Once upon a time in 1809, there was a man named Solomon Spaulding, who lived in what is now the town of Conneaut in Ohio’s Western Reserve district. Like so many Americans of his day, Solomon hoped to make his fortune through land speculation, and he and his brothers purchased a great deal of land in the area on credit. To maintain himself, he operated an iron forge and his wife ran a small grocery store. After a series of reversals in the land business, Solomon thought he might recoup his losses by writing the great American novel. His would be a historical fantasy — explaining the origin of the great, ancient earthworks in Ohio and elsewhere, which everyone at the time believed must have been made by some high civilization and not the “savage” American Indians of his own day.
In his first draft, Solomon wrote a tale of Romans — Christians from the era of Constantine, who were blown far off course from their trip to Britain, and arrived in North America. There they encountered the empires of the “Deliwannucks,” the “Ohons,” the “Sciotans,” and the “Kentucks.” In wooden detail, Solomon described the customs and governments of these peoples. But to temper the dryness, he included a star-crossed love story between Prince Elseon (eldest son of Emperor Hamboon of Kentuck) and Princess Lamesa (eldest daughter of Emperor Rambock of Sciota).
Solomon regularly regaled his relatives and neighbors with the tale, but he must have decided that it just wasn’t right. He reasoned that if his novel were going to be successful, it would have to be altogether different. He needed to start over from scratch. Gone were the Romans and obvious Indian names like Delaware, Ohio, Scioto, and Kentucky. Gone too was the romance. Indeed, it was clear that if this novel was going to sell, Solomon would need to eliminate all female characters, where possible. The new outline called for Bible-style names like Lehi and Nephi. It would also be written in Bible lingo. For example, he peppered in the juicy phrase “and it came to pass” so often that his friends started calling him “Ol’-it-came-to-pass.” However, Solomon was very careful not to include any religious material in this book now modeled on the Bible. After all, this was going to be a novel.
Unfortunately for Solomon, the War of 1812 caused his land speculation deals to collapse. He and his wife were forced to move to Pittsburgh to find work and it became all the more crucial for his novel to be published. Solomon found a publisher in Pittsburgh named Robert Patterson. Patterson apparently didn’t smell a best-seller, but he took Solomon’s second manuscript, probably saying that he’d read it and let Solomon know. Instead it sat on Patterson’s shelf collecting dust. Then in 1816, Solomon died, his novels unpublished and his hopes unrealized. But this is not the end of our fable.
For there was also a certain man named Sidney Rigdon. He didn’t live in Pittsburgh when Solomon did, but he would go into town now and then and he knew Patterson’s print shop. One day while in the shop, Sidney spied Solomon’s dusty manuscript on the shelf and decided to read it. Immediately the wheels of Sidney’s mind began to turn. In his far-reaching vision, Sidney foresaw the golden opportunity this manuscript offered. It was a vision no one could have imagined, but eventually it proved almost totally successful (saving one fatal flaw, at least from Sidney’s perspective).
Sidney immediately purloined the manuscript. Of course, in its present form it wouldn’t serve Sidney’s plot. It must be transformed. If Solomon’s novel were be the foundation of a church — oh, Sidney, how could you dream this up? — its secular pages would have to be interwoven with religious material. It took Sidney years to accomplish, but ultimately he was successful. After Sidney was through making revisions, the religious material seemed to drench ever page. Anyone reading Sidney’s version would find it hard to imagine that the book had ever been a wholly secular novel.
Meanwhile, Sidney had become a Campbellite preacher and moved to Ohio’s Western Reserve (not far from the Conneaut home of the long-deceased Solomon). Sidney realized that for his plan to work he couldn’t possibly publish the manuscript himself. That would be too easy. And it would spoil the fun of having fellow conspirators with whom to split his eventual proceeds and with whom to share his most dangerous secrets. His mind immediately turned to Joseph Smith Jr. — just 250 miles away in Palmyra, New York. How had Sidney met Joseph or heard of him? It doesn’t really matter. Why would he immediately know that the young man would be the perfect person to pretend to create the manuscript of a book? And how did he imagine that a poor nobody like Joseph could ever get it published? Ultimately, we have to realize that this is the kind of visionary Sidney was. Not only could Sidney imagine things that no one else would; the fact that these things ultimately succeeded proved his brilliance.
However it was that Sidney knew Joseph, it was very fortunate that no other person on earth knew they knew each other. Sidney immediately traveled to Palmyra in secret. Once again extremely careful not to be seen by anyone, he met with Joseph and the two made a pact. Joseph would pretend to translate Sidney’s manuscript and Joseph would take all the credit and all the rewards. Later they would use the resulting book to found a church, which Joseph would lead and in which Sidney would play an important supporting role. It was just the kind of deal any successful preacher with a manuscript he believed was priceless would make with an impoverished young man with no prospects. Sidney made several other secret trips to Palmyra — fortunately always unseen by anyone except Joseph — and ultimately gave Joseph the manuscript.
Of course, as great a candidate for this job as Joseph clearly was, it didn’t take Joseph long before he realized he needed help. He tried at first to dupe people (like Martin Harris) into helping him transcribe the manuscript. But this process proved incredibly time consuming and nearly disastrous (when Martin lost the first set of pages of the copied manuscript). Joseph eventually decided he needed to bring additional conspirators into the know. Fortunately the plan was so certain of success, it was extremely easy to convince people to join in the plot, keep the secret, and behave dishonestly for the rest of their lives. First to sign up was Joseph’s distant cousin, Oliver Cowdery. They were later joined by Oliver’s friend David Whitmer. Both these new conspirators helped speedily copy Sidney’s version of Solomon’s novel and they, along with the still-duped Martin Harris, signed their name as the book’s “Three Witnesses.” Before long Joseph was able to get Martin to put up all the money for the book’s publication — just as Sidney had known he eventually would.
Finally, because no conspiracy that has four members is as good as one that has five, Sidney brought his friend Parley P. Pratt in on the plot. It wouldn’t make sense if Joseph or Oliver came to Ohio, gave Sidney a copy of the Book of Mormon, and converted him. That would be too obvious. Instead, Sidney reasoned, it was essential that Parley travel from Ohio to New York, pretend to get off a canal boat on unrelated business, pretend to be converted by reading the Book of Mormon, and then pretend to convince Joseph to send him and Oliver back to Ohio to pretend to convert Sidney. Anything less would be unthinkably reasonable.
And it all (finally) came to pass, just as Sidney had foreseen.
At first all five of the conspirators were living like kings, save for the general poverty and suffering they endured. But then Oliver quarreled with Joseph over Fanny Alger. Their relationship finally ruptured after all the conspirators had moved to Missouri. At that point, church members loyal to Joseph excommunicated Oliver, forcing him to flee the county. He lost all his property and had to move back to Ohio. Nevertheless, Oliver never revealed his secret. David Whitmer, likewise, was kicked out and deprived of his property, but he too never let on what he might have known.
After a few more bumps in the road, the operation moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. Sidney, having learned from Oliver and David’s mistakes, stayed loyal — even when he and Joseph quarreled after Joseph proposed plural marriage to Sidney’s daughter Nancy. The conspirators’ next crisis hit in 1844 when Joseph became the first of their number to die. Obviously, Sidney, originator of the whole plot, felt that he should now take over as boss. He might have expected his fellow conspirator Parley P. Pratt to back him up, especially considering Parley knew that what Sidney knew could still destroy the whole plot, just as it was finally beginning to pay off. Instead, Parley inexplicably backed Brigham Young’s takeover bid. Indeed, Parley must have even let Brigham in on the conspiracy, because as Brigham kicked Sidney out of Nauvoo, he ominously warned Sidney not to divulge the “secrets” he knew. Parley’s revelation to Brigham must not have been too much of a shock, since the new church president never skipped a beat. It goes without saying that he and Parley never divulged the secret in words or any writing, however private and personal.
Sidney also kept quiet. Naturally, he was disappointed that he’d lost control of the church in Nauvoo, but he believed he could build his own successful church structure back in Pittsburgh (where the whole thing had started). Unfortunately, within a couple of years this church atomized and Sidney and his wife were left alone and penniless. Ultimately they had to move in with relatives in New York. But Sidney still kept his silence.
Of course, the real truth had been out since Philastus Hurlbut had collected all those affidavits in Conneaut in 1833, but Sidney wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction of confirming that truth. It had been his plot to give Joseph Smith the credit and Sidney was damned if he was going to try to change course now — just because he was alone and impoverished, and an uninvited conspirator had made off to Utah with all the spoils of Sidney’s hard work. The last thing Sidney wanted was credit.
Sidney would show them all. He’d take his secret to his grave.