Joseph Smith Sr, courtesy LDSanswers.org
The following short story is from a new collection of historical fictions set in a Mohawk Valley village sometimes known by its Iroquois name of "asteronga," or tumbling waters. The local protagonists of the story, Arphaxad Loomis, Nathaniel Benton and John Dygert are actual historical figures and politicians of the pre-Civil War era in Little Falls, NY. The incident around which the story is centered is the missionary journey undertaken by Joseph Smith Sr, father of the Mormon prophet and his two younger sons in 1830. At that time the followers of Joseph Smith were still living in western New York state and the elder Smith decided to return to their native Vermont in an effort to convert former neighbors and relatives to the new faith. Along the way, it can be imagined that he and his sons stopped in a village such as Asteronga and ran afoul of the nemesis of the early Saints, Eber Howe., author of "Mormonism Unvailed."
Arphaxad Loomis 1798-1885
Nathaniel S. Benton 1792-1869
Loomis began his political career as village president later that same year and went on to serve as a judge, congressman and state legislator. His friend Nathaniel Benton was a judge, a state legislator, US Attorney and historian. Since Benton later joined the American (Know Nothing) Party and the Republican party while Loomis remained a Democrat through the war years, perhaps the close friendship pictured here did not survive the political storms of the era.
When the Saints Came to Asteronga
The first word about the new religion came in the form of a small paid notice in the Peoples Friend. “Look here,” said the attorney Arphaxad Loomis to his colleague, Judge Nathaniel Benton. “Some fool has a new Bible for sale.”
“It’s always been a reliable seller, Deuteronomy and Leviticus notwithstanding,” observed the judge.
“This notice is not for the good old book beloved by Methodists and Presbyterians alike. This fellow is hawking a whole new Bible. Says here his name is Smith and he acquired a copy from the Almighty Himself.”
“Smith, hmm? A very popular assumed name. He’s probably a Quaker.”
“Quaker? I think not. More likely one of those so-called perfectionists that follow the madman Noyes.”
“The wife-traders of Oneida?”
“As likely as not, your honor. Now, will you pass that jug or do you intend to drink it all yourself?”
A week later, the two jurists had nearly forgotten the notice when their evening on the judge’s front porch was interrupted by the village president, John Dygert. He invited himself onto the porch and asked the judge’s girl to fetch a third glass. Helping himself to a tot of cider, Dygert asked what they thought of the agitation in Utica. “Utica is a very fount of agitation,” said Loomis. “But of what agitation in particular do you speak?”
“The Smithites showed up and took a sound thrashing. The feathers without the tar, you could say.”
“Smithites?” asked the judge.
“They follow the false prophet from Ontario County. Reverend Van Slyke warned us to expect them.”
John, you’ll have to tell us a bit more. Not being Reformed Church, neither the judge nor I have enjoyed the eloquence of your esteemed parson.”
“Joseph Smith is the false prophet who claims that an Angel of God came down to earth and gave him a new bible, a book of big gold plates.”
“Must be a heavy object to carry about,” observed the judge, winking at Arphaxad.
“This Smith claims to have translated the gold bible into English with the help of magic spectacles. Then he had a no-count printer publish a stack of this so-called bibles and to top it all off, started a new church. Calls it the Church of Christ.”
“Doesn’t everyone what?” demanded Dygert who did not appreciate their wit in such a grave matter.
“Doesn’t every church claim to be the church of Christ?”
“Except the Mohammedans.”
“And the Jews,” added the judge.
“I don’t doubt that they’ll be here soon,” concluded Dygert. “I am advising you to be prepared for any exigency that may arise.” And with that, the village president marched off.
The Erie Canal had been opened for five years and had brought greater prosperity each year to Asteronga. The new limestone aqueduct carried flatboats over the rushing Mohawk to a secure anchorage at a man-made harbor. Innkeepers and purveyors of all sorts kept up a lively commerce with the canal men, as did whores, pickpockets and confidence men. In short, the little town had changed greatly since the glorious day when Governor Clinton’s flotilla came down the canal bearing a pail of Lake Erie water on its way to the mighty Atlantic.
Judge Benton had served as village president for the first few years of the new dispensation. John Dygert had been elected this past year but the judge soon realized that his successor could not manage the influx of rowdies and grifters who came with the canal. The judge would persuade Loomis to successfully defeat Dygert in November of 1830 but that was still a few months off.
These village politicians were not aware of the moment the next afternoon when the three Smiths stepped off a canal boat and strode up River Street. First proceeded the grizzled farmer whose son had become a prophet. Close behind were his grown sons, Sam and Don Carlos. None had the slightest doubt that God Himself had spoken to their Joseph.
The Smiths’ intention on this journey was to preach the message of salvation in canal towns most noted for sin before seeking new converts in their native Vermont. As was their practice since leaving Palmyra, they each sought a separate bar-room or house of ill repute before which to launch their sermons.
In keeping with this practice, the elder Smith stopped a passing farm hand and asked to be directed to a house where women freely committed sins of the flesh. The lad grinned at the old-timer and sent him on his way to Madame Murphy’s. Sam Smith stationed himself before the most raucous of the many taverns on River Street, while young Don Carlos Smith went in search of a Methodist meeting house where he expected to find a more docile congregation. None of the three notice a cadaverous man, clad in black broadcloth, noting their movements.
Two hours later, Arphaxad Loomis and Judge Benton were holding forth on the judge’s porch, damning all Whigs to hell when Constable Hinman came walking up with two young fellows close behind.
“Appears to be a need for judging,” said Nate Benson to his companion.
“Shall I prosecute or defend, your worship?”
“Remains to be seen,” returned the judge. “So what fish have you hooked for us, Hinman?”
“These two lads report their Pa to be abducted.”
“I’m sure it was Eber Howe what done it!” exclaimed the younger boy, who appeared to be about fourteen.
“Shh! You don’t know that!” the elder, who looked to be twenty or twenty one, tried to shush his brother.
“But I seen old Eber Howe lurkin about when I was searching for the Methodist house.”
“Which you never found!”
“I appreciate the ex parte, lads,” said the Judge. “But let’s start with some facts. Who, for example, blackened your eye, young man?”
“Twas heathens, sir, that done it.”
“Heathens?” smiled Loomis. “Do you mean to say that Red Indians gave you a thrashing? Have you seen any war parties about, Constable?”
“No, your honor, I mean Mr. Loomis. This one here, Sam Smith he calls hisself, was given a beating by the patrons of Klock’s Tavern. Seems he tried to preach the gospel to them and they tossed him out on his ear.”
“So what’s the offense brings them here, Hinman?” asked the judge. “No one was knifed, were they? Surely, we can’t call a bit of fisticuffs an assault, can we?”
“No, your honor, but there’s more. They’re preachers of the Gold Bible.”
“Is that so?” The judge looked from one to another. “They seem a trifle young to be hardened grifters of that sort.”
“They came to town with their father.”
“He’s been kidnapped, sir!” cried out the younger boy. “I swear Eber Howe done it!”
“I can’t make heads or tails of this,” said the judge. “You boys stay shut and the Constable will sum up matters. You have one minute, Hinman.”
“There’s other witnesses, your honor, who saw an old man struggling against three other men who threw a sack over his head and tossed him into a wagon. The older one here, Sam, was just finishing up getting his beating at Klock’s but he saw the last of his Pa being carried off.”
“Did you inquire of the lads if their father owed anyone money?” asked Loomis.
“I did, but they maintain that a dispute over religion is at the bottom of it. They assert that this Eber Howe was formerly a follower of their brother, and has now become an enemy to the sect.”
“Nate,” said the lawyer, “These fellows must be part pf the crowd Dygert was telling us about. Here, you two lads, tell us what we should know about your church.”
Sam and Don Carlos then provided a somewhat lengthy summary of the divine revelations which had been received by their brother Joseph over the past several years. The eminent jurists heard of the first time God Almighty spoke to a boy in the woods, followed by countless angelic visitations, and finally directions as to digging up the famous golden bible buried on a hilltop by ancient Indians thousands of years ago.
“And you say that the Indians are really Jews?” Loomis stifled a smile.
“Israelites. They built a big boat and sailed across the Pacific,” said Don Carlos.
“Tell me,” asked the judge, “Has anyone tried to steal those gold plates from your brother? They must be worth quite a sum.”
“The angel took the gold plates back to heaven,” Sam promptly answered.
“How fortunate,” said the judge. “And now to the matter at hand, who is this Eber Howe whom you suspect of abducting your father?”
“He is an evil man who was excommunicated from our church for his sins,” Sam told them. “Now he is traveling about gathering lies about our family so he can put them in a book and make people fall away from the true faith restored for us in these latter days.”
“What sort of lies is he gathering about your family?” inquired Loomis.
“That we Smiths are a shiftless and indolent lot,” cried Don Carlos before his brother could answer. “He found deceitful men who have sworn that our brother Joseph was a hoaxer and fraud who pretended to find buried treasures. And that he was arrested in some town!”
“I see,” said the judge, “and now Eber Howe has turned from gathering lies to abduction? For what purpose?”
“We know not,” answered Sam, “other than that his purpose must be nefarious.”
The judge whispered an aside to Loomis and then turned to the Constable. “Hinman, take these young gentlemen to the lock-up for their own safety. ‘Twouldn’t do to have the whole family kidnapped.”
“Yes, sir!” The constable clapped each young man by the elbow.
“And then meet us at Mrs. Murphy’s establishment. We will need to fully investigate this matter. Bring a few other likely lads.” After the constable had led off the Smith boys, the judge fetched his sword cane and a cap and ball pistol that he handed to his friend. “As a judge I can’t be shooting visitors to our fair village.”
Loomis pocketed the small pistol and the two gentlemen set off from the judge’s Garden Street manse down the hill to the less elegant part of the village. Approaching the new aqueduct, they heard the sounds of merriment and commerce arising from all sides. A few shouts and shrieks drifted out of the gin mills but no one seemed to be getting murdered, as Loomis noted. In front of Mrs. Murphy’s, they found one of her large Irish relatives pummeling a pair of inebriated sailors. “What’s all this, Paddy?” asked the judge, poking the red-haired man with the butt of his cane. The Irishman, who knew that the judge’s cane was a scabbard for a sizable sword, grinned obsequiously. “Just reminding these customers that our ladies deserve some courtesy.”
“Indeed they do, Paddy. And how is your charming proprietress?”
“Molly? Just fine, your honor. Will you be requiring anything special this evening?”
“I never frequent whore houses, my fine Celtic hero. Doctor’s orders. But do tell the Madam that we require a word with her.”
In about a minute, Molly Murphy was at the door inviting them into the parlor “for a nip of the good stuff.” The judge confided to Loomis that he had his doubts about entering such a dubious establishment. “But the exigencies of the present investigation clearly require it,” advised the attorney. Sipping some genuine Kentucky, the judge was slow to come to the point. “Molly, some hare-brained preacher’s been grabbed from hereabouts. Name of Smith. Preaches that Jesus has come down to earth once more, and in fact here to New York state. What do you hear?”
There wasn’t much happened on the street that Molly didn’t know and she had no reason to hold back. “Dygert’s in the game,” she whispered. “He and that scarecrow preacher Van Slyke and a stranger who looks like he died last week.”
“Dygert!” exclaimed Loomis. “It seems an awfully low water for him to stick his oar.”
“He’s a fool, Arph. Fools by definition are apt to do anything. Tell me, Molly, where have they taken the preacher? Or have they killed him already?”
“They can’t have gone far. Mose Wheldon loaned them his wagon to carry off their victim, and he was back on the street not an hour later at his usual occupation.”
“Shoveling up horseshit?” laughed Loomis.
Molly nodded. “And if neither of you fine gentlemen wish to sample my wares, I’ll be back to business.” The judge patted her on the rump and pressed a coin in her bosom. “A reliable lass,” he commented as they two set to wait for reinforcements. They discussed the coming legislative term and the incompetence of Governor Enos Throop. “There’s few can measure up to DeWitt Clinton,” opined the judge. “He leaves an eternal legacy, to be sure,” concurred Loomis. By then, Constable Hinman and several other men with lanterns had arrived. The judge informed them of what he had learned from Molly Murphy.
“D’ye think it’s a case of ransom?” asked Hinman.
“What else? Those fools probably think the gold plates to be real. Now, scatter and bring Mose Wheldon to Klock’s tavern. He’ll have the knowledge we seek.” Loomis and Benton made their way to the tavern and continued their discussion of Albany politics. They considered their colleague Van Buren an inspired choice for vice president. “Old Kinderhook will keep Old Hickory on the straight and narrow” was the judge’s view, being somewhat cautious about Jackson’s fitness for the highest office.
“Twas wise not to mention Dygert to Hinman,” observed Loomis. “We need to keep his name out of this tomfoolery if we can.”
“Indeed, Arphaxad, my boy. But ne’er forget I have you in mind for his successor.”
“All the more reason to keep the honor of the office untainted. But tell me, Nate, do you truly take Dygert to be so avaricious as to kidnap a man?”
“Seems odd, does it not?” The judge found his pipe and proceeded to poke about in the ashes of the fireplace for an ember. “We’ll soon see to the truth of the matter.”
Presently, Hinman returned with the manure collector in tow. “Let’s be short, Wheldon,” said the judge. “Where did you carry those three men and the fourth with the hood over his head?” The farmer professed ignorance until the constable hit him in the ribs two or three times. Then he recalled taking the persons to a shack across the Mohawk from Lovers Leap. Assigning one of the young men to take Wheldon to the village lock-up, Judge Benton led the remaining investigators to the shack designated by the manure man.
Following the towpath eastward for a mile, they soon saw a flickering light The judge ordered Hinman to keep his men back to prevent an escape by the kidnappers while he and Loomis advanced to where they could peer through the tilting boards of the shack. By the dim light of the kidnappers’ lantern, Arphaxad could make out a man tied to a chair and a tall figure standing in front of the bound man. “Is that a Bible he’s waving about?” he whispered to the judge.
“I’d say so. It appears that Reverend Van Slyke is preaching a sermon to the messenger of the new prophet. Sounds like he’s proposing repentance. Where are the other two?”
“Enjoying a libation, I’d say.” Loomis pointed to a rough bench on which the village president and another man were passing a bottle back and forth.
“Let me have a go at ‘im!” The unknown man staggered to his feet.
“That must be Eber Howe, the sworn enemy of the new Muhammad,” Loomis whispered. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”
Howe leaned over their victim, poking the man repeatedly in the chest. “Do you deny, Smith, that you and your boy Joe are thoroughgoing frauds? I have the affidavies right here ascertaining that you took money from numerous folks under false pretenses of treasure-seeking and such.”
“I will pray for ye, Mr. Howe, lest ye be drug down to the infernal regions by Satan and his minions,” declared the old man.
“I have here an affidavy from Constable Philip DeZeng of Bainbridge, New York!” Howe waved a paper in Smith’s face. “He attests, under oath mind you, that he arrested your son Joseph Smith for defrauding a farmer by name of Josiah Stowell. You recognize the name?”
“Stowell was an agent sent by Satan to mock at God’s holy messenger!”
“Hmm, Satan? Easy to say, sir,” Howe nodded to his companions as if some point had been proven. “It says on this paper that your son, sir, took money from that poor old farmer on the pretense that he had a magic stone through which he would look, and in such manner discover great treasures of gold and silver. Sounds very like those magic spectacles he makes so much of now, don’t it, Mr. Smithy?”
“You mock at the Urim and the Thummin at your peril, sir!”
“I guess that’s how Joe Jr. styles those magic specs of his, the ones he claims let him translate the golden plates which, by the by, never existed!”
Old Smith glared at his tormentor, too enraged to speak. Peering at the sight from their place of concealment, Loomis could not stifle a guffaw.
“What’s that?” Dygert exclaimed. “Is someone there?”
“Game’s up, Arphaxad,” said the judge. “Let’s join the dance.”
John Dygert’s face turned white and the minister frowned mightily as the judge and the atoorney entered the shack. Eber Howe barely looked up from his interrogation, posing a question to Smith about a more recent arrest of his son for being a disorderly person.
“What’s all this, John?” Benton asked with seeming joviality. “What fish have you and Reverend Van Slyke hooked?”
Since neither Dygert nor Van Slyke could form an answer, the judge continued. “I see that you have caught two of the imposters for which the canal is so noted. We’ll lock them both up, if you’re agreeable?” The village president nodded weakly and the judge called loudly for Hinman and his men. As soon as the agents of the law appeared, Benton indicated that Smith and Howe should be taken to the lock-up forthwith. “Mr. Dygert and the Reverend have beat us to it, lads. It is to their credit that these two confidence men are in custody.”
When Hinman had departed with his prisoners, the Judge’s feigned smile disappeared. “You’ve been up to some monkeyshines here, the pair of you. And you don’t need to mount your high horse, Reverend. If I had not happened on this matter, the both of you would before the Oyer and Terminer by morning.”
“In other words,” Arphaxad felt the need for clarity with such fools as these. “We intend to conceal your foolishness with a cloak of lies, much as it offends our consciences. Before morning, Hinman will hasten the whole passel of Smiths on down the canal.”
“That man and his sons are enemies of Christianity!” the minister finally exploded. “We’ve done no wrong in condemning their infamous lies.”
“Condemn all you like from your pulpit, Van Slyke,” the judge advised, “But try any more abductions and the only pulpit you’ll have will be on Blackwell’s Island.”
“Leave such madmen alone and they quickly fade from public notice,” observed Loomis, taking a milder tact.
“Indeed,” said the judge. “Such cranks are no threat to church or polity. Americans will never give credence to their nonsensical ravings.”
“A farm boy digs up a whole new Bible of solid gold? Hah!”Loomis picked up from the floor the book which Smith’s son had published a few months before. “And this is the sacred word, I take it?”
Arphaxad Loomis tossed the book out the door and straight into the canal. “And now, my friends,” said the future village president, “let us repair to Klock’s Tavern for a needful libation.”
The first collection of tales from Asteronga as well as the novel based on the relationship of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his sister Sophronia are available on Amazon