Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
[p.15] One personal detail I’ve never seen reproduced in film about Joseph Smith is the whistle when he spoke. The closest approximation to the sound he must have made can be heard from Gopher, a character in Disney’s animated version of Winnie the Pooh. “Sssssay, what’sss the big idea? I’ve never heard anyone ssssay anything about Jossseph’sss whissstle?”
During the tar and feathering episode in Kirtland, Ohio, one of Joseph’s assailants pushed a vial of poison into his mouth which he crushed with his teeth, breaking a tooth and cutting his palette, leaving him with a whistle when he spoke. In fact, one account says that when the prophetic mantle fell on Brigham Young during his debate with Sidney Rigdon, Brigham’s voice became Joseph’s, even down to the whistle (see S. Dilworth Young, BYU Speeches of the Year 1964, p. 17).
Now I’ve had a whistle sound in my nose before and [p.16] it’s very irritating, almost as annoying as listening to someone complain about a whistle in their nose. I’m sure Joseph was equally annoyed. He eventually had his broken tooth fixed in Nauvoo, Illinois, presumably by the only dentist there, Alexander Neibaur (see Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, p. 145). Perhaps Joseph was alerted to Neibaur’s dentistry practice by reading an advertisement similar to the one I found on page 3 of the John Taylor-edited Nauvoo Neighbor on October 29, 1845:
ALEXANDER NEIBAUR DENTIST. In returning his thanks to the Brethren and Citizens of the City of Joseph for past favors, he would inform them that he continues his practice, and has fixed the following prices: Teeth inserted, $2 each; teeth cleansed, 50 cts; filling a tooth, 50 cts; teeth extracted with great ease. Every operation warranted for 5 years. Meat, wood and money taken. A constant supply of Matches always on hand.
If you get a chance, read some of the advertisements in old church periodicals, some of them running as late as the 1960s in the Improvement Era. I maintain these ads are some of the most charming pieces of Mormon literature around.
As P. J. O’Rourke has said somewhere, anyone who romantically longs to have lived in a past era need only [p.17] consider two words: dental hygiene. I don’t think I want to know what was used to fill teeth in Neibaur’s day, or how a tooth (or its substitute?) could be inserted, although insertion is clearly a more intricate operation based on Neibaur’s price list. Hmmm … I wonder how many teeth you could get cleaned for a side of beef? And the warranty about extracting teeth with great ease sounds a bit far reaching, based upon my own wisdom teeth experience when my dentist nearly put his foot on my chest to get leverage. And when I read Neibaur’s statement, “A constant supply of Matches,” I envision attendants eagerly awaiting the match needs of Neibaur’s customers, like frenetic waiters continually filling your water glass, no matter how little you have sipped. The matches were clearly a draw to Neibaur’s establishment, presumably since the Word of Wisdom was still in its formative stages. I wonder how much he would have charged to fix a whistle in your tooth?
In an age before floss and fluoride, it’s hard to imagine Neibaur needed to solicit customers at all, but it seems like business had slacked off, otherwise, why the advertisement? Wait a minute, does Utah still have unfluoridated water? Is there some connection here with a dentist’s lobby effort? Were Utah legislators concerned about communist corruption of precious bodily fluids? Perhaps there’s a legend waiting to be started [p.18] that Neibaur and his profession were gratefully blessed by a post-whistle Joseph Smith, promising them a land of milk, honey, and a constant supply of cavities.