Curtis Weber assumed it would be easy to prove that a recently discovered daguerreotype was not actually a photograph of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith.
Through years of studying the primary sources relating to Smith’s physical appearance and analyzing previously purported photos, Weber had become convinced that none of those images was authentic.
Given the lack of any firsthand documentation that Smith was ever photographed, Weber doubted such an object even existed.
After extensive forensic comparisons, however, Weber, an independent Latter-day Saint researcher in Utah, now believes that the daguerreotype found in a locket by a Smith descendant, Daniel Larsen, is indeed a photo of the man who proclaimed that he saw God and Jesus in a New York woods as a boy and launched a global religious movement.
And it may be the only photo of the leader revered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).
The key to Weber’s confidence?
Daguerreotypes are like mirrors — their images are almost always backward — so reversing them revealed “a number of striking, precise correspondences between Smith’s death mask and the daguerreotype,” Weber says, “including asymmetries of Joseph’s face and bone structure evidenced in the mask.”
Another clue Weber discovered is that an unreversed image of the daguerreotype appears to be the prime source for the details of Smith’s face in the famous front-facing oil painting “that once hung in [wife] Emma’s bedroom,” the researcher says. “The evidence strongly indicates that the painting was created after Joseph’s death by an artist who had never seen him in life.”
The researcher will present his findings Saturday, June 10, at a Mormon History Association gathering in Rochester, NY.
Scholars are still debating, though, whether it’s really Smith.
Some question the daguerreotype’s provenance — its history of ownership — and why it appears so different from the familiar portraits of Smith.
Latter-day Saint historian Ardis Parshall, a Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist, remains skeptical, saying it hasn’t been adequately scrutinized either historically or scientifically.
“The desire for the Larsen daguerreotype to be an image of Joseph Smith has overrun scholarly caution and even reason,” she says. “It may be a picture of Joseph Smith; sufficient evidence has not yet been produced.”
Others, though, see it as a thrilling treasure, a face that could easily be that of the charismatic 19th-century leader.
“It’s a mystery, and we’re uncomfortable with that,” Lachlan Mackay, a historian and Community of Christ apostle, said on The Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “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.”
A stunning discovery
In July, Larsen and Mackay (another Smith descendant) announced the existence of the daguerreotype that the former had seen in a locket.
The heirloom was passed down to Larsen from his mother, who was a granddaughter of Joseph Smith III, a son of Mormonism’s originator who helped establish what is now the Community of Christ and became its first president.
Upon seeing the tiny image, Larsen “just knew it was Joseph,” the Smith descendant said at the time. “I looked at it for an hour or so with my wife. It was an emotional moment.”
He remains firm in his position.
“I always believed it was him,” Larsen now says. “With this new information, it is now more convincing to other people.”
Indeed, Weber’s research simply adds more certainty to that conviction.
In 2008 and 2009, Weber worked on a forensic study of the remains of Joseph and his fellow martyr, brother Hyrum Smith, which concluded that they were correctly identified when their skulls were last exhumed and reburied in 1928.
In the process, Weber built a library of more than 700 photographs of the oldest known death masks of the two men with each mask positioned in a custom-built rig at documented angles.
Comparing the reversed daguerreotype image to Smith’s death mask photos revealed the correspondences immediately.
“The mouth, nose, and nasolabial folds [creases in the skin from both sides of the nose to the corner of the mouth],” he says, are the “closest matches I’ve ever seen in any purported image of Joseph.”
The reversed image also aligns closely with the precise forensic reconstruction drawings of Smith created in 1995 by Dee Jay Bawden, an artist who has done careful work reconstructing Joseph’s likeness since the 1970s.
Bawden’s sculptures of Hyrum and Joseph can be seen at many church history sites and, until recent renovation work, around downtown Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.
The sculptor shared with Weber his sketches, including measurements and photos of Smith’s skull and artistic depictions drafted in or around the prophet’s lifetime.
The famous Smith painting
Weber says the Larsen daguerreotype also “corresponds closely with details from Sutcliffe Maudsley,” who traced Smith’s profile on June 25, 1842.
He argues the well-known portrait of the first Latter-day Saint prophet, ostensibly painted by David Rogers in September 1842, appears to have actually been created after Smith’s death using three sources: the Larsen daguerreotype (40 details are precise or nearly precise matches), a copy of Joseph’s death mask (two details of the mouth), and Joseph and Emma’s son Frederick sitting as a live model for the artist (22 precise details of Frederick’s face are in the painting).
In addition, the man in the Larsen daguerreotype shows a strong resemblance to three of Joseph’s four sons; Joseph’s uncle John Smith; and nephew Joseph F. Smith. Certain facial features also resemble those seen in other genetic relatives such as Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith; nephew John Smith; and cousin George A. Smith.
“Existing locks of Joseph’s hair match descriptions by those who said it was flaxen, chestnut, or golden brown — colors in the orange family which deceptively appear much darker in a daguerreotype,” Weber says in his presentation. “Apparently, the artist wasn’t aware of this scientific fact and painted the hair very dark based on the daguerreotype, indicating he had never seen Joseph in life — or at least not his hair.”
Does it matter?
Historians with the Utah-based faith have not endorsed the daguerreotype, especially given its incomplete provenance.
The 17 million-member church reiterated the statement it made last summer.
The daguerreotype and locket “were created of the materials and methods appropriate to the 1840s,” reads the 2022 church statement. “However, as nothing is definitively known about the locket’s history before 1992, we cannot draw a conclusion about who is pictured in the daguerreotype.”
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For now, the photo will continue to generate debate and discussion without definitive proof.
“While we may never be 100 percent certain this daguerreotype is Joseph Smith — and, in the end, it probably doesn’t matter to either believers or critics,” says Latter-day Saint historian Benjamin Park, author of the forthcoming “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism,” “the mere possibility of its veracity reminds us that Smith was a historical figure of flesh and bones.”
The physical photograph, Park says, “makes him more human.”
For his part, Weber is open to those who arrive at other conclusions.
“I am not a trained expert, though I’ve studied the relevant fields and tried to be careful in my analyses,” he says. “I may be proven wrong, but I hope others will seriously consider what I’ve discovered.”
In the end, Weber says, he has no desire just to be right — but to “seek the truth.”