Ronald E. Romig, Eighth Witness: The Biography of John Whitmer (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2014), cites one of the earliest newspaper reports about the experience of the Book of Mormon witnesses. It appeared — perhaps republished from elsewhere — in the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph on 29 March 1831. The editor of the Telegraph and the author of the article was Eber D. Howe, who would go on to publish the very first anti-Mormon book, Mormonism Unvailed, in 1834. The account reads as follows:
[David] Whitmar [sic] . . . [has] been of late permitted, not only to see and handle it [the plates], but to examine the contents. Whitmar relates that he was led by Smith into an open field, on his [Whitmer’s] father’s farm near Waterloo, when they found the book lying on the ground; Smith took it up and requested him to examine it, which he did for the space of half an hour or more, when he returned it to Smith, who placed it in its former position, alleging that the book was in the custody of another, intimating that some divine agent would have it in safe keeping. This witness describes the book as being something like eight inches square, the leaves were plates of metal of a whitish yellow color, and of the thickness of tin plate — the back was secured with three small rings of the same metal, passing through each leaf in succession. (cited at page 54, italics in original)
Although the description of the plates and their connecting rings is fairly accurate here, there is nothing miraculous in this account, no angel, no voice of God, and nobody else present. Moreover, it puts the discovery of the plates near the Whitmer farm in Waterloo rather than near the Smith farm adjacent to Palmyra (and more than twenty-five miles from Waterloo). It seems to be a very loose second- or third-account report, possibly based on garbled rumor. (Painesville was roughly twelve miles from Kirtland. The Latter-day Saints were just beginning to be noticed in the Kirtland area. Joseph Smith himself would move from to Ohio from New York only during the next month.) But the official statement of the Three Witnesses — with its explicit mention of the angel and the divine voice, and signed not only by David Whitmer but also by Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery — had already been in print for nearly a year.
Romig continues in his own voice:
Of course, Whitmer witnessed about his angelic encounter in numerous interviews. Whether he physically handled the plates is a more interesting question. In at least two interviews, David seems to suggest that he did. J. W. Chatburn reported Whitmer saying, “These hands handled the plates, these eyes saw the angel, and these ears heard his voice.” And James H. Moyle recalled David saying “that he did see and handle the plates; that he did see and hear the angel and heard the declaration that the plates had been translated correctly.” (54)
On the whole, I’m inclined to think that the Three Witnesses — at least in the experience to which they testify in the printed Book of Mormon itself — did not handle the plates. Certainly, in their formal statement, they don’t claim to have done so. However, Martin Harris held the plates on his lap on at least one occasion, while they were in a box, before his experience with the angel. (He commented on their remarkable weight.). So, perhaps too, did his wife, Lucy Harris. And it’s not impossible that David Whitmer had experienced them in similar fashion. However, the Eight Witnesses emphatically did claim a direct encounter with the physical plates, “hefting” them and turning their pages.