Michigan -- the home of Noah's Ark?

Some of the ancient Biblical artifacts dug up in Michigan by James Scotford and Daniel Soper.

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 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 representatin of an angel with outstrtetched 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.

Daniel Soper was a former Michigan secretary of state who was ousted by the governor after demanding salary kickbacks from his deputy.

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. Soper, a former Michigan Secretary of State who was ousted from his office for demanding salary kickbacks from his deputy, peddled the phony artifacts.

Collector A.L. Spooner later described Soper as “a man with a lot of larceny in his soul.”

While he was secretary of state, Soper demanded a $500 kickback from his deputy’s $2,000 annual salary. When Gov. Edwin B. Winans found out, he demanded Soper’s resignation. Several years later Soper was living in Detroit at 71 Melbourne Street, not far from Scotford, a sign painter, mound digger and relic peddler, who lived at 167 Abbott.

The two formed a partnership of sorts and soon Soper was offering rare copper Indian crowns for sale, sup[posedly unearthed by Scotford from mounds on Pine River in Isabella County.

On Nov. 14, 1907, The Detroit News reported that the pair had a new line of goods — rare copper crowns that had been found on the heads of prehistoric kings, whose heads crumbled into dust when exposed to the air.

They also offered copies of Noah’s diary (the reporter noted, tongue in cheek, that Noah must have owned a duplicating machine). Plans for the Tower of Babel and the original Ten Commandments soon joined the product line.

There was little question of the authenticity of the relics, since Scotford always managed to uncover his treasures while in the company of a local editor, or blacksmith, or druggist, or storekeeper. These men of high repute were all willing to sign statements that they saw Scotford remove the relics from the ground.

“The schemer,” wrote the reporter, “is so unique as to win absolute admiration for the perpertators. If comitted in a spirit of humor, it is the most colossal hoax of a century.”

“Indeed, these fakirs would have callow collectors believe that Michigan was the seat of the original inhabitants of the earth, that Noah’s Ark floated somewhere around these parts and in finally coming to land, settled on one of Michigan’s low-lying hills as the genuine Mount Aarat,” the reporter continued.

This artifact depicting the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark was among those found in Michigan.

      Scotford took umbrage at the reporter’s questions, delaring the finds to be genuine. He said that some “sharpers” offered him $500 to duplicate one of his artifacts, “But I would not sell my honor for $10,000.”

Father James Savage of Detroit’s Most Holy Trinity Church, bought 50 of the Indian and Biblical relics as well as one of the crowns.

“True, I may be duped,” Father Savage said. “In buying them I felt this way: ‘It is getting the most wonderful discoveries of centuries, or it is getting fakes.’ I took the chance.”

Representatives from the Detroit Institute of Arts and from the University of Michigan declared the relics to be fraudulent and refused to buy. A Port Huron collector declared Soper to be a swindler and W.H.Holmes of the Smithsonian Institution urged that the traffic in such fraud should be broken up.

But there was no shortage of believers and the traffic continued. In 1911 a believer, Prof. J.O. Kinnaman of Benton Harbor, told a Detroit News’ reporter that discoveries (by Scotford and Soper) made “out North Woodward” will compel archaeologists to revise their theories of the origin and development of all civilization as it exists today.”

“Tentatively speaking,”, he continued, “when the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair extended many miles inland, a Caucasian race…equal to any in the valleys of the Nile and Tigro-Euphrates, existed all over the present continent of America. Our knowledge . . . will likely extend thousands of years back of the wildest dream of the most enthusiastic achaeologist,” the Professor proclaimed in support of the busy diggers.

Father James Savage of Detroit’s Holy Trinity Church bought 50 of the artifacts.

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.”

Charles denied admitting their occupation to her, and said that he had hypnotized “the old woman” with skills learned in a correspondence course.

“Never hypnotized me in their lives,” replied Robson.

Soper defended his finds and said that Prof. Starr was “not here long enough” to be convinced of their authenticity. No charges were ever filed but The News’ story made it difficult for Soper and Scotford to continue to do business, and they apparently went on to other things.

The hoaxers claimed that a small animal burrowing in Detroit’s Palmer Park had uncovered some of the Biblical artifacts.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from the clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News