Historian: How we authenticated the photo and why this is the ‘real’ Joseph Smith

Community of Christ apostle discusses the vetting of the daguerreotype, the locket in which it was found and why a famous oil portrait doesn’t capture the church founder’s “real human face.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lachlan Mackay, an apostle with the Community of Christ, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 27, 2022.

Historians with the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) recently made a stunning announcement: Daniel Larsen, a descendant of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, had discovered what they believe is the only known daguerreotype of his famous ancestor in a locket passed down in the Smith family.

The emerging image was startling to many, who know Smith only from a portrait that was painted of him in 1842, and this photo appeared distinctly different from that.

The finding led to a nationwide conversation among members of the larger, Utah-based, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those in the Community of Christ, which was launched in the 1860s by Smith’s family.

Viewers asked: How do we know if it is really him?

Lachlan Mackay, a Community of Christ apostle who directs that church’s historic sites in Nauvoo, Ill., and another descendant of Smith, helped analyze the locket, trace its ownership, and research the daguerreotype’s likely history.

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast in which Mackay answered questions about the photo, the process historians used to authenticate it, and why he remains convinced that it truly is an image of Joseph Smith.

What did you do to authenticate the daguerreotype?

We took a number of steps that we first hoped would not be difficult. We hoped that we could open the locket, meaning disassemble it, and that there would be a name or maker’s mark, something that could very easily identify it. … A friend who works at the Nelson art gallery in Kansas City connected me with one of their curators, who connected me with a local Kansas City conservator, who connected us with a miniaturist who had the skill to take the locket apart without damaging it. And there was no name, no dates, no maker’s marks. … And then we started proceeding from there in a kind of a multipronged approach. We started looking for folks who could help us with facial recognition software. And, of course, that works best when you have multiple known photographs of a person and you’re comparing a potential image of that person. We don’t have that. We have an oil portrait and we have the death mask. So this is on the edge of what facialists can do. But we knew we would get asked about it if we didn’t do it. So we found a company out in New Hampshire.

(Courtesy of the Church History Museum) Death mask of Joseph Smith.

What did they conclude?

Their take was that 19 of 21 points were within the 5% range of probability for matching. And they came back saying they thought it was a “moderate match,” which in facial [recognition] apparently is a positive connection. But that’s just a part of the puzzle. We also pulled in a forensics artist with 40-plus years of experience. He did things like overlays with different levels of transparency. He did 50 cutouts. He did facial feature tracing, which I thought was really interesting. We had been very carefully tracing the daguerreotype — lips, nostrils, eyes, etc. Then you take that same tracing and drop it on the death mask and you take the same tracing and drop it on the portrait. And it really is a surprisingly good match. The places it doesn’t match on the portrait are the places that we knew going in it wouldn’t match because the portrait does not match the death mask when it comes to the length of the nose and the width of the mouth and the thickness of the lips, features like that.

(Salt Lake Tribune archives) A rendition of an 1842 oil painting of Joseph Smith by David Rogers.

What about the locket?

As we were working on provenance [for the daguerreotype], we started bumping into … photographs of Smith family women wearing what surely appears to be this locket. And we found it first on Emma J. Smith, who is Joseph III’s oldest daughter, Joseph and Emma’s oldest grandchild. … We found it earlier on Joseph III’s wife, Bertha Madison Smith. It apparently goes from Bertha to Emma, who was not her daughter. If it’s a Madison object, I think it’s going to go to a Madison daughter, not to one of the daughters from Emmeline, Joseph III’s first wife, who had died. And then there’s a second photo of Emma J. wearing it. And again, in 1910, a third photo. So, for 35 years, she seems to be wearing and treasuring this object. Now, I would love to be able to pull out just a little more detail to say conclusively this is the locket, or at least this is the same lake scene that is engraved on the locket. But the photograph was of the woman, not focusing on the locket. So, I wish we had just a little more. … I recognize that the danger is we could just be seeing what we want to see, but especially scrolling along the edge, there are some features that seem to match pretty well.

Joseph and his brother Hyrum both had death masks taken. What were the similarities and differences between the two, compared to the oil portrait?

(Courtesy of the Church History Museum) Death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

The daguerreotype to [Joseph’s] death mask really lines up quite well. Chin, nose placement, eyes, length of nose, distance between the bottom of the nose and the top of the lip. Those features really line up surprisingly well, really. Very, very well. But the length of the nose is off from the daguerreotype to the portrait, but it’s also off from the portrait to the death mask. So we know what the artist was doing [it] differently. The daguerreotype lines up with the death mask in the ways that it should. A lot of folks are focusing on the chin, especially thinking, “Oh, that’s got to be Hyrum. That fits much better with Hyrum.” Well, the death mask of Hyrum was apparently dropped at some point. The chin was broken off. It’s pretty clearly not the original chin. But we also need to be a little careful, because some really early images of the Joseph death mask suggest that his chin might have been damaged as well. It’s important that people understand that it’s not just simple. There are complicating factors there.

Did you compare this daguerreotype with photos of the extended Smith family? Lots of people are saying, “Oh, it looks like William” or it looks like, you know, other relatives like his son, Frederick.

(Courtesy of the Community of Christ Archives) Joseph Smith III, son of Joseph and Emma Smith. He became the first president of what is now the Community of Christ. This photograph was taken in 1864, so he would have been about 32 years old.

It does kind of look like Frederick, but it’s not. The daguerreotype wouldn’t be the right period for Frederick. The eyes are kind of strikingly similar to William, but William was a scoundrel. Joseph III’s children are not going to wear William on their breasts for 3½ decades. What we did focus on, because I think this would be more likely, could it be other Madison ancestors, from some of Joseph the III’s wives or ancestors? We did try to go through and either find photographs of those people or figure out if they were born too early or too late. We were pretty much able to rule out all but two. … That there are no photographs that we’ve been able to find. But the most common thing I’m hearing is Hyrum. Well, in every image of Hyrum in the 19th century, he has really pronounced sideburns, major sideburns. Could he have shaved the day he had this taken? I guess. But I don’t think so.

If Emma or Joseph Smith III had a daguerreotype of Joseph, why wouldn’t they talk about it?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emma Hale Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith.

Emma was extraordinarily protective of Joseph’s memory and of his bones. She was hiding him repeatedly because leaders from various Latter-day Saint Christian churches were trying to steal the body because they believed it would have spiritual authority. And she was also extraordinarily protective of the painting of Joseph, the [David] Rogers painting. So when Junius F. Wells visits, she’s happy to show it to him, but she won’t let him copy it. And I believe that she’s trying to keep distance between the memory of Joseph and polygamy. She just didn’t want that connection to him. So, I think they’re very protective about that. That is still the case in the family.

Why do you think there’s such eagerness among followers to identify a photograph of Joseph Smith?

Because there hasn’t been one. It’s a mystery, and we’re uncomfortable with that. And even though we all have kind of wired ourselves into seeing Joseph as that oil portrait, at some level most of us know people don’t really look like that. I’ve talked about a plastic surgeon friend who for years has said, nobody looks like that. That’s not a real human face. So I think maybe we get that. There’s been this desire to really get beyond what is an almost mythological figure in the portrait to see the man.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a complete transcript and receive other exclusive “Mormon Land” content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.