The Waubansee Stone is, to my mind, not the most interesting of relics. It is a glacial erratic, a rock left behind by a retreating glacier, on which is carved a crude representation of a human face. Despite several descriptions by fringe history writers describing it as “expertly” carved, it is not a particularly excellent example of a human likeness, and for the most part it resembles late eighteenth or early nineteenth century folk art styles. In 1976 Richard F. Bales of the Chicago Historical Society suggested that a European immigrant serving in the U.S. Army carved the face because it gave him the “feeling” of medieval European art, though he admitted that it was too crude to form good judgment.
According to hearsay recorded in 1881 by Henry Hurlburt, the image on the stone was carved before 1823 by one of the soldiers of Ft. Dearborn, on the site of the future city of Chicago, in honor of Chief Waubansee, a Potawatomi friend of the garrison. In 1837, Daniel Webster made a speech atop the stone. The stone stood inside the stockade at Ft. Dearborn until the Civil War, at which time it was moved to the docks before being drilled and piped into a fountain for the 1864 Northwestern Sanitary Fair at Dearborn Park. In 1866, the rock’s owner sold it to the sitting U.S. Rep. Isaac N. Arnold, the congressman who in 1864 introduced the first anti-slavery amendment proposal. He moved the stone to his yard, where it stood until the Great Fire of 1871. After that, Arnold moved it to his new residence at 104 Pine Street (now Michigan Avenue) and converted it into a fire memorial in honor of the house he lost. (Some sources give the address as 100 Pine Street or 104 Lincoln Boulevard, but contemporary news accounts say 104 Pine Street.)
Thereafter, in 1914, the Chicago Historical Society, which Arnold once served as president, took possession of the stone upon its donation by Arnold’s daughters, and they have held onto it ever since. They immediately removed the bottom half of the rock and made it into a drinking fountain for children. They took the stone to their new headquarters in 1932. For most of the twentieth century, the stone was on display at the new headquarters, on the first floor behind the lobby. The Chicago Historical Society changed its name to the Chicago History Museum in 2006, and the stone was moved to storage, where Scott Wolter visited it in the spring of last year, as part of renovations to the museum building.
So much for the official history of the stone. The fringe history of the stone is slightly more interesting by dint of being disturbing. According to an 1893 book by Joseph Kirkland, some people in the nineteenth century speculated that the rock might have been an Aztec sacrificial altar, probably by comparison with the Mesoamerican chacmool figures used for human sacrifice and popularized in the Mayanist literature of the era.
Aztecs weren’t for everyone, though. Wilford Anderson, once of the Leif Erikson Society, claimed for more than twenty years that the stone was carved by Vikings and used—yes—as a mooring stone, with holes reminiscent of the alleged Norse “stone holes” of Minnesota, which archaeologists attribute to nineteenth century blasting activity. He made the claim in a 1975 letter to the Chicago Tribune’s “Action Line,” in which he asked the newspaper to expose the truth about the stone holes. The paper called the Chicago Historical Society, which denied that the holes on the Waubansee Stone resembled Viking mooring stones. Anderson spent the remaining 24 years of his life ranting about how “academia” was trying to hide the truth, eventually self-publishing a book to defend his views in 1996.
The stone was a tourist attraction in Chicago, but it didn’t become an object of national fringe interest until Frank Joseph, the former head of the Nazi party in America, read Anderson’s letter and remembered it when starting his own fringe history career in the 1980s. After his release from prison, where he served three years of a seven year sentence for child sexual assault, Joseph went to the Chicago Historical Society to view the stone, and a few years later he wrote an article about it. David Childress, of all people, was responsible for this. In the early 1990s Childress was publishing World Explorer magazine, and in its second issue he gave Joseph the space to speculate about the origins of the Waubansee Stone because he and Joseph were friends and colleagues in those years, a relationship they maintained down to the early twenty-first century (to judge by appearances from Childress in books edited by Joseph), at which point Childress must have discovered that Joseph was a former neo-Nazi and a convicted child sexual predator. Childress partially plagiarized and reprinted with credit sections of Joseph’s article in his Lost Cities of North & Central America (1992).
It was Joseph who first proposed that the Waubansee Stone was a Phoenician sacrificial altar. He tied this in to the alleged missing copper of Michigan, which he believed the Phoenicians were mining. Joseph dismissed Hurlburt’s claims as hearsay and argued that no soldier would waste time carving hard granite; instead, he claimed that the stone was used for mooring Phoenician ships since the Phoenicians were all about wasting time carving faces on functional objects. This, he says, is because the mooring stone did double duty as an altar, which he calls a Tophet, for infant sacrifice—oh, and Native Americans couldn’t grow beards, so the face had to be a Phoenician.
In 2 Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 7:31 the Canaanites sacrificed their children to the god Moloch by burning them upon the fire altars of the precinct of Topheth. However, the pagan writers did not ascribe a stone altar to these sacrifices. Didorus, for example, says of the Phoenician offshoot at Carthage, “There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire” (Library 20.14.6; trans. Oldfather). The degree to which the Carthaginians and Phoenicians practiced child sacrifice is still in dispute, but even if they did so regularly, Joseph’s claim that the Waubansee Stone was meant for such sacrifices is illogical: Did they bring some babies with them? Father children with Native Americans just to kill? The logistics are mind-boggling. Here’s how Joseph explains them:
A possible scenario suggested by the Waubansee Stone includes a Phoenician sailing vessel loaded with timber, copper, and other materials—skirting the western shores of Lake Michigan on a southerly heading. The ship turns into the mouth of the Chicago River, where hawsers are thrown from bow and stern to hands waiting ashore at an improvised portage. The lines, passing through holes in the two granite mooring stones on the south bank, secure her fore and aft. Later, at some auspicious moment, an infant, possibly purchased in trade with local Indians, is placed in the hollow at the top of the Waubansee Stone. There, its throat is cut. Sacrificial blood courses through tubular channels in the stone and out the open mouth of the sculpted face (possibly meant to portray Moloch himself), into the river. It is a most important ritual dedicated to the gods for safe passage home during the long, perilous voyage to the Mississippi River, down to the Gulf of Mexico, and out across the Atlantic Ocean toward Africa and Carthage.
However, Joseph freely admitted that he was literally making the whole thing up. He told the Chicago Reader (my source for much of the above), for example, “Don’t take me as an authority. I just asked myself, what does [the Waubansee Stone] most resemble? There’s no firm answer, only speculations.”
We open in Chicago, where the on-screen narration implies that the Waubansee Stone has been “hidden” until Scott Wolter uncovered it. It’s only been in storage for a few years, but we cut directly to the credits, after which Wolter tells us that he first learned about the Waubansee Stone from a letter from Scott Mastores or Richmond, Indiana. The two Scotts meet up so Mastores can tell Wolter what he learned about the Waubansee Stone from, frankly, Frank Joseph, though no one on the show will mention his name, and Scott Wolter told me today that he had no idea Frank Joseph first proposed the Phoenician connection until I told him about it today. Mastores talks about the Ft. Dearborn Massacre of 1812 and the early history of the Waubansee Stone, which, as mentioned above, is known mostly from hearsay and the fading memories of elderly soldiers who spoke about it in the 1880s.
Wolter travels to the Chicago History Museum, the new name for the Chicago Historical Society, to view the Waubansee Stone, and his narration tries to spin into a conspiracy “claims” about the “last known location” of the stone. Wolter claims to have “pressed the issue” until the Society’s museum agrees to show it to him in a “secret” location—its storage area.
After an on-screen recap, Wolter views the Waubansee Stone, which looks even cruder and less Phoenician in high definition than it did in historical photographs. Wolter confidently declares the stone granite (no fooling!) and then looks very closely at the stone. He knows that the stone was used as a drinking fountain in the twentieth century, but he seems unaware that the stone had previously been used as a display fountain in the 1860s. He notes the triangular holes on the sides of the stone, and he relates them to Minnesota’s stone holes, which to his credit he declines to identify as mooring stones, citing a lack of evidence. If such holes are blasting holes, as archeologists argue, then the logical conclusion is that the holes on this stone were for a planned demolition to help clear land for Ft. Dearborn, perhaps put off because someone decided to carve a face in the stone.
Wolter presents as a revelation the idea that someone stood the stone up to carve the face on it (no fooling!), and he therefore concludes that this is similar to Stonehenge and rituals. The logic escapes me. Wolter says that the stone would have been erected thousands of years ago, but this is illogical. Whoever wanted to carve it into a face, bust, or statue would have stood it up to get enough of a surface to work with. That’s how sculptors work, today just as in the 1800s CE or BCE. The stone’s position implies nothing about its age since anyone could move it at any time. Indeed, think of how many times the stone has been moved since the 1860s!
At the beginning of this segment, Wolter acknowledges that the stone had been on display for all but a couple of the last 150 years and therefore isn’t the subject of a conspiracy to hide it. Wolter does not feel that the stone resembles a watercolor of Chief Waubansee, and he does not feel that the face looks like a Native American. He and Mastores believe that the face looks like a death mask. That it cannot be because a death mask is a cast from an actual dead person’s face. It is not a carving. Wolter isn’t quite clear what a death mask is and conflates this with any depiction of a corpse, even a stylized skull.
The museum’s archivist, Peter Alder, tells Wolter that there have been a number of speculations about the origins of the stone. One suggests that it might be a Mississippian carving, or an Aztec one. Stylistically, it doesn’t really resemble either. It looks European or Euro-American to me.
Mastores brings up Frank Joseph’s Phoenician theory, and Wolter starts to speculate about the possibility that the Phoenicians used the stone for human sacrifice. It “makes a lot of sense,” Wolter says, citing earlier (fictitious) claims from his show about Phoenicians in America.
After a verbal recap, Wolter plans to visit the former site of Ft. Dearborn, now a monument on Michigan Avenue. At the 360 Chicago tourist attraction, Wolter meets with John R. Schmidt, described as a blogger, who tells Wolter about the life of Chief Waubansee and the 1812 Battle of Ft. Dearborn, formerly called a massacre. Schmidt holds a Ph.D. in American history and is a former teacher who has written for a number of publications. But his information is relatively pointless and had little to do with the question at hand.
Wolter narrows down the carver of the stone to one of four people: a Ft. Dearborn soldier, an Aztec, a Mississippian, or a Phoenician.
Next, Wolter meets with Brad Olsen, an author who wrote a chapter for one of his books called Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations in which he drew heavily (though without credit) on Frank Joseph’s 1991 article on the Waubansee Stone in order to argue that the Phoenicians were behind the stone. Wolter isn’t aware that Olsen is an idiot who accepted Joseph at face value, including Joseph’s incorrect claim that the Phoenicians used a Tophet for infant sacrifice. The Tophet was a Phoenician burial area, not a basin for catching blood. It was a type of cemetery.
Olsen explains Frank Joseph’s article to Wolter, and he misstates the Periplus of Hanno as stating that the Phoenicians “rounded” Africa, whereas they traveled only halfway down the west coast of the continent. Olsen then paraphrases Joseph again by citing Joseph’s claim that the Phoenicians mined copper in Michigan, and Wolter happily adds the Phoenicians to the Minoans that he previously (and wrongly) claimed mined copper. Olsen alleges that the Phoenicians sacrificed babies whenever they left on a journey, and this is false; even the most biased of ancient authors said they did so only in extremis. Olsen points to another stone with a similar carving, called the Sea Market Altar Stone, about which I know nothing. Olsen then tells Wolter that he just submitted an article on the Waubansee Stone to Ancient American and its owner, fringe writer Wayne May—who currently employs Frank Joseph as a special correspondent. May formerly employed Joseph as the longtime editor of Ancient American.
After a verbal recap, Wolter meets with Wayne May, who tells Wolter that he traded him an artifact that will help prove that the Phoenicians carved the Waubansee stone. The item is a miniature Egyptian sarcophagus, and May falsely claims that the Phoenicians copied slavishly Egyptian culture and brought this tiny piece with them, causing it to be buried in an American mound. There is no provenance for the piece, and we have only May’s assertion that the object was dug (illegally?) out of a Native American burial mound in recent years. Wolter says this “makes a lot of sense.” He and Wayne May conclude that the Phoenicians carved the Waubansee Stone to sacrifice babies en route to Michigan to collect copper.
So, let me get this straight: Frank Joseph admits that he made up the Phoenician story out of whole cloth, and we still have to sit through an hour pretending it was based in fact? And no one thought to check to see if the Phoenicians really did have carved stones with special faces for infant sacrifice because they all just took Joseph’s word for it?
Almost 25 years ago, Frank Joseph concocted a fantasy based on his own ignorance of Phoenician practice, and today fringe figures are still repeating it, turning Joseph’s speculation into fringe history folklore. That story is even more amazing than the Waubansee Stone.
The ghost of Frank Joseph—him who is not to be named--hangs heavily over this episode.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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