Of Ngrams and Diaries

Pretty much this whole post will be based on (OK, plagiarized from) a thread I saw this morning on a message board. Still, it’s fascinating, and I thought I should draw attention to it.

Yesterday’s Deseret News had an article entitled 13 Little-Known Facts about Joseph Smith. Number 6 on the list was a reported “near-death experience” Joseph had thanks to arch-apostate William Law.

“Apostate William Law attempted to kill Joseph and fired a pistol at him six times at close range. It misfired six times, and he then pointed it at a post and all six shots discharged properly.” Charles H. Stoddard, “Remembering Joseph,” 74

Just as the poster on the message board, I was perplexed because I had never heard of this, and it seemed pretty counter to William Law’s character and personality. So, I looked up the references the poster had cited, and I found a diary that Charles Stoddard’s mother, Sarah, had written between 1843 and 1844. Here’s the entire diary:

Dear Diary,

Charles stopped in for a few minutes today. Said Sister Emma was worried about the prophet being arrested so frequently. This is the umpteenth time in the past few months. Of course they never can hold him for any length of time since he isn’t guilty of any of the charges brought against him. We hear rumors of more violent mob action and the rumors seem more persistent. Perhaps that is why Sister Emma is worried.

October 1843

Charles is surely privileged to have the opportunity of being so closely associated with the prophet and sister Emma. He admires and loves them both. The prophet is such a kindly man though Charles says he has seen his anger rise. All he has to contend with, is it any wonder? Wrathful outsiders as well as weak and selfish people right among our own ranks. Being a prophet of the Lord, I guess, makes him able to deal with all those whom he comes in contact in a just and noble way. There are many among us who would gladly give our lives that the prophet might be spared the humiliations he has to undergo at the hands of the so-called “law.” Seems like people either love the prophet or hate him. Suppose that is because he is such a great man – yes, for he is our prophet.

December 1843

Charles had a dreadful experience last night. Porter Rockwell escaped from jail. He was taken there on mistaken identity of the prophet. When the sheriff finally discovered the mistake, he kept Porter in jail to teach him a lesson, so he said. Many months he was unjustly held. They gave him very meager fare, mostly just bread and water. He was terribly thin and weakened; his hair was long and matted with filth and his body swarming with lice. Not once did they give him anything with which to clean himself, but left him to stench in his own dirt. Charles said the prophet cried when he saw Brother Rockwell and he hugged him in spite of his condition like he was a beloved child. Charles and Brother Richards helped to clean Brother Rockwell after they had burned the rags he had one time called clothes. They had a terrible time with his hair; it was so snarled and filthy. They had decided the best thing to do was to shave his head but the prophet intervened and then he promised Brother Rockwell that as long as he did not cut his hair our enemies would have no power over him. Porter Rockwell is an uncouth man, even vile of tongue but the prophet discerns men for what they are inside and though Charles says he reprimands Brother Rockwell at times for his bad language he still loves and respects him and trusts him as much as he does anyone, even the apostles.

January 1844

Charles is young to be given so much responsibility (just turned 14), but his experiences have made him old for his years. I hate to see Charles put in such a precarious position but if this is where the prophet thinks he can be of greatest service then it must be so. I have never doubted but what the prophet knows what is best for us all. May my faith ever be as strong as it is now though we have very little of worldly goods having moved from New Jersey to Ohio to Nauvoo in so short a time. Still our physical needs are provided. We feel rich in the spirit and our faith in God and in His church grows with each passing day. But back to Charles. Mr. William Law is known to be wanting a houseboy, so the prophet has told our son to take the position and to keep his eyes and ears open. The prophet feels Mr. Law bodes only evil to him and to the Church, him being so resentful to the prophet and having been excommunicated.

February 1844

Charles doesn’t like his work at the Laws. He says the riffraff of Nauvoo drink and carouse all night and lay plans for what unpleasant things they can do to the Mormons in general and the prophet in particular. The boy looks tired, up most of the night so he can keep the prophet posted on Mr. Law’s plans and then working by day. He’s growing so fast right now, too, and should be getting his rest.

April 1844

Charles had another faith promoting experience. Early this morning, even while the darkness still hemmed out the light of day, Mr. Law, after he had been drinking and planning with his associates through the night, got Charles out of bed to clean and oil his gun for he said he was going to shoot the prophet, only William Law called him “old Joe Smith.” Poor Charles was frightened beyond description but Mr. Law stood over him and prodded him with his foot when Charles hesitated through fright and anxiety. Finally when Mr. Law was satisfied with the way the gun was working, he put one bullet in. He boasted that he could kill the prophet with one shot and sent Charles to bring the prophet.

He ran as fast as he could and delivered the message but begged the prophet not to go to Mr. Law’s as Mr. Law was drunk and Charles was afraid he would carry though on his threat to shoot the prophet in cold blood. In spite of Charles’ protestations the prophet rose from bed and dressed.

It was breaking dawn by this time. As they walked the few blocks from the mansion house to the Law residence the prophet reassured Charles that no harm would come to him that day. Charles was frightened and he said it kept racing through his mind “I am the one that cleaned the gun that is going to be used to kill the prophet” until he was sick with fear. The prophet in a final attempt to calm my dear son uttered the fateful words, “Mr. Law may some day kill me, Charles, but it won’t be today’

As they approached their destination Mr. Law came staggering out of the house and his only greeting was angry boasts of what he intended to do. The prophet said kindly and unafraid, “You sent for me, Mr. Law?” to which Mr. Law replied with oaths that he had and that he was now going to do Nauvoo, Illinois, and indeed the whole world a great favor by disposing of the prophet with one shot.

Calmly the prophet unbuttoned his shirt and bared his chest, then said, “I’m ready now, Mr. Law.” Charles said at this point he nearly fainted. Fear strangled him until he was speechless and paralyzed, unable to move a muscle.

Mr. Law paced a few steps, turned, aimed, and pressed the trigger. There was complete silence, then the air rang with profanity and Mr. Law turned on Charles, accusing him of fixing the gun so it would not go off and threatening to kill even Charles, my innocent, frightened, but faithful son. The prophet, to divert Mr. Law’s blame of Charles suggested that a can be placed on the fence post for Mr. Law to take a practice shot. Relieved, Charles ran for a can and laid it on its side on the post. Mr Law paced back, took aim and fired. His ‘one shot’ streaked through the exact center of the bottom of that can. Mr. Law is well-known for his marksmanship even when drunk. Even Mr. Law was quiet as if stunned.

The prophet buttoned up his shirt, gave Charles a meaningful look and then said, “If you are finished with me now, Mr. Law, I have other things needing to be done. Good morning.”

At first glance it seems fairly straightforward: Joseph Smith apparently hired a teenaged Charles Stoddard to work at William Law’s house and “keep the prophet posted” about William Law’s nefarious plans. And this boy witnessed William Law’s attempt to kill Joseph Smith, as well as the prophet’s fearless response.

But, an LDS friend said elsewhere, “I am quite certain that this entry—and indeed the whole diary—is a forgery.” He summarizes his reasons as follows:

If you check out the whole diary (which is suspiciously short) I think you’ll notice that it reads like bad fiction. Nothing in it is credible. All of the characters are broadly drawn caricatures (especially William Law, who, unlike his real-life counterpart, is here a foul-mouthed drunkard). I think it was probably written in the early 20th century, based on expressions like “umpteenth” (which first came into use around the turn of the 20th century and gained prominence after WW1), “keep your eyes and ears open”, and “faith promoting experience” (which, as far as I can tell, did not enter the Mormon lexicon until the 1880s). “Keep him posted” also seems out of place for 1844.

Robert H. Daines described the provenance of the diary in a 2000 BYU devotional: “I should like to share with you an entry from the diary of my great-great grandmother. This is a record of a little-known experience of the Prophet Joseph—little known because this diary was lost for 30 to 40 years in my mother’s home in New Jersey. It was only rediscovered as they were preparing to move back to Utah in the late 1970s. This is a diary entry of Sister Sarah Stoddard.” My guess is that it was created ca. 1920-1930.

Admittedly, I am not that clever to have thought of the word usage, but he’s right that some of the words and phrases did not arise in the English language until much later than 1844. “Umpteenth,” for example, dates to World War I.

I’d never used Google’s Ngram Viewer before, but it can tell you how often a word is used over time, based on its text database of books. For example, we can chart when the following words became widely used in English:

In short, I learned something, and not just that the account of William Law trying to shoot Joseph Smith is likely bogus. I think I could have fun with the Ngram Viewer.

 

 

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11 Responses to Of Ngrams and Diaries

  1. David Macfarlane says:

    Arguably, only this and perhaps a couple of other “little-known facts” from the DNews article can even be researched in any meaningful way. The rest are visions Joseph claims to have had presented as fact. I know that, among the faithful who read the DNews, articles like this are the rationale for subscribing, not the argument against. Still, it’s embarrassing for a professional news-gathering organization of any stripe.

  2. yaanufs says:

    DN News is not a factual news gathering organisation. It is a faith-promoting rumour gathering organisation.

  3. ADr says:

    (I also posted this observation elsewhere, but I thought it was interesting enough to post again.) The diary entries read like historical fiction in short story form.

    Here are some other words from the diary entries that I tried in the NGram viewer:

    -“so-called,” http://bit.ly/1Oagz5x
    -“I guess” http://bit.ly/1xCpq5g
    -“Deal with” http://bit.ly/1BCXLld
    -“In cold blood” http://bit.ly/1xCsezl
    -“Fateful” http://bit.ly/1binj21

    The last entry is supposedly from the writer’s daughter who reflects on the writer’s entries. The daughter talks about the mantle falling over Brigham Young, and thousands seeing this happen. But don’t we know now that this was an exaggerated event? (http://www.holyfetch.com/talk_faves/BY_is_Joseph.html)

    I also question why the daughter refers to Brigham Young as “president” rather than “prophet.” She bears her testimony at the end of the entry: “I know this is God’s church and that Joseph Smith was a prophet…” Seems a little odd, right?

    Just some of my observations.

  4. James says:

    Yeah, the story reads like a tall tale. That is extremely difficult to swallow – six misfires in a row, then point the gun away from Joe and it works fine all of a sudden. When I first read this I was very skeptical of it. Now add in the N-gram argument and it’s clearly bogus.

  5. Bill says:

    I was suspicious of the can on a post angle. A cursory glance at the history of canning shows that it was largly used by the British military up to the mid-1800’s. Not widely available until after the civil war. Not likely that there would have been a can lying around.

  6. Gilbert Gripe says:

    If you go to the Deseret News and search “13 facts Joseph Smith”, why doesn’t the article appear?

  7. […] mentioned in my earlier post that I had stolen a good chunk of information about the account of Charles Stoddard regarding […]

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