slightly different, charge of engaging in (or initiating) a conspiracy to commit murder. Oddly enough, his alleged fellow conspirators are not charged here along with their religious leader.

  • Comment 3: The body of the court transcript has been divided up and distributed throughout this set of web documents, according to the testimony of each witness who was called to offer testimony at the June 3, 1837 pre-trial hearing. The articulated transcript may be viewed in the on-line article cited above.

  • [Transcript: Closing Paragraph]

    Some other witnesses were called, but their testimony was similar to that of the last two or three. The summing up and arguments of the Counsel on both sides, were remarkably clear, able and eloquent; and the whole affair terminated by the Court's requiring Mr. Joseph Smith, Jr. $500 bonds for his appearance at Court. Rigdon, Hyde and Denton each $50 for their appearance as witnesses in the case.

  • Comment 2: It is possible that more complete transcripts of the June 3, 1837 hearing at Painesville and the June 9, 1837 trial at Chardon may eventually be uncovered. If such legal documents become available, their texts will be inserted here.

  • 2-C Justice Flint
    "Docket Book, 1837"
    (copy in private hands?)

  • Comments: If Judge Flint's docket book can be located, it may contain pertinent information of interest to the student of Kirtland era Mormon history. If more legal documents (such as Grandison Newell's Aprfil 13, 1837 complaint) become available, their texts will be inserted here.

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    last revised: Mar. 2, 2001