Joseph Smith, the founder of my religion, has a reputation of being a 19th century con man. I certainly won’t argue the point, as I’m pretty much a heathen, and just a Mormon by technicality. This isn’t exhaustive, but rather a few highlights of his career. Actually, he got started early with the bullshit artistry.
In his younger days, he was a “money digger“. He didn’t have a metal detector, but fortunately he had a magic peepstone to see through dirt. There was just one problem – whenever his shovel touched a treasure chest underground, immediately it sank deeper. Silly pirates – always burying their booty in quicksand! People were more superstitious nearly two centuries ago, and believing in folk magic stuff wasn’t too unusual, but that only went so far. In 1826, “Joseph Smith the Glass Looker” got arrested for fraud.
Later, Smith got into the religion racket, finding it (as L. Ron Hubbard did much later) to be considerably more profitable. Another thing he had in common with Scientology’s founder was a very active imagination. Some others, though, might say that he’d dropped too much LDS.
Smith called a couple other magic peepstones the “Urim and Thummim”. He’d drop a crystal ball into his hat, stick his face in the hat, and start reciting the Book of Mormon. This way, he didn’t even have to look at the Golden Plates to translate them, or page through an Aztec dictionary. That’s how the book that Mark Twain called “chloroform in print” came into being. I’ll have to admit, Hubbard was the better writer of the two.
Then there was the Kirtland Safety Society swindle. Joseph Smith tried to start a bank, and had paper money all printed up and ready to go. The Prophet was surprised to find that its charter got denied. (Gosh, I wonder why the state rejected it? He thought they were just being prejudiced.) Still, he went ahead with it anyway, despite its unlicensed status. He had the funny money stamped over, so that the “Kirtland Safety Society BANK” bills read “anti BANK ing” instead. It wasn’t really a bank, because he didn’t call it one! Clever, huh?
Fractional reserve banking is a tricky business, of course, even when it’s “anti-bank-ing”. They filled chests with rocks, then scattered a thin layer of coins over the rocks. After a look in the vault, prospective customers were convinced it was quite solvent indeed, a great place to deposit their money. Things didn’t end so well – what a shocker! Come to think of it, Joseph Smith should’ve asked some Indians for advice; surely these Lamanites had inherited a knack for high finance from their forefathers. With the tribe’s help, running an “anti-bank” would’ve been a piece of cake…
So the Kirtland Safety Society went belly-up from illiquidity, $100K in the hole and sued nine ways from Sunday. According to one inflation calculator I found, in 1837, a hundred grand then would be the equivalent of $2.2 million now. Back then, Americans didn’t use funny money from that tricky Federal Reserve. Your great grandparents had real money – gold dollars! I suspect it’s actually inflated considerably more than a 22:1 ratio after we switched to paper money. In the 1800s, fifty cents was a decent grocery run. Eleven bucks won’t buy much food these days. Maybe the Federal Reserve is an “anti-bank-ing” venture too?
He dabbled in Egyptology too, and claimed to have deciphered their language, though the results were pretty embarrassing. Still, that’s how we got the Book of Abraham, with some cool stuff like Planet Kolob. There’s much more, but I won’t compile a list of Joseph Smith’s flaky deeds, as I could write a book about it. In fact, others have done exactly that, and I doubt I could do better.
Anyway, all that bullshit artistry is something for bad Mormons like me to chuckle about. At least he got more pussy than a cat shelter. His notch count was even higher than mine, which is no mean feat.
Eventually things came to a bitter end for our first Prophet, Seer, and Revelator. I figure it was inevitable. Even if he hadn’t been shot in the Carthage jail, some other mob would’ve whacked him eventually. That had nearly happened a few times before. Church history basically says that he went like a lamb to the slaughter. The truth is that he had a gun snuck into the jail, and he went out trading fire. Somehow I like the real version better. Maybe that means that he’s in Valhalla now?
Anyway, his birthday is coming up soon on December 23. Be sure to raise a glass of Pay Lay Ale for Brother Joseph.