The historian’s first impression was that the man looking at him from the 1844 metallic daguerreotype was not the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith.
For Lachlan Mackay, an apostle of Community of Christ (formerly The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and Smith’s great-great-great-grandson, the image didn’t seem to match the vision of the Mormon prophet depicted in an 1842 Oil Portrait that had been circulating since the 19th century. The eyes were more sunken than in the painting. The eyebrows were more rounded and the lips less plump.
However, after 18 months of exhaustive research and analysis, Mackay is convinced this is the first known image of the man who said he saw God and Jesus in a New York woods when he was as a child and started a worldwide movement, including both the Church of Mackay and the larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Salt Lake City.
“It’s not surprising since Emma Smith herself [Smith’s wife] didn’t think the portrait looked much like her husband,” Mackay said in an interview from his home in Nauvoo, Illinois, “and that a good portrait of him couldn’t be painted because his face was changing all the time. ”
Today, this daguerreotype and the story of its discovery by another direct descendant of Smith, Daniel Larsen, is published and explained in an extensive article in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. It is titled “Hidden Things Will Be Revealed: The Visual Image of Joseph Smith Jr.”
Larsen, who joined the Utah-based church in the last decade, believed the photo was his great-great-grandfather as soon as he saw it, glancing d a locket given to him by his great-grandfather, Joseph Smith. III, a son of the originator of Mormonism, who helped found what is now Community of Christ and became its first president.
“I just knew it was Joseph,” Larsen said this week. “I watched it for about an hour with my wife. It was an emotional moment. »
It was also a “spiritual confirmation” of a mystical experience Larsen said he had in the Kirtland Temple shortly before converting from Community of Christ to the LDS Church.
“I knew Joseph was with me, I felt his spirit,” he said. “I saw it.”
Larsen thinks the “timing” is right for this photo to be released, he said, “and I believe Joseph knows that too.”
Find the precious daguerreotype
Based on quotes from 19th century newspapers and correspondence between LDS and RLDS members, historians and Smith family members have long believed there was a photograph of Smith before his murder on June 27, 1844 .
But none had ever been found – until 2020.
It was then that Larsen dug into a chest of artifacts he had inherited from his mother, Lois Smith Larsen, the granddaughter of Joseph Smith III, after her death in 1992.
At that point he tried to open what he thought was a pocket watch, but the release mechanism was bent and he didn’t want to damage it by opening it, so he put it away and forgot her for 28 years.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Larsen’s stepfather passed away, so he decided to review all the treasures he had. This time he was able to open the jewel, he said, and discovered that it was not a watch but a locket.
Because it contained a daguerreotype, which is printed on metal, not paper, the face wasn’t immediately obvious until he shone a penlight in the middle.
“When I did that, the image popped up,” he said. “It was as sharp as it gets.”
Assessment of its authenticity
Larsen contacted Mackay, his nephew, who oversees Joseph Smith Historic Sites in Nauvoo, and the two then enlisted the help of Ronald Romig, who has spent three decades studying the Smith family’s visual records.
Together they examined the photograph, using facial recognition software to compare it to the 1842 portrait of David Rogers, as well as Smith’s death mask.
Thinking it could be another relative of Smith – Joseph’s brother Hyrum, for example, who was shot the same day as the church founder – or another member of the extended clan , the team searched for photographic evidence of any other potential candidates, Mackay says, but found none that matched the time frame.
They came across a May 1844 advertisement in a Latter-day Saint newspaper for medallions that included daguerreotypes, according to the recently published newspaper article, and several photos of prominent Smith women wearing what appears to be the medallion.
These helped answer the key question (which was missing or misleading in Mark Hofmann’s murderous forgery case): provenance or a record of ownership.
For Mackay’s wife, Christin Mackay, president of the John Whitmer Historical Association, responsible for researching these photos, the role of women proved important.
“What makes the locket compelling to me is that it was apparently passed down to female relatives,” she said. “Emma was incredibly protective of Joseph’s image and didn’t want her associated with polygamy. When someone asked to copy the [Rogers] portrait of Joseph, she declined and kept the portrait in her bedroom out of public view.
The historian believes that Emma transmitted the daguerreotype through the women “because they would not be questioned about it”, said Christin Mackay, while “Joseph III and his brothers would be”.
For generations, the Smith women “hid the medallion in plain sight,” she said. “Frederick Madison Smith only had daughters, which may explain why one of them [Lois] finished with the medallion.
Still, Latter-day Saint leaders urge caution.
“Every few years, potential donors bring artifacts to the Church History Library for examination, including alleged photographs of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” church spokesperson Kelly Smoot said Thursday. . “Such artifacts are, of course, of great interest to the church.”
Although not mentioned specifically in the newspaper article, Latter-day Saint historians, archivists, and artifact experts have had – through the owner of the object and the authors of the article – the opportunity to analyze the medallion and photo and review their findings before publication. “, Smoot said in an emailed statement. “We agree that the daguerreotype and medallion were created with the materials and methods appropriate to the 1840s. However, as nothing is definitively known about the history of the medallion before 1992, we cannot draw any conclusion about who is depicted in the daguerreotype.
The church welcomes “the recent release of the image,” she added, and hopes “it will spur the discovery of additional information helpful in determining its authenticity.”
Portrait versus photography
For most of the 20th century, the 1842 portrait was closest to most believers in being able to conjure up an image of Smith. But it was still an artist’s interpretation, not a realistic representation.
“I was talking to a retired plastic surgeon who told me no one looked like this picture,” Mackay said. “It just doesn’t look like a real person.”
The daguerreotype, meanwhile, captured Smith within minutes.
It was likely taken by Mormon convert Lucian Foster, who was the church’s New York branch president before moving to Nauvoo just two months before Smith was killed in Carthage Jail.
Some time later, Foster ran an ad in the Nauvoo Neighbor boasting of “his skill in the science of making ‘miniatures,'” the newspaper article reports. “He claimed that he could make ‘an image of the person, as exact as that formed by the mirror, which is transferred and permanently fixed onto a highly polished silver plate, by means of an instrument of ‘optical. Only two or three minutes are needed for the operation.
The tiny daguerreotype was inserted into the locket, likely before Smith’s death on June 27, Mackay said, which was then kept by Emma Smith and later remained in the family of Joseph Smith III.
What happens now?
“I have a lot of family heirlooms,” Larsen said, “but this one needs to be made public for everyone to see.”
He is friends with Latter-day Saint Apostle M. Russell Ballard, a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, and has been to Utah several times.
“My ultimate goal is to see that the daguerreotype,” Larsen said, “ends up in the [LDS] Church History Museum” in downtown Salt Lake City.
Larsen pointed to statements made in 2020 by LeGrand R. Curtis Jr, the LDS Church historian and recorder, when he opened a cornerstone capsule of the Salt Lake Temple during renovations to the iconic structure. .
Many historians had hoped to find a photo of the founder in the box, but came away disappointed.
“There are no known photographs of Joseph Smith,” Curtis told Church News. “If there really was a photograph of Joseph Smith, it would be a find.”
Indeed, Larsen said, it does.