The Case Of The Kensington Rune Stone

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This incredible circumstance remained without explanation for more than forty years, until modern research discovered the answer: the linguistic and runological portions of the society’s report were almost exclusively the work of the rune stone’s promoter and owner, Hjalmar R. Holand. Proof of this assertion is contained in the archives of the society at St. Paul, which contain, in addition to several dozen letters on the rune stone by Holand, the handwritten manuscript of the report, and the typewritten version prepared for the printer. Collation of these several items reveals the report’s progress under Holand’s influence: not only was it largely inspired by Holand in the first place, but at his insistence, it was repeatedly excised and emended. In one of his letters, dated May 19, 1910, Holand states: “Inasmuch as your answer to the linguistic objections is in the main a copy from my dissertation [italics supplied], I think it proper that you make suitable acknowledgement.” A bit later in the same letter he refers to “the assistance you have received (free of charge) from me who am the only one yet able to prove the language authentic, which most critics seem to think a very difficult job.” Ironically, the final printed report of the society has from that day to this been cited by Holand and others as an impartial and dependable verdict on the runic controversy.

The war years (1914–18) diverted public attention somewhat from the study of antiquities, but with the advent of peace Holand returned to the runic fray with devotion and fervor. During the generation that has since elapsed, he has taken on all comers in an unremitting campaign to establish that the Kensington stone is the oldest document of American history. In book after book, in article after article, in public lectures and interviews without number, “the rune stone’s second discoverer,” as he is styled, has defied the scoffers, attacked the professors, and piloted his runic tablet through critical shoals to the high seas of international fame. Historians have wavered in their opposition, geographers have succumbed, members of the public have been enthralled by the Holand perspective. Ethnologists have supported him to the extent of placing the Kensington stone on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.

That was in 1948–49. In 1951 a Runestone Memorial Park was inaugurated at Alexandria, Minnesota, the seat of Douglas County, in which Kensington is located. There a gigantic replica of the rune stone, weighing, along with its base, more than two hundred times as much as the original slab of graywacke, was unveiled at a public ceremony. No rune stone in history has ever enjoyed such honor.

To be sure, Holand had less cause for rejoicing in another event that paralleled such public recognition. This was a lawsuit to determine ownership of the stone, commenced by three persons and the heirs of seven others who at one time had given Holand the sum of $2,500, assertedly as purchase money for the stone. Holand counterclaimed that the money was a free scholarship to enable him to study abroad. On court orders, the stone was locked up and bonded for $25,000. Olof Ohman, who had been dead since 1935, and who, according to members of his family, had never received a cent for the stone that had once been his, would certainly have been amazed. But how the lawsuit would have terminated is one of the numerous things about the stone that will never be known. For suddenly, without explanation, the suit was postponed. After a delay of several years, the stone quietly reappeared. And Mr. Holand—the year was now 1956 —cast it as the hero of yet another book.

Mass hallucination, coupled with the uncanny persuasiveness of a promoter, does not account for all features of the Kensington saga, for even scholars of distinction have, at one point or another, been taken in. Extending to the lay owner of the Kensington stone the courtesy of implicit confidence more ordinarily reserved, in the interests of science, to members of their own profession, scholars have frequently been impressed by reported details of the story that they themselves were not immediately in a position to evaluate. Unwittingly, they have thus helped perpetuate Mr. Holand’s central myth: that no valid arguments have or can be brought against the runic stone.

Some historians, for example, while discounting Holand’s historical abilities, have swallowed his linguistic arguments. Linguists, pointing out in technical articles that never reach the public that Holand lacks even elementary qualifications as a linguist, have been held at bay by his geological data. And all and sundry have been impressed or puzzled, as the case may be, by Holand’s “well documented” account of how the rune stone was found by an ignorant farmer under the roots of an ancient tree.