Wyrick's Letter to Joseph Henry

J. Huston McCulloch

This article originally appeared in
Midwest Epigraphic Journal
Vol. 6 (1989), pp. 5-10.

The history of the five Hebrew inscriptions found in and near Newark, Ohio between 1860 and 1867 by David Wyrick and others has been recounted with extraordinary thoroughness by Prof. Robert W. Alrutz of Denison University (1980). Joseph Schenck (1982) has compiled the complete text of many of the early documents discussing these finds, and has added some additional observations.

The first two of these stones, found in June and November 1860 by Wyrick himself, now reside in the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Roscoe Village, Coshocton, Ohio. The first, or "Keystone," contains four brief Hebrew religious formulas, written in a readily identifiable, yet distinctive, form of Square Hebrew script. The script on the second, or "Decalogue" stone, is so peculiar that it does not appear at first to many even to be Hebrew. On closer examination a few Square Hebrew letters can be found, and the others eventually figured out from their context, in an almost cryptoanalytic procedure. A few of these letters have Old Hebrew affinities, but several have never been satisfactorily accounted for. This decipherment was performed by Wyrick's contemporary Rev. John W. McCarty, and more recently by Ernest Bloom and Jon Polansky (1980), and even by Joseph Naveh of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an authority on early Hebrew scripts (communication reported in Schenck's volume). All agree that it contains an abridged text of the Exodus version of the Hebrew Decalogue. The condensations, according to Bloom and Polansky, preserve the meaning of the original, and therefore must have been done by someone with an understanding of the language, who was perhaps working from memory.

The other three inscribed stones, which were discovered by other individuals only after Wyrick's 1864 financial ruin and suicide, had been all but forgotten until Alrutz's article appeared. One of these was found through the combined efforts of David M. Johnson, a banker, and Dr. N. Roe Bradner, a physician, with an undisturbed and extremely fragile skull deeper in the same mound from which Wyrick took the Decalogue stone. It contains several of the same peculiar letters as appear on the Decalogue stone. Another, a carved head found within the undisturbed center of another mound near Newark, bears a brief inscription in a recognizable Square Hebrew more like the Keystone's script. The third, a photograph of which appears in Alrutz's article, is a curious talisman representing several intertwined human and animal heads, with a few letters of Hebrew or a related script across one of the foreheads.

Most archaeologists have accepted the opinion of Charles Whittlesey (1872) that Wyrick himself forged the first two inscriptions. Whittlesey's conclusion was based on the fact that a Hebrew Bible was found among Wyrick's possessions after his death, which Whittlesey assumed to have been the source of the inscription. It seems to me, at least, natural enough that the inquisitive finder of such an inscription would want to see for himself how its contents related to the Biblical text. If Wyrick did not also acquire a Hebrew grammar, my guess is that it was only because he could not afford the additional expense. Whittlesey's verdict appeared in the same article in which he denounced the Cincinnati Tablet as a forgery. This is now generally accepted as authentic.

Alrutz's studiously impartial analysis of the historical circumstances is that this "evidence" of forgery was in fact inconclusive, and that the jury is still out, so to speak, at least until the distinctive and even peculiar scripts on the stones are given a thorough paleographic evaluation by competent experts. He is surely excessively cautious: Were it not for the very unusual content of the inscriptions, the finding of the Johnson-Bradner stone by two irreproachable citizens would have constituted absolutely conclusive evidence of the authenticity of the Decalogue stone, and the inscribed head very strong corroboration for the less-well-stratified Keystone tablet.

A few years ago, I asked Prof. William S. Dancey of the Ohio State Univ. Anthropology Dept. what he made of Alrutz's article, and he sent me a copy of a letter from Wyrick to Joseph Henry, who was then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in which Wyrick expressed the fear that perhaps a hoax had been perpetrated upon him with these stones. A note by Bradley T. Lepper, curator of the Newark Moundbuilders' State Memorial Museum, (1987) refers to the same letter and concludes on the basis of it, with Dancey, that the stones are in fact a hoax perpetrated not by Wyrick, but rather upon him by some unknown person. [1]

It is the purpose of this note to examine this letter, which was overlooked by both Alrutz and Schenck, to see what proof, if any, it contains that the stones are in fact fraudulent.

The letter goes on for four legal-sized pages, so I will not quote it in its entirety. Briefly, it appears to be part of an ongoing correspondence with Henry concerning an article Wyrick had written about the relative merits of wooden versus metal rollers for pressing sorghum. A "Dr. W" (conceivably but not necessarily Whittlesey himself) had criticized Wyrick on technical grounds concerning rust, Wyrick had replied vigorously, and Henry had evidently chided Wyrick for being notoriously extreme in his views on geology and archaeology. Wyrick asked why this was the case, and asked if this was perhaps due to an earlier article he had written on the "magnetic needle." Apparently this was a reference to magnetic declination, the topic of a series of articles that had been appearing in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge and a natural subject of interest to Wyrick, who had been the Licking County Surveyor before rheumatism forced him to retire. Or he asks if possibly this reputation was due to his "boulder theory," evidently a theory he had proposed concerning the anomalous boulders from as far away as Canada that litter northern Ohio and the crazy-quilt pattern of stream terraces in southern Ohio, both of which we now know to have been caused by repeated glaciation. The details of these theories do not concern us. The passages that are most pertinent to Wyrick's character and to the issue of the Hebrew stones follow:

Newark Licking Co. Ohio
April 13th 1863

Sir -- Your letter of ... March has been received and am much pleased with the freedom and frankness of the reply to what I had sent you.
* * *
My entire object is to learn, and to learn the truth. And I don't want to be contrary or different from received facts and theories. But where the evidence of fact show me where there may be error, I do not wish to yield until evidence show to me that I am wrong. No man can crush any thing down my throat until I find for myself it is so.
* * *
Copernicus, I believe, was imprisoned for saying that the Sun did not move, and if such were the times now (precedents almost say they are), I must suffer the same fate for declaring the magnetic needle stationary.
* * *
I should like to know in what particular I am extravagant or wild in Geology and Archaeology. I don't want to be so nor out of the way. Nor can I conceive in what particular it can be. Perhaps it may be in regard to the boulder theory.
* * *
Or perhaps my observations on the denudation, and the age of the Perry County Stone Work is too bold. I wish you could see some facts displayed there and then give me an explanation? It would do my soul good to see you there, and struggling to get out of a high water that once submerged these works. The evidences are too glaring.
* * *
The Hebrew Stones I fear has [
sic] done the evil. I wish to God some one else had found them than myself. The evidences figured here of the immense antiquity of these works, and that too long prior to the Hebrew or Jewish dispensations, has always raised a fear in my mind that some one has been trying to hoax me. Especially as my opinions have been strong and firmly held. But more when I have more time.
* * *
Yours truly and really in
good humor and in good
sound friendship,
David Wyrick

It appears that Wyrick badly wanted to believe that the stones were a hoax (since they had become his ruination), but refused to do so simply on everyone else's say-so. However, he believed he had found a way to cast doubt on them to his own satisfaction, namely the "evidences figured here of the immense antiquity of these works, and that too long prior to the Hebrew or Jewish dispensations [i.e. the Old Testament, and in particular the Pentateuch]." [2]

The only "evidences" of the great antiquity of the Ohio earthworks I can find "figured here" in his letter is the allusion to his theory on the what he calls the "Perry County Stone Works." Beverley H. Moseley, Jr. has pointed out that Wyrick surely had in mind the large stone enclosure near Glenford, known as Glenford Fort. William C. Mills (1914, p. 64) presents it as the most significant archaeological feature of Perry County, and indeed, "from its strategic position and rugged location, its great size and impressive character," as "one of the most impressive of the so-called hill-top enclosures in Ohio." It is only 7 miles southeast of the Great Stone Stack where Wyrick had found the Decalogue stone three years earlier. Indeed, Whittlesey himself had referred to Glenford Fort as "Stone Work, Perry County, Ohio," in his "Description of Ancient Works in Ohio," which had itself appeared in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge in 1850.

For whatever reason, Wyrick evidently believed that this Fort had at one time since its construction been submerged by high water. Given that Mills describes it as being located "on the top of a hill, which stands about 300 feet above the level of the stream at its base and is practically isolated from any other elevated area in the vicinity," such a flood could only have occurred many thousands of years ago, as the glaciers receded, and long before the Hebrew Diasporas that presumably would somehow account for Hebrew inscriptions in Licking County. Alternatively, Wyrick may have taken the Biblical inundation to have been an historical fact, but even that too would have long antedated the Decalogue and the Diasporas.

In view of the proximity of the Fort to the Stone Stack, and the somewhat unusual use of stone in both structures, it is natural that Wyrick would assume that the two structures were contemporary in their construction. A Hebrew inscription in the Stone Stack would therefore be impossibly anachronistic. Thus Wyrick believed he had found a reason he himself could accept to cast doubt upon it, and therefore by association upon his other, less well stratified, find.

We know today, however, that the great Ohio earthworks, including presumably the Stone Stack and Glenford Fort, date from the Hopewell and Adena periods of approximately 1000 B.C. to 700 A.D. (Potter [Otto] 1968, p. 75), dates that are perfectly consistent with the inscriptions, but much too recent for an Ice Age flood (or for Noah's ark, for that matter). Indeed, material from a stone mound within Glenford Fort itself has recently been radiocarbon dated to 270 B.C. +/- 50 yrs. (Dutcher 1988). Whatever "glaring" evidence Wyrick thought he saw of an ancient high water that once covered the Perry County Stone Works, he therefore must have been mistaken.[3] His anachronism hypothesis consequently falls though, and he is stuck with the stones!

The suspicion (which is not even a conviction) that Wyrick expresses in this letter therefore cannot be taken as evidence that the stones were a hoax perpetrated upon him. On the other hand, the letter does show him to have been a man of considerable intellectual integrity, who would have been most unlikely to have forged the stones himself as charged by Whittlesey, either as a lark or for financial gain.


1. Lepper goes on to point to the complete absence (apart, presumably, from the three inscriptions found near Newark shortly after Wyrick's death) of any further evidence of Hebrew presence in North America "in the 125 years of subsequent archaeological research." This generalization overlooks the Bat Creek tablet, an inscription found in Eastern Tennessee in 1889 by the Smithsonian's Mound Survey Project, and subsequently identified by Cyrus Gordon as a Paleo-Hebrew inscription of the 1st or 2nd century A.D. (McCulloch 1988). Return to text.

2. The clearly Square Hebrew or "Jewish" script on three of the five stones is in fact inconsistent with the First Temple period, as it was not adopted until sometime after the sixth century B.C. The very peculiar script of the Decalogue and Johnson-Bradner stones has some Old Hebrew affinities, but is still basically Square Hebrew, and is therefore also inconsistent with the earlier dispersions. All five inscriptions (if authentic) must therefore be Judean, and could not be relics of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel of whom the Judeans lost track when the Kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The use of Square Hebrew was invoked by some of Wyrick's earliest critics as evidence that the "Keystone" could not have been more than a few hundred years old (see Alrutz 1980, 16-17), but this argument is totally mistaken in light of modern archaeological evidence, in particular the Dea Sea Scrolls. See Naveh (1982, 112-24, 162-74) for the early history of the Hebrew scripts. Return to text.

3. According to the 1961 U.S.G.S. Glacial Map of Ohio, there were several lakes in Ohio that left surface deposits. However, it identifies the entirety of Hopewell Township, in which Glenford lies, as ice-deposited moraine, with water-deposited outwash only in the valleys. Return to text.


Alrutz, Robert W. "The Newark Holy Stones: The History of an Archaeological Tragedy." Journal of the Scientific Laboratories, Denison University 57 (1980), pp. 1-57.

Bloom, Ernest, and Jon Polansky. "Translation of the 'Decalogue Tablet' from Ohio." Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers 8, Part 1 (1980), pp. 15-20.

Dutcher, James. "C-14 Dating Results from the Glenford Stone Mound Site." Ohio Archaeologist 38 #3 (Summer 1988), pp. 24-26.

Lepper, Bradley T. "The 'Holy Stones' of Newark: History or Hoax?" Moundbuilders' Notes, No. 3. Moundbuilders State Memorial, Ohio Historical Society, Newark, Ohio, c. 1987.

McCulloch, J. Huston. "The Bat Creek Inscription: Cherokee or Hebrew?" Tennessee Anthropologist 13 (Fall 1988), pp. 79-123.

Mills, William C. Archaeological Atlas of Ohio. The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society: Columbus, 1914.

Naveh, Joseph. Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Paleography. Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1982.

Potter [Otto], Martha A. Ohio's Prehistoric Peoples. Ohio Historical Society: Columbus, 1968.

Schenck, Joseph. Mysteries of the Holy Stones. Pheasant Run Publications: St. Louis, Mo., 1982.

Whittlesey, Charles. Archaeological Frauds: Inscriptions Attributed to the Mound Builders. Three Remarkable Forgeries. Western Reserve Historical Society Historical & Archaeological Tract #9, 1872.

Wyrick, David. Letter to Joseph Henry dated April 13, 1863. Smithsonian Archives, Joseph Henry Collection, #20186.

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