The story of the Kinderhook Plates among Mormon apologetic literature is a sad reminder of the frequency and extent to which the Prophet Joseph Smith is simply not believed by LDS academics and apologists to be exactly who he claimed to be. There is ample evidence to support the fact that the Kinderhook Plates (KPs from here on out) are as genuine as the Prophet said they were. This is what he had to say about them:
* Please note that apologists claim this was an adaptation from William Clayton's journal and not an actual quotation of Joseph Smith. This is an assumption. Regardless, it really doesn't matter. We get the gist whether or not it is in the first person.
The KPs are something that were taken for granted as being authentic up until 1879, when an anti-Mormon writer for the Salt Late Tribune, James T. Cobb, opened up a correspondence with one of the non-members involved in the mound-dig that produced the plates, Wilburn Fugate. Fugate, for the first time in the 36 years since the discovery, made a statement to the effect that the plates were all part of a "humbug" scheme gotten up by three citizens of Kinderhook, Illinois to fool the Mormon Prophet into translating a bogus artifact (A very convenient assertion since, to his knowledge, the KPs had been lost or destroyed and his claim would have been nearly impossible to prove. Add to that the fact that of the two men he implicated as co-conspirators one was dead and the other presumed dead). Latter-day Saint readers of the time largely ignored the Tribune's 1879 attempt to paint the KPs as a hoax.
In the course of recorded events, at no time did any of the three men attempt to have Joseph Smith handle the KPs. There were two Mormon "elders" present at the dig and who also signed the official statement which appeared in the local paper, the Quincy Whig: James Robertson Sharp and a "G.F.W. Ward," although Fugate mistakenly remembers the second man as "Marsh" instead of Ward in his letter.
Is it just me, or does this seem like Robert Wiley, one of the supposed co-conspirators and on whose land the mound was situated, was not too invested in even having Joseph Smith see the plates, let alone duping him into making a false translation of them? Wiley's actions suggest that he thought of the plates as genuine, putting them in the charge of Professor McDowell for his college museum, where they remained up until the Civil War.
Fugate alone was the only one to declare the plates fraudulent. The others died without having said anything about a hoax or a joke. There are quite a few more problems with Wilbur Fugate's story:
1) Fugate has Wiley going to the mound the night before the dig and placing the "fraudulent" plates under "a flat rock...that sounded hollow beneath." However, the following was reported about the day of the dig: " after making ample opening, we found plenty of rock, the most of which appeared as though it had been strongly burned; and after removing two full feet of said rock, we found plenty of charcoal and ashes; also human bones that appeared they had been burned; and near the encephalon a bundle was found..." These stories do not remotely resemble each other.
2) Fugate claimed that Robert Wiley had local blacksmith Bridge Whitten (the 3rd man) cut the plates out of some pieces of copper when, in fact, they were of brass - and as anyone making a forgery with brass in 1843 would know...it was a rare and expensive commodity in that particular year that anyone footing the bill would have been able to recollect.
3) Fugate also says "Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid." Whoa, whoa, whoa! First of all, I want to know what reference they would have been using to create these hieroglyphic impressions. In a letter of the time written by a Charlotte Haven who was visiting her sister in Nauvoo it was said that Joshua Moore, the man who borrowed the plates from Wiley under the assumed name Savage and brought them north to show Joseph Smith, told them Joseph Smith had remarked "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." Unless I am very much mistaken, no reference material was available to the general public for such characters along frontier America.
It's necessary to interject what had happened to the plates from the time of the Civil War (as detailed here in the late, great Improvement Era publication). Professor McDowell's facilities were commandeered by the Union Army for use as a prison. A soldier in the 2nd Iowa Reserve Regiment had come upon them and had given them to McDowell's son, who passed it on to a Dr. Richardson, who sold it to a collector named Charles Gunther, who gifted one of the remaining plates (plate #5) to the Chicago Historical Society, where it remained until it was discovered by a former BYU instructor and Mormon history enthusiast, M. Wilford Poulson in the 1960s. It had been mislabeled as one of the original gold plates of the Book of Mormon.
My second problem with the Fugate statement in #3 is that in 1953, prior to it's re-discovery by the LDS community, two professional engravers were invited by the Chicago Historical Society to examine plate #5 and pronounce their opinion on whether it had been etched or engraved. Their notarized statement reads: "the plate was engraved with a pointed instrument and not etched with acid." Exhaustive, non-destructive testing performed by permission at BYU in 1969 produced mixed results; physicists, engravers, a jeweler, a metalworker, and several photographers could not come to an agreement whether it had been etched, engraved or both.
Finally, in 1980, an LDS academic by the name of Stanley B. Kimball, had more testing performed on the plate using microscopes and microprobes and X-ray fluorescence. They did, indeed, detect the presence of nitrogen in some of the grooves, consistent with a copper nitrate residue possibly found in acid etching (but also consistent with the fact that, according to a letter written by a Dr. W P Harris who was present at the dig "It was agreed by the company that I should cleanse the plates: accordingly I took them to my house, washed them with soap and water, and a woolen cloth; but finding them not yet cleansed I treated them with dilute sulphuric acid which made them perfectly clean, on which it appeared that they were completely covered with hieroglyphics that none as yet have been able to read.” Early nineteenth-century sulphuric acid often contained nitrogen impurities, as nitrous vitriol was used in the sulphuric acid manufacturing process of this time. )
The fact that fluorescence showed the plate to be made of a true brass alloy (73% copper, 24% zinc, and lesser amounts of other metals) with "very few traces of impurities" should hardly surprise anyone professing to believe in a book of scripture that says:
Incidentally, the Jaredites in the Book of Ether were the same people described as "large and mighty men" whose bones the Nephites encountered, along with their large breastplates of brass and copper (Mosiah 8:10). Nine-foot skeleton? It just adds to what these Gentile frontiersmen couldn't possibly have known in order to perpetuate such a fraud on the Mormons.
One of the most unexpected nails in the coffin for Fugate's confession is the fact that sheet brass was pretty hard to come by in 1843. British brass was under embargo. What little copper (main ingredient in brass) there was in America was imported from Chile and Peru in its raw form, but the U.S. smelting industry did not emerge until the mid-1840s. In 1842 the British government increased duties on foreign ore to be smelted in Britain outrageously. American copper mining didn't begin in earnest until beginning in 1844. Add to that the economic depression of 1839-1843, and you have a truly peculiar year for copper/brass. Mens' buttons were being made out of "milk-glass." Clockmakers were getting by with making wooden gears. You didn't see many American-made brass instruments on the market that year. How in the world did they get their hands on enough brass to make those plates on the frontier of America when, even in the coastal cities, it was a scarce commodity in 1843? (Credit goes to the unknown author of this article here for raising this question).
Why have apologists since the 1960's been so easy to convince that the KPs were a hoax when Joseph Smith clearly believed in them? Why have we been so slow to ask the obvious questions? I, personally, suspect it has something to do with a perception of Book of Mormon geography that has crept into the mainstream of the Church since the passing of Joseph Smith and which the KPs do not support. Thanks to the work of "amateurs" such as Wayne May and Rodney Meldrum (amateurs being the ones Hugh Nibley counseled us to trust; see his Day of the Amateur piece), we are experiencing a renaissance in the type of geography taught by the Prophet. The Kinderhook plates support the fact that the Jaredites lived in places like Illinois, not Hidalgo, just as the Nephites lived in Ohio and not Oaxaca.
Has LDS scholarship let an insistence in the meso-American model of Boof of Mormon geography blind them so badly that it becomes philosophically necessary to minimize Joseph Smith's abilities as a revelator, designating his as a misguided secular attempt at translation and/or to downplay his obvious excitement over the unearthing of the Kinderhook plates?
What say ye?