Ep 143 – Kinderhoax Plates

On this episode, Joseph Smith is a fraud. We discuss two occurrences in Nauvoo which prove that Jo didn’t have access to any knowledge that people of his day did. First is the Greek Psalter incident where a guy proved that Jo had no idea what language was on the parchment. After that is the entirety of the Kinderhook Plates incident, which proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jo unabashedly knew he was a fraud. These incidents, coupled with the Book of Abraham in early 1842, reveal Jo to be the liar he was.


Henry Caswell “Three Days At Nauvoo” Greek Psalter expose

Greek Psalter MormonThink article

Henry Caswell: Anti-Mormon Extraordinaire

Hugh Nibley The Myth Makers (1961)

May 30, 1843 New York Herald signed “A Gentile”

Kinderhook Plates FAIRMormon article

Kinderhook Plates MormonThink Article

Improvement Era Aug 1961

1981 Kinderhook Plate LDS.org article

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Haters gunna hate! People will often say that as a defense against criticism, regardless of whether or not the criticism is founded. There is some criticism that isn’t worth engaging, hecklers, trolls, people who are just trying to make your life harder for the sake of dragging somebody into a similar state of misery that they’re experiencing. In those cases, sure, haters gunna hate.

However, there are legitimate criticisms that people in the public eye will have lobbed at them which are quickly dismissed with that throw-away line when they should be heeded. If you’re a dick and refuse to accept that fact, when people call you out on being a total dick and you ignore their criticisms by saying haters gunna hate, you loop those people with legitimate criticisms in with people who are just being annoying, and suddenly the baby and the bath water are out the window.

Even though criticisms can be couched in a detrimental or destructive fashion, if there’s a nugget of truth at the foundation of a criticism, it should be considered. A person in the public eye will always draw critics, but critics are the people who point out when something is awry.

If not for critical scholarship, Jo’s 1842 account of the first vision would be the agreed-upon historical truth. Through critical scholarship, as many as 7 previous accounts have surfaced revealing many inconsistencies among the narratives. Critical scholarship has revealed that the Book of Mormon simply cannot be reconciled with every field of science. Critical scholarship has shown that the Book of Abraham was, indeed, translated from the surviving Egyptian Papyri and was by no means a “translation,” so much as a fabrication. These are all criticisms of Joseph Smith that he would never listen to in his lifetime and many people refuse to listen to today, but they’re all important. Critical examinations of subjects and objects leads us closer to the truths which underpin such concepts.

Joseph Smith was prominent in the public light and drew criticism from many angles; criticism which was often well founded and couldn’t be excused by haters gunna hate. However, apologists today still defend against such criticisms like sycophants in a depraved cult of personality. Today we’ll be discussing a few examples of contemporary criticisms against Jo that completely shattered any claim he had to being a prophet of God or scholar of any yet-to-be-deciphered languages by the power of God.

A contemporary critic of Joseph Smith named Henry Caswell picked up a copy of the March 1842 Times and Seasons, in which was printed the Book of Abraham and the facsimiles from which the Book of Abraham was supposedly translated. Henry Caswell, a professor and reverend, donned the clothing of the plebian and embarked upon a journey to Nauvoo with hopes of giving a sketch of the place, meeting the prophet, and possibly proving him to be an imposter, all in one trip. It was ambitious, but Henry Caswell was not a man to shy away from revealing religious imposters for who they truly were. As a result of his visit, he published a short pamphlet in 1842, which was revised and expanded into a second edition in 1843. Here’s a brief reading from the introduction, you’ll find the entire pamphlet in the show notes should you care to read it yourself.

THE following narrative, the result of a few weeks' leisure on shipboard, is again presented to the public, with a deep sense, on the Author's part, of the iniquity of an imposture, which, under the name of religion, is spreading extensively in America and in Great Britain. Mormonism needs but to be seen in its true light to be hated; and if the following pages, consisting almost exclusively of the personal testimony of the Author, should assist in awakening indignation against a cruel delusion and a preposterous heresy, he will consider himself amply rewarded. 

Henry Caswell had on his person a copy of a Greek Psalter. A Psalter is a Greek manuscript of a Psalm of the Bible. The one Caswell had with him he estimated to be from about the 1200s C.E. Caswell apparently attempted to lure Jo into a little trap using this Greek Psalter. He appropriated an oft-repeated line by Mormons today, spoken by Joseph Smith himself on many occasions.

They were, however, bent upon completing the journey which they had designed, and although they civilly listened to my statements, they professed to be guided in reference to Mormonism by that perverted precept of Scripture; “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.”

From this moment I determined to visit the stronghold of the new religion, and to obtain, if possible, an interview with the prophet himself… In order to test the scholarship of the prophet, I had further provided myself with an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalter written upon parchment, and probably about six hundred years old.

The day Caswell arrived, he attended a meeting at the temple construction site. He recounts what was preached on some makeshift platforms, but it’s not terribly important. He spent the day touring the city and mingling with various Mormons. The next day he made his way to Joseph’s newly-opened Red Brick Store and inquired of the shopkeeper, probably Newell K. Whitney, of the whereabouts of the prophet. Here’s how he relates the interaction from page 20-21 of his expose.

Perceiving a respectable-looking store (or shop), I entered it, and began to converse with the storekeeper. I mentioned that I had been informed that Mr. Smith possessed some remarkable Egyptian curiosities, which I wished to see. I added that, if Mr. Smith could be induced to show me his treasures, I would show him in return a very wonderful book which had lately come into my possession. The storekeeper informed me that Mr. Smith was absent, having gone to Carthage that morning; but that he would return about nine o'clock in the evening. He promised to obtain for me admission to the curiosities, and begged to be permitted to see the wonderful book. I accordingly unfolded it from the many wrappers in which I had enveloped it, and, in the presence of the storekeeper and many astonished spectators, whom the rumour of the arrival of a strange book had collected, I produced to view its covers of worm-eaten oak, its discoloured parchments, and its mysterious characters. Surprise was depicted on the countenances of all present, and, after a long silence, one person wiser than his fellows, declared that he knew it to be a revelation from the Lord, and that probably it was one of the lost books of the Bible providentially recovered. Looking at me with a patronizing air, he assured me that I had brought it to the right place to get it interpreted, for that none on earth but the Lord's Prophet could explain it, or unfold its real antiquity and value. "Oh," I replied, "I am going to England next week, and doubtless I shall find some learned man in one of the universities who can expound it." To this he answered with a sneer, that the Lord had chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty; that he had made foolish the wisdom of this world; and that I ought to thank Providence for having brought me to Nauvoo, where the hidden things of darkness could be revealed by divine power. All expressed the utmost anxiety that I should remain in the city until the prophet's return.

Caswell tarried in the city until Jo returned. Once again, the most-likely reason for Caswell coming to Nauvoo with the Psalter in the first place was due to the Book of Abraham being published barely a month prior to his trip. Caswell was one of the supposed learned men that the Lord had sent the weak farmer boy, Joseph Smith, to confound, and the people of Nauvoo were expressly confident in the prophet’s abilities to translate that which mortal minds could not know. It seems, from the way Caswell reported it, that he was retaining his cover of being there for the sole purpose of exposing the prophet to be a fraud, and as an outsider was met with this sanctimonious defiance that he would even suggest that learned people might know more than these people’s precious prophet. Caswell was finally granted an audience with Jo, and this is how he relates their short interaction and it is simply delightful.

As I advanced with my [Psalter] book in my hand, numerous Mormons came forth from their dwellings, begging to be allowed to see its mysterious pages; and by the time I arrived at the prophet's house, they amounted almost to a crowd. I met Joseph Smith at a short distance from his dwelling, and was regularly introduced to him by the storekeeper. I had the honour of an interview with him who is a Prophet, a Seer, a Merchant, a "Revelator," a President, an Elder, an Editor, and the Lieutenant-General of the "Nauvoo Legion." He is a coarse, plebeian, sensual person in aspect, and his countenance exhibits a curious mixture of the knave and the clown. His hands are large and fat, and on one of his fingers he wears a massive gold ring, upon which I saw an inscription. His eyes appear deficient in that open and straightforward expression which often characterizes an honest man. His dress was of coarse country manufacture, and his white hat was enveloped by a piece of black crape as a sign of mourning for his deceased brother, Don Carlos Smith, the late editor of the "Times and Seasons." His age is about 1 thirty-seven. He led the way to his house, accompanied by many elders, preachers, and other Mormon dignitaries. On entering the house, chairs were provided for the prophet and myself, while the curious and gaping spectators remained standing. 2 I handed the book to the prophet, and begged him to explain its contents. He asked me if I had any idea of its meaning. I replied, that I believed it to be a Greek Psalter; but that I should like to hear his opinion. "No he said; "it ain't Greek at all, except, perhaps, a few words. What ain't Greek, is Egyptian; and what ain't Egyptian, is Greek. This book is very valuable. It is a dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said: Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics; and them which follows, is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates." Upon this, the Mormons around began to congratulate me on the information I was receiving. "There," they said; "we told you so -- we told you that our prophet would give you satisfaction. None but our prophet can explain these mysteries." The prophet now turned to me, and said, "This book ain't of no use to you, you don't understand it." "Oh yes," I replied; "it is of some use; for if I were in want of money, I could sell it for something handsome." "But what will you sell it for?" said the prophet and his dignitaries. "My price," I answered, "is higher than you would be willing to give." "What price is that?" they eagerly demanded. I replied, that I would not sell it to them for many hundred dollars. They then repeated their request that I should lend it to them until the prophet should have time to translate it, and promised me the most ample security; but I declined all their proposals. I placed the book in several envelopes, and as I deliberately tied knot after knot, the countenances of several among them gradually sunk into an expression of great despondency. Having exhibited the book to the prophet, I requested him in return to show me his papyrus, and to give me his own explanation, which I had hitherto received only at second hand. He proceeded with me to his office, accompanied by the multitude. He produced the glass frames which I had seen on the previous day; but he did not appear very forward to explain the figures. I pointed to a particular hieroglyphic, and requested him to expound its meaning. No answer being returned, I looked up, and behold! the prophet had disappeared. The Mormons told me that he had just stepped out, and would probably soon return. I waited some time, but in vain: and at length descended to the street in front of the store. Here I heard the noise of wheels, and presently I saw the prophet in a light waggon, flourishing his whip and driving away as fast as two fine horses could draw him. As he disappeared from view, enveloped in a cloud of dust, I felt that I had turned over another page in the great book of human nature.

This is an incident in Mormon history that is lesser-known than many others, but still quite interesting. Understandably, because this incident clearly reveals Jo to be the fraud he was, apologists have been forced to deal with this incident in some interesting ways from attacking Caswell’s character, to claiming he fabricated everything, to taking issue with Caswell’s description of Jo’s look and conduct because it’s not how they view their prophet. Hugh Nibley, the foremost Mormon apologist of the 20th century, devoted pages 191-287 of his 1961 book The Myth Makers to a fictional interview between himself and Caswell. Kinda like I did with episode 3 of the Mark Hofmann series, but Nibley’s book spends over 1/3rd of the pages on this interview where he creates a text-book straw-man of Caswell and repeatedly tears it down.

Even the Times and Seasons in Oct 1843 reported on the incident. At the time, White-out Willard Richards and John Taylor were the editors, both are known for twisting or omitting facts to sell their own narrative. Here’s a quick extract:


It will be recollected by some, that a Mr. Caswell, professing to be an Episcopal minister, came to this city some twelve or eighteen months ago. He had with him an old manuscript, professing to be ignorant of its contents, and came to Joseph Smith, as he said, for the purpose of having it translated. Mr. Smith had a little conversation with him and treated him with civility, but as the gentleman seemed very much afraid of his document, he declined having any thing to do with it.

The entire article is about how Caswell had earned a position as a curator of the English Church, thus the title of Reward of Merit. It’s all couched in the idea of a person reaping the rewards of the world for assailing the one true gospel in a public forum.

Thus as a reward of merit for publishing detraction and falsehoods already concocted, and adding a very splendid edition of his own, he has proven himself worthy of being exalted to the honor of bearing the sacerdotal robes, and of being raised to the very high and dignified office of curate (!!!!) in the English church. He has truly gained himself unfading laurels, and by continuing in well doing, and assisting some of the Rev. blackguards, whom the church of England have employed in England to abuse the Mormons, he may perhaps gain further honors.

After Caswell’s interaction with Jo and Jo quickly fleeing the scene of his own stupidity, Caswell approached Willard Richards about the scenario, to which White-out Willard said, “sometimes Mr. Smith speaks as a prophet, and sometimes as a mere man.”

Needless to say, this interaction certainly makes Jo look quite foolish. If he was this quick to jump to his own conclusions about the parchment and pronounce his conclusions as truth, how could anybody trust him with any of his other supposed or claimed “translations”? If he misidentified not only the content of the parchment, but even misidentified the well-studied language on the parchment, how could any of his other translations be trusted? I looked for a gospel topics essay on this interaction but it doesn’t exist. FAIRMormon has an essay about it, but they simply repeat the same ad hominem attacks and question Caswell’s motivations, never dealing with the substance of the interaction that makes the expose so insightful and revealing.

The entire expose is interesting and I’d recommend giving it a read through if you’re interested. It’s just worth noting that the only reason Caswell even travelled to Nauvoo in the first place was to meet a person who had made some truly incredible and falsifiable claims which Caswell wanted to investigate. Jo was in the public eye and rightfully drew criticism from people when he would spout off on things he knew nothing about. Haters gunna hate offers no refuge for this interaction, but that doesn’t stop polemics from making those arguments.

The Caswell Greek Psalter incident happened in April of 1842, but our timeline is currently resting in spring of 1843. So, why was this relevant? Well, Jo was drawing increased criticism and hate from the rest of the world with his growing political and theocratic power, which the world was becoming very well-acquainted with as a result of Wreck-it Bennett’s expose published at the very end of 42.

Here enters a man named Wilbur Fugate and his two friends, Robert Wiley and Bridge Whitton. These guys were 3 jolly gents living in a town near Nauvoo called Kinderhook, Illinois, right near Quincy where the saints first settled after the Missouri exodus. Similar to Caswell, these guys devised a plan to lure Jo into a trap to make him look a fool. However, these three weren’t satisfied with presenting a simple Greek Psalter to the self-proclaimed prophet and seeing what happened, they took it to the next level.

Wilbur Fugate had some level of metallurgical expertise. He, along with Wiley and Whitton made a set of six plates and used some chemicals to etch them, making them appear ancient to untrained eyes. On April 16, 1843, they put their plan into play, and this is how it’s reported in the Vogel History of the Church 5:395. I’ll read a long excerpt so you know what it is we’re talking about here.

I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. Robert Wiley and others, while excavating a large mound. They 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.

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.

I quote the following editorial from the Times and Seasons:-


Circumstances are daily transpiring which give additional testimony to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. A few years ago, although supported by indubitable, unimpeachable testimony, it was looked upon in the same light by the world in general, and by the religious world in particular, as the expedition of Columbus to this continent was by the different courts that he visited, and laid his project before. The literati looked upon his expedition as wild and visionary, they suspected very much the integrity of his pretensions, and looked upon him-to say the least-as a fool, for entertaining such wild and visionary views. The royal courts aided by geographers, thought it was impossible that another continent should or could exist; and they were assisted in their views by the learned clergy, who, to put the matter beyond all doubt, stated that it was contrary to Scripture; that the apostles preached to all the world, and that as they did not came to America, it was impossible that there should be any such place. Thus at variance with the opinions of the great, in opposition to science and religion, he set sail, and actually came to America; it was no dream, no fiction; but a solid reality; and however unphilosophical and infidel the notion might be, men had to believe it; and it was soon found out that it would agree both with religion and philosophy.

So when the Book of Mormon first made its appearance among men, it was looked upon by many as a wild speculation, and that it was dangerous to the interest and happiness of the religious world. But when it was found to teach virtue, honesty, integrity, and pure religion, this objection was laid aside as being untenable.

We were then told that the inhabitants of this continent were and always had been a rude, barbarous race, uncouth, unlettered, and without civilization. But when they were told of the various relics that have been found indicative of civilization, intelligence, and learning,- when they were told of the wealth, architecture, and splendor of ancient Mexico,- when recent developments proved beyond a doubt that there are ancient ruins in Central America, which, in point of magnificence, beauty, strength, and architectural design, vie with any of the most splendid ruins on the Asiatic Continent,-when they could trace the fine delineations of the sculptor's chisel on the beautiful statue, the mysterious hieroglyphic, and the unknown character, they began to believe that a wise, powerful, intelligent, and scientific race had inhabited this continent; but still it was improbable-nay almost impossible, notwithstanding the testimony of history to the contrary, that anything like plates could have been used anciently, particularly among this people.

The following letter and certificate will perhaps have a tendency to convince the skeptical that such things have been used and that even the obnoxious Book of Mormon may be true. And as the people in Columbus' day were obliged to believe that there was such a place as America, so will the people in this day be obliged to believe, however reluctantly, that there may have been such plates as those from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

Mr. Smith has had those plates, what his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained. The gentleman that owns them has taken them away, or we should have given a fac-simile of the plates and characters in this number. We are informed however, that he purposes returning with them for translation, if so, we may be able yet to furnish our readers with it.

It will be seen by the annexed statement of the Quincy Whig, that there are more dreamers and money-diggers than Joseph Smith in the world; and the worthy editor is obliged to acknowledge that this circumstance will go a good way to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

He further states that "if Joseph 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 living." We think that he has done that already in translating and publishing the Book of Mormon, and would advise the gentleman and all interested to read for themselves and understand. We have no doubt, however, but Mr. Smith will be able to translate them.

If you’ve read the CES letter or any biography of Joseph Smith, chances are that the Kinderhook plates have come across your path. The Kinderhook plates and the Greek Psalter incidents combined together so soon after the Book of Abraham was published, supposedly translated from the Egyptian papyri; these three items in Mormon history happening in the span of one year prove Joseph Smith to be an unabashed fraud.

People at the time knew what was happening. What’s really incredible about the release of this in the Times and Seasons is other news outlets picked up on the gag long before any Mormons had. Included in the discovery was a written statement signed by 9 men who certified the authenticity of the unearthed treasure.

“We, the citizens of Kinderhook, whose names are annexed, do certify and declare that, on the 23rd of 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 moldered into dust on a slight pressure. The above described plates we have handed to Mr. Sharp for the purposes of taking them to Nauvoo.

Robert Wiley; W.P. Harris; F.W.F. Ward; W. Longnecker; Fayette Grubb; Ira S. Curtis; Geo. Deckenson; W. Fugate; J.R. Sharp

What more do you need to know that something from the 19th-century is authentic than 9 guys signing their names to a piece of paper claiming that it’s authentic? I couldn’t be more convinced if the entire Fugate clan had signed the paper.

Immediately people made hay with this. The Quincy Whig, a paper which started out friendly to the Mormons when they were first settling in Quincy, but had shifted tone largely because of the 1842 election, published an article that is absolutely incredible. The title alone reveals the tongue-in-cheek nature of the article, but here it is, right in the History of the Church, with some minor edits, in vol 5 page 398:


A Mr. J. Roberts of 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 were 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 center of a mound.

Finding it quite laborious, he invited others to assist him. 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 eleven feet, they 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 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 inscriptions 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 running lengthways.

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. A person present when the plates were found 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. There were but few bones found; and it is believed that it was but the burial-place of a person or 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 anything about this wonderful discovery, as it is one which the plates alone can reveal.

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.

The plates remained in Nauvoo for quite some time. On the 7th of May we find this entry where Jo began his work translating the contents of the plates.

Sunday, 7.—In the forenoon I was visited by several gentlemen, concerning the plates which were dug out [of] a mound near Kinderhook. Sent by W[illia]m Smith to the office for Hebrew Bible and Lexicon.

June 24, 1843, the Nauvoo Neighbor, the rebranded Wasp after John Taylor took it over from William Smith, printed facsimiles of the 6 plates and you can see them to this day if you follow the links in the show notes. As per the description, they’re 6 bell-shaped plates with engravings. The engravings, however, are not a recognizable language. The creator, Wilbur Fugate, was deliberate in not betraying the source of the engravings. It’s notable that some of them bear resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyphics that were printed as the Book of Abraham translation, but none of the engravings look exactly like the authentic ancient Egyptian. Fugate did a good job in scratching symbols that look authentically ancient, but aren’t from any single source other than his own mind.

It’s important to note that Jo claimed he was commencing the translation of the plates. The original Times and Seasons report included in the History of the Church says that “President Joseph 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 through the ruler of heaven and earth.”

Let’s unpack that a little bit because it introduces points where apologists are able to mentally pretzel their way out of the issue. First, this entry wasn’t written by Joseph Smith, rather it was in the Nauvoo journal of his scribe at the time, William Clayton. When the History of the Church was compiled they made everything in Joseph’s first-person perspective even though the sources for the history came from dozens of journals and letters not in Jo’s hand. That allows a loophole. If Jo himself didn’t record that he was translating a portion then William Clayton may have been misinformed or lying. The prophet didn’t make a mistake, his scribe did. That’s a baffling and disingenuous claim. If William Clayton said Jo did something, it happened. This discrepancy doesn’t create a loophole big enough for Jo to squeeze through.

Further, a contemporary account was printed in the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett’s paper, in May of 1843. This account is merely signed, “A Gentile” with no actual name ascribed to it, but it is very revealing and no longer places the onus on William Clayton of making an error. Here’s a few relevant extracts from the passage, you’ll find a link to the entire article from the Library of Congress in the show notes:

Late and Interesting From the Mormon Empire on the Upper Mississippi.—We have received very late accounts from the new Mormon religious empire, established by Joe Smith, the modern Mahomet—accounts which are very interesting and curious in a people which have attracted the attention of the public throughout the old and new world—in the Atlantic States, and the continent of Europe. Our correspondence is annexed…

New revelations and fresh predictions are… in the sack, and will soon be out. The new batch of brass plates will be the foundation of more prophecy, wonder, excitement, and increase. Joe Smith has already demolished Father Miller and the politicians, and is now preparing to issue another book of Mormon, that will wake up the world a second time. We shall wait for this development, with an open mouth at least…

Then it prints a letter sent from the said “Gentile” to Bennett. I can’t tell if this was a letter to the editor, James Gordon Bennett, or if it was sent to John C. Wreck-it Bennett and he forwarded the letter to Gordon Bennett to print in the New York Herald. Even the contents of the letter don’t offer any clarification. Here’s what intel is revealed from the letter concerning the plates. Some is redundant, but there is an interesting detail we’ll focus on.

Suffice it to say, in view of this city [of Nauvoo] and its founder, that strange things have happened, and still things more strange may happen.

Another set of plates have been found in Pike county, in this State; they were dug out of a large mound, fifteen feet from the summit, by a company of persons, fifteen in number, who all affirm to the fact of their situation when found. There were six in number, about three inches in length, and two and a half broad at one end, and one inch broad at the other, being something of the form of a bell, about the sixteenth of an inch thick, with a hole in the small end of each, fastened together with a ring, apparently of iron or steel, but which was so oxidized as to crumble to pieces when handled. The plates are evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hyerogliphics. He compared them in my presence with his Egyptian alphabet, which he took from the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.

That last piece is a crucial piece of information because it carves out another apologetic dodge. If Jo “translates” something by the gift and power of god, like the Book of Mormon, then it can’t be wrong because that would nullify his claims to being a prophet seer and revelator. However, if we was using secular means to translate these Kinderhook plates then he could make an error without voiding his god warranty. Because he used the Egyptian alphabet he made in Kirtland, referred to as his “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” or “GAEL”, he was using secular means to translate instead of using the gift and power of god. You see the exception here. Allow me to quote from FAIRMormon to make the point when they reference Don Bradley’s 2011 presentation on the Kinderhook plates:

Bradley noted that one of the most prominent characters on the Kinderhook Plates (a symbol shaped like a boat), when broken down into its individual elements matched a symbol found on page 4 (the second page of characters) of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), often referred to as the "Egyptian Alphabet. The GAEL provides meanings for the individual symbols, and the meaning assigned to the particular symbol found on the plates supports the translation reported to have been provided by Joseph.

The conclusion is that Clayton's account appears to be accurate, that Joseph did attempt to translate "a portion" of them by non-revelatory means, and the translation provided matches a corresponding symbol and explanation in the GAEL.

The argument here is that Jo used the Egyptian alphabet he made from the Egyptian papyri back in 1835 to translate a character from the Kinderhook plates. He didn’t use the gift and power of god with the rock in the hat, therefore he was translating the Kinderhook plates as a man, instead of as a prophet seer and revelator. Yes, that is an actual apologetic argument used to exonerate Jo’s abilities to read unknown languages. Seemingly absent from this argument is the next logical step. His Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) was wrong, so how could he translate the Kinderhook plates using an incorrect alphabet? Further, he used Precious and Mr. Hat, the gift and power of god, to create the GAEL and now he was using that divinely revealed system to translate these fakes, doesn’t that doubly indict his claims of being a translator? I quote again from FAIRMormon:

At the time that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he only claimed the ability to translate by the "gift and power of God." Over time, Joseph studied other languages and wished to learn to translate by other means. His attempt to use the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (a document that he and others had created) to attempt a translation of the Kinderhook Plates fits in with this desire. Since only a single character "matched," Joseph would have been unable to continue to translate the plates in this manner. This may explain why such a translation was never produced: beyond the single character which happened to match, it would not have even been possible to translate the fraudulent plates either manually or by the "gift and power of God." Therefore, no translation was ever produced…Simply put, Joseph's attempt to translate the plates manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God."

Either Jo could translate unknown languages or he couldn’t. That goes for the Kinderhook plates, the Greek Psalter, the Egyptian papyri that became the Book of Abraham, and even includes the Book of Mormon. He said he could do it and he was wrong. He knew he couldn’t do it, and therefore he lied about it.

It’s worth noting that no actual translation ever came from Jo that was the supposed contents of the Kinderhook plates. FAIRMormon cites Don Bradley again when he contends with how Jo knew who the descendant was and what the contents of the plates was. Jo claimed they were plates containing the history of the person with whom they were found, who was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh. How could he possibly know that if he couldn’t read what was on the rest of the plates? First off, what would a black Egyptian be doing in Kinderhook Illinois with metal plates of his own history? How did they get there? Did this one Egyptian make a solo transatlantic trip to the Americas and sojourn to a random mound in Illinois and die there just for his skeleton and history to be found by Joseph Smith? Don Bradley points out a small boat-shaped character on the top of one of the plates and finds a somewhat similar looking character in Jo’s Grammar and Alphabet of Egyptian Language that sort of fits the mold, but that’s completely speculative that Jo was using that symbol and his own translation to claim that he knew the contents of the Kinderhook plates. I would make the safe speculation that Jo just made it up. Like he made up the Zelph story during Zion’s camp, like he made up the Book of Abraham, like he made up the Book of Mormon, he knowingly made it up. The Kinderhook plates reveal Jo to be the fraud he truly was.

What I find even more fascinating about this story is that the Kinderhook plates were regarded as authentic history until as recently as the 1980s. Yes, even with the facsimiles of the plates being printed in the Times and Seasons and the History of the Church showing exactly what they were and the supposed language on them, Mormons for over a century after Jo’s death believed they were what he claimed them to be. They simply believe that Jo died before he had a chance to translate the rest of the characters. We’ll get into how it’s dealt with today very soon, but first, how did it come to light that this was all a hoax.

Even though contemporary sources knew it to be a fraud from the beginning, it didn’t stop Mormons from regarding the plates as another possible source text of forthcoming scripture. While Mormons patiently awaited a prophet’s abilities to translate them, in 1879, Wilbur Fugate finally appeared back on the scene with an affidavit that he had colluded with the two other guys to fabricate the plates.

[H]e stated that the plates were a humbug, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton, and myself. Whitton (who was a blacksmith) cut the plates out of some pieces of copper; Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron, covering them completely with the rust. He describes the burial of the plates and their digging up, among the spectators of the latter being two Mormon Elders, Marsh and Sharp. Sharp declared that the Lord had directed them to witness the digging. The plates were borrowed and shown to Smith, and were finally given to one Professor McDowell of St. Louis, for his museum."

36 years. Wilbur Fugate waited until 36 years after the fact before he came out with the affidavit that he and 3 others had colluded to make Jo look like a fool. More importantly, he described the methods he used in order to make the plates. When this came out in 1879, Mormons widely regarded the Kinderhook plates as authentic. Also, this was a decade and a half after the civil war and it was widely known that the plates had been lost during the war, which makes it much harder to verify that they weren’t authentic. So, why did he wait for 36 years before revealing the conspiracy? Also, why was it only Wilbur Fugate, why didn’t Whitton or Wiley ever come out with statements around the same time or even earlier, maybe during Jo’s lifetime, that it was all a ruse? Apologists at the time, including B.H. Roberts, seized on the incredibly late revelation as a flaw in the veracity of Fugate’s claim. If he made it all up, why wait so long? Why were there no corroborating accounts? Should this guy not be believed because his affidavit concerns an event 36 years in the past? Because his affidavit is so long after the occurrence, does it immediately follow that the plates are actually authentic?

Here’s what Fugate said of the little hoax they cooked up:

[I]n regard to those plates,… [I] 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 out of the earth.’ We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them… <relates how plates were made> Our plans worked admirably. A certain Sunday was appointed for the 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.

Fugate’s affidavit reveals an important exercise in how we know history. Sure the affidavit is more than three decades after the occurrence, maybe he misspelled the names of his friends, maybe some of the details of how they made the plates is a bit fuzzy, maybe he doesn’t remember all of the people who were there when the plates were “discovered,” maybe there are finer points within the late firsthand account that are inaccurate, but the central focus of the affidavit, although late, is true. Apologists defend the prophet by splitting hairs about whether or not Jo himself claimed that he was translating the Kinderhook plates or if that was secondhand contemporary and can’t be trusted, yet they’re quick to dismiss this late firsthand account because it’s antagonistic to the prophet. That’s not how we do history.

The apologist criticism of Fugate and the timing was summarized well in New Witness for God on p.63 by B.H. Roberts when he said:

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.

The apologists’ attacks on the affidavit and Fugate’s character carved out a space where Mormons could believe in the authenticity of the Kinderhook plates for quite some time. Couple that with the fact that the plates were thought to be no-longer extant and available for expert examination, a small window allowed Mormons for over a century to not be troubled by the entire incident. Undoubtedly, Mormons contemporary with Jo expected him to deliver new scripture from these plates. When he died, they likely awaited the next prophet, be it James Strang, Sidney Rigdon, or Brigham Young, to translate them by the gift and power of god as the new prophet, seer, and revelator. That never happened. So why did he wait so long? Fugate knew all along that the prank was successful, why didn’t he come out any time before 1879 to reveal the plan?

Unfortunately, we can’t know for sure. We can speculate. Maybe he’d forgotten about it. It happened just a few years before the Mormons were no longer a major presence in Illinois and he wasn’t bothered by them any longer. Maybe he didn’t reveal it while Jo and Brigham were alive for fear of retaliation. Maybe he was waiting all along for the supposed translation to come along and he’d do his big reveal. It’s only speculation. What we can be certain of is that they were not authentic. Even if Fugate didn’t make them and his story of fabricating them was a hoax, they are not authentic Egyptian artifacts. Which leads to our final point that drove the final nail in the coffin of the Kinderhook plates.

In 1920, it was discovered that one of the 6 plates survived in the archives of the Chicago Historical Society. This discovery now made it possible to scientifically analyze the remaining plate. In 1953, two non-Mormon experts examined the plate. 9 years after their examination, apologist Welby W. Ricks, then president of the BYU Archaeological Society, personally examined the plate. In the 1962 edition of the Improvement Era, back when it actually printed articles by church historians alongside ads for local Utah businesses, he printed his findings, from which I quote a few passages. You’ll find a link to it on archive.org in the show notes.

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.

A few years ago, two non-LDS professional engravers, Stanley B. Hill and Edward Pwiiski walked into the Chicago historical Society and asked to view a bell-shaped brass plate known as a Kinderhook plate. Their purpose was to determine whether it had been engraved with a pointed instrument or etched with acid. What they found solved a seventy-four-year-old controversy and put the plates back into the category of “genuine” which Joseph Smith, Jun., had said they were in the first place…

<reprints Fugate’s affidavit>

Anti-Mormons were quick to latch onto Fugate’s story and broadcast it to the world and have done so from that day till this. One said: “This nails the prophet down for all eternity.” Another felt it would be the death blow to the Church.

Mr. Fugate’s tale may seem fairly sound to some, but to others there exist too many peculiarities in the story to accept it…

First, when this letter was written the witnesses were either dead or presumed dead.

Second, the plates had disappeared. They had been gone since the Civil War and were thought to have been destroyed with the museum which housed them. Thus Mr. Fugate was in a pretty safe position to say anything he desired about the plates. Who could dispute him? Third, of the witnesses to the find Mr. Fugate alone was the one to declare the plates fraudulent… Fourth, Mr. Fugate waited a suspiciously long time, thirty-six years to be exact, which was thirty-five years after the death of his prey, before declaring the plates a humbug when he could have done so within a few weeks after their discovery. Does this sound like a man who is anxiously waiting to catch something in a snare…

Then Ricks goes on to make the argument that would prove Fugate’s affidavit legitimate or false.

The probability of an ancient inhabitant of America using acid to etch his plates is very, very slim and the likelihood of his using a pointed instrument is very great. Thus it would be natural to suspect that the plates if genuine would be engraved rather than etched. It is easy to see that Mr. Fugate’s testimony could be checked on by a determination of this matter. If they were etched, his testimony could stand, but if engraved his testimony must fall.

To pursue either of these positions requires observation of the plate or plates by specialist who are experienced in noting the difference between etching and engraving…

With one of the plates now available for investigation the key matter could be cleared up: Were they etched or engraved?

Mr. Fugate said Wiley and he had etched the plates. Yet two professional engravers were invited to view the plates in 1953 and give their unbiased opinion on them—which they did freely and without charge. They stated clearly that the plate was engraved with a pointed instrument…

<Prints statement from engraving experts>

The plates are now back in their original category of genuine.

This much remains. 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.

What scholars may learn from this ancient record in future years or what may be translated by divine power is an exciting thought to contemplate.

A chemical analysis was finally done. It completely destroyed everything Ricks claimed. Stanley Kimball published in the August 1981 edition of the Ensign an article about the Kinderhook plates conceding any possible faithful Mormon interpretation for the historicity of the Kinderhook Plates.

A recent electronic and chemical analysis of a metal plate (one of six original plates) brought in 1843 to the Prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, appears to solve a previously unanswered question in Church history, helping to further evidence that the plate is what its producers later said it was—a nineteenth-century attempt to lure Joseph Smith into making a translation of ancient-looking characters that had been etched into the plates.

Joseph Smith did not make the hoped-for translation. In fact, no evidence exists that he manifested any further interest in the plates after early examination of them, although some members of the Church hoped that they would prove to be significant. But the plates never did.

The final concession at the end of the article tries to carve out an ever-shrinking ground for apologists to live on when it comes to the Kinderhook Plates:

Another possible explanation for the hoax never having been carried through may lie in Robert Wiley’s desire to sell the plates as genuine artifacts. For him to have exposed the hoax before the attempted sale would, of course, have scuttled any negotiations; and to expose it afterward may have landed the sellers and conspirators in jail for attempted fraud—turning the tables and making *them *the object of ridicule instead of Joseph Smith.

Significantly, there is no evidence that the Prophet Joseph Smith ever took up the matter with the Lord, as he did when working with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. And this brings us to the other side of the story, for those of us who believe that Joseph Smith *was *the Lord’s prophet: Isn’t it natural to expect that he would be guided to understand that these plates were not of value as far as his mission was concerned? That other members may have been less judicious and not guided in the same way cannot be laid at the Prophet’s feet. Many people, now as well as then, have an appetite for hearsay and a hope for “easy evidence” to bolster or even substitute for personal spirituality and hard-won faith that comes from close familiarity with truth and communion with God.

So it is that in the 100-year battle of straw men and straw arguments, Joseph Smith needs no defense—he simply did not fall for the scheme. And with that understood, it is perhaps time that the Kinderhook plates be retired to the limbo of other famous faked antiquities.

So, the great saga of the Kinderhook plates came to an end in 1981. Importantly, the church has never released another official statement on the Kinderhook Plates since this Ensign article. I scoured LDS.org for anything that wasn’t written nearly 4 decades ago, but there’s simply nothing. What started as something crafted by some country bumpkin hoaxers became a possible source for scripture, then evolved into a historical enigma regarded as authentic Native American antiquities, then rediscovered in the Chicago historical society as genuine artifacts; and finally, at the end of it all, they’re regarded as the hoax they were initially intended to be. The 1980 examination proved they were indeed engraved and came from the 19th century, completely shattering any ground for claims they were ever authentic, thus verifying the claims of the man who created them, even though his affidavit came 36 years after the occurrence.

If you listen to this show for the gotchas of Mormon history, you’re coming to the wrong place. Go read the CES letter if you want easy gotchas. However, once in a while, something comes up in our historical timeline that so brazenly and clearly reveals Joseph Smith to be the fraud he was. Jeremy Runnells summarized it so beautifully in the CES Letter where he addressed the Kinderhook Plates:

The plates were named after the town in which they were found - Kinderhook, IL. A farmer claimed he dug the plates out of a mound. They took the plates to Joseph Smith for examination and he translated a portion. Not only did Joseph not discern the fraud, he added to the fraud by “translating” the fake plates. The LDS Church now concedes it’s a hoax. What does this tell us about Joseph Smith’s gift of translation?

No, the translation of what the plates supposedly say doesn’t exist, but the little part that Jo did “translate” about them being a history of the person with which they were found, that’s enough to indict his claimed abilities. If the Kinderhook plates portray Jo as a false prophet, then so does the Book of Abraham. If the Book of Abraham reveals him to be a fraud, all apologists have left is the Book of Mormon, and that thing fell flat on its face before Jo did at Carthage.

Look, we can often get lost down the rabbit hole of true vs. false prophets, but the Kinderhook plates alone reveal Jo to be a false prophet he so often decried in public speeches. He was a fraud from day one of Mormonism and that fraud only became more apparent every passing day of his ministry. The Kinderhook plates are yet one more issue in the pile of problematic Mormon history that can’t be ignored with haters gunna hate.

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