The Traverse City Code

Written 2007, modified 2013.
If you have not yet read the previous two episodes for Traverse City Asylum, you may want to do so before reading this one.

In October of 2006, Sloop, Syd, David Kohrman, and myself were wandering through the Cottage 19 wing of the Traverse City Asylum, when I saw something on a wall that I had never noticed before on all my previous trips into the building, just beneath the flaking paint. It was very faint writing. The way the sunlight caught it that day made it more easily visible than usual. It was scratched into the bare original plaster and had been painted-over many times, which implies that it has been there for quite some time.

This was way more bizarre than the “Genie Room” at Manteno State Hospital, or the “Chalk Bandit” stuff at Norwich State Hospital, or the Satanic altar room at Ypsilanti State Hospital. It almost looked English-ish…but also had a circumflex or two in it, some Fuþark-style runes, and there are obviously a few just straight up pictograms or hieroglyphs of some sort present as well. It’s a mishmash of junk, and to make matters worse, it’s even hard to tell whether we are looking at it in mirror-image, as some of the characters and streams of characters definitely appear to be flipped in reverse. But then again, most are clearly in obverse.

It looks like the hand of some lunatic, perhaps a language or code invented by a patient while enjoying the hospitality of Michigan’s Department of Mental Health. But this wall is not in a patient’s room—it’s in a small hallway. And it’s under the paint—in fact, the more paint chips I cleared away, the more of this weird language I uncovered. The whole wall appeared to be covered in it. Which leads me to believe it was the work of a painter or plasterer who may have been bored one day and started scrawling, but finally covered up his doodles in a coat of standard loony-bin white.

Then again, patients were often enlisted to do painting and such maintenance work as part of “work therapy,” so who knows? In all likelihood it was done in the late 1800s or early 1900s, before there were very many coats of paint on the wall yet, so that whatever instrument they were using to write with was able to score all the way down through the paint into the plaster.

I got three photos of it, which remain unedited:

The only identifiable phrase to be found in the whole mess is the name “HARRY,” visible at the center of the first and third shots shown above, though it is part of an unbroken stream of gibberish, and the “Y” is deformed, more resembling a Danish “k” rune. The character appears elsewhere in the same form. Also of note is that the instances of the letter “T” take on a form very close to that of the “t” rune. The letters B, R, and A appear in their standard modern English form, though all Ns are drawn backwards and are rounded.

There is a lower-case “e” in the third line down in the first and third images above. One very interesting thing of note is that the second line appears to be continued in a “half line,” almost as if the writer had run out of room with which to finish his thought before beginning the third line, and thus wedged the smaller line in between.

Does this imply that there was an actual train of thought at work here that needed to be finished, rather than merely some stream of mindless doodling? Perhaps the most confusing feature is that of the strings of reduplicating consonants, seemingly negating the possibility for any phonetic value. Which is what tempts me to believe that this could be a code, instead of a phrase of spoken language.

Anyway, I had never been able to decipher the crap, and forgot about it for a long time. It all came back to me however when I read a book called The Mystic Symbol—Mark of the Michigan Mound Builders. The book, a reprint of an old tome that’s out of circulation, deals with and analyzes the strange artifacts dug up in Michigan that caused a sensation over a century ago, purporting them to be relics of an ancient civilization, but was debunked as puerile rubbish decades ago. I acquired the book, considering it a quaint novelty.

In the 1890s, freshly logged parts of northern Michigan were still being settled and cultivated for the first time, and one farmer in Edmore, Montcalm County “uncovered” a few clay fetishes that he claimed were found when he was digging post holes on his land. His name was James O. Scotford, and for a year he started coming up with these things, finding them all over his property, to a total of something like 10,000 items.

They were usually figurines or tablets with hieroglyphs and a strange cuneiform-style marking on them, which he called the "Mystic Symbol." The artifacts were supposed to have been made by a civilization that predated the native Anishinaabeg of Michigan by millennia, and who were responsible for building the many fading burial mounds that were found all over Michigan then, some of which can still be seen today.

However, the difference between these artifacts and the aboriginal mounds found in Michigan is that the mounds are genuine, and the artifacts are all a huge hoax—manufactured by Scotford and his accomplice, Daniel E. Soper. And it was Soper’s idea to start selling the so-called “relics” to the public for a profit.

In November 1907, the Detroit News reported that Scotford and Soper were selling relics they had unearthed, such as copper crowns they had lifted from the heads of ancient kings, and copies of Noah’s diary, doing a brisk business selling the trinkets to the many curiosity seekers who came to witness his incredible finds. Once the story of the Scotford Relics’ discovery had reached a fever pitch in the national media by 1911, university archaeologists finally got a look at the artifacts, and quickly determined them to be a hoax of the lowest order.

Scotford was making these clay figurines, inscribing the weird markings on them, and burying them all over his property for “discovery” later. Turns out, Scotford was a washed-up former magician, while Soper was a former Michigan Secretary of State who had been forced to resign for graft. Worse yet, they also pillaged nearby burial mounds of real ancient Indian artifacts, and scrawled the same “Mystic Symbol” on them as on the ones he manufactured:

Their aim was to convince people that the Phoenicians had in fact been in America thousands of years before Columbus was born. Part of the reason the scam perpetuated for so long was that Scotford and Soper were able to dupe Father James Savage, Dean of Most Holy Trinity Church in Corktown, Detroit, into believing their ruse. Fr. Savage was known as an amateur archaeologist himself, having a major collection of ancient Anishinaabeg artifacts and rare coins in his possession. More importantly he was a very highly respected social figure in Detroit, and his interest lent credence to Scotford’s hoax.

Fr. Savage believed in the veracity of Scotford’s "finds," and bought 40 of his trinkets, believing that they were quite possibly connected to the "Lost Tribes" of Israel, even up until his death in 1927. Savage also drew parallels between the Scotford Relics and the prehistoric copper miners of Isle Royale. He was so convinced that the Relics were connected to the ancient past that he even had the cuneiform-style "Mystic Symbol" printed at the top of his personal letterhead. You catholic folks may recognize the "Mystic Symbol" as very close to the Christogram "IHS"…. According to the Michigan Historical Museum,
The most common interpretation today among believers in the authenticity of the relics is that the “Mystic Symbol” stands for IHS. Unfortunately IHS is a miscopying of ΙΗΣ for which the proper Latin form would be IES, a contraction derived from the Greek word ΙΗΣ ΟΥΣ (Jesus), used as a symbol or monogram.

IHS was later misunderstood as a Latin abbreviation and expanded as Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, Savior of Men) or In Hoc Signo [Vinces] (In this sign [you will] conquer).

At any rate, what I’m getting at is that these scratchings you see on the wall at Traverse City Asylum bear an uncanny resemblance to the same hand that was responsible for the hoaxed artifacts of the 1890s…and thus I am quite titillated by the notion that it is entirely possible for this person committing the forgeries to have been a nutcase worthy of incarceration under the mental health practices of the day—incarcerated that is, in Traverse City Asylum.

Of course the fate of the man responsible for the fakery is not recorded anywhere that I know of, whether he was committed or what. But it is tantalizing to think that the two may possibly be connected, and that I unwittingly scried into this bizarre chapter of Michigan’s history painstakingly etched into the walls of a decaying madhouse, almost a century and a half after the fact.

One circa-1908 article I found on JSTOR seems to actually back my theory up… It is by U of M Professor F.W. Kelsey, entitled “Some Archaeological Forgeries from Michigan” (American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 48-59) and opens with the words,
The interest of the spurious relics to which I have the pleasure of inviting your attention is, in last analysis, more psychological than archaeological….

…the efforts made to exploit these objects have been so persistent, and the success so surprising, that it seems worthwhile to state briefly the facts in regard to them as evidencing not less the credulity of collectors than the activity and perseverance of a forger who under some circumstances might do much harm.
Was this scholar implying that the maker of the artifacts was potentially insane? More likely he was referring to potential “harm” to the progress of the field of archaeology, but nonetheless the intimations are there. To look at the photo plates in the book The Mystic Symbol that depict the images of the actual “artifacts” recovered from the Montcalm sites, one can see a positively striking resemblance in handstyle between those maniacal scrawlings, and those you see here on the wall at Traverse City Asylum peeking from behind the old and disintegrating paint chips.

Here is an example of some of the symbols scribed on the artifacts. Note the "Mystic Symbol" found in the center of the black tablet:

Not my photo.
An earlier, circa-1892 article by the same Professor Kelsey contains this paragraph:
Here is evidence then, of a deliberate and laborious attempt at imposition…Is this the work of an unbalanced religious fanatic, for whom some prophet will arise in due time and interpret the supposed mystic symbol into a new creed?
It’s a little harder to ignore Professor Kelsey’s true feelings in that one.

Did we stumble upon an incredible little slice of Michigan’s obscure and weird past behind the paint chips in Cottage 19 that day? You be the judge. One potential sticking point I suppose would be that Cottage 19 (and that entire wing of the Kirkbride) was the female ward. To my knowledge no female was directly involved in the forgeries, and graffiti usually tends to be a male rather than a female act.

The Relics have found their way around the country over the decades, changing hands between universities and museums for study, and between the religious who still insisted they could be real.

The ones that Fr. Savage owned ended up at Notre Dame before being bought by a scholar named Milton Hunter from the Church of Latter Day Saints, whose task it was to search for historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon. Hunter also purchased Soper’s collection from his son Ellis, and sought assistance from scholars all over the world in translating the language, to no avail.

Upon Hunter’s death in 1975, his Relics were deeded to the Church of Latter Day Saints’ collection of 797 other Scotford Relics that had been hoarded in the Salt Lake City Museum. In 2003, following a final conclusive study by Oakland University (Michigan), the Church of Latter Day Saints decided that the Relics were all indeed a hoax and therefore irrelevant to the Church’s museum collection, and donated them to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. I believe the University of Michigan’s Clements Library, which has a collection of famous forgeries, also still retains a few of the Scotford Relics.

Interestingly enough, nothing is known of James Scotford’s fate; he disappeared from public record after 1912. According to the Michigan Historical Museum, Scotford moved to Detroit around 1906, “where he joined with Daniel Soper to find and promote the Michigan Relics.” With the help of his sons Charles and Percy he continued to fabricate trinkets of increasingly higher quality. Unbeknownst to anyone, in 1911 Scotford’s stepdaughter Ella Riley signed a sworn affidavit that he was manufacturing the Relics at their home, but this was not made public until her mother’s death.

MHM continues,
Although the relics brought him notoriety, James Scotford was unable to take advantage of it as Soper did. During his Detroit years, Scotford's address changed frequently, which suggests financial difficulties. Nothing is known of him after 1912.
Is it possible that this lack of record could be due to Scotford’s being committed to asylum, possibly as a John Doe? I find it a little coincidental that the end of public reference to Scotford matches up perfectly with the scholarly archaeological world’s final pronouncement of the Relics to be a hoax in 1912. Perhaps that is what drove him mad—is it possible Scotford may have become so wrapped up in his “Mystic Symbol” that he went loony and was put away in Traverse City, where he continued to draw his symbols on the walls? For him, it doesn’t seem like far to fall.

Come to think of it, as mentioned earlier it was Soper’s idea to sell the Relics for profit, not Scotford’s…I can’t envision too many completely sane people orchestrating such a large-scale hoax without any monetary gain. This guy had to be cuckoo.

In autumn of 2010, I made another return trip to Traverse City Asylum, and took some more photos of the writing in Cottage 19, then upped the contrast in Photoshop to bring out more detail:






Among the streams of words can be seen "HOME DEATH SWEET", "BIBBLE", "FREMONT OHIO", "SAN DIEGO", "BALLVILLE TOWNSHIP" (followed by a depiction of a house), "WELCOME", "MARRIED MARCH 19, 1896", "WHAT MADE THE SUN MOON STARS?", and some less-discernable scratchings.

Very strange indeed.

The Mystic Symbol—Mark of the Michigan Mound Builders, by Henriette Mertz