Thursday, March 02
When Joseph Merrick, local farmer and innkeeper, purchased a tract of land in west Pittsfield in 1800, he had no expectation that it would prove such fertile ground for growing mystery. Indeed, it was not until 15 years later that a seemingly innocuous piece of refuse found there would go on to arouse the interest of the town's most prominent citizens, and to serve as a potentially crucial clue in controversy surrounding the origins of the Book of Mormon.
In June of 1815, a boy Merrick had employed to clear a piece of yard presented him with a leather strap found among the debris left by plowing. Merrick at first threw it in a box and paid little attention. Only looking at it later did he realize that there was something inside the strap. He cut it open to find several tightly scrolled pieces of parchment. Each was inscribed with Hebrew characters of some sort. Perplexed, Merrick shared the discovery with some of the most learned men at the First Congregational Church, where he served as a deacon. He didn't have to try very hard to get their attention. He had only barely mentioned the find when he found himself called on by a number of curious visitors. Rumors of the object quickly reached Elkanah Watson, father of the American Agricultural Society and probably Pittsfield's most illustrious citizen at the time. Watson wrote in a letter "immediately on hearing of the discovery, I repaired to the house of Mr. Merrick, where I found several clergymen whose curiosity was [also] greatly excited by the strange incident.."
Among those present when Watson arrived was 20-year-old Sylvester Larned, fresh from seminary but already "greatly distinguished for talents and moving eloquence." Larned, though exceedingly well educated for the times, lacked any knowledge of Hebrew. This required the help of William Allen, son of "Fighting Parson" Thomas Allen, and the minister of First Congregational Church at the time. Allen identified the object as a Jewish phylactery, containing four pieces of parchment inscribed with verses from Deuteronomy and Exodus.
Now that they knew what it was, the question of where it came from became all the more exciting to them. No Jewish family or individual had ever lived at that location, so far as anyone knew. Before Merrick it had been the site of "Fort Hill" or Fort Ashley, a blockhouse built by colonial militia during the French and Indian War. Prior to that the area was called "Indian Hill," in reference to it being the site of a former Mohican settlement, and it was this earlier occupation that most intrigued the Pittsfield scholars. In their mind, the phylactery fit quite perfectly into a debate that had begun more than a century and a half before. The theory that the American Indians were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel had first been advanced in 1650, with the publication of Thorowgood's "Jewes in America" and had been a subject of perennial interest in Puritan New England ever since. Watson had already leaped to this conclusion, stating "the artifact must have found its way into this recent wilderness by the agency of some descendants of Israel. this discovery forms another link in the evidence by which our Indians are identified with the ancient Jews." After his initial inspection, Allen was inclined to agree that the phylactery "furnished proof that our Indians were descendants of the ancient chosen people." Adding weight to this conclusion was the late testimony of Dr. West of Stockbridge that "an old Indian" had told him that his ancestors had once "been in the possession of a book which they had, not long since, carried with them, but having lost the knowledge of reading it, they buried it with an Indian Chief."
Shortly thereafter, Allen sent the artifact to Abiel Holmes, a scholar in Cambridge. There is no record of Holmes' opinion, only that he delivered the phylactery to the American Antiquarian Society, on Allen's urging. Nothing much was said or done about the phylactery for several years after that. Most of the parties who had viewed it (and many who hadn't) believed it to be evidence of the Hebrew origins of Native Americans, but by 1816 or so no one outside of select sectarian circles seemed much interested in proving that point. In the early 1820s, Ethan Smith, a congregational minister in Poultney, Vt., became interested in the Pittsfield phylactery. Though he never actually saw it personally, he described it in his 1823 book "View of the Hebrews: The Lost Tribes of Israel in America." That same year, a young man in Palmyra, N.Y., announced that he was to receive a set of plates from an angel. The man was Joseph Smith and the plates were said to contain a history of ancient America.
Later, when these plates were being translated, Oliver Cowdery, one of original "Three Witnesses" of Mormonism's Golden Plates, joined Smith and became the major scribe who assisted in Smith's translation. Cowdery hailed from Poultney, where he had been a parishioner of Ethan Smith's congregational flock and quite likely owned a copy of his book. For this reason, nearly two centuries of skeptics and opponents to Mormonism have theorized that Ethan Smith's ideas, along with certain elements of his style (e.g., his heavy quotation of the Book of Isaiah) may have been one of two major sources of influence on the Book of Mormon (the other being a fictional manuscript by Solomon Spaulding that Smith friend and follower Sidney Rigdon may have provided. It is certain that Joseph Smith did become aware of View of the Hebrews at some point, for he cites it and the artifact found in Pittsfield as supporting evidence of the "Lost Tribes" in America. Furthermore, it is entirely conceivable that Smith could have already have heard of the phylactery prior to 1823.
By then, though, no on was sure where the darned thing was. Isaiah Thomas, the first president of the antiquarian society, told Ethan Smith that he didn't know where it was, or even where to go about looking. Several historians have made attempt over the years to track its whereabouts after being delivered to the society, coming up with only fragmentary possible scenarios. It may or may not have been returned to Sylvester Larned, who in 1818 expressed disappointment that nothing had come of the find. Larned may or may not in turn have sent it to Elias Boudinot, another interested scholar. Larned died of Yellow Fever two years later in New Orleans, at the age of 25, and there is no sign of the phylactery in Boudinot's papers, housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I tend to think that the Hebrew inscriptions are still in the hands of the Antiquarians - in fact, one AAS librarian in 1917 said that he seemed to remember seeing the scrolls but not didn't know where. As such, it is one of hundreds of fascinating, potentially paradigm-shaking artifacts which resides in a Library Limbo, lost, uncataloged or misfiled in one of the country's major archives or museums.
What relevance does the Pittsfield discovery have today, anyway? Scientific knowledge has advanced, well, let's say slightly, since the early 1800s, at least to a point where belief in Native American groups as descendants of lost Israelite tribes can be effectively dismissed. On the other hand, scholarly opinion over the past decade has increasingly shifted toward the concept of the Americas being an occasional stopping point of many different world groups prior to Columbus. In 1924, some lead artifacts, mostly crosses and swords, with Hebrew and early Latin inscriptions were dug up in Tucson, Ariz. The inscriptions told of a group of Romanized Jews who left the Empire and whose ship (apparently) came to shore in the Gulf of Mexico, from which point they followed the Colorado River inland, establishing a briefly flourishing colony. Of course, questions were raised about the authenticity of the artifacts and, like the Pittsfield phylactery, the "Tucson Crosses" went missing for many years before finally showing up on display at the University of Arizona campus in 2003.
For those who prefer to get somewhat cleaner shave out of old Ockham's razor, an alternate explanation was offered by William Allen, some time after the object left his care, though no one paid much attention. Allen noted that the strap was found in a place where wood chips and dirt had been collecting for years, and he was unable to find out whether it had come from the old earth beneath or from among the recent debris. He did learn that Merrick had employed British and German prisoners during the War of 1812, one of whom could have dropped it there. For my contribution, I'd append that it could have been lost there even earlier. The entire county was suddenly inundated with Hessian deserters following Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga in 1777 - some of whom never left - and any one of whom could have been the owner of the 18th-century equivalent of a scriptural fanny pack.
Of course, modern forensics could probably provide snappy answers to almost all of the questions surrounding the legendary scripts, if one could only put one's finger on the troublesome strip. "Or," as Charles Fort more eloquently put it, "there could be a real science, if there were really anything to be scientific about."