Mormon History

Kinderhook Plates Hoax - 1879

The Salt Lake Daily Tribune May 10, 1879


As the plates found at Kinderhook, Illinois, April 23d, 1843, are again the subject of curious speculation among archeologists, as is evidenced by a respectful allusion to them in a recent issue of the Deseret News, doubtless the following queries and correspondence, old and new, concerning them will be read with interest. When "the bell-shaped plates" were first discovered, it was confidently thought they would aid and, indeed, they have done yeoman service in corroborating the story of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Said the Times and Seasons of May 1st, 1843, "circumstances are duly transpiring which give additional testimony to the Book of Mormon." "That anything like plates could have been used in ancient times, especially among the primitive inhabitants of this continent, has been thought improbable," was also remarked by the same authority, and the editor (John Taylor) added:

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 of 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 havebeen such plates as those from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Mr. Smith has had these (Kinderhook) 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 similie 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.

Then follows, in the Times and Seasons, an elaborate statement from the Quincy Whig, which is headed, "Singular Discovery -- Material for another Mormon Book," which we reproduce as a curiosity of literature. (see original article from 1843)

The Times and Seasons was addressed by W. P. Harris, M. D., who gave further interesting details of the great and wonderful discovery, telling how the writer took the plates home and washed them with soap and water; but finding that ineffectual, how he "treated them with dilute sulphuric acid, on which it appeared that they were completely covered with hieroglyphics which none as yet have been able to read. And wishing that the world might know the hidden things as fast as they come to light," says the Doctor, "I was induced to state the facts, hoping that you would give them insertion in your excellent paper, for we all feel anxious to know the true meaning of the plates, and publishing the facts might lead to the true translation."

The following certificate was also forwarded to the Times and Seasons and appeared in its issue of May, 1843:

We the citizens of Kinderhook, whose names are annexed, do certify and declare that on the 23d 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 band and ring on said plates mouldered into dust on a slight pressure. The above described plates we have handed to Mr. Sharp for the purpose of taking them to Nauvoo.

Rob't Wiley,     W. P. Harris,    
G. W. F. Ward,     W. Longnecker,    
Fayette Grubb,     Ira S. Curtis,    
Geo. Deckenson,     J. R. Sharp,    
          W. Fugate.

Much speculation has been indulged in regard to the origin of these plates. A careful fac simile of them was taken and published in Mormon works. John Hyde and Dr. Mackay reproduce the original Mormon fac simile with respectful and wondering comment. Captain Burton, Messrs. Tucker, Stenhouse and Beadle, likewise, in treating of Mormonism, are puzzled to know the true history of these mysterious tablets, and generally fall in with the view of the Quincy Whig and Times and Seasons, that they, at least, may tend to strengthen the hypothesis that plates were found by Joseph Smith, jr., in his diggings here and there, while, of course, sceptical, (except in the case of the Times and Seasons,) of the translation of the Book of Mormon therefrom.

The following letter, addressed to a gentleman in this city, will reflect that light upon the discovery of the Kinderhook plates which so many have long sought:

Mound Station, Illinois,    
April 8, 1879.    

Mr. _______ I received your letter in regard to those plates, and will say in answer that they are a humbug gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton (a blacksmith) and myself. B. Whitton is dead. Wiley may be living. He was a Missourian. None of the nine persons who signed the certificate knew the secret excepting Wiley and myself. There were two Mormon elders present when the plates were found. Their names were Ward and Sharp. A man by the name of Savage, of Quincy, under an assumed name, borrowed the plates to show to his friends there, and took them to Joe Smith. After they were returned, Wiley gave them to Prof. McDowell, of St. Louis, Mo., for his Museum, but since McDowell's death we heard that they were taken to the Chicago Medical College and placed in the Museum. By writing to Prof. John Hodgen, of St. Louis, you may find out where they are, and also if Wiley is still living. He was a graduate of that college.

Dr. Harris was not a Mormon. He was a chemist and took the rust off the plates when found. The Doctor is dead. Wiley is not a Mormon.

The plates were cut out of copper by a blacksmith (Bridge Whitton). Wiley and myself made the hieroglyphics. A man by the name of Newman saw the plates when they were put in the mound, but whether he is living or not I do not know. I do not know of any man by the name of Roberts. I will say in conclusion that the plates were made simply for a joke. I believe I have answered all of your questions and given you the particulars concerning them. Yours respectfully.

W. Fugate.    

P. S. As father is too old and nervous to write, he requested me to answer, and the above is written as he directed.    Mattie Fugate.

Your letter came to Mount Sterling, and as we havemoved from there several years ago, we did not get it until a few days ago, consequently the delay in answering.

I will give the reason or cause of the joke. We were reading Pratt's prophecy, that truth yet was to spring up out of the earth, and, as they were digging at Kinderhook, we concluded to make the plates, and dig down about eight feet and came to a flat rock and put them under it. They were fastened together with rust made of nitric acid, lead and rusty iron. The hieroglyphics were impressions made in beeswax and filled with nitric acid and placed on the plates. We understood Jo Smith said they would make a book of 1,200 pages, but he would not agree to translate them until they were sent to the Antiquarian Society at Philadelphia, France and England. They were sent, and the answer was that there were no such hieroglyphics known, and if there ever had been they had long since passed away. Then Smith began his translation.   W. Fugate

To do justice to this ridiculous farce, we shall have to repair to the pages of the delightful and sham-puncturing Dickens. He describes exactly such a discovery:

It was at this moment that Mr. Pickwick made that immortal discovery, which has been the pride and boast of his friends, and the envy of every antiquarian in this or any other country * * * "I can discern," continued Mr. Pickwick, rubbing away with all his might, and gazing intently through his spectacles. "I can discern a cross, and a B, and then a T. This is important," continued Mr. Pickwick, starting up, "this is some very old inscription, existing perhaps long before the ancient alms-houses in this place. It must not be lost." * * *

The exultation and joy of the Pickwickians knew no bounds when their patient assiduity, their washing and scraping, were crowned with success. The stone was uneven and broken, and the letters were straggling and irregular, but the following fragment of an inscription was clearly to be deciphered:


Mr Pickwick's eyes sparkled with delight as he sat and gloated over the * * * the evidence of his senses.

"This must be at once deposited," he exclaimed, "where it can be thoroughly investigated and properly understood. In a country known to abound in remains of the early ages --"

But we have already given enough to satisfy the cravings of the archaeological mind. Grandmother [the Deseret News editor(s)] inquires, "Who were the engravers of the plates, continually being found on this continent? The Kinderhook plates, for instance." We refer the old girl to Mr. W. Fugate, who tells a story which will relieve the perplexities of many inquiring students.

Note 1: The Tribune writer (probably James T. Cobb) was evidently responding in his article to a series of letters that appeared in the Deseret News, between Jan. 1 and Jan. 22, 1879, regarding ancient engraved plates, such as the one purportedly owned by Ben Styles, "thickly covered with hieroglyphics," from which "quite a number of fac similes" were reproduced, at an early date, "at a printing office in Cincinnati." Cobb's inquiries regarding the Kinderhook plates were eventually responded to by Wilbur (or Wilbourne) Fugate, resulting in this article of May 10, 1879. Cobb apparently requested Mr. Fugate to re-write his letter in the form of a signed affidavit. The second Fugate statement (dated June 30, 1879) reads very much like his letter of April 8th; it was first published by Dr. W. Wyl in his 1881 book. The May 10, 1879 Tribune exposure of the Kinderhook plates hoax appears to have been largely ignored by Latter Day Saint readers, despite the circulation of reprints in 1879 issues of the Ogden Freeman, the Reno Nevada State Journal, and other western papers.

Note 2: What appears to have been the second published exposure of the Kinderhook plates hoax was published in the form of a letter in the Chicago Inter Ocean of Jan. 31, 1888. See the Lamoni, Iowa Saints' Herald of Mar. 10, 1888 for the "Mormon" reaction. See also Rev. R. B. Neal's "The Champion Hoaxer Hoaxed," in the June, 1909 number of his Sword of Laban. See also James D. Bales' 1958 The Book of Mormon? for a discussion of the topic, including a reprint of Dr. W. P. Harris' 1855 letter exposing the hoax.

Note 3: A facsimile sheet providing various details in regard to the Kinderhook plates was published by the Nauvoo Neighbor, in 1843, along with an interesting article on the plates' discovery, etc. On Sept. 3, 1856, the Salt Lake City Deseret News published the following sentences, as a part of its serialization of "The History of Joseph Smith": "I insert fac similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. R. 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 by ancient characters.... In the following issue, Smith continues his history, by saying: "I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain a 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" (cf. LDS HC 5:374-375). Smith wrote very little of his published history and this entry was most likely inserted into the original text by its later LDS editors -- evidently from the Nauvoo Journal of William Clayton.

Note 4: William Clayton's Journal entry for May 1, 1843 reads: "I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams county, covered with ancient characters of language containing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth." Compare the substance of the journal entry with a May 7, 1843 letter by Apostle Pratt: "Six plates having the appearance of Brass have lately been dug out of a mound by a gentleman in Pike Co. Illinois. They are small and filled with engravings in Egyptian language and contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah" (The Ensign, Aug. 11, 1981, p 73).