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Ep 72 – Nauvoo: Divine Inspeculation

On this episode, we dive right back into the historical timeline with talk on some detailed land purchase agreements. Jo and the Mormons were in a bad spot when they began settling Nauvoo and land speculation was the new counterfeit money to hobble the church along with a falsely inflated economy. Land speculators never pass on making some money on destitute people, and Jo does the same when selling land to the Mormons, but actual specie exchange rarely happened. After that, we bring on Ethan Dodge, the second half of the Mormon Leaks team, to discuss the recent leaks leading up to conference weekend as well as a little bit about himself. To cap it off, I’ll speak very briefly about Mythcon 2017 in Milwaukee.


Susan Easton Black lectures

Ethan Dodge Reddit AMA

My Mormon Experience Podcast

Leaks Discussed in MLM

Church stats reddit thread

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I’ve been out of the office for quite some time so there is a bunch to get to today in resuming our historical timeline and the housecleaning afterwards. For the last 2 episodes, we suspended the timeline to have a couple of special episodes talking with some Mormon historians as well as the bundles of energy that are Tom and Cecil of the Cognitive Dissonance podcast, so let’s review where we’re sitting in the timeline for some milk before we get into the meat today.

Last historical timeline episode, we were catching up with the quorum of the Twelve apostles on their mission through Europe. By the way, thanks to everybody who sent in corrections, specifically Andrew and Alice with Tems, not Thames, and Glawstersher not Gloucestershire. I always appreciate a little help when it comes to those old English terms, or really any other big or weird words I don’t have the foresight to google when preparing the show notes. We read through a number of newspaper articles tracking the movements of the missionaries, as well as read a letter they sent back to the brethren in America about some of their sight-seeing adventures. After catching up with the quorum, we jumped into a little-known debate between a Mormon missionary and a skeptic who’d obviously read Eber Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed, who brought up some common criticisms of Mormonism and the Book of Mormon which the Mormon missionary/apologist couldn’t seem to answer. Interestingly enough, the criticisms our skeptic brought up are the same criticisms skeptics bring up today when discussing the Book of Mormon, showing that there really are fundamental issues with the truth claims of Mormonism. After the historical timeline, we had on Mike who put together an armchair statistical assessment of Utah vs. Norway to find out which is closest to getting voiped up to heaven due to perfect righteousness by Mormon standards.

That’ll fill our loins with enough milk to get us by, let’s partake of the meat.

Nauvoo was a hotbed for speculators. The Mormons had a golden opportunity to turn Nauvoo into a sprawling metropolis with unrivaled access to the largest shipping river in the United States and realize an incredible potential to become the next biggest manufacturing center in the state of Illinois. Add into that the fact that Nauvoo was surrounded by fertile farmland to sustain the population and a bunch of land speculators had Nauvoo slated as the next Chicago with the massive influx of Mormon population, and a lot of people had a realistic optimism for the future of the city. For comparison, the population of Chicago on the 1840 census was just under 4.5k, whereas Nauvoo ticked in at a cool 2.5k. Nauvoo briefly surpassed Chicago in population with the influx of Mormon refugees climbing that population to around 12-15k by 1845, but by 1850, the census put Nauvoo at only 1,200 inhabitants, less than 10% of its peak.

Those people who had high expectations of Nauvoo’s trajectory weren’t crazy to be optimistic when we look at strictly the population statistics. Nauvoo and Chicago were duking it out for most populous city in Illinois during the first half of 1840, and with all the attractive attributes of the city, it was hard not to see things in a falsely positive light.

So what happened? Why did Chicago build at a steady rate teeming at over 2.5 mn on the 2010 census, whereas Nauvoo sits at a barely sustainable 1,100 today? How did one city become the central hub and the other fall away into obscurity as nothing more than a tourist destination for Mormon history geeks like myself?

There really is no single simple answer to those questions, it’s a multifaceted cascade of economic and social circumstances which caused Nauvoo’s volatile single boom and bust in a single decade’s time.

The main reason the Mormons were driven from Missouri and forced to settled in Illinois and Iowa in the first place was due to their warlike solutions to Mormon poverty. When the Mormons couldn’t afford to buy enough food to hunker down through the winter of 1838-9 in Missouri, they solved that problem by looting the gentile’s property in the areas surrounding the Mormon settlements. In the modern era, a group of people with enough resources to survive usually don’t just go commit random burning and pillaging just for the hell of it, the Mormons needed food and supplies to survive so they went and took them by force. The perpetual state of poverty Jo had run the Mormons and the church at large into wasn’t an easy hole to dig themselves out of, and that state of poverty was a dark cloud overhanging the Mormons every moment during the struggling first years of the Nauvoo settlement. So, the Mormons beginning their settlement efforts were already running in the red, and they constructed their settlements on top of an ever-growing mountain of debt.

As much effort as they devoted to building up the city’s economy and manufacturing, there are always economic pressures people can’t control. I offer an example I learned from a presentation at the JWHA conference which really shed light on how impotent the Mormons were in influencing the tides and forces of the larger economy, regardless of how much diligence and hope they put into building up Nauvoo as a central trading district.

At the conference, a man named Mark Goodmansen presented on the land speculation in and around Nauvoo and included some interesting information about Francis Scott Key’s affiliation with the Mormons and land speculators as a renowned lawyer. Included in Mr. Goodmansen’s presentation was an interesting tidbit which really informed us on just how much people aren’t in control of economics as much as they wish they were. He talked a bit about a town just south of Nauvoo called Warsaw, from which the Warsaw Signal, edited and published by Thomas Sharp, was distributed. Warsaw was a quaint little town with a booming economy right on the banks of the Mississippi. Warsaw’s economy was great during the 1840s, and here’s why. During the low-river season, shipping boats were forced to dock in Warsaw and unload their cargo where it was to be shipped some 30 miles down the river where they would pick the cargo back up and continue their voyage down the river. During the low-river season, the Mississippi was too shallow and the boats would be damaged if they didn’t unload. So, during this season, Warsaw was the town where shippers and seamen would spend a few days sleeping, eating, shopping, doing all the things that boost a town’s economy, which was the lifeblood of the town, creating all the jobs necessary to support these shippers and their bad habits. Goodmansen went on to discuss the construction and completion of a canal which routed boats down river during low-river season, making it so they didn’t need to dock in Warsaw and unload their cargo and do all the things necessary to keep Warsaw a booming little shipping town with tons of jobs. This canal completely starved out Warsaw, Illinois and by the 1890s jobs were very scarce and the Warsaw economy was only barely self-sustaining as there was no tourist appeal, no major factories, no major farming operations, or anything to keep the town going.

The point is, the completion of this canal to circumvent Warsaw was something unforeseen and out of the control of the inhabitants of the city, but they suffered irreparable economic decline from it. Once those jobs to sustain Warsaw as a shipping port were gone, they weren’t ever coming back. The Mormons in Nauvoo were in a similar boat, there were a number of economic factors out of their control which had profound impacts. One of the reasons Chicago gathered strength instead of Nauvoo, when they were so closely competing for business and settlement, was simply due to its location. Nauvoo was on the very edge of the western area inhabited by European settlers. Most of the land further west beyond Nauvoo was still first-nationer land, whereas Chicago was closer to the rest of the European major hubs, and easily accessible as a central trading hub on the banks of lake Michigan with quick access to every other major city located on the banks of any of the great lakes. That was a factor completely out of control of the Mormons, a problem to which they had no solution, and likely were ignorant of.

Given Nauvoo’s fatal flaws they didn’t have control over, the Mormons had to make it as appealing as possible with the few things they could control. The only thing they had final say and near total control over was the land market. The Mormons had enough problem with counterfeit money crashing their local economy, so land speculation became the new trade option for bartering and making work happen. When Jo didn’t have money to give somebody for a specific good or service, he would promise them land he’d purchased on credit in payment for said good or service. This lead to horrifically volatile land prices because Jo might pay one guy an acre for a couple bushels of corn and another guy would be paid an acre for a few weeks’ worth of working construction for the church. There was no overseeing body or committee who were supposed to control the volatility, nor did anybody with an education or background in economics serve as advisor to the prophet. Jo was in control of everything and was trustee-in-trust of all church assets and monetary affairs. Very early into the Nauvoo years, Jo made an utter and complete mess of things, keeping terrible records, not recording his debts and assets with any reliable system, and having no standardized value for acreage.

Thing is, Jo realized he was creating a mess of things, and at some point didn’t want to be the church’s money guy anymore. This is from Robert Flanders’ “Nauvoo, Kingdom on the Mississippi,” beginning with page 121:

“On June 18, 1840, the Prophet asked the High Council to relieve him from his responsibility as chief land agent because the burden was heavy and he needed more time for other activities. He rehearsed the necessity for the original purchase of Hancock and Lee County lands, for which ‘your Memorialist had to become responsible for the payment of the same, and had to use considerable exertion in order to commence a settlement. . . Under the then existing circumstances your memorialist had necessarily to engage in the temporalities of the Church…’ But the spiritual needs of the church were now pressing. He wanted to pursue his inspired revision of the Bible and to translate some Egyptian parchments he considered of import. Furthermore he wished to be free to ‘wait upon the Lord for such revelations as may be suited to the conditions and circumstances of the Church.

(Now from the History of the Church in Flanders’ book)

‘And in order that he may be enabled to attend to those things, he prays your honorable body will relieve him from the anxiety and trouble necessarily attendant on business transactions, by appointing someone to take charge of the city plot…’

The High Council considered his request but failed to do more than to give him another salesman. The Prophet responded with an irritated veto of the action. The Council, though chastened, remained insistent that Smith not resign the temporal responsibilities since no one else was willing or able to assume them. They were in perfect accord with the spirit and intent of his request. They thought it ‘wise’ and ‘appropriate,’ and they would try to give him more help; but, they said, ‘as he is held responsible for the payment of the city plot, and knowing no way to relieve him from the responsibility at present, we would request of him to act as treasurer for the city plot and to whom those persons whom we may appoint to make sales of lots and attend to the business affairs of the Church may be at all times responsible….’”

By mid-1840, Jo knew how much of a tangled web Nauvoo finances were and was trying to pass his own monetary problems off to the High Council. They knew just as much as he did that nothing was in order and all debts assumed by the Church were essentially Jo’s own debts in his own name so they didn’t want to get anywhere near the finances. Debt in Nauvoo was plutonium and anyone who got anywhere near it would find their finances slowly decaying from its cancerous effects. But the problem was, nobody wasn’t infected. Every single Mormon who settled in Nauvoo did so by buying land from Jo which he’d purchased from people like White, Hotchkiss, and Galland, and Jo just passed that debt on to whomever purchased the land from him. This is how many congregations of people are built, but it’s only done successfully when there are controlling measures put into place, Jo had no control of the land market even though he was the chief sole investor.

To describe just how much of a mess Jo was making, allow me to read another paragraph from Flanders’ Nauvoo Kingdom on the Mississippi. Essentially, Jo was making a ton of business transactions, but often wasn’t worrying about all that bothersome paperwork to make things official, just a gentleman’s handshake agreement and maybe a signed bill of sale with the one true prophet was enough to allay most people’s concerns.

“The Prophet continued to purchase land. In October, 1840, he bought eighty acres of farmland twelve miles south of the city for $2,000; in March, 1842, he offered $2,000 for twenty acres in Nauvoo yet unowned by the Church. In March, 1841, he purchased from his secretary, Robert Thompson, fifty lots in Nauvoo for $10,000. The following July, Thompson sold Emma Smith 123 acres in the south edge of Nauvoo for $4,000. Mrs. Smith might have been proxy or agent for her husband in this transaction. To what extent Smith was acting as a private entrepreneur in these purchases it is impossible to know. At least at first he considered his fortunes intimately connected with those of the Church; the device of Trustee was only a necessary legal convention. The county records are not a reliable guide to the extent of his dealings; many transactions were not recorded there until after his death, and many were never recorded there at all.”

Jo always had a hard time keeping church and secular matters separated, some would argue he actively intermingled the two even when doing so was not his best option. When it came to land speculation, the status of Prophet was about the only thing that lent any credit to Jo, otherwise he was just a dude who never paid his debts. If not for his status as prophet, the people making deals with him likely would have been slightly more skeptical and may not have extended tens of thousands of dollars of credit to him.

Because Jo had no sense for economics and wasn’t a good deal maker, his agreements to purchase land at exorbitant prices drove land prices to incredible highs. Think of it in terms of stock with some simple math. If a company exists with 500 shares owned by 100 people and one person decides they want to buy up all the shares, the price of the stock is going to skyrocket and anybody else trying to buy the stock will be priced out. Nauvoo land was the physical stock owned by the church, and Jo was buying up all the land he could in areas around Nauvoo which created this massive inflation bubble. The White and Galland purchases were a few of the largest contracts Jo signed in acquiring land for the Saints, but the Hotchkiss and Gillet purchase really captured this problem of drastic inflation which made buying land for the average Mormon completely impossible to be done with regular specie, so credit was extended to them by Jo who was operating on nothing but credit.

From pg 42 of Flanders’ Nauvoo book:

“The ‘Hotchkiss Purchase’ was for Smith and the Church the greatest business venture since the Kirtland Bank. Hotchkiss apparently knew a city when he saw one coming upon his property; accordingly the price was high, considering the approaching deflation and monetary stringency. The purchase was in the form of a land contract, the Church to have possession of the property but not the deeds until the debt was paid. Apparently no money was paid down, and the terms were entailed in a series of notes. Two notes of $25,000, one maturing in ten and one in twenty years, seem to have been the principle. There were forty additional notes of $1,500 each (totaling $60,000) two of which were due every twelve months for twenty years. These were apparently the interest: eight percent a year simple interest on $50,000. There were two additional notes of $1,250, one due in five years and the other in ten. So the Church was to pay the Hotchkiss partners $3,000 each year for twenty years, plus $1,250 the fifth year, $26,250 the tenth year, and $25,000 the twentieth year. Finally an additional $2,000 was to be paid Hugh White, who owned a small interest in the property. The total amount was $114,500 ($3.03mn 2016). Smith subsequently claimed that Hotchkiss had agreed verbally that no interest was to be charged, but the contracts do not suggest any such agreement. The obligations of the Hotchkiss Purchase forced Smith and the Church into the real-estate business on a large scale and determined that city lots in Nauvoo would not be inexpensive.”

For some added context, at this time the average price for land was between $2.50-13 per acre nationwide with a 1957 study on putting the average price of improved land at $11/acre. The price varied widely depending on geography and a few other factors including how improved the land was and how close it was to major trading hubs, but Commerce was uninhabited swampland when the Mormons purchased it and nearly 150 miles from the next biggest trading hub, probably fetching a fair market value on the low end of that scale, maybe between $5-7 per acre. If we calculate it out, with the Hotchkiss purchase, the divinely inspired Prophet Joseph Smith agreed to pay around $229 per acre. He paid around 32 times the expected market value at most generous estimates. Even if we’re as generous as possible by comparing Nauvoo land prices to the most desirable land in the country like improved land in New York city or something, Jo still paid over 20 times the fair market value of improved land for the Hotchkiss purchase.

The worst part about all of this was Jo was only a middleman with his name on the contracts. The real suffering from this criminal level of land speculation was shouldered by the Mormons themselves who were buying the land from Jo at these prices. Jo couldn’t sell the land to the Mormon refugees at the nationwide market value because he’d be shouldering huge losses and wouldn’t be able to fulfill the signed contracts. But none of the Mormons could afford these prices, it just couldn’t be done. That’s where Jo used land to buy labor and goods from the settling Mormons. You gave the prophet some food or livestock or you helped him build a few houses, you got a small plot of land, and Jo went even further into debt as he was giving these land assets away with no cash in hand exchanged. This business method of chaos and pandemonium was short-sighted at best and vindictive at worst.

The desperate situation of the Mormons drew in the worst people with intentions of making money regardless of the consequences. The Mormons were not only vulnerable prey to these kinds of people, they were led by one of them. I guess there’s nothing like a little bit of human suffering to bring out the worst in people. But really, what was the alternative? White, Galland, Hotchkiss, Gillet, all of these land speculators did reprehensible things capitalizing on the Mormons’ desperation and suffering, and Jo was just as deplorable for doing the same, but at least Jo’s actions are excusable because he was just as desperate as each and every Mormon without a home. Jo made rash decisions without any foresight in an effort to save the Mormon population, but that was desperation, not altruism, which is perfectly captured when we see Jo doing stuff like this from 120 of Flanders’ Kingdom on the Mississippi:

“Smith’s most extensive holdings were in the neighborhood of his own residence, near the river bank at the corner of Main and Water Streets on the south side of the flat. His general merchandise store, which also housed his office, was nearby, as well as the Nauvoo House hotel, the Times and Seasons office, the houses of several Apostles, and, in 1843, his Nauvoo Mansion hotel. Lots in the area were in demand, and it was the earliest and most completely developed part of the lower town. ‘On the south,’ said an observer late in 1841, ‘the lots are mostly taken, and a great share of the improvements seem to be bestowed on this part of the city.’”

Jo improved the area around his own house on Water street very first. If he was indeed the altruistic prophet for the people he claimed to be, he would be living in a shack until every other Mormon had a brick home, but he did the exact opposite. He knew what was going on too. He knew he was speculating on land values and the people knew it just as much as him. These business deals may have been sold as divine providence, but anybody with a brain in their skull knew Jo was speculating on land and these land speculators from which he was purchasing the land were largely setting Nauvoo’s economic trajectory on a disaster path.

From later in Flanders’ book:

“There were strong feelings in the Church against speculators and speculation, a common American antagonism heightened in the case of the Mormons because so many had been hurt by the bursting of the Kirtland bubble. Yet it is impossible to conceive of the Nauvoo land business as being free of speculation. Nauvoo was by definition a speculation, if not for private, then for community gain. Professional speculators would have slipped past armed patrols to reach Nauvoo. Attracted by its spectacular growth, many of these professional speculators joined the Church, and some were accorded the land as profiting the common good: “Suppose I sell some land for ten dollars an acre, and I gave three, four, or five dollars per acre; then some persons may cry out ‘you are speculating;’ Yes, I will tell them: I buy other lands and give them to the widow and the fatherless. If the speculators run against me, they run against the buckles of Jehovah.’”

That last quoted bit was from Jo himself included in volume 5 of the History of the Church. We can harbor no illusions that the Mormons didn’t know how this land came into their possession. Flanders makes a good case for Nauvoo itself being pure speculation, coupled with the fact that the town didn’t have any appeal other than its own rapid population growth, Nauvoo was an inflating bubble set to implode upon the Mormons in a much more spectacular and cataclysmic fashion than anything that happened with the Kirtland Safety Society anti-Bank-ing Company.

I was recently watching a few lectures given by Susan Easton Black at BYU about Joseph Smith and the history of the church. For those of you who haven’t heard the name Susan Black before, she’s a prominent Mormon historian/Joseph Smith apologist. She wrote Who’s Who in the D&C, the 4 different 400 questions books, Finding Christ through the BoM, and over 100 other publications published by the church-owned propaganda company, Deseret Book, and she used to be a BYU professor before retiring to serve a mission in the Nauvoo Temple where she still resides, or at least that was the last updated information I could find on her without diving too deep. Anyway, I would recommend watching a video or two of her lectures, there’s a few in the show notes should it tickle your fancy. If you know Mormon history, you’ll notice that she tends to leave out the majority of actual church history which puts things into context. When we had Cognitive Dissonance on last episode, Cecil asked how many Mormons know some of that stuff about Joseph Smith and my answer was almost none. You wonder why that is, because people like Susan Easton Black and Rod Meldrum know the real history and are only telling parts of it which could be spun to show the Mormons and Joseph Smith as victims of religious persecution.

Black hits on the high points of church history, Jo’s leg operation, Kirtland temple, KSS company, exodus to Missouri, Haun’s Mill Massacre, exodus to Illinois, and Carthage martyrdom, but every single one of those points requires hours of getting lost in the weeds of church history to truly understand and she chalks everything up to religious persecution. When I see the Saints going through these various trials and tribulations, the religion of Mormonism is such a fleeting aspect of everything that happened to the Mormons. There’s a naturalistic and material explanation for everything the Mormons suffered. Joseph Smith wasn’t a prophet, he was just a dude looking out for his own dude self-interests. Anyone who tries to sell what the Mormons experienced as wholly religious persecution is either ignorant or dishonest, and real historians should have no use for this vacuous nonsense.

Normally a dude like Jo just doing his dude thing isn’t a problem for anybody but the few people around him, but Jo was a massively public figure with one of the largest single religious followings in America at the time and everything he did in the 1840s effected thousands of people directly and tens of thousands indirectly and these terrible business deals are only one overturned car among a decade and a half long trainwreck of terrible mistakes and ruin left in his wake. Anytime we find historians painting a perfect picture of Jo, removing any smudges or blemishes on his history, they are harming honest discourse and damning a fruitful and academic conversation before it starts.

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