Robert D. Palmer III and Dr. Steven C. Harper, Church History
Though unjustly remembered by some mainly as the man who lost the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris was an instrumental character in helping to bring about the Book of Mormon and the beginning of the LDS Church. Not only is he one of the three witnesses to the book, but he was also a benefactor, scribe, financier, and missionary for the new church. After he helped to convert his brother Emer to the gospel, they served together as missionaries from 1832-1833 in northern Pennsylvania. Recently, Mark Nelson discovered court documents of a trial involving Martin Harris in 1833 while thus serving as a missionary with his brother. This court case gives new light to an otherwise little-known chapter in the life of Martin Harris. Thanks to a letter written by Emer we know that the brothers should have left their mission sooner but were delayed by Martin’s imprisonment. Originally when this letter was transcribed by Harris biographers, Emer was quoted as stating that Martin was imprisoned on a “fals charge of standen” at the beginning of 1833. When Mark Nelson discovered the actual court cases he found that the word “standen” was in reality an error in transcription with the correct word being slander, giving a greater understanding as to why Martin was imprisoned.
The charge was filed by an Eliza Ann Winters and her “next friend” Benjamin Comfort on December 5th, 1832. She claimed that in front of a group of people he apparently said that “she [Winters] has had a bastard child.” She never claimed that it was false but claimed that he said it intending to “render her infamous and scandalous.” She accordingly pressed charges for damages of a thousand dollars and Martin Harris was arrested. On February 1, 1833 Martin Harris appeared before the Justice of the Peace Asa Dimock where his bail was set at one thousand dollars. The Harris brothers did not have the money to make bail and Martin would have stayed in prison until his trial date of April 30th 1833 if not for Ezra and Lansing Kingsley who posted his bail on February 7th 1833. Martin then left a sign affidavit with the court and subsequently returned home without further trouble and was later cleared of the charges.
When I first talked to my faculty mentor Steven Harper he said they know everything they can know about the case without actually going on-site. I have worked with Professor Harper on other transcription projects as well as being an intern at BYU Studies and we came up with the idea to obtain an ORCA Grant to help us learn more about the court case and those involved. As part of this project I flew to Pennsylvania and travelled down to the Montrose Historical Society and Court House in order to see what I could learn. I worked with Assistant Curator Dawn Augenti at the court house where she showed me the court documents. After going through the documents to make sure nothing was missed, Dawn proceeded to show me how to conduct research at the Court House. Our goal was to find out anything we could concerning the other people involved in the court case such as Eliza Winters, Benjamin Comfort (and what “next friend” meant), Ezra and Lansing Kingsley, how they got the money to post bail, were they members of the church, etc. We searched in newspapers published in the area during that time, family files, other court cases, marriage certificates, and we made copies of everything we discovered. During this trip I learned many valuable researching tools dealing with searching court houses for church history related subjects which I plan to use in future projects.
After I returned to Utah I commenced to search through the copies that I made in order to take out anything that in any way dealt with the court case at hand. During our research we found court cases involving Ezra and a “Lansing” Kingsley leading us to believe that Larson was incorrect. After bringing the copies home and going through them in depth, it seems like Ezra and Lansing borrowed the money to post bail using their property as collateral but were unable to pay it back and subsequently had suites filed against them from different people for different amounts of money starting March 27th, 1833. I didn’t find any evidence of them joining the LDS Church however so they could have just been sympathetic or became bitter about the money or any number of reasons. In Montrose we also discovered that Eliza’s “next friend” Benjamin Comfort was actually her brother-in-law. He married Eliza’s older sister Fanny the 12th of May, 1829. In the marriage records it says that “When Mr. Comfort proposed to Miss Winters he asked her if she would ‘take comfort and live in Harmony.’” I also discovered that the Comfort family has been very “prominent in the Methodist Episcopal Church” and there could have been some religious tension involved in the court case.
Not only has this grant helped to further my own personal understanding as to what Church History research involves, it has also allowed me the valuable opportunity to work with a knowledgeable mentor and it hopefully provided needed information for this project to be published in the BYU Studies Journal at a future time. Though some of my questions may not have been answered, the research I was able to perform due to this mentoring grant has given priceless insight to an otherwise unknown period in the life of Martin Harris.
- Quoted in Madge Harris Tuckett and Belle Harris Wilson, The Martin Harris Story (Provo, Utah: Vintage, 1983), 121-22.
- Arrest Warrant given to the “Sheriff of Susquehanna County” to bring Martin Harris in by the “first Monday of February” found in the Susquehanna County Court House archives in Montrose, Pennsylvania.
- Affidavit of Eliza Ann Winters as recorded in Court Records found in Montrose, Pennsylvania Archives of Common Pleas 1832-1833 under “Harris, M.”
- Court documents found in Montrose County Court House.
- The Court Document states that it was it was Larson Kingsley but after continuing my research dealing with this case [other court cases involving the Kingsley brothers in repaying their debt, it looks like his real name is Lansing Kingsley.
- Court documents found in the Montrose County Court House. Copies of documents are in my possession.
- Susquehanna Marriage Registry found in Montrose Historical Society. Copies of documents are in my possession.
- History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania from the Collection of Susquehanna County Historical Society, Montrose, Pennsylvania.