Nephi, Son of Helaman: Dime Novel Detective Extraordinaire

Posted: April 10, 2022 in Fred Anson, Mormon Studies, The Book of Mormon

A cover from dime novels and the NY Detective Library (Courtesy of the University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Special Collection)

compiled by Fred W. Anson
In my last article, I considered the interesting genre parallels between the Book of Mormon and 19th Century Dime Novels (which in Joseph Smith’s day were known as “Story Novels” and typically were serialized in newspapers)1. In that article, I gave examples of frontier and historical fiction. However, Dime Novels were also the birthplace of crime fiction, detective stories, and today’s modern mystery story. While this particular Dime Novel genre didn’t really come into its own as a standalone genre later in the 19th Century it was still present earlier in the century as well. As Wikipedia explains:

“The genre of mystery novels is a young form of literature that has developed since the early-19th century. The rise of literacy began in the years of the English Renaissance and, as people began to read over time, they became more individualistic in their thinking. As people became more individualistic in their thinking, they developed a respect for human reason and the ability to solve problems.

Perhaps a reason that mystery fiction was unheard of before the 19th century was due in part to the lack of true police forces. Before the Industrial Revolution, many of the towns would have constables and a night watchman at best. Naturally, the constable would be aware of every individual in the town, and crimes were either solved quickly or left unsolved entirely. As people began to crowd into cities, police forces became institutionalized, and the need for detectives was realized – thus the mystery novel arose.”
(see Wikipedia, “Mystery Fiction”

In Joseph Smith’s day, the genre was just in its infancy and the setting was more typically rural than urban. So the setting for a Story Novel mystery in his day would be a crime on the American Frontier rather than say, Chicago, or New York.

So what does any of this have to do with the Book of Mormon? Well, nothing, except for the fact that we have an archetypical 19th Century Dime Novel detective story anachronistically in a work that claims to be ancient – the entire ninth chapter of the book of Helaman in fact. Sadly, due to its length, I couldn’t include it in my prior article, but I also didn’t want it to get away either. So here we are.

In the Book of Mormon, our intrepid Dime Novel detective is Nephi, the son of the Prophet Helaman (the second), who was the son of the Prophet Helaman who was the son of King Benjamin – got all that? (if nothing else, Joseph Smith was great at recycling Book of Mormon names wasn’t he?). This Wikipedia synopsis will set the stage for our story:

Upon returning to the “land of his nativity”, Nephi found the people in a state of “awful wickedness.” The Gadianton robbers had usurped positions of power and the government had, therefore, become full of corruption. [see Helaman 7:4] 

Being filled with sorrow because of the wickedness of the people, Nephi ‘bowed himself’ and prayed upon a tower in his garden, which was by the highway leading to the ‘chief market’ in the city of Zarahemla. In the ‘agony of his soul,’ Nephi lamented the state of the people and wished that he could have lived during the time of Lehi, the forefather of his people. [see Helaman 7:6-10]

Those passing by heard his prayer of anguish, and they ran and called others together to determine the cause of this great mourning. Upon seeing the gathering people, Nephi turned his attention from praying to preaching. He counseled the onlookers to repent and to overcome the attraction of pride and riches. He prophesied of the loss of their great cities if they did not repent and earn the protection of the Lord. He also explained that the Lamanites, who were traditionally more wicked, would enjoy a better fate in the afterlife, and live longer in the promised land because they had not “sinned against that great knowledge” that the Nephites had received – representing a principle of the accountability that comes with knowledge. Lastly, he testified that he knew what he had spoken was true “because the Lord God has made them known” unto him. [Helaman 7:7-19]

Upon hearing Nephi’s words, there were some judges, who were members of the Gadianton robbers against whom Nephi taught, who roused others to opposition in an attempt to have Nephi arrested and tried. Others, however, were convinced of the truth of his words to the extent that those who were opposed feared to lay their hands on him. [see Helaman 8:1-10]

Seeing that he had convinced at least some of the crown, Nephi continued his preaching. He began by addressing the skeptics in the group who did not believe in his status as a prophet of God by comparing himself to Moses using the example of the parting of the Red Sea. From there he transferred into a discussion of different prophecies that had been made concerning the coming of Christ, first by teaching of the parallels between the serpent staff Moses raised in the wilderness and then teaching of the Priesthood given to Abraham, which was after the order of Christ. He also mentioned prophecies by Zenos, Zenock, Ezias, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Jeremiah he addressed specifically with respect to the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, something the people knew of from the descendants of Mulek in their own land. Lastly, he taught of the people’s ancestors, including Nephi and Lehi, as witnesses of the “coming of Christ.” [see Helaman 8:11-24]

Then, after reminding the people of their wickedness due to choosing riches and pride rather than following the counsel of these prophets, he testified that their destruction was “even at [their] doors” and reveals the secret murder of their Chief Judge by his brother – both of whom were Gadianton robbers. [see Helman 8:25-28]

Five members of the crowd ran to the judgment-seat to test Nephi’s words.
(Wikipedia, “Nephi, son of Helaman”

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, the game is afoot!

An artist’s rendering of a scene from Helaman 9. (“Seantum” by Briana Shawcroft)

Helaman 9:1-41
Behold, now it came to pass that when Nephi had spoken these words, certain men who were among them ran to the judgment-seat; yea, even there were five who went, and they said among themselves, as they went:

Behold, now we will know of a surety whether this man be a prophet and God hath commanded him to prophesy such marvelous things unto us. Behold, we do not believe that he hath; yea, we do not believe that he is a prophet; nevertheless, if this thing which he has said concerning the chief judge be true, that he be dead, then will we believe that the other words which he has spoken are true.

And it came to pass that they ran in their might, and came in unto the judgment-seat; and behold, the chief judge had fallen to the earth, and did lie in his blood.

And now behold, when they saw this they were astonished exceedingly, insomuch that they fell to the earth; for they had not believed the words which Nephi had spoken concerning the chief judge.

But now, when they saw they believed, and fear came upon them lest all the judgments which Nephi had spoken should come upon the people; therefore they did quake, and had fallen to the earth.

Now, immediately when the judge had been murdered—he being stabbed by his brother by a garb of secrecy, and he fled, and the servants ran and told the people, raising the cry of murder among them;

And behold the people did gather themselves together unto the place of the judgment-seat—and behold, to their astonishment they saw those five men who had fallen to the earth.

And now behold, the people knew nothing concerning the multitude who had gathered together at the garden of Nephi; therefore they said among themselves: These men are they who have murdered the judge, and God has smitten them that they could not flee from us.

And it came to pass that they laid hold on them, and bound them and cast them into prison. And there was a proclamation sent abroad that the judge was slain, and that the murderers had been taken and were cast into prison.

And it came to pass that on the morrow the people did assemble themselves together to mourn and to fast, at the burial of the great chief judge who had been slain.

And thus also those judges who were at the garden of Nephi, and heard his words, were also gathered together at the burial.

And it came to pass that they inquired among the people, saying: Where are the five who were sent to inquire concerning the chief judge whether he was dead? And they answered and said: Concerning this five whom ye say ye have sent, we know not; but there are five who are the murderers, whom we have cast into prison.

And it came to pass that the judges desired that they should be brought; and they were brought, and behold they were the five who were sent; and behold the judges inquired of them to know concerning the matter, and they told them all that they had done, saying:

We ran and came to the place of the judgment-seat, and when we saw all things even as Nephi had testified, we were astonished insomuch that we fell to the earth; and when we were recovered from our astonishment, behold they cast us into prison.

Now, as for the murder of this man, we know not who has done it; and only this much we know, we ran and came according as ye desired, and behold he was dead, according to the words of Nephi.

And now it came to pass that the judges did expound the matter unto the people, and did cry out against Nephi, saying: Behold, we know that this Nephi must have agreed with some one to slay the judge, and then he might declare it unto us, that he might convert us unto his faith, that he might raise himself to be a great man, chosen of God, and a prophet.

And now behold, we will detect this man, and he shall confess his fault and make known unto us the true murderer of this judge.

And it came to pass that the five were liberated on the day of the burial. Nevertheless, they did rebuke the judges in the words which they had spoken against Nephi, and did contend with them one by one, insomuch that they did confound them.

Nevertheless, they caused that Nephi should be taken and bound and brought before the multitude, and they began to question him in divers ways that they might cross him, that they might accuse him to death—

Saying unto him: Thou art confederate; who is this man that hath done this murder? Now tell us, and acknowledge thy fault; saying, Behold here is money; and also we will grant unto thee thy life if thou wilt tell us, and acknowledge the agreement which thou hast made with him.

But Nephi said unto them: O ye fools, ye uncircumcised of heart, ye blind, and ye stiffnecked people, do ye know how long the Lord your God will suffer you that ye shall go on in this your way of sin?

O ye ought to begin to howl and mourn, because of the great destruction which at this time doth await you, except ye shall repent.

Behold ye say that I have agreed with a man that he should murder Seezoram, our chief judge. But behold, I say unto you, that this is because I have testified unto you that ye might know concerning this thing; yea, even for a witness unto you, that I did know of the wickedness and abominations which are among you.

And because I have done this, ye say that I have agreed with a man that he should do this thing; yea, because I showed unto you this sign ye are angry with me, and seek to destroy my life.

And now behold, I will show unto you another sign, and see if ye will in this thing seek to destroy me.

Behold I say unto you: Go to the house of Seantum, who is the brother of Seezoram, and say unto him—

Has Nephi, the pretended prophet, who doth prophesy so much evil concerning this people, agreed with thee, in the which ye have murdered Seezoram, who is your brother?

And behold, he shall say unto you, Nay.

And ye shall say unto him: Have ye murdered your brother?

And he shall stand with fear, and wist not what to say. And behold, he shall deny unto you; and he shall make as if he were astonished; nevertheless, he shall declare unto you that he is innocent.

But behold, ye shall examine him, and ye shall find blood upon the skirts of his cloak.

And when ye have seen this, ye shall say: From whence cometh this blood? Do we not know that it is the blood of your brother?

And then shall he tremble, and shall look pale, even as if death had come upon him.

And then shall ye say: Because of this fear and this paleness which has come upon your face, behold, we know that thou art guilty.

And then shall greater fear come upon him; and then shall he confess unto you, and deny no more that he has done this murder.

And then shall he say unto you, that I, Nephi, know nothing concerning the matter save it were given unto me by the power of God. And then shall ye know that I am an honest man, and that I am sent unto you from God.

And it came to pass that they went and did, even according as Nephi had said unto them. And behold, the words which he had said were true; for according to the words he did deny; and also according to the words he did confess.

And he was brought to prove that he himself was the very murderer, insomuch that the five were set at liberty, and also was Nephi.

And there were some of the Nephites who believed on the words of Nephi; and there were some also, who believed because of the testimony of the five, for they had been converted while they were in prison.

And now there were some among the people, who said that Nephi was a prophet.

And there were others who said: Behold, he is a god, for except he was a god he could not know of all things. For behold, he has told us the thoughts of our hearts, and also has told us things; and even he has brought unto our knowledge the true murderer of our chief judge.

And there you have it folks: Nephi, Son of Helaman, Dime Novel Detective Extraordinaire! Nick Carter, Allan Pinkerton, and William J. Burns (aka “America’s Sherlock Holmes”) would be proud.2

NOTES
1 “Throughout the Victorian period, novels in serial parts were published in abundance in newspapers and magazines—by far the most popular form—or in discreet parts issued in installments, usually 20 monthly issues.

Many 19th century authors established themselves by first publishing original fiction in serial format. Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, Robert Louis Stevenson and more, all published serial novels, either in monthly magazines or as discreet serial parts.”
(University of Victoria Library, “19th Century Serial Novels”

2 For those unfamiliar with these names, here’s a primer:

Nick Carter
“Nick Carter is a fictional character who began as a dime novel private detective in 1886 and has appeared in a variety of formats over more than a century. The character was first conceived by Ormond G. Smith and created by John R. Coryell. Carter headlined his own magazine for years, and was then part of a long-running series of novels from 1964 to 1990. Films were created based on Carter in France, Czechoslovakia and Hollywood. Nick Carter has also appeared in many comic books and in radio programs.”
(Wikipedia, “Nick Carter (literary character)”

Allan Pinkerton
“Allan J. Pinkerton (25 August 1819 – 1 July 1884) was a Scottish–American detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency…

Pinkerton produced numerous popular detective books, ostensibly based on his own exploits and those of his agents. Some were published after his death, and they are considered to have been more motivated by a desire to promote his detective agency than a literary endeavour. Most historians believe that Allan Pinkerton hired ghostwriters, but the books nonetheless bear his name and no doubt reflect his views.”
(Wikipedia, “Allan Pinkerton”

Willliam J. Burns
“Despite the fact that Holmes and Dr. Watson are fictional characters, though, their cultural influence can even be discerned in the history of the world outside of the printed page. Ever since the end of the Victorian age, real detectives and police officials have often been held to the standards of fiction and have even seen their exploits re-cast as updated versions of one of Doyle’s many gaslight era tales. One American law-enforcement figure, in particular, bore the burden of living up to Holmes’s legacy: William J. Burns, an Irish-American sleuth who bore more than a passing resemblance to Doyle himself.

According to William R. Hunt’s biography Front-Page Detective: William J. Burns and the Detective Profession, 1880-1930, Burns was a friend of both President Theodore Roosevelt and Doyle—the latter of whom publicly hailed Burns as “America’s Sherlock Holmes.” For much of his career, Burns was almost guaranteed a headline each time he caught on to a forgery or risked his life in the line of duty…”
(Benjamin Welton, “The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes'”, The Atlantic, November 20, 2013) 

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