A Few Questions About That Picture

I’ve now read the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal article that detailed the evidence for the authenticity of the purported Joseph Smith photo, and I am more than 50% convinced that it is authentic. The provenance of the locket combined with the facial match is interesting, but a few points.

  1. Even as a statistician I’m a little fuzzy on what to make of the statistical facial analysis. According to the article the specialists “‘noted that between the daguerreotype and portrait images 19 of 21 features (pairwise measurements) fall within the 95% confidence interval.’ Almost all measurements taken from the portrait, and mask photos fall within range the 95% confidence interval of measurements taken from the daguerreotype image.” So basically 19 of the 21 features match, which seems convincing, but still, without some context it’s hard to know what to make of it. A single, pithy statistic that could help put it in perspective would be: what is the chance that a random person (of European or British descent presumably) would match on 19 or more of the 21 features? If they have a population sample it would presumably be quite easy to calculate such a statistic, and could help more precisely quantify the chance that this isn’t Joseph Smith, but some other guy. 
  2. Of course, if this is a locket in the Smith family it might not be a random draw, since it could be another relative that has similar features to Joseph Smith, which brings up a speculative thought: could this be Hyrum Smith? (The man in the photo kind of looks more like Hyrum to me, frankly). That would not really explain why Joseph Smiths’ descendants had it and wore it, but if it was the only available photo of one of the two brothers it might have still have had some sentimental value. At the very least it’s worth applying the same analysis to the Hyrum death mask that they applied to the Joseph Smith death mask.
  3. Finally, the more historically inclined might correct me here, but I seem to recall reading that Joseph Smith had gained some weight by the time of his martyrdom; and maybe I’m clasping at straws or the weight gain wasn’t in the face, but that picture does not look like somebody who’s gained weight.


17 comments for “A Few Questions About That Picture

  1. If one compares the photo to the Nat’l Portrait Gallery painting of JS, one of these things is not like the other. This of course assumes that the painting is an accurate representation, but ask 100 people on the street if these two are images of the same person, and I wager no more than 5% would say yes. Some of the differences in the photo: the eyes arch down, the painting eyes are straight; the face and jaw are more square – the painting is of a heart-shaped face; the hair and chin lines – with the chin in the photo being much stronger than the painting; the cupid’s bow of the lips is more pronounced in the painting, etc. Also, the JS death mask seems a much better match to the painting than this photo. It will require much more forensic and statistical analysis to persuade me this is Joseph Smith.

  2. The eyes, eyebrows, nose are so different. If this really is Joseph, the painter was terrible. And that painting was done while JS was alive — he wouldn’t have recognized himself. This photo is someone else, no question in my mind.

  3. It doesn’t look or feel like Joseph to me. I say “nope”. Eyes and brow, upper lip and nasolabial folds (lines that are like parentheses around the mouth) are wrong. Doesn’t match the death mask, portraits, or descriptions.

    The eyes are piercing and the character of this man comes forward even through this photo, but the eyes aren’t right for Joseph.

    Joseph had blue eyes, not brown, which the portrait artist got wrong. Everyone describes Joseph’s hair color differently- from light brown to flaxen to chestnut. Maybe it changed with age, maybe it just reflected differently with the light and his clothing. The man in the portrait has solidly dark brown hair.

    Yeah- this person is a relative, but not Joseph. I’m inclined to believe it’s William as Travis suggests above.

  4. Wouldn’t the most accurate comparison be to Joseph’s death mask? This doesn’t look compatible with the death mask. Maybe for Hyrum, but I don’t think even for him.

  5. Yes, I’ve seen the death mask at the Church History museum. It doesn’t look anything like him. The thing you notice about the death mask is how large his nose is.

  6. Lilu, I’d assume a dead body in the summer of Illinois would swell. Especially one shot and fallen out of a 2nd story window.

    Regarding weight, not all of us get fat in the face. He may very well have had more of a belly.

  7. I don’t think it’s Joseph. Maybe a brother. Doesn’t look like someone in his 30s to me. And while it is true the death mask has problems, it was primarily with the collapsed chin/jaw which also made his nose look more prominent than it was. This image does not look like the death mask at all and the death mask has been matched to the skulls, for point of reference. https://ensignpeakfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Skulls-and-Crossed-Bones-A-Forensic-Study-of-the-Remains-of-Hyrum-and-Joseph-Smith.pdf

  8. I will read the full article Tuesday when my copy. But I would ask could we hope for a stronger provenance than the one that has been given? The circumstantial aspect of the Smith women wearing a the locket is extremely profound! Do not lightly go past that point. And I know we’ve mentioned why would Joseph’s descendants be wearing a William or a Hyrum locket? Well that is a huge, tremendously huge, question that needs to be answered for someone trying to debunk the otherwise compelling evidence! IMHO

  9. @Nate,

    A hypothetical William Smith theory fits in the historical context of William as the “true” Patriarch of the Restored Church, after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. The Matrons’ preservation of the image of William aligns with the early schism, when Brigham broke the patriarchal line and usurped William and Emma. Some of the descendants of the Smith family held William Smith to be the rightful Patriarch, and Brigham to be the image of feigned priesthood authority. For some, William Smith is the “budding rod” broken off as a “branch” from the “root,” and therefore a type for the “Last Jedi” of the Smith High Priesthood. In this historical context, the photo reaches to resurrect a legacy.

  10. I was discussing with my son the possibility of this being a photograph of Joseph Smith. He is an artist with an MFA in figurative painting from the Academy of Arts in San Francisco and a community college art professor. According to him, the painted portrait of Joseph Smith would not be a very reliable source for verification of the photograph. In the 1800’s the goal of portrait painters was to idealize the subject matter. They would alter appearances, I.e. lengthen necks, shrink waist sizes, adjust the nose, smooth skin, etc.John Singer Sargent was a prolific portrait painter of that era and an example of successful painter of idealized subjects. The portrait of Joseph Smith is probably an idealized version of Joseph and Emma Smith was to have commented something to the effect that she didn’t recognize Joseph in that portrait.

    I have never been comfortable with the paintings I have seen of Joseph Smith. The idealization felt unreal. I don’t know if there is a way to prove with absolute certainty that the daguerreotype is actually Joseph. The data can only take one so far, but I agree with the blogger that it is quite possibly Joseph. I have read in numerous places that Joseph Smith was a handsome man. Indeed, he was able to capture the hearts of many. The man is the daguerreotype strikes me as good looking enough to be him. Just another thought.

    I doubt if the Church will endorse this as a photo of Joseph Smith. I think the Brethren would prefer him idealized.

  11. In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, there’s a pretty good discussion about more of the details, including some comments on the alterations that artists from that era made and how the differences between the photograph and the painting are actually consistent with the changes they tended to make. https://www.fromthedesk.org/joseph-smith-photograph-smith-larsen-locket/
    And as for resembling William, Joseph was his brother, so he would look similar. And, frankly, Joseph was a bit of a brawler too. You might even say that photographs of William are the closest verifiable images we can compare against for any of the Smith brothers.
    Ultimately, though, there is almost no way to really verify whether this is Joseph Smith or not.

  12. Chad, just a quick thought here–because comments are turned off on the other thread:

    First, I love Vaughan Williams. And second, I didn’t know that you were a musician–cool! You’re a regular renaissance man. :D

  13. “I doubt if the Church will endorse this as a photo of Joseph Smith. I think the Brethren would prefer him idealized.”

    Or they might just have learned the lesson from the Salamander Letter: don’t adopt what seems to be a long lost, almost too-good-to-be-true artifact until you have to, since the upside of early adoption is limited.

  14. Just a thought. Could that locket have once contained photos of both Joseph and Hyrum Smith, one in each side of the locket? Maybe this photo is Hyrum and the photo of Joseph has been lost. Like I say, just a thought.

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