And Yet Another Joseph Smith Photograph

The April 1st posting of this article may tempt you to think this is an April Fool’s prank. I wish it were. It is not.

I happened to be chatting with one of the archivists at LDS Archives this morning and asked whether there had been a recent upsurge in proposed Joseph Smith photographs. He said there had been — and he showed me that the file of proposed images, which had been merely a thick hanging file the last time I saw it, has now grown to four fat binders.

The most recent contribution is this one, submitted as having been found in the Library of Congress as an unidentified portrait:

Note the prominent nose — the hair combed forward on his cheek — his height, at least in comparison to the chair — the familiar upturned collar. There is as much to recommend this image as any of the other unprovenanced images, so somebody sent it to LDS Archives for investigation.

Archives staff does not ordinarily “investigate” these submissions. There are far better uses for their time, for one thing. For another, the likelihood of any one of these proposed “Joseph Smith” photographs being genuine is remote; the likelihood of being able to prove genuineness is remoter still.

Without a provenance, there is no starting point — exactly where would YOU propose starting to “investigate” this image? Well, you would doublecheck the Library of Congress to see whether there was some clue in their file, but if it is truly an unidentified photograph without a provenance, there is nowhere to go from there. You can’t research an unknown photographer to know whether he was in business during Joseph Smith’s lifetime; you can’t research an unknown studio location to know whether Joseph Smith was ever in the neighborhood; you can’t investigate an unrecorded chain of ownership to assess the likelihood that the image had ever been owned by someone with reason to have a picture of Joseph Smith.

Without provenance, you’re left with a nice looking image with many familiar characteristics. You can compare those familiar characteristics with other portrayals of Joseph Smith. You might find very, very many points of correspondence — enough, say, to commission a painting or write a book or go on the lecture circuit, regaling rapt audiences with your elaborate simulations and measurements.

You might even suggest in carefully worded copy that the spirit will whisper that this is, in fact, the Prophet.

But the spirit testifies to the truth of all things, not to wishful thinking.

This anonymous image is not, in fact, anonymous.

The Library of Congress’s website notes that “Stuart” is scratched on the face of the plate, in the way old-time photographers used to identify their plates. Old-time photographers like Matthew B. Brady, most famous for his Civil War battlefield photographs, and frequently called “Mr. Lincoln’s Cameraman,” whose studio produced this “Joseph Smith” daguerreotype.

“Stuart” is Alexander Hugh Holmes Stuart of Virginia, who was Secretary of the Interior from 1850-1853.

You can read about Stuart many places on the internet, including this Wikipedia article, which reproduces this “anonymous” photograph.

I understand the desire to have a photograph of Joseph Smith. I understand the drive to make a name for oneself by discovering a valuable historic document. What I don’t understand is allowing one’s desire and drive to overcome common sense and principles of scholarship. The spirit — the one we ought to be listening to — does not testify to falsehood.

62 comments for “And Yet Another Joseph Smith Photograph

  1. Well, if he’s not Joseph Smith but some long-forgotten Whig politician from Virginia, can’t we at least make up some interesting story about his being the rightful heir to the throne of England, descended from the Stuart line (what proof more do you need??) through Bonnie Prince Charlie?

  2. At first quick glance, this did not look like Joseph Smith. Just something about the face didn’t quite match up with other descriptions I’ve seen of Joseph.

  3. Perhaps we can come up with a seperated at birth conspiracy, along with a faked death and an identity switch. That’s it – this is Joseph Smith.

    It’s like how people argue Christopher Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays despite being, you know, dead. The death was faked, etc. etc. Same thing here. I have a good feeling about this theory.

  4. Yeah, I’m with Dan — this one didn’t even look like JS to me (based on the paintings and the daguerrotype of the oil painting that we have) except for the haircut.

    LDS Anarchists’ photo at least looks like JS!

  5. As far as valuable old documents go, I’d rather somehow come up with the missing 116 pages of the BofM manuscript myself.

  6. I thought Ardis’s fake Joseph was 33% more Josephy than that fake Joseph we had last week.

  7. I agree this looks like BY with JS hair.

    I think this guy is out of shape… narrow shoulders and chubby… not the hard working type. Possibly a politician or some other white collar man of the time.

  8. Obviously one of the reasons we feel the need to seize on these old pictures is that we lack the context of many other old images. It is like the prejudice that sets in when we as victims of a crime are asked to pick out the perpetrator from a rogues gallery of photos or a real lineup. We tend to look for resemblances, and the images with the most points of apparent resemblance are assumed to be the person we were looking for.

    The biggest hurdle to recognize a true image of Joseph Smith is that none of us has ever seen Joseph in the flesh. If we had personal acquaintance with him, or the equivalent (the way we have exposure to video and photo images of President Monson), we could rely on the image discrminator in our brains to recognize Joseph instinctually, the way we can recognize an established friend with just a second of view. But we don’t have that real image, so we are susceptible to the kind of self-deception that comes into play whenever we lack full information about something, the drive to think we have complete data, so that our brains fill in the rest, making us unreliable witnesses of fleeting events such as a bank robbery.

    Another factor in this self-deception is that most of us do not see enough old images from the birth of photography to recognize that there were a LOT of people who wore what we think of as Joseph Smith clothing and Joseph Smith hair styles. Additionally, we forget that there are ALWAYS people who resemble someone else in any large population. We get to play this game with our kids and grandchildren. It is fun to see how much our appearance and other natural characteristics reappear in our grandkids. My #2 son didn’t believe that his own son resembles me at the same age, when I was blond, until he saw a picture of me at my uncle’s wedding reception. While viewing pictures of me as a toddler with my own father, my daughter affirmed that she sees the resemblance between her 10 month old son and me, which was actually proposed by her father-in-law.

    One other point we should not forget. New England was settled by a relatively small population of Puritans who left England during a short window of a few years of government persecution. (See references such as the book Albion’s Seed). That is why Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball are all distant cousins. They all had a small group of common ancestors who arrived in America less than 200 years before their birth in New England, about the same amount of time that separates us from them. Any one patriarch or matriarch in the original settlers is by now an ancestor to almost anyone who has roots in New England. They are ALL descendants of the Mayflower settlers. And the original settlers had cousins in Britain whose descendants converted to Mormonism, or had other reasons to immigrate in the 19th Century. There is a lot of shared DNA in that group that is also in the Smith family.

    Just as we can find individuals who superficially resemble Joseph Smith today, fortunately for those making films about the Prophet and Church history, there were look-alikes who were contemporaries of Smith, and who conveniently did not die before the full flowering of photography.

    If there are technical means of determining the age of an image, based on chemical and radiological processes (radioactive decay of phosphorus isotopes?), those would be the most reliable first screening of images without other clear evidence. And we need to be careful about eliminating forgeries, in light of the combination of computer image manipulation and the ability to reproduce the materials of original 19th Century photography, motivated by the hacker urge to deceive for its own sake, or a more mercenary motive (Mark Hoffman), or enmity to the Church (Mark Hoffman), or self-deception that something that could be a real portrait of Smith would have such a positive impact on LDS faith that “sweetening” the image would do no harm, and might even be “inspired” (cf. lots of books trying to “prove” the Book of Mormon).

    I would think that the most likely times for Joseph Smith to have had a photo taken would have been his trips to larger cities, such as Washington and St. Louis, so provenance from those historically appropriate locations might be a positive indicator. I can see a photographer of the time wanting to take an image of Joseph for his own archives, perhaps Joseph’s copy or original taken contemporaneously being lost. When my great-grandmother died, we found boxes full of anonymous images from the photo studio she and her husband operated for years in Magna, Utah. They were donated to the Magna Times and featured in a weekly item offering to give it to anyone who recognized the person in the picture.

    And then there are the issues about the chronological appropriateness of the clothing, furniture, carpets and wall coverings (the “Antiques Roadshow” approach to authentication).

    One notion that would be a real stretch, but not necessarily impossible, would be identifying any DNA remnant on the original image medium and matching it with Joseph Smith descendants, such as a “Y” chromosome passed through a fully male line of descent. The custom of placing a lock of hair with an image in a frame might be a source, and some of the metal or glass media could have sharp edges that could produce a “paper cut” and a blood sample. Since DNA has been recovered from remains like 9,000 year old Kennewick Man, this is not impossible.

    Rather than the Church being bothered by the question of spurious identifications of Joseph Smith images, perhaps a better course would be similar to the one being taken by SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and other large projects requiring a lost of computer time: Put the images in a publicly accessible file, with all the data available on each one, and let individuals out in the internet community take a crack at assessing authenticity.

    The release of a mass of such images would immediately accomplish the first objective, to dampen false enthusiasm centered around any one image. It would also enlist people across a wide range of expertise and with original ideas to engage the images and come up with different ways to rate them as having positive or negative correlations with known images of the Prophet with verified authenticity (death mask, Sutcliffe Maudsley profile, etc.). The site would get a lot of hits and create another community of interest. It could attract attention from professional archivists and collectors of old photos around the country, who might propose additional images with some indicia of authenticity.

    We could over time refine the criteria for what is a likely image of the Prophet. Indeed, we might at least be able to assemble a composite template that would represent with some degree of likelihood what we should expect an image of Joseph from the right time and place to look like, sort of like a police composite sketch that could help us screen out potential real images.

    A lot of studies on the collective judgment of individuals have confirmed that such collective judgment can be very accurate, even if the reasons for the judgment cannot be fully articulated. Thus, various internet-based “markets” in various outcomes, such as the election of various candidates, can be more accurate than public opinion polls (see an article in this month’s Scientific American).

    So, you guys who have the contacts in the Church Historian’s Office, how about kicking this idea around for a Joseph Smith Image Search project? It would just require someone to scan in images with attached data and devote a server somewhere to hold them and the inputs, and someone who was willing to coordinate it, perhaps a church service missionary who could work from home either full or part time like those posting data for the Family History database. There have to be some LDS experts in the process of image search and evaluation who could help design a rational process so that it tends to produce more light than smoke.

  9. Look Ardis, we’ve made up our minds, don’t confuse us with the facts. That is all.
    —The Joseph Smith Must Be in a Photo Someplace and We Will Find Him Committee!

  10. I suppose that after serving as Secty of the Interior, JS’s campaign for the Presidency wasn’t such a stretch.

  11. Raymond, thanks for upping the words-per-comment average for this thread. *grin* (Yes, I realize that’s the kettle calling the pot black.)

  12. Thanks for this, Ardis. I’d heard rumors for about a month now that a rumored photo of JS that was not the Scannel daguerreotype had surfaced, picturing JS standing beside a chair. Thanks for posting the photo and the accompanying write-up. I agree with everything you say here.

  13. I saw it first this morning at the COB. Thanks for the helpful post, Ardis. Making allowance for really low IQ, whoever sent that in should be ashamed of his/her self. It’s amazing what a little research can do. But, you know, who wants to bother with that hocus pocus.

  14. Uh-oh, I’d better be careful of the tendency toward sarcasm. It comes too easily when I’m frustrated, as I am when some are so willing to accept the unacceptable. I *do* understand the strong desire to have a photograph of Joseph Smith, to connect visually with him the way I do with so many of my ancestors. But it needs to be the genuine article — becoming emotionally attached to a falsehood can lead to nothing good.

    When someone passionately believes that an object existed at one time but has been lost, the more productive way to locate it is to consider who might have owned it and where his belongings may have gone. This can be an extremely time consuming and difficult job, but it is a technique that is often used to trace the papers of an historical figure — you trace the figure’s descendants, and his editor’s descendants, and the descendants of friends he might have given sentimental tokens to, and the historical societies in the places he lived (and where all those descendants lived), and the schools and other institutions he may have favored, and the sales catalogs of people who may have collected his papers. Huge job. But that kind of focused search is more productive — more reliable — than the frenzied search now going on for Joseph Smith photographs. This Search-for-Joseph is no more than blindly casting nets here and there, relying on happenstance and luck. Instead of the real deal, the amateur searchers are bringing up stray bits of junk, and then attempting to prove them by questionable methods, their enthusiasm and desire for making a name for themselves leading them to self deception and the inevitable disillusionment of others.

    I should clarify that I did not solve the identification of this particular pseudo-Joseph. That was done by at least two, maybe more, of the scholars in the Church History Department. I hesitate to give them credit by name, for fear that the next people who find undocumented photos bearing a superficial likeness to Joseph will hound those men. But it was them, not me, who looked up the LC file and recognized Stuart.

    Thanks for your comments (especially Raymond, who spelled out so carefully the difficulties in projects like these). Perhaps the fun we’re having will remind us all of the kinds of questions we need to ask next time.

  15. I am a little surprised at the reactions of some of you here. I happen to know quite a bit about this image and its history of being identified as a possible daguerreotype of Joseph Smith. It was not found by a money-hungry researcher who thought if he just looked at enough old photos he would find it. Its recent \”discovery\” was quite by accident, and at the time the individual who first saw it and thought it bore a striking resemblance to Joseph Smith no positive identification was known to him.

    Once he researched the name on it he thought it still might be a misidentification, so he took it to experts who could study it and make a better determination than he could. And that was pretty much the end of his involvement.

    Archives personnel and other individuals hunted down the story of the daguerreotype as far as it can currently be determined, and it certainly is not Joseph Smith; but it does bear an absolutely striking resemblance in verticle body proportions to the Maudsley drawings (head to toe) and the face is a very near match to the death mask. I have seen comparisons done with both of these using high-res images and Stuart appears indeed to be a very close match to Joseph Smith.

    Those who say he looks more like Brigham… hrmm. (I\’d love to see the facial overlays of Stuart and Young they must surely have conducted to arrive at such definite conclusions).

    Again, there was no frenzied search that brought this image to light, just a member who \”found\” it and did not initially know it was in the Library of Congress as part of the Brady collection. And this all occured months before the current hype about the Scannel daguerreotype. One did not spawn the other.

  16. “Me,” this post is part of an ongoing conversation about the urge to locate and authenticate a photograph of Joseph Smith, and both my original post and the succeeding comments should be read in light of that ongoing conversation. This image, as sincere as its partisans may be and as independently as it may have been proposed, *is* part of a larger phenomenon, and it’s that phenomenon we’re discussing.

    The larger point we are making is that it isn’t enough — it’s silly, in fact — to propose an image as worthy of further study based solely on its appearance because we do not know enough about what Joseph Smith looked like. We all look more alike than we look different, especially since many amateur judgments are based on wardrobe and hairstyle rather than on unique physical traits. Without a reliable provenance, it will not be possible to authenticate an image of Joseph Smith in any case.

    Your remark about those who thought this image resembled Brigham Young is very much in character for this whole conversation. Perhaps you overlook the humor in that, but it’s there. [P.S. — Come on down. I’m in the library and am very willing to talk to you about this, and to correct any misimpression I may have created by my original post.]

  17. Sorry you\’re bothered, Me. I\’m sure as #27 & #25 says, the very recent upsurge in this type of thing has left many such as myself, disillusioned and perhaps overly critical at what might otherwise be good faith efforts to find an image of the Prophet. The comments should probably be seen in that context. I think given the kind of haphazardness that we\’ve seen lately with issues such as this, that commenters have a right to be critical, though knowing more about the \”good faith\” nature of the effort no doubt would ameliorate raw nerves.

  18. #27: We always disagree on two points: 1) I think it is more than okay to start further study based solely on the appearance of a photo. It may take minutes, days or years to complete the study. ( that rules the photo in or out), It maybe that it will have to just set until science is better. But there is nothing wrong with the undertaking of the study. 2) Without a known ‘provenance’ it will not be possible to ‘authenticate an image’. This is not true. We come to know all the time that $20 bill are counterfeit, without knowing where they came from.

  19. “Me” and I have just had a very rewarding face-to-face chat. “Me” understands that my intent with these posts is to encourage readers to exercise reason and judgment, and not fall prey to hype. I understand that “Me” did exactly that; he thought the image was worth looking into, did so — quietly — then let the matter drop once he knew the truth. Less cautious, more excitable persons have continued to promote the image despite having heard the truth.

  20. 30#: That is precisely what I feel–don’t get carried away in the hype and counter-hype.

  21. #31, That’s true, thanks for the reminder. My #21 should not be misunderstood, certainly there are honest individuals out there just trying to help out, maybe not having the resources to check things out themselves. I was not referring to them. I referred to the “less cautious” types as mentioned in #30 and exhibited elsewhere that don’t take “the evidence” for an answer.

  22. “‘Me’ and I have just had a very rewarding face-to-face chat.”

    Oh, Ardis, there’s a quip in there just begging for release. *grin*

    On a more serious note (not), I guess there might be times when it’s beneficial to live in SLC.

  23. These “Possible Lost Photograph” threads are so fun! One after another a photo is brought to our attention, each strikingly different other than their similarities of hair style and dress. “Could this be a photo of the Prophet—-despite its apparently like-finding-a-needle-in-a-haystack provenance? (Then even the “LDS Anarchist” drops by with a dag of his own whose likeness he speculates seems(?) to match up well with JS Jr.’s death mask.)

    Re # 25: From watching the Court Channel, as part of an all out criminal investigation, after detectives have done the investigative legwork to establish whatever is the perp’s likely profile, they then often start to examine the catalogue of possible perps brought to their attention by the general public as they are likely prioritized by how well they match up with certain parameters that the detectives have set. Yet sometimes it turns out that a misinterpretted piece of evidence caused them to incorrectly establish their parameters, relagating a potential perp toward the bottom of the stack who toward the end of the program ends up being found to be “the guy.”

    (Which also adds to the conflict of the story—-and, of course, the only ones making the Court Channel’s cut are “solved” cases where they’ve convicted a perp. Introduce protagonists—atagonists/ plot conflicts/ bring story to climactic resolution!)

  24. This is not true. We come to know all the time that $20 bill are counterfeit, without knowing where they came from.

    I was about to say that this is an apples to carrots comparison (as there is a big difference between a counterfeit picture and one that’s just a picture of someone else), but then I realized that supposed Joseph Smith pictures are suddenly about as common as $20 bills, so it’s a great analogy!

    Therefore, let’s declare all supposed pictures of JS that are actual pictures (and not forgeries or other faked pictures) as genuine! Then we can swap and trade ’em at ward meetings, just like Baseball cards.

  25. #35: Ivan: I don’t know what you think I said, but it’s not. Ardis believes the only way to “‘authenticate an image”, is by ” provenance”. I feel, by using forensics, it is also possible to rule in or rule out.

  26. Bob, don’t define what I believe.

    An image may be disproved by many means. Authenticating — an entirely positive statement, not, as you have repeatedly assumed, inclusive of the negative act of disproving a claim — might be reached through multiple routes. However, “forensics” as you are using the term, in the case of a Joseph Smith photograph is and always will be insufficient to authenticate an image for the simple reason that WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT JOSEPH SMITH LOOKED LIKE. The best we have are grainy photographs of a skull, and a problematic death mask, and some artists’ conceptions, and some descriptions in words. In the absence of any reliable “original” of Joseph Smith against which we can compare any daguerreotype candidate, all your vague notions of “forensics” are meaningless. (What? You want us to run facial recognition software to compare a daguerreotype to a Maudsley portrait? Well, okay …)

    That leaves us with documentation — provenance — researchable, documentable, confirmable-or-deniable provenance.

    By all means, continue to place your faith in generic “forensics.” You’ve got every right to believe in little green martians, any “Joseph Smith photograph” you prefer, and magnetic shoe inserts. But please, stop pretending that your unsupportable assertions have any equivalence to scholarship. Not here, not on my posts.

  27. #37: I have never said I believed these were photos of Joseph Smith. I have only said they could be ruled in or out by forensics. I do believe that is a supportable assertion. But somehow, this has become personal to you, so I will not show up on your posts again.

  28. Ardis,
    Since this is a different blog page than the “Rumor mongering” I will again enter conversation. When I stated on the last page “I will not cast any more pearls” I was NOT intending to call you a swine! That phrase never entered my mind. Please forgive me.

    Thank you for this post!!! I had seen this proposed daguerreotype 8 weeks ago and had ruled it out also.

    I must say I stand somewhere in between Bob and Adris on this issue of a Joseph Smith photograph. I believe both scientific and historical research is key in todays age. I also recognize that the historical community and standards probably will never accept the the scentific community. And the Scentific community and their approach and standards probably will never fully accept the historical. In my mind a good forger could attach a fake provenance or plant the forgery in a Smith family line, we need science to determine a forgery. Yet Science is not enough either. We need history to back up the provenance and science. Kind of in the mouth of two or three wittnesses.

    This is what I tried to do on the alledged Oliver Cowdery daguerreotype. I tried to use History and Science (Now you all know who this “Patrick” is posting this comment.) I am not affraid to put my true identity on the line. Ardis thank you for not hiding who you are either. Maybe you need to do a post on the Oliver article. I have never received as much candid feed back as I would have liked. I am also a little concerned that it seems to be as widley accepted as it has, being in many book now. Obviously I believe it is him, but we do not have 100% certainty. We are still working on that historically and scientifically.

    Finally, in the statement made by the Church about the Scannel daguerreotype it statesat the end, “The Church does own the death mask of Joseph Smith.” I have researched the death masks probably as much as any body in the church. The provenance of both sets of masks (the Taylor set and the Dibble set) is not complete. The masks were made on June 28, 1844 by several individuals, but they both disappear from the record and history until 1849 and 1850. Both sets by then are not in the Smith family. So with no complete provenance on the masks how do we really know that they are authentic. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the masks are authentic and the Church’s statement is correct. But if provenance it the one and only “end all”, then we can not say the Church owns the authentic death masks.

    Your thoughts?

  29. Patrick –

    I agree that both science and history are needed, but at the same time, I side with Ardis over Bob on this. To take Bob’s example of the $20 bill – well, by his standards, we could call a $10 bill from 1980 a $20 bill from 1980 as long as it’s not a forgery (it looks like $20 bill, after all – it’s got a dead president on the front, the signature of the secretary of the treasury, has the same green color and basic design scheme, etc. Yeah, there’s that whole 10 instead of 20 thing, but that’s minor – the similarities overpower the differences, I tell you!)

    Nothing will ever be perfect in this type of debate, and I doubt that any provenance or forensic test will ever be 100% on any (recently discovered) artifact connected to Joseph Smith. But we can try to get as close to 100% as possible, and Bob seems to be saying that provenance is bunk and forensics is THE ultimate theory of everything, whereas Ardis has the more common sense position that while forensics may be useful, in this specific case they can’t do a lot (without at least some provenance giving us a good reason to even consider it).

    Bob seems to be ignoring the lack of any real way to do forensics on a JS picture, since (as Ardis points out) what do we compare the picture to?

  30. Ivan,

    Thank you for your thoughts! I probably do slightly tip to the historical side also. However!!! I do believe there is enough information from the four different photographs of the skull and the two lines of death masks to do forensic tests. Technology is to the point they can build a 3D model from the skull photos, the phrenology measurements and the masks to a 95% accuracy according to the scientific community. I know the historical community will not accept this method, nor maybe should they. Each academic group should continue to do as much as they can in this regard.

  31. Whoever-the-noncredentialed-contributor-at-Wikipedia-is has got it that forensic (-type) tests supplement chain of custody to establish an artifact’s origin or provenance. WP’s lead:Provenance is the origin or source from which something comes, and the history of subsequent owners (also known in some fields as chain of custody). The term is often used in the sense of place and time of manufacture, production or discovery. Comparative techniques, expert opinion, written and verbal records and the results of tests are often used to help establish provenance.” Then on down the page a bit: “Scientific research is generally held to be of good provenance when it is documented in detail sufficient to allow reproducibility.”

    What do ya hereabouts think?

  32. T&S’s “Historical Mystery Theatre” continues! . . .

    (WP on Chain of Custody): “Example. Officer Andrew collects the knife and places it into a container, then gives it to forensics technician Bill. Forensics technician Bill takes the knife to the lab and collects fingerprints and other evidence from the knife. Bill then gives the knife and all evidence gathered from the knife to evidence clerk Charlene. Charlene then stores the evidence until it is needed, documenting everyone who has accessed the original evidence….

  33. Historians’ tools and techniques advance with the progress of technology — not many researchers would care to go back to the age of 3×5 cards and pencils, or refuse to take advantage of digital texts. Technology has much to offer, and the historians I know are as eager as anyone to take advantage of workable techniques.

    But while tools change, principles do not. Standards of evidence are not abandoned in the pretty glow cast by a computer screen; reason and evaluation and scholarly judgments remain as high as ever. That is all I have ever called for in this discussion: do not allow your awe for technical toys to overwhelm your critical reason.

    It seems to me that you are confusing science and technology, too. Technology is not the same as science. Science has more in common with scholarly history than it does with mere technology. Technology is the servant of scholarship, not its master. Example:

    Somebody proposes that Daguerreotype X is Joseph Smith. A whiz-bang computer jockey does all the expected measurements and comparisons and overlays to the death mask or whatever other images he chooses, and notes 150 points of similarity. He learns that the lines running from each side of a man’s nose down around the outside of his lips are governed by heredity, so he compares the lines in Daguerreotype X to the lines shown in the photo of William Smith as an old man. He fiddles with the contrast controls of his computer program to sharpen up the image in an effort to distinguish between the man’s hairline and the shadow cast by locks of his tousled hair. He accumulates any number of these details, and works up a dramatic public presentation to share his conviction that he has in fact identified a Joseph Smith daguerreotype.

    That isn’t science, though. It’s technology — a marvelous tool, but one that shouldn’t be mistaken for the tool’s user.

    Both scientific and historical principles demand that conflicting evidence be disclosed and explained. In our illustration, the computer guy has found 150 points of similarity. What about the 7 points of dissimilarity? Does he disclose them? Does he explain them away satisfactorily? It isn’t acceptable to claim that the death mask is accurate enough to prove the bone structure of the nose where there are numerous points of similarity, but too inaccurate for the seven points of dissimilarity in the bony brow to be a stumbling block. Are all the points of similarity meaningful? or do they include traits that are common to virtually all non-disfigured young males of European ancestry? The critical judgment of a scientist, very similar to the critical judgment of a historian, decides whether the findings of technology have any meaning or are mere distractions.

    The scientific mindset, as with the historical, privileges well established principles over trendy, unproven ones. Are the lines running from nose to mouth hereditary, and distinguishable between families, or is that a pseudo-science claim that sounded good when heard on CSI? Are there serious caveats even to established techniques? The experienced scientist is in a better position to judge that claim than a mere technician, just as a well-read historian is in a better position to judge historical assertions than is Oliver Stone.

    Scientists and historians are alert to the dangers of reading their own prejudices into their conclusions, and have checks and balances in place (established procedures, peer review) to guard against contaminating the evidence. Are we sure that is true of the history/science buff, including the one who sharpened up the image of Daguerreotype X? How likely is it that he distinguished between shadow and hairline according to his desire to prove he had found a Joseph Smith photograph? How likely is it that his audience, who so desperately want to believe such an image is found, will be in any position to know whether he has in fact distorted the image in favor of his hoped-for conclusion?

    These principles of science, which are so very like the principles of history, are what has been neglected in all these claims of “scientific” — technological, rather — “proof.”

    We’ll save the question of forgeries to another day. So far as I’m aware, no one has raised charges of outright fakery or forgery in the case of any of these proposed Joseph Smith images. I will note in passing that Mark Hofmann’s success was possible in large part *because* his victims took shortcuts in established historical scholarship and did not demand provenance, electing to accept his statements that he had obtained his documents from unnamed collectors who preferred to remain anonymous.

    We will also reserve the question of the death masks. I accept your claim to have studied the matter, but I wonder whether in fact, from your geographical location and your other employment, you could possibly have studied their history in greater detail, with greater historical skill and critical judgment, than a certain historian I know who is currently engaged in that study. Perhaps you have. But you’ll note that I have usually referred to the death masks as “problematic.”

  34. About a year ago I was sitting in a minivan at an Ikea loading area (somewhere on the East Coast) waiting for my husband. As I sat there, a couple of cars pulled up beside us and a woman started superintending the loading of a very large purchase. As my kids and I watched the proceedings, I quickly realized that the woman looked very familiar. In fact, we looked like we could be twins. One of my kids said, “Mom, is that you?” (Actual quote.) I pulled down the makeup mirror to look at myself. Yep. Feature for feature. I always thought I was a very distinctive blend of Western European ancestors. I will note that I live across the country from where I grew up and where my ancestors lived since 1847 on. Furthermore, she was driving the same sort of car; talked like I do; wore similar glasses; laughed like I do; the major difference was that she was very outgoing and I’m rather introverted. It was a weird experience. I wish I’d hopped out of the car and talked to her.

    Moral of the story: Just because a picture resembles someone, even if forensic feature mapping (or whatever you guys keep rambling on about) checks out, doesn’t mean it’s them. Plain common sense.

  35. 46#: That’s a cool story. It would have been great to get a picture with her or even some video of you two conversing. :)

  36. It’s ironic that we have this hope of locating an actual original photographic image of the Prophet, when he was a man with such a common name. There had to be thousands of “Joseph Smiths” in America at the same time, many of them “Juniors”. So if we found an image that bore a general resemblance to what we know of him, even the fact that it was labeled “Joseph Smith, Jr.” would NOT clinch the identification, although a label that appaeared to be in the Prophet’s own handwriting would raise the chances considerably.

    This points out that, when something so explicit and clear only increases the chances of verification, the uncertainties in the measurement of every other aspect of an image and its medium give us a multi-dimensional uncertainty. And because we don’t have a single absolutely trustworthy image to identify a point in this multi-dimensional space, we have no certainty how close to or far away we might be from a hypothetical true image.

    For the reasons I discussed before (#14), there could be any number of images of completely different people who closely resembled the Prophet at some point in their two lives. Since this resemblance could be at different times in the life of each person (e.g. my grandson at age 3 looks like me at age 3), there is a large group of people who could have left images behind that closely resemble a hypothetical image of the Joseph Smith, Jr. born in Sharon, Vermont, on December 23, 1805.

    Another irony, this time weighing in the other direction, is that, because the Prophet died so young, and because photography was such a new technology, the time window in which the Prophet was available for a photo, and the geographic window where a photographer was available, is relatively small, so this decreases the number of images that fall in the proper time and place criteria. To the extent we can pin down the date of the photograph, we can eliminate many solely on that basis. But this is also the reason that it is unlikely that Joseph, living on the frontier most of his life, and in jail or in hiding for substantial portions of his last 6 years, ever had a photograph taken. It is sobering to think that, if standard arrest procedures of today were in effect at the time, we might have the Prophet’s mug shots.

  37. Thanks for yet another helpful set of ideas, Raymond. I note that the Library of Congress cataloguing for the Stuart image reproduced above is dated as anywhere from 1840 to 1860 — that should be narrowed down a bit, since the same cataloguing notes that an engraving made from this image was published in an April 1852 journal. Even so, this illustrates that dates for photographs, other than those of known dated events, are not easy to pin down, even within the five-year (I’d say 4-1/2 or 5 rather than 6, because 1840 is generally accepted as the date when the technology arrived in the U.S. from France) window that is technologically possible for Joseph to have had a daguerreotype made. And of course the same records that could theoretically give us the date of any of the thousands of potential images are also the records that would likely give us the name of the subject: writing on the image itself, or the studio’s log book or photographer’s diary, perhaps.

  38. Sometimes what becomes estabished as “history” is no more than rumor given prominence due to breadth of circulation. Those remaining in the Donner Party’s encampment after partial rescue of party members were reported in contemporary news accounts to have left tell-tale signs of cannibalism. However, what initially recued members of the group describe is eating their family dog. Recently Shannon Novak went in and found bones from the dog—-but found no tell-tale signs of human remains having been hacked, etc.

  39. Yes, there is pseudo-history just as there is pseudo-science. That’s rather the entire point of these Many Faces of Joseph posts: exercise judgment, understand the standard of evidence, don’t be carried away by glitz to the point where you abandon reason, distinguish among “unlikely” and “possible” and “proven” and “you’ve got to be kidding, right?” The more sensational something is (cannibalism; lost Joseph portrait), the more carefully you need to examine the evidence and be wary of your own gullibility.

  40. A short note on the them of #46: I am an atypical looking guy in continental America, with a Japanese mother and a Dad who is 3/4 Swedish and 1/4 Italian. I look like one of those blending images that Conan O’Brien does of “What if these celebrities had a child?” Between the normal short legs of the Japanese, and what my daughter calls the dwarvish body build of my short, Jewish-descent Swedish ancestors, I have the proportions of a giant toddler. But every few years someone tells me I resemble someone else (besides my brother).

    One occasion was in Japan at Yokota Air Base, where one of the Air Force officers who came into the legal office asked me if I was related to Ken Swenson. Ken was the son of an American airman and a Japanese mother, and was a Master Sergeant in the Air Force Reserve who spent his summers working at Yokota to pay his way through law school in Seattle. He was only a few years younger than me, and sure enough, he did look more like me than anyone except my brother. The fact that we had the same last name, that he was going to graduate from law school the following year, and was considering applying to the Air Force JAG and being assigned to my office, would have made things very interesting, had he not realized that an attorney who is fluent in Japanese can make more money in a Puget Sound law firm than in the JAG as a first lieutenant.

    This is the same kind of problem that crops up all the time in family history research, where the paucity of data on ancestors can lead us into assuming we have the right Abraham Englander, born 1650, Malmo, Sweden, when it’s actually a distant cousin. The temptation to assume we are linked into an existing body of family data can overcome our duty to verify an actual connection, leaving our true ancestors waiting for the Millennium to fix it.

    I guess that is the ultimate solution to this search for the historical Joseph. At the First Resurrection, we will be able to take 3-D High Definition video of the Prophet. (I have always assumed the “white stone” we get in the Celestial Kingdom would be Blu-Ray with Wi-Fi.) And he can tell us if any candidate picture is really him.

  41. Just a bit of perspective re the probablility that JS, Jr. could have had a photo taken on/near the frontier before his assassination in 1844. Apparently the craze over the photographic process was extraordinary as soon as it hit the U.S. — with how-to manuals and OJT courses being dispensed at lightning speed across the country on a basis not unlike the internet’s acceptance in the mid-1990s. During the winter of 1846-47 the process was so wide-spread and portable that American photographers were recording the presence of Generals Wool and Taylor’s troops in and near Saltillo, the capital of Mexican Coahuila (formerly the state of Coalhuila y Tejas) soon after the battle of Buena Vista. That’s a pretty far distance and out -of-the-way place for the process to have travelled from the New York of 1840 where Daguerre’s first manual landed.

  42. That’s a good point, Bill. I just checked the statistical abstracts for the 1850 census and learned that there were 938 daguerreotypists in the U.S. that year. For perspective, there were virtually the same number of box makers and cutlers, half as many buttonmakers, and only twice as many booksellers and basketmakers.

    While there were probably many more daguerreotypists at the end of the 1840s than there were in the first half (Joseph Smith’s “window”), there may have been very many who theoretically could have taken an image of Joseph.

    At the same time, a large number of daguerreotypists who could have taken the image means a large number of images made overall — not just in Joseph’s “window,” but in the whole period of 1840 through, say, 1860, when anonymous portraits offer few clues to precise dating. To me, that is further evidence of the futility of grabbing at every anonymous portrait which looks somewhat like Joseph Smith and attempting to investigate it.

  43. I’m having fun with the 1850 census.

    That year, there were 866,452 free white males 30-39 years of age in the United States. Without provenance, any one of those young men is just about as likely as Joseph Smith as a candidate for being the subject of a random anonymous photograph.

    If we had the provenance to tie a given image to Hancock County, Illinois, the number of most likely candidates suddenly shrinks to 644.

    That’s still more than I would want to investigate, but it does give a rough idea of the value of provenance.

  44. A reader has warned me that my 45 could be read as a not-so-veiled attack on Shannon Michael Tracy. Because Mr. Tracy has an IT background, used computer techniques in the work for his 1995 book In Search of Joseph, and almost certainly has used his computer expertise in preparation for his forthcoming book championing the Scannel daguerreotype as an authentic image of Joseph Smith, I understand how the reader reached that conclusion.

    However, Mr. Tracy is not the only one to propose or use such techniques. Most of the “forensics” tests that have been suggested by readers on this and related posts involve computer technology — facial recognition, digital reconstruction of Joseph’s person drawing from all available sources, overlaying proposed images on photographs of the death masks and skulls, etc. Just this morning, a scholar who has investigated another proposed image (not the Scannel) showed me his own computer-based analysis.

    I repeat, as I have said multiple times in this and related threads: I am not attacking any individual. I am not targeting any proposed image as being any less likely a candidate than any other (except to the extent that, like the one in this post, it has been conclusively identified as NOT Joseph Smith). My purposes have been to suggest how historians might evaluate such claims, and to remind readers that standards of evidence should not be lowered simply because new tools are available, and to suggest how unfruitful a search for any photograph of Joseph Smith would likely be if undertaken in the manner that has apparently characterized the search so far. Those reminders and suggestions are intended for anyone who cares to read my posts, and are not aimed at any particular person.

  45. A reader has warned me that my 45 could be read as a not-so-veiled attack on Shannon Michael Tracy. Because Mr. Tracy has an IT background, used computer techniques in the work for his 1995 book In Search of Joseph, and almost certainly has used his computer expertise in preparation for his forthcoming book championing the Scannel daguerreotype as an authentic image of Joseph Smith, I understand how the reader reached that conclusion.

    Oh, so you want algorithms, do you? You want computer science?

    Bunk. Any decent MS grad can make his algorithms support his bias.

    As a gag, my advisor and I once submitted two papers to a conference taking opposite sides of an argument using the same data and the same algorithm.

    Both were accepted.

  46. BTW, if you want to see the authentic Joseph Smith profile, look at my husband from the side sometime. Apparently the profile went down the Samuel Smith line as well. When Sam and I were dating, my mom got such a kick out of making him turn to the side and pulling his hair back for her friends. He didn’t get quite as much out of it.

    Maybe I’ll take our wedding photo and superimpose Emma’s head over mine. Where do I submit that for consideration?

  47. Right here, Alison. I’ll post it, and we can look into the future and imagine the buzz that will occur when your image is discovered in 2058 and goes viral on whatever technology is in use then.

  48. Thank you one and all for giving me a delightful Sabbath afternoon read. It was informative, and hugely entertaining. I’ll be back.

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