The Very Odd Case of the “Michigan Relics”

Who Are You Going to Trust?

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During spring 2015, The Travel Channel’s popular Mysteries at the Museum series dramatized a story about a Michigan resident, James O. Scotford. It recounted the uneducated handyman’s “discovery” of a strangely decorated jar near Detroit, in 1890, when this supposed relic of a lost, pre-Indian civilization sparked intense public curiosity. Local interest was fanned to statewide fascination, as he claimed to find one similar article after another, mostly as a tomb robber desecrating Native American burial mounds.

Anxious to cash in on the lucrative trade in grave goods, Daniel Soper, a former Michigan Secretary-of-State impeached for graft, appointed himself Scotford’s front man and promoter. Soon, the nationally syndicated television program recounted, both men turned a hefty profit by palming off their crude fakes on country bumpkin customers. University-trained archaeologists soon began studying the hammered copper, slate, and dried-clay objects inscribed with a written language unknown to them but engraved with recognizably biblical scenes—the supposed remnants of a Christian community from the Old World that settled in Michigan centuries before Christopher Columbus first dropped anchor in the Bahamas.

To convince skeptics of the items’ authenticity, Soper invited professional examiners to attend the next excavation of an unopened earthwork to see for themselves the prehistoric treasures Scotford unearthed. Sure enough, after a few minutes of light digging, a medallion engraved with Old Testament imagery and weird hieroglyphs came to light. In the process, however, one of the keen-eyed archaeologists noticed that the con man had used a sleight-of-hand trick to surreptitiously deposit a pre-made “artifact” in the dirt, where it was likely be found by duped on-lookers. Thus exposed, the several hundred forgeries manufactured for gullible collectors were revealed for what they really were and the entire controversy collapsed in disgrace.

The program concluded with Mysteries at the Museum host, Don Wildman, informing viewers that the so-called “Michigan Relics” are a reminder that unscrupulous persons sometimes succeed in counterfeiting the past for fame and profit but are inevitably found out.

Twelve years before the cable channel program was aired, what remained of Scotford’s materials was put on display at the Michigan Historical Center, near the State Capital, in Lansing, “featuring their incredible story,” according to Director and State Archaeologist, John R. Halsey, Ph.D. The forgeries were exhibited, he said, for purposes of “explaining yet again to an innocent public why they are not what they seem… the ‘Michigan Relics’ are all demonstrably modern fakes… What Harvard archaeologist Stephen Williams has pronounced as ‘one of the longest running scams in prehistory’ is still alive today, more than a century after its beginning, unfortunate proof that some people will always believe what they want to believe, no matter how preposterous the circumstances may be.”

When John Halsey was still a child, and long after the once infamous “Michigan Relics” had been forgotten by all but a few lone dissenters, less than two dozen of them gathered during November 1953 at the Peoria Academy of Sciences’ Anthropology Section, in Illinois, 167 miles south of Chicago, to hear Mr. A.L. Spooner. He told how he and his father, Harry, were on hand 33 years before, just outside Halfway, a small town near Detroit, to witness the last of the controversial objects ever found.

Atop one of the three “Indian mounds” investigated on September 20, 1920, “grew a large beech tree, which he [Harry] described as very slow growing and appearing to him to have been well over a century old. Enormous roots had to be cut in order to excavate and, deeply embedded within the tangled network of two roots, a beautifully carved stone pipe came to light—four superb heads, as exquisite as anything he had ever seen.”

On hand at the time were Dr. Roland B. Orr, Curator of the Ontario Professional Museum; Carlton C. Jones, Secretary to the Minister of Education of Ontario; Dr. William C. Hills of Ohio State University at Columbus; and Sean C. Kinnaman from Benton Harbor College. The presence of such high-level academic dignitaries from Canada and the United States demonstrated the serious nature of the dig. No con artist stood a chance of getting by such observers with sleight-of-hand schemes and they concurred that proper protocols had been followed in retrieving the object, minus any suggestion of fraud.

They were additionally aware of “a copper hammer about the size of a modern jack-hammer, bearing the Mystic Symbol [an emblematic glyph recurring throughout Scotford’s discoveries]. It was found by workmen who were digging a new sewer in the Highland Park section of Detroit, in 1912.”

“These unexpected, accidental finds by disinterested parties, in no way connected with the parties to the controversy, silences the exception theory,” declared Rudolf Etzenhouser, who put spade to a number of Michigan mounds himself during the early twentieth century. “The assumption that finds are made only by ‘prearranged digging’ is likewise false. The experiences of disinterested persons making unexpected finds during cellar excavations, or farmers accidentally turning up artifacts in their fields, vitiates such assumptions.”

The younger Spooner’s recollection likewise contradicted official accusations of faked artifacts planted just beneath the soil, or deftly deposited there by skillful trickery. Among his few listeners that evening more than sixty years ago was Claudius Ulysses Stone—U.S. Representative from Illinois in Congress from 1911 to 1917, retired president of the Illinois Association of County Superintendent of Schools, judge of the circuit court of Peoria County, Illinois, from 1928 to 1945—not exactly the easily deceived rube supposedly associated with the Michigan artifacts. He had been disturbed as much by the vehemence of their detractors, as by misinformation they repeatedly spread to discredit the pieces.

Among the most egregious falsehoods surrounding them asserted that they first appeared in the hands of grifter James Scotford no earlier than 1890. Halsey later spoke for mainstream opinion when he stated, “only Scotford and Soper seemed to be able to find the relics.” But Judge Stone knew that identically inscribed and engraved handiwork had been found throughout Michigan beginning in 1825, when the Erie Canal opened the Great Lakes to connect with the Hudson River and New York City.

The new route conveyed westward a large influx of settlers, whose numbers rose to 80,000 within ten years. Most became farmers interested only in cultivating their cheaply acquired lands and could not have cared less about the numerous, prehistoric articles churned up by the plow. Edwin Worth was practically alone among his fellow Michiganders in preserving these commonly discarded artifacts, which he began collecting in 1848. Some featured the same, singular script that adorned articles unearthed later in the century, but most of these first specimens were lost during a Springport, Indiana fire, in 1916. Worth could not remember precisely where or when the five, surviving copper plates were found, save that their discovery predated 1865, when he terminated the New York exhibition of his collection.

An initial, verified report of the bizarre written language otherwise unique to Michigan told how examples of it were “found by Augustus C. Hamlin [from Bangor], in 1856, on Monhegan Island near the coast of Maine. It is cut on a slab of rock,” like a public billboard posted “in three groups of inscriptions” for immigrants arriving from over the Atlantic Ocean. The script’s premiere ideogram (the Mystic Symbol discussed below) was repeated on the rock face “no less than thirteen times.”

Fourteen miles off New England, Monhegan Island was the logical location for just such a landfall. Discovery there of prehistoric Michigan’s characteristic glyphs proved that the alleged forger of the relics, James Scotford—born seven years later—could not have fabricated the script more commonly encountered in his home state.

Even Hamlin’s find was preceded by first-ever reference to an engraved example of the mysterious script in 1898 by A. Cameron, President of the Summer School of Science for the Atlantic Provinces of Canada: “That stone [also on Monhegan Island] has been known since 1812… The upper line [of the inscription found in 1856] is the same as the old one.” The 1856 inscription “near the shore” lay “about one mile south west of where the first one was found,” in 1812. Both have since been lost, although a purportedly faithful copy of the 1856 inscriptions was published.

The earliest documentation of its kind appeared in an 1858 Wayne County, Michigan, newspaper report about a farmer who accidentally plowed up an inscribed tablet. “Public awareness of the Michigan Mounds began in 1874,” according to Ancient American writer, Ken Moore, “in Crystal, Michigan, where a farmer clearing some land uncovered the large replica of a shuttle ground of black slate and highly polished. One surface displayed the incised drawing of a man’s head wearing a helmet [a motif repeated through the Michigan Relics] and the obverse showed two lines of writing, a group of cuneiform [wedge-shaped characters impressed on clay tablets in the ancient writing system of Mesopotamia], and a line of an unknown script [both inscribed on the Michigan tablets].”

A Professor J.O. Kinnerman was shown excavated objects covered with the same glyphs “some ten or fifteen years [circa 1875–1880] before the man who stood accused of forgery found his first piece.”

These fundamental facts contradicted official claims that no Michigan Relics existed before the accused forger began manufacturing them in 1890. Such prime information forced their reconsideration in the mind of Judge Stone, who had a special purpose in attending the Peoria lecture. He brought along a legal colleague and friend, who might be able to settle the on-going controversy, which Spooner’s little meeting might serve as an introduction.

Thankfully, Henriette Mertz knew nothing about the old dispute and cared little for archaeology. She was, however, an experienced patent attorney, a graduate of Chicago’s Marshall Law School, renowned as a courtroom expert in handwriting analysis, admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, the United States Patent Office, the Canadian Patent Office, and the Supreme Court of Illinois. An advisor to U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, Mertz was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy during World War Two in her capacity as special assistant to the Advisor on Patent Matters at the Office of Scientific Research and Development. She also participated in the Manhattan Project’s development of America’s first atomic bomb after working as a “code-breaker for the U.S. government’s cryptography department,” helping to crack enemy communications.

“Knowing my background in this field,” Mertz later wrote, Judge Stone “asked if I would examine the writing [on the Michigan Relics], and, if I also found it to be authentic, could I prove it? I told him, yes, if it were authentic, I could prove it.”

More as a favor to him than due to largely forgotten accusations of scientific fraud, she began carefully examining a dozen or so original tablets, plus photographs of hundreds of additional, related plates and materials. Her research proved unexpectedly challenging and particularly hobbled by her ignorance of the ancient world generally and American prehistory in particular. But, as she immersed herself in study and gradually learned about the deep past (the 340 sources listed in the book she would eventually write on the subject were all from mainstream authors), her investigation deepened in its personal significance.

Henriette felt badly that she could still neither confirm nor debunk the Michigan Relics for Judge Stone before he passed away in 1957. What she at first lightheartedly assumed would take no more than several weeks or, at most, a month to determine dragged on for decades. Only in her mid-eighties, and close to her own death, did she finally publish the results of her completed, meticulous, 32-year-long investigation.

Like a defense lawyer putting on her case, Mertz asked the Court of History, “Did one man alone forge each and every artifact comprising this vast collection? … During the long, heated controversy, the academic world would have us so believe, and isolated one man, charging him with the perpetration of forgery and manufacture and sale of fraudulent material. No proofs were ever offered, nor was the man ever brought to trial. In questioning probability of forgery by one person, we applied general principles in use by professional examiners of questioned documents.

“Comparison is prerequisite to determination. We therefore compared one plate with another to determine whether any one individual, having given us a sample, inscribed the same collection. We found cast metal characters stamped on clay, as well as letters written in free-flowing style; we found beautifully executed, professional lettering, as well as crude; we found letters reading in one direction—then in the opposite direction.”

As an example, she cited 289 glyphs in 17 lines on a representative tablet composed in such “measured symmetry” that the original engraver “was familiar with the language he wrote. Had he not been, lack of knowledge of the language would reflect itself in irregular spacing between letters or in size or shape of letter.

“Forgers, unfamiliar with a text or a language, unconsciously pause before proceeding in order to check copy, and each time a pause occurs, momentary hesitation alerts a trained eye. When writing with pen and ink, little unsuspected ‘puddles’ collect when hesitation occurs; any suspicious ‘puddle’ reveals a wealth of information. In engraving, no ‘puddle’ of ink collects, but that same moment of hesitation reflects itself in regular spacing.” By contrast, characters on the Michigan tablet “are uniform as to spacing, size, weight of line, and simulated cuneiform. No one could doubt that one person engraved both sides, and that he understood what he wrote with fluency, sureness, and no slight hesitation.”

Mertz convincingly established that the so-called “Michigan relics” were authentically pre-modern. She went on to show that their vast collection was a record of an early Christian community established in North America’s Upper Midwest by religious heretics fleeing persecution at the hands of Rome’s Vatican churchmen, during the early sixth century. As such, they represent abundant, physical proof that other Old World visitors arriving on the shores of our continent a thousand years earlier preceded Christopher Columbus in the New World.

By Frank Joseph