Critical Enquiry

A.T. Kempton's Fake Inscription

One of the key elements in the Oak Island legend is the "inscribed stone" said to have been found somewhere (accounts vary) around the 90 foot level. According to the legend, this stone was cut with "mysterious markings" that no one could read or decipher. It is said to have passed from one person to another over the years; John Smith is thought to have used it as a fireback at one point, after which it was allegedly transferred to Creighton's Book Bindery in Halifax. There, according to various versions of the tale, it was used as a hammering table when beating leather until the inscription was completely obliterated. As of roughly 1912 it vanishes altogether. Some say it became a doorstep in someone's home.

The stone and its inscription are still part and parcel to the Oak Island legend. However, a major question must be asked: what is the source of the symbols seen in all modern books on the subject? The stone was never photographed, sketched, or otherwise depicted prior to its alleged disappearance in 1912. Indeed, the so-called "symbols" appear in no written work on the subject until the mid 20th century, when the oft-depicted "forty feet down" phrase appears in Edward Rowe Snow's True Tales of Buried Treasure (1949, page 32).

Where did Snow get the symbols in the first place? He claims to have received them from one Reverend A.T. Kempton of Cambridge, MA USA. But who is Kempton, and what role does he play in the long-running tale of the Money Pit?

Kempton Emerges From the Shadows

If one examines the papers of R.V. Harris, the source of these symbols becomes clear. In the 1940s, Kempton was in correspondence with Frederick Blair, who was then excavating Oak Island in yet another futile attempt to recover the mythical treasure. We may not have all the letters that were exchanged, but it appears Blair initially wrote to Kempton after seeing his name mentioned as the source of a set of symbols found in Edward Rowe Snow's book. He appears to have sent a copy of his Money Pit "story" (which is indeed very different from usual versions of this story) to Blair during this corrsepondence. Blair replied:

April 29, 1949

Dear Mr. Kempton:

Thank you very much for your recent letter with the story of Oak Island enclosed. It was very interesting, but considerable of it is far from the facts as I understand them to be, while there is confirmation to a considerable degree.

Again thanking you, I am

Yours truly

Frederick Blair (signed) [1]

This was in reply to a letter sent by Kempton in early April of the same year (it is stamped as received April 19). The letter, written in a barely legible script as a result of cataracts and failing vision, reads in part as follows:

Over 40 years ago I had a very brilliant idea. I wanted to write up a lot of the stories of Acadia. I was born and brought up in Cornwallis and [illegible] from Acadia. A long time ago -- 1891.

After discussing his Acadian roots and proposed book project, he then goes on as follows:

I wrote a Minister whom [sic] I knew at the time and asked him if he knew of someone who would write me a good account of Oak Isl. He got a school teacher long since dead. The Minster died years ago. He sent me the MSS. and I paid him for it. I never wrote the book. I had never pub. the Oak Isl. story. [...]

The teacher who wrote my MSS. did not give me any proofs of his statements -- only that the [illegible] was found and [illegible] characters were cut in the stone and a very bright Irish Teacher had worked out this statement as printed in Snow's book. Several years after he sent me the MSS. I went to Mahone Bay to find the teacher. But he had died. I learned that the stone was in the Historical society at Halifax. I went there several times but never found anyone who could tell me about the stone. So I let the matter drop until I showed it to Ed. Snow and he set it in his book.That is about all I can tell you. [...]

A.T. Kempton (signed) [2]

Kempton's rendering of the symbols, from a typescript version of his "story" about the island that was apparently forwarded to Admiral Richard Byrd of Antarctic fame (who had a passing interest in the island until he was warned off it by a friend), is as follows: [3]

Many have presumed the "old Irish School Master" was James DeMille or James Leitchi of Dalhousie University, but Kempton makes no specific reference to either man and it is unknown at this time whether primary documents exist to prove such a link.

What is clear from all this however, is that the inscription used in nearly every book and article published about Oak Island since Ed Snow's 1949 compendium of treasure tales is wrong. Every author has uncritically used these symbols and their alleged "translation," with no supporting evidence whatsoever. As a result, generations of readers have been deceived into thinking the inscription was authentic.

Some researchers have postulated that the symbols are a Masonic "riddle" based on a rite known as the "Royal Arch." This may be accurate, but it is also certain that simple substitution ciphers of the type shown above were commonplace in the 19th century and could be made up by anyone.

Let us be clear: there are no known descriptions of the "original" Money Pit stone -- if indeed such a stone ever existed in the first place. The cipher shown above is an egregious fraud that has been perpetuated by poor researchers for over half a century. Only the unnamed teacher knows why he (or she) created these symbols.

Perhaps the teacher simply gave Kempton what he wanted -- another yarn to add to his collection of Acadian tales. Perhaps this teacher actually had access to other information, long since lost, regarding the inscription. However, no inscription was ever printed in any known work prior to the appearance of Kempton's symbols. None appears in the 1896 "prospectus" published by one of the treasure excavation "syndicates." Earlier books that mention the Money Pit, as well as the 1936 Popular Science article and other sources, are similarly silent.

As with so many elements of the story, the inscription itself stands on very shaky ground indeed.


[1] Blair, Frederick, letter to A.T. Kempton Apr 22 1949. R.V Harris Papers MG 1 Vol 384, item 2364d

[2] Kempton, A.T., letter to Frederick Blair Apr 19 1949. R.V Harris Papers MG 1 Vol 384, item 2364b

[3] Kempton, A.T., story about Oak Island (typescript) Apr 28 1949. R.V Harris Papers MG 1 Vol 384, item 2364f-h


Nova Scotia Archives & Records Management: R.V. Harris Papers, MGI Vol 384, item 2364b (letter from Kempton to Frederick Blair)

Nova Scotia Archives & Records Management: R.V. Harris Papers, MGI Vol 384, item 2364e (reply from Blair to Kempton)

Nova Scotia Archives & Records Management: R.V. Harris Papers, MGI Vol 384, item 2364f-h (Kempton's story about Oak Island)

Note: Original material on these pages is © 2010 Richard E. Joltes. All rights reserved. Short excerpts may be used as long as proper credit is given and advance permission is obtained.