I’ve not been big on history, but of late I’ve decided to take a page from some of my BCC comrades and try my hand at a bit of historical research.
It started with a page from my great grandmother’s Journal in which she makes a passing comment, “Oh that I were as lucky as Skáldskapur.” Arnfinnur Skáldskapur, was an Icelandic sea captain who joined the church while his ship was getting refitted in Liverpool, England. He had a reputation for being something of an explorer-philosopher but he tended to the fantastic. For example, he kept a journal of encounters with what he believed were mermaids. They were always sighted at some distance and so it is easy to discount them from our modern perspective that has no place for such creatures, but Arn as he was called, would not be dissuaded otherwise. One of his grandson’s wrote in a letter to his sister from fin de siècle Paris, “Gramps Fikz showed us his journal of sea people sightings when I was just a little tyke. I tried to tell him there weren’t any such beasts as sea people but he would have non [sic.] of it. So I’m not surprised you cannot get him to take his medicine if he thinks its been tampered with. Once something is in his head there is no talking him out of it.”
After joining the church in March 1866 he immediately resigned his captain’s commission and left on the ship ‘Arkwright’ with 450 other saints under the direction of Justin Wixom. However, upon arrival in New York in early July he felt inspired to stay in New York and learn the art of daguerreotype photography and during the next five years became a well-known photographer of stage actors and actress. In 1871 he took the Overland Route train to Salt Lake City, where he set up a photography business adjacent to a bank on corner of Beech and Laurel Street.
Upon arrival he joined a gentlemen’s club known as the ‘Redbearded Horseshoers’ who meet regularly to study the life and writings of Joseph Smith. He soon became the leader of the group. One of the few remaining pamphlets from this time written by Arn contained the following paragraph,
“The Prophet Joseph Smith was a prophet and seer, but more than that he could wrestle the past into the future and visa-versa. I have it from John Taylor himself that when Brother Joseph found a treasure in the ground, the spirits that guarded it would try to pull it back deeper into the earth. But Joseph was more powerful then they all and he would lay hold upon it and with a yank heave it from the hands of those spirits.
Now when he went to lay hold upon the gold plates those forces that make all things slippery tried to pull it down, but Joseph grabbed it by the rings and pulled, but he not only pulled up the plates he pulled the whole history of the Nephites into the world lock, stock and barrel. He made it real. Where once there was ordinary history he pulled into the universe sacred history.”
Arn began to teach that history was flexible and could be manipulated from the present moment just as much as it could influence the future. And through his photography begin to try and rewrite the past. He thought that through subtitle manipulations he could do as he thought Joseph Smith had done and pull up new things into the past by a combination of faith and power.
He would photograph women in variously colored dresses. Then he would hand color the dress in the black and white photo a different color than the one he had taken a picture of. He would then save the hand colored photo and approach the woman years later show her the photo. When they disagreed on the original color he would have her pull it out and examine it. His journal records years of failure, but as time passed, a series of successes began to appear. The blue dresses he was coloring red, would be found in the possession the woman, often after long storage in a cedar chest, actually turned to red. It seemed that the more recent past was harder to change (but not impossible). As his successes mounted he decided to try more bold manipulations of the past and would color the yellow dresses with, say, red and blue strips. The discovery of the first red and blue striped dress stored by a Widow Rathbone sent shock waves through the Redbearded Horseshoers. There was talk of deception but the final proof came when a pale blue dress he had colored with white and red gingham turned up that had been taken by the woman and her husband down to the Mexican territories right after being photographed. Several of the more skeptical Horeshoers wrote the woman, named Tantamount Lee, and asked her the state of her dress. She replied with the following:
“Tis a strange thing. I had not seen that dress but a couple of times in the five years we’ve lived here, for after bearing (due to the good Lord’s grace) three children in the same, I had not worn it for many years as the children had done much to rearrange my figure. I remember as clear as day that it was light blue in color. It had been in my daughter’s hope chest for those five hard years and upon receipt of your letter, dug through it until I found it near the bottom. Now, you will think me soft minded, but that memory of a blue dress must be set aside in light of what I found, for it was a red and white gingham dress. So I dug out the picture taken those many years ago and to my surprise it has always been a gingham dress (though the colors are hidden in the colorless original) for the pattern is as clear as day.”
It was shortly after, that Arnfinnur Skáldskapur sold his photography business and became the man you are no doubt familiar with if you know any Salt Lake History at all. He became very adept at finding Spanish treasure, in having bank accounts he had never mentioned having suddenly become available holding thousands of dollars, and people in places as far away as Chicago and New York leaving him vast sums of money in their wills. The Salt Lake Tribune called him, “The Luckiest Man Alive.”
Of course, as you know, that luck was not to hold. After being named as one of the Apostles he was gunned down just after the century turned new. The man arrested was 77 years hold and claimed he had stolen his wife, 45 years ago. His wife had been engaged to this man apparently but they had never married, so the shooter was thought to be mad.
His ideas on the present influencing the past are interesting but that is all. As a Scientist I must dismiss them, of course, but as Jorge Luis Borges says, “Reality is not always probable, or likely.”
I’d like to thank the staff at the Church History Library for helping me with access to Arnfinnur Skáldskapur’s journal and family letters. Also thanks to the, still in existence, Redbearded Horseshoers, for access to the minutes of early meetings. Ardis at the wonderful blog ‘Keepapitchinin’ has an excellent article of the short apostolic tenure of Elder Skáldskapur, called ‘The Unluckiest Apostle” that can be accessed here
The dresses he changed can be seen in the ‘Astral Room’ at Redbearded Horseshoers’ lodge.