One of the strangest and most extensive archaeological hoaxes in American history was perpetrated around the turn of the twentieth century in Michigan. Hundreds of objects known as the Michigan Relics were made to appear as the remains of a lost civilization. The artifacts were produced, buried, “discovered,” and marketed by James O. Scotford and Daniel E. Soper. For three decades these artifacts were secretly planted in earthen mounds, publicly removed, and lauded as wonderful discoveries. Because the Michigan Relics allegedly evidence a Near Eastern presence in ancient America, they have drawn interest from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This article traces the intriguing history of this elaborate affair and Mormonism’s encounter with it. At the center of this history lies the investigation of the artifacts by Latter-day Saint intellectual and scientist James E. Talmage.
The Hopewell and Adena Native American societies are commonly referred to as the Mound Builders because they built hundreds of thousands of earthen mounds throughout the greater Mississippi River valley and in surrounding areas.These Indian mounds have long provoked the curiosity of European Americans. Exploitation of this curiosity has led to a series of bizarre archaeological hoaxes. Many a schemer and prankster secretly buried bogus artifacts in the Indian mounds and then offered such items to the public, claiming they were removed from a mound.
The mounds and hillocks of Michigan’s lower peninsula became the temporary repositories of scores of archaeological forgeries. The Scotford artifacts—by artifacts I mean human-made objects—were made of clay, copper, and slate. Scotford produced a wide range of items, including tablets, caskets, amulets, coins, axheads, daggers, chisels, saws, and smoking pipes. Most of these pieces have inscriptions of one kind or another, whether hieroglyphics, a cuneiform stamping of ancient alphabets, or unknown characters. Almost every piece bears a prominent cuneiform symbol—“IH/”—which various interpreters have called the tribal mark, the mystic symbol, or the forger’s signature. The tablets are especially notable: they illustrate battles, Bible stories, and calendars. Divided into panels, the biblical tablets tell the stories of the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the life of Christ (figs. 1, 2, 3). Most common are the Flood tablets, which depict in succession scenes of the wicked drowning, the ark floating, the dove flying from the ark, the animals unloading, and the rainbow token of peace.This striking scenery captured the attention of thousands, and the ensuing debate over the Scotford-Soper frauds played a part in the professionalization of archaeology around the turn of the century.
The Initial Discovery
The fraudulent relics first appeared in October 1890 in Montcalm County, in central Michigan. James O. Scotford exuberantly announced to the village of Wyman that he had found ancient pottery while at his job digging post holes. The excitement of his “discovery” spread, and during the following spring and summer, Scotford and several residents of Wyman and nearby Edmore spent time digging in dozens of local mounds, hoping to find more relics.One unfortunate man dug too deep into the soft sand and died in a collapse. Others successfully uncovered wonderful objects, though no one found as many as Scotford (see fig. 4).
M. E. Cornell, a Seventh-day Adventist minister from Michigan and a collector of Native American artifacts, authored and published a booklet describing the new findings and the circumstances of their discovery. Many of the items and all of the tablets, including a deluge tablet, featured inscriptions and were composed of sunbaked clay.Cornell wrote:
Scores of the citizens of Wyman and Edmore are familiar with all the circumstances of the discovery, and have been eye-witnesses of the excavating and taking out of the relics; and to them the evidence of genuineness is so clear that doubts are never entertained for a moment. . . . Three caskets have been found pierced by roots of the trees growing on the mounds over them. We found one with the cover broken in by the root of a tree, and the casket was filled with sand. The root was coiled up inside the box.
The circumstances of discovery truly were impressive. Cornell repeated such accounts to promote the finds as genuine artifacts.
Actually, some of the locals did entertain doubts. A group of people from the county who formed a syndicate to financially exploit the situation decided to check first with Michigan archeologists. When the archeologists determined that the artifacts were forgeries, the syndicate disbanded. All of these events occurred within a year of the initial “discovery.”
In early 1892, at the same time Cornell published his glowing report, Francis W. Kelsey, a professor of Latin at the University of Michigan, with Morris Jastrow Jr., a colleague from the University of Pennsylvania, dealt a serious blow to the hoax. Kelsey and Jastrow considered the inscriptions (fig. 5) a linguistic disaster. Several ancient scripts had been jumbled together, they claimed, resulting in a “horrible mixture.” Furthermore, the inscriber used too few characters at too high a frequency for his work to represent authentic language.The two concluded that the alleged artifacts had been produced by someone with no linguistic knowledge.
Although Kelsey was a linguist, the fakes were so crude that no archaeological expertise was needed to spot serious flaws in the artifacts. He found that one tablet was molded “in a frame of machine-sawed boards, as may be seen from the edges, which were not rubbed down enough to remove the impressions of the splinters.”In a letter to a New York newspaper, he wrote that the clay contained a large amount of drift sand and that the objects would “dissolve immediately in water. In view of . . . the nearness of the objects to the surface, and the amount of the yearly rainfall in this region, it is clear that the objects could not have been in the ground more than one year.” Kelsey foreshadowed Mormon interest when he wondered if “some prophet will arise in due time and interpret the supposed mystic symbols into a new creed.”
In 1893, James O. Scotford submitted a stone casket to be exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Walter C. Wyman, head of the fair’s archeology department, rejected the casket as a fraud in spite of Scotford’s bitter protest.
The Hoax Perpetuated
Five years later (1898) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Francis Kelsey encountered a new batch of the same type of material. This second batch was billed as “the finest collection of prehistoric relics ever exhibited in the United States.”A certificate of authenticity accompanying these items claimed they were discovered in Mecosta County (which adjoins Montcalm County, the site of the initial discoveries). The certificate bore the signatures of four witnesses to their discovery. One was William H. Scotford, apparently an alias used by James O. Scotford.
This same year, John Campbell, professor at the Presbyterian College in Montreal, Canada, defended the Michigan Relics in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada.Campbell compared their characters with an illustration of alleged inscriptions from a stone discovered on Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, in 1856 —the year Scotford was born. Campbell claimed to have translated some of the inscriptions from both the Monhegan stone and the Michigan relics. In his estimation, the Michigan Relics were the charms of a tribe of wandering Japanese Buddhist monks.
When a third batch of artifacts began appearing around Detroit in the opening years of the new century, Francis Kelsey commented publicly again, noticing in the three successive phases a gradual improvement in manufacture.These most recent items were being “found” and sold by Scotford, who was now living in Detroit.
Like Francis Kelsey, Walter Wyman also followed the unfolding saga of the frauds. After hearing that the hoax was growing and taking in more people, Wyman decided to pay Scotford a visit. According to a New York Times reporter,
He [Scotford] was at work in his shed, and so the archaeologist came upon him unexpectedly, surrounded by curious objects in various states of manufacture.
“He was not at all embarrassed,” Mr. Wyman said the other day, “and tried to sell me for $100 a stone casket bearing hieroglyphics. I didn’t like to say I knew he was a faker, and gave various excuses; but before I left the place he offered me the casket at the bargain rate of $25.”
Soper and Savage Join Scotford
In 1907, Daniel E. Soper and James Savage entered the scene.Both became extensively involved with the Scotford “relics.” Soper had collected genuine mound artifacts for years. He had once served as Michigan’s Secretary of State but had been forced to resign for corrupt behavior. Soper moved to Arizona to put this scandal behind him. While living there, he privately planted some of his genuine Native American artifacts. Then, in the presence of some local archaeologists, Soper pretended to discover them. The intended dupes caught and exposed the fraud, recognizing that the artifacts did not originate in the Southwest. Not long afterward, he returned to Michigan.
After years of collecting mound artifacts, Soper now became involved in their production. As the main promoter and distributor of the material, he served as front man for Scotford, who remained the creator, planter, and digger (fig. 6).Soper trumpeted the relics as “the most wonderful discovery ever made in this country.” Although he often claimed that he never sold the material, documents exist wherein he offers the items for sale through the mail under such letterheads as “Happy Hollow Gold Mining Co., immense dividends assured, millions in sight, no mining scheme, no long wait, quick action guaranteed, no debts, no danger of loss.”
James Savage, dean of the Western Detroit Diocese and pastor of the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, joined the Scotford enterprise shortly after Soper. Savage, who had collected Native American artifacts for almost three decades,came to fervently believe that the Michigan Relics were genuine. In 1907 he purchased a large collection from Scotford. Savage read the “/” in “IH/” as a mutated S, rendering the Christian symbol “IHS” (the initials for In Hoc Signo). At first, he believed that pre-Columbian Norsemen created the artifacts. Later, with Soper, he asserted they were made by the lost ten tribes, who were then killed by the Indians. Finally, he thought they were produced by a colony of ancient Jews. Savage became a partner with Soper in excavating and invested the rest of his life in the discoveries.
It was also in 1907 that the imposture received broad exposure in the Detroit News. Calling them “the most colossal hoax of a century,”the News attacked the artifacts in a series of articles. One article pointed out that the artifacts were only discovered in the presence of Scotford, Soper, or their associates. Another article complained that the thin green coating on the copper pieces could be wiped off with a finger, as opposed to the tough, encrusted surfaces of genuine copper artifacts. Also, it was reported that one of Scotford’s sons “works in metals and is something of a chemist.” The Detroit News did not quash the Scotford-Soper enterprise but did slow it down for a couple of years. In 1909 things picked up again. By the end of 1911, Scotford, Soper, and Savage had opened over five hundred mounds together.
Another person who soon became interested in the Michigan Relics was Rudolph Etzenhouser (fig. 7), a traveling elder of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. With Scotford, Soper, and Savage, Etzenhouser had unearthed some of these artifacts himself.He sincerely viewed them as evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. In 1910 he published a collection of photographs of the material (see figs. 8, 9). Ironically, Etzenhouser did not understand the full meaning of his own words when in the introduction to his brochure he wrote, “To Mr. Daniel E. Soper . . . belongs the credit of having been for several years the moving spirit in the investigation of these prehistoric relics of Michigan.”
James E. Talmage’s Investigation
James E. Talmage directed the Deseret Museum in Salt Lake City, which had been closed to the public since July 1903 and would move to a new building in July 1910.In May 1909, Talmage traveled east as part of his efforts to reopen the museum. He visited a number of museums and attended the American Association of Museums conference in Philadelphia.
Talmage knew little or nothing about the Michigan Relics until William C. Mills, state archaeologist of Ohio and an associate in the American Association of Museums, conversed with Talmage concerning the subject. Their interchange prompted Talmage to visit Mills at the University of Ohio, where Mills showed him a tablet unearthed by the Scotford-Soper group. Mills believed that this tablet and all of the Soper materials were genuine. Fascinated by the tablet, Talmage soon opened correspondence with both Soper and Savage.Soper sent him blueprints of some artifacts, which Talmage found “inspiring.” On September 8, 1909, he wrote to Soper, “I have been impressed with the seeming parallelism between the facts brought to light by your discoveries and the historical story given in the Book of Mormon.” A month later, on October 12, 1909, he wrote to Soper again, reiterating that he was “very deeply interested” in the artifacts.
The next day Talmage met with the First Presidency (Joseph F. Smith, Jon R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund) and a special committee, which had been called at his insistence to consider the issue. The committee included Apostles John Henry Smith, Orson F. Whitney, Anthony W. Ivins, Heber J. Grant, and, later, Joseph Fielding Smith. Book of Mormon scholar B. H. Roberts also sat on this committee. In his journal, Talmage recorded, “The consensus of opinion was that the alleged discoveries should be investigated. If genuine they are certainly of importance to Book of Mormon students; but their genuineness is by no means assured.”On November 9 he met with the First Presidency again. As a result of their deliberations, he left for Detroit the next day—“solely in the interest of this investigation.” Talmage conducted the investigation “under the auspices of the Deseret Museum.” He intended to procure the Michigan artifacts for the museum. He may have considered using the alleged relics as a special exhibit for the reopening.
Upon his arrival in Detroit, Talmage met with Soper and Savage to examine their collections and discuss the artifacts with them. He wrote, “I find that both Mr. Soper and Father Savage know of the seeming parallelism between the pictographs they have unearthed and the Book of Mormon record. They discussed the matter quite freely.” Rudolph Etzenhouser had likely talked with them about the Book of Mormon by this time and shared with them his writings on Book of Mormon archaeology. In the course of their discussion, Soper and Talmage arranged to excavate some mounds together the following day. That night Talmage wrote in his journal, “Prof. Kelsey has written to me reiterating the charge of fraud. On the other hand, Prof. Wm C. Mills of the University of Ohio is equally insistent that the finds are surely genuine. . . . The discoveries are certainly surprising, and I await opportunity of fuller examination.”
The next day Talmage went digging with Soper. James Scotford accompanied them and acted as the spade man. The dig was a success. The trio opened two mounds and unearthed three objects: the copper head of a battle-ax, a small perforated slate tablet or pendant, and a knife blade. They planned to meet for further excavations the next day but were rained out. Inclement weather precluded digging the following day as well, so Talmage visited both Soper and Savage to examine their collections further. Finally, on the fourth day, they resumed their work under clear skies. Talmage, Soper, and Scotford returned to the area of their previous venture and opened a dozen mounds over the course of the day. Again, they struck it rich. With his own hands, Talmage removed from the excavations two slate tablets and another knife blade.One slate exhibited the Flood story on one side and on the other a battle between Indians and a “civilized” group.
Talmage realized the implications these objects held concerning Book of Mormon historicity. He saw in the slates the story of a white, civilized people with biblical knowledge and an ancient Near Eastern language, who fought with and were eventually exterminated by the Indians.Talmage noted that, if authentic, the Michigan Relics “would furnish strong external evidence of the main facts set forth in the Book of Mormon narrative” and that “their discovery must be considered as marking one of the most important developments in American archaeology.”
Leaving Detroit, Talmage traveled further east to submit his newfound specimens to the scrutiny of archaeological experts on the Atlantic seaboard. First, in New York City, he met with Harlan I. Smith, curator of the ethnology department at the American Museum of Natural History. Smith told Talmage, “They just don’t look like anything heretofore found.” After a homesick Thanksgiving, Talmage traveled down to Washington, D.C. He recorded that a Mr. Holmes, chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, told him, “The objects are plainly non-Indian, and are therefore not genuine archaeological specimens from [the] region.” For Talmage, who believed in the Book of Mormon, it was easy to see that both of these men were begging the question. Whether these strange new relics evidenced a hitherto unknown people was precisely the issue. He felt that he had not received any “definite and specific reasons” for rejecting the items he showed them.
Unsatisfied, Talmage traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to visit his friend William C. Mills. He wrote,
I submitted for his inspection all the articles taken by me from the mounds near Detroit. Prof. Mills has been emphatic in his belief that the relics are genuine, and that they represent an ancient people once inhabiting the Michigan region. I pointed out to him some inconsistencies in the record of the finds, and he agrees with me that further critical examination is required. We were together until a late hour.
Pressing on with the investigation, Talmage returned to Detroit. He conscripted a pair of Latter-day Saint missionaries and returned to the site of his former diggings. Talmage disguised himself in case of a run-in with Soper, Savage, or Scotford. After two long days, Talmage and his helpers had thoroughly excavated twenty-two mounds. But, lacking the oversight of Soper and Scotford, they were unable to locate anything. Talmage noted in his journal, “Negative evidence is certainly valuable, but it is less inspiriting than a positive find.” He traveled to visit Mills once more and then returned home to Salt Lake City, arriving on December 10.
The next day, a Saturday, Talmage “made a preliminary and partial report” to the First Presidency and arranged to meet with them again after the Sabbath. On Monday, he gave a full report of his month-long investigation. The Presidency was “greatly interested” and decided to hold a meeting on the subject. Attended by the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric, Henry Peterson, George H. Brimhall, Joseph B. Keeler, Joseph Fielding Smith, and the special committee, the meeting was described by Talmage as follows: “Diverse views were expressed as to possible genuineness of the finds. Conference lasted over two hours. I was accorded a vote of thanks for work done, and was instructed to continue my investigations.”
Now that he was home in Utah, Talmage could take a closer look at the items he had exhumed in Michigan. Applying his scientific competence as a geologist and chemist, he commenced a rigorous physical examination of the material (fig. 10). Following one set of experiments, he apparently wrote to Soper regarding the evidence of fraud found on one of the tablets. In a reply letter, Soper demanded that Talmage return the item. Talmage responded, “I[f] these relics are found to be genuine we shall . . . exhibit them as such; and if they prove to be spurious we shall be equally desirous of exhibiting them as examples of forgery and fraud.”Soper, infuriated, lashed out at Talmage, telling him that he had “outraged my feelings as they never have been before.” Soper further stated, “This transaction is the most cold-blooded, barefaced, contemptible deception that the writer ever ran up against.” Soper threatened to sue Talmage and have him arrested.
Talmage’s investigation was not entirely turned over to lab work. He made three more trips to the East. In the summer of 1910, during his trip to the annual American Association of Museums conference, Talmage visited Independence, Missouri. There, he “had a long talk” with some leaders of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, including Frederick M. Smith, first counselor in the presidency. The RLDS elders did not agree on “the proper course to pursue in the matter” and did not wholeheartedly approve of Rudolph Etzenhouser’s brochure.
In the fall, Talmage went east again. He excavated seven mounds near Grand Rapids, Michigan, and spoke with local archaeologists. On the second leg of this trip he visited Detroit, where he met with Etzenhouser and Savage. Shortly after arriving home, he reported to the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric. A month later, he met again with the First Presidency, “regarding Museum affairs and Michigan relics.”On February 8, 1911, Talmage submitted a report to the First Presidency which stated, “The matter of the Michigan relics is still one of doubt and perplexity. In my mind the evidence of forgery is very strong; but the absolute proof of forgery, the identification of the forger, and the location of the factory are yet incomplete.”
In June 1911, Talmage was back in Detroit. After some sleuthing, he contacted Etta Riley, James Scotford’s stepdaughter. After speaking with her, Talmage confided to his journal,
She solemnly declared to me that she positively knows her step-father, James Scotford, has made, buried, and dug up many of the articles reported to be genuine archeological relics. She gave circumstantial details, and agreed to sign a written statement with the proviso that such statement shall not be made public without her consent during the lifetime of her mother, Mrs. Jas. Scotford.
Riley also informed Talmage that Scotford made the objects at his home. So, in addition to considerable scientific evidence, Talmage now had the forger and the factory. The next day Etta Riley signed a statement of the facts in the presence of Talmage and her friend as witnesses. Talmage kept his promise; he never made her statement public. The Riley statement appears here for the first time (fig. 11).
The Michigan Relics received their greatest amount of scholarly attention during the time that Talmage worked on them. In 1909, Soper had shifted his project into high gear. To arouse interest, Etzenhouser mailed his brochure of photographs to archaeologists and curators from coast to coast.Although the brochure was mostly received with skepticism, it aroused interest. In 1911, the American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal noted that the alleged antiquities were provoking “widespread discussion among the archeologists and curators of the country.” This issue of the nation’s oldest archaeological journal included another denunciation of the Soper artifacts by early critic Francis Kelsey. Kelsey’s critique was countered by J. O. Kinnaman, an archaeologist, Latin professor, dean of Benton Harbor College, and editor of American Antiquarian. Kinnaman stated that “long before the first date mentioned by Prof. Kelsey,” he had “examined personally many of the same kind of ‘finds.’” A Montcalm man by the name of Franklin owned these Michigan Relics. In particular, Kinnaman recalled viewing a Flood tablet. Defenses such as Kinnaman’s kept the controversy in the spotlight. The journal called Michigan “the storm center of American Archeology.”
It was during this period (1911) that Father James Savage defended the artifacts in the Records of the American Catholic Historical Society. Among other arguments, Savage discussed his copper artifacts in light of contemporary archaeological evidence of copper mining in the area around Lake Michigan.But the main reason he accepted the finds was his personal experiences in digging. He described one mound, upon which was a live tree and an old stump. From this mound he had personally removed a copper tablet that was underneath the stump with one of the live tree’s roots laid across it. Savage concluded his article by remarking that critics do not “seem to appreciate the credit of Herculean energy, versatility and genius they attribute to the maker of these finds, as thousands of them have been found in the sixteen counties of Michigan thus far heard from, and no two of these specimens are alike.”
In a general study of hoaxes, Curtis D. MacDougall found that many frauds have required an “enormous amount of ingenuity and energy.”Making a lucrative investment would require just such careful, deceptive techniques of burial. And moreover, although the geography of the finds was large, it corresponded with the known digging enterprises of Soper and Scotford. This duo uncovered the mysterious relics everywhere they went. The extent of the hoax is impressive, but is less astounding considering Soper’s other financial schemes and Scotford’s former occupation as a magician and hypnotist.
As Talmage quietly arranged his evidence, Soper forged ahead. He intended to make 1911 the greatest year yet. To the local newspapers he announced, “A party of Canadian and American experts is coming to Detroit this spring . . . then they can investigate whether I am right.” “I’ll show Prof. Kelsey,” he told the papers, “I’ll show them all.”William C. Mills had been orchestrating this gathering. Ontario’s Minister of Education sent his secretary, Clarkson W. James, who brought Dr. Rowland B. Orr, curator of the Provincial Museum at the University of Toronto. The party also included Professor J. O. Kinnaman and Rudolph Etzenhouser. On June 9, the party found four objects. Again, the experience of unearthing artifacts overpowered skepticism. All believed the finds were genuine and signed an affidavit to that effect.
A month later, on July 11, 1911, the Deseret Museum reopened—without a grand exhibit of Michigan artifacts. Talmage’s Scotford-Soper material was instead shown as an archaeological frauds display.Five days later, Kinnaman announced an epistemic rupture in the field of archaeology. He averred the Michigan artifacts evidenced “a Caucasian race, with civilization developed to a point that was equal to any ever developed in the valleys of the Nile and the Tigro-Euphrates.” If deciphered, he stated,
Not only the history of the American continent will be revolutionized and rewritten, but the entire ancient history of the world will have to be revised, and as a result our knowledge of civilization and of the Caucasian race in general, will extend thousands of years back of the wildest dream of the most enthusiastic archaeologist now working in Oriental fields.
Kinnaman denounced all critics as blind dogmatists.His news quickly spread throughout America and to Europe, exciting both archaeologists and laymen.
Breaking in the Chicago Examiner, the news of Kinnaman’s archaeological revolution prompted University of Chicago Professor Frederick Starr to investigate. Starr was dean of the Department of American Archeology and Anthropology and enjoyed an international reputation as one of the foremost American archaeologists. In late July, he led a team of Chicago archaeologists to Detroit. They inspected James Savage’s collection and excavated with the famous trio. The party opened two mounds and discovered five artifacts, including a slate tablet. All five bore the “IH/” inscription. Like Talmage and others, Starr removed artifacts from the mounds with his own hands.
After returning home, Starr stated publicly, “I have serious doubts regarding the authenticity of these objects.” He remarked that the tablet he had disinterred looked too fresh. Some of the other items looked so clean, he suspected that they had never been in the ground; he suspected that Scotford had been placing them in the digs by sleight-of-hand the moment before removing them as a find. (Later, Scotford did admit to skill in sleight-of-hand.) Starr also expressed grave doubts about the authenticity of the inscriptions on the tablets. Citing the work of Henry Gillman, Starr questioned the antiquity of the finds. Gillman had excavated in Michigan for decades without finding anything of the Scotford-Soper variety. Starr found it suspicious that only Scotford and his cohorts could find the artifacts. The respected archaeologist warned against purchasing the artifacts.
Because Starr was held in such esteem, many had eagerly awaited his evaluation. His well-publicized doubts settled the question for most. Still, he was unwilling to deliver a decisive verdict, and he also considered further investigation. This left the door open for many others. Soper responded to Starr’s criticism with the Big Lie: “The discovery is so stupendous,” he said, “that it is hard for a man to grasp it and give it credence.”
Kinnaman soon met with Starr to compare notes. Afterward, he realized he had been taken in. In a press release, Kinnaman confessed that the earliest he had seen objects of the Scotford type was “a little” earlier than August 1891—the end of the first big summer of finds. “Yes, I was badly fooled,” Kinnaman admitted. “And for that matter,” he added, “so were the gentlemen with me . . . and Dr. James E. Talmage, of Deseret Museum, Salt Lake City.”Unbeknownst to Kinnaman, Talmage was within days of releasing the results of his comprehensive analysis.
Unaware of Kinnaman’s reversal, the Deseret Evening News enthusiastically covered his initial glowing report. The paper wondered whether the Michigan Relics provided “a confirmation of the history of the Jaredites as given in the Book of Ether.” James E. Talmage must have rushed to the news office to extinguish the excitement because the next day the Deseret Evening News announced that Starr and Talmage disagreed with Kinnaman and that the paper would publish Talmage’s position.It appeared the following day. After considerable scientific experiment and some detective work, Talmage came forward with the results of his careful and thorough investigation. A refinement of his argument was published that September in the Deseret Museum’s Bulletin. Talmage concluded, “As a result of my investigation, I am thoroughly convinced that the alleged ‘relics’ are forgeries and that they are made and buried to be dug up on demand.” He laid out eight specific reasons for his assessment, which are excerpted below.
1. According to the evidence I have been able to gather, practically all discoveries of the Michigan ‘relics’ thus far announced have been made by James O. Scotford, of Detroit, or by his son-in-law, Scoby, or by parties who, like myself, have been operating for the time-being under guidance of the men named. . . .
2. The conditions of burial seem to preclude a possibility of ancient interment. The objects are generally found within a foot or two feet of the surface, and I have heard of no credible instance of any one of these objects having been exposed through nature’s weathering, attested by parties other than those well known to be skilled in making these finds. Nevertheless did these objects exist by the hundreds in these little mounds, within a short distance of the surface, it is beyond human belief that they should never be uncovered except by pre-arranged digging.
3. Most of the objects are so fresh as to be practically new. Some of the slate tablets I have seen and handled suggest the thought that they may have just left the maker’s hands [fig. 12]. The lines made by the graving tools, when examined microscopically, show fresh fractures, practically indistinguishable from others made in the course of experiment at the time of the examination.
4. The copper pieces . . . have evidently been corroded by rapid chemical treatment and not by the slow processes of time. The green layer on every piece I have seen is thin and non-adherent, easily wearing off even with careful handling, leaving a surface clean and smooth . . . . Moreover, the surface of the copper pieces generally shows the outlines of crystal aggregates due to the formation of copper compounds in the process of chemical corrosion.
5. The copper of which these articles are fashioned is ordinary commercial copper, smelted from sulphur-bearing and arsenical ores. It is not native copper, such as the copper objects taken from genuinely ancient mounds in this country are known to be. This conclusion as to the character of the metal is based on chemical analyses made in my own laboratory and elsewhere, and on conductivity determinations made at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington [fig. 13].
6. The way in which the pieces of slate and copper have been fashioned indicates their modern origin. [Talmage noticed plainly visible saw marks on one of his artifacts, and under the microscope he found file marks on another.]
7. [The articles exhibit] haphazard, off-hand, slovenly sketching [unlike the careful work of ancient artists].
8. The characters are a jumble thrown together without regard to origin.
While Talmage declined to name the forger, he did express his feeling that Savage and Etzenhouser were innocent victims.
James E. Talmage had finally provided a thorough and careful scientific evaluation of the Michigan relics. The Detroit newspapers seized upon Talmage’s exposé of the Scotford-Soper frauds. Talmage’s conclusive work was also acknowledged by the New York Times.He played a large role in debunking what modern archaeologist Stephen Williams calls “one of the largest-running scams in prehistory.”
Talmage’s report incensed Soper and Savage. Calling it a “flow of twaddle,” Savage—the hoax’s perpetual unwitting supporter—took issue with its conclusions in the Detroit Free Press.In response to Talmage’s first point, regarding Scotford’s ability to find the stuff, Savage claimed that others had also discovered these “Michigan relics.” A few discoveries did occur independent of Scotford and his associates but took place in areas they had promoted (for example, around Detroit and within the immediate vicinity of the village of Wyman), where a few people stumbled across material while digging a cellar or plowing.
In response to Talmage’s second point, about the conditions of burial, Savage stressed the number of objects and their detail, as well as the amount of effort it would take to plant them if fake. In particular, he wrote about an undisturbed layer of black stria through which he had dug on a few occasions and under which he found artifacts of the Scotford-Soper type. Savage apparently never considered the possibility of any kind of interment other than vertical shaft deposit. However, other methods of burying bogus artifacts, such as slant-planting, have been documented.This technique would also account for the Scotford artifacts found under tree stumps.
Attempting to counter Talmage’s third point, regarding the fresh appearance of the artifacts, Savage referred to authentic relics he had discovered that looked fresh when he unearthed them. But Talmage’s investigation went beyond natural appearance to microscopic examination. Savage made no counterattack on Talmage’s fourth point regarding rapid chemical corrosion.
In response to Talmage’s fifth point, concerning metallurgical composition, Savage held that “experts” had examined the artifacts and determined they were made of native copper. But Savage’s undocumented newspaper assertion lacked the credibility of Talmage’s museum bulletin, which named the experts who tested his samples. As far as Savage’s claim can be taken seriously, three explanations may account for items of pre-industrial copper. First, because in his article Savage confused the items of the Scotford-Soper type and genuine items he had exhumed before his association with Scotford, the native copper objects may simply be authentic artifacts collected by Savage previous to his association with Scotford. Second, the items of pre-industrial copper may be genuine artifacts exhumed from the Native American mounds within which Scotford planted fakes. Third, as with other objects, they may be once authentic pieces that have been fraudulently reshaped and anachronized.
Finally, Savage dismissed Talmage’s observation that saw marks were visible on one particular object (point six). He justified his dismissal on the grounds that excavators had unearthed saws, chisels, and axes, and if they had found these, they would probably still find “other methods of reducing.” This, he figured, provided an internally consistent explanation for the saw and file marks found on this and other objects.But Savage’s rejoinder falls short because, as Talmage had noted, the saw that left marks on his artifact was “modern” and “almost surely . . . machine-made.” “By the way,” wrote Talmage,
this piece, which of all the pieces examined by me is the most flagrant instance of modern workmanship, has been the subject of a somewhat animated correspondence. Its return has been demanded. As the piece was unearthed by a digger in my employ, whose services were engaged and paid for by me, I cannot understand any claim of ownership superior to my own, except possibly that of the man who made and buried the object.
Savage did not respond to Talmage’s seventh and eighth points. His fierce rebuttal failed to vindicate the Scotford-Soper material.
While mound relics drew general interest in America, the Scotford-Soper material evoked a particular fascination. According to Francis Kelsey, this was due to the biblical and religious illustrations on the slates.The keen interest that Savage, Etzenhouser, and Talmage—all church men—had in the material affirms Kelsey’s assertion. Of course, the implications for Book of Mormon historicity fueled the attention of Etzenhouser and Talmage. Besides implying that ancient Hebrews had been in America, the relics incorporated other elements that paralleled the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, in March 1911, the Detroit Journal claimed it had uncovered evidence that Soper was behind a scheme to market the artifacts in Utah.
In light of this evidence that Scotford exploited religious interests, Talmage’s conclusion that the material was “made and buried to be dug up on demand” deserves a closer look. Were some artifacts produced with Talmage or Etzenhouser in mind? For example, the Babel scene from Talmage’s Flood tablet depicted a group of people praying or paying homage to a bird with several tongues protruding from its beak.Some interpreted the bird as a representation of God’s confusion of tongues, as recorded in the Bible. Talmage, thinking that the actions of the people in the scene were “not easily explained by the record in Genesis,” wondered if this part of the scene had been “intended as a representation of the petition presented by Jared and his followers asking the Lord not to confound their tongues” (Ether 3:33–37).
Similarly, following the initial excavations, Talmage recorded that in one mound “we found a tablet of dark gray slate with inscriptions on both sides. . . . I was somewhat suspicious when Scotford, pointing to the inscribed circle with rays, said: ‘This is like what was found on one of the plates from Mormon Hill, at Cumorah, New York.’”Talmage apparently suspected that this artifact had been manufactured specifically for him. On another occasion, Scotford had mimicked the Ten Commandments tablets (fig. 14) and perhaps he sought to replicate the golden plates as well. However, the Anthon transcript characters from the Book of Mormon plates had by this time been published, and nothing resembling a circle with rays can be found among them. What then did Scotford have in mind when he made this suspicious remark about the inscribed circle with rays and Cumorah’s plates?
Inscribed circles with rays are prominent on the Kinderhook plates,which have from time to time been mistaken for the Book of Mormon plates. The Kinderhook plates were an archaeological hoax perpetrated in Illinois in 1843 to trick local Mormons. A comparison of photographs reveals that the Talmage tablet compares with the Kinderhook plates in size, shape, and appearance. Scotford may have made a loose replica of a Kinderhook plate, hoping to sway Talmage or Etzenhouser with religious enthusiasm. By the turn of the century, descriptions of the Kinderhook plates had been widely published—some by Rudolph Etzenhouser himself.
In the wake of Talmage’s exposé, Mary Robson, a neighbor of Scotford’s sons, informed a news reporter that the young men had told her they helped their father make and bury the artifacts and that they grew plants on the sites to make them appear undisturbed.Scotford’s sons protested the charges, explaining that they had just been playing tricks on the elderly woman. But none of this exposure stopped Scotford, Soper, or Savage. They kept right on digging, hoping to revive their cause.
Such a revival would prove difficult owing to the publicity that Talmage’s investigation had received. In 1914, Savage wrote to Soper of his efforts to interest the secretary of the Archaeological Society of America: “I saw the foot prints of the ‘cloven foot’ of Kelsey & Talmage. He [the secretary] mentioned both their names.”In another letter to Soper, Savage lamented that “Kelsey & Talmage still keep up their devilish work.” Both Soper and Savage remained involved with “the cause” until their deaths in the 1920s. They died leaving large collections of the bogus material. Savage donated his collection to the University of Notre Dame, and Soper’s collection was inherited by his son Ellis Clarke Soper.
Professional archaeologists have not taken the Michigan Relics seriously since the events of 1911. Based on Talmage’s investigation, even rogue archaeologist Barry Fell and his Epigraphic Society have rejected them.Modern historians and archaeologists recognize James E. Talmage’s major role in exposing the hoax. In a small but significant way, he contributed to the professionalization of the field of archaeology that took place around the turn of the century.
The Scotford-Soper Frauds since Talmage
Of the Michigan Relics, historian John Cumming writes,
In the passage of years in which countless archeological explorations under controlled scientific conditions, have taken place, not a single tablet or artifact of this type has been discovered. With all of the building and highway construction, nothing of the kind has been found. The discoveries ceased when Soper stopped digging.
Of course, public and scholarly interest waned long before the digging stopped. Today there are relatively few who know of the Scotford-Soper frauds. Still, they remain a curiosity among some historians, religious groups, and amateur archaeologists.
Forty years after the digging stopped, the Michigan Relics captured the attention of Milton R. Hunter, the president of the New World Archaeological Foundation. Hunter, who was also a General Authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, researched and wrote about archaeological evidence regarding Book of Mormon historicity.In 1960, he received a letter from two Latter-day Saint missionaries who discovered the Savage collection while proselytizing at the University of Notre Dame. In 1962, he visited Notre Dame to view them. He showed so much interest that Notre Dame gave him the collection. In the course of this transaction, Hunter learned of Ellis Clarke Soper, who still had his father’s collection. He contacted Ellis, who lent him a number of items. Hunter responded so favorably that Ellis decided to give him the entire collection. So, by 1963, Hunter had acquired the bulk of Scotford’s productions.
Though aware of Talmage’s published study,Hunter hoped that the Michigan Relics would prove authentic. In a letter to Ellis Soper, Hunter wrote, “I . . . feel that the artifacts are all genuine. I intend to devote much of my future years in finding proof to demonstrate that they are. I want to vindicate your father and Father Savage in this whole matter.” In the same letter he expressed his disappointment that “the General Authorities, or head officials of the Church, except myself, seem to have very little interest in the collection.” He had tried for years to get President David O. McKay to look at the material, and had made a number of appointments with him, none of which materialized.
Hunter’s primary objective was to decipher the inscriptions on the relics. Searching for a translator, he sent photographs of the Michigan Relics to over fifty institutions—including universities, museums, governments, militaries, and private research institutes. Most replied that (1) the characters were a mixture of Asian scripts, (2) the language was unknown to them, or (3) the inscriptions were fraudulent. In this third category Hunter received responses from New Testament scholar William F. Albright, the Egyptian Antiquities Department of the British Museum, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis, and diffusionist Cyrus H. Gordon, among others.
Hunter completed a draft of the first of his projected two-volume work on the Michigan Relics. Discarding contemporary archaeology, he recycled the classic sources behind the old mound-builder myth. Then, after rejecting the staple theories that the mound builders were the lost ten tribes or refugees from Babel, he suggested that the mound builders were Nephites. Hunter perceived the following parallels between the Nephites described in the Book of Mormon and the Michigan mound builders depicted on the Scotford-Soper tablets: white skin, civilization, written language, use of stone as a medium for writing, Hebrew religion, Egyptian-influenced culture, mining, domesticated animals, horse-drawn chariots, highways, a monetary system, and expert weaving technology.
Before passing away, Hunter deeded his collection to the Church.Some of his research was included posthumously in a 1977 Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center report supervised by religion professor Paul R. Cheesman. Like Hunter, Cheesman was interested in archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. His report recognized but underestimated the evidence of fraud. Unaware of facts known today, Cheesman generally argued that the material was genuine and concluded that the artifacts be considered “possibly authentic.” According to the report, one linguist held that the characters “show order.” It may be that some order can be found in some inscriptions, but the report failed to adequately address the basic linguistic problems raised by Francis Kelsey almost a century earlier. The other substantial point in the report concerned a copper knife blade from Hunter’s collection. A metallurgist observed that the blade appeared to be made out of unsmelted native lake copper. As the method behind this observation was not given in the report, it probably did not match the rigor of Talmage’s tests of metal composition. Even if there were a native lake copper blade within Hunter’s collection, explanations for such an anomaly have been given above.
In his general study of fraud, Curtis D. MacDougall discovered a “cardinal truth about hoaxes.” That is, “they survive a great deal of debunking.”There will probably always be some people who believe that some or all of the Scotford-Soper artifacts are authentic, despite the extensive and competent physical, historical, and epigraphical investigations that have found them fraudulent. (See, for example, the scientific study in the accompanying article by Richard B. Stamps, “Tools Leave Marks: Material Analysis of the Scotford-Soper-Savage Michigan Relics.”)
The story of Mormonism’s encounter with the Michigan Relics contains a model of investigative research as well as a cautionary tale. James E. Talmage was both open-minded and careful throughout his investigation. He performed the necessary research and he followed the evidence. His judicious investigation of the Michigan Relics can serve as a model for Latter-day Saints interested in Book of Mormon and biblical archaeology.