Q. Given the present LDS belief that the Kinderhook plates were fraudulent, how can one explain the following things?
- Why would Joseph Smith have allowed the Times and Seasons to focus so much on the plates? (The publication dedicated seven whole pages to the topic during the time the plates were in Nauvoo.)
- William Clayton was with Joseph Smith the day he gave his assessment of the Kinderhook plates (Intimate Chronicle, page 100).
- In a letter written from that city, dated 2 May 1843, Charlotte Haven said that when Joshua Moore “showed them to Joseph, the latter said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written, and if Mr. Moore could leave them, he thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them.” (Overland Monthly, Dec. 1890, page 630). This provides evidence that others based the assumption Smith translated the plates did not come from William Clayton.
- William Clayton’s diary account says that he dined with the Prophet the night he gave his opinion on the plates.
- Brigham Young approved the history of Joseph Smith. Moreover, he was at Joseph Smith’s house and saw the plates there.
A. (by Ben McGuire) The Kinderhook plates have been something of an enigma within the Mormon community since they first appeared in April of 1843. While there are faithful LDS who take a number of different positions on the topic of these artifacts, I personally believe the accounts that paint them as a hoax. To answer the questions raised, however, I would like to point out some of my own observations.
First, Joseph Smith was no longer the editor of the Times and Seasons in April of 1843. He had resigned from that position in November 1842. His ability to control the content of that paper (or his desire to do so to the extent that you suggest) is doubtful. At the same time, seven pages probably should not be considered as significant as you suggest. Among the content of those seven pages were woodcuts of the plates, a series of affidavits from those who “discovered” them, and, a reproduction of an editorial from the Quincy Whig. This was of interest not just to the Mormons in Nauvoo, but also to the surrounding region.
Second, Joseph Smith appears to have had the plates in his possession for about five days.
Third, William Clayton’s account is problematic. We can either take it as representing personal and specific knowledge acquired from Joseph Smith, or not, or something between being entirely accurate or entirely false. The reason for this is that only two contemporary accounts exist (Clayton’s is one of them) which attempt to detail the alleged contents of the plates. These accounts are not in agreement on several points. In addition, Clayton’s account has significant points of error with regard to the discovery as related both in the series of affidavits, and by those perpetrating the hoax. Could Joseph Smith have been the source of these errors?
Clayton’s account details the following:
I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams County by some persons who were digging in a mound. They found a skeleton about 6 feet from the surface of the earth which was 9 foot high. [At this point there is a tracing of a plate in the journal.] The plates were on the breast of the skeleton. This diagram shows the size of the plates being drawn on the edge of one of them. They are 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 Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.
Parley P. Pratt’s account reads:
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. His bones were found in the same vase (made of Cement). Part of the bones were 15 ft. underground. … A large number of Citizens have seen them and compared the characters with those on the Egyptian papyrus which is now in this city.
The Quincy Whig’s comments read:
Finally, a company of ten or twelve repaired to the mound, and assisted in digging out the shaft commenced by Wiley. After penetrating the mound about 11 feet, they came to a bed of limestone, that had apparently been subjected to the action of fire, they removed the stone, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found SIX BRASS PLATES, secured and fastened together by two iron wires, but which were so decayed, that they readily crumbled to dust upon being handled. The plates were so completely covered with rust as almost to obliterate the characters inscribed upon them; but after undergoing a chemical process, the inscriptions were brought out plain and distinct…
And finally, W. Fugate, one of the perpetrators of the hoax, much later wrote:
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.
Under this rock (which) was dome-like in appearance (and) about three feet in diameter, there were a few bones in the last stage of decomposition, also a few pieces of pottery and charcoal. There was no skeleton found.
So, the first issue is this “skeleton” which did not exist–there wasn’t one with the plates. There was never any mention of a skeleton by those who excavated the plates. Yet, we have both Pratt and Clayton providing related (albeit different) accounts of this skeleton. According to Clayton we have a nine foot tall skeleton, apparently buried six feet from the surface. Pratt indicates there was a skeleton (of presumed normal stature) with parts buried fifteen feet down. Pratt also notes that the skeleton was buried in a cement vase. Clayton claims that the plates were found on the breast of the skeleton. Clayton also claims that it was found in Adams County (incorrect) while Pratt notes that it came from Pike County (correct).
Both Clayton and Pratt claim that the plates reflect the history of the individual they were found with–yet there was no skeleton found! There were found some “human bones that appeared as though they had been burned,” but this is the extent of the description in the initial press release, and the affidavits make no mention of them. So, we are left in a bit of a conundrum. Clayton inseparably connects the translation of the plates to the history of an imaginary skeleton nine feet tall (if taken as being interred vertically, this also coincides with Pratt’s claim that part of the skeleton was fifteen feet down). Both Clayton’s and Pratt’s accounts contain numerous exaggerations or distortions. Unless Joseph himself had no contact with the original accounts, or with any of those present at the dig (which seems unlikely), it would really appear that Clayton was relying on information which did not come from Joseph Smith when he authored his journal entry.
Since no actual translation was ever forthcoming, and since there is no actual evidence for a translation being made, most believing LDS conclude that it is safe to assume that no translation actually occurred.
There is one more observation. The plates were first brought to Nauvoo on 29 April 1843. Clayton’s journal entry is for 1 May 1843 and Charlotte Haven’s letter is dated 2 May 1843. On Wednesday (3 May) or Thursday (4 May) the Times and Seasons noted: “We are informed however, that he purposes returning them for translation; if so, we may be able yet to furnish our readers with it” The indication here is that no translation had yet occurred. It seems reasonable to me that what we get in Clayton’s journal is largely the product of the rumor mill; hearsay, and not what actually transpired. (Actually, we know that his description of the plates discovery is entirely erroneous, leaving us to speculate on the issue of translation).
As a last comment, Clayton was certainly with Joseph much of the day on 1 May, but, not “all day,” and certainly there were other things occurring. Among other things, Joseph’s marriage to Lucy Walker at which Clayton officiated.
Editor’s note: Ben McGuire is planning on writing a more detailed treatment of the issues surrounding the Kinderhook plates in the near future.