Television police dramas are so popular that they have come to influence the American legal system — or so say believers in the “CSI Effect.” The theory goes that the American public have been so frequently exposed to scientific terms and forensic tests in the media that we have come to expect, even demand, the level of scientific accuracy we see on TV. Prosecutors say that juries will not convict in the absence of DNA evidence, even when DNA evidence is irrelevant to the case. Defense attorneys complain that prosecutors blind juries with forensic evidence, protesting that juries implicitly believe science even when (especially when) they do not understand it.
The past week or two of breathless emails and speculative news reports (at least in the Salt Lake City market) have many of us eagerly looking forward to evaluating the evidence concerning the purported Joseph Smith image. Most of that will involve computer simulations and proportional measurements and omigosh claims and whiz-bang terminology. I hope the evidence is presented in such a way that a nonspecialist like me can follow it and properly evaluate it. And I hold the author responsible to be truly scholarly in his reporting: that is, even though he is thoroughly convinced in his conclusions, he must not be carried away by his enthusiasm to the point where he exaggerates supporting evidence or conceals contradictory evidence. The audience for any historical work has the right to expect that.
In the meantime, we shouldn’t lose sight of the dull, plodding, old-fashioned techniques that are available to assess the likelihood of the image being that of Joseph Smith. All the bells and whistles of computer simulations must not be allowed to obscure the documentary evidence.
Take provenance, for example. “Provenance” is the record of an object’s or document’s existence. Who created it, and when and where and why? Where did it go next? And after that? In the terms of police drama, think of it as the chain of custody.
Provenance is critical to assessing a document or other artefact from the past. Provenance can add weight to professional judgments, or rule out proposed solutions. Provenance guards against forgery and alteration (there is NO suggestion that this daguerreotype has been tampered with — but had it passed through Mark Hofmann’s hands, you would want the provenance to disclose that). Provenance also guards against stolen and looted artefacts (again, that is NOT a question in this case). A document without provenance is like an artefact ripped from the ground by the looter of an archaeological site: it loses its context and all that might have been learned by studying its origins.
There is, according to archivists’ chatter, no provenance for the purported Joseph Smith image. That is, the donor provided no clear history of the image (or was asked for none), other than that it was a family possession. The donor reported that one of her ancestral lines was named Smith, but provided no evidence that her Smith family was related to Joseph Smith’s family, or even that ownership of the image had come from her Smith ancestors rather than from any of her other ancestral families.
To evaluate the possibility that the purported image of Joseph Smith was once owned by a relative of Joseph Smith, I spent a couple of hours today researching the donor’s ancestry. Please note that this does not adequately compensate for the lack of provenance. It shows one possible passage through time for this image, but as an outsider I have no access to family traditions or anything else to support the claim that the image descended from the donor’s Smith ancestor rather than from one of the donor’s seven other great-grandparents.
The image is generally known as the “Scannel Daguerreotype” because it was donated to the Community of Christ (then the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in the mid-1960s by Katherine Scannel (b. 1912), in whose family the image is assumed to have descended.
Katherine Scannel was the daughter of Walter William Scannel (1887-1944).
Walter William Scannel was the son of Almon S. Scannel (1846-1918).
Almon S. Scannel was the son of William Orr Scannel (1801-1859) and Emily L. Smith (1809-1864).
William was born in Pennsylvania, probably a first generation American (William Orr was the name of an Irish patriot who was executed in 1797, suggesting that his family had close and recent ties to Ireland, the origin of most of America’s Scannel[l] families).
Emily was born in Massachusetts. I was unable in the time available to place her in her family of origin. I have tried tracing her backwards, and also tried assuming that she was in fact a cousin of Joseph Smith — I have examined the descendants of his ancestor Samuel Smith (1666-1748), whose descendants of Joseph’s time would have been his third and fourth cousins, without finding a suitable candidate for “our” Emily.
Because William and Emily were born in different states, they probably met in western New York, where they were married in 1825. I don’t have a precise location for their marriage, but in 1832 I can place them in the Holland Purchase considerably north and west of the region associated with Joseph Smith. They lived in New York until about 1836 or ’37, when they moved to Ohio — not to Kirtland, but at the opposite end of the state, on its western border. William and Emily died there, and their children scattered from Minnesota to Texas to Illinois. If this daguerreotype does in fact go back to Emily, and not through some other ancestral line of the donor, then it passed down through the branch that settled in Illinois.
So what can that tell us about the identification of the man pictured in the daguerreotype? Nothing conclusive, certainly. But we can look at the presumed ownership and look for opportunities for the Scannels to have crossed paths with Joseph Smith. They’re in the same general region of the country during several periods, but not in the same towns or even counties. And while we know that Joseph Smith traveled, we can’t assume the same about William Scannel, who was a shoemaker with no obvious need or means to travel for business or pleasure.
An adequate provenance would also have indicated when an item had changed hands. In my reconstruction, you will note that Almon Scannel lost both parents by age 18; [addition:] he had left home even earlier, having enlisted in the 68th Ohio Infantry at age 15 in 1861. As a youngster he would have had to have been intimately familiar with family portraits in order to have known and passed on any reliable identification of this daguerreotype. In your own case, how much attention did you pay to the photos in your parents’ possession, especially those of people you never knew, like your great uncles and second cousins?
Who created this image, and when and where and why, are provenance-related questions as basic as the “who” of its subject. For me, the reconstituted provenance is too weak to lend the slightest crumb of support to the image’s identification as Joseph Smith. In fact, it casts doubt on such an identification — when and why and how would it have landed in the possession of someone who could be no closer kin than a third or fourth cousin, if any relation at all?
I will be as eager as anyone to look at Shannon Tracy’s evidence when it is published — but as much as I would dearly love to be convinced that someone has in fact found a photograph of Joseph Smith, I need to be persuaded not only by the dazzle of computer graphics, but also by an explanation that adequately overcomes the image’s lack of provenance.