Book Review: Johannes Dillinger, Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America

By February 16, 2012

Dillinger, Johannes.  Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History.  Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

There’s no need to point out that treasure digging has been a major theme in the historiography of the early life of Joseph Smith for 40 years or more.  So it was with great excitement and high hope that I read the first book-length treatment of the subject.  This book exceeded my expectations.  In fact, although it technically dedicates only 4 pages to Mormonism, I found the book to be one of the most ground-shifting books I’ve ever read on Joseph Smith.  I hope readers will excuse my enthusiasm, but the first full treatment to the topic has yielded exciting results.

Why I found the book so useful in shedding new light on Joseph Smith is because of all the parallels that Dillinger’s descriptions of treasure-digging beliefs had with early Mormonism.  Dillinger uncovers the fundamental religiosity involved in treasure digging.  This religiosity was not orthodox in either a Protestant or Catholic sense, but it was a religiosity nonetheless.

Folk Christianity could be highly unorthodox and heterogeneous, as represented by the story of Marion Clerk, a young girl who was brought up on trial in Norwich, England, in 1499.    ?The ecclesiastical court had learned that the girl was a healer and soothsayer, and that she claimed she could locate buried treasures.  Marion admitted everything immediately, even with an air of self-importance.  She said that she got her abilities from God, the Virgin Mary and from the fairies.?  Furthermore,  “Marion told the judge that she had been to Heaven, where she had seen God in a golden mantle?.  A cunning man had cured her with a blessing.  This man had also told her that she would have a daughter who would become a saint and miracle worker? (53).   ?Neither the girl nor her parents could see anything wrong in what she was doing,? but when the judge chastised them for “superstition” (the word superstition had a more sinister connotation in the pre-modern world than it does now: false practices that had demonic overtones) they quickly recanted and did public penance (54).  Rather than simply agreeing with the judge, historians need to tease out the nature of such beliefs.

To delineate the religiosity of treasure digging, Dillinger first locates the roots of early modern treasure digging (Dillinger argues that treasure digging was primarily an early modern phenomenon) not in the folklore represented by the tales of Siefried and Beowulf (he notes that such tales were the impetus for Tolkien, both the dragon treasure and the rings of power [30, 41]) but in medieval relic lore: ?There was significant parallels between the stories about relics in medieval hagiography and early modern treasure lore.  The vision, usually the miraculous apparition of the saint, mirrored the appearance of a ghost.  Both?the saint and the ghost?were ?special? dead….  The message of the apparition?be it a saint or a ghost?was essentially about a hidden treasure.  In the case of the saints hagiography, the treasure was the body of the saint” (49-50).   Ultimately, argues Dillinger, ?The stories told about relics in the Middle Ages seem to have been the blueprint for later treasure narratives.  Folk culture took theological ideas and images our of context rearranged them and integrated them into new magical narratives ? an essential part of medieval and early modern popular culture? (52).

Second, treasure digging was about saving the dead.  It was commonly believed that ghosts hung around treasures because the treasure represented some unfinished business that kept the ghost from progressing to heaven.   ?A successful treasure hunt spelled the ghost?s deliverance. The treasure hunter would fulfill the dead person?s task for him.  He would take the treasure and put it to some use, and ideally he would put it to a good cause.  In addition, the ghost might ask for masses to be said for him that the treasure could pay for or for donations to be given to the Church” (74). Dillinger insists that even if treasure diggers weren’t always pious, there were those who sincerely believed they were aiding the dead.    ?Some treasure hunters saw themselves and were seen by others, first and foremost as good Christians who delivered ghosts.  We cannot understand early modern treasure hunting if we ignore its double purpose: it was a means to make money, but it was also an act of Christian devotion that helped poor souls to finally enter the hereafter.  The spiritual motivation was essentially genuine, even though tricksters abused it again and again to mask their true intentions.”  One German nobleman accused of treasure digging went so far as to assert that treasure digging “is a thing that every Christian is obliged to engage in out of charity towards his neighbour.  Yes, your clergyman and pastors themselves should be a lot more obliged to do this than me or any other laymen'” (78).

Third, Dillinger notes the need for piety in treasure hunting.   ?The more emphasis was placed on the motif of the redemption of a ghost,” explains Dillinger,  “the more important pious works safeguarding the treasure against demons and the lures of the devil became” (166-67).

Fourth, the economic ethics of treasure digging.  While trying to get money may not strike us as a religious activity, many did not see the conflict.  Saints were often invoke in treasure hunting prayers, of whom St. Christoper was the most popular, but this prayer to St. Corona is telling: ??Whoever asks you in the name of Jesus Christ your dear bridegroom, in his name you have power to give worldly goods to me, a poor and needy person, so I beg you with all my humble heart, oh virgin and martyr Corona relieve me from my needs and my poverty by giving me 50000 florins of good gold for the salvation of my soul through the redemption of the needy body’? (88-89).  This coupled with the injunction to do good with the treasures reminded me of  Jacob 2 and Alma 34.

Fifth, priesthood was often seen as essential to treasure digging because priests were seen to have power to negotiate with the spirits that were involved (evil spirits often guarded the treasures, they did not want the ghosts to be redeemed).  If a priest was unavailable (this was not something they were supposed to do) Dillinger notes that cunning men called on to aid in the digs acted like priests (154, 167).

Sixth, revelation or revelatory books were often involved.  Digger’s needed “magical” books to help them find treasures but some treasure hunters claimed to have such books revealed to them by God and some stories exist of actually digging up such books (93).

Seventh, full-on religions could form that involved treasure digging.  Dillinger tells the story of  Anna Maria Freyin, the maid of Georg Buck in Weilheim, Germany.  Buck had two ghosts in his house that Freyin was able to redeem, who then returned to deliver God’s word once they had been to heaven.  Buck and Freyin attracted followers who ?came to regard the spirits? utterances not only as divine revelations but indeed as a new gospel?.  Bucks followers stated publically that they received far better instruction in the scriptures form the spirits than from their minister.? Freyin was adored like a saint: she was called ?redeemer of souls ? right holy warrior, spiritual mother ? worker of miracles?? (170).   Freyin also claimed to be able to find treasure.

?The sect was about to reshape local society and clearly threatened the local Protestant Church.  A new Christian community with a special revelation, a holy book and at least a nascent priesthood was about to emerge.”  Sound familiar?  As a result the authorities cracked down, arresting several members of the sect and forcing Freyin to admit it was a hoax.   Freyin managed to escape out the prison window by using her bedsheets.  The movement  ?ended in a Foucautian manner: the last adherent of the ghosts was declared mad.  The enforcement of discipline and conformity ended with the medicalization of the problem” (173).

It’s all these reasons why I found Dillinger’s book so informative about the context of Mormonism. So although Dillinger did not spend a lot of time talking about Joseph Smith, he nevertheless had some very interesting things to say.

Dillinger notes that by the nineteenth century, the religious aspects of treasure digging were disappearing.   ?There was, however, one notable exception from the general trend?.  It used and adapted the old motifs in order to create a new religious narrative, and indeed a new Christian church: Mormonism? (176).  Dillinger goes through Smith’s official account and notes all the treasure digging motifs.  ?There is no denying the fact that this is a treasure hunting narrative.  The topic of the story is obviously a supernatural find of an old object of very high material value that was hidden in the ground and that nobody could claim ownership of….  The angel replaced the ghost.  However, saints and angels as treasure guardians were not unheard of? (177).  The fact that Dillinger argues that treasure hunting was the original impetus behind archeology–people hunted for treasure to uncover clues to past civilizations–adds a further wrinkle to the similarities (22).

Ultimately says Dillinger, ?Smith resacralized the treasure.  His treasure story was evidently religious in character.  He brought the treasure motif back to its roots in the medieval stories about saints and relics.  However, the sacred object in his narrative was no longer about memoria, the sacred memory of a saint.  In a strangely ?enlightened? fashion, the treasure was now about a doctrine.  In a way, the treasure?the golden Book of Mormon?was the doctrine?  (178).  I would only add that the Book of Mormon is about memoria, the Nephites, as well as doctrine.

To me, Dillinger makes clear that the old assertion of a dichotomy between treasure digger and prophet is a false one.  While treasure-digging religion may strike us as odd, historians need to avoid imposing their own views on the past and instead seek to understand the past peoples on their own terms.  Joseph Smith’s treasure digging and the motifs of such found in his finding the golden plates does not seem to have been a major concern most of the early Mormons.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Thanks for the great review, Steve. In my reading on cunning folks, there is often a grouping of behaviors: healing, finding what is lost, and predicting (sometimes healing, finding what is lost, and miracle working). That strikes me ultimately as directly related to early Mormonism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 16, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

  2. Steve, thanks very much for this review of what looks like a very important book. If Dillinger is right, then his book ties the origin of Mormonism to the medieval understanding of grace and salvation via the detour of popular religion, bypassing the Reformation. It’s interesting how both indulgences and treasure hunting monetize the grace mediated by saints that otherwise becomes obtainable through relics and pilgrimage.

    Comment by D. Martin — February 16, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  3. Thanks, Steve. Fascinating. Does Dillinger use Mark’s thesis at all?

    Comment by David G. — February 16, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  4. Thanks J. interesting.

    D., Dillinger doesn’t say very much about Mormonism but I do see Catholic themes persisting in the popular religion that Mormonism drew upon.

    David, no he does not, he doesn’t cite a single secondary source on Mormonism, he basically just analyzes the 1838 account with a few other sources mentioned. He says very little about the US in general, he gives he analysis of Mormonism and then talks about 19th century Texas. The book focusses mainly on Germany and England.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 16, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

  5. Thanks for this Steve. Great review. I enjoyed the book too.

    Comment by Blake — February 16, 2012 @ 10:29 pm


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