Is this for real? Here are two good articles about it but I’ll summarize below and add some additional details that they don’t include.
My first reaction to seeing the photo was: “Haha, nope, try again; here’s another one of these old photos that someone thinks might be Joseph Smith.”
Then I read the story.
What happened is that during the lockdowns in March of 2020, Dan Larsen and his wife were going through some old family artifacts, and among them was an old pocket watch that bore his great-grandfather’s initials and a locket that resembled a pocket watch.
His great-grandfather was Joseph Smith III, who was Joseph Smith, Jr.’s oldest son.
He inherited the locked back in 1992 but a mechanism was bent, and it could not be opened, so it was filed away.
Locked down and with plenty of time on his hands, he came across the locket again. Hesitant about prying it open, he decided to see what was in there and pried it open.
Expecting to see a watch face, he saw this photo and felt sure that this was his ancestor, Joseph Smith.
Now, two years of verification followed; he didn’t just throw this up online the next day; this is where I think the story gets compelling.
Larsen’s nephew is a historian and apostle in the Community of Christ, and they put a team together to examine the image.
The daguerreotype (that’s what kind of image it is) was compared to the death mask and identified that 19 of 21 measured features matched with a 95% confidence.
Note the distinctive brow wrinkle between the eyes and off to the right in this colorized version that has been cleaned up:
Now, the painting featured here doesn’t exactly look like the photo. But have we been looking at very poor renderings of Joseph Smith in art all these years?
The Salt Lake Tribune reported a response to the claim that the photo doesn’t match the painting:
“This isn’t surprising since Emma Smith herself [Smith’s wife] didn’t think the portrait was a good likeness of her husband,” Mackay said in an interview from his home in Nauvoo, Ill., “and that a good portrait of him couldn’t be painted because his countenance was changing all the time.”Link to the article
While death masks are not a very accurate depiction of what someone was like while alive, I had to do my own comparison.
For those who have been to funerals, we all know the feeling of looking at a person and thinking, “That isn’t them.” When dead, the muscles in the body all relax, and gravity takes over.
For Joseph, we knew he was shot multiple times, fell out of a window, and may have been severely beaten; he could have suffered a busted lip and such.
Several years ago, a daughter of mine hit her lip on a table, and almost immediately, it swelled. Look how much a busted lip can alter your appearance.
Also, note how the lighting makes the nose on the left look puffier and the one on the right more slender.
But perhaps more significantly, the weight of the plaster could have pressed into his face and, without any muscle resistance, could have further distorted his features.
Not that Wikipedia is a great source, but there is something to my suggestion:
It is sometimes possible to identify portraits that have been painted from death masks because of the characteristic slight distortions of the features caused by the weight of the plaster during the making of the mould.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_mask
I was interested in doing my own death mask to photo comparison that you can watch here. Look at the bone structure right between the eyes; it appears identical. All the other facial features line up as well.
The only thing that seems off to me is the thicker tip of the nose and upper lip, but I think there could be valid explanations for that, as I have already explained.
The story continues, and I’ll quote directly from the Religion News article here:
Meanwhile, Mackay and Romig tried to verify the find through historical research. Now that they knew the long-rumored daguerreotype was housed inside a locket, they realized that it had, in fact, been “hiding in plain sight” all this time.
“The locket shows up on prominent Smith family women through the years,” Mackay said. Bertha Madison Smith, who married one of Joseph Jr. and Emma’s sons, wore it in a portrait in 1869. In 1875, a granddaughter wore it in her wedding portrait, in which the locket was hanging from a chain.
It’s believed that the locket remained in Emma’s possession until her death in 1879 and that she loaned it to female family members for special occasions. It eventually made its way to the family of the RLDS prophet Fred M. Smith (1874–1946), Joseph Jr.’s grandson and Larsen’s grandfather.
There’s a lot more that you’ll want to read about in the article.
Larsen grew up RLDS, but converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about eight years ago and wants to put the artifact in their hands. That’s probably smart seeing as how the church has the resources to preserve those kinds of things and make them available to people to see.
Here are a few more photos that I’ve gathered:
Since this new excitement about the photo is gaining steam and its authenticity looks pretty solid, we may see some new Joseph Smith artwork in the coming years.
I always think it is fascinating when things like this are discovered and it seems that many people are taking to this new visualization of a significant figure that we have only really known through a variety of paintings that often look as different and varied as other historical figures like the founding fathers.
And with that, I don’t think this post can be complete without the Internet’s take on all of this: