Young ladies, absent missionaries, and the peep stones that bind them (1850s Utah Territory)

By March 2, 2011

It seems to be a common assumption that the use of folk magic objects like peep stones and divining rods had pretty well died out by the time the Saints arrived in the Great Basin. At least, we don’t talk much about them being used after that. When we speak of seer stones in a Mormon context Joseph Smith’s early treasure digging days, Book of Mormon translation, and Hiram Page are typically the topic of discussion. Such instruments were used for finding treasure, translating ancient texts, for revelation, and, in a few cases, for locating lost objects.

A while ago I came across a few references to the use of a “peep stone” that surprised me for several reasons. The date was later than I would have expected: 1856. And the peeper was younger than I expected: about 14 or 15. And the object of peeping was rather unusual.

The references come from a few letters written to Joseph F. Smith during his first mission to the Hawaiian Islands, one from his younger sister, Martha Ann Smith, and two from Martha’s close friend  Jane Fisher (who may have, as other letters seem to suggest, had romantic feelings toward her friend’s older brother). JFS was 15 at the time he left on this mission, in 1854. The first reference is in a letter from Martha Ann. On July 18, 1856, she wrote, “Ma[r]y Jane has been looking is [sic] the peap stone for you and she seen you[.]” The Mary Jane referred to was JFS’s cousin Mary Jane Thompson.

The other references are from letters by Jane Fisher, also referring to Mary Jane Thompson’s use of a peep stone. Referring to the same event Martha Ann wrote of, Jane wrote:  “Mary Jane saw you only last Friday, Martha will tell you how” (Jane Fisher to JFS, Great Salt Lake City, July 20, 1856). Jane again wrote to Joseph F. Smith, again mentioning the peepstone, on May 11, 1857: “I think you have stayed long enough, away, and if you do not come home soon, more than mary, Jane, will take a look in the peepstone. I should like to see you, in little grass House.”

So in the days before webcams, there were other media for communication–something faster than mail, and even more virtual than photography: a peep stone.

Article filed under From the Archives Gender Material Culture Miscellaneous


  1. Nice find, Stan! That peeping is more peeping than usual, methinks.

    Comment by Jared T — March 2, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

  2. There’s a lot of magic being discussed around here lately (hopefully Mark D. doesn’t jump on me for using that word).

    This is as fascinating today as it was when you first shared it with me a couple of years ago, Stan, and raises a number of questions. I’m intrigued not only by the specific use of the peep stone to see a friend far away (are there other instances of this?), but also by the age and sex of the peeping participants. Within the larger culture of this sort of thing in 19th century Mormonism, was it at all common for teenagers to use seer/peepstones? What about (young) women? Does anybody know?

    Comment by Christopher — March 2, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  3. Priddy Meeks talks about a young seer in his Utah diary. And as I remember the the seeress that Martineau visits as described in his diary was young (I should probably double check that).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 2, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  4. Wonderful find. Although this is a totally Mormon twist on things, once you mention it I’m not really surprised it exists. Young girls have always — still — try every trick they hear of to find out who their “true love” is, whether he’s thinking of them, who they’ll marry, whatever.

    Pulling petals off a daisy (“he loves me, he loves me not”) and sleeping with a piece of someone’s wedding cake under your pillow so that you’ll dream of your true love are probably familiar to us all. The BCC series “Larkrise to Candleford” featured a young servant girl who wanted to “do sums” — add up the numerical value of the letters in her name and the name of the boy she had a crush on — with the higher the sum meaning the stronger the affection he had for her. There are jump rope games even today where little girls jump “hot peppers” (the rope is turned as fast as possible) while chanting the alphabet, and the letter they’re on when they finally trip indicates the first letter of their future married name. We could probably all contribute more examples.

    But to have such a Mormon twist on it — wowzer! Thanks, Stan.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 2, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  5. My immediate thoughts go to Joseph Smith, of course, as a young man using a stone. I don’t know how old Sally Chase was, but she seems to have been prominent in her locale. Another that comes to mind is Adeline Fuller who a later friend of David Whitmer claims that Whitmer got a seer stone from her while she lived with the Whitmers in Kirtland. I seem to think that she was younger.

    Comment by Jared T — March 2, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  6. *er, “BBC series” — I hang in the ‘nacle too much.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 2, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  7. I heard a story from a particular professor at BYU. There was a woman who was dubbed “Peep-stone Peterson who could look in a stone and tell a girl who she was going to marry. She was apparently always correct. She didn’t specifically ask for money to look in her stone, but she would always take a donation. I can’t remember all the details, but I think she lived in the 20th century.

    Comment by rk — March 2, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  8. Actually I can honestly say I’ve never heard of sleeping with someone wedding cake. That really sounds weird to me.

    Comment by Clark — March 2, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  9. You aren’t a silly, romantic young girl, Clark! Googling wedding cake under pillow brings up 301,000 hits with some variation of “The old wives tale claims that if a woman sleeps with a piece of wedding cake under her pillow she will dream of the man she will marry” (from ).

    Isn’t JI educational? : )

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 2, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  10. Thanks for the comments. Many of you know much more about folk magic particulars than I do, which is probably why these instances surprised me.

    Comment by Stan — March 2, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

  11. Does this mean folk magic is acceptable Mormon praxis again or that JI is advocating its revival? Should I dust off my ancestral peep stone?

    In all seriousness, fascinating, Stan.

    Comment by ep — March 2, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  12. Great find.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 2, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

  13. In the 1980s my mom was charging crystals in the sun in our backyard (her friend put her up to it, what can I say?) to channel their energies. Mutatis mutandi, I don’t think there’s much difference.
    Great fun, though. The narrative of the supremacy of the American Enlightenment is definitely food for moths in many cases.

    Comment by smb — March 2, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

  14. Maybe I’m just a techie, but does anybody ever wonder what the technological framework is for peep stones? Maybe I’m getting a bit transhumanist… 😉

    Comment by Tod Robbins — March 2, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

  15. Christopher, if you recall my complaint was with the proposition that Mormon theology revolves around magic.

    I can’t say I feel very strongly about people referring to the use of divining rods, amulets, and stuff like that with the same term.

    Tod R, for such devices to work at all, surely it would be some sort quantum mechanical phase correlation. Clearly, though, it would require spiritual intervention to establish a channel in the first place.

    And if God is willing to do that, why not just bring the vision to mind in the first place? Seriously. All these little crutches seem like a substitute for plain old faith and inspiration.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 3, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  16. Mark, do you feel the same way about consecrated oil?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 3, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  17. […] Stapley: Young ladies, absent missionaries,Mark D.: Young ladies, absent missionaries,J. Stapley: How To Make AMark Ashurst-McGee: How To Make […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Brigham Young, Natural Seers, and Seer Stones — March 3, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  18. Or temple ordinances? Or the bread and water in the sacrament? Or full submersion at baptism?

    These are all just different points along a dynamic spectrum, and what constitutes a “crutch” depends on the eye of the beholder.

    Comment by Ben — March 3, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  19. Further, I don’t see that this has much to do with theology. It’s simply young women who wanted to see their missionary who was far away and saw this as an effective medium. I don’t know that they saw it as a divine operation. Mysterious, occult, maybe. But more “technology of folk magic” than theology. More akin to photography (daugerrotypes at this point?), which was also viewed as a rather mysterious technology (with spiritual significance) at the time.

    Comment by Stan — March 3, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  20. Good point Ben.

    Stan, you raise an interesting question. I think most peoples beliefs and actions are unexamined so most people don’t think about implications or consistency. However I wonder if one was to interrogate such people about their practices how they’d say it worked.

    Comment by Clark — March 3, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

  21. It sounds like voodoo, ouiji board stuff.

    Comment by O — March 4, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

  22. Tod:

    That’s easy. In the 21st century, crystal is out and silicon is in (at least for a few more years).

    Comment by larryco_ — March 4, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  23. I think silicon got banned by the FDA and wasn’t allowed to be put in unless you found a surgeon in South America.

    Comment by Clark — March 5, 2011 @ 2:48 pm


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