Today I’m going to try to finish my evaluation of Zena Halpern’s Templar Mission to Oak Island and Beyond, and you will forgive me if I summarize more than usual some of the sidetracks that aren’t directly relevant to the question of the Knights Templar in America. Before we begin, however, I need to address a couple of points that David Brody and Steve St. Clair, both friends of Halpern and active participants in her hunt for Templar treasure in the Catskills, made in comments on my blog.
First, when I said that Hunter Mountain is in Halpern’s backyard, Steve St. Clair accused me of lying and of not knowing Halpern lives in New York City, a two-hour drive (three if you take the long route) away. Halpern states that she lives in New York City on her website. Perhaps it comes from living in upstate New York where distances are measured in hours of travel rather than city blocks, but I have always thought of any place one can visit in a day trip as being close by. Growing up in Central New York, that included for me everything from Buffalo to Albany, and from Elmira to the Thousand Islands. In Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers, Scott Wolter gives the impression that Halpern and her friend Donald Ruh were quite familiar with the Catskills area and had visited there in the past. Indeed, in her past articles and conference appearances, Halpern has indicated that Ruh had taken her hiking in the Catskills “regularly” over the past two decades, where he showed her various (almost certainly fake) ancient inscriptions. Don Ruh told Walter that he lives in upstate New York in a mobile home, and he told Wolter that he travels regularly between his mobile home and Zena Halpern’s residence. I think you can connect the dots.
Second, I was going to wait until the end to say it, but since our dear friends have made an issue of it: In his book, Wolter cites Halpern as giving a somewhat different story for the origin of the brass box, which is featured in that book. In that account, it is Don Ruh who found the garden ornament containing the box while scuba diving in the Hudson in 1968, not William D. Jackson, who in the new account alleged that he salvaged it from the shore himself. (Jackson said he had friends with him, presumably the aforementioned Ruh.) Other details don’t quite align with the more elaborate story presented in this book. In the old account, Ruh found only the top ball-shaped finial, but in the new Jackson retrieved an entire square-shaped block with a pyramidal summit surmounted by a round, ball-shaped finial. In 2013, the “Jackson” material was allegedly given to Ruh by hand by Jackson himself, but in 2017 we now get an elaborate story of how “Dan Spartan” sent it directly to Halpern by secret post. Either Wolter is a bad writer who failed to make sure he had the right facts (cough, ahem), or Halpern changed the story.
Now, on to the remaining chapters.
Yet another chapter is devoted to a story reliant entirely on “Dan Spartan’s” description of William D. Jackson’s alleged 1971 investigation into the brass box. Here the confirming evidence is yet another document that “Spartan” describes, but which Halpern never actually sees. This time it’s an alleged eighteenth century pamphlet called La Applicazione de le Francese, Gallese et Scozzese a la Lingua de Indiano Americano, by Gauden Roche and Galvao Benvenuto, purchased from a French rare books dealer named Pierre de Valzac, all of whom are still more people whose names do not appear in standard databases or repositories. I am also uneasy about the pamphlet title, which uses an Italian term for Native Americans not in evidence in extant eighteenth century literature available in online indexes or old Italian dictionaries. This pamphlet contained references to—wait for it—the word Onteora, which just happens to be a name associated with the Hudson Valley, held by a school district and a park downstream from Hunter Mountain. This is rather surprising since I can find no record of the word “Onteora” prior to its use as a steamboat name in the 1870s (probably from highly local Ulster County poet Henry Abbey’s poem of that name). It is the current spelling of what was claimed to be the local Native American name for the Catskills, meaning “hills of the sky.” In truth, however, the name “Onteora” is fake. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft invented it in 1844 (as “Ontiora”) to de-Dutch the Catskills. It didn’t take but was applied locally to give a faux-Native veneer to a summer resort community.
It really beggars belief that Halpern accepts that a medieval Englishman, Ralph de Sudeley, had his memoir of an American voyage entitled The Onteora Document, given that the name was invented in 1844 and only took on its modern spelling after 1870.
This pretty much puts the nail in the coffin of this hoax.
The rest, essentially, is noise.
Chapters 8 and 9
This chapter detail’s the increasingly fictitious-seeming Jackson’s clandestine efforts, alongside the Spartan Agency, to obtain the Onteora Document and secret it out of Italy before Benvenuto operatives and the Catholic Church could sequester it in the Vatican. It reads as a third-rate spy thriller, and Halpern made no effort to confirm any of the parts to the story. The document itself was written, anachronistically, in post-Renaissance-era Theban and transliterated passages in Old English, Latin, and Italian. Old English was on the wane at the supposed era of the document, but I’d be very curious as to the Italian used, given the huge variance in dialects that have plagued Italy since the breakup of Vulgar Latin. Conveniently, Jackson was able to translate the entire document into modern English, and the originals, of course, disappeared into the Vatican vaults when he sold it (!) to the Church.
Halpern spins an elaborate conspiracy theory involving Templars, and she concedes that the so-called “Benvenuto Dialogues” she identifies as letters from an Italian to Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney in the 1300s were actually published in 1610 and were addressed to another Henry altogether (probably Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales). But she says she has “reasons” to think they are really 300 years older.
I will pass over in silence the laundry list of Scott Wolter-inspired Templar, Sinclair, and Jesus Bloodline claims that are of secondary importance to the narrative, and which I have debunked extensively and repeatedly. I will also mention only in passing that a raft of supporting documents allegedly from diverse European hands over the past three centuries all share the same quirks and idiosyncrasies (and a penchant for using modern business-letter formatting) and (when a handwritten version exists) all seem to be by the same hand, with its rather notable downward slant to the uneven lines.
One document contains a single “X” with a small mark on the upper right stave. The resolution is not sufficient to get a good look at it, but the blotch visible in the low-resolution version suggests a slip of the pen. Halpern calls it a “hooked-X” and cites Scott Wolter as proof that it is evidence of a Jesus Bloodline conspiracy. Frankly, I am more upset about what seems to be blank pages torn from old books to concoct what look very much like prima facie fakes.
The long and short of it is that the collection of documents all say that an ancient treasure of wisdom and scrolls was secreted away in “the Land of Onteora,” which must be news to Schoolcraft, when he concocted a name that somehow had been in use only among one group of cultists for 300 years.
Part II lacks a chapter title in its first section. It is a rehearsal of various Templar conspiracy theories familiar from fringe literature going back to Eugène Beauvois, and Halpern alleges that Jackson’s “Onteora” document confirms them all. She provides a close up of a corner of the pages of the document, and it seems to be comprised of old paper sheets—odd for the twelfth century, when vellum or parchment were the most common choices. The text is printed in Theban in block characters. Where a form of cursive is employed for Latin, the writing is childish, full of odd decorative curls, apparently by a forger with little or no knowledge of medieval orthography. Humorously, according to the translation “Jackson” made, the Templar knights called out to each other by their “last” names (“De Paynes, you take the rear!”), for the forger has misunderstood how names worked in the Middle Ages, and how the Knights are documented to have spoken to one another.
Halpern does not present the complete Templar document but rather a series of excerpts, all in the “translation” of Jackson, with no indication of the original text. The “translation” is full of anachronisms and improbabilities, such as calling Hildegard of Bingen’s Physica by a frequently used variant Latin title, one granted it only after its author’s death and beatification. (Her incomplete canonization is pointlessly complex; she was popularly thought a saint before the 16th century.) The modern De Gruyter critical edition gives that title, Liber Subtilitatum Diversarum Naturarum Creaturarum, as one of four in the manuscript traditions, and clearly not the original since it is embedded in the opening line “Here begins the book of St. Hildegard…” I could go into more detail, but the critical edition’s notes are in German, and I really don’t have the energy to translate the marginally interesting details. Suffice it to say that according to scholars the title belongs to a later redaction. This is a problem because the “Templar” text allegedly was written while Hildegard was composing this particular work under that specific title!
The story of the text reads like Templar fan fiction: A group of knights enter a secret tomb in Jerusalem and discover treasure, scrolls, a copy of the Torah, a compass (described the way a modern person pretending not to understand one might describe it), an astrological/astronomical brass object with symbols, and some astrolabe/sextant type devices. Since it is quite clear that the document is a fake, there isn’t much point in analyzing the concocted devices for plausibility. They also uncovered a Little Orphan Annie-style secret decoder pin, like the one in A Christmas Story, only with Arabic and Hebrew writing instead of Little Orphan Annie branding. The decoder pin helped Italian Templar scholars determine that the Jewish/Arabic records recorded a trip to Onteora, which, as we know, didn’t exist.
The third part details the next part of the Templar document, an account of Ralph’s voyage to America, again identified as Onteora. Bizarrely, the only excerpt in the original language is given in la Français moderne, as is the transliterated part of the coded Theban message. This is decidedly wrong for 1180 or anytime thereafter, as I long ago discovered in struggling mightily with translating the very different Middle French of the 1400s, let alone the Old French of 1180! Occasionally, the text slips in an archaic French word (Halpern highlights soutrain, an Old French term used in place of souterrain), but they are dropped into modern French sentences with modern grammar.
In places, the forger attempted to give Theban characters a Hebraic cast, and the flourishes added the staves of letters Halpern interprets as Scott Wolter-style “hooked X” symbols.
Halpern, however, denies that any of this is a problem and notes that those who question the document are simply too dumb to understand its infinite complexity:
I expect that some will question the authenticity of “A Year We Remember” and the Templar Document in its entirety. To them I will just say that the information contained is of such complexity that it would require experts in various fields of ancient and medieval history, linguistics, cryptography, astronomy, cartography, navigation and geography to compile.
I respectfully dissent. I could concoct a similar story with the help of some reference books. Halpern has read into some rather generic lines complexities that, in a prima facie reading, are not there. For example, when the “Templars” refer to a “goddess” that they worship—probably the forger’s reference to Mary Magdalene and the secret Black Madonna cult fantasies about her, given the Da Vinci Code fantasy involved—she takes it as an “enormously complex” and oblique reference to ancient Israelite Asherah cults surviving into the Middle Ages. She brought that to a text that offers nothing along those lines.
The story is brief, light on detail, and pretty similar to those told in fringe books like those of Frederick Pohl. The Templar team sails to Oak Island and Nova Scotia, they encounter local natives (whose language, despite being unintelligible to them, they nevertheless correctly decipher and record phonetically while claiming not to understand it), and they thank the Goddess for their protection. They get involved in a war between the Mi’kmaq and another tribe, and somehow they manage to become fluent in their language in the midst of the battle, from whom they learn of the Norse occupying “the north.” Amazingly, as they make their way to Hunter Mountain, they correctly identify each tribe by its modern name—even before such tribes took on their post-Contact modern identities. At Hunter Mountain, the Natives tell them of the Cohens (priests) of the Elohim (God) who dance on its summit. These, of course, at the Temple Jews who secreted God’s treasure at a future ski resort, where neither loggers nor skiers managed to find it in centuries of traversing the mountain. Nearby, a tribe of giant white men with copper armor stand guard, and they are Welsh who speak that tongue (as apparently do the ridiculously polyglot Templars) and have a pagan goddess temple. The story references some crude animal carvings on Hunter Mountain, and Halpern relates all of this to “paleo-Hebrew” inscriptions Ruh has spent more than 15 years bringing her to the Catskills to show her, carvings she said Scott Wolter confirmed for her were very old. This disagrees with Wolter’s claim in 2013 that he could not date the stones because they were weathered before they were carved. [UPDATE: Wolter announced on his blog that Halpern described his work incorrectly and that he stands by the 2013 version.] I described them at the time as a “postmodern homage to ancient art.” They’re crude in a way only fakes tend to be.
I cannot convey to you how un-medieval the “translated” text reads. It resembles no medieval text I have ever read, and I have read a lot of them. But within this narrative is a further embedded narrative. “Ralph” says that the Welsh gave him an ancient text stating that the Jews brought the Ark of the Covenant to Petra and hid it there, apparently without notice from the inhabitants of the city. Oh, and of course they had a document confirming the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene—and not just any document. They had their actual marriage certificate, sealed by Herod Antipas himself. I’m pretty sure this is incredible for an absurd number of reasons.
Ralph also drew a map of the Hudson River valley and of eastern Canada, all of which he apparently surveyed accurately simply by wandering through them. Amazing, isn’t it? He returned to Europe with Jesus’ marriage certificate, which the Templars valued above all other items. Unfortunately, the Little Orphan Annie decoder pins got lost, so the Theban text of various other documents couldn’t be read.
And lo and behold: Halpern said that she assembled a team made up of David Brody, Steve St. Clair, Scott Wolter, and Scott’s son Grant to look for the decoder pins, ancient scrolls, and other Judaica. They did not find them, but as we know from Wolter’s book, Halpern’s property is littered with crude “ancient” carvings, though weirdly such a vast population of Jews left nothing anywhere else in the area. Gee, I wonder why.
It doesn’t matter, since the texts’ own internal evidence marks them as fake. The remainder of the chapter presents claims about Templars and secret codes in church art, etc., all familiar from Wolter’s books. The conspiracies are irrelevant unless the “Onteora” texts are real, and they cannot be given what we know of actual facts.
Part IV presents the supposed Templar maps of Oak Island seen on The Curse of Oak Island. Halpern has little to say about them and devotes most of the time to explaining how influential the TV show was on her thinking about history (sigh) and how Jackson believed that the Maya were involved in hiding gold treasure at Hunter Mountain. She now thinks Oak Island is tied to Hunter Mountain as twin repositories of all of the world’s treasures and secrets. She weaves a ridiculous story about the Spartan Agency engaged in manipulations against the Vatican, which, she says, bought all of Jackson’s original documents, which is why she has only transcripts. It became clear that Halpern assumes Oak Island to be a serious show, and her analysis is so mixed up with what she saw on the show that they are one and the same. She adds that she now thinks that Onteora is actually ante-ora, a misspelled Latin-Spanish hybrid meaning “in front of gold” because, as she says, gold is the most important thing to the Templars and therefore the most logical “alternative” translation. Consequently, Onteora must refer to Oak Island, a blip of generally unimportant land that is nevertheless of world-historical importance as the gateway to gold.
She does not bother to deal with the problems of the maps, that they are “Jackson’s” redrawing of an eighteenth century copy of a fourteenth century or later version of an allegedly Templar map that nevertheless depicts, as she believes, the area when sea levels were lower. Any one of those removes from an original would be problematic; the fact that she refuses to explain why she believes them to be “authentic” accept to say that the story on them matches what she saw on The Curse of Oak Island strains even my tolerance for bullshit. Anyone could fake the maps; they are not terribly good, and even as “copies” they are somewhere between amateur and disastrous.
Halpern says we need to wait for Volume 2 at some uncertain date for more “evidence” and more details about the so-called “Templar” documents.
Thus ends the book. Make of it what you will, but it offers nothing remotely resembling evidence of the authenticity for any of the documents or artifacts it is based upon.
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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