In March of 2020, marooned at home due to COVID, Dan Larsen, a great-great grandson of Joseph Smith, began combing through a box of family artifacts, his mother, Lois, had given him in 1992. Inside was an old locket that resembled a pocket watch, which he had not looked in before because the finial was bent and he had been unable to open it. This time, with some hesitation, he pried it open, and to his surprise, he didn’t see a watch, but was stunned to see the image of a man.
In an interview with Meridian Magazine, Larsen told us, he knew immediately who it was, and his response was quite emotional. He believed the long-sought-after visual image of Joseph Smith was finally found.
It had been sitting in a box in storage for 28 years.
Larsen turned to Ron Romig and Lach Mackay, both historians with the Community of Christ for some help. They began a two-year study and analysis of the photo and recently reported it in The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. Their analysis was careful and methodical, analyzing both facial metrics and provenance.
Using facial recognition software, they analyzed the photo against Joseph’s death mask and his 1842 oil portrait. The process used by Animetrics, the firm they used, compares 21 features with precise measurements such as inter-pupillary distance. They noted that 19 of 21 features fall within the area of 95% confidence range.
They also turned to law enforcement forensic facial imaging and identification. Michael Streed, with 40 plus years of experience in this work, also compared the daguerreotype to the oil painting and death mask using facial feature tracing, horizontal alignment guides, facial overlay and cutways. Streed concluded that “there is high likelihood that the three images are all the same person. Converting highly likely to a percentile scale, Mike noted that “it would be a 90% probability that the photos are all of the same person.”
Romig and MacKay write, “Image comparison technologies and forensic analysis allows the image to speak for itself. The similarities between the physical characteristics of the individual in the daguerreotype to known artistic representations of Joseph Smith Jr. authenticate the image as Joseph Smith Jr.”
The two historians also looked at the provenance of the locket and found the evidence compelling. Lucian Foster, who made daguerreotypes and also had the capacity to miniaturize them in lockets, joined the Church and came to Nauvoo in April, 1844 and stayed with Emma and Joseph. It is hard to imagine that Joseph who was so aware of the importance of history, would not have had his picture taken at this time. Emma is wearing a locket on the day she married Lewis Bidamon. Then through the generations, there are pictures of eminent Smith family women wearing this locket—including Bertha Madison Smith and Emma Josepha Smith McCallum. The historians note, “Although the path is not clear, the locket passed from Emma J. to the family line of her brother and RLDS prophet, Fred M. Smith. His daughter, Lois Smith Larsen and her large family made their home with him on his farm. At Fred M.’s death in 1946, Louis inherited the farm and many of Fred’s personal effects. Lois gifted several significant family artifacts to her son Dan Larsen, just prior to her death.”
So, is this the image? Compare what you see to how his contemporaries describe him, those who were there and saw him breathe and move and talk and inspire. These excerpts include not just physical characteristics but his manner and character. What struck us most about this new photo was the piercing eyes and the presence and strength of the man.
Face and Build
Lydia B. Knight
“Many were the curious glances that I cast at this strange man who dared to call himself a prophet. I saw a tall, well-built form, with the carriage of an Apollo; brown hair, handsome blue eyes, which seemed to dive down to the innermost thoughts with their sharp, penetrating gaze; a striking countenance, and with manners at once majestic yet gentle, dignified yet exceedingly pleasant.” (Susa Young Gates, Lydia Knight’s History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Juvenile Instructor’s Office, 1883), 14-23.)
John D. Lee
“Joseph Smith was a most extraordinary man; he was rather large in stature, some six feet two inches in height, well-built though a little stoop shouldered, prominent and well-developed features, a Roman nose, light chestnut hair, upper lip full and rather protruding, chin broad and square, and eagle eye, and on the whole there was something in his manner and appearance that was bewitching and winning; his countenance was that of a plain, honest man, full of benevolence and philanthropy and void of deceit or hypocrisy. He was resolute and firm of purpose, strong as most men in physical power, and all who saw were forced to admire him, as he then looked and existed.” (John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled (St. Louis, Mo.: N. D. Thompson & Co., 1881), 76.)
“The Prophet weighed about 150 pounds, had nice brown hair, was always jovial and could crack a joke. He could sing well and loved music, loved to dance and would leave a meal at any time to wrestle with anyone. He was nimble as a cat and he was fond of us boys and would often play with us.
Anyone could not help but love him and he loved everybody. He always shook hands with all, even the babes. He had a very fine gray horse that he always rode whenever there was a parade.” (“Testimony of Jacob Jones,” LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.)
“[Joseph Smith] looked and had, the appearance of one that was heaven born while preaching, or as though he had been sent from the heavenly worlds on some divine mission, he was a man of fine form and Stature measuring over six feet in height, he was of a light complexion, his hair was of a flaxen color, he wore no whiskers , his chin was a little tipped, his nose was long and straight, his mouth was rather massive and his upper lip rather long and a little inclined to be thick. He had a large full chest and intelligent eyes and fine limbs; altogether he presented a very formidable appearance, being a man of Gentlemanly bearing.” (James Palmer, “Reminiscences,” LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, 69-70. Spelling and grammar have been modernized.)
“He was a hearty, athletic fellow, with blue eyes standing prominently out upon his light complexion, a long nose, and a retreating forehead. He wore striped pantaloons, a linen jacket, which had not lately seen the washtub, and a beard of some three days’ growth. This was the founder of the religion which had been preached in every quarter of the earth…” “A fine-looking man is what the passer-by would instinctively have murmured upon meeting the remarkable individual who had fashioned the mold which was to shape the feelings of so many thousands of his fellow-mortals. But Smith was more than this, and one could not resist the impression that capacity and resource were natural to his stalwart person. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), 380-81.)
Jane S. Richards
“The first time I ever saw Joseph Smith I recognized him, from a dream I had had. He had such angelic countenance as I never saw before. He was then thirty-seven years of age, of ordinary appearance in dress and manner, a child-like appearance of innocence. His hair was of a light brown, blue eyes and light complexioned. His natural demeanor was quiet, his character and disposition was formed by his life work, he was kind and considerate, taking a personal interest in all his people, considering every one his equal. We were regular in our attendance at the meetings, and [I] was always anxious to hear Brother Joseph.” (“Reminiscences of Mrs. F. D. [Jane Snyder] Richards,” San Francisco, 1880. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 11.)
George Q. Cannon
“When he had achieved the prime of his manhood, he seemed to combine all attractions and excellencies. His Physical person was the fit habitation of his exalted spirit. He was more than six feet in height, with [an] expansive chest an clean cut limbs—a staunch and graceful figure” (Cannon, George Q. The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986.)
The Weekly Gazette, St. Louis, Missouri
“His forehead is white, without a furrow, and notwithstanding the small facial angle, somewhat symmetrical. His hair is quite light and fine, complexion pale, cheeks full, temperament evidently sanguine, lips thin rather than thick.
“But the Prophet’s most remarkable feature is his eye. Not that it is very large, or very bright, very thoughtful or very restless, or even very deep in its expression or location; for it is usually neither of them. The hue is light hazel, and it is shaded, and, at times almost veiled by the longest, thickest light lashes you ever saw belonging to a man. The brows are also light and thick indeed, precisely of that description called bettle-brow.
“The Prophet’s wife is reported to have said of him, ‘No painting of him could catch his expression, for his countenance was always changing to match his thoughts and feelings.’” (Edwin F. Parry, Stories About Joseph Smith the Prophet, (Salt Lake City: 1934), pp. 158-160.)
Personality and Character
The St. Louis Gazette
A correspondent writing for the Saint Louis Gazette in May 1844, just one month prior to the martyrdom wrote, “General Smith is in stature and proportion a very large man; and his figure would probably be called a fine one,” and then notes that, “His chest and shoulders are broad and muscular” (Evans, John Henry. Joseph Smith An American Prophet. New York: Macmillion, 1993, p. 177)
“Brother Joseph was a man weighing about two hundred pounds, fair complexion, light brown hair. He was about six feet tall, sound bodied, very strong and quick—no breakage about his body. He most always wore a silk stock, and was smooth faced. He was very sympathetic and would talk to children and they liked him. He was honest, and was liked by everybody who knew him.” (Elam Cheney Sr., “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal 17, no. 12 (December 1906): 539-40.)
Lyman O. Littlefield
“The opportunity [to meet the Prophet] came, and I first beheld him a tall, well-proportioned man, busily mingling with the members of Zion’s Camp, shaking hands with them, meeting them with friendly greetings and carefully seeing to their comforts. His familiar, yet courteous and dignified manner, his pleasant and intelligent countenance, his intellectual and well-formed forehead, the expressive and philanthropic facial lineaments, the pleasant smile and the happy light that beamed from his mild blue eyes; all these were among the attractive attributes that at once awakened a responsive interest in the mind of every kindly beholder, which increased in intensity as the acquaintance continued. With his most familiar friends he was social, conversational and often indulged in harmless jokes; but when discoursing upon complicated topics that pertained to the welfare of individuals or the progressiveness of communities, his elucidations were clear and so full of common sense and genuine philosophy that the candid and fair-minded felt interested by his views, though they might decline to entertain or promulgate all of the self-evident truths he originated. (Lyman O. Littlefield, “The Prophet Joseph Smith in Zion’s Camp,” Juvenile Instructor 27, no. 1 (1 January 1892): 56-57.)
Newel Knight “The business in which my father was engaged often required him to have hired help, and among the many he from time to time employed was a young man by the name of Joseph Smith, Jun., to whom I was particularly attached. His noble deportment, his faithfulness and his kind address, could not fail to win the esteem of those who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. One thing I will mention, which seemed to be a peculiar characteristic with him in all his boyish sports and amusements; I never knew any one to gain advantage over him, and yet he was always kind and kept the goodwill of his playmates.”
(Newel Knight’s Journal,” in “Scraps of Biography,” in Classic Experiences and Adventures (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1969), 47.)
Parley Parker Pratt
“President Joseph Smith was in person tall and well built, strong and active, of a light complexion, light hair, blue eyes, very little beard, and of an expression peculiar to himself, on which the eye naturally rested with interest, and was never weary of beholding. His countenance was ever mild, affable, beaming with intelligence and benevolence; mingled with a look of interest and an unconscious smile, or cheerfulness, and entirely free from all restraint or affectation of gravity; and there was something connected with the serene and steady penetrating glance of his eye, as if he would penetratethe deepest abyss of the human heart, gaze into eternity, penetrate the heavens, and comprehend all worlds.
“He possessed a noble boldness and independence of character; his manner was easy and familiar; his rebuke terrible as the lion; his benevolence unbounded as the ocean; his intelligence universal, and his language abounding in original eloquence peculiar to himself- -not polished—not studied—not smoothed and softened by education and refined by art; but flowing forth in its own native simplicity, and profusely abounding in variety of subject and manner. He interested and edified, while, at the same time, he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him that were ever weary with his discourse. I have even known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the midst of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing at one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears. (Pratt, Parley P., Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Revised and Enhanced Edition, edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 2000, pp. 45-46)
“I made a critical examination as to his appearance, his dress, and his manner as I heard him speak. He was only twenty-five years of age and was not, at that time, what would be called a fluent speaker. His remarks were confined principally to his own experiences, especially the visitation of the holy angel, giving a strong and powerful testimony in regard to these marvelous manifestations. He simply bore his testimony to what the Lord had manifested to him, to the dispensation of the Gospel which had been committed to him, and to the authority that he possessed. At first he seemed a little diffident and spoke in rather a low voice, but as he proceeded he became very strong and powerful, and seemed to affect the whole audience with the feeling that he was honest and sincere. It certainly influenced me in this way and made impressions upon me that remain until the present day.
“Soon after arriving in Kirtland [circa June, 1836] I was on the street with my sister, Eliza. Joseph Smith came along. He was in a great hurry and stopped just long enough to be introduced and shake hands. He turned to my sister and said: “Eliza, bring your brother over to the house to dinner.” She was then boarding at his home and teaching his private school. As he left us I watched him just as far as I could see him and then turned to my sister and said: “Joseph Smith is a most remarkable man; I want to get better acquainted with him. Perhaps, after all, there is something more to Joseph Smith and to Mormonism than I have ever dreamed.”
“Accordingly, the next time I saw the Prophet was at his own house in Kirtland following his invitation to me to take dinner with him. I remember this meeting and conversation as if it were but yesterday. He sat down at one end of the table and I sat next to him. Eliza sat on the other side. He seemed to have changed considerably in his appearance since I first saw him at Hiram, four and a half years before. He was very ready in conversation, and had apparently lost that reserve and diffident feeling that he seemed to have before. He was free and easy in his conversation with me, making me feel perfectly at home in his presence. In fact, I felt as free with him as if we had been special friends for years. He was very familiar.(LeRoi C. Snow, “How Lorenzo Snow Found God,” Improvement Era 40, no. 2 (February 1937): 82-83.)
Truman Madsen noted in his book, Joseph Smith the Prophet, “Turn for a moment to his mind. It was a remarkable mind. Mother Smith records that he was “much less inclined to perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.” 13 Yet as he matured and as the weight of his calling came upon him he became an assiduous, hard-reading student, poring over the scriptures, even being appointed to go over them word by word, line by line, and make inspired changes. In addition to that he aspired to the ancient languages. 14 At Kirtland he set up a school in Hebrew with Joshua Seixas as the teacher. Six of the students had not even mastered English in its rudiments. The minutes say that the two outstanding students in that school were Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt, in that order. 15 The worst was Heber C. Kimball…
“[He had] the ability to conceptualize; to understand principles, information, truth, and then (which isn’t quite the same) to express them accurately, clearly, and, as need be, briefly. Joseph Smith, whatever his early tendencies and however he may or may not have shown up in school, had a brilliant conceptual ability both to see and to understand, to go to the heart of an issue and then to express it so that others would understand. Related to that is the admonition he wrote while he was for many months in isolation in Liberty. He wrote a letter, parts of which are in our Doctrine and Covenants (but part that is not included is equally profound). 18 He says: ‘The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity-thou must commune with God.’
“That remarkable passage is in the context of his saying that often in our most important council meetings, classes, and gatherings we have been light-minded, ‘vain and trifling,’ and too often unconcentrated in our direction…
“As to the overall quality of the written work of Joseph Smith, Arthur Henry King, a convert to the Church and a renowned English professor, has said that in his judgment the Prophet’s account in Joseph Smith-History (see the Pearl of Great Price), which includes his account of the First Vision and the visits of Moroni, is among the sublime prose in world literature. The same scholar has also said that one may contrast that writing favorably with the more ornate but in many respects more shallow writing of Oliver Cowdery, whose description of his feelings during the translation process and during John the Baptist’s appearance is given at the end of Joseph’s account in the Pearl of Great Price. Compare the two prose styles. In every way, Arthur Henry King observes, Joseph Smith’s is superior.” 26
“We need not apologize at all for the language or structure or form of the Book of Mormon. It is among the great books of the world. It is to be placed side by side with those books which are called canonical. There is a transparency, a brilliance, a white light about its most spiritual elements that I do not find anywhere else. It is a masterwork. Joseph Smith did not produce it and could not have produced it.”
George W. Taggart
“[September 10, 1843] Now something concerning Old Jo, so called. He is a young looking man of his age, which is near thirty-eight years and one of the finest looking men there is in the country and he does not pretend to be a man without failings and follies. He is a man that you could not help liking as a man, setting aside the religious prejudice which the world has raised against him. He is one of the warmest patriots and friends to his country and laws that you ever heard speak on the subject. Neither is he puffed up with his greatness as many suppose but on the contrary is familiar with any decent man and is ready to talk up any subject that anyone wishes. And I assure you it would make you wonder to hear him talk and see the information which comes out of his mouth and it is not in big words either but that which anyone can understand.” (Ronald O. Barney, “‘A Man That You Could Not Help Likeing,’ Joseph Smith and Nauvoo Portrayed in a Letter by Susannah and George Taggart,” BYU Studies 40, no. 2 (2001): 172-73. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized.)
“He was a fine looking man, tall and well proportioned, strong and active, with a light complexion, blue eyes, and light hair, and very little beard. He had a free and easy manner, not the least affectation, yet he was bold and independent, and very interesting and eloquent in speech.” (Journal of Wandle Mace, Brigham Young University Library.)
Truman Madsen wrote : “There were few manly sports that he didn’t have a try at, and many in which he excelled. For example, he wrestled, and wrestled effectively. 9 He jumped at the mark. In this activity you simply drew a mark on the ground, then jumped and marked where you landed, then challenged someone else to match or exceed the jump. 10 He pulled up stakes: Here two men faced each other, placing feet against feet, and then pulled; the stronger one remained on the ground, the other came up. There’s another version of that in which, face to face, you hold a pole, like a broomstick, and then pull down. The stronger of the two holds, and his hands don’t slip. The weaker’s hands slip.”
From Benjamin F. Johnson
Benjamin F. Johnson remembered that in all the many occasions he saw the Prophet compete in stick pulling he never saw him beaten, noting that in spite of his success and accomplishment, Joseph “would allow no arrogance or undue liberties” (Johnson, Benjamin F. “Letter from Benjamin F. Johnson to Elder George F. Gibbs.” Salt Lake City: Pioneer, 1983.)
Physical Strength from His Own Account
“Saturday, [March 11], 1843. . . .In the evening, when pulling sticks, I pulled up Justus A. Morse, the strongest man in Ramus, with one hand. (HC 5:302) [Upon] my arrival at this city [Nauvoo] . . .I pulled sticks with the men [who were] coming along, and I pulled up with one hand the strongest man that could be found. Then two men tried, but they could not pull me up.” (HC 5:465–66)