Here’s a thing that struck me the other day about the Anthon Transcript that I thought I ought to mention.

The way that the story has been passed down to us makes it far from easy to reconcile the “Caractors” page…

…with the “singular scrawl” shown to Professor Charles Anthon in 1828:

“It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calendar given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived.”

It would seem as though the first page was arranged in horizontal rows, while the second page was arranged in vertical columns and with a compartmentalized circle added after it. It sounds as though we are talking about two quite different things, and so shouldn’t even attempt to reconcile them as one. Yet in the decade up to his death in 1888, David Whitmer repeatedly asserted that this first page was indeed the very same “original paper” that Martin Harris had taken to Charles Anthon.

At this point, any passing Intellectual Historian might gently suggest that all these statements may well have been said in good faith: and that what is actually stopping us seeing them all as descriptions of the same thing is not the evidence itself, but our stubbornly persistent misreading of what is in front of our faces.

Can we do better?

The case of the ‘H’

I suspect that we can: and the giveaway that may well help to point us in the direction of what happened is the capital ‘H’ shape that occurs at least eight times:

How on earth did the person copying this down not notice that this was nothing more than an ornate ‘H’ shape? Though I’ve long wondered about this, reasonable answers have to date always eluded me. But what I noticed here is that perhaps the actual explanation is painfully simple: that the person who originally wrote these down copied the shapes as if they were written in columns, i.e. without seeing them as ‘H’ shapes at all.

The photograph in Clay County Museum directly supports this idea, because the writing on the other side of the fold (“The Book of Generation Adam”) is written sideways:

The two-button mouse

Even though most of the Caractors are evenly inked, the strong downward strokes of one of the three “two-button mouse” shapes also seems to indicate to my eyes that the letters were written ninety degrees rotated from what we see now (though I’d appreciate other people’s palaeographical insights on this particular issue):

I’d have thought the suggestion that these letters were originally written in columns rather than rows would be a palaeographical hypothesis that could be tested out and resolved one way or the other.

Reconstructing the sequence

If the above is basically right, it would seem that the stages that this page went through were:

(1) The shapes were copied in columns from a source that was (wrongly) believed to have also been written in columns.

This caused letters such as the ornate ‘H’ shape to be copied not semantically as letters, but instead as a series of strokes. I would also expect that these columns were copied downwards as per the following image:

I can see how someone who had not grasped the correct orientation of these letters might have considered their rotated versions to be “hieroglyphic”-like. (I can also see how going from “hieroglyphic”-like to reconstructing the 2500 B.C. Jaredite flight from Egypt to America in submarines might seem a little too extreme for some.)

Note that I can easily see how the bottom of this page (beneath the ragged fold in the museum photograph) could have originally contained a “rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments”: in which case the page was obviously longer. The overall page was also probably folded in half (parallel to the longest edge) at around this time, because only a single crease is apparent in the photograph.

This, then, would have been what was shown to Charles Anthon in 1828.

(2) The circular calendar section was removed, and the ‘Caractors’ word added.

Note that MacKay et al [*1] showed that the “Caractors” lettering at the top and the lettering of the curious letters were all done in the same ink. However, it also seems likely to me (from the orientation) the Caractors word was added in a quite separate construction phase, and their conclusion that this word was added at the same time as the rest of the letters ought to be examined very carefully indeed.

I believe that the circular calendar section was removed around now because of the following phase…

(3) The “Book of Generation Adam” text is added circa 1830, halfway down the reverse side.

Because this text was added right in the middle of the reverse side, it seems likely to me that the circular calendar section had already been removed (or else this text would probably have appeared further up the [slightly longer] page).

We can date this addition to 1830 or after, because that is when the phrase “The Book of Generation Adam” began to be used in the Mormon Church.

(4) The “Book of Generation Adam” half of the page is removed before 1884.

As Grindael noted, the part of the page with the “Book of Generation Adam” text was almost certainly “torn off sometime before 1884, because it is described as having the same dimensions then as it did in 1903”.

(5) The remaining fragment is sold to the RLDS Church in 1903.

“This collection of documents [was] eventually given into the care of George Schweich, a nephew of David J. Whitmer, who subsequently sold them to the RLDS Church for $2450 in 1903.”

Is this sequence correct?

I don’t honestly know. But if you were to try – while wearing an Intellectual Historian hat – to reconcile what you see in the RLDS Caractors fragment with the different testimonies assuming they were all given in good faith, then I strongly suspect that this sequence is extremely close to where you would necessarily end up.

And perhaps that’s as good as it gets, at this distance in time. Or… perhaps this is just the start?

[*1] MacKay, Michael Hubbard; Dirkmaat, Gerrit J.; Jenson, Robin Scott. The “Caractors” Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters – Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 14, No. 1.

A central pillar of Mormon history is the so-called “Anthon Transcript”, which I have described in reasonable detail on the Cipher Foundations website: this was shown to Professor Charles Anthon in February 1828.

Yet there is a key problem: the description of it given by Anthon in letters dating 1834 and 1841 differs markedly from the image of a “Caractors” page (a document presumably still deep within the LDS’ X-Files-like archive) that is often described as being the “Anthon Transcript”.

In 2012, a better quality image of the same Caractors pages taken around 1884 was discovered in Clay County Museum in Missouri: and this image shows that the full piece of paper then had “The Book of Generation Adam” written on it, which would date it to not earlier than (and probably very close to) 1830.

This implies clearly and unambiguously that there is now no good reason for anyone to think that this “Caractors” sheet is related to the “Anthon Transcript”, simply because it would appear to have been written some two years after Charles Anthon was shown the Anthon Transcript. So there is no logical way that the two items can be the same thing: sorry but they just can’t, and that’s that.


I therefore see no possible theological objection if anyone tries to decrypt the letters on the Caractors sheet: and given that we now have a far higher quality image to work with than we ever did with the original Caractors image, there’s no obvious reason not to give it a go.

So if anyone wants to try, I’ve created a worksheet you can print out and work with (by inserting blank space between the seven lines of text) – just click on the following image to get a reasonable resolution (a higher quality source image would be even nicer, if anyone happens to be passing Clay County Museum in Missouri with a digital camera *hint* *hint*):-


I should caution that it’s hard to be sure what is going on in this page. Though it at first looks like the ungainly mixture of semi-fast shorthand and foolhardily slow-to-write extras (that Isaac Pitman derided as “arbitraries”) that was typical of English shorthands deriving from Jeremiah Rich’s system (e.g. Addy’s etc) and which were still popular circa 1800, further examination makes it clear to me that it’s actually a bit of an improvised mess. As such, its shorthand-like symbols now seems more likely to me to be shapes in a mildly homophonic cipher alphabet than actually shorthand per se.

As always, there’s room for a certain amount of overlap between the two types of writing: but probably not enough to stop anyone from actually breaking it using broadly the same kind of cryptological toolkit.

The Last Sixteen Words

Interestingly, the last three lines (where the text gets smaller and smaller) seem to be written far more systematically than the first four lines. Indeed, there also appears to be a regular use of dashes or hyphens, very possibly as word separators. If you use this to turn the last two-and-a-half lines into a series of sixteen words, this is what you get (click on the following for a much higher resolution image):


Decrypting The Caractors

There is plenty of old-fashioned codebreaking meat to get your cryptological teeth into here: though I’m still trying to resolve the numerous ambiguous / miscopied letter-shape issues, I thought it would be good to give a work-in-progress update on where I’ve got to, in case this inspires someone to crack this (as Marco Ponzi did for the Paris 7272 cipher here the other day).

Word #10 is almost identical to Word #6 (though with a letter inserted), which makes the pair of words look like “ONE / ONCE” or some similar phrase (no doubt there are lists of similar ABC / ABDC pairs on the Internet somewhere, please tell me if you know where they are).

The presence of the “6L6” shape in word #1 and word #4 makes it look as though the similar (but slightly malformed) shape in word #15 was the same shape in the original but miscopied: this makes it look to me that much of what we are up against here is miscopying of a simple-ish cipher rather than a genuinely complicated cipher. As such, I suspect that the first letter of word #4 is ther same backwards-crossed-C-C character in words #14 and #15 (and which is the first letter of the top line on the whole page).

Word #12 looks like it may well be a name: but without higher quality scans, I suspect it will be difficult to parse the symbols definitively (some may well be pairs, so it is hard to be sure how many letters we are looking at).

Word #14 and word #15 also offers a cryptographic oddity that might yield a way in: if we use letters to denote patterns rather than actual letters, the two consecutive words would seem to be ABCDE and FGEHAC. Given that there’s a high chance that the plaintext of this page is in some way related to the Bible, I suspect a keenly observant codebreaker with a side interest in Biblical studies might possibly be able to crack these two words alone.

Finally, for those we are interested by the possible connection between the various Whitmers and the Caractors document that has been suggested in recent years, I found a 1989 article that mentioned where the Whitmer family had been to church: “In Fayette [near Seneca Lake, NY], the Whitmers drew closer to God by working the soil and worshipping at Zion’s Church, a German-speaking Presbyterian church“. So there is also a (small) possibility that the plaintext of what we are looking at here might possibly be German. I just thought I’d mention this in passing. 🙂

Good luck!

As part of the long slow process of fleshing out the Cipher Foundation’s website, I’ve added a new page there laying out the core evidence relating to the Anthon Transcript, a cipher-like document that sits right at the heart of the foundation history / mythology of the Mormon Church.

The short (non-TL;DR) version is that even though it has long been claimed that the Anthon Transcript (shown to Professor Charles Anthon in 1828) and the Caractors fragment are one and the same, a photograph that was unearthed in Clay County Museum in Missouri in 2012 seems to disprove this whole notion. Hmmm.

All the same, people continue to build high-rise cipher theories on top of this unsupportive sandy loam. Most recently, Jerry Grover announced his own fairly epic (251 pages of argument) Caractors translation, that renders the first four lines as:

In the nineteenth regnal year of Mosiah I, the Nephites traveled over the mountains to the foreign speaking people of Mulek. These twenty thousand ‘children of Mosiah’ traveled downriver on the east side of the River Sidon [Grijalva] for eighty days and reached Zarahemla. And then it came to pass that after ten years thus began the period of the Seven Tribes. After the space of twenty-one more years had passed, Zeniff, with sixty of his people, departed. Fifty-three more years then passed; then the Limhiites obtained twenty-four plates from the west in the Land of Desolation, returning upriver on the River of Lamanite Possessions [Usumacinta]. After their return upriver, seven years later, the Limhiites traveled west, bringing the pure gold Jaredite plates to Mosiah (II), which he translated. Previous to the arrival of the Limhiites, Benjamin was made King in the second month of the four hundred and thirty-sixth year after Lehi left Jerusalem. At the age of eighty-three, King Benjamin ascended to eternity, which was four hundred seventy nine years after Lehi left Jerusalem. King Benjamin’s death occurred one and one third years before the arrival of the Limhites. Four years before the arrival of the Limhites, the period of the Seven Tribes ended in conjunction with the Jubilee Year.

Personally, I’d assess the probability that this is correct is roughly the same as a truck load of lobsters falling out of a clear blue sky into my garden: in that I can conceive that it is (just about) possible and (broadly) consistent with the laws of physics, but (etc etc etc).

More generally, I’d offer this as a stark warning to idiot Voynich linguists such as Stephen Bax, as the kind of ultimate destination their foolish non-theorizing will ultimately lead them to.

The Anthon Transcript was a document shown to Professor Charles Anthon by Martin Harris in New York in February 1828: Harris claimed that it was a copy of the “reformed Egyptian” letters used to write the Golden Plates. The story goes that these Plates had been hidden in a hill near where Mormon founder Joseph Smith lived; that the Angel Moroni first directed Smith to them in 1823 (though he only took them away in 1827); and that Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from these Plates.

It is normally reported that the Anthon Transcript is the same as the “Caractors” document widely shown on the Internet, and which was first supplied by David Whitmer…


…but since reading an essay called The Anthon Affair by Jerome J. Knuijt, I’m really not so sure any more.

What is specifically odd is that, when later quizzed about the meetings he had with Martin Harris, Anthon wrote that the transcript “consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns” (1834), “like the Chinese mode of writing” (1841). Moreover, “the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments;“, and that this resembled “a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac“, “evidently copied after the Mexican Calendar given by Humboldt“.

Incidentally, the 24-ton Aztec Calendar Stone (to which Anthon was undoubtedly referring) had been rediscovered not long before (in 1790), and looks like this:-


LDS writers typically downplay any connection with von Humboldt’s writing, by (for example) saying that that Joseph Smith was but a “poorly educated farmboy“, who could not possibly have amassed a “frontier library”. It seems far more likely to me that von Humboldt’s writings (e.g. about Indians writing in hieroglyphics etc) or similar ideas about Mesoamerican history instead made their way to Joseph Smith via the cracked mirror of newspaper summaries. But that’s the kind of argument that can be (and indeed often is) batted back and forth ad nauseam: it really doesn’t interest me.

So it turns out that the central mystery of the Anthon Transcript is not only why a document so intensely central to the claims of Mormonism is not only absent from the archives, but why it is also so clearly misrepresented as being the “Caractors” document. The latter may well also be a document connected to early Mormons (notes from a shorthand Bible? The 1823 Detroit Manuscript?), but it is now hard for me to see how the Caractors page could in any obvious way be the same one described so specifically by Charles Anthon.

Knuijt seems to have his doubts that David Whitmer – one of the Three Witnesses to the Golden Plates – was an altogether reliable source for the Caractors to have come from: and reading Whitmer’s Wikipedia page (ha!), this scepticism seems to be reasonably justified. All I know is that until the actual Anthon Transcript or the actual Detroit Manuscript turns up (someone must surely have taken a copy of the latter, right?), this is probably a debate that cannot be settled anywhere apart from a pub car park. 🙂

* * * * * * *

Note: the two letters from Professor Charles Anthon (to Eber D. Howe, 17th Feb 1834; and to Reverend Coit, 3rd April 1841) can be found transcribed here.