Friday, January 25, 2013

On Con-Man Similarities

When looking at various sources regarding the history of the mormon church, one can easily find claims that Joseph Smith was a con-man. They invariably include such things as his apparent criminal record before starting the church, and similar such things. But when looking at the church’s history, one of the things that I noticed strongly but never saw explicitly pointed out was the appearance of impropriety cropping up time and again. Throughout many of the stories about Joseph Smith, even the sanitized mormon versions of the stories, he routinely makes actions that are very much in-line with what a knowing deceiver would do. Once you strip out the alleged reasons behind his actions and just look at what he actually did, a disturbing pattern emerges, at least to my eyes.

One good example of Joseph’s actions matching that of a con-man appears within the story of the lost 116 pages of the book of mormon.  Here is a quick version of the parts of the tale pertinent to this post. Martin Harris was acting as Joseph’s scribe at the time, helping to translate the plates of gold. But Martin still had doubts as to the authenticity of Smith’s claims. He finally convinced Smith to lend him the transcript of the 116 pages that had been written so far, to show to his wife and a few others. While Martin was back home with the manuscript, the manuscript vanished from his wife’s locked bureau where it was being kept. Joseph Smith eventually claimed that God had commanded him not to re-translate from the Book of Lehi, but to instead translate from the Book of Nephi, which contained an abridged version of the same events.

After the manuscript disappearance, Martin Harris’ wife said that if Joseph was truly speaking through god then he should be able to easily replace it. For a skeptic such as Lucy Harris, the implication here was clear; a replacement would be proof of Joseph’s divine claims if the replacement was word for word identical, but his claims would be dis-proven otherwise.

Keep in mind here, I am deliberately giving a brief account of the events and not the whole story. I’m trying to focus on Joseph’s suspicious actions, and some parts of the story do not relate to this. If you really want to know more, there are tons of sources out there about it; you can always start at Wikipedia if you want. Anyway, back to the tale. Time to examine the stripped-down version of the story, and not the prettied-up version that exists of any story that has been retold often enough. And the bare facts are that Joseph made and/or translated a different telling of the same story that was contained within the 116 pages.

Let us consider things from the point of view of a trickster. Setting aside Joseph Smith for a moment, let us consider a con-man in a similar situation. This con-man claimed to have divine translation powers, and had convinced a prosperous man to finance the ‘translation’ work. But someone had managed to steal the only existing manuscript, and skeptics had declared that a truly divine source would be able to recreate the manuscript. The con-man would know that the expectation would be that a re-translation would not be identical, and that this would expose his fraud. And since he was a con-man and was in fact running a scam, he would know that he would not be able to make up an identical copy. Even if he somehow did, the stolen copy could be altered to make the two appear different.

At this point, the con-man has two basic options left to him: give up, or double down. The former option would be to admit defeat, and perhaps slip out of town in the middle of the night; there would always be another gullible chump the next town over. The latter option, the double-down, would be to keep the current scam going, and to try and discredit those that had put him in this bind to begin with. Sometimes, even in the face of clear evidence, a strong enough denial is enough to convince others. Knowing that he could never make an identical copy, the double-down options for the con-man would be to either come up with a convincing excuse for not re-translating that portion of the work, or to come up with a convincing excuse for making a re-translation that was worded differently.

As it so happens, Joseph Smith did both of these things. His claim was that this was a translation of the same story but from another book, from the point of view of a different author. And since it was supposedly written by a different person, this new account will naturally have different wording from the original. He even went so far as to claim that God had foreseen this event, and had multiple accounts of the story prepared for just such a purpose.

The problem here is that the action Joseph Smith took is identical to one of the two choices that a con-man would have likely made. If a con-man had decided to double-down on his scam, this is exactly what he would have done. He would have re-made the work, and had a plausible excuse for why it was worded differently. And what did Joseph Smith do? He recreated the story, and had an excuse as to why it was worded differently.

Now does this prove that Joseph was a fraud? Of course not. This post isn’t about direct evidence contradicting the church; though I may make several of those later. No, this post is about the fact that Joseph’s actions in so many of his stories are the very same actions that a knowing fraudster would have taken. When someone acts in such a suspicious manner too often, it is worth note; where there is smoke, there often is fire. Consider it this way: how likely is it that God was so smart as to prepare another account of the same story, yet so dumb as to let his prophet’s actions in the matter mirror that of criminals? If God had really had such foresight, he would have made sure that the second version of the story did not come out under such suspicious circumstances.  Maybe it could have been revealed by a later prophet or something, but it seems downright silly for a god with this much foresight to have left such a blatant, gaping hole.

And this same gaping hole exists again and again within the stories of Joseph Smith. One example lies with the plates of gold themselves. If you consider for a moment the possibility that Joseph Smith was a con-man, or if you consider a deceiver in a similar situation, then certain actions and non-actions become immediately clear. A con-man in Joseph’s financial situation would never be able to afford an actual facsimile of solid gold plates that would pass more than the most cursory of inspections. So what actions would a con-man take in that situation? He’d make sure that no one else ever saw the plates, and he would come up with a good sounding explanation as to why he refused to show anyone. And what did he do? He didn’t show them to others, and had an excuse as to why he didn’t show them to anyone.

Apologists to the church will immediately point out here that Joseph did purportedly show the plates to a chosen few, the so-called Three Witnesses and Eight Witnesses. Bringing up these individuals however, opens up a huge can of worms for believers.

For starters, these were not reliable witnesses. They were not men that were faithful mormons for the rest of their days, which one would expect from a solid, reliable witness being shown the truth in such a thing. One could expect a reliable witness to be a solid, well-grounded individual that had no real faults to speak of, and who followed the church for the rest of their days. But in fact, the opposite seems to be the case.

Out of the Three Witnesses, all three were excommunicated from the church less than a decade after their written testimony. All three excommunications came within a year or so of each other; one in 1837, and two in 1838. Of the Three, two of them were known to have fanciful visions and hallucinations, even before their association with the church, and about things unrelated to the church. This would make any testimony from them pretty shaky stuff as-is; hardly the solid, reliable witnesses one would expect.

Of the Eight Witnesses, every last one of them was a member of either the Whitmer clan or Joseph Smith’s own family. Of them, all of the Whitmer clan were excommunicated in 1838. So out of all of the Witnesses, there were only three that were not excommunicated within a one-year period: Joseph Smith’s father, and two of his brothers. I should hope that I wouldn’t have to spend much time explaining why family testimony is unreliable. So far, this is hardly a collection of solid and reliable witnesses to support the introduction of the One True Church upon the earth.

Now let’s look on these events from the viewpoint of the con-man. For the fraud, it would be necessary not to show the plates to anyone, especially early on when the con-man’s finances would not allow for any sort of reasonable facsimile. But a fraud such as this would be severely weakened without a shred of evidence that the plates ever existed. For a more convincing con some evidence would be needed, like witnesses that could vouch for the plates’ existence. Simply paying someone off to vouch for the plates would not be likely; such a person would be explicitly privy to the fraudulent nature of the con, and would place it in great jeopardy to exposure. Another option would be to use a spiritual experience to convince the people involved that they had experienced something that they had in fact not experienced at all; modern con-men such as psychics that claim to be able to speak with deceased loved ones utilize this method. Another possible solution would be to create a facsimile of the plates whenever finances allow.

Whether using an induced spiritual event or utilizing a facsimile of the plates, protecting the secret of the con would require that any witnessing be a one-time event. Subsequent handling of a facsimile would greatly increase the risk that the forgery would be detected; likewise, repeated spiritual events would run a similar risk, as many of the techniques used are either low percentage techniques or techniques that would become more obvious with repeated uses upon the same audience. (for a brief overview of one of the techniques that could be used, see the Wikipedia article on Cold Reading.)

A similar issue arises when looking at who the witnesses are. A con-man would find it very difficult to get a truly dependable set of witnesses; a fraud would more likely get a group of weak witnesses, and rely upon the natural tendency of people to believe in such statements without first investigating the reliability of the witnesses. The con-man would need to rely heavily on family, friends, and the easily fooled to find their witnesses. As it so happens, Joseph Smith picked witnesses that were family, witnesses that were easily fooled or otherwise given to fanciful visions, and the families of those fools. Again, what a striking similarity.

And what to do about these witnesses afterwards? An honest and true prophet would likely expose the Witnesses to the plates on multiple occasions; it would strengthen their accounts, lessen doubt, and there would be virtually no risk in doing so. Those people have already shown themselves to be people that are faithful enough not to be struck down by viewing the plates, and further viewings could only provide further testimonies as to their authenticity.

The con-man, on the other hand, would certainly never let them ‘see’ the plates a second time, as this would drastically increase the risk of exposure. Someone already on the inside of the con might be able to claim multiple exposures, but the rest would certainly be limited to a one-time event.

And how would a con-man respond to the threat of exposure down the line? What if he feared that his methods might be exposed? These witnesses would certainly be popular interview subjects among church members and the curious; they would likely end up telling their account of events many, many times. Any methods that the con-man used, or discrepancies between accounts, could end up being disastrous over a long enough period of time. The con-man would probably want to remove them from the picture after they had served their purpose. And if the current events of the day were increasing the risk of exposure, then the con-man might have to remove many of them from the picture in a relatively short period of time. Lo and behold, a power struggle was occurring between groups in the church around 1838, and all of the Witnesses that were not Joseph’s direct blood relatives all ended up being excommunicated right around then.

Again, the contrast seems striking to me. God was so smart, and had such foreknowledge to make a second account of the beginnings of the book of mormon, yet was dumb enough to let it be brought forth in such a suspicious manner. God was smart enough to provide Witnesses to the authenticity of the book of mormon, but dumb enough to make them all unreliable witnesses. In many of Joseph Smith’s other stories, you find similar results. If you assume a con-man was in Joseph’s situation, then his responses make complete and total sense. It happens far too much to be easily explained away. I simply cannot imagine that an all-knowing deity would leave such gaping holes in such important events. 

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