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Radio Free Mormon: 163: Magic and the Book of Mormon Part 2

RFM digs deeper into how magic theory can illuminate our understanding of  how it is Joseph Smith was able to perform the magical feat of translating The Book of Mormon out of a hat!


21 thoughts on “Radio Free Mormon: 163: Magic and the Book of Mormon Part 2”

  1. Re: how many plates did Joseph have?

    Two inches of plates still seems like a lot. But here I think your comment about how people remember stuff is crucial. As a former believer, I have in my mind “very thin” sheets, that look like gold, with closely packed writing. And as a former believer I think “even that would be a heck of a lot of trouble to create, probably push Joseph’s finances to the limit, and be hard to hide. HOWEVER, now that I have taken RFM’s introductory class in “think like a magician”, I am thinking it might have been MUCH simpler.

    “As many as he has translated” might be half that. So we only need one inch of “gold” plates. And the light in the forest may not be bright, the plates could be plausibly dirty or oiled or some alloy of gold: nobody would think about the lack of gold colouring. So an inch of TIN plates. Possible, but still a lot of work.

    Then I recall the transcribed characters and how crude they were. And how with the Book of Abraham a single character was typically “translated” into an entire paragraph. So he could get away with maybe five or six plates with rough scratches, something he could put together in an hour or so. And then I remember the most important point of all: these eight people BADLY WANTED TO BELIEVE. And let’s face it they were not the most educated people: if they were skeptics by nature they would not have got this far. The only person who MIGHT have been educated to some degree, Oliver Cowdery, may have been in on the scam – the jury is still out on that.

    So, at minimum I would say six sheets of tin, with an hour of badly scratching nonsense, and a whole lot of charisma. That would do it. Should be well within the budget (or stealing ability) of a resourceful back woods kid with several years to pran. The rest of the plates could be tin hammered around wood, and scored to look like the edge of pages. The whole thing could be the work of a single day, with zero capital outlay (if he “found” the tin when some blacksmith was not looking) and it brought in thousands of followers and all their money. Well worth the investment.

    1. re: did he use notes?

      May I quote RFM 162, the John Larsen Interview. You referred to the “Ships of Tarshish” evidence. IIRC we now know that this was an example of Joseph using a Bible commentary to make his translation seem more authentic. This is EXACTLY the kind of thing he was would to note down.

      It also suggests that he may have translated the Isaiah portions with his face in the hat. Not every Bible is a family Bible: some are very small indeed. Sneaking a pocket Bible in there might sound risky, but if found out is very easy to explain away (he rested the stone on the Bible to give it added sacred power. Oliver would buy that.)

  2. I’m so glad you discussed “An Honest Liar”. I loved that film and hope others check it out. It is highly relevant to the misappropriation of magic discussion.

    I made a similar connection to “An Honest Liar” when I listened to Part 1, but arrived at a different analogy. To me, when I see Joseph with his hat and stone, I don’t see Joseph as a magician who is hiding a gimmick. I see Joseph as a psychic or fortune teller who uses a crystal ball to instill confidence. Joseph was instilling confidence on treasure digs using a hat and stone — at a time when he didn’t need a hat to hide a gimmick. If he wasn’t hiding a gimmick on treasure digs, maybe he wasn’t during dictation either.

    I enjoyed the analysis as to why the risk of repeating the same trick was low. Despite the low risk, I just don’t see why Joseph would take any risk at all, if Joseph were merely using an outline and presumably could take breaks to review the outline. But heaven knows Joseph was a risk taker in other aspects of his life, so we’ll never know I guess! LOL

  3. Having a script for at least a portion of the BoM does answer the question on how pseudepigrapha made its way into the text.

  4. Thank you for taking us all on RFM. I appreciate and admire the followup you do with your listeners and how much you care about how these bombshells are impacting real people…especially this one!

    I’m glad you made the point about no one looking for a trick and Joseph doing it behind a curtain to boot. Why did he need a curtain if the plates were wrapped up? Come on everyone…stop bending over backwards to let your precious Joe off the hook.

    Splitting hairs over whether he may not have used the cheat notes everyday or very other day or whether there was a mini bible small enough to fit in the hat, doesn’t matter in the grander scheme of things. We can all agree that he cooked this whole thing up and got away with it on a huge scale that I’m sure even he could never have imagined.

    BTW….why couldn’t he have just torn pages out of a bible for the excerpts he used??

    Whether or not it can be proven that this is how he did it, doesn’t change the fact that the BOM has been overwhelmingly exposed as a massive farce and deception, one that has duped millions into dedicating their entire lives to follow.

    To confuse the 2 issues as one is a very big mistake. In other words, it does not follow that the BOM remains viable if this magic trick speculation cannot be proven.

    I can’t wait to watch the fallout from this very reasonable conclusion, as it hits the various interested groups and scholars. I think we will see some very telling divisions.

    One thing I’m fairly comfortable in predicting is, that this is a stunning hypothesis that will not be going away any time soon. It’s unemotional, not supernatural, simple; its logical, it has the ring of truth to it and it fits all the known evidence, without difficulty.

    Bravo RFM!!!!

    1. Agreed on everything!

      > “I can’t wait to watch the fallout from this very reasonable conclusion, as it hits the various interested groups and scholars”

      Yep. RFM is generous when he says that others have suggested this. No, others have suggested he could fumble about in a small, dark hat, and would need great skill.

      What RFM suggests is different: that this hat is PERFECT for seeing in, due to its size, colour, design, etc, and that it as ALWAYS about the hat, not the rock. More importantly, seeing Smith as doing a VERY SIMPLE magic trick, that any teenager could do, brings the whole illusion crashing down. It’s simple, it’s obvious, that’s the difference.

      From this moment we no longer have to think of Joseph as particularly clever. That is, no more clever than any other young man looking to trick somebody. JOSEPH SMITH IS NO LONGER SPECIAL. It all becomes so mundane and obvious, that’s the big difference.

      1. Yes Chris!…your point cannot be overstated. That is what is so particularly satisfying about this truth. Bringing Joseph down to his right size is making some of my bitterness about Mormonism and what it has taken from me, more tolerable.

        It feels so good to realize and say that he was a common cliche, even tho what his actions did had anything but a common result…he himself was not special!!!!! He was a womanizing hillbilly carnie! He was an amateur snake oil salesman. He was a manipulating pathological lier, a cheat and a thief.

        It was the time period and the people he hand picked to be around him that made this ruse possible…a perfect storm. He could never have pulled this off now.

        I’m beyond thrilled that at least I no longer have to consider him as particularly special or brilliant. He was diabolical!

        1. “It feels so good to realize and say that he was a common cliche, even tho what his actions did had anything but a common result…he himself was not special!!!!! He was a womanizing hillbilly carnie! He was an amateur snake oil salesman. He was a manipulating pathological lier, a cheat and a thief…. He could never have pulled this off now.”

          Yes, but I think your conclusion is wrong. Reread your descriptors and apply that with a cursory look into the current US political situation to see that not only would JS succeed today, but it could be far more damaging.

  5. Excellent. I’ve not been able to believe Smith did it on his own. He absolutely had help. Dan Vogel is wrong about pious fraud. Emma I believe was in on it right away. I used to feel sorry for her and now I despise her. She helped that man hurt so many.
    RFM….the bit you said about feeling stupid about being tricked,… Do you think it keeps people in so to not feel foolish? And 2…am I the only one who is relieved to have been fooled. I’m so happy it’s a magic trick even in spite of over 50 years in. I hated the doctrine so how do you spell relief? MAGIC TRICKS.
    Thank you for finding the missing mormon link, magic.
    This is the material that needs publishing. Just sayin’

  6. RFM, you’ve been spoiling us! Just sayin’, what we going to do when the pandemic is behind us and you got back to weekly or whenever!

    Glad you mentioned the bombshell episode from last Friday during yesterday’s episode because we’d missed that one. It was my mom’s first birthday since she passed away last summer and I went to a hotel for the night to cry myself out. Feel better now.

    Great episode, btw. What I’d love to see are the emails between the 3 BYU employees—including the top one—and 47 E. South Temple, because such emails must exist. They may have had a circuitous route that first ran thru the 50 E N Temple COB, or Kirton McConkie but surely, the trail extends beyond BYU PD and BYU. Great job. So helpful to have you, with your legal experience, take the lead on this.

    Second comment is about the translation process and especially the scribe’s job which you mentioned in passing last night. I grew up in Europe, I’m 65 and attended a Catholic boarding school in the second grade. “What does that have to do with anything,” you ask. Well, in Belgium at least, we didn’t learn to write with pencils as is done in the US. We used mechanical ink pens from the beginning but the good sisters were behind the times so we use pen and ink with ink wells. Not fountain pen, but a pen we had to dip into the ink well. Pretty intense and time and attention consuming, making sure it didn’t bleed, using blotter, keeps you busy, certainly not like typing up a storm without looking at a keyboard. I’d be interested in hearing more about the process from people who might have used it. My recollection is faint; boarding school with the nuns was hell but mom didn’t have options that year.

    Also, how much do we know about how Martin Harris came to be scribe for the 116 pages?

    Oh, and my husband wants to know: how do you feel now about the nuanced believer view you espoused with John Larsen? You were past the apologetic phase, an in-between phase, one could say? Would you call yourself a nuanced non-believer now/. Or straight unbeliever. I think we need to re-listen to your interview with John D. Hubby was trying to recall how you went from that stage 10 years ago to the RFM guy. Thanks for the research and the in-depth discussions. Where’s Bill these days?

  7. “It came to pass” is a good substitute for “um” as you’re trying to remember what comes next.

    It wasn’t a quick dictation since according to at least one scribe, Joseph would have the scribe read what he’d just written and new words wouldn’t appear until the translation was correct—but still needed to correct 3000 errors! So that was a lot of time for JS to think about what he was dictating.

  8. RFM, thanks for what you do. I love listening to your podcasts. You are brilliant. I love your intellect and sense of humor. My wife and I are 9 years removed from the church, after 30 years of faithful activity. You are truly a breath of fresh air in the postmo world.

  9. Loved these magic episodes. I also grew up enjoying magic, so it was super fun hearing both these episodes. The text in the hats might not be a new theory obviously, but your input as a magician was something I have never heard so it added insight. The biggest insight for me was that the white hat could allow light in. My issue with this theory was always that it would be too dark to read any text in a top hat. So I think that is a big point to be made.

    When I was leaving the church several years back, I remember delving into testimonies surrounding the bainbridge trials. One of these testimonies against Joseph claimed that Joseph tried to pull a parlor trick on the guy giving the testimony. I will look it up and send it when I get home. You are probably familiar with the witness story, but it lends credence with this charlatan parlor magic stuff. He claims Joseph gave him a book and would turn his back and ask the man to turn to any page and Joseph would tell him the page or what was written on it or something. The witness said it was an obvious trick and he knew immediately how it was done. I might be misremembering a few details, but I’ll dig it up and send it. Fits nicely with this discussion.

    Great podcasts as always.

  10. Never put in a ton more research into this because by that time I was reading things just out of interest and I had already decided to leave the church, but here is a record with more info about Joseph’s con pretending to be able to read a book from a distance with the seer stone. From the Bishop Tuttle account from the records of the proceedings before a Justice of the peace of Bainbridge, Chenango County, N. Y. (record of sworn witnesses):

    “Arad Stowel sworn. Says that he went to see whether prisoner could convince him that he possessed the skill that he professed to have, upon which prisoner laid a book open upon a white cloth, and proposed looking through another stone which was white and transparent; hold the stone to the candle, turn his back to book and read. The deception appeared so palpable, that went off disgusted.

    “McMaster sworn. Says he went with Arad Stowel to be convinced of prisoner’s skill, and likewise came away disgusted, finding the deception so palpable. Prisoner pretended to him that he could discern objects at a distance by holding this white stone to the sun or candle; that prisoner rather declined looking into a hat at his dark-colored stone, as he said that it hurt his eyes.”

    Volume II
    Funk & Wagnalls, Publishers.
    (Written by the Right Rev. Daniel Sylvester Tuttle.)

    Mormons, p. p. 1557-6

  11. Well RFM, all I can say is Absolutely INCREDIBLE!
    I am fourth generation LDS in Australia and my progenitors before me and I loved the ‘Restored Gospel’ and how could anyone not! It is such ‘Good News’ that our existence is designed and that we are Eternal beings having a mortal experience as part of a divine plan to become GODS like our GOD parents. The LDS message resonates with many faith inclined people world over who believe this all cannot be as a result of consistent chance happenings. Apart from a few exceptions most of us would like to live forever with a perfect physical body in an idyllic state with those we love and have perfect sex with glorified bodies forever;) It is a time in memoriam, very appealing human desire.
    A statement that JS is recorded to have said that has always troubled me since hearing it was that ‘he could keep a secret till doomsday’. I’ve wondered what some of those secrets could be? I think your postulation has incredible explanatory power and is the only explanation that allows us to understand the historical evidences. There are many but I will just mention a few that this
    ‘hat trick’ is able explain in non miraculous ways.
    – Emma attests that Joseph never asked to have read back to him where he left off, he would just start again. If exacting notes were dictated from that would allow that because when they came back from a break he would have a new page in the hat and just continue.
    -He would spell the unique names out and dictate the exact words in each statement and have the scribe repeat them back to check they had recorded it correctly. If he was reading prepared copy that could be done that way.
    -The need for complex doctrinal expositions and the flow of a story line and recurring characters in the BOM is too consistent and structured to leave it to adlib and spontaneous improvisation. Also the abounding close textual connections to existent varied published works is too word specific to not have been borrowed from in a careful, considered premeditated manner. It is quite possible that Joseph worked on the material for the BOM content over a 10 year period before the dictation from a ‘script’ began. The words of Mark Twain come to mind
    “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.”
    -Oliver tried to ‘Translate’ as Joseph did without success but if Joseph read from a prepared script it is no wonder Oliver didn’t have a ‘Snowflakes chance in Hell’. Oliver’s statement about being a scribe to one with a mind influenced by the power of heaven meant that Oliver was seemingly convinced of Joseph’s miraculous power. As far as Oliver and all faithful other observers were concerned Joseph could only be looking at a polished rock in the bottom of that hat. For near on 190 years Joseph had everyone who knew about ‘the rock in the hat’ focusing on the ROCK not the HAT and the SCRIPT in the bottom of the TRANSPARENT HAT! In a mighty rush the KEY STONE of Mormonism doesn’t seem the miracle that it was once held up to be!
    As much as I hate having being deceived for 50 years of my life and it has made me untrusting of other humans I mostly did like living in Joseph’s created Jesus based ‘Plan of Happiness’. We will never truly know his heart but it did seem that he tried to create a Heaven here on earth for his family and fellowman present and future.
    I have mused on the concept that in future generations people will read about a period of human history where millions of people were ‘TRICKED’ by a frontier farm boy and consecrated their lives to the LIE.
    Thanks be to RFM that self appointed Revelator and Seer.

  12. Are you sure your not saying JS had a confederate an it was Oliver Cowdrey? I’ll say it. I think Oliver Cowdrey probably knew JS wasn’t translating an ancient record and may have given him some book suggestions for reference.

  13. Magician/Con-man rule: Never let an opportunity go to waste.

    There is a story about the famous magician and card-expert Dai Vernon. In his early days Vernon was directed to another young “wizerd of the pasteboards,” Cliff Green. Vernon met green the the two began sizing each other up. “What kind of magic do you do?” asked Green. Vernon had perfected a trick which relied entirely on his own considerable mental agility. He’d have someone name a card then cut a shuffled deck. Whatever card they cut to Vernon would find a way to have it point to where the chosen card was in the deck. He called it “the trick that can’t be explained.”

    So he shuffled the deck and asked Green to name a card. Green named the three-of-diamonds. Vernon placed the shuffled deck before Green and said, “cut the deck.” Lo and behold, Green cut to the three-of-diamonds. This was pure luck, the kind of thing that only happens on the average once in 52 times. But it happened this time.

    Vernon, without betraying any emotion calmly said, “that’s the kind of magic I do; what do you do?”

    Green was stunned. Forty years later Green still recalled that it was the three-of-diamonds. Imagine a “pick a card” trick so amazing that you remember forty years later what card you chose.

    I think of this story when I recall the time Martin Harris switched Joseph’s seer stone for a similar-looking stone he had found down by the river. Joseph tried to used it but was beside himself when he couldn’t get it to work for him; he wailed to Martin Harris that something was wrong, he couldn’t get the stone to work. That’s when Harris was satisfied that Joseph’s stone was real.

    Now Joseph’s special seer stone was very unusual. It was found while digging a well and Joseph and others saw it as a singular curiosity. Joseph had had the stone in his possession for years and had used it to find treasure etc. Joseph had to have been intimately familiar with every detail of the stone. The one Harris found couldn’t possibly have been identical enough to fool Joseph.

    Joseph could have said, “alright, Martin, give me the real stone?” But he didn’t. He played dumb and acted like he’d been fooled. When a con-man gets the “mark” to think they are smarter than the con-man then the “mark” is caught.

    Another time when Joseph demonstrated requisite mental ability to adapt the con was in the Charles Anton affair. Harris returned and mentioned in his story that he’d told Anton that part of the book was sealed and Anton had said, “I can’t read a sealed book.” Joseph then turns to Isaiah 29:11-12 —

    “11. And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot for it is sealed.
    “12. And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.”

    Harris had been convinced he’d fulfilled a prophecy of Isaiah! Later when translating 2 Nephi 27 Joseph greatly expanded “Isaiah 29” to change “as the words of a book” into an actual book and added details to have Isaiah more clearly prophesy of the Harris visit to Anton.

    So Joseph Smith had the presence of mind along with the con-man’s approach to things to adapt was going on to fit his narrative. This cemented Harris’s confidence in Smith–just as Joseph knew it would–to the point that Harris did what a “mark” usually does when caught–he gave Joseph the money.

    1. Great story, Frederick!

      I certainly remember the dashing and debonair Dai Vernon! He was wonderful to watch!

      I actually had an experience similar to the one you describe.

      I was performing impromptu (at a bowling alley, actually) for a very difficult lady, who was not impressed in the least by the minor miracles I was dealing out with a deck of cards.

      I finally had run through all my top-tier tricks, and she was still saying, “I know how you did that.”

      The pressure was on, but now I had left only my second-tier tricks.

      I went to a card trick I had just learned and which wasn’t really very good.

      The idea was that you had the spectator shuffle the cards and then ask the spectator to think of any card in their mind. No card even selected.

      The magician then names a card at random. Of course, that is not the card the spectator is thinking of. I mean, that would be real magic!

      So this failure is used as a ruse to pick up the cards, fan them out face up and find the card the spectator was thinking of.

      From there, the trick plays out in some way or other I have long since forgotten. I mean, this was about 25-years ago!

      Anyway, I have this difficult spectator shuffle the cards and then had her think of any card in the deck.

      She assured me she had done so.

      “Is it the Queen of Hearts?” I asked at random.

      You should have seen the look on her face!

      Her eyes bugged out and her jaw hit the floor.

      “How did you know!?!?” she exclaimed.

      “Magic pure and undefiled!” I replied without missing a beat. “Well, the magic show is closed for the night! It’s not going to get any better than this!”

      These are the kind of stories that keep an aging magician warm at night even after a quarter century. ;^)

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