Should We Accept the Purported Photograph of Joseph Smith as Really Him?

Another purported daguerreotype of Joseph Smith has surfaced. Should we accept this as authentic? Not yet. We’re not nearly there.

For most people, the debate will hover around their own threshold of probability and what their eyes tell them. What are the odds that this is Joseph Smith? To some eyes, 99.9%; to others, below 50%. Some of the press fawned over the image, and the hype machine went wild for a day (at least). Better reporting would have informed readers that scholars and experts have their homework ahead of them.

Getting Ahead of Ourselves in 2017

Remember the purported photograph of Amelia Earhart said to be discovered in 2017? Forensic analysts and other experts were assembled to run all kinds of image analysis and determine whether Earhart was in fact visible in the background of an old photograph. Had she been so photographed, it could mean Earhart had survived an airplane crash in the Pacific and been captured by Japanese naval officers. On a much-hyped History Channel special, some began to speculate that Earhart died a prisoner of Japan, maybe even suffering privation and torture.

The whole thing was swiftly debunked by a Japanese historian. Kota Yamano spotted the photograph within 30 minutes of searching Japan’s National Diet Library. “I find it strange,” he said, “that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.”

Provenance Is Key

The word for this kind of authentication is provenance, and in the case of the purported Smith daguerreotype, Ronald Romig and Lachlan Mackay present an assessment of this artifact’s provenance in a detailed journal article published alongside press releases announcing the artifact. Like Kota Yamano about the History Channel special, I’m wondering first about the provenance of the daguerreotype and any gaps within the chain of custody between the artifact’s inception and the present.

A strong provenance will rewind the chain of custody from the artifact’s present custodian through any and all transfers until reaching the artifact’s origin. An example of strong provenance is the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. The manuscript is currently preserved in the archives at the Church History Library (CHL) in Salt Lake City—

  • The CHL acquired the manuscript from the Community of Christ in 2017
  • The Community of Christ (formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) acquired the manuscript from George Schweich in 1903
  • Schweich acquired it from his mother, Julia Schweich, who acquired it from her sister-in-law, Sylvia Whitmer; these transfers occurred between 1895 and 1903
  • Sylvia Whitmer acquired it from her husband, David J. Whitmer, upon his death in 1895
  • David J. Whitmer acquired it from his father, David Whitmer, upon the elder’s death in 1888
  • David Whitmer acquired it from his brother-in-law Oliver Cowdery upon Cowdery’s death in 1850
  • Oliver Cowdery maintained possession of the manuscript after co-editing the Book of Mormon for a new edition with Joseph Smith in 1837
  • Joseph Smith received back the manuscript from John H. Gilbert in 1830 after Gilbert finished using it to typeset the original edition of the Book of Mormon
  • John H. Gilbert received pages of the manuscript in installments during the printing process throughout 1829 and 1830 from Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery
  • Oliver Cowdery and two associates prepared the printer’s manuscript in 1829 by copying from the original dictation manuscript

Notice how the chain of custody can account for possession and transfer of the printer’s manuscript all the way from its inception in 1829 to the present. And there is quite a bit more to the story that can further account for the ways in which the manuscript was preserved by these different custodians. When we examine this artifact, we have a very high degree of probability that this is the very same document we read about in other historical sources that describe the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon—a probability well above 50%. (I’d pin it at least to 99% because of how well documented the provenance is.)

Ideally, the newly identified daguerreotype would carry a similar degree of provenance documentation. With a strong provenance, we might conclude the artifact very likely represents a photographed Joseph Smith. With a weak provenance, it might still represent a photographed Joseph Smith, but our ability to conclude this on evidence would remain weak—the baseline probability would drop with the weakness in provenance. They’re not entirely the only variables; for instance, some facial recognition analysis might reveal strong probabilities of matches between authenticated artifacts (like Joseph Smith’s death mask) and the face in the daguerreotype. But provenance still matters if what we’re asserting is a reasonably realistic photographic artifact taken with a living historical subject at one point in time, and not, hypothetically, an artistic, subjective, or random representation of a human face that matches another artifact in likeness.

The Artifact’s Provenance, So Far

Romig and Mackay provide their inventory of provenance in the JWHA journal article. The daguerreotype in question was found in a watch locket by its owner, Dan Larsen, in 2020. Larsen had acquired the locket from his mother, Lois Smith Larsen, upon her death in 1992. The locket belonged to a household of family heirlooms that Lois kept, but no record of precisely how Lois acquired the locket and from whom exists.

From here, the provenance becomes an investigation into likely scenarios of transfer. Romig and Mackay consider the possibility that Lois inherited the locket from her father, Fred M. Smith, who somehow received it from his father, Joseph Smith III, who received it from his mother, Emma Hale Smith Bidamon, who received it from Joseph Smith or Joseph Smith’s photographer. Romig and Mackay cannot account for the origins of the daguerreotype, and so they look to other sources for evidence when the daguerreotype could have been made. They provide a deeply researched assessment of such sources, showing how a daguerreotype being taken in Nauvoo as early as 1843 is thoroughly plausible. They weigh the evidence of other alleged daguerreotypes of Joseph Smith, showing how such other artifacts were (sometimes subjectively enhanced) photographs of a David Rogers painting of Smith, not of Smith directly.

Even so, Romig and Mackay don’t prove Smith sat for a daguerreotype and that Larsen’s locket contains that image. They speculate—granted, with a highly technical array of sources to consider, but what nevertheless amounts to speculation—that Emma wore the watch locket at her wedding when she married Lewis Bidamon; that other women in Emma’s family also wore the locket while sitting for portraits, including Bertha Madison Smith (Joseph III’s wife) and Emma Josepha Smith McCallum (Bertha and Joseph III’s daughter); that Emma J. Smith McCallum passed the locket on to her father, Joseph III, or her brother, Fred M. Smith; or, Emma J. passed the locket to her sister-in-law, Ruth Cobb Smith (Fred’s wife); that the locket remained in Ruth and Fred’s house after Ruth’s death in 1926 and Fred’s death in 1946; and that Lois inherited Fred’s possessions in-situ. They also offer a scenario in which Emma J. Smith McCallum could have passed directly the locket to her niece, Lois.

Analysis of the image and the metallic properties of the locket that housed it lends very strongly to a probability that the daguerreotype originated in the 1840s; and the provenance lends strongly to a probability that the locket was maintained by relatives of Joseph and Emma Smith; but the provenance cuts off at 1992. We can only account for the artifact to when Dan Larsen inherited it from his mother, Lois. The chain of custody between a likely 1840s origin and 1992 is one big 150-year gap.

Exchanges of Heirlooms

A scenario Romig and Mackay don’t entertain but what I would argue is a reasonable baseline unless proven otherwise is that Lois Smith Larsen had many heirlooms accumulated from several undocumented and extemporaneous extended-family exchanges. Relatives share and give things to each other, obviously. It doesn’t automatically follow that Lois must have received this locket from a direct-line relative of Joseph Smith. Neither does it follow that she must have gotten the locket from her father or her aunt. Just as possible is that the locket remained shut for decades without anyone in the extended family really knowing that it contained a photograph. As a nameless locket, it could easily pass through less direct family lines—cousin to cousin, uncle to nephew, great-aunt to great-niece—without fanfare or ceremony. The fact that Dan Larsen himself kept the locket between 1992 and 2020 without knowing its contents lends well to the hypothesis that family members before him also didn’t know of the daguerreotype inside.

Heirlooms can carry more lore than history from one custodian to the next. Lois could reasonably have never examined the locket, if it survived in company with other items in the attic, so to speak. From what we know of her inheritance, her inventory of heirlooms could have been extensive beyond her own accounting. But say she was given the locket by another relative, and with some ceremony, too—she still didn’t convey any knowledge of a daguerreotype within the locket to her son, Dan. The knowledge died with her. Or, similarly, the knowledge may have died with someone else before her.

What are the odds that family lore interrupted knowledge of the origins of the daguerreotype? Or that the locket was always closed to whomever inherited it? The fact that we’re speculating on this right now indicates, in my view, that family lore of the locket isn’t likely to exist, since we don’t have any actual account of the locket itself from past relatives. The locket could easily, upon its first transfer, have passed without any story of its photographed subject or any knowledge that a daguerreotype lay inside. I submit those odds are equal or higher to the Smith family being cognizant of the daguerreotype and its subject. The locket, also, could just as probably pass along indirect lines of custody before arriving in Lois’s possession.

Candidates Other than Joseph Smith

Romig and Mackay also leave out much consideration of other men who could have sat for a daguerreotype as early as 1843 and as late as the mid-1850s. In a footnote, they mention Mads Madison (Bertha’s father/Joseph III’s father-in-law), Osmund Thomason (Bertha’s maternal grandfather), Charles Elijah Cobb (Lois’s maternal grandfather), Rowland Cobb (Charles’s father), James Butts, and Eleazer Lyman. Romig and Mackay rule out some of these candidates on account of their age, without entertaining their own presuppositions about the age of the man in the photograph. Only Mads Madison can be ruled out based on another photograph as reference. Assuming the photo was taken in 1843, the other candidates’ ages at that time would be: Osmund (55); Charles (13); Rowland (41); James (54); Eleazer (41).

Interestingly, nowhere in the article do Romig and Mackay entertain the possibilities of Joseph Smith’s living brothers in the 1840s, Hyrum, Samuel, and William, being photographed. In three cases, Joseph, Hyrum, and Samuel died within three weeks of each other in 1844, and of all three, they could have been the subject of the daguerreotype based on the same evidence brought to favor Joseph as the subject. The extended families of Hyrum and Samuel could just as easily have occasionally tended the locket within that 150-year gap in the provenance.

Why Hyrum wasn’t given even passing consideration baffles me. Like Joseph, we have his death mask to compare against the daguerreotype, which, tragically and usefully (for our analysis) was cast the same day as Joseph’s, since the two men perished in the same attack. Not only does this provide additional variables for testing the facial congruity between the daguerreotype and the men’s faces, Hyrum’s death mask adds contemporaneous data for testing against false positives or false negatives in matching algorithms.

Regardless of facial recognition, the record of provenance (and lack thereof) rules in rather than rules out other Smith family members who could possibly have sat for a photograph in 1843–1850s.

So, let’s not be hasty. The search for the long-rumored daguerreotype of Joseph Smith Jr. is not over. It’s tantalizingly closer, but whether closer to Joseph, Hyrum, Samuel, William, Osmund, Rowland, Eleazer, or another male associate of Joseph Smith, we can’t know on current evidence. For a firm conclusion, I’ll be anticipating more analysis, and hopefully, more documentation within the Smith family’s history. ■

Postscript: Intentions and Disclosures

In the interest of full disclosure, I work as a historian in the Church History Department and as an adjunct professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. The foregoing assessment represents my own views and not any position or statement by my employers or their parent institutions. The Church History Department issued its own statement regarding the Smith/Larsen locket soon after the initial news stories ran in July 2022, which in some general points agrees with my discussion of provenance. I respect the work of Ronald Romig and Lachlan Mackay, and I welcome their excellent historical review of daguerreotype imagery and early Mormon photography. For my part, I would be quite excited for a true photograph of Joseph Smith to surface and have nothing against anyone bringing such an artifact forward. Part of our job as historians is to examine primary sources and weigh their merits, authenticity, and explanatory power using sound and robust methods. I offer my appraisals in the spirit of peer review and technical engagement with potentially significant artifacts, hoping our collective interest in history may be studiously and accurately enhanced.

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Historian in Salt Lake

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