The Mystery of the Mystery Stone

The so-called Mystery Stone has puzzled scholars for nearly 150 years. Discovered in 1872, the stone has no known history prior to that date. At just under 4 inches tall and 2.5 inches in diameter, its physical characteristics are a study in contradictions—figures carved by advanced technology in a type of stone not found in New Hampshire. Is it an ancient Indian artifact? A geologic oddity? An exercise in symbology? A clever hoax?

The History of the Mystery

In early June 1872 workmen found a suspicious lump of clay while digging a posthole in Meredith Village, at the point where Lake Waukewan originally emptied into Lake Winnipesaukee near a spot known locally as Hodgson’s mill. The workmen gave it to financier Seneca A. Ladd, a local collector of minerals and relics. Some accounts claim the land was Ladd’s, and he had hired the workmen himself. Others relate that Ladd just happened to be passing by when the clay lump was found, and he rescued it from the dirt pile.

Regardless of how the stone came to be in his possession, when Ladd cleaned off the clay casing, he discovered an intriguing egg-shaped stone with nine carvings depicting a face, a teepee, and an ear of corn, along with strange geometric designs. The stone also had a hole bored through it from both ends, a hole later found to be made with different size drill bits. A geological study of the stone conducted in the 1990s found it to be made of quartzite or mylonite, material not known to be otherwise present in New Hampshire. It is perfectly shaped and unblemished by any distortions or markings other than the pictogram carvings. 

The stone remained in the possession of Ladd, a well-known and prosperous businessman in the Lakes Region, for several decades and was then passed down to his family. Born in 1819 in Loudon, New Hampshire, Ladd trained as a carriage-maker before finding success as a manufacturer of pianos and melodeons. In 1869, he founded Meredith Village Savings Bank in an effort to encourage factory workers to save their money. The bank was housed in a large building on Main Street in Meredith (it is the current home of the Meredith Historical Society), and Ladd filled the bank’s reception area with artifacts from his own collection of geological specimens. He had already established a reputation as a “gentleman” scientist, a breed of amateur scholars who devoted their energy, talents, and fortunes to the pursuit of academic hobbies. The bank thus became a cabinet of curiosities, and Ladd added the mysterious stone to the collection.

The stone quickly gained public attention, with the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, the leading newspaper in the Granite State at the time, running a piece on July 17, 1872, announcing the stone’s discovery. Even before that, the stone had caught the attention of amateur scientist and inventor, Daniel J. Tapley of Danvers, Massachusetts. Tapley delivered a lecture on the stone for the Essex Institute in Middleton, Massachusetts, within two short weeks of the stone’s discovery. He further publicized the stone by writing an article about it for the journal The American Naturalist, published in November that same year (“Anthropology,” The American Naturalist, vol. 6, no. 11, November 1872). Tapley dubbed it “A Remarkable Indian Relic” and relayed how he had serendipitously come across the “object of scientific interest” while on a fishing excursion to Meredith the week after the stone had been found. He made no mention that he likely already knew Ladd—Tapley’s older brother also lived in Meredith and the men were in at least one local club together.

With such publicity, word of the stone reached far and wide, even to European scientists, who could not discern any more about the stone’s history than their American counterparts. In succeeding years, newspaper stories about the stone popped up at random intervals, with reporters claiming it had “attracted the wonder of the scientific world.” In 1895, the Manchester Union reported that “the strange relic has attracted much attention,” even from the likes of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. A geological survey conducted by the State of New Hampshire in 1994 failed to shed much light on the stone either, and to this day, amateur and professional archaeologists have speculated about the Mystery Stone’s origins.

The stone remained on display at Meredith Savings Bank for many years, even after Ladd’s death in 1892. In 1927, his daughter, Francis Ladd Coe of Centre Harbor, New Hampshire, donated the stone to the New Hampshire Historical Society. Periodically on display at the Society, the Mystery Stone annually solicits more inquiries and interest than any other item in the Society’s vast collections.

What Is the Mystery Stone?

The most prevalent explanation has been that the Mystery Stone is a prehistoric Native American artifact. The discovery of an unusual Indian relic was not unprecedented at the time, encouraged by a highly romanticized view of America’s native heritage developed in the mid-19th century, especially in the East where fears of Anglo-Indian conflict were generations in the past. An increasing reverence for the power of nature combined with nostalgia for a pre-industrial America combined to elevate Native Americans to the role of “noble savages” for many Americans. Indians’ perceived ability to commune with a pristine and unspoiled environment lent an air of mystery to the natural world, suggesting that natives could somehow unlock the secrets of the universe in a way that “civilized” men and women were no longer able to do, bound as they were by an overreliance on logic and reason and wholly cut off from their more intuitive and emotional natures by the standards of society. 

New Hampshire already boasted one such natural wonder, which had only been discovered a few decades earlier—the Old Man of the Mountain. First identified in 1803 by workers carving a path through Franconia Notch, the Old Man had become a major tourist attraction by the middle of the 19th century. It was also a source of controversy. Had the Indians fashioned it as a harbinger of some sort of prophecy? Or was it a naturally occurring geological formation? Artists began featuring it in their paintings of the White Mountains, and author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story in 1850 about it, entitled “The Great Stone Face.” It has remained a source of public fascination ever since.

In the Midwest, people explored the earthen mounds of the ancient Native American civilizations with similar awe and bewilderment. Well into the 20th century, all sorts of remnants of native culture—axe heads, bowls, tools, ceremonial pieces, fossilized human remains—turned up across the American continent. 

The anomaly of the stone’s possibly machine-made carvings and the fact that it was composed of a rock type not found in New Hampshire could not be so easily explained away, though, and do not support the idea that the stone is of Native American origin. Nor does the native culture depicted on the stone bear any great resemblance to the Abenaki, which were New Hampshire’s native people. The face on the stone has been likened more to an Eskimo or Aztec, and the teepee depicted on the stone was of a type more commonly used by natives in the American West. Some Mystery Stone enthusiasts have suggested that the stone has spiritual significance for a pre-historic native culture that once covered most of North America. Hence, the stone may depict the forging of a treaty between two different tribes, or it may have been part of a ritual that accompanied a water burial for a native figure of importance some distance from New Hampshire.

Over the years, with the stone’s provenance in doubt, other theories as to its origin have been posited. For example, in 1931 a letter-writer suggested to the president of the New Hampshire Historical Society that the Mystery Stone was actually a thunderstone—“the most perfectly worked thunder-stone ever discovered” (Letter, Kenneth L. Roberts to Otis Hammond, July 31, 1931, New Hampshire Historical Society). Thunderstones are reputedly rocks that fall from the sky during lightning storms. Another more recent theory argues that it is a lodestone, used for navigational purposes in the 16th century as an alternative to a compass. Still other theories link the Mystery Stone to numerology, aliens, massive planetary shifts, or a worldwide apocalypse.

Of course, there is also the possibility that the Mystery Stone was a hoax, perpetrated possibly by Seneca Ladd himself. Since Ladd never made any money off the stone and garnered little fame for his association with it, the motivation for concocting such a hoax remains unclear.

The one thing that most Mystery Stone interpreters can agree on is that it is an “out-of-place artifact,” meaning it should not have been discovered where it was. The mystery continues.

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