The Davenport Conspiracy

Mid-September through mid-October marks Iowa Archaeology Month, the perfect occasion to tell the story of Davenport’s most notorious adventures in archaeology.

In January of 1877, the Reverend Jacob Gass, a Swiss-born minister serving the First Lutheran Church and aspiring antiquarian, uncovered two slate tablets in a burial mound on the Cook Farm in southwest Davenport. One depicted cremation and hunting scenes on each of two sides; the other appeared to be a calendar. The discovery excited members of the Davenport Academy of Sciences, who believed the tablets could support the theory that an ancient civilization of “Mound Builders” once existed on the North American continent. The Academy encouraged Gass, now among its members, to dig again. The following January, Mound 11 at the Cook Farm yielded a limestone tablet with a red-colored figure holding a bow and sitting astride a sun icon. Above the figure were two images of bird-shaped pipes.

Gass also acquired a pipe in the shape of an elephant for the Academy. A Louisa County farmer had turned it up in a field and used it to smoke. Gass later excavated a mound in the same area and a second “elephant pipe” resembling a woolly mammoth or a mastodon was discovered. Financially supported by wealthy attorney Charles Putnam, Gass continued hunting on the Academy’s behalf until he left Davenport for Postville, Iowa in 1883.

Troubles began in 1884 when the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology report, “Animal Carvings from Mounds of the Mississippi Valley” reached the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences. Its author, Henry Henshaw, cast doubt on the authenticity of the various Mound Builder artifacts then on display at the Academy museum. Furious that the integrity of the Academy had been challenged, Charles Putnam penned “A Vindication of the Authenticity of the Elephant Pipes and Inscribed Tablets…” (1885) in response.

The details of the ensuing controversy are thoroughly explored by Marshall Bassford McKusick in The Davenport Conspiracy (1970) and the Davenport Conspiracy Revisited (1991). It included a public battle between Putnam and Washington scientists in the pages of the journals Science and the American Antiquarian, the expulsion of two members of the Academy whom Putnam and his supporters believed had conspired to tarnish the institution’s reputation, a study of the artifacts at the Davenport Museum by an expert in Hopewell culture, an account by Judge James Bollinger, an investigation into Academy files by Davenport Museum director Don Herold, and research by McKusick himself, the State Archaeologist of Iowa.

McKusick’s work revealed that the perpetrators of the hoax were likely a small group of Academy members playing a joke on Jacob Gass, who had irked some by bragging about his many finds (McKusick also suggests that the educated Eastern-born elites of the Academy disdained the recent immigrant and his mound-looting methods). This group had etched and planted the tablets in the mound at the Cook Farm, purposefully leaving the holes where nails would have attached the slate to the roof (allegedly on a local house of prositution) from which it was taken. When the fakes were taken for real, the group “tried to end the affair with an even more obvious fraud,” the limestone tablet in Mound 11, and was astonished that the artifacts collected there were again accepted as genuine. By that time the situation had escalated to the point where the pranksters felt a confession would not be believed. Indeed, the testimony of “whistleblowers” A.S. Pratt and Dr. Clarence Lindley was suppressed by the more powerful Putnam-led faction.

The two “elephant pipes” were definitively proven fraudulent in 1930 by Dr. Henry Shertrone, along with other platform pipes in the Davenport Museum’s collection (though many were also confirmed as genuine).

The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), August 11, 1930, page 2.

McKusick discovered the majority of the frauds originated with Edwin Gass, brother of Jacob, a participant in many of the excavations. He also assembled evidence that Jacob, Edwin, and Jacob’s brother-in-law, Alfred Blumer, were deeply involved in the antiquities trade and knowingly passed off fake artifacts to collectors, including (possibly) each other. And he brought to light testimony of the Academy’s janitor, John Graham, made copies of platform pipes and may have created the second elephant pipe; either he or Blumer are said to have “uncovered” it during the excavation of the mound.

Dig into the controversy’s primary sources here at the RSSC Center: Charles Putnam’s “Vindication…” (SC 570 Put) and the debates recorded in the Proceedings of the Davenport Academy of Science (SC 506 Dav). Take a look at the evidence in McKusick’s two books on the Davenport Conspiracy (SC 570 McK 1970 and 1991) and draw your own conclusions!

(posted by Katie)

*Unless otherwise noted, all images reproduced from The Davenport Conspiracy by Marshall McKusick (Iowa City, IA, 1970)

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