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Joseph Smith:
Nineteenth Century Con Man?

By Dale R. Broadhurst

Joseph Smith, Jr.

The unOfficial Joseph Smith Memorial Page   |   Sidney Rigdon: Creating the Book of Mormon
Tracking Book of Mormon Authorship   |   Word-print Study   |   Joseph Smith & Sidney Rigdon
Additional Reference Material:   Historical Sources   |   Modern Sources   |   Herman Melville Items


Introduction to this Paper

1. Counterfeiting Confidence

2. Joe Smith the Sincere Deceiver?

3. The Melville Archetype

4. Ends and Means

5. Melville Mormons and Mardi

6. Back to Basics



The public career of Joseph Smith, Jr. was short and exceptionally eventful. It began in the late 1820s and ended abruptly, on June 27, 1844 at Carthage Jail. Within those few years, he burst upon the religious-political scene as a purported seer, recipient of visions, translator of dead languages, revelator of scriptures, president of an Ohio bank, mayor of the largest city in Illinois, and even a would-be candidate for the presidency of the United States.

To his family, close associates and numerous followers, (who sometimes addressed him as "Joe Smith") he was accepted as a man gifted with "second sight," as well as the chosen latter day prophet, "blessed to open the last dispensation" of the Christian gospel. To those who knew of him only by second-hand reports, he was a phenomenon of western news reports and the mysterious overseer of the desultory passing Mormon missionaries. Exactly how "Joe Smith" viewed himself and his unprecedented role in mid-19th century American society, remains a matter of controversy. Was the famous Joseph Smith, Jr. in reality a mere "Con Man?" This paper will explore that controversial suggestion.

Consider, first of all, the implications set forth in the following two quotes (with emphasis added) -- one from an anti-Mormon writer; the other from an early LDS leader:

while Joe had been a-courting and developing into an A No. 1 backwoods confidence man, the neighborhood of Palmyra had been supplied with a new sensation to succeed the origin of the Indians, buried treasure, and eternal damnation, as topics for the crossroads' forums....
(H. M. Beardsley, 1931 Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire p. 43)

and --

I had no more confidence in Joseph Smith being a prophet, or in his knowing anything about religion, than I have now in a juggler or a wandering mountebank. I knew nothing at all about Joseph, except what I had heard from his enemies or read in the papers.
(Daniel H. Wells, June 30th, 1867)

In both cases (and in many others on record) the writers on Mormonism cannot avoid addressing the possibility that Joseph Smith, Jr., the famous 19th century Mormon leader, might be viewed as a confidence man -- as a sharp operator unworthy of people's confidence. What exactly does this mean -- for a "man of the cloth" to be typified as an equivocal solicitor of other men's confidence?

Steven R. Serafin and Alfred Bendixen attempt to provide some examples in their 2005 Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, under the heading "Confidence Man." Among the "tricksters" and "peddlers" there cited are the historical "frontier evangelist," Lorenzo Dow and Sinclair Lewis' fictional hellfire sermonizer, Elmer Gantry. In both instances a dubious preacher solicits the attention and patronage of his Christian auditors (or potential converts) -- but Rev. Gantry seeks the sinners' cash, while Elder Dow wants to save the sinners' souls. We might imagine contemporary Mormons extending a wink and a nod to Dow's methods (their fifth President was named after him). On the other hand, our making close comparisons of Elmer Gantry and Joseph Smith will bring no smiles to LDS faces. Obviously this old-time label for suspect reverends, riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen requires some critical examination, ere Joseph Smith can be granted admittance to their disreputable ranks.

snake oil

"Confidence Man" (also "Con Man," "Con Artist," etc.) was a term that Joseph Smith, Jr. probably never heard during his lifetime. In his day, the popular word for a purposeful deceiver was "juggler." Although the meanings of these two terms are not identical, a modern con man would have been most recognizable in Smith's day as a "juggler." The latter description was often applied to the young visionary himself during the 1830s and 1840s, as an explanation for Smith's unusual ability to gain the trust of a certain group of people, such as the Mormon Whitmer family. As Eber D. Howe put it, in 1834: "They were noted in their neighborhood for credulity and a general belief in witches, and perhaps were fit subjects for the juggling arts of Smith." Although Howe called Mormonism an imposition, a juggler in Howe's times was not necessarily an impostor. The peddler of medicinal "rutes and yarbs" might occasionally resort to petty trickery and playing upon customers' superstitions, in order to hawk his suspect remedies; but such a juggler could also be totally honest about his own identity and personal activities. His salesman's task was not merely to swindle buyers, but to positively convince them of the importance of things they might otherwise ignore.

What then is a "confidence man?" The on-line Wikipedia supplies the following information regarding this 19th century appellation:

The first known usage of the term "confidence man" in English was in 1849; it was used by American press during the United States trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch.

More precisely, the "American press" here referred to was, originally, the editor of a widely read newspaper -- James G. Bennett of the New York Herald. On July 8, 1849 he reported:

For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the "Confidence Man," that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, "have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;" the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing "confidence" in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.

In subsequent articles, editor Bennett revealed that William Thompson was a seasoned petty criminal who made use of a number of alias identities. This widely publicized reporting appears to have provided author Herman Melville with the basic plot idea for his 1857 novel, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. While Bennett's coining of the designation confidence man might have earned the term a disreputable entry in American dictionaries without any literary assistance from Melville, the latter author's contribution to popular language should not be overlooked -- for in reading Melville's puzzling 1857 story we are brought full circle, back to "Joe Smith" and his Mormon religion.

Those readers who are particularly interested in the Melville-Smith connection may wish to take a little break at this point, to read through some scholarly commentary * on the subject -- but all others can continue perusing the current essay, wherein some reference to Melville, confidence men and Joseph Smith will shortly follow.


* See, for example, Robert A. Rees' 1966 paper "Melville's Alma and The Book of Mormon," in Emerson Society Quarterly 43:2, as well as Cecilia K. Farr's 1989 paper "The Philosopher and the Brass Plate: Melville's Quarrel with Mormonism in The Confidence Man," in American Transcendental Quarterly 3:4; also of interest is Richard D. Rust's 2008 paper "'I Love All Men Who Dive': Herman Melville and Joseph Smith" in Reid L. Neilson and Terryl L. Givens (eds.) Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries. A more recent, fanciful comparison of Herman Melville and Joseph Smith, Jr. may be found in Martin Blythe's web-page, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Melville, Mormons and Moby-Dick." For a detailed account of how the Herald's 1849 reports on William Thompson helped inspire a notable work of 19th century fiction, see Michael S. Reynolds' 1971 paper "The Prototype for Melville's Confidence-Man" in Publications of the Modern Language Association 86:5.


~ SECTION  1 ~

Counterfeiting  Confidence

For most of us the term Confidence Man probably summons up mental images of the shifty three card monte dealer, the passer of bogus currency and the salesman of Brooklyn Bridge deeds -- but such popular stereotypes fail to convey the essential role of the confidence man. He is the booster of utopias, the solicitor of charitable outpourings, and the repairman of broken dreams. His goal is to instill trust, hope and gumption in the human bosom. Viewed in this light, the confidence man can, in some situations, be viewed as a benign entity: no pernicious injury is wrought, unless his conveyed sense of confidence is put to base use (see the Elmer Gantry/Lorenzo Dow comparison made above). In fact, much good might be done by the confidence man who promotes abiding faith and quintessential self-assurance, at the right time and in the right place. It can be reasonably argued that many turning points in human advancement depended upon the confident risk-taking of pioneers and innovators who were convinced to try things new and different.

In conventional literature as well as in classical mythology, there are many examples of the artful trickster who breaks all rules and expectations in order to stir up popular imagination and motivation. The role extends beyond the ranks of normal human beings to include demigods and deities such as Prometheus, Hermes and Loki. Although Joseph Smith, Jr. has been lauded with many controversial titles, only faithful Mormons would admit him to Olympian realms: to others, as a trickster, Smith must appear less like Prometheus and more like P. T. Barnum. Charles Baudelaire once said "Americans love so much to be fooled." There is more to Baudelaire's insight than the amazed smiles on the faces of a stage magician's auditors -- people may truly benefit by the confidence man's trickery, if they gain something valuable through their believing.

At this point an important question naturally comes to mind: Can the rewards of renewed belief, optimism and self-confidence (or confidence in a higher power than one's self) ever outweigh the inescapable troubles resulting from a confidence man's deception and manipulation? Or, put another way: Can worthy ends ever justify unworthy means? For those of us who are impressed by the ends achieved by Joseph Smith, Jr. along with his multitude of followers, these questions have some special relevance -- and especially so, if we are inclined to believe that Joe Smith truly was a juggler and a con artist.

Were the many charges against Smith's character fabricated?

Reference has already been made to Eber D. Howe, whose 1834 publication, Mormonism Unvailed was the first book-length attack upon the reputation of Joseph Smith, Jr. Modern Mormons generally dismiss Howe's criticism of the Palmyra prophet as an example of unjust Gentile persecution, fed by the scurrilous fabrications of D. Philastus Hurlbut. Richard L. Anderson writes:

Howe's writing was insignificant, but the Palmyra-Manchester affidavits published by him have introduced Joseph Smith in every major non-Mormon study from 1834 to the present. Yet even supposedly definitive studies display no investigation of the individuals behind the Hurlbut statements, nor much insight into their community.... Hurlbut heavily influenced the individual statements from Palmyra-Manchester, as can be shown by his phrases regularly appearing in affidavits of the Staffords, Chases, etc. His language evidently appears in two community affidavits: names of fifty-one residents of Palmyra appear on one document and names of eleven residents of Manchester appear on another. One must make a necessary assumption here. The signers of a petition or declaration are normally not authors, merely ratifiers. When Hurlbut appeared in the Manchester schoolhouse, he undoubtedly had penned the statement that eleven rather nonliterary farmers signed. One would envision the same procedure as inevitable for the fifty-one signers from Palmyra. Someone authored the general statements, and Hurlbut is the best candidate.

Not only does identifiable phrasing appear, but similar structuring of the affidavits. In the following comparison, significant word correlations are indicated, but the more significant point is the similarity of basic structure from... different authors
("Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised" BYU Studies 10:3, Spring 1970, pp. 285-286)

In other words, we are here cautioned against accepting at face value any eye-witness evidence collected and published by D. P. Hurlbut and E. D. Howe, along with the negative conclusions of "every major non-Mormon study from 1834 to the present," whose writers have depended upon the veracity of Hurlbut's investigations and Howe's journalism. Since we might expect the most reliable testimony for (or against) a man's good character to come from eye-witnesses, Richard L. Anderson's argument appears to present an insurmountable barrier to our critical investigation of "Joseph Smith's New York reputation" (for having been a juggler, deceiver, treasure-seer, impostor, etc.). If it was D. P. Hurlbut who originated all the accusations regarding Smith's pretensions to see buried treasures, read people's fortunes, commune with spirits, and such, then perhaps Joseph Smith, Jr. was not a con artist after all.

Eber Dudley Howe (1798-1885)

Happily there is a way around this problem, since it is possible to locate statements about "Joe Smith" which pre-date Hurlbut's 1833 evidence gathering and Howe's 1834 publication of such testimony. However, as previously mentioned, we should not expect to run across the exact term confidence man in the early 1830s statements relating to Mr. Smith. As David Persuitte points out:

In one of his articles in the Palmyra Reflector, Obediah Dogberry mentioned a "juggler" named Walters who was employed by the local company of money diggers. (The word "juggler" was then used to denote someone who manipulated people for fraudulent purposes. The current term would be "con man.")
Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (2nd ed. p. 37)

Persuitte has set us upon the proper path to discovering pre-1834 statements relating to Joseph Smith, Jr.'s reputation. However, the example he cites from the 1830 Palmyra Reflector, refers to Walters the Magician, and not to Smith precisely. Unless it can be conclusively demonstrated that a man is known by the company he keeps (and that Smith and Walters kept close company) we shall have to dig deeper to uncover instances of young Joseph being called a "juggler," "deceiver," etc.

As it turns out, the information required does occur in Abner Cole's Reflector article -- it just comes a couple of lines earlier in the report cited by Persuitte: where Cole says:

"It is well known that Jo Smith never pretended to have any communion with angels, until a long period after the pretended finding of his book, and that the juggling of himself or father, went no further than the pretended faculty of seeing wonders in a "peep stone," and the occasional interview with the spirit, supposed to have the custody of hidden treasures."
Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 18, 1831

So, there it is -- a reference to the young Joseph Smith, Jr. being "well known" in the Palmyra area for "juggling," in his assertions to a supernatural remote-viewing "faculty" and in his pretensions to "the occasional interview" with a treasure-guarding "spirit." None of which conclusively proves Mr. Cole (whose property was located near the Smith home) to have been an eye-witness, nor even a reliable reporter of eye-witness accounts related to the first Mormons. What the article does demonstrate, however, is that Joseph Smith, Jr. was being accused of "juggling" (of being something very much like a con man) long before D. P. Hurlbut ever conducted his anti-Smith interviews in the Palmyra area.

Abner Cole's Palmyra newspaper

The sighting of one robin does not initiate springtime, and the discovery of a single pre-1834 accusation against Joseph Smith, Jr. does not prove him to have been a 19th century confidence man -- but it does provide an intriguing investigative lead.

There exists an even earlier instance, where the editor of the Reflector equated the early career of Joseph Smith, Jr. with activities typical of a con man, and that was in his issue of June 30, 1830, where Mr. Cole first of all quotes Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" line about a "thread-bare juggler and a fortune-teller," and then applies it to Smith's supposed pretensions at "casting out a devil" while residing in Pennsylvania. As we shall soon see, another contemporary commentator provided practically the same assessment of Smith's Colesville area activities.

Was Abner Cole an aberration? A lone critic of the Lord's Anointed, who persecuted Joseph Smith for his righteousness? The answer to that question must be "no" -- for there are other names on record from those early days, who also judged Smith to be a dishonest juggler. Take, for example, the statement of Rev. John Sherer, whose letter of Nov. 18, 1830 is reproduced by Dan Vogel:

... Joseph Smith. This man has been known, in these parts, for some time, as a kind of Juggler, who has pretended, through a glass, to see money under ground &c, &c.
(Early Mormon Documents 4 pp. 92-93)

Notice that Rev. Sherer also labeled Smith a "juggler," the word then in use for a fraudulent manipulator -- essentially a con man. Rev. Sherer does not criticize Smith for his pretending to converse with treasure spirits, nor for pretending to work apostolic-style miracles; (such assertions might be explained away by some modern readers as non-believers' misunderstandings of Smith's real prophetic activities). Instead, Rev. Sherer brings up a reference to Smith's glass-looking and pretensions of locating buried treasures. It would be difficult for modern readers to account for these assertions, as having somehow been based upon a misunderstanding of Smith's actual possession of the biblical "urim and thummim," or of an angel directing him to the location of a buried golden book.

An even more pointed charge was leveled at Joseph Smith, along these same lines, well before the appearance of D. P. Hurlbut upon the scene. In 1831, Abram W. Benton reported:

So much for the gift and power of God... It is reported, and probably true, that he commenced his juggling by stealing and hiding property belonging to his neighbors, ...
(Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate April 9, 1831)

While it does not rise to the level of proof, the above statement is more damaging to Smith's early reputation than either the charges of Mr. Cole or Rev. Sherer, for Benton claimed to possess a knowledge of the case presented against the young treasure-seer during his 1826 examination before a Justice of the Peace at Bainbridge, New York. D. Michael Quinn explains the seriousness of the situation:

Although contemporary diaries, newspaper reports, and later town histories suggest that thousands of early Americans participated in treasure digging nationwide, probably a much smaller number actually took the lead in practicing various forms of divination and magic. These were the kind of adepts referred to in an American medical journal of 1812: "There are men, now and then to be met with in New England, who profess a familiarity with magic. By the aid of this, they pretend to perform wonders; as raising and laying infernal spirits; disclosing the future events of a person's life; discovering of thieves, robbers, runaways, and lost property, with many others of a like nature" (Willey 1812, 378). These were also the targets of such laws as New York state's statute, to which the medical journal referred approvingly, that provided punishment for "Disorderly Persons," whose definition included "all jugglers [i.e., conjurors], and all persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science, or pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover lost goods" (New York 1813, 1:114).
(Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 1st ed., p. 24; cf. 2nd. ed. pp. 56ff; see also Persuitte pg. 51.)

Smith pretending to see underground through his hat  (1904 graphic)

In other words, unless he truly did possess "second sight," what Joseph Smith was doing at the time was illegal, and defined by the laws of his home state as being the activity of a criminal "juggler" (essentially a con man). Of course many modern defenders of the man will argue that he really did have the ability to see under the ground, and so he was breaking the law only in a technical sense. As Oliver Cowdery wrote of Smith in 1835: "while in that country [Chenengo County in 1826], some very officious person complained of him as a disorderly person, and brought him before the authorities of the country; but there being no cause of action he was honorably acquited." Cowdery presented no evidence to prove that Smith was actually acquitted by the court: it appears more likely that he confessed to "glass-looking" and was informally released (see Rev. Ariel McMaster's July 1881 letter to the Chicago Interior and "The Original Prophet" in Fraser's Magazine for Feb., 1873, p. 229).

At any rate, Joe Smith was reportedly acting like other 1820s con artists (Sally Chase, Hiram Page, etc.), whom nobody today credits as having been real seers and treasure-diviners. When asked about such reports, in 1838, Smith provided only this scant response: "Was not Joseph Smith a money digger? -- Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he got only fourteen dollars a month for it."

The Mormon leader conveys the impression that he was merely employed as an excavator, who worked for wages, rather like a well-digger or a ditch-digger might be paid for some hired pick-and-shovel work. Whether or not he actually did any digging himself, Smith's reply about treasure searching not being "very profitable" for him confirms the fact that he could not see riches under the ground. A man who lived in Palmyra when Smith was in the area, provides this recollection of digging, confidence and contributions (emphasis added):

As early as 1820, Joe Smith, at the age of about 19 years, began to assume the gift of supernatural endowments, and became the leader of a small party of shiftless men and boys like himself who engaged in nocturnal money-digging operations upon the hills in and about Palmyra.... Numbers of men and women, as was understood, were found credulous enough to believe "there might be something in it," who were induced by their confidence and cupidity to contribute privately towards the cost of carrying on the imposture, under the promise of sharing in the expected gains; and in this way the loaferly but cunning Smith, who was too lazy to work for his living, (his deluded followers did all the digging,) was enabled to obtain a scanty subsistence for himself without pursuing any useful employment.
(Pomeroy Tucker Wayne Democratic Press, May 26, 1858)

Again, unless Joseph Smith, Jr. truly could see underground, his reported behavior was exactly such as the New York laws were written to prohibit. Had he really possessed such occult powers, he might have demonstrated them at his 1826 Justice's examination at Bainbridge, in order to escape condemnation -- instead he ran away, to escape lawful punishment.

Joseph Smith's Mormon defenders have generally avoided addressing their prophet's glass-looking career. When the apologists responded to such accusations during the 20th century, one tactic they employed was to blame the 1820s upstate New York money-digging commotion on persons other than Smith. Here is what the Mormon historian Willard Bean had to say:

Yes, Joseph Smith, jr., did hire out to Josiah Stoal to work, along with a crew of men to uncover or develop, what was supposed to be an old Spanish silver mine, long since abandoned. This engagement took him to the State of Pennsylvania, about 155 miles from Palmyra. The following month an article appeared in the "New [sic] Orleans Advocate" and was copied by the "Wayne Sentinel" printed in Palmyra. It was originally printed as a semi-humorous joke, but was immediately saddled onto Joseph Smith and was readily used to brand him as a money digger. [1825 article follows]... From this time on, Joseph Smith was dubbed as a "treasure seeker," "gold digger," "mystic fraud" and "fortune teller," etc. Many of the early writers quoted, verbatim, from the above article.
(Willard Bean A.B.C. History of Palmyra, pp. 37-38)

In other words, Joseph Smith, Jr. was not a "treasure-seeker" nor a treasure-seer, who made use of "a mineral stone... placed in a hat" to see such riches as "silver bullion" buried in the soil of New York. Instead, he was innocently "saddled" with the bad reputation of some other local "treasure seeker" peepstone user.

Mormon writers Francis W. Kirkham and Hugh Nibley more or less concurred with Elder Bean -- and LDS Apostle John A. Widtsoe made an even more emphatic statement, published in the official LDS Church organ in 1946: "Joseph Smith was not a money digger, nor did he deceive people with peepstone claims."

More recently LDS leaders and writers have backed away a little from this mid-20th century rhetoric and are today admitting that the young Joseph Smith did indeed possess a peepstone, which he may have used to try and locate buried treasure. But we have strayed from our earlier commitment to seek out pre-Hurlbut reports of Smith's reputation. Setting aside the unlikely possibility that historical chroniclers like Pomeroy Tucker were unduly influenced by D.P. Hurlbut and E.D. Howe, we still see that Smith's reputation for being a "juggler" (or con man) took shape well before Hurlbut's 1833 visits to Palmyra and Manchester. If he was not indeed a con man, at least some of his New York neighbors looked upon him as being just that.


~ SECTION  2 ~

Joe  Smith:  the  Sincere  Deceiver?

Mormons have historically been quick to defend Joseph Smith, Jr., when faced with outsiders' claims that he was an "impostor." This response is understandable, in that questioning Smith's claims to prophethood amounts to questioning the authenticity of Mormonism itself. An example of the LDS response to such questioning is well illustrated in M. Guy Bishop's 1991 Dialogue review of Exiles in a Land of Liberty, (a generally objective history of the early Mormons, written by Kenneth H. Winn):

Winn casts Joseph Smith as the conservative defender of an older, crumbling America.... Readers of Exiles in a Land of Liberty will also increase their knowledge of Mormonism's opponents. Like the Saints, these opponents were well-intentioned folk, but they simply disapproved of what they perceived as fakery and fraud. Those who could not, or would not, comprehend Mormon consecration and communalism saw Smith as the ultimate con man. They were convinced that more than one of his timely revelations smacked of deception.

For M. Guy Bishop, the non-Mormon opposition to Smith's claims to be a revelator of divine communications came from those outsiders' failure to "comprehend Mormon consecration and communalism." But surely this is an inadequate explanation for the opposition. In fact, many of the early, outspoken critics of Smith and his religion were former members who fully understood the Latter Day Saint system and who still disagreed about the true origin of Smith's revelations and teachings. The popular belief in Smith being a con man originated before the Mormon order was solidified and expanded to significant proportions. It was Smith's observable behavior in his interactions with people in New York and Pennsylvania which first gained him the reputation of being a con man, and not his role in establishing the Mormon church. Smith himself must have been aware of this bothersome difficulty, because he dated his first theophany to the year 1820 and explained opposition to his subsequent activities as being Gentile "persecution" of the Mormon religion.

Turning to Winn's actual words from his 1990 Exiles in a Land of Liberty, we shall notice two relevant excerpts (emphasis added):

While revulsion against Joseph Smith as a confidence man and contempt for his followers as credulous dupes continued to typify gentile hostility to the church, by the mid 1830s their distaste for Mormonism was gradually changing into a fear of tyranny. ...
(Page 82)

It was an axiom of faith among church opponents that Mormon leaders created Mormonism solely "for the purpose of picking the pockets of the community." ... Anti-Mormons charged Joseph Smith, in particular, with an insatiable lust for money, and they occasionally reported his candid "admission" of the fact.,,, One need not be a republican ideologue to disapprove of swindling, but the common non-Mormon perception of Joseph Smith wallowing in his ill-gotten gain revealed a republican repugnance to the idea of decadent luxury.... When anti-Mormon writers moved their discussion away from the hierarchy to a more general treatment of the church as a whole... Smith did not so much corrupt the virtue of once good citizens as merely assemble those who had no civic virtue to begin with.
(pp. 68-70 -- listed in the index as "Smith... characterized as con man")

All of this comes from the period after Joseph Smith left New York, to oversee the rise and progress of his church in the West. By that time much of the criticism leveled against him came from observers at a distance who had little understanding of the dynamics of the Mormon "gathering" or of the new sect's internal conflicts. It is, then, no wonder that both Winn and his LDS reviewer are skeptical of Smith's reputation as a con man. The continued growth and expansion of Mormonism seems to argue for some better explanation than simple money-grabbing trickery and popular delusion.

Fawn Brodie's 1945 Smith Biography

Battling 21st Century Brodieism

A sharper LDS push-back can be found in the apologists' various writings rebutting Fawn M. Brodie's contention -- that Joseph Smith, Jr. "was a self-conscious impostor," (as Dale Morgan once paraphrased her views). A fair specimen of this sort of rebuttal can been seen in Louis Midgley's 2001 review of Newell G. Bringhurst's Brodie biography:

[Brodie's]... meticulous research over a period of some seven years into the life of Joseph Smith, which caused her to conclude that Mormonism's founder was a "conscious imposter," a fraud....

Bringhurst reports that Brodie described the 1971 revision of No Man Knows as involving "numerous changes in the text"... He also recognizes that "she backed away somewhat from her original contention that Joseph Smith was a conscious impostor"... In 1945, following Morgan's lead, Brodie maintained that Joseph Smith was entirely aware that the Book of Mormon was fraudulent. By 1971 Brodie had shifted to the notion that Joseph Smith, in Bringhurst's words, suffered from "a complex, interrelated 'identity problem'"...

As Brodie moved beyond the influence of Dale Morgan and began toying with a psychological explanation for Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, she began to picture Joseph Smith as an "impostor," that is, as deeply psychotic. This new explanation was not, however, intended to entirely replace, but rather to supplement, her earlier notion that he at least started out consciously fabricating a hoax. Are there good reasons for linking Joseph Smith with the "impostors" described by Phyllis Greenacre, the current authority on what is called the "imposter syndrome"?...

Is it not also worthwhile to ask how Brodie thought that she could salvage her original theory that Joseph Smith was a "conscious fraud" once she had turned to an explanation that pictured him as dissociative? And what happened to the arguments -- and they were arguments and not bald assertions -- that Morgan (and Brodie) worked out in opposition to the position advanced by DeVoto? Did not Morgan and Brodie believe they had shown that, no matter how much one might be tempted to explain Joseph Smith as suffering from some psychosis, the existence of the Book of Mormon stood in the way of such an account? As much as Brodie dabbled in Freudian explanations, Morgan had persuaded her that no psychological explanation of Joseph Smith would work if it basically compromised what they both were convinced was a fact -- that he knew from the start he was presenting a hoax to the world.

Although ostensibly framed as a summary of historical developments relating to Mrs. Brodie's expressed views, Dr. Midgley's article accentuates the Latter Day Saint uneasiness with any non-traditional discussion of Smith's motives and methods. The question of whether or not the "first Mormon" presented "a hoax to the world" takes precedence over attempts to independently discover who the man was and why he behaved as he did. The possibility that Joseph Smith, Jr. may have been something other than either a traditional prophet or an impostor, appears to elude the Mormon mind.

No matter what Brodie's final conclusions were -- and no matter if they contained contradictions -- the outcome of her scholarship was that, after 1945, many non-Mormons began to view Mormonism and its founder as an important but relatively benign part of American religious identity. To the disinterested non-LDS observer, Joseph Smith may have been the rogue and charmer of Brodie's imagination, but, if so, his confidence game had resulted in a substantial new religion which posed no special threat to outsiders. Mormonism had evidently not risen from any secret conspiracy nor as a plan to concentrate financial and political power in the hands of its leaders. Viewed from this perspective, Fawn M. Brodie helped rehabilitate the Mormon public image, regardless of whether or not its founder was "a conscious impostor," a self-deluded "true believer" or a genuine latter day seer. After Brodie, bickerings over the intent and methods of "the first Mormon" became irrelevant, outside of the lilliputian realm of pro-LDS and anti-LDS polemics.

A 21st century proponent of the Brodie paradigm is Dan Vogel, who sees the Book of Mormon story as a reflection of the mind and early life of its sole author, Joseph Smith, Jr. For Vogel, the founder of Mormonism was a "pious fraud," who engaged in a few secretive and dishonest practices in order to promote a noble religious cause. In short, his Joseph Smith, Jr. was another, more successful Lorenzo Dow -- a self-promoter and attention-seeker whose basic purpose was saving souls and building the Kingdom of Heaven. The major difference being that Elder Dow never felt compelled to fabricate new divine revelations or new sacred scriptures. Dow never instituted a "gathering," organized an armed militia, nor had himself crowned king by a secretive shadow government. We might here ask, does the "pious fraud" tenet of Fawn Brodieism go so far as to define Smith as a confidence man? Perhaps not: this revised, pious impostor is something far grander than a flim-flam man promoting heavenly ends. As "holder of the keys to the last dispensation," Vogel's Smith totally transcends James G. Bennett's 1849 cynical view of "The Confidence Man on a Large Scale."

The Need for a New Rubric

If the old attempts at defining Joseph Smith, Jr. as something other than a prophet are no longer useful, then what new definition might we plausibly attach to him? If "con man" stands at the lower end of a scale, and "prophet" stands at the higher end, are there any mediatory possibilities between these two extremes? Dan Vogel's "pious fraud" category merges into the definition of "prophet;" and the term "con man" can be extended to the pretensions of "religious fraud." Between the religious fraud of an unbeliever and the pious fraud of an unscrupulous believer, is there any place for Joseph Smith, Jr.? Upon careful consideration, there appears to be no simple definition for the man -- that is, no credible explanation for the non-Mormon to fall back upon with any assurance.

Perhaps the best explanation useful for those outside the ranks of the Latter Day Saints, is that Smith was continually evolving in his faith-promoting role -- his confidence-building role. At times his methods appear to overlap those of a con man, or a religious fraud. At other times his professed sincerity and seemingly selfless actions elevate the man to some indeterminate position overlapping a pious fraud and a would-be prophet. The Joseph Smith of modern reflection is a moving target and observers will discern what they will from the motion blur he has left in his wake. He presents to the non-Mormon observer the phenomenon that Jan Shipps might call a "prophet puzzle."

It cannot be expected that contemporary LDS apologists will retreat and allow a puzzling "Joseph Smith version 3.0" to become the consensus conclusion, both outside and inside "the Church." The revised Joe Smith is all good and well for propagation among the unbelieving Gentiles. He may even merit the reputation of a great religious genius and ecclesiastical architect, but this pious, evolving new Smith still looks too much like an impious "conscious impostor" for any official integration with latter day doctrine. Besides which, it may not bother religious liberals like some of the Reorganized LDS, that Smith is credited with authoring the Book of Mormon, but such a notion can never be allowed to take root among "God's peculiar people," headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. No -- something must be done about Vogel's "pious fraud" of a Prophet. And so, Richard L. Bushman, Reid Larkin Neilson, and Jed Woodworth devote a little attention to the matter in their 2004 Believing History --

[a new breed of "tolerant" readers], I suggest, may not be satisfied with the choices that Dan Vogel... offers to readers of Joseph Smith biographies. In describing some of the supernatural events in Joseph's early life, Vogel says that we have three choices: (1) Joseph Smith consciously deceived people by making up events and lying about them; (2) he unconsciously deceived people by imagining events and calling them real; (3) he told the truth. Vogel asserts that we cannot believe that Joseph told the truth without abandoning all "rationalist categories of historical investigation."

... Like Brodie, Vogel leans toward conscious deceit. Vogel believes Joseph Smith knowingly lied by claiming that he translated the Book of Mormon when in fact Joseph was making it up as he went along.

For my hypothetical body of twenty-first century readers, Vogel's alternatives represent a hard choice. Readers are being asked to consider the revelations as either true or a form of deception. Joseph Smith either spoke for God or duped people. There is no middle ground...

Vogel thinks of Joseph Smith as a sincere deceiver. He sympathetically concludes, "I suggest Smith really believed he was called of God to preach repentance to a sinful world but that he felt justified in using deception to accomplish his mission more fully."
(pp. 266-67 -- duplicated on-line in Bushman's "A Joseph Smith for the Twenty-First Century, Part 2")

Well then, where in all of this 21st century revisionism do we find a place for "Joseph Smith: 19th Century Confidence Man?" Has the question become irrelevant in the post-modernist era? It is doubtful that the thoroughly conservative LDS Church will ever subscribe to such a notion. "Joe Smith the sincere deceiver" does not look very different from "Joe Smith the disreputable con man" when viewed in the light of traditional LDS doctrine. But perhaps writers like Bushman are attempting to look beyond the ecclesiastical walls of their own domain, to make some impression upon "a new breed of 'tolerant' readers" who are never destined to make a personal acquaintance with an LDS baptismal font. For the benefit of such a class of curious onlookers there may be some value in blurring the lines of demarcation laid out by Mr. Vogel. Perhaps there is room, somewhere, for "Joseph Smith 4.0" -- the sincere deceiver and conscious fraud, who inexplicably was also made "a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty."

If this is where we are headed with the possibility of "Joseph Smith: 19th Century Confidence Man," the audience to be addressed is neither the faithful Saints nor their recalcitrant opponents. The auditors of this new gospel will be the hangers-on at the synagogue who only wish to admire the "Chosen People" and appropriate a smattering of their religion. For such an audience, "Joe Smith the Con Man" may be a refreshing and sympathetic figure -- an intermediary between the divine and the profane, who gathers a type of latter day flock he probably never dreamed of. If this constitutes Bushman's "hypothetical body of twenty-first century readers," we might all be well advised to brush up on our Melville.


~ SECTION  3 ~

The Melville Archetype

The title for this section is taken from a list of over 100 critical studies of Herman Melville's writings, as posted on-line at A little more than halfway down that list we find Martin Pops' 1970 volume, The Melville Archetype? The following excerpt, from his page 164, may serve as an introduction to Melville's 1857 Confidence Man as the final specimen among a repeated characterization of tricksters, scattered throughout Melville's several notable works:

[in Mardi] is the "equivocal conjuror"; in Moby-Dick, "an unaccountable old joker"; in Pierre, "Juggularius" the juggler; in The Encantadas, an "enchanter"; in Temple First, a magician; in The Confidence-Man, a quick-change artist. The Con Man is Devil and God: but that is not all. He first appears as Christ -- his "aspect [is]... singularly innocent," his hat is "fleecy," his figure "lamblike," and he writes on a slate such aphorisms as "Charity thinketh no evil." "Charity believeth all things, "and "Charity never faileth." Nor does he try to swindle anyone, and perhaps only a critic who lacks confidence will assume that his function is to subvert the passengers with Christian propaganda, for The Confidence Man's public declarations avow precisely the same thing.... Nevertheless, it would be an error to suppose that Christ and the Con Man are different people or even that the Con Man is impersonating Christ; the truth is more devastating: the Con Man is Christ, a deaf mute unable to speak to a world unwilling to listen.

Now that readers have been confronted with the shock of this apparent blasphemy, we are ready to examine Melville's "Confidence Man," as presented in the author's mid-19th century novel (if a "novel" it really is).

The book's narration (it can hardly be called a story) takes place during the course of a single day, aboard a riverboat moving southward from St. Louis toward the seaport of New Orleans. We are not told whether the steamer ever reaches Melville's apocalyptic ocean waters, hades, or nirvana. The narrative extinguishes itself in the end, with a capricious dollop of ambiguity thrown in for good measure. If the book's substance bears any resemblance to that of Moby Dick, its nautical allegories are confined to the fluvial microcosm of the mighty Mississippi.

Along the way the boat makes a number of stops, continually shuffling and reshuffling its human cargo, as various new passengers come on board. Among these ever changing faces are a number of "confidence men," who sequentially conduct a series of odd scams upon their fellow travelers. Given the book's title, along with various hints offered in its pages, the reader naturally comes to the conclusion that these several con men are actually a single "quick change artist" whose modus operandi consists of multiple alias identities, each of whom is the perpetrator of a different type of frontier fraud. Woven all through this succession of attempted con games are dialogues and discussions centering upon the dichotomies of belief/unbelief, trust/distrust, charity/selfishness -- and, especially the contrasting interplay between confidence and doubt. At the most trivial level these conversations involve nothing more than the decision of whether or not a person ought to donate a few dollars to a previously unheard of charitable fund. At the most profound level, the topic verges upon consideration of the existence of good and evil -- of human nature and divine influence -- and even the question of whether the dual concepts of God and Devil are not part of a cosmic confidence scheme. At various points in the narrative Melville's atheism is evident; but then again, so is his quixotic spirituality. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is not a simplistic literary creation -- that is, it is not simplistic unless it was written as Melville's own pointless play upon the confidence of his readers.

Consider this on-line critique from Louis Proyect, of Columbia University:

"The Confidence Man" is set on a riverboat called the "Fidèle," that is sailing down the Mississippi. As the title implies, the boat is loaded with con men who are either selling stock in failing companies, selling herbal "medicine" that can cure everything from cancer to the common cold, raising money for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society or simply convincing people to give them money outright as a sign that they have "confidence" in their fellow man. The word "confidence" appears in every chapter, as some sort of leitmotif to remind the reader what Melville is preoccupied with: the meanness and exploitation of his contemporary America. Because for all of the references to the need for people to have confidence in one another, the only type of confidence on the riverboat is that associated with scams. -- For Melville, the act of scamming represents everything that is wrong in American society in the decade preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. It is a time when the power of capital is transforming the American landscape, turning everything into a commodity.

Such a dark assessment mirrors the editorial offered by James G. Bennett in 1849, but it does not entirely explain the motives of Melville's riverboat con men/man. There is more in the book than "everything that is wrong in American society." For example, in several of the narrated "scams" the con man stands to gain very little, even if his "mark" is totally duped and filled with counterfeited confidence. In other instances the arguments of the con man, promoting belief, trust, charity and courage will strike a resonating chord in the soul of the religious believer or the humane philanthropist. Divorced from their petty chicanery, many of the confidence man's entreaties would make perfectly good sermons.

And perhaps that is the very point Melville wishes to raise

Throughout the book the careful reader must struggle with competing inclinations to accept or reject nearly everything that Melville communicates, but this struggle for proper discernment comes to a climax in the reader's consideration of con man's repeated arguments for man's unguarded belief and trust. Are the progressions of Melville's scam artist(s) professions of a sincere disciple of eternal goodness, or are they the enticements of a demonic arch-impostor? Can they possibly comprise both of these seeming contradictions at once? What does Melville want us to conclude from our study of his mixed messages? Should we think that nobody lives up to their sacred principles -- or that no principles are truly sacred? Should we conclude that seemingly benevolent religions such as Christianity are actually elaborate disguises for extending self-interest? Might we determine that, in the final analysis, belief and disbelief are existential complements -- the very warp and woof of human existence?

Having arrived at this philosophical dead end, we can now turn our attention back to Joseph Smith and 19th century Mormonism.

On Nov. 26, 1845 the newspaper readers of Hancock County, Illinois opened their freshly printed copies of the Warsaw Signal to browse through an article that probably brought a grin (or a smirk) to the faces of many of that locality's non-Mormons:

A Spiritual Sister -- Her encounter with a doubtful Smith.


'There goes Smith, the Attorney,' said a man to his friend, as a tall figure, slightly stooped, hurried by them.

'I beg your pardon,' answered the friend, 'that is the Rev. Mr. Smith, a preacher. I have heard him in Tennessee.' ... On board the steamer was a Mormon sister, on her way from down east to the holy city of Nauvoo, and many and anxious were her enquiries, if any brother of the church was on board? None were able to inform her...

The humorous account goes on to relate how the "Mormon sister" encounters on board a certain man, whom she takes to be Elder William Smith, younger brother of the late LDS prophet. The spinster sister's overly amiable solicitations for the man's views relating to "the spiritual system" of plural marriage soon drive the embarrassed fellow away and the tale comes to a quick ending.

Compare that little (and obviously fictional) Mississippi river anecdote from 1845, to one of the shorter scenes in Herman Mellville's 1857 book:



... Ere long he [the Confidence Man] goes laggingly into the ladies' saloon, as in spiritless quest of somebody; but, after some disappointed glances about him, seats himself upon a sofa... At the sofa's further end sits a plump and pleasant person, whose aspect seems to hint that... apparently she is a widow just breaking the chrysalis of her mourning. A small gilt testament is in her hand, which she has just been reading. Half-relinquished, she holds the book in reverie, her finger inserted at the thirteenth of 1st Corinthians, to which chapter possibly her attention might have recently been turned, by witnessing the scene of the monitory mute and his slate.

The sacred page no longer meets her eye... her volume drops. It is restored... the stranger breathes, "Madam, pardon my freedom...May I ask, are you a sister of the Church?"... "It is very solitary for a brother here,"... I prefer the company, however silent, of a brother or sister in good standing. By the way, madam, may I ask if you have confidence?"

"Really, sir -- why, sir -- really --I"

..."Pardon, I see it. No confidence. Fool, fond fool that I am to seek it!"

"You are unjust, sir," rejoins the good lady with heightened interest... "yes -- I may say that"...

"That you have confidence? Prove it. Let me have twenty dollars."
(pp. 66-68 in first edition)

In Melville's version of the tale, it is the man, rather than the woman, on the riverboat full of strangers who seeks the company of a fellow member of "the Church." As in the 1845 account, the newly met couple sit side by side and carry on a halting conversation relating to Christian virtue or charity. The man himself is a vague person -- identified by some passengers under one description, and by others under an alternate description. In both stories the ostensible male character (an advocate for widows and orphans, and the presumed LDS apostle) turns out to be something other than he appears to be. One is a shady guy, professing to be a charity worker, while the other is something like his opposite -- an innocent traveler mistakenly supposed to be the shady William Smith of Nauvoo.

None of these parallels prove that Melville appropriated some bits and pieces of the 1845 account for his own 1857 book, but the similarities of location, circumstance, characters and subject matter appear to be too strong for us to attribute to pure coincidence.

The Nov. 26, 1845 Warsaw Signal parody was reprinted from its initial appearance that month in the St. Louis Weekly Reveille. The writer of this short story, "Solitaire," was actually John S. Robb, a resident of St. Louis whose humorous anecdotes appeared regularly in the local press. His "Spiritual Sister" was copied into the pages of various contemporary newspapers, but Herman Melville most likely saw it under the guise of a chapter in Robb's 1847 compilation, Streaks of Squatter Life and Far-West Scenes, published in Philadelphia and sold throughout the country.

John S. Robb's "Spiritual Sister" and her "William Smith" (1847)

The intriguing possibility comes to mind, that perhaps Melville was initially planning to write a story with a Mississippi riverboat setting, including Mormon characters, when his attention was drawn to the 1849 New York Herald's report of William Thompson, the original "Confidence Man." Thompson's repeated question, "have you confidence in me to trust me...?," is inserted almost verbatim into Melville's story as: "Could you put confidence in me...?" One possibility is that Melville, around 1848-49, had already imagined such a fictional encounter aboard a steamship, and then added to that plot his paraphrase of the New York confidence man's perennial query. If this were the case, then that ""have you confidence?" question would easily been connected with a supposed traveling Mormon apostle or prophet -- a religious salesman whose pietistic message and churchly system demanded a unique degree of members' trust.

Recall also, that of all of Joseph Smith's brothers, only "Patriarch" William remained living in the fall of 1845. William was then (and later) accused of engaging in secret polygamous or extramarital relations with various women and thus was seen by some as a sort of con man in his own right. The real Apostle William Smith had just arrived in St. Louis, by steamer from Nauvoo, when the Reveille writer concocted his "Spiritual Sister" parody. Doubtless rumors of William's clandestine polygamy dogged him wherever he went. The year before, in Massachusetts, the Apostle was publicly accused of these practices by John Hardy, one of his own parishioners, in a pamphlet bearing the lengthy title of Startling Development of Crim. Con.!, or, Two Mormon Apostles Exposed, in Practising the Spiritual Wife System in Boston... exposing the "teachings and practices" of Elders G. J. Adams and William Smith.

The term used by Elder Hardy -- Crim. Con. -- was only indirectly associated with the activities of a confidence man. "Crim. Con." was Victorian Era shorthand for "Criminal Conversation," in which the "conversation" referred to was illicit sexual intercourse. The designation is most often found in old court records, where one man sued (or had arrested) some other man for seducing his wife in a criminal manner -- that is, maliciously damaging her value as a virtuous wife, etc. E. D. Howe tried to make a slight joke at the expense of the Mormons, when he wrote in 1834:

The Lamanites were all cursed by the Lord, and all marked and transformed into Indians. A curse was pronounced upon all who should ever mix with them. The Nephites warred with each other until they exterminated the whole race except three, who were immortalized. Whether the object of their immortality was to perpetuate the notable branch of Joseph by crim. con. we are left to conjecture. --

Here E. D. Howe implies that the Book of Mormon's eternal "Three Nephites" could only "perpetuate" their race through sexual intercourse with the cursed (and forbidden) Lamanite women. History does not record whether Howe was also making a subtle reference to the "reproach" soon afterward admitted to by the Mormons, on page 251 of the 1835 LDS Doctrine and Covenants: "Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife..." Certainly such a "reproach" might easily be applied to a charged leveled against a Mormon member for engaging in a "crim. con." seduction.

Evidently the 1835 D&C prohibition was not effective in eliminating this sort of "reproach" altogether from the Church, for we read the following charge in the Quincy Whig of Dec. 22, 1847:

Divorced from a Woman who had become the "Spiritual Wife" of a Mormon Leader. -- Henry Cobb vs. Augusta Cobb. This was a libel alleging crim-con on the part of the respondent with Brigham Young, in Nauvoo, in August, 1844, and December, 1845. After living 21 years in good repute with her lawful husband, the respondent became led away with Mormonism, leaving her husband, went to Nauvoo, and joined the church there.

Although the newspaper notice does not directly accuse Brigham Young of having been a con man, in his seduction of Mrs. Cobb, the deception typically associated with a "crim. con." is implied in the words "led away with Mormonism." Had he been asked the question in 1844, Henry Cobb probably would have applied the charge of "deceiver" to the already married Brigham Young. What makes the Mormon apostle's case different from the average "crim. con." of that day, is that he evidently did not deceive Mrs. Cobb about his marital status, nor about his intention to eventually marry her as a Mormon plural wife. The deception Mr. Cobb might have pointed to was Brigham's assertion that LDS spiritual wifery existed in obedience to latter day divine commandments. If Mormon apostles can rightfully be accused as con men, then the most serious charge that could be brought against them is that they prey upon their converts under the false authority of fabricated divine commandments.

John C. Bennett may have had Brigham Young in mind when he headed page 226 in his 1842 History of the Saints with the caption: "AMOURS AND ATTEMPTED SEDUCTIONS, AND CRIM. CON. CASES." Bennett went on to say: "Under this head I shall arrange two descriptions of cases; -- amours and attempted seductions, as in the cases of Mrs. Sarah M. Pratt, Mrs. Emeline White, Miss Martha H. Brotherton, and Miss Nancy Rigdon, where the Prince of the Seraglio was signally defeated; and the amours and crim. con. cases..."

It hardly needs to be pointed out here that John C. Bennett was a full-fledged confidence man in his own right, as was Nauvoo's "booster" Isaac Galland, and various other 1840s associates of "the Prince of the Seraglio" (Joseph Smith, Jr.). Bennett had his own crim. con. difficulties to deal with, as did Apostle Parley P. Pratt, who in later years was shot and killed by an irate husband, following the apostle's appropriation of that man's legal wife as an LDS "plural."

Did Herman Melville plan to write a novel that included mid-19th century Mormons and their secret polygamy? If so, he must have thought the better of that prospect and evolved his religious con game plot to focus upon confidence men in general, and not just upon the activities of William Smith and his polygamous brethren. Had Melville written an openly "Mormon" novel, an interesting story might have been developed from Elder Isaac Sheen's 1850 accusation of "adultery and fornication by Wm. Smith" in Smith's attempt to seduce Sheen's wife (in a religious scam) -- or from the 1855 episode in Utah Territory, in which Prophet Brigham Young played the "badger game" upon Lieutenant Colonel E. J. Steptoe, in order to keep the territorial governorship in Mormon hands. But Melville was wise not to allow his stories to be drawn into the muck of Mormon misdeeds. By merely alluding to his 1857 "Confidence Man" as possibly being a "green prophet from Utah, and later in the book planting a hint of a "New Jerusalem" land scheme "founded by certain fugitive Mormons," Melville included more than enough LDS minutiae to remind the causal reader of Joseph Smith's unsavory reputation among America's 19th century non-Mormons.

Some additional thoughts on Melville's allusions to things Mormon follow in the next section, below.


~ SECTION  4 ~

Ends  and  Means

If it is possible to separate the benign promoter of confidence from the greedy grifter and the malicious imposter, the next question one might ask, is where do confidence men (and confidence women) come from? Well before the "tools of the trade" are acquired (perhaps via the instruction of an experienced confidence man mentor), the young candidate for this shady role in society must start out with some predisposition to influence the opinions and actions of others. One possibility is that the incipient con man is unsettled by disharmony, contention and unpredictable actions among his childhood neighbors and family. In that case, the developing confidence man would naturally be inclined to promote harmony and human charity -- if only to insure his own security and sense of well-being. Another possibility is that the future con man lacks the faculty of a conscience, or is unable to distinguish between reality and imagination. In that case he might develop a narcissistic personality disorder, whereby he can only deal effectively with other people by manipulating them to accept his own distorted views. At any rate, the typical con man continually attempts to influence others to believe things they might not otherwise accept. Human nature being what it is, this manipulative predisposition may easily generate deception, dishonesty and a magnified sense of self-importance.

Although there is a general understanding that a con man is deceptive and manipulative -- that he seeks to instill unwarranted confidence of himself or his promotions in others -- nothing like a con man's set of rules exists. How might Joseph Smith, Jr. be measured against the unwritten standards and hazy notions of a confidence man's expected behavior? Would his early fortune-telling, divining, and glass-looking be the most prominent feature? Or would Smith's financial dealings -- his Kirtland bank, Far West salary-seeking and Nauvoo bankruptcy -- provide fertile grounds for investigation? Where in all of the attributes of a con man might we uncover secret seductions, multiple intimate partners and a public denouncment of polygamy? What about Smith's insistence that he had encountered the God of the Bible, face-to-face, and had a special calling to be the supreme leader of latter day Christianity?

So long as people are inclined to believe in the confidence man, he may be able to promote a general atmosphere of harmony and industrious incentive among those who trust in him. If the con man attributes these positive influences to a "higher power," he may also find himself in a position of considerable authority. It appears, however, that such religious-political successes are human rarities. Perhaps, in the long run, the truly honest and non-manipulative leaders tend to regularly occupy the social niches that self-motivated con men can only expect to gain and hold temporarily. Such leadership positions may initially be acquired through deception, but continual deception of a leader, unbuttressed by tyranny, can only be maintained through increased deception. Like any Ponzi schemer, such a leader is eventually exposed by an implosion of his own authority system. Joseph Smith, Jr. suffered through partial implosions of Mormonism in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, but still managed to maintain his authoritarian religious system to the very end of his life -- in fact, the system survived his own demise. This development cannot be attributed solely to the exercise of ecclesiastical tyranny, and it might be cited as an argument against Smith having been a common confidence man in his later years.

Can we justify the equivocal efforts of influential confidence men, based upon testimony of their ultimate goodness? The great philosophies and religions of the world tell us that expected positive results do not justify their means of enactment -- when those means are dishonest or immoral. If this be true, then the most that a cynic might say on behalf of the confidence man's positive outcomes, is that he is the product of the world and that he survives in the world by whatever actions work for him. If his deceptive efforts now and then help produce postive results, it does not follow that confidence schemes are the best means for reaching good ends.

If the illegitimate actions of a con man cannot be justified by their hoped-for good consequences, then perhaps an alternative rationalization remains. Perhaps people get "what they deserve" and the con man is justified under the precept that he is no worse than anybody else. At first glance, this alternative appears to fit well with the Mormon teaching of a Great Apostasy, in which all true religious authority disappeared from the earth centuries ago. Viewing human society from that perspective, the actions of a con man would be, at the very worst, the moral equivalent of hypocritical "hireling priests," and perhaps, ultimately, something far better. The Book of Mormon teaches "every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God" (Moroni 7:16, LDS edition). Evidently, in a thoroughly wicked world the con man's solicitations "to do good" and "to believe" might be "of God," even if his message is instilled through lying, cheating, and stealing. Consider Yvonne E. Pelletier's summary of Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man:

...the implication is that American society is predominantly built on lying, cheating, and stealing; a place where all offers and promises are too good to be true; and where everyone is eventually betrayed for having faith. As such, the confidence man appears to be an ideal model for the kind of behavior needed to survive and even thrive in a cynically motivated, deceptive society: he demonstrates the behavior necessary to succeed in a system driven by self-interest, competition, and misrepresentation.
("False Promises... in Herman Melville's Confidence-Man," a chapter in Martin Brückner's 2007 American Literary Geographies, pp. 191ff.)

Perhaps Joseph Smith was Not a Con Man After All?

If we stop to consider the facets of a man's character which would prove him not to be a deceptive con man, the point which first attracts our attention is this -- a con man would not knowingly and willingly endanger all that he holds dear, merely to succeed in deceiving people. Self-survival is a powerful instinct. Protection of family and loved ones is another powerful inclination in all decent human beings. And yet the actions of Joseph Smith, Jr. put the lives of those close to him in danger several times. His own life, as well as that of his brother Hyrum, was forfeited in defense of the Mormon cause. Such dedication and zeal, in the face of life-threatening "persecution," seems far removed from the modus operandi of the typical confidence man.

Another point worth consideration is that the con man generally picks his "mark," strikes and moves on. In Melville's book the deceiver appears to be a quick change artist -- which allows for an alternative to flight after pulling off a successful con. In the case of Joseph Smith, Jr., however, he neither disappeared from public view (for any extended period) nor permanently changed his identity to escape vengeful detection.

It might also be argued that con men generally attempt to cheat the unwary victims out of their wealth, while "Joe Smith" was more interested in gathering the saints of the world together and having them all share in a bounteous latter day commonwealth. A true con man might instead be expected to separate his dupes, pick them off one by one, and leave them all penniless. Joseph Smith, however, did gain great power over many people, their livelihoods and their property -- so the "leave them penniless" argument is not so convincing as are the previous two considerations.

A Third Possibility: From Occult to Cult

There may be another explanation for the controversy surrounding the first President of the LDS Church -- that he began his career as a small time confidence man, but quickly evolved into some more impressive and more complex. The late Wesley P. Walters was totally convinced that Smith had been a con man, and he summed up his conclusion thusly:

Mormon writers like Francis Kirkham and Dr. Hugh Nibley vigorously denied that their prophet could have participated in such a superstitious practice [as glass-looking], or had ever been found guilty in a court of law of what was clearly a confidence game. However, the discovery in 1971 of the bills of cost handed in to the county by Constable Philip DeZeng and Justice Neely for their services during the arrest and trial of Joseph Smith in 1826 have now established beyond doubt that the young "Glass looker" (as Mr. Neely's bill calls him) was indeed involved in glass looking for hidden treasure and lost objects, and that he was brought to trial for that crime.
("From Occult to Cult With Joseph Smith, Jr.," Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 1977) p. 122.)

...In addition to the correlations that the [Judge Albert] Neely record [of an examination of glass-looking charges against Smith] has with the 1826 bills, further verification of the authenticity of the Neely record is found in the fact that the names of all those whom he lists as participants in the trial can be verified as real persons who were actually living in the South Bainbridge area in 1826. For example... Peter G. Bridgman... was the nephew of Josiah Stowell and his wife Miriam Bridgman. Apparently he became deeply concerned when he saw his uncle's money being transferred bit-by-bit into the pockets of a young "glass-looking" confidence man named Joseph Smith.
("Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials," Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter 1974) p. 141.)

Whether this blending of religion and magic was inherited from his [Smith's] father's connection with the "Rodmen" movement of Middletown, Vermont, or was picked up from a magician named Walters with whom Joseph seems to have been associated for a while, or was stirred by the influence of the revival in Palmyra over the winter of 1824-1825, it is impossible to say. It is possible that this whole occult procedure was a mere theatrical trimming to make his confidence game seem more convincing. Mr. Noble reports that he heard one witness testify that he had asked Joseph on one occasion whether he could actually "see or tell" more than anyone else, and Joseph had admitted he could not but added, "Anything for a living. I now and then get a Shilling." However, it seems likely that he came at least half-way to believe in that realm of the occult...
("From Occult to Cult With Joseph Smith, Jr.," Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 1977) p. 127.)

Having thus branded the young Joseph Smith as a criminal running "a confidence game," Rev. Walters goes on to describe Smith as "a young 'glass-looking' confidence man" and an occultist who blended "religion and magic" in order to "make his confidence game seem more convincing" among his money-digging dupes. Walters adds a surprising twist to the above summary of Smith's 1820s practice of magical chicanery by concluding, "he came at least half-way to believe in that realm of the occult." He also says this about Smith's second encounter with the Law in southern upstate New York:

...the 1830 trials marked Joseph's successful transition from a practitioner of the occult, searching for money, to the prophet of the new cult of Mormonism. When Joseph later recounts this early period of his life, he minimizes his money digging as a minor affair of manual labor for an old gentleman named Josiah Stowell, whom he finally "prevailed" with to abandon such useless activity, and the many testimonies to his money digging come to be regarded as slander manufactured to persecute the young prophet of the Lord. That period when he was a sorcerer and glass looker using occult religious practices in a superstitious confidence enterprise is transformed by Joseph into the period of preparation for him to become the instrument of the Lord for bringing forth the fullness of the gospel by the publication of the Book of Mormon.
("From Occult to Cult With Joseph Smith, Jr.," Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 1977) p. 130.)

Rev. Walters' theory regarding Joseph Smith's transformation from con man to would-be prophet is an important statement. Whether or not this summary accurately fits Smith's development into the foremost LDS leader, it provides the basis for a third alternative to the deceiver/truth-teller dichotomy so often encountered in Smith biographies. To some extent Rev. Walters' theory parallels Fawn Brodie's belief, that Smith was a "conscious impostor" who came to believe himself a prophet. Both of these views are somewhat compatible with Dan Vogel's deduction, that Smith was a "pious fraud" who became a prophetic religion-founder. What Walters' theory adds to all of this, is the unique observation that a small town con man made a "successful transition from a practitioner of the occult, searching for money, to the prophet of the new cult of Mormonism." Walters thus applies Smith's experimentation with magic as a sort of psychic catalyst -- a motivation and methodology which propelled the Palmyra farmboy into a role transcending that of a commonplace con man who had been pretending to be a treasure seer and fortune teller.

If Rev. Walters' conclusions are the correct ones, then Smith's involvement in the occult wrought a transformation of his early confidence schemes, into a viable religious program, at about the same time that he was reportedly "translating" the Book of Mormon. We should keep in mind, however, that in Walters' theory, this religious evolution did not necessarily extirpate Joe Smith's stratagems for counterfeiting confidence in his followers. Smith's earlier methods were sanitized and given an aura of holiness, but he retained them, all the same.

The ambiguity of Smith's choice of confidence-building techniques, before, during and after his supposed religious transformation is what makes it difficult to establish any particular chronological point at which he ceased being a con man and began being a "true prophet." Craig Criddle, in his examination of Smith's probable contribution to bringing forth the Book of Mormon, bypasses this problem, by focusing attention only upon Smith's activities prior to the publication of that book. He says:

The Smith-as-Sole-Author Theory asserts that Smith produced The Book of Mormon with or without supernatural assistance. This theory can be based on any of the following premises: (1) Smith was a prophet of God as he claimed; (2) Smith had a gift of some kind, perhaps like that attributed to certain artists and mystics and sometimes described as "automatic writing," and he was sincere in his belief that this was a gift from God that enabled him to translate the golden plates that he saw in visions; (3) Smith was a pious fraud who was trying to bring people to Christ by making up scripture that would support Christian belief; (4) Smith was a successful con man who needed to find a new gig after his treasure seeking business tailed off after skirmishes with the law.
("Sidney Rigdon: Creating the Book of Mormon," sec. 1)

There is abundant evidence that during the same time period that Smith claimed to be entertaining annual visits by an angel, he was also making a living as a con man... he was found guilty of perpetrating a money-digging scheme... Smith was no run-of-the mill con man. He was actually a talented magician, with an act that included seer stones, fortune telling, palm reading, divining rods, amulets, incantations, and participation in rituals to summon spirits and showed a remarkable ability to induce and retain belief. The Bainbridge trial transcript describes some of the ruses used by Smith to con people, and it includes testimony that he was a fraud... It is important to reiterate that Smith claimed to be receiving an annual angelic visitor in anticipation of the Book of Mormon at the very same time he was also engaged in activities that show him to be a con man...

[Any] evidence that shows Smith to have been an honest man is also consistent with the con man theory, because that is precisely how many successful con men normally present themselves. A successful con man must pass himself off as trustworthy in order to gain the "confidence" of his marks so that he can then take advantage of them. Con men may even believe at some level that they can actually do the improbable things they claim to be able to do.... the likelihood of former con men becoming real men of God and performing miracles is less than the likelihood of them remaining con men and performing tricks that appear to be miracles in support of some con.
("Sidney Rigdon: Creating the Book of Mormon," sec. 2, part 6)

Craig Criddle's estimation of Joseph Smith being a purposeful deceiver still allows for him to have been the sole author of the Book of Mormon (though Criddle elsewhere argues against the Smith-alone authorship theory). It also allows for Smith to have been sincerely convinced of his purported supernatural powers and to have evolved into a miracle-worker. But even after these theoretical concessions, Criddle still labels the Mormon leader as a con man, due the "ruses used by Smith to con people." In other words, Joseph Smith, Jr. was something much more complex than a "run-of-the mill con man," and he may well have believed in his own seership. The distinguishing feature which nevertheless marks Smith as a probable confidence man was his "remarkable ability to induce and retain belief" in his followers, by "performing tricks that appear[ed] to be miracles."

Craig Criddle thus makes no claims for Smith having been a confidence man in his post-1830 career. What Criddle is interested in are Smith's "ruses" and "tricks," whereby he maintained himself as a confidence man in the period before the Book of Mormon was printed.

Could the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon be the practicable justification for Smith's earlier deceptions? Clearly he could not see treasures buried under the ground -- and just as clearly he supplemented his income by wrongly telling people he actually could locate such riches. On the other hand, millions of people now living profess to have God-given testimonies that the Book of Mormon is not only an authentic ancient American record, but that it is also latter day revelation which provides the "fulness of the gospel." Either Smith's original deceptions have been multiplied millions of times, to produce colossal deluded testimony; or else the Palmyra farmboy really did progress from confidence man to divine prophet. But which of those possibilities is true and which is false? The undecided question presents an existential conundrum worthy of Herman Melville's attention. And, considering the fact that he once wrote about an ancient prophet of the true religion named Alma, it appears likely that the noted American author granted his attention to this puzzle, at least as far back as 1849.


~ SECTION  5 ~

Melville Mormons and Mardi

The title for this section is shamelessly plagiarized from Martin Blythe's web-page subtitle, "Melville, Mormons and Moby-Dick," and rests upon the determination that Herman Melville knew more than a little about Mormonism and that he dropped hints of that knowledge in various fictional writings, beginning with his singular novel Mardi, first published in 1849.

The novel has about as many interpretations as it has had readers, but an agreement can probably be reached upon its primary theme -- which is the search for truth amongst the tangles and tatters of religious mythology. Set in an improbable part of Polynesia, the story tells of voyages between fictional islands, inhabited by fictional peoples, believing and carrying on a bewildering variety of mythical traditions, some of which are manifested in fanciful religious tenets and practices. Mormonism is not one of those traditions, but fragments of the latter day infatuation may be discovered, scattered through the pages and isles comprising imaginary Mardi.

One lesson the discerning reader may learn from Melville's story, is that truth will not be found in any one particular religious mythology. All the mythologies are in competition to communicate the truth, and they obviously cannot all be correct in their sundry messages. Even where the truth appears to momentarily shine through the clouds of dubious tradition, we may well suspect that it will be misunderstood, perverted and eventually lost sight of. Whether communicated through the medium of history, legend, poetry or reason, it is likely that the self-styled truth-tellers will disagree in their message and accuse one another of misrepresentations, errors and fictions. So, what value can the seeker of truth take away from his investigation? Perhaps this: No one source will supply the perfect answer, but a comparison of all the sources will at least convey the veritable fact that truth is elusive. This realization has intrinsic value and may help point the seeker in the right direction, whereby he can eventually stumble upon the truth, and know it by direct experience, rather than by unreliable instruction. Then again, unreliable instruction, like a stopped clock, may by happenstance be right twice twixt two sunrises -- such is the crafted ambiguity of Melville's message.

But what has all of that to do with Mormonism?

We begin with an observation first communicated by Robert A. Rees in 1966:

... to discuss the possible influence of The Book of Mormon, hitherto not discussed in relation to Melville's writing... Melville could have encountered The Book of Mormon in one of the many libraries to which he had access. He might even have known Mormon missionaries who had been distributing copies since 1830, especially in the Eastern and New England states. Of interest to Melville would have been the Mormon teaching that The Book of Mormon was a history of the ancestors of the Polynesians.
("Melville's Alma and The Book of Mormon," Emerson Society Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2 (2nd qtr. 1966) p. 41.)

Rees goes on to present several convincing arguments in favor of Herman Melville having been a Book of Mormon reader and a novelist whose books indicate that he was familiar with early Mormonism. Rees also discusses in detail how Melville's reading of the Book of Mormon may have influenced his creating the ancient Polynesian character "Alma" in the novel Mardi. Melville's "illustrious prophet" Alma never appears in the flesh in Mardi, but he is much spoken of there -- not only as a prophet of the olden days, but also as an actual incarnation of the supreme Mardian deity. Alma in the novel was the final and most perfect human revelation of the One True God. He thus stands as a close parallel with the biblical Jesus Christ.

The 1966 paper does not develop the interesting topic of Mormons claiming that Polynesians are Nephite descendants, however. It is quite possible that Melville became interested in Mormonism in the course of his researching Polynesian mythologies and claims for external influences upon the early inhabitants of those islands. Did Hinduism ever reach the Pacific realms, bringing with it the incarnation theology of avatars? Did preColumbian American religions ever migrate to the South Seas, introducing the lore of such divine teachers and law-givers as Quetzalcoatl, Kukulcan and Manco Capac? A Melville scholar touches upon these sorts of questions:

The concept of the avatar is the central structural principle of The Confidence-Man. Modern criticism of the book has partly recognized this fact by making "avatar" the conventional word to describe each of the Confidence Man's appearances. But no one has pointed out that "avatar" is a word and concept from Hindu theology, and that it is fully and peculiarly relevant to The Confidence-Man.

In Mardi, the redeeming avatar appears as three Mardian savior gods who correspond to three of the world's savior gods: Alma is Mardian for Christ; Manko is Manco Capac; and Brami is Brahma or Brahm. Manko, of course, is the only exact correspondence. Alma, the heart or soul, is a good name for a god of the religion of the heart... Each of the three Mardian exemplars of the redeeming avatar sails on the Fidèle. The Confidence-Man's subject is the Christ, the Alma of Mardi. The Confidence-Man's first sentence compares Christ's embodiment, the lamb-like man, to Manco Capac, the Manko of Mardi....
(H. Bruce Franklin The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology, pp. 177-78.)

Here then is a hint as to how Melville may have stumbled upon the Book of Mormon, wherein one of "the world's savior gods" is depicted as the risen Christ, visiting the American Nephites. In pre-colonial Peru, another of those "world's savior gods" was Manco Capac, a semi-mythological figure whose legends Mormons point to, as preserving a vestige of the Christ among the Nephites story. Martin Blythe notices the importance of this Peruvian connection, in his remarks concerning Melville's The Confidence-Man:

The book opens with a reference to Manco Capac, one of the Quetzalcoatl-like American gods cited by Mormons to defend their version of American pre-history... There's a reference to "Mormons" being on the boat and to a "green prophet from Utah" (not a compliment) and there’s a "man in the gray coat and white tie" whom some have taken to be a portrait of Joseph Smith

If Melville bothered to read both the Book of Mormon and some mid-19th century LDS faith-promoting literature, he would have realized that the Latter Day Saints point out the book's account of the Nephite Hagoth sailing off into the unknown seas as the means by which Polynesia was populated by proto-Christian Israelites. Although Hagoth's voyage ostensibly came before Christ's visit to America, subsequent Nephite/Lamanite navigators could have followed in his wake, carrying the Manco Capac corruption of Christianity to Melville's fictional version of Polynesia. While LDS publications in the 1850s did not prominently accentuate the "Quetzalcoatl-like American gods," Melville could have made the necessary mental connection, simply by reading 3rd Nephi in the Book of Mormon, along with any number of volumes on preColumbian American religion -- Lord Kingsborough's Antiquities of Mexico would have offered sufficient source material for Melville to have linked the "Quetzalcoatl-like gods" to 3rd Nephi's American Christ. In fact, the popular magazines of the 1850s could have supplied Melville with a good deal of information for his novels. The Oct., 1855 issue of Putnam's Monthly contained not only the first installment of Melville's own Benito Cereno, but also an episode of the serialized "Life Among the Mormons." The previous month's issue contained another Mormon episode, as well as a statement identifying the "mysterious personage" of Quetzalcoatl as "the Buddha of the Mexicans."

Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, by LDS Artist George M. Ottinger

In Melville's Mardi, "Manko" is the avatar who appeared immediately prior to Alma (who was the final Divine incarnation). If "Manko" (Manco Capac) came across the waters, Hagoth-like, from the Americas, then an American Alma could have been the necessary corrective revelation, in human form, to purify an incomplete (or misunderstood) religion of the One True God. At any rate, Melville's investigation of Manco Capac would have led him to sundry beliefs that Peruvian god-man had actually been St. Thomas, or even Jesus Christ (see Kingsborough) -- and Melville's further study of published LDS assertions would have led him to the Book of Mormon and to that volume's Prophet(s) Alma, (the driving force for the establishment of alleged Nephite Christianity). The elder Alma eventually disappears from the Book of Mormon narrative; an oddity reminiscent of Quetzalcoatl's disappearance from Mexico and Lobaska's disappearance from Solomon Spalding's "Roman story."

There is but one problem in this line of reasoning -- the Book of Mormon does not portray its Alma(s) as God-on-earth. The Hindu concept of avatars is entirely foreign to Mormonism. So perhaps Melville did NOT pattern his Polynesian Emmanuel upon the Mormon character after all. Perhaps the evolution of Mardi's Alma was something more complicated and more subtle than a plagiarizing of latter day scripture. In fact, the name Alma predates the 1830 Book of Mormon by several centuries, and is symbolic of the human soul. The human soul is a Divine creation that animates an earthly body, much like an avatar enlivens and deifies a human body. If Melville appropriated his Alma name from the (lesser) human parallel to Divine incarnation, then the novelist may have also detected a slight irony in that name's occurrences in the Book of Mormon. That is to say, the original creator of Mormonism's Alma may have also borrowed that name from Romance language definitions of Alma equaling "soul." Supposing further, that Melville was aware of mid-19th century attributions of Book of Mormon authorship to Solomon Spalding (rather than Joseph Smith), Melville's adoption of the name in his story may have been done with a wink and a nod to the then current claims that an illiterate Joseph Smith was not the creator of the Mormon book's story and characters.

Whatever the full explanation of this mystery might be, it is safe to say that Herman Melville realized that his introduction of a Polynesian prophet named "Alma" left behind it a literary trail back to the Book of Mormon and, ultimately, to Joseph Smith himself.

Joseph Smith aboard the steamship Fidèle

Melville's 1857 The Confidence-Man opens with a comparison of its first mentioned character to the Peruvian Manco Capac. Fifteen paragraphs later, that same Christlike character is equated with a "Green prophet from Utah." The intra-textual linkage of characters is complex here, but the probable connection to be made is Alma = Manco Capac = Mormon prophet. But that does not tell us which LDS leader Melville is alluding to. In 1989 Mormon writer Cecilia K. Farr offered this suggestion:

As Melville takes aim against these "various agents of God" and philosophy, he includes agents of the Mormon church... In the list of "epitaphic comments" which introduces Chapter Two of the novel is a "Green prophet from Utah," a definite reference to Mormonism and probably to Brigham Young, the prophet who led the church's exodus to Utah in 1847.
(Cecilia Konchar Farr, "The Philosopher with the Brass Plate: Melville's Quarrel with Mormonism in The Confidence-Man," American Transcendental Quarterly, ns. Vol. 3, No. 4 (Dec. 1989) p. 354.)

That may be correct; however, Melville's Christlike character appears to be a younger and less worldly fellow, than the imperious "Lion of the Lord." In 1857 Brigham Young was Governor of the Territory of Utah, making preparations to do battle with the Army of the USA -- hardly a "green" religious oracle. On the other hand, the conventional account then being spread by LDS missionaries was the miraculous story of a young (green) Joseph Smith's first vision. The beardless, newly summoned prophet of those missionary sermons seems a better fit with Melville's word picture in The Confidence-Man.  H. Bruce Franklin agrees with this interpretation; he says on page 3 of his 1967 annotated edition: "'Green': unseasoned; Utah implies Mormons. Joseph Smith, the first Mormon Prophet... was attacked as a vicious impostor or a witless enthusiast." After all, we should remember that Melville's character similitudes are often subtle, obscure, multi-faceted and purposely ambiguous. It is not merely Joseph Smith who boards the steamship Fidèle, but rather, a composite personage who embodies several different purposes and symbols.

If the Smith/Mormonism intimations in Melville's writings ended with his Christlike character boarding the Mississippi steamer, then the Latter Day Saints might agree that the famous American novelist's handling of their first leader and his religion was relatively benign -- the Alma of Mardi and the Utah Prophet of The Confidence-Man would merit barely more than a short footnote in the expansive universe of American Literature. However, as previously pointed out, Melville took the trouble to incorporate into his writing an obscured reference to Joseph Smith's brother William, hinting of a connection between con men and Mormonism. Also, Cecilia K. Farr informed us that in The Confidence-Man, "[a]s Melville takes aim against these 'various agents of God' and philosophy, he includes agents of the Mormon church." obviously there is more to consider here than just Alma and the Christlike character. Following on with Ms. Farr's reporting, we see that she adds these interesting conclusions:

In Chapter Nine "the man with the book" tries a real estate scam-selling property in the already completed but uninhabited "New Jerusalem... originally founded by certain fugitive Mormons... (and standing) on the Mississippi" Though the city is said to be located in "northern Minnesota," it resembles Nauvoo, Illinois, which Mormons called "the New Jerusalem"... Melville obviously found in this strange abandoned city a gold mine for irony. The confidence-man's descriptions of the lots in this city... sound too good to be true. Contemporary readers recognize it immediately as a "Florida-swamp-land" scam....

These two specific references to Mormonism, however, only serve to introduce several more complex references to Mormon theology which, though now obscured, would likely have been familiar to the readers of Melville's time... If Melville was giving us agents of deception in his various confidence-men, it seems apparent that, given the tenor of his time, these agents would be as likely to represent religions as they are to represent schools of art or philosophy. The most prominent agents of the Mormon church (then and now) were the missionaries who must have been often in Melville's neighborhood from 1832 on -- one of whom he describes in Chapter 22.
(Farr, "The Philosopher with the Brass Plate," p. 354.)

So, if we are to believe this writer, then Herman Melville, in the twenty-second chapter of The Confidence-Man, "takes aim against" 1850s LDS missionaries, for being "agents of God." This sounds very much like persecution wrought with the pen, rather than the sword. The swindling promotion of worthless city lots in Nauvoo summons up mental images of Isaac Galland's eastern salesmanship tour, when that riverside utopia was first being built. That was not so much a Mormon con game as it was a hustle based upon the prospect of the "New Jerusalem" making all of its share-holders rich. As for the supposed "missionary" pointed out in Farr's paper, it is doubtful that the "man with the brass plate" is a stand-in for a Mormon elder peddling faith in the "brass plates of Laban." Farr supposes that the LDS missionaries of Melville's day would have been elucidating Joseph Smith's path of "eternal progression to godhood;" but that seems highly unlikely. LDS doctrines of theosis were not typically preached to the Gentiles, along with the First Principles of the Gospel, and Herman Melville would have been hard-pressed to have discovered even hazy published hints of the LDS tenets associated with the "plurality of the gods," until after he had begun writing The Confidence-Man.

Farr provides one other example of "several more complex references" to things Mormon in Melville, when she says:

The physical description of the "philosopher with the brass plate" bears little resemblance to the Mormon prophet, though "the man in the gray coat and white tie" whose "countenance revealed little of sorrow, though much of sanctity" suggests popular depictions of the prophet, especially as this version of the confidence-man was involved in charitable work for the Indians.
(Farr, "The Philosopher with the Brass Plate," p. 358.)

This brings us back to the Melville character based (at least in part) upon William Smith, whom we met previously in Chapter Eight of The Confidence-Man. Farr notices that this con man's description "suggests popular depictions of the prophet" Joseph Smith, but she fails to explain that Smith, in the 1840s and 1850s was often pictured wearing a white cravat.

An 1844 report describes the Mormon leader as: "quite a large man, light complexion, hair and eyebrows very light, eyes prominent and blue, a remarkably receding forehead [and] chin retreating; dresses neatly, but not peculiarly, excepting his high shirt collar and [large] white cravat..."

A grown man who habitually wore a white cravat during the mid-19th century would have probably been taken for a Christian minister of one of the "low church" sects (Methodist, Baptist, Millerite, Mormon, etc.) It was not quite equivalent to a priest's clerical collar (or a Presbyterian elder's ruffled white neckpiece) -- but it was close enough to that, for his observers to mark the white cravat wearer, "a man of the cloth." In The Confidence-Man the author does not specifically say that his "man in a gray coat and white tie" wore a clerical necktie, but Melville does identify him as a seemingly decorous person who claimed church members "in good standing" as his "brother or sister," and whose company he preferred. Whether ordained or not, this is the sort of language one might expect from a Mormon dignitary of that period. Melville's "man in a gray coat and white tie" converses, as an equal, with an Episcopalian minister aboard the steamship -- an instance of professional intimacy somewhat unusual for an LDS leader. Then again, Joseph Smith, Jr. was known to receive and converse with Protestant ministers in his home. Besides which, Melville drops some hints that the Episcopalian cleric may have been a con man in his own right; and "birds of a feather flock together."

There is yet another occurrence in The Confidence-Man indicating that the "white tie" worn by the "man in a gray coat" is the emblem of a religious leader. On page 21 of the first edition, Melville has an onlooker aboard the steamboat shout out to a combative Methodist minister: "The white cravat against the world!" While the minister does not appear to be a con man himself, the "white cravat" remark reminds us of how easily a clerical pretender might have passed himself off as a real * Christian minister in those days.

*See also T. B. Read's "The Consequence of Wearing a White Cravat," in The Rover 2:2 (Oct.? 1843) pp. 21-22, where a traveler is mistaken for being a Protestant minister, merely because he wore a white neckpiece. This humorous account shares some minor parallels with John S. Robb's 1845 "A Spiritual Sister," and with Melville's "A Charitable Lady" in The Confidence-Man. The same weekly magazine, on pages 276-280 (1844), featured a reprint of Jeremiah N. Reynolds' whale story, "Mocha Dick of the Pacific," which may have been the copy consulted by Herman Melville, rather than its original 1839 appearance in The Knickerbocker.


~ SECTION  6 ~

Back  to  Basics

If Joseph Smith, Jr. can accurately be called a 19th century confidence man, should that fact alone discourage the Latter Day Saints from fully supporting and promoting their church? After all, Smith lived long ago and his activities as a treasure seer have been practically forgotten by the modern members of the church he founded. Among the Christians, it might be remembered that there was a similar problem in the early career of Saul of Tarsus -- before he became the "Apostle Paul." If Christians can forgive and selectively forget Paul's problematic pre-baptismal affairs, could not Mormons do much the same in the case of Joseph Smith?

Apparently not. Other than a couple of long discarded remarks about Smith's money-digging, offered by Brigham Young, the Mormon leaders seem content in avoiding this issue. Smith, after all, provided his own story of purported boyhood visions and revelations, and that account is published by the LDS Church, in its Pearl of Great Price, as sacred scripture, manifesting the Holy Word of God. In that story (and associated disclosures), Joseph Smith never admitted to having been a treasure seer, a fortune-teller, a magician-juggler, or a deceiving con artist. St. Paul could candidly express remorse over his pre-baptismal, counter-Christian acts; but Joe Smith never confessed any sins meriting similar remorse.

Detail from Bernardo Daddi's Martyrdom of St. Stephen (Paul on the left)

In Smith's telling of the story, his only transgression worthy of mention was a temporarily frivolous attitude and his only distraction from a prophetic calling was a temporarily unsuccessful excavation of an old silver mine. In other words, if Joe Smith began his career as a con man, he must have retained at least one aspect of a con man's deception, in telling and re-telling his own past story. Given the fact that Smith later used deception to cover over his personal secret polygamy, the student of Mormon history has reason to suspect his imperfect honesty in other instances as well.

Herman Melville's proffered insights respecting a confidence man and "his masquerade," might provide the Mormons with considerable cognitive cover, if the need ever arose to justify Joseph Smith's reported deceptions and manipulations. It remains to be seen whether or not LDS writers will ever attempt interpreting Herman Melville in order to better explain Joseph Smith.

Continuing with the topic of Smith, Melville and modern LDS writers, this statement from Richard D. Rust may be germane:

Herman Melville, according to noted literary critic R. W. B. Lewis, was "the one novelist in nineteenth-century America gifted with a genuinely myth-making imagination." Joseph Smith similarly has been considered by the distinguished literary critic Harold Bloom to be "an authentic religious genius [who] surpassed all Americans, before or since, in the possession and expression of what could be called the religion-making imagination." Yet Melville belonged to what Lewis called the party of Irony, while Smith could be considered to belong to the party of Hope. Melville had deeply probing questions; Smith, thinking as deeply but also calling on revelation, had answers to many of the very questions Melville posed.
(Richard Dilworth Rust, "'I Love All men Who Dive:' Herman Melville and Joseph Smith," R. L. Neilson & T. L. Givens (eds.) Joseph Smith, Jr. Reappraisals after Two Centuries. (NYC: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009) p. 358.)

If this conclusion can be cited as representing contemporary Mormon opinion, then the realizations of intellectual or spiritual inquirers like Herman Melville might approach in wisdom those typified by the "religion-making imagination" of Joseph Smith, Jr., but only the Divine "revelation" uttered by Smith himself can provide the explanations, truth or perfection these lesser minds seek to have communicated. Rust thus has Melville posing "deeply probing questions" and Smith providing the "answers," inspired and facilitated by "revelation." If this is so, then we might ask why Herman Melville did not simply affirm Joseph Smith as the great latter day prophet?

Under his sub-title "Melville and the Mormons," Rust shows that Melville knew enough about Smith and Mormonism to incorporate some of that understanding into novels like Mardi, Pierre and the Confidence Man. Rust also intimates that these two great 19th century American thinkers (Smith and Melville) were much alike -- practically twin minds, in their inclinations and abilities. If "Melville found something commendatory in the Book of Mormon," (as Rust argues), then what quirk of misunderstanding was it that kept Herman Melville in the shadows of "irony," while Joseph Smith's inherent brilliance beamed forth as the latter day oracle of "hope?" According to Rust, Melville lacked the wonderful gift entrusted to Joseph Smith: continuing Divine "revelation." Is this a credible assertion? If we are to get back to basics now, we must begin by asking a very important question --

What is Revelation?

Had Joseph Smith lived long enough to have read Moby Dick, what impression upon his prophetic "religion-making imagination," would Melville's Chapter 35 have left? That episode in the great white whale story is entitled "The Mast-Head," and will probably serve as a decent example of what the experience of "revelation" was to the former sailor-turned-novelist. Perhaps Smith, who believed that God in His anger, had "decreed... many destructions upon the waters," would have shown little interest in the seaman's lookout experiences in a crow's nest. Then again, its was reported of Smith, that the first time he gazed into his seer-stone, he "discovered that time, place and distance were annihilated." If this was really Smith's experience of "second sight," perhaps he would have empathized with Melville's mystical mast-head standing:

...turn we then to the one proper mast-head, that of a whale-ship at sea. The three mast-heads are kept manned from sun-rise to sun-set... In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant, the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep... There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor.... I used to lounge up the rigging very leisurely, resting in the top to have a chat with Queequeg, or any one else off duty whom I might find there... Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I -- being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude -- how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships' standing orders...

Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient interest in the voyage... But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect... lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over. There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

But is this the stuff of "revelation?" Where in all of this being "diffused through time and space" (Prophet Smith might demand) is the requisite, plenary and propositional "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel...?"

If Melville could have been cajoled into a responsive answer, perhaps he would have alluded to how the "absent-minded youth... loses his identity," to the end that nothing remains to report, save "Pantheistic ashes." Then again, the great novelist himself might have wondered from whence came his "elusive thoughts" and profound insights, undreamt of yesterday and all the days before?

Another example from Moby Dick: this one from Chapter 34 (The Mat-Maker):

It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon; the seamen were lazily lounging about the decks, or vacantly gazing over into the lead-colored waters. Queequeg and I were mildly employed weaving what is called a sword-mat, for an additional lashing to our boat. So still and subdued and yet somehow preluding was all the scene, and such an incantation of revelry lurked in the air, that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own invisible self.

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp... I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea... that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp... This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads.... this easy, indifferent sword must be chance -- aye, chance, free will, and necessity -- wise incompatible -- all interweavingly working together.

Would Joseph Smith have fathomed such an ecstatic insight as "revelation?" Probably not. Smith's perspective on such matters might better be summarized in the inarticulate prose of Father Lehi in 2nd Nephi:

the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon

What prophetic elements are present in this example, but lacking in the excerpt from Melville? (1) A rigid Christian theological framework: Even though Lehi gives voice to revelation centuries before the birth of Jesus, his oracle is replete with the Christology of the early church. For Joseph Smith (an inveterate Bible reader and hyperliteralist), the "spirit" of prophecy and revelation was necessarily "the testimony of Jesus." (2) Definite Divine authority: Lehi was designated the prophet of God. Although some of the men subject to his patriarchal control (Nephi, Jacob, etc.) might also communicate revelation, all who did so were subject to his counsel and criterion. (3) A word-for-word, unerring communication from the biblical God. (4) The requirement that any new oracle must be compatible with all prior revelation.

When Rust speaks of Joseph Smith having the gift of "revelation," that provides the proper answers to Herman Melville's questions, the above example is what he must have in mind. In Smith's case, his purported authority was conferred and manifested at the very highest level. Smith was God's sole voice on earth, for communication to the nations and to the "House of Israel" (Mormons, Indians, Jews). Any other instances of "revelation" were communicated at a lower level, through Smith's designated deputies, to individuals, families, etc. Given this thoroughly Mormon understanding of "revelation," it is remarkable that Rust would publish his exclusive religious tenets to a mixed readership of Oxford University Press customers. Perhaps he wrote originally for an LDS audience and his editors are the ones to be faulted for the preferential proselytizing evident in this 2009 dissemination.

If "revelation" is the plenary, propositional communication of God's Holy Word, repeated verbatim, then we might here pause to ask what role Smith's own faculties played in the formulation of his religious and philosophical teachings. Rust quotes a non-Mormon's praise of Smith's "imagination," but does not explain the basis for that praise very clearly. The question naturally arises --

What is Imagination?

If Smith was the "authentic religious genius" whose excellence "surpassed all Americans, before or since;" and whose "religion-making imagination" was unparalleled; then is Rust hinting that even the "imagination" of Joe Smith was Divinely inspired? Did Smith's marvelous imagination extend so far as to the writing of mysterious fiction (as did Melville's marvelous imagination)? One dictionary definition of "imagination" reads: "The act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses, or never before wholly perceived in reality;" but an alternative meaning is: "a creation of the mind... [a] fanciful or empty assumption."

One of Joseph Smith's early followers (Elder Ebenezer Robinson), who knew Smith personally, reflected in later years upon the Mormon leader's avowed "superior personage."

Persons receiving... blessings under the administration of Joseph Smith, very naturally looked upon him as more than an ordinary man; and when with him, felt they were in the presence of a superior personage. This feeling, instead of being checked, was intensified, when... a revelation was received through him, commanding the church to receive his word as from the mouth of God...: "For his word shall ye receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith; for by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you." Under these circumstances, the feeling prevailed that his [Smith's] word should be received as law....

[Several of Smith's doctrines], coming from such a source, could not fail to bear evil fruit, as is evidenced by the subsequent course pursued by the church. It began to be frequently talked by the people, that what we formerly considered sin was not sin. This had a direct tendency to lower the standard of vital piety, which the masses of the people were endeavoring to maintain.
"Items of Personal History of the Editor No. 17," The Return, II:9 (Sept. 1890)

Notice the sequence of events in the development of Joseph Smith's alleged religious (and temporal) authority, as reported by Elder Robinson: (1) Mormons felt blessed to be Smith's followers and considered him "a superior personage;" (2) Mormons accepted "revelation" communicated by Smith as God's Word; (3) In an early "revelation" God purportedly commanded Smith's followers to "receive his (Smith's) word as from the mouth of God;" (4) Thenceforth Mormons received Smith's teachings as Divine law; (5) The doctrines subsequently taught by Smith lowered the "vital piety, which the masses of the people were endeavoring to maintain."

At what point did Smith's "religion-making imagination" become identical with "revelation" uttered "from the mouth of God?" Probably Smith himself would have answered, that when he spoke as a prophet, he was a prophet -- at all other times he was merely an "authentic religious genius" whose excellence "surpassed all Americans, before or since;" and whose "religion-making imagination" was unparalleled. In other words, Smith own word was the determining factor in separating "revelation" from inspired "imagination," and -- by revelation -- Smith's word was to be received as from God's "own mouth!"

No wonder that Herman Melville never paid obeisance to Joseph Smith, Jr. in his many novels and other writings! No wonder that the strongest hint of a Joseph Smith appearance in a Melville story is the "man in the gray coat and white tie" in The Confidence-Man, the pious-sounding con artist whose encounter with "a charitable sister" was based upon the figure of the LDS Patriarch William Smith!

And, no wonder that the single allusion to things Mormon in Herman Melville's writings that Richard Dilworth Rust passes over without any discussion is the "man in the gray coat and white tie" -- the one Melville character whom Martin Blythe identifies as the con man figure that "some have taken to be a portrait of Joseph Smith, although he could be any of the avatars really." An astounding thought -- that although the "man in the gray coat and white tie" is the con man closest in appearance to Joe Smith, any of Melville's deceiving frauds in the story might be closely compared to the first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints!


In July of 1844 -- shortly after Joseph Smith's life was taken -- Elder Willard Snow was reported in the Nauvoo newspaper, as having recently addressed a Mormon conference and having testified of "a dream, of President Joseph Smith's, dreamed about fourteen years ago, viz: 'That his name should be had for good and evil, among the nations and kingdoms of the earth, and that they would seek his life from city to city, and speak all manner of evil against him falsely.'" Whether this was the content of an actual dream related by Smith, or an example of prophecy after the fact, concocted by the leaders in Nauvoo, would have mattered little to the searching eye of Herman Melville. His delight no doubt would have rested upon the ambiguity of Smith's reputation.

Our interest in the Confidence Man springs from just such an environment of incertitude. Those enrolled in the "party of Hope" may accept the confidence he pedals as totally trustworthy. Those joining the "party of Irony" may reject both the con man and his dupes. And those of us who stand back, attempting to weave a broader fabric, can perhaps fit our loom of life with a copious supply of both yarns. What pattern then might emerge, as we inspect a tapestry stretching from Sharon, Vermont to Nauvoo, Illinois? What confidence brought all of those strands together into a single lifestory? What confidence holds them together, after all these years of controversy, conflict and contentment in the Saga of the Saints?

Was Joseph Smith, Jr, a 19th century con man? -- a religious fraud? -- a pious fraud? If he was any of these, he possessed an "imagination" greater than Mohammed's and perhaps greater than St. Paul's, as the American confidence-builder who "surpassed all... before or since." He deserves a unique place in Melville's mythology. According to Martin Blythe, Melville evidently granted this 19th century money-digger-turned-Moses just that -- a definite "place" on the mythic map. In the novel Mardi the searching voyagers come at last to Serenia, where life is lived according to the precepts of the prophet Alma. It is the seekers' final resting place: all of them (save for a single dissenter) embrace the one true religion and become "enthusiasts... who pretend to the unnatural conjunction of reason with things revealed; where Alma, they say, is restored to his divine original; where... men strive to live together in gentle bonds of peace and charity." Does Melville drop hints of suspicion with the words "pretend" and "unnatural?" Ought we to gaze a bit askance at this "charity," which we have encountered all too often in the parlance of Melville's many confidence men?

Perhaps so. Blythe says: "The island of Serenia in the novel could well be Nauvoo."

A message from men who strove to "live together in gentle bonds of peace and charity," dated Serenia Nauvoo, June 7, 1844:

our petitions were treated with contempt; and in many cases the petitioner spurned from their presence, and particularly by Joseph, who would state that if he had sinned, and was guilty of the charges we would charge him with, he would not make acknowledgment, but would rather be damned; for it would detract from his dignity, and would consequently ruin and prove the overthrow of the Church. We would ask him on the other hand, if the overthrow of the Church was not inevitable, to which he often replies, that we would all go to Hell together, and convert it into a heaven, by casting the Devil out; and says he, Hell is by no means the place this world of fools suppose it to be, but on the contrary, it is quite an agreeable place; to which we would now reply, he can enjoy it if he is determined not to desist from his evil ways; but as for us, and ours, we will serve the Lord our God!

rev. 0: July 5, 2009