Joseph Smith/Occultism and magic/Jupiter talisman
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Critics claim that Joseph Smith had a Jupiter Talisman on his person when he was martyred and cite this as proof of his fascination with the occult. As one work put it:
- The fact that Smith owned a Jupiter talisman shows that his fascination with the occult was not just a childish fad. At the time of his death, Smith had on his person this talisman...
There is only one source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person, and that source is Charles Bidamon. Bidamon's statement was made long after the death of Joseph and Emma, relied on memories from his youth, and was undergirded by financial motives.
By contrast, contemporary evidence demonstrates that Joseph did not have such a Talisman in his possession at his death.
Did Joseph have this Talisman on him when he was murdered? What would it mean if he did?
This well circulated claim finds its origins in a 1974 talk by Dr. Reed Durham. Durham said that Joseph "evidently [had a Talisman] on his person when he was martyred. The talisman, originally purchased from the Emma Smith Bidamon family, fully notarized by that family to be authentic and to have belonged to Joseph Smith, can now be identified as a Jupiter talisman."
Source of the tale
The source of the Talisman story, upon which Dr. Durham based his remarks, was Wilford C. Wood, who was told it by Charles Bidamon, the illegitimate son of Lewis Bidamon. Lewis was Emma Smith's non-Mormon second husband. Charles was born following an affair between Lewis Bidamon and Nancy Abercrombie, which occurred while Lewis was married to Emma. Charles was taken in by Emma when four years old, and raised by her until her death 11 years later. (This action says much for Emma's charity.)
Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote that the Talisman, or "silver pocket piece" as described in 1937, appeared on a list of items purportedly own by Joseph Smith which were to be sold by Charles Bidamon. One item listed was "a silver pocket piece which was in the Prophet's pocket at the time of his assassination." Wilford Wood, who collected Mormon memorabilia, purchased it in 1938 along with a document from Bidamon certifying that the Prophet possessed it when murdered. The affidavit sworn to by Charles Bidamon at the time of Wilford C. Wood's purchase was very specific:
- This piece came to me through the relationship of my father, Major L. C. Bidamon, who married the Prophet Joseph Smith's widow, Emma Smith. I certify that I have many times heard her say, when being interviewed, and showing the piece, that it was in the Prophet's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage, Ill.
Anderson noted that Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, and notes that at the time of her death he was only fifteen years old.
Durham based his comments on Wood's description for the item which was: "This piece [the Talisman] was in Joseph Smith's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage Jail." However, a list of the items in Joseph's possession at the time of his death was provided to Emma following the martyrdom. On this list there was no mention made of any Talisman-like item. If there had been such an article, it ought to have been listed.
In 1984, Anderson located and published the itemized list of the contents of Joseph Smith's pockets at his death. The list was originally published in 1885 in Iowa by James W. Woods, Smith's lawyer, who collected the prophet's personal effects after the Martyrdom. The contents from the published 1885 printing are as follows:
- Received, Nauvoo, Illinois, July 2, 1844, of James W. Woods, one hundred and thirty- five dollars and fifty cents in gold and silver and receipt for shroud, one gold finger ring, one gold pen and pencil case, one penknife, one pair of tweezers, one silk and one leather purse, one small pocket wallet containing a note of John P. Green for $50, and a receipt of Heber C. Kimball for a note of hand on Ellen M. Saunders for one thousand dollars, as the property of Joseph Smith. - Emma Smith.
No Talisman or item like it is listed. It could not be mistaken for a coin or even a "Masonic Jewel" as Durham first thought. Anderson described the Talisman as being “an inch-and-a-half in diameter and covered with symbols and a prayer on one side and square of sixteen Hebrew characters on the other.” Significant is the fact that no associate of Joseph Smith has ever mentioned anything like this medallion. There are no interviews that ever record Emma mentioning any such item as attested to by Charles Bidamon, though he claimed she often spoke of it.
Variations on a theme
More recent arguments contend that Wood’s list was exaggerated or was an all together different type of list. For example, some suggest that since neither Joseph's gun or hat were on the report, the list must not be complete. It should be obvious, however, that these items were not found on Joseph's person. The record clearly states that he dropped his gun and left it behind before being murdered. As for the hat, even if he had been wearing it indoors, it seems unlikely to have remained on his head after a gun-fight and fall from a second-story window.
Critics also argue that the Talisman was not accounted for was because it ought to have been worn around the neck, hidden from view and secret to all (including Emma no less). Thus, the argument runs, it was overlooked in the inventory. While it may be true that Talismans are worn around the neck, Bidamon's certification clearly states that the Talisman was "in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred." So which is it? In his pocket like a lucky charm or secretly worn around his neck as such an item should properly be used? In either case, the record is clear that he did not have a Talisman on his person at the time of his death. The rest is speculation.
The critics also resort to arguing that a prisoner could not possibly have had a penknife, so how accurate can the list of Joseph's possessions be? Obviously, the fact that he had a gun makes the possession of a knife a matter of no consequence. Critics will dismiss contemporary evidence simply because it is inconvenient.
As a final note to the saga, when Durham was later asked how he felt about his speech regarding the Talisman, he replied:
- I now wish I had presented some of my material differently.” “For instance, at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable.
This claim rests upon a lengthy chain of supposition:
- Joseph himself owned the item (e.g., parchment, Mars dagger, or Jupiter talisman).
- His possession dates to his early days of "treasure seeking."
- He used them for magical purposes.
- He made them himself or commissioned them.
- He therefore must have used magic books to make them.
- He therefore must have had an occult mentor to help him with the difficult process of understanding the magical books and making these items.
- This occult mentor transmitted extensive arcane hermetic lore to Joseph beyond the knowledge necessary to make the artifacts.
Theses seven propositions are simply a tissue of assumptions, assertions, and speculations. There is no contemporary primary evidence that Joseph himself owned or used these items. We do not know when, how, or why these items became heirlooms of the Hyrum Smith family. Again, there is no contemporary primary evidence that mentions Joseph or anyone in his family using these artifacts—as Quinn himself noted, "possession alone may not be proof of use." There is no evidence that Joseph ever had any magic books. There is no evidence that Joseph ever had an occult mentor who helped him make or use these items.
The methodology used by the critics is a classic example of what one could call the miracle of the addition of the probabilities. The case relies on a rickety tower of unproven propositions that do not provide certainty, rather a geometrically increasing improbability. Probabilities are multiplied, not added. Combining two propositions, each of which has a 50% probability, does not create a 100% probability, it creates a 25% probability that both are true together:
- chance of proposition #1 being true = 50% = 0.5
- chance of proposition #2 being true = 50% = 0.5
- chance of BOTH being true = .5 x .5 = .25 = 25%
Allowing each of these seven propositions a 50% probability—a very generous allowance—creates a .0078% probability that the combination of all seven propositions is true. And this is only one element of a very complex and convoluted argument, with literally dozens of similar unverified assertions. The result is a monumentally high improbability that the overall thesis is correct.
A non-response to this argument
D. Michael Quinn, a major proponent of the "magick" argument, responded to the above by claiming that "Only when cumulative evidence runs contrary to the FARMS agenda, do polemicists like Hamblin want readers to view each piece of evidence as though it existed in isolation."
- Quinn misunderstands and misrepresents my position on what I have called the "miracle of the addition of the probabilities"....
- [Quinn's rebuttal discusses] the process of the verification of historical evidence. The issue was unproven propositions, not parallel evidence.
- Quinn...proposed that a series of "magic" artifacts provide evidence that Joseph Smith practiced magic. My position is that, in order for us to accept any particular artifact as a single piece of evidence, we must first accept several unproven propositions, each of which may be true or false, but none of which is proven. The more unproven propositions one must accept to validate a piece of evidence, the greater the probability that the evidence is not, in fact, authentic. Thus, two historiographical processes are under discussion. One is the authentication of a particular piece of evidence: did Joseph own a magical talisman and use it to perform magical rites? The second is the cumulative significance of previously authenticated evidence in proving a particular thesis: does the authentication of the use of the talisman demonstrate that Joseph was a magician who adhered to a magical worldview? Quinn apparently cannot distinguish between these two phases of the historical endeavor, which goes far to account for some of the numerous failings in his book....
- Of course the probative value of evidence is cumulative. The more evidence you have, the greater the probability that your overall thesis is true. Thus, if Quinn can demonstrate that the talisman and the parchment and the dagger all belonged to the Smith family and were used for magical purposes, it would be more probable that his overall thesis is true than if he could establish only that the Smiths owned and used just one of those three items. But my argument is that the authenticity of each of these pieces of evidence rests on half a dozen unproven propositions and assumptions.
- [note] Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Baker Books, 2000), 255.
- [note] Dr. Reed Durham’s Presidential Address before the Mormon History Association on 20 April 1974.
- [note] Jerald R. Johansen, After the Martyrdom: What Happened to the Family of Joseph Smith (Springville, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 2004), 79. ISBN 0882905961. off-site
- [note] See page 541 of Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman
- [note] Anderson, "Mature Joseph Smith," 558.
- [note] Anderson, "Mature Joseph Smith," 558; with the original coming from LaMar C. Berett, The Wilford Wood Collection, Vol. 1 (Provo, UT: Wilford C. Wood Foundation, 1972), 173.
- [note] Anderson, "Mature Joseph Smith," 558; Anderson points to its original source in J. W. Woods "The Mormon Prophet," Daily Democrat (Ottumwa, Iowa), 10 May 1885; and in Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (Des Moines: Homestead Publishing Co., 1916), 271.
- [note] Anderson, "Mature Joseph Smith," 541.
- [note] These are examples of later arguments by Quinn in an attempt to refute Anderson.
- [note] Gilbert W. Scharffs, The Truth about ‘The God Makers’ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Publishers Press, 1989; republished by Bookcraft, 1994), 180. Full text FAIR link ISBN 088494963X.
- [note] This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site PDF link. By the nature of a wiki project, it has since been modified and added to.
- [note] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 355—56 n. 121 ( Index of claims )
- [note] William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. off-site PDF link