1907 : Michigan Relics Hoax Exposed

When:
November 14, 2020 all-day
2020-11-14T00:00:00-05:00
2020-11-15T00:00:00-05:00

Shortly after the turn of the century Michigan became an archeological gold mine and a brisk trade developed in Biblical treasures like the diary of Noah, plans for the Tower of Babel, and copies of the Ten Commandments, which had somehow become buried in Michigan.

A tablet example of the Michigan Relics, depicting “the Flood story.”

A pamphlet, “Prehistoric discoveries in Wayne County, Michigan” by John A. Russell, A.M. published in 1911 began:

“Since the year 1907 certain definite and orderly lines of investigation have been pursued in Wayne County, Michigan, having for their purpose the uncovering and preservation of the remnants of a prehistoric civilization which apparently flourished in this territory and in that immediately contiguous to it.

“The beginning of these investigations was the result of an accidental discovery. While exploring a wood lot in the neighborhood of Palmer Park, Detroit’s northernmost playground, Daniel E. Soper, a citizen of Detroit, who was a retired journalist and a former secretary of state for Michigan, was attracted to the debris thrown out of an excavation made by some burrowing animal. Examination of the debris developed that it contained some broken pieces of burnt clay pottery. An excavation following the burrow led to the discovery of several objects of natique character, which appear to have been the first of their class taken out in Wayne County by any of the group of investigators who have since become associated with the exploration.”

The pamphlet described some of the items unearthed:

“1. Representations of a man with a club striking down another with a shepherd’s crook.

“2. Representations of a hand passing tablets from a sky to a male figure on an elevation.

“3. Representations of a person standing over an infant lying on a sacrificial altar, with his arm in the attitude of striking, while before him is a representation of an angel with outstretched hands and directly under the angel a picture of a ram in a clump of brushes.”

The pamphlet goes on:

“It is worthy of note that the fabrication of these objects shows a high state of civilization. The copper objects are inevitably composed of hardened copper, hold an edge and ring like bells.”

Russell assails those who would discredit the finds: “with all respect to the high character of…scholars, it is quite impossible yet to disregard the evidence of one’s senses, so far as it related to the uncovering, under conditions wholly precluding fraud or imposition, of objects of diverse character and material from a great variety of location. It is equally impossible to imagine these recoveries as the ‘plants’ of an ancient disciple of Thalia, content to await the lapse of some centuries for the laugh to follow upon his joke.”

It’s not known if Russell was in on the joke, or merely a gullible victim.

James O. Scotford, a sleight-of-hand performer turned sign painter, claimed to have dug up the treasures in Highland Park, Detroit’s Palmer Park and Big Rapids. Daniel E. Soper, a former Michigan Secretary of State who had been ousted from his office by Governor Edwin Winans in 1891 for demanding salary kickbacks — $500 of the deputy’s $2000 salary –peddled the phony artifacts.

Following his dismissal for embezzlement, Soper fled the state to escape any backlash or repercussions from the embezzlement allegations. He moved to Arizona, where he attempted to fool local archaeologists by planting and then “discovering” Native American artifacts. The scholars in Arizona were not easily fooled and exposed Soper as a fraud. He then returned to Michigan, fleeing the trouble he had gotten into in Arizona. With a not-so-clean past, Soper became a main promoter of the relics that were continually being uncovered throughout Michigan.

Scotford was still making money off the fraudulent relics and Soper, with his unscrupulous past, saw an opportunity to join him in making money.

James O. Scotford, left, and Daniel E. Soper, circa 1911, with some examples of the Michigan Relics they had just uncovered.

As Scotford and Soper persisted with the Michigan Relics, so too did academics and the media. In 1907, the Detroit News called the frauds “the most colossal hoax of a century.” The News, in addition to reviving some of the original observations about the pieces, pointed out that no discoveries had been made without James Scotford or Daniel Soper present. This public deconstruction of the Michigan Relics as frauds silenced Scotford and Soper for a few years, but by 1911 they were back at it.

The bubble burst on July 28, 1911, when a front page Detroit News article, quoting Prof. Frederick Starr, dean of the Department of anthropology and American archaeology at the University of Chicago, declared the “prehistoric relics” were fakes.

Mary “Granny” Robson told the News that she occupied a room next door to Percy Scotford and his brother, Charles and that “Hammering went on day and night” in what they told her was “Detroit’s ancient relic factory. ”

“The boys were very entertaining. They liked to do sleight-of-hand tricks. They told me they learned them from their father, who used to be a traveling magician.

“They never worked at any regular job. They said they had an easier way to make money.”

Sources:

Jacob McCormick, “Michigan Relics“, About Fake Archaeology, December 1, 2017.

“Daniel E. Soper in a Fake Relic Business,” Detroit News, November 14, 1907, p. 2, col. 3

Vivian Baulch, “Michigan — the home of Noah’s Ark?”, Detroit News Blog, Februry 13, 996.