Fooling the Prophet with the Kinderhook Plates

Fooling the Prophet with the Kinderhook Plates

By Bill McKeever  and Aaron Shafovaloff

On pages 374-6 of the Documentary History of the Church, (Vol. 5) facsimiles of "brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, [1843] by Mr. Robert Wiley and others, while excavating a large mound" are displayed. According to the account, Wiley and others, "found a skeleton about six feet from the surface of the earth, which must have stood nine feet high. The plates were found on the breast of the skeleton and were covered on both sides with ancient characters." The plates were then given to Joseph Smith to translate. Though he was described as a "respectable merchant" (p. 374), Smith was unaware that Wiley was part of a conspiracy to expose Smith as a fraud.

Kinderhook Plates poster printed by John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff in 1843

A faith-promoting poster printed by John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff heralding supposed archaeological evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon. Nauvoo, Illinois, 1843. More information on this poster is available here.

The ruse was a success. Appealing to what Joseph Smith "says", Joseph Smith's trusted confidant William Clayton wrote that Smith began a translation1:

"I have seen 6 brass plates... covered with ancient characters of language containing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth." (William Clayton's Journal, May 1, 1843, as cited in Trials of Discipleship - The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon, p. 117)

Author Brent Lee Metcalfe points out that "when Clayton recorded his diary entry on the Kinderhook plates he was... "2

  • Smith's private secretary
  • perhaps Smith's most trusted confidant
  • officiator for Smith's secret plural wedding at Smith's residence in the morning
  • at Smith's residence for much of the day
  • in Smith's company for much of the day
  • house sitting for Smith later that day while Joseph was on a date with Flora Woodworth3
  • at Smith's residence when he examined the fake ancient artifacts
  • at Smith's residence when he wrote his journal entry

On this issue Don Bradley writes:

"William Clayton did not acquire his information about Joseph and the Kinderhook plates from the rumor mill. Clayton was Joseph's personal secretary, and a man as much in his confidence as any at the time. He dined with Joseph at the Mansion House, examined the plates while there, and traced one of them on the reverse of the page where he recorded his journal entry for the day, including this regarding the plates, 'Brother Joseph has translated a portion of them, and says they contain....'"4

On May 1, 1843, the Times and Seasons published the following:

"To the Editor of the Times & Seasons.
"On the 16th of April last a respectable merchant by the name of Robert Wiley, commenced digging in a large mound near this place: he excavated to the depth of 10 feet and came to rock; about that time the rain began to fall, and he abandoned the work. On the 23d he and quite a number of the citizens with myself, repaired to the mound, and after making ample opening, we found plenty of rock the most of which appeared as though it had been strongly burned; and after removing full two feet of said rock, we found plenty of charcoal and ashes; also human bones that appeared as though they had been burned; and near the eciphalon a bundle was found that consisted of six plates of brass, of a bell shape, each having a hole near the small end, and a ring through them all, and clasped with two clasps, the ring and claps appeared to be of iron very much oxidated, the plates appeared first to be copper, and had the appearance of being covered with characters. It was agreed by the company that I should cleanse the plates: accordingly I took them to my house, washed them with soap and water, and a woolen cloth; but finding them not yet cleansed I treated them with dilute sulphuric acid which made them perfectly clean, on which it appeared that they were completely covered with hieroglyphics that none as yet have been able to read. Wishing that the world might know the hidden things as fast as they come to light, I was induced to state the facts, hoping that you would give it an insertion in your excellent, paper for we all feel anxious to know the true meaning of the plates, and publishing, the facts might lead to the true translation. They were found, I judged, more than twelve feet below the surface of the top of the mound.
"I am most respectfully a citizen of Kinderhook,
"W. P. HARRIS, M. D.
"The following certificate was forwarded for publication, at the same time.
"We the citizens of Kinderhook, whose names are annexed do certify and declare that on the 23d April, 1843, while excavating a large mound, in this vicinity, Mr. R. Wiley took from said mound, six brass plates of a bell shape, covered with ancient characters. Said plates were very much oxidated-the bands and rings on said plates mouldered into dust on a slight pressure. The above described plates we have handed to Mr. Sharp for the purpose of taking them to Nauvoo.
"ROB'T WILEY, W. P. HARRIS,
"G. W. F. WARD, W. LONGNECKER,
"FAYETTE GRUBB, IRA S. CURTIS,
"GEO. DECKENSON, W. FUGATE.
"J. R. SHARP
"(From the Quincy Whig.)"5

In the same issue was the following, entitled "Singular Discovery--Material for Another Mormon Book":

"A Mr. J. ROBERTS, from Pike county, called upon us last Monday, with a written description of a discovery which was recently made near Kinderhook, in that county. We have not room for his communication at length, and will give so much of a summary of it, as will enable the reader to form a pretty correct opinion of the discovery made.
"It appeared that a young man by the name of Wiley, a resident in Kinderhook, dreamed three nights in succession, that in a certain mound in the vicinity, there was treasures concealed.-Impressed with the strange occurrence of dreaming the same dream three nights in succession, he came to the conclusion, to satisfy his mind by digging into the mound. For fear of being laughed at, if he made others acquainted with his design, he went by himself, and labored diligently one day in pursuit of the supposed treasure, by sinking a hole in the centre of the mound. Finding it quite laborous, he invited others to assist him. Finally, a company of ten or twelve repaired to the mound, and assisted in digging out the shaft commenced by Wiley. After penetrating the mound about 11 feet, they came to a bed of limestone, that had apparently been subjected to the action of fire, they removed the stone, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found SIX BRASS PLATES, secured and fastened together by two iron wires, but which were so decayed, that they readily crumbled to dust upon being handled. The plates were so completely covered with rust as almost to obliterate the characters inscribed upon them; but after undergoing a chemical process, the incriptions were brought out plain and distinct. There were six plates-four inches in length, one inch and three quarters wide at the top, and two inches and three quarters wide at the bottom, flaring out to points. There are four lines of characters or hieroglyphics on each; on one side of the plates are parallel lines runing lengthwise. A few of the characters resemble, in their form, the Roman capitals of our alphabet-for instance, the capital B and X appear very distinct. In addition, there are rude representations of three human heads on one of the plates, the largest in the middle; from this head proceeds marks or rays, resembling those which usually surround the head of Christ, in the pictoral representations of his person. There is also figures of two trees with branches, one under each of the two small heads, both leaning a little to the right. One of the plates, has on it the figure of a large head by itself, with two pointing directly to it.
"By whom these plates were deposited there must ever remain a secret, unless some one skilled in deciphering hieroglyphics, may be found to unravel the mystery. Some pretend to say, that Smith the Mormon leader, has the ability to read them. If he has, he will confer a great favor on the public by removing the mystery which hangs over them. We learn there was a Mormon present when the plates were found, who it is said, leaped for joy at the discovery, and remarked that it would go to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon-which it undoubtedly will.
"In the place where these plates were deposited, were also found human bones in the last stage of decomposition; also some braid, which was at first supposed to be human hair, but on a closer examination proved to be grass; probably used as a covering for the bodies deposited there; this was also in the last stage of decay There were but few bones found in the mound; and it is believed, that it was but the burial place of a small number, perhaps of a person, or a family of distinction, in ages long gone by, and that these plates contain the history of the times, or of a people, that existed far-far beyond the memory of the present race. But we will not conjecture any thing about this wonderful dicovery, as it is one which the plates alone can reveal.
"On each side of this mound in which this discovery was made, was a mound, on one of which is a tree growing that measures two feet and a half in diameter, near the ground. Showing the great antiquity of the mounds, and of course, all that is buried within them. These mounds like others, that are found scattered all over the Mississippi valley, are in the form of a sugar loaf.
"The plates above alluded to, were exhibited in this city last week, and are now, we understand, in Nauvoo, subject to the inspection of the Mormon Prophet. The public curiosity is greatly excited, and if Smith can decipher the hieroglyphics on the plates, he will do more towards throwing light on the early history of this continent, than any man now living."6

On May 7, 1843, Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote a letter that included:

"'Six plates having the appearance of Brass have lately been dug out of the mound by a gentleman in Pike Co. Illinois. They are small and filled with engravings in Egyptian language and contain the genealogy of oneof the ancient Jaredite back to Ham the son of Noah" (Ensign, August 1981, p. 73)

In a 1878 letter Wilbur Fugate, one of the conspirators working with Wiley, claimed:

"We understood Jo Smith said they [i.e., the Kinderhook plates] would / make a book of 1200 pages but he would not / agree to translate them until they were sent / to the Antiquarian society at Philadelphia / France, and England, they were sent and / the answer was that there were no such / Hyeroglyphics known and if there ever had / been they had long since passed away / then Smith began his translation[.]"7

In 1879, he wrote a letter confessing the fraud:

"Mr. Cobb: --

"I received your letter in regard to those plates, and will say in answer that they are a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. Whitton is dead. I do not know whether Wiley is or not. None of the nine persons who signed the certificate knew the secret, except, Wiley and I. We read in Pratt's prophecy that "Truth is yet to spring up out of the earth." We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them, Bridge Whitton cut them (the plates) out of some pieces of copper; Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates. When they were finished we put them together with rust made of nitric acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron, covering them completely with the rust. Our plans worked admirably. A certain Sunday was appointed for digging. The night before, Wiley went to the Mound where he had previously dug to the depth of about eight feet, there being a flat rock that sounded hollow beneath, and put them under it. On the following morning quite a number of citizens were there to assist in the search, there being two Mormon elders present (Marsh and Sharp). The rock was soon removed, but some time elapsed before the plates were discovered. I finally picked them up and exclaimed, "A piece of pot metal!" Fayette Grubb snatched them from me and struck them against the rock and they fell to pieces. Dr. Harris examined them and said they had hieroglyphics on them. He took acid and removed the rust and they were soon out on exhibition. Under this rock [it] was dome-like in appearance, about three feet in diameter, there were a few bones in the last stage of decomposition, also a few pieces of pottery and charcoal. There was NO SKELETON found. Sharp, the Mormon Elder, leaped and shouted for joy and said, Satan had appeared to him and told him not to go (to the diggings), it was a hoax of Fugate and Wiley's, -- but at a later hour the Lord appeared and told him to go, the treasure was there.

"The Mormons wanted to take the plates to Joe Smith, but we refused to let them go. Some time afterward a man assuming the name of Savage, of Quincy, borrowed the plates of Wiley to show to his literary friends there, and took them to Joe Smith. The same identical plates were returned to Wiley, who gave them to Professor McDowell, of St. Louis, for his Museum.

"W. FUGATE."8

Historic Mormon Defense of Smith and His Translation of the Plates

In an 1904 issue of Improvement Era the following was written:

"Certain bell-shaped plates are said to have been discovered in a mound, in the vicinity of Kinderhook, Pike county, Illinois, by Robert Wiley, in 1843, and taken to Joseph Smith. Now, I wish to ask: 1. Were these plates translated by Joseph Smith? 2. If so, what were their contents? 3. Where are they? 4. Are they considered of any value in confirming the Book of Mormon? 5. Is there anything about them in any of the Church works?

"1 and 2. Near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois-between fifty and sixty miles south and east of Nauvoo-on April 23, 1843, a Mr. Robert Wiley, while excavating a large mound, took from said mound six brass plates of bell shape, fastened by a ring passing through the small end, and fastened with two clasps, and covered with ancient characters. Human bones together with charcoal and ashes were found in the mound, in connection with the plates which evidently had been buried with the person whose bones were discovered. The plates were submitted to the Prophet, and speaking of them in his journal, under date of May 1, 1843, he says: "I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the Ruler of heaven and earth."

"3. The plates were later placed in a museum in St. Louis, known as McDowell's, which was afterwards destroyed by fire, and the plates were lost.

"4. The event would go very far towards confirming the idea that in very ancient times, there was intercourse between the eastern and western hemispheres; and the statement of the prophet would mean that the remains were Egyptian. The fair implication, also, from the prophet's words is that this descendant of the Pharaohs possessed a kingdom in the new world; and this circumstance may account for the evidence of a dash of Egyptian civilization in our American antiquities.

"5. The whole account of the finding of the plates, together with the testimony of eight witnesses, besides Mr. Wiley, who were acquainted with the finding of the relics, as also the statement from the prophet's history, is found in the Millennial Star, vol. 21: pp. 40-44." (Improvement Era. Vol. VII. March 1904. No. 5.)

One Mormon wrote:

"On the 16th of April, 1843, a man by the name of Robert Wiley, a merchant in Kinderhook, Pike County, state of Illinois, dreamt that there were some treasures hidden in a hillock known to him in the neighborhood; and after digging for about thirteen feet from the surface, he found six brass plates, four inches long, an inch-and-three-quarters wide at one end, and two-and-three-quarter inches wide at the other end; four lists of letters (hieroglyphics) on each side of them. On one of the plates is the picture of three skulls, the largest in the middle, surrounded by rays similar to those one sees surrounding the head of our Savior in the pictures that are made of him now. Underneath the two smaller ones is the picture of two trees, and their branches; on one of the plates is the picture of a large head, and the picture of two hands pointing to it. We saw those plates, and the case was publicized through the newspapers, and I did not hear that anyone disbelieved it; but if the one who found them were to utter a word that angels had anything to do with the matter, we do not think that he would be believed about this, any more than Joseph Smith is believed that he received gold plates. Thus the prejudice is so strong against angels, that people would rather believe the testimony of this professed deist, than the other godly man. There is every sign that these plates had been hidden there for many an age, for trees two-and-a-half feet thick were growing on top of those artificial mounds. The wise men of the world have imagined a great deal about the origin of these mounds, and many other remains of the buildings of the ancients; but their history and their makers, and everything else that pertains to them, are entirely unknown to the world; only what is shown on the plates is revealed from time to time. And is not the discovery of the one that is generally accepted (and if anyone should doubt, he can see the picture of them here), an admission of the other? And is not the fact that this uneducated Joseph Smith has translated the one set of plates, while knowledge of the hieroglyphics has been lost to the world, almost since time immemorial, apart from a few letters, proof that he also translated correctly the others that were given to him through angelic ministry? No doubt these, in addition to the many others that could be noted, are incontrovertible facts in the eyes of every reasonable man." (The words of Dan Jones. Ronald D. Dennis, trans. and ed., Prophet of the Jubilee. Available online here. See related article here.)

In 1909 B.H. Roberts listed the Kinderhook Plates among those that "bear important testimony to the fact that the ancient Americans did engrave records on metallic plates."9 He went on to write:

"Of this presentation of the matter it is only necessary to say that it is a little singular that Mr. Fugate alone out of the three said to be in collusion in perpetrating the fraud should disclose it, and that he should wait from 1843 to 1879-a period of thirty-six years-before doing so, when he and those said to be associated with him had such an excellent opportunity to expose the vain pretensions of the Prophet-if Fugate's tale be true? For while the statement in the text of the Prophet's Journal to the effect that the find was genuine, and that he had translated some of the characters and learned certain historical facts concerning the person with whose remains the plates were found, may not have been known at the time to the alleged conspiritors to deceive him, still the editor of the Times and Seasons-John Taylor, the close personal friend of the Prophet-took the find seriously, and expressed at once explicit confidence in an editorial in the Times and Seasons, of May 1st, 1843, that the Prophet could give a translation of the plates. And this attitude the Church, continued to maintain; for in The Prophet, (a Mormon weekly periodical, published in New York) of the 15th of February, 1845, there was published a fac-simile of the Kinderhook plates, together with the Times and Seasons editorial and all the above matter of the text. How easy to have covered Joseph Smith and his followers with ridicule by proclaiming the hoax as soon as they accepted the Kinderhook plates as genuine! Why was it not done? The fact that Fugate's story was not told until thirty-six years after the event, and that he alone of all those who were connected with the event gives that version of it, is rather strong evidence that his story is the hoax, not the discovery of the plates, nor the engravings upon them." (New Witnesses for God, p. 63)

In Joseph Smith--Seeker after Truth, John Widtsoe wrote:

"May 1. Translates a portion of certain brass plates discovered at Kinderhook, Iowa." (John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith--Seeker after Truth, Prophet of God, p. 366)

Welby W. Ricks, who was president of the BYU Archaeological Society, wrote the following in 1962:

"A recent rediscovery of one of the Kinderhook plates which was examined by Joseph Smith, Jun., reaffirms his prophetic calling and reveals the false statements made by one of the finders....
"The plates are now back in their original category of genuine.... Joseph Smith, Jun., stands as a true prophet and translator of ancient records by divine means and all the world is invited to investigate the truth which has sprung out of the earth not only of the Kinderhook plates, but of the Book of Mormon as well." (The Kinderhook Plates; quoted here)

In Commentary on the Book of Mormon George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl wrote:

"But, on the other hand, we have the fact before us, that the skeleton of the Pharaoh, found in Kinderhook, Illinois, referred to previously, was dug out of a large mound. After penetrating about eleven feet the workers came to a bed of limestone that had been subjected to the action of fire. They removed the stones, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found the skeleton. This was evidently a burial chamber, as with the bones, which appeared to have been burned, was found plenty of charcoal and ashes. From this fact it is evident that some of the mounds are of very ancient date, as it is not supposable that this man would be the only one of his race and nation to be buried in this manner. We also suggest that this colony of Egyptians may have originated the style of architecture in this country in which so many find resemblances to the Egyptian, and which is specially characterized by the erection of vast truncated pyramids." (George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, edited and arranged by Philip C. Reynolds, 7 vols., 6:, p.232. Published in 1961.)

Important Discovery in 1920 and Subsequent Tests

According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Kinderhook Plates, 2:789,790), interest in the forged plates waned following Smith's death in 1844. "Decades later two of the alleged discoverers announced that the plates were a hoax; an attempt to discredit Smith. By then, however, the Church was headquartered in Utah and little attention was paid to these strange disclosures." The article continues by saying,

"Interest was kindled again in 1920 when the Chicago Historical Society acquired what appeared to be one of the original Kinderhook plates. Later the Chicago plate was subjected to a number of nondestructive tests, with inconclusive results. Then in 1980, the Chicago Historical Society gave permission for destructive tests, which were done at Northwestern University. Examination by a scanning electron microscope, a scanning auger microprobe, and X-ray fluorescence analysis proved conclusively that the plate was one of the Kinderhook six; that it had been engraved, not etched; and that it was of nineteenth-century manufacture. There thus appears no reason to accept the Kinderhook plates as anything but a frontier hoax."

LDS opinion on the plates predictably changed. In a 1993 FARMS book review William J. Hamblin wrote:

"Whatever the significance of this forgery for early Latter-day Saint history, it has absolutely no relevance for the modern study of Book of Mormon antiquities."10

Conclusion

Some have argued that the entry by confidant William Clayton explaining what Joseph Smith "says" about the preliminary translation is inconclusive, yet have nevertheless observed that

"even if Smith was not fooled in 1843, the church itself was fooled for the next one hundred and thirty years. The Kimball article [Ensign, Aug. 1981, 66-74] mentioned the Church's response each time the issue of the plates came up, but it failed to recognize that each response up to 1981 was the same-that the plates were genuine. This discrepancy in the historical documentation of the church, therefore, requires a certain degree of clarification---and this can only come from the church itself."11

But given that Clayton was in Smith's company for much of the day, we have good reason to trust him when he reports that "Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found", even though Clayton otherwise got some particulars wrong on the digging up of the plates (which Smith may have misunderstood as well). The whole incident gives us a number of reasons to pause before accepting the prophetical calling of Joseph Smith and the validity of Mormonism. In a direct sense, it shows us that Smith was not a very discerning man. Apparently he was just as gullible as many of those who followed him. If men such as Bridge Whitten, Robert Wiley, and Wilburn Fugate could hoodwink Smith, could an angel claiming to be a messenger from God not also deceive him? Even if we could excuse Smith's lack of discernment, it does not take away from the fact that Smith insisted he had the ability to "translate" the bogus pieces of metal. Whether Smith knowingly tried to deceive his followers or was deluded himself is of little consequence; certainly it shows he is not a man worthy of people's trust.

Notes

  1. There has been considerable confusion over this source as quoted in Documentary History of the Church (DHC). Page 372 reads: "I [Joseph Smith] have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the Ruler of heaven and earth" (DHC 5:372). This section was in fact a redacted version of a journal entry made by William Clayton, made to sound as though it was coming from the pen of Joseph Smith. Many statements in the DHC are not from the mouth of Joseph Smith, even though it reads that way (see Dean C. Jessee, "The Writing of Joseph Smith's History", BYU Studies, v. 11, no. 4, Summer 1971). Ironically, 10th Mormon president Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, "The most important history in the world is the history of our Church, and it is the most accurate history in all the world" (Doctrines of Salvation 2:199).
  2. Taken from this forum post, wherein Metcalfe draws from another place he listed these observations. February 23, 2005. Accessed April 18, 2007.
  3. More information about Flora Woodworth is available here.
  4. Comment left at MormonsApologetics.org. Accessed 1/7/2008.
  5. "To the Editor of the Times & Seasons". Times and Seasons. Vol. 4, No. 12. May 1, 1843. Available online here.
  6. "Singular Discovery-Material for Another Mormon Book". Times and Seasons. Vol. 4, No. 12. May 1, 1843. Available online here.
  7. Wilbur Fugate to James T. Cobb, 8 April 1878, virgule line breaks and emphasis added, Schroeder Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI.
  8. Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal, ed., Mormon Portraits I, p. 207; cf. New Witnesses for God, vol. 3, p. 63
  9. B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, vol. 3, p. 57. Available online here. See also History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., introduction and notes by B. H. Roberts, 5:, p. 386. Available online here.
  10. William J. Hamblin. Review of Jerald and Sandra Tanner's Archaeology and the Book of Mormon; available online here.
  11. "The Kinderhook plates: Examining a nineteenth-century hoax," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2003. Available online here.

Further reading

Non-Mormon

Mormon