What Paper and Wood Tell Us About the Gold Plates

When Joseph Smith finally received the gold plates from the stone box that had been buried on the tiny hill we now call th Hill Cumorah, he did not bring them directly home, but hid them in a log since he did not have anything to cover them or store them in. In Chapter One of From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, BYU and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2015), Michael H. MacKay and Gerrut J. Dirkmat describe the pains Joseph took to properly protect the plates now that he had received them. His first task, then, was to seek a wooden box to put the plates in.

Leaving the plates hidden in the woods, Joseph did not initially intend on showing them to anyone, but instead he set out to find a chest or box to keep them in…. He had apparently asked his neighbor Willard Chase, a local carpenter and joiner, twice in September to make a case for him before he retrieved the plates. Chase likely refused because he doubted that Joseph could repay him for the materials and labor. Chase remembered Joseph making plans to protect the plates, contemplating the problems that he would face once he had them and knowing that the angel had charged him to keep them hidden. The day Joseph went to the hill to obtain the plates, he was still looking for someone to make a box for the plates. Before leaving for the hill, he woke his mother and asked “if [she] had a chest with a lock and key” to store the plates once he retrieved them, but she had nothing to offer him. [From Darkness unto Light, p. 6]

She told Joseph to go to a cabinetmaker who had been making something for their oldest daughter, hoping to be able to buy it on credit because they had no money. But she was able to negotiate a deal involving paying half in produce and half with money (apparently on loan). The next day, a Mrs. Well of Macedon asked for Joseph to come help dig a well, giving him a day of paid labor that Joseph’s mother felt was a blessing from God to allow them to pay their debt to the cabinet maker. [From Darkness unto Light, pp. 6-7]

The lack of a wooden cabinet tells us something about the plates. So does the lack of paper that later hindered the translation process.  In Chapter Eight of the same source, MacKay and Dirmat explain that the paper that Joseph and Oliver had received as a gift from Joseph Knight Sr. had run out, and thus the translation process faced a roadblock. Out of money and supplies, Joseph and Oliver left Harmony, PA and traveled 20 miles to reach the Knight home in Colesville, only to find that he had left on business. They returned still without paper for their work.

Joseph and Oliver had no choice but to stop the translation process to look for work in order to get funds for paper. But they were unsuccessful in finding work, and were now empty-handed and hungry. Fortunately, Joseph Knight came to the rescue, bringing generous supplies and paper, and the work continued.

As someone in the forest products industry, the role of two forest products in the Book of Mormon story intrigues me. The Book of Mormon project was hindered twice due to the lack of needed forest products. The lack of a wooden box to protect the plates (but special thanks to the tree that served as a temporary storage place!) and the lack of paper for the translation process.

Both of these issues point to the granular reality of the Book of Mormon and the impoverished state its translator. If the plates did not exist, would he be out shopping for jobs to afford to pay a carpenter for a box to store them in? And if Joseph could not even afford paper for the translation process, could he have afforded expensive tin or copper plates to make a fake set of plates to impress the witnesses? Indeed, when Martin Harris first hefted the plates, still covered in a box, he said, “I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead.” [Martin Harris interview in “Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly, Joel Tiffany, ed., vol. 5, no. 4, August 1859, pp. 163–170, quotation from p. 169.] By the way, he estimated their weight at 40-50 pounds, close to the 60 pounds estimate we have from William Smith, which is an excellent fit not for a chunk of pure gold of the same size (that would be around 200 pounds), but for a stack of thin plates made from a lighter copper-gold alloy like tumbaga from Mesoamerica, with significant air space occurring between the stacked plates, based on analysis from metallurgist Reed Putnam in “Were the Golden Plates made of Tumbaga?” (Update, 5/17/16: A very useful page on this topic was just prepared at Book of Mormon Central: “What Kind of Ore did Nephi Use to Make the Plates?“)

Detail after detail around the translation process supports the reality of the plates and of the oral dictation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was not a front for a smooth, well-financed operation to deceive people. He was not working off a carefully drafted manuscript that he or someone else with plenty of paper had been crafting for years. He was not dealing with visionary, floating plates, but with real ancient plates that needed a real wooden box in which to be carried safely. Plates that could be hefted and touched. And for both the box and the paper, Joseph was willing to drop everything to go work in order to afford a simple item that he needed. This is a gritty, granular story that doesn’t fit common theories of fraud.

Paper and wood tell us something about the metal plates of Joseph Smith.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

82 thoughts on “What Paper and Wood Tell Us About the Gold Plates

  1. "Joseph was willing to drop everything to go work in order to afford a simple item that he needed."

    It's not like he had much else going on at the time. He was an unemployed twenty-something with a new wife and not much prospect. He had already been convicted in a court of law for disturbing the peace for his treasure seeking activities. To continue his "work" (whether it be translation or fraud), he needed some way to finance it.

    An interesting note, much of his adult life was spent accepting financial help from others, as he did in your paper example above, versus going out and digging wells like he did in the box example.

  2. When considering Mormanity’s “reality of the plates", please consider the following. Mormanity now believes the once “real” Urim and Thummim may have actually been a “real” seer stone, which may have been nothing more than an ordinary rock used as a confidence trick to facilitate the translation of “real” metal plates, which he now admits were not used to translate.

    With this in mind, detail after detail may support a rough, poorly financed operation for a poorly crafted manuscript of a decade-rehearsed story resulting in a book that put Mark Twain to sleep with filler words. A common theory fitting the blasé stories from Scientology to David Koresh.

  3. Let us counter Mormography's speculations with the following: the U & Th have consistently, for a long time, referred to either the stones in a metal bow or the seer stone found when JS dug a well. The plates were very likely real, attested to by many witnesses. They certainly don't deserve to be referred to as "real" metal plates, because they more likely than not existed. We cannot say the plates were not used to translate, since they were always close by. Advanced technology could have been used, similar to what we are familiar with today, requiring them to be close to the human translator — in the sense of retransmitter — for the already-prepared English-language translation to be transmitted to Joseph Smith, who we know needed to be in an acceptable mental and spiritual state for the transfer to occur.

    Mormography, like Twain before him, knows little of the actual structure of the words of the BofM, yet is perfectly content to gratuitously opine. The manuscript is anything but poorly crafted and does not merely contain filler words. Narrative connectors make up a small percentage of the 270,000 words. Mormography doesn't know the vocabulary and syntax of the book, just as Twain did not know them, but passes himself off as an authority. Very sad.

  4. I'm a fan of grittiness and granularity. Mormonism has a unique opportunity to track down gritty grains of its origins, because they were so much more recent than those of other religions. And it's a sign of honest faith, to me, for Mormons to want to find those gritty grains.

    If the idea is to use the details to confound critics, though, one has to be careful not to rush to judgement. One can form a satisfyingly granular picture of a poor but pious Joseph Smith trying to get a nice box to house the sacred golden plates, and then running out of paper while translating them. But one can form a picture just as granular and gritty in which Smith's problems with boxes and paper are less noble.

    A con man would also have faced the practical, granular problem of finding a box to hold his fake plates. It doesn't take a genius of deception to guess that golden plates hidden in a nice box are easier to swallow than golden plates in a ragged sack. And anyone who has ever written up an idea will understand that a con man who was working from rough notes and memory might find he had underestimated the amount of paper it would take to get the stuff down in fair copied form.

  5. After my own speculations about lead plates, I'm struck by Martin Harris's remarks about the same possibility. Apparently the option of lead instead of gold seemed consistent with the heft he felt, and indeed the weight he guessed is consistent with a block of solid lead of the stated size. (I accept that the weight could also be consistent with a stack of gold-alloy pages.)

    What astounds me is Harris's reference to Smith's finances at this point: he was sure that Smith lacked the credit to have bought that much lead. What the heck? An ordinarily shrewd person whose friend had given him a heavy box to heft would surely think, "Hum, it seems friend Joe has some lead here. Perhaps he found it, or perhaps he had more money stashed away than I thought."

    Instead Harris's reasoning seems literally to have been, "I am sure that my friend is not rich enough to have bought something so heavy and valuable as a hunk of lead. Therefore he must instead have a hunk of gold." Seriously, who thinks like that?

    If readiness to believe is a virtue, then apparently Martin Harris was a saint. And if Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then apparently God had great mercy on Martin Harris, and graciously placed him in the company of his age's one true prophet, instead of in the company of any one of his age's millions of con men. For if Martin Harris had been the companion of any con man, he would have fallen for the fellow's scheme like a ton of bricks.

  6. James, the reasoning is very likely different from what you have just written. Harris had been told by Smith that he'd received gold plates, probably with the understanding, either implicit or explicit, that it was an alloy. Harris knew from experience that the density corresponded to some type of metal. The cheapest, easily obtained metal of that density was lead, but Harris knew that even that would have been out of Smith's financial reach. I suppose Harris could have thought Smith had stolen some lead, but he apparently ruled that out. So he accepted Smith's claim he'd received some gold plates. That seemed more likely to Harris than thievery of lead. I don't know where the closest place was to get that amount of lead, but the larceny would have been news. Perhaps that's why H ruled it out. Someone expert in such things might know.

  7. James,
    I con man would make the con cheap to extract the highest reward from his mark. A con man would not work a con for years. If Joseph were a con man, he would claim that his seer stone could be used to find gold plates and then sold the stone to Harris.

    1. Brooks,

      Ever hear of Christian Gerhartsreiter? He went by the name of Clark Rockefeller. He pulled a scam on some pretty rich, and pretty smart people for many years. How do you know a con man will always go for the quick score? He sure didn't.

  8. Yeah, I get that Harris also had Smith's word to go on, to convince him that the stuff in the box was gold from an angel. I'm just saying that it's pretty shocking self-confidence in his knowledge of Smith's metallic capabilities, to be so sure that Smith couldn't have obtained lead, as to believe angelic gold instead. Normal people would at least have thought, "Hey, maybe I don't know as much about Joseph's access to lead as I thought."

    As to con men: "either a flawless con man or a genuine prophet" is a false dichotomy. Smith could well have been an imperfect con man who faked some things well but also made some mistakes, possibly including strategic mistakes. This post is about gritty granularity; so let's take the fraud scenario seriously as a real-world event, not the plot of a caper film. Beginning con men aren't sure in advance what kinds of stuff will go over with their marks. So the ones that are at all smart probably don't cut too many corners with their most important props. Sometimes it takes money to make money. On the other hand, it's true that perfectionism isn't worth it. Good enough is good enough, and fussing too much just wastes time that is money. Overdoing it here while cutting it close there is the sort of gritty imperfection I'd expect from a real-world con man.

    Long cons can certainly be good ones, though. Selling the seer stone could well have seemed like selling the goose that laid golden eggs.

  9. Joseph Smith had NOT "been convicted in a court of law for disturbing the peace" etc. There was a preliminary hearing before a Justice of the Peace on a complaint brought by Peter Bridgman. It went nowhere, mainly because Josiah Stowell was perfectly happy with Joseph Smith's services. See http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith/Legal_issues/Trials/1826_court_appearance_for_glasslooking.

    It never ceases to amaze me that the enemies of Joseph Smith, living and dead, have never been content with attacking him with facts. Rather, they rely on lies and distortions.

    1. If I recall correctly Barry, Bushman disagrees with your source in Rough Stone Rolling. His conclusion after reviewing the original documents was they were authentic court documents showing a conviction. I could be wrong however, as it's been a couple of years since I read it.

    1. My above comment was directed at the frivolous naysayers in this thread! Joseph Smith was a true Prophet and we shall all stand before him at the last day! I pitty they who fight against Zion!

  10. If the box is still in existence. There are archaeological methods that could be used to shed light on the existence of the plates also there composition and possible ore body location. I've heard that the church history department has a box but i have no idea wether it is authentic or not. If i ever get to Salt Lake city it will be something I look into.

  11. James,
    I have a deep and abiding faith that God worked miracles through Joseph Smith but I am willing to consider theories of fraud or self-delusion to explain events surrounding Joseph’s life. At the same time, weak theories should be abandoned and arguing that Joseph was a con man is a weak theory. The granularity of the evidence speaks to that point. I will return to that point.

    Some of your arguments are shameless. I never suggested that Joseph was a prophet based on the evidence that Lindsay presented let alone go so far as to suggested that he was either a “flawless con man or a genuine prophet.” I never suggested that a con man must be flawless to be successful I suggested no more than the granularity of the evidence suggest that he was not a con man. While a con man may be less than perfect, he must have some success to be called a con man.

    As I previously noted, the setup was too expensive for a con. While props must be good, they cannot exceed the expected payoff. Marginal revenue must exceed marginal cost and it never did. That would not be a characteristic of an average con man but an historically bad one. What was the expected payoff? Groceries? Joseph let it be rumored around town for five years that he was going to get the gold plates. That is more than a long con. If a con, he acquired lead (cheaper than gold) and had them fashioned into plates. Joseph was not capable of this work so he would have had to hire it out, more people to payoff and keep quiet. He also spend considerable time and effort translating them and the story he told was substantial. An angel showed the plates to three people and Joseph showed them to another eight. Others saw, hefted and thumbed them as well. When he had the chance to get some money out of this project, he had the mark spend the money on the fabricated story.

    To play the long con, you must have achieved some success at simpler games and Joseph did not. He did start a church but he did not profit from it. And so the story goes until Joseph’s death. He never made money from his endeavors, nor did his parents and siblings. Neither did his descendants. Neither did his brothers’ descendants. They all acted like what Joseph said and did was at God’s direction. As I said at the start, you can argue fraud of self-delusion but not a con. It doesn’t fit the data.

    1. "He did start a church but he did not profit from it."

      He not only profited financially, he profited in power, prestige, and influence which, to some people, is more important than money (cough. . .Trump. . .cough).

      If you look at Joseph's life and influences, I think a case can be made for evidence of fraud. He surely saw others profiting from religion in his early years at his camp revival attendance. All the Pastors had to do was convince people that theirs was the correct interpretation of the Bible (this is a recurring theme in the Joseph Smith History and the Book of Mormon). As long as they had a unique viewpoint, people would follow and contribute.

      During the treasure seeking phase of his life, he had to have learned that confidence in one's own abilities to do something convinces others to believe. He also likely learned that one of the only times a fraud is truly and completely busted, is when you admit it is a fraud.

      Personally, I believe Joseph was a complex individual. I don't believe he was all good, nor that he was all bad. I think he believed that what he was doing was ultimately good. I believe that he got to the point to where he believed in his own stories as much as he believed in himself. If you read his journal, you witness times of deep spiritual introspection and, yes revelation (the Kirtland temple period is extremely touching). But I see too many problems and too many inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon translation period to believe it was what it is purported to be. There are also problems in the latter history of Joseph's life that point to a highly fallible man, and not an inspired prophet.

  12. Anonymous 9:48 PM, May 17, 2016

    Unfortunately, even the first time you informed us of your imaginative definitions of “real”, we gain no new information.

  13. @Brooks M. Wilson:

    I didn't mean to say that you were saying "either a flawless con man or a true prophet" — though I admit that it could have looked like that. Sorry for the implication. I did and do mean, however, to give a vivid description of a common theme in Mormon apologetics, and to point out why it's fallacious.

    You're not really assuming that Smith can only have been a con man at all if he were a flawless con man. But I think you are doing something rather like this. You're implicitly assuming artificial constraints on what "con man" is allowed to mean — and thereby attacking a straw man. You seem to say that a con man can only be someone who is going for a quick score in cash, and so since Joseph Smith failed to score some quick cash, the whole theory that he was a fraud must be weak.

    What's really shameless, to me, is to claim that Joseph Smith never got profit from being a prophet. Heavens. Mormons proudly (and I believe accurately) recite that Joseph Smith was a poor, uneducated nobody before he brought out the Book of Mormon. Once he gained followers as a prophet, however, his home in Nauvoo was a hotel-sized structure known as Mansion House, he commanded his own private army, he married dozens of young women, and he had thousands of people hanging on his every word.

    Smith couldn't have known how far it would all go, when he first started; just as he couldn't have known, at the end, that the rule of law in which he trusted would fail, and let him be murdered by a mob. One can't really argue from his later success that he must have been a con man, just as one can't really argue from his eventual murder that he must have been a martyr. But even when Smith was just starting it would have been clear to him that a successful religious scam could have good long-term prospects. Ruling him out as a con man just because he set his sights higher than a single quick score makes no sense.

    I think you're also exaggerating the scale of his preparations. I don't know exactly where he would have gotten 40 pounds of lead, but googling "price of lead in 1830" turns up English prices of around 20 pounds sterling per ton. At the contemporary exchange rate (fixed by the gold standard) that was about $100 per ton, or 5¢ a pound. So 40 pounds of lead would have been a $2 investment — not trivial, then, but not a fortune. Googling 1830s prices in New England seems to show that it might have been the price of a gallon or two of liquor. Even if Smith still couldn't have afforded that, it seems to me that $2 worth of lead is a treasure modest enough that it might have remained lost somewhere until Smith found it.

    Having found it, I see no trouble in shaping it. You can easily flatten lead with a hammer — it's quite soft. The supposed stack of plates might in fact have been just a single block of lead, for that matter. You can melt lead in loaf pan on a stove — it has a low melting point.

  14. Hi James,

    I like your research. I wonder how common it was to get 50 pounds of lead, though and I would think that someone would have taken note and made the comment that Joseph or one of his associates purchased 50 pounds of lead. While the weight would have fit the descriptions of people who lifted it, it doesn't fit the description of the person (whose name escapes me now) who "rustled" the individual leaves while it was covered in cloth. Also, Joseph was a farmer and did not work in metal so I would have to assume that hammering the lead into the desired thickness and shape would be a bit troublesome. If Joseph didn't work the lead into the proper form, then who did? I would also assume that said individual would also have taken note and made a comment when the Gold Plates became known.


  15. "Leaf rustling" would be a harder illusion to pull off than just weight; but I'd want to pin the evidence better before thinking about it. How reliable is their account of the "rustling"? What exactly did the "rustler" really do? Were they a potential confederate? How easy to deceive could they have been?

    Even if one reasonable credible witness did report some kind of tactile detection of metallic pages, the fact that most people only got to heft a box is just profoundly suspicious to me. Yes, God might in principle just have told Smith to let people do no more than heft the plates in a box. But God might also in principle have told Smith to spread the gold plates out in the marketplace for all to see. A con man, in contrast, would have had to limit people's exposure to the gimmick.

    So what Smith did is what a prophet might have done, but what a con man would have had to do. If I tell you "this con man pretended to have golden plates" then you can guess immediately that he would be letting people heft a heavy box without looking inside it. If I tell you "this prophet got plates from an angel" then you have no idea what he did with the plates. You'll have to wait until I tell you more. In this sense the fraud theory is not only consistent with Smith's behavior with the plates: it explains the behavior. The prophet theory, in contrast, does not explain the cagey behavior with the plates; it is only consistent with it (because God could have commanded suspicious behavior for reasons only God knows).

  16. Hammering lead into thin pages would probably have been troublesome, yes. But far from impossible. A guy who found a whole bunch of lead might well have worked away at pounding out a thin sheet just out of curiosity, to see whether he could do it. And anyway, with just this one vague account of rustling that you mentioned, I'm far from convinced that the lead (if that was what Smith had) was anything but a solid brick. A farmer could make that with just a stove and a rectangular pan, since lead's so easy to melt.

    As far as I can tell from pro-Mormon accounts, Smith's circumstances were such that his prospects for fame and power by ordinary effort were slim. If he were pursuing a religious con, he might well have considered it his one best shot at making the big time. Like the poor black kid shooting baskets until late in the night, dreaming of making the NBA, people can work pretty hard for something like that.

    Maybe Smith got somebody else to shape his lead for him, instead; but I doubt it. As you point out, he would have had to trust that person pretty far. On the other hand, maybe lead in suitable shape was available commercially for innocent purposes, and if he had bought some lead sheets years before, nobody would have remembered him. For what it's worth, my own guess would be that Joseph Smith was personally in control of producing whatever gimmick he used. Any confederates he might have had seem to have been much less intelligent and energetic people than he was, so I just don't see him leaving something so important up to any of them.

  17. The Wikipedia article on "Architectural Metals" says that "Lead has been a popular roofing material for centuries." So perhaps lead sheets were available in Smith's day. He might have found a little stack of them, or bought them.

    They probably weren't on every house, of course — or all those Book of Mormon hefters would have been saying, "Hey, a stack of lead shingles" right away (and would have been saying it even if the plates were really gold).

  18. Anon and James,
    I would like to go back to the definition of con man and yes James, I am putting constraints on the definition of what it means to be a con man. As I make this case, please recall that once in my original comment and twice in my second I readily acknowledged that the information presented in Lindsay’s post was insufficient to absolve Joseph of other types of fraud or delusion. The granularity of the historical record is simply too great to accuse Joseph of a con, short or long. I will slightly restate that assertion to possibly gain consensus. The high degree of granularity significantly reduces the probability that Joseph was a con man.

    My definition of con man and confidence game come from two sources: my father, a cop who worked bunko and online definitions. Well, I have to acknowledge a third source, old episodes of Maverick. A con game is a subset of a fraud. The terms are not synonymous. From Wikipedia, “A confidence trick…is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence.” Defraud refers to illegally obtaining money by deception. Power, prestige, and influence might be part of some other fraud, but not a confidence game.

    Again, from Wikipedia,
    “A short con or small con is a fast swindle which takes just minutes. It typically aims to rob the victim of everything in his or her wallet.
    A long con or big con is a scam that unfolds over several days or weeks and involves a team of swindlers, as well as props, sets, extras, costumes, and scripted lines.”
    Joseph’s activities were over too long a period of time to be considered a long con, let alone a short. If you look at a biography of Christian Gerhartsreiter, he did not really play a long con. He played a series of short cons that allowed him to achieve immediate enrichment and got lucky on the last and he stayed with it. Joseph, if trying to accomplish goals through fraud kept funneling money into more props and the props greatly exceed the cost of lead and paper. As I noted, they included the cost of transforming the lead to plates, creating the stone box from which the plates were taken (several people saw the box or at least saw a box), the wood box, the paper to translate, the translation process, the publication of the Book of Mormon all argue against a con game. Although Harris may have underestimated the Smith’s resources, he had a better sense of their resources, financial condition, and terms of credit availability than we do. It must be recalled that the problem with Harris as a mark was his reticence to part with money.

    Anon, you argue that all Joseph needed was a unique view point on the Bible and money would follow. Just like any other business, most new enterprises fail. If Joseph and made your observation, he probably would have made mine. You also argue that, “the only times a fraud is truly and completely busted, is when you admit it is a fraud.” That is simply not true. Con men get out of dodge all the time because the police are on his tail, the mark figures out the game, etc.
    James, you argue that Joseph could not have known the end at the beginning but you think that a young man clever enough to begin a fraud at such an early age would have figured out things were not going well at some point and I have considered the possibility that he examined his prospects forward at every point and being a con man always provided the highest expected return. That might be a fraud but it is not a con trick.

    I also looked up the price of lead and estimated the cost at $8.00. Splitting the difference with your estimation, the cost is still high. As a high skilled worker of a peep stone, Joseph earned $14 per month. He gave up that line of work before he began translating. It is likely that he would have needed to give up a month’s full time pay if he could find that kind of employment, to acquire just the lead. He did need to eat, and so did his wife.

    A con man scenario, using the ordinary meaning of con man, simply does not fit the evidence.