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Lee Etching: Truth or a Clever Hoax?
Will Bagley
Published: 03/03/2002 Edition: Final    Section: Utah Page: B1

The past is full of surprises. Take the discovery that emerged from the dust January at Lee's Ferry Fort. The Dead Lee Scroll immediately raised the question: Is it a hoax? If it is, it will probably be exposed as such. History is tough to forge, for a simple reason: You can't fake the truth. Truth is simple and consistent. Lies and hoaxes aren't.      

Despite Utah TV claims that the lead scroll purportedly containing John D. Lee's dying testament could "rewrite the history of the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre," its contents aren't news.  The scroll's assertion that Lee slaughtered the Fancher train "on orders from Pres Young thro Geo Smith" is not a new allegation. Anyone claiming such has never read Lee's potboiler memoir, Mormonism Unveiled; or the Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop, John D. Lee.      

Lee's book claimed he "acted by the direct order and command of William H. Dame, and others even higher in authority than Colonel Dame. I have always believed that General George A. Smith was then visiting Southern Utah to prepare the people for the work of exterminating Captain Fancher's train of emigrants, and I now believe that he was sent for that purpose by the direct command of Brigham Young."

The scroll's accusation wasn't even new when Lee's memoir appeared. Newspapers had published charges that Brigham Young ordered the massacre in Lee's various confessions shortly after he was executed in March 1877. Remember, though, Lee was a convicted murderer and Brigham Young is revered as a prophet of God. Who are you going to believe?      

We have had a deluge of nonsense from experts. Those who say Lee was a good speller should have looked at his letters and journals before making such a ridiculous claim. There are two ways to determine if the scroll is a hoax: historical context and physical evidence. Interestingly, there is no way to "prove" it is an authentic artifact. All experts can do is show that the scroll and its contents are consistent with the time and place, but that won't prove it is the real thing.      

If the scroll is a fake, it is likely that the physical evidence will expose it. As for its historical context, the scroll's spelling, syntax and sentiments are vintage John D. Lee. The block lettering resembles Lee's inscriptions. Lee was "at the Pahreah" in January 1872. His journal doesn't indicate he felt he was dying, but he was suffering from "ague" and untreated malaria certainly left its victims feeling like they were at death's door.     

Lee had been excommunicated from the LDS Church 15 months earlier. He had taken to heart apostolic warnings to "trust no one." If he wanted to leave a final message for future generations, it well might have stressed the theme of his subsequent confessions: "I massacred the Fancher train, but I didn't do it alone or on my own hook."

The context is so good it is scary. If the scroll is a fake, it is a good one--so good that only a few people could have pulled it off.      

Reports indicate the scroll was found above a poured concrete floor. If so, this looks like a hoax. The National Park Service has an excellent record exposing historical fakes.  Did John D. Lee etch the plate? Did Brigham Young order the massacre? Until further revelations, we will just have to wonder.


Utah historian Will Bagley is the author of the forthcoming book, Blood of the Prophets, which he says will focus on a simple and consistent explanation of what happened at Mountain Meadows.

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