Was our biggest historical find our biggest hoax?
For years Viking relics “found” in northern Ontario have been proudly displayed in our largest museum and have even changed our history books. Now an awful suspicion is taking hold that it’s probably all a fake
The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is full of wonders: jewels from half-legendary cities of the dim past; a luminous Chinese collection with few equals in the world; centuries of armor from Europe and Asia. Of all its treasures, those most proudly displayed for eighteen years were Viking weapons allegedly unearthed near the mining village of Beardmore, Ont.
A glass case labeled “THE BEARDMORE FIND” occupied the most prominent location in a main gallery. On Dec. 4, 1956, the contents of the case vanished and a small card was substituted, saying “temporarily removed.” A few weeks later the case, too, quietly disappeared and a display of Hungarian art moved into the place where it had stood. When the Norse relics were first put on display in 1938 they were considered the biggest historical find ever made on this continent. Today embarrassed museum officials wish the objects had stayed below the ground. The strange tale of how the Beardmore relics came to the museum, and of how they left it. is gradually coming to light.
Here are the actors and props of Beardmore mystery ►
In 1936 a Kingston high-school teacher sent the Royal Ontario Museum a sketch of rusty iron pieces that a CNR trainman named James Edward Dodd had shown him in Port Arthur. The
trainman, a part-time prospector, said he found them while digging on his claim a quarter of a mile from the railroad. Thinking they might be Indian relics, he had taken them home to Port Arthur, 124 miles southwestward by rail, and tried unsuccessfully to sell them. Specialists in Norse archæology identified the objects as a tenth-century sword broken in half, an eleventhcentury axehead and perhaps a shield handle.
Dr. C. T. Currelly, curator of the museum, recognized that these fragments might be tremendously important. If they had lain in the ground undisturbed for nine centuries before Dodd found them, the discovery would prove that one Viking, and probably others, had been on this continent before Columbus sailed. Icelandic stories written down in the twelfth century told of voyages to Vinland, west of the Greenland colony, and most students of ancient Norse thought the tales were based on real events, although attempts to locate Vinland from them resulted in guesses ranging from Labrador to Florida. A few dissenters—notably the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen—said the sagas were a mixture of fact with fantasy and sheer boasting, not to be treated as historical documents. Without tangible proof of the Vikings’ presence here
—something they had built or left behind—the stories, however plausible, were only stories.
The discovery of Norse armor north of Lake Superior would, if authentic, upset all major theories scholarship had based on the sagas. Evidence that a Viking had been so far inland would also suggest that the Norsemen had a more enduring influence on the life here than if they had merely visited the eastern seaboard. Old disregarded tales about Indians who looked somewhat Caucasian and spoke dialects that included Scandinavian words would have to be reconsidered.
The enthusiasts, searching for the one piece of clinching evidence that would prove the Vikings had been here, were increasingly hopeful, though they had been often disappointed. Since 1871 halberds had been turning up all over the midwest. In 1952 the formidable objects were identified as tobacco cutters which once advertised a brand of chewing plug. Scholars who deciphered a blurred “runic inscription’’ in Massachusetts had been directed, in clear English, “THIS WAY TO THE SPRING.” The famous Kensington stone in Minnesota, with its carved record of fourteenth-century Viking adventures there, was rejected by most experts because of the nineteenth-century word forms on it; only a few die-
hards (including Currelly) clung to their belief in its authenticity after an alleged forger and the book he supposedly copied his runic letters from were identified.
At the time the Beardmore discovery was reported, not one pre-Columbian “find” in North America was accepted by most acknowledged experts. If Dodd’s iron fragments were the unique objects so anxiously sought, they were almost beyond evaluation.
Currelly quickly wrote Dodd: “If you can give or obtain proof that these were not planted there by some Norwegian or Swede in recent years, we will be willing to give you a very good price for them. It is known that Norsemen came down into Minnesota and left an inscription ... As these arc Ontario finds, we are naturally very eager to keep them in the province.” Dodd took the objects to the museum and Currelly, after questioning him, was well enough satisfied to pay five hundred dollars for them.
News of the find, and sale of the specimens to a great museum, echoed through the continent. The editor of the Sault Ste. Marie Star announced, in a book title, HERE WAS VINLAND—A 1000 Year Old Mystery Solved. In Fort William a tourist director plancontinued on page 80
Was our biggest historical find our biggest hoax?
Continued from page 31
ned to lure crowds of Scandinavians from the U. S. with the slogan: “Follow the Trail of your Forefathers to the Vast Unspoiled Wilderness!”
But in Oslo the curator of the university museum was saying, “This is the old story once more—the American desire to provide itself with history, ancient history.” He remarked of the sword: “It was not found in America. In some way or another it must have been smuggled in from Norway . . . Those kinds of ‘finds’ are deplorable ... It is a sin that such legends are continually fabricated concerning a real historical event.”
In Canada the first sour note came from a brakeman named Eli Ragotte. In January 1938 he told a reporter of the Winnipeg Free Press, “I was the man who actually discovered the rusty sword, it was while I was cleaning out the basement of Dodd’s Port Arthur home, as far back as 1928, that the sword and shield were dragged from beneath the ashes.” When challenged, Ragotte declared he had only been joking, and swore an affidavit to that effect in March of the same year. But in the meantime, on Jan. 27, 1938, a Port Arthur Norwegian named J. M. Hansen had sworn an affidavit that he had lost Norse relics, similar to those described as the Beardmore find, from the basement of a house he had rented to Dodd.
During all the subsequent uproar Hansen was as evasive as if he had entered the case solely to drive everyone frantic. Nevertheless, out of his nebulous testimony a remarkably coherent chain of facts emerged. Hansen said he had accepted the weapons as security for a twenty-five-dollar loan to a countryman, Jens Bloch, who had brought them from Norway. As there was a Norwegian law barring the export of national relics, Bloch, who hoped to return someday, asked Hansen not to mention them. Bank records showed that in 1928 Hansen had lent Bloch forty-five dollars, reduced to thirty-five dollars. Bloch died in 1936, but his widow in Vancouver testified that her husband had often told her he wanted to repay Hansen and recover the relics because they had belonged to his father, Andreas Bloch. The elder Bloch was wellknown in Norway as an illustrator and student of heraldry and had collected Norse armor.
Hansen came to view the objects in Toronto and stated they were not his because they were too smooth, the sword was unbroken and there were hooks he did not remember on the small bar. The Norwegian’s statement, which museum authorities grasped at face value, was taken by others as proof the weapons were Hansen’s, for at the museum the rusty iron had been cleaned, the broken sword mounted as if it were one piece and the tlattened hooks pried out from the bar. In rejecting the weapons, Hansen had described their former condition, which would have been difficult unless he had seen them before they were in the museum.
Nearly everything Hansen did was
equivocal. Before inspecting the relics he had written a Norwegian in the U. S. who, with Viking theories of his own, was anxious for validation of the Beardmore find, and promised: “1 would say they were not the same I had, even il they were.” There were inconsistencies, throughout his testimony. In fact, one museum spokesman said, his whole story was simply too unreasonable to be credited. But further examination of Hansen’s statements showed that they did follow a kind of eerie logic all their own.
Neither the brakeman Ragotte. whose “joke” opened the case, nor Hansen, could have guessed what a storm their testimony would arouse. Ragotte recanted and withdrew, with the parting words. “I’m sorry 1 got into the yarn at all." Hansen could not disappear from the case like Ragotte, because the circumstantial evidence for his story supported it in spite of him.
Men of Hansen's own Nordic community in Port Arthur, who were among the most fanatic supporters of the theory that Vikings had explored near there, were provoked to fury when his testimony damaged their best evidence for it. Hansen's chief desire, once he had committed himself by his original statement, seems to have been to conciliate the Norwegians without making himself confess that his sworn affidavit was false. His attempts to ingratiate himself with both sides of the controversy seldom failed to outrage both. He continually tried to shake off his connection with the weapons in Toronto without revoking his assertion that he had lost some Norse relics from a house he had rented to Dodd.
The conflict between Dodd’s and Hansen's stories centred on an issue of places and dates. Hansen asserted that Dodd had taken Norse relics from the basement of 33 Machar Avenue in Port Arthur after moving there on Sept. 18, 1931. Dodd insisted that he had dug his iron fragments out of the ground near Beardmore around May 24, 1930. and then brought them to his home at 296 Wilson Street. Between 296 Wilson Street and 33 Machar Avenue, Dodd lived briefly at 37 Machar Avenue, also owned by Hansen; but 33 Machar was the significant address because Hansen had lived there himself before Dodd. If Dodd could prove that the objects had been seen in his possession before he moved to 33 Machar he would rule out Hansen’s story.
Several witnesses who had seen the weapons either at Dodd’s camp or in Port Arthur swore out affidavits in 1938 and 1939, by which time the Beardmore case had been treated so fully in the papers that no testimony could be considered free from influence. The most important statement was that of the prospector’s foster son, who swore he was present when Dodd dug them up at the claim, around May 24. 1930. Dodd’s own testimony was weakened by reports in various publications in which he gave six other dates, ranging between 1931 and 1934. Other witnesses contradicted each other on exact dates, but all testified they had first seen or heard of Dodd’s find while he was at Wilson Street, before he moved into the house Hansen had occupied at 33 Machar.
The vagaries of both Dodd’s and Hansen’s stories made a choice between them almost a matter of random preference rather than logic. The Norwegian’s story, while leading investigators into an impasse. also diverted them from a scrutiny of Dodd’s story by itself.
One particular statement from Dodd had fixed the museum curator’s decision to buy the iron fragments. When Curreliy asked if there had heçjTarwthinc 1' ing with the sv.ord. axel • bar. Dodd cupped his h a
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and replied that an iron bowl, which broke up while he dug, had been in that position. To Currelly, who identified the bar as the grip of a shield, the object Dodd described was obviously the shield boss—and a man unfamiliar with Norse equipment could hardly have described the boss in its right place, over the grip, if lie had not seen it there. The curator observed afterward, "That seemed to me to warrant the purchase and make the thing sure.”
This main support for the curator’s decision collapsed when in 1951 Professor J. Br0nsted from Denmark, a leading authority on Norse antiquities, pointed out that the iron bar could not be a shield handle, "as such ones were not used in Viking times." He identified it instead as part of a rattle once hung on sleighs to frighten off evil spirits. Since the bar was not a shield grip, the position of a shield boss—Dodd's "iron bowl”—in relation to it was irrelevant. The very aptness of Dodd’s reply in meeting Currelly’s wrong expectation was suspicious.
After L)odd. had spoken with Currelly lie went hack to the claim, looking for pieces of the supposed shield boss. He picked one up while Professor T. F. Me11 wraith was examining the site for the museum, and found another when J. W. Curran, editor of the Sault Ste. Marie Star, and a companion were there. This providential stationing of reliable witnesses, for the two crucial moments in the seven years Dodd had been digging his claim after his “find.” was more heartening to the scoffers than to Dodd's supporters.
Opportunities for checking Dodd’s story had been lost during the five or six years after he started displaying the weapons and before the museum heard of them.
As the account of the find spread, most students of Norse archaeology and anthropology rejected it for reasons that had nothing to do with Dodd or Hansen, or with the curator’s grounds for the purchase. They pointed out that the arms were of an east-Norwegian type never found in areas from which Vikings might have come to America. The sword and the axehead dated from periods about a century apart. The sword was broken in the middle as was done at burials by the pagans of east Norway, never by the western Norsemen, who were Christians. The sleigh rattle was unlikely freight for a sea voyage or an overland trip on foot. And the Beardmorc site was in rocky woodland seven miles from Lake Nipigon, near a practically unnavigable river: scoffers contended that no Viking in his right mind would have taken so difficult a route and that whoever brought the weapons probably traveled by the nearby CNR tracks.
Defenders of the Viking theory answered that it was not impossible the western seafarers had acquired weapons from cast Norway, although no previous evidence for it existed. Although the weapons were from different centuries, the Beardmorc warrior might have been carrying his own axe and his father’s sword. The sword, Dodd said, had broken at midpoint while he dug it up. And penetration by a Norseman into the Lake Nipigon area could not be entirely ruled out: he might have traveled with Indians. Nobody tried to explain why the wanderer had brought his rattle.
Currelly never agreed that the prevalent criticisms were important; he retired from the museum in 1946 with his confidence undisturbed. In his autobiography, published 1956, he firmly dismissed attacks on the find with, "So all the fuss in the newspapers came from the statements of a cellar owner! esty,” imply;
sen’s stories had cast the only significant doubts. The generous boost the find received when Prof. Bronsted, the Danish expert, inspected the weapons and Dodd's site, and declared the find could be genuine, still did not provide answers to the existing objections. Few scholars were satisfied; but names could not hurt the Beardmore relics, which were securely established in the museum.
The high reputation of the Royal Ontario Museum gave the Beardmore find a respectability it did not get from Dodd's testimony or the archaeological evidence. Por eighteen years the decayed but significant iron attracted earnest pilgrims, mostly Nordic. The Beardmore Viking settled into textbooks. Among scholars who used the institution, however, could be heard persistingly a four-letter word, the worst that can be uttered in a museum: “Fake."
A young professor ot anthropology. Dr. Edmund Carpenter, broke the peace. At least four times every weekday he had to pass the offensive weapons on his way to and from his office in the museum. Reviewing a book on the Piltdown forgery for the Toronto Telegram on April 9, 1955, gave him a chance to attack what he called “two of Ontario's most famous archaeological frauds." the Beardmore sword and a claim of some archaeologists that there was a prehistoric canal from l ake Superior to Lake Huron.
By November of the next year the odd fact that one of the “most famous frauds" was conspicuous in one of Canada’s outstanding museums had aroused some disturbing interest. On Nov. 21, 1956. Dr. A. I). Tushingham, head of the museum's art and archaeology division, officially reopened the case.
Doubts in the night
On Nov. 23 a man not giving his name phoned the museum and said he. had something to tell about the Beardmore affair. He was Walter Dodd, whom the Edward Dodds had adopted when he was live or six. now a somber taciturn bachelor of thirty-nine, making his living in Toronto by casual odd jobs. At the museum he stated that he had never been easy in his mind at having sworn a false affidavit and had now come to revoke statements made earlier under pressure from his foster father. Edward Dodd had dLd two years before.
In a new affidavit Walter Dodd stated: "I was twelve or thirteen years of age in 1930 or 1931 (the time of the reputed find) ... My stepfather (actually his foster lather) found in the basement of the house we then lived in. at 33 Machar Street, Port Arthur, some rusty pieces of metal . . . One week end I went with my stepfather from Port Arthur to Beardmore . . . My stepfather had the iron pieces with him. He laid them on the ground at a spot where he had been blasting some time before . . . We returned to Port Arthur and . . . later on . . . my stepfather made a trip to the claim by himself and brought back the weapons, anti upon his return told the story that he had found the weapons while blasting."
Walter Dodd said the affair had made little impression on him and he thought ol it during the years only when memory of the false affidavit bothered him. Lately. he now says, he has lain awake trying to recall exactly what happened, but no more will come. He was never interested m the subject of Norse exploration and neither, he says, was his foster father. Dodd kept newspaper clippings and pictures on the find but the fascination came from his part in it, not from the Vikings.
Rather than closing the case. Walter Dodd s new testimony added complications. His foster mother, who has taken
over the defense of her deceased husband's story, asserts that the foster son's first affidavit, which duplicated his foster father's, was true, and the new one is false. However she could not have ground for certainty that her husband didn't plant the weapons. He might have kept her innocent of the knowledge.
Walter Dodd insists that his foster father planted the weapons and his foster mother knows it. Mrs. Dodd denounces Walter's present motive. “This!" she exclaims. slapping a copy of the affidavit. "This here is just a little bit of-—1 don't
know what to say—spite." Walter only says, “We didn't get along." and adds Mat things started to go wrong when he realized that he was adopted. He left the Dodd house about five years ago.
Of his earlier affidavit. Walter Dodd explains, “1 was afraid of my father."
New evidence as important as the testimony of the two Dodds themselves was suddenly offered in a note to the museum the week after the case reopened. Carey Brooks, formerly of Beardmore, volunteered a sworn statement. Brooks had once prospected on a claim
adjacent to Dodd's and had been hired for some time by Dodd. On Nov. 30, 1956, he stated: “The ‘middle claim' in winch Mr. Dodd alleged he had found the relics was actually trenched and dynamited by myself, and it was I who dug the trench in which Mr. Dodd claimed to have discovered the relics ... In my opinion it would have been impossible for Mr. Dodd to discover any relics on the said claim without my knowledge. 1 did at no time see any evidence of the discovery."
In the same affidavit Brooks asserted
Dodd’s find could be genuine or fake — the weary experts don’t care now. They just want the truth
that prior to 1931 he visited Dodd at Wilson Street in Port Arthur, where Dodd told him that he had found Norse relics among some ashes in the basement and that he believed they had been left there by a Norwegian who rented a room from a previous tenant.
Brooks’ testimony and Walter Dodd's are separately damaging to Dodd’s pretension but they do not support each other. The dates they give—in which they do agree — indicate the arms were not found in a house owned by the Norwegian, Hansen. Yet Walter Dodd names 33 Machar, Hansen’s house. Brooks recalls vaguely that Dodd had recently moved to the house where he found the Norse relics, which suggests Machar rather than Wilson Street.
Hansen, now a very old man in Port Arthur, still helps neither to prove nor disprove his first story. The explanation that story gives for the presence of the Norse weapons in Port Arthur is still the best available, although nobody is completely satisfied with it. The strongest probability still is that the weapons were buried in east Norway, exhumed, kept by Andreas Bloch till he died in 1917 and brought from Norway to Canada by his son, Jens Bloch, six years later.
Museum authorities acknowledged that their acceptance of the relics was based ultimately on faith in the Port Arthur prospector’s word. Lacking, as evidence for Dodd's find, the facts their training equipped them to evaluate, they based their decision upon estimations of psychology—a field in which they displayed the innocent confidence of amateurs. If they had extended their research into the Port Arthur beverage rooms they might have been slightly perturbed to learn that their man’s nickname where he was best known was “Liar Dodd.”
At the lakehead the venerable Mariaggi Hotel presides over the activity of the railroad and waterfront; in its public rooms everything that happens north of Lake Superior is sooner or later thoroughly discussed. It was a place Dodd favored in displaying his relics for sale, before he found buyers in Toronto. The rusty Norse objects were not the first articles Dodd had put on display, and Hansen was not the first man to lay claim to goods in Dodd’s possession.
Dodd appears to have believed that when ownership was in doubt, the more places he was sèen with the disputed things, and by the more people, the stronger his title to them became. Several people remember that Dodd would bring in high-grade gold ore and say it was from his claim. On one of those occasions the nugget was quickly reclaimed by the man who had lent it to Dodd. Visitors to the Beardmore camp would see various trophies—nuggets, picks, shovels, fishing tackle. Whatever Dodd found, he took it, according to the popular Port Arthur account, to his Beardmore claim.
A nickname like Dodd’s can be given among the miners and train crews as much in admiration as censure. He was, by most accounts, a man who knew how to win friends. The continuing loyalty of his wife and other relatives is evident, and the Toronto professor who came to investigate his discovery still remembers him familiarly as “Eddie.” Other descriptions show him as gregarious, ostentatiously generous and, most of all. entertaining.
The fascination the “middle claim” had for Dodd was inexhaustible. He enjoyed years of excitement at the prospect of
selling it to the government as the site for a monument to the unknown Viking. Toward the end of his life, his wife recalls, when he was in and out of hospital with heart trouble, he was always wanting to visit the claim. The last excursion he made was a drive of more than a hundred miles followed by a laborious walk to the claim, just to look it over, to be on the special ground.
It is unlikely that when Dodd first “discovered” relics he guessed what a tangled web he would weave. He may have known the things were Norse or thought they were Indian or French, but it seems to have been all the same to him. Dodd at an early stage shifted the burden of supporting the discovery to Currelly, of the Royal Ontario Museum, remarking. “I’m not an archæology fellow, and I just have to take their word for what the sword and things are.” The relics themselves, the curator once pointed out. were worth only about $15, so out of the $500 purchase price, $485—or 97 percent—was paid for the story behind them.
The dynamism of Currelly, creator and first curator of the Royal Ontario Museum, is already legendary. He begged, borrowed and browbeat for the funds
As you sow, so shall you reap
This moral just pertains to sin,
Not to seeds which 1 put in.
EDWARD J. WOOD
that established the museum, and spent them so cannily that it now contains a representation of natural history and human arts no longer obtainable at any price. He usually got what he went after. A man of decisions, who did not look back, but moved to new decisions. The same positive qualities that built the museum went into the Beardmore purchase —now, by an unkind fate, Currelly’s most famous.
Embarrassed museum officials today have no great love for the ironware. They are as ready to see it discredited as validated. In December they asked the Ontario government to make an official enquiry into the Beardmore case.
The objects have been sent to the Ontario Research Foundation for tests that may tell something of the metal’s history. In the spring Dodd’s old mining claim will be visited to establish the exact spot of the alleged find, to seek iron or bone fragments and to make chemical tests of the soil that can indicate the probable rate of decomposition for iron or bones buried in it.
Removal of the objects from display in the museum drew such comments as, “The Museum has hauled in its washing,” and, “Minerva’s owl has flown.” It is unlikely the Norse equipment will be back, at least not in its old dignity.
A verdict against the find will be no surprise to Dodd’s onetime cronies, who esteemed him more for taking in the experts of Toronto than for any purely accidental hitting upon iron in the bush. If the verdict is for the find, they won’t believe it. There are other people, on the contrary, who will remain sure that a Viking brought his armor to Beardmore. regardless of official pronouncements. ★