The CSI Effect and Mormon History

March 20, 2008 | 26 comments
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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.

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26 Responses to The CSI Effect and Mormon History

  1. Bob on March 20, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    I agree ‘provenance’ is useful tool of evidence. But I also think ‘Forensic science’ can and will play it’s part. (I watch a lot of CSI).
    We already know it looks like Joseph Smith Jr., (not Magic Johnson). We know some people thought it had some value, and didn’t just toss it out. We know the time and place are possible. ( Not found in Germany).
    I have black and white photos from the 1930s taken by my mother. How do I know this? She used a Leica camera that produced an unusual print size.

  2. Ardis Parshall on March 20, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    We know it looks like a great many people, Bob. We all look more alike than we look different. Without provenance, we do not know WHY anyone thought it had value. The western frontier of Ohio might as well have been Germany. You know that your mother’s Leica produced prints of an unusual size, but presumably you don’t claim that ALL prints of that size were produced by your mother’s Leica — the photos you have have a provenance: you got them from your mother, they closely resemble other known pictures of your Aunt Florabelle, and you recognize your mother’s handwriting on the back. If they were of identical size but had been found two states south in the possession of another Bob family, would you assume your mother had taken them?

  3. David G. on March 21, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Simply excellent, Ardis.

  4. Bill MacKinnon on March 21, 2008 at 12:50 am

    Ardis,
    Makes sense to me. Thanks for doing this. In the case of many of the Mark Hofmann forgeries, I think that red lights were run re both the provenance aspect the documents and the technical side of things. On many of his items, the provenance was “I just found it” or “I can’t disclose my source”. On the technical/scientific side of things, apparently the paper was analyzed (and found to be 19th century) but the ink wasn’t adequately analyzed until things had hit the fan. As with the earlier discussion of urban legends or Mormon folklore, sometimes the old saying — if it is too good to be true, perhaps it isn’t — is a good one to keep in mind at all times.

  5. Christopher on March 21, 2008 at 2:12 am

    Excellent work, Ardis.

  6. Richard O. on March 21, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Ardis is part of a very rare breed, a professional historical researcher. She doesn’t have a cozy academic nest. She has to consistently produce careful and accurate historical research or she doesn’t eat. We have just been treated to a display of some of her skills. Were that all who claim to be historians writing about Mormonism were as equally careful about each interpretive path that they venture down.

  7. AaronK on March 21, 2008 at 9:15 am

    Just as a sidelight to your reference to CSI: a couple of years ago I was called up for Jury duty on a rape trial. Before final jury selection the judge sternly counseled us to “forget everything we’ve seen on television on shows such as CSI” where they have machines that provide almost instantaneous fingerprint matching and DNA analysis. No one has such machines, he said. I later read how judges and prosecutors around the country worry that criminals who have committed serious crimes might be acquitted because juries influenced by these shows are holding prosecutors to impossibly high standards. Whether that is true or not, I will leave to those in the legal profession. The lesson, I think, is that good forensic science, like good historical research, is usually the result of hard work, patience, and careful, careful analysis. We follow the evidence where it leads, not where we want it to go.

    Thank you.

  8. East Coast on March 21, 2008 at 9:40 am

    If I need some professional research done, I’ll hire you, Ardis.

    Sloppy “right place at the right time” connections like Bob’s comment #1 result in some unfortunate conclusions.

    I have a very well researched New York ancestral family. I’ve seen my family lines in rootsweb showing an ancestor married to his mother-in-law. Someone made an incorrect “right place at the right time” conclusion and published it online. Lots of people have believed it and imported it into their files. It’s particularly sad since the correct information is easily available. Trying to track down and correct the fake information would be like fighting the hydra.

    “Right place at the right time” conclusions are only one part of making a case.

  9. Mark B. on March 21, 2008 at 10:41 am

    When I was a teenager, a distant relative of mine was in the First Presidency. Hugh B. Brown is my great-grandmother’s second cousin. (If you care, that makes him my second cousin, thrice removed.) Our first common ancestor was born in 1794 and died in 1878, not long before Hugh B.’s birth.

    I don’t think I even realized there was a connection until at least 10 years after Hugh B.’s death, and that came about only because my father heard from his boyhood friend Charles Peterson (Levi’s big brother) that he (Charles) had discovered at the Huntington Library a pamphlet written by Benjamin Brown, who is Hugh B.’s and our first common ancestor. And that led Dad to the journal kept by Lorenzo Brown, Benjamin’s son, which was in Special Collections at the Lee Library at BYU–not in an old trunk in Aunt Hattie’s attic.

    But we had not a single family keepsake, no heirlooms, no copies of journals (and Lorenzo Brown, Benjamin’s son kept one from about 1845 to about 1900), no Brown family reunions for us Butler’s, etc.

    I suspect that most families are like that (with the possible exception of descendants of Jesse N. Smith)–and the likelihood that a collateral relative like Emily L. Smith (assuming she was–with a name like Smith what are the odds?) ended up with a family keepsake like a snapshot of cousin Joseph seems pretty low.

  10. Bob on March 21, 2008 at 10:59 am

    #8: “Sloppy “right place at the right time”. In police work and legal defenses that’s called an “Alibi”. It’s enough to get you off murder.
    #2: “We all look more alike than we look different. “. Not to ‘Forensic science’. This is why fingerprints, DNA, shoe size, age, gender, etc., are used to rule in or out. Is ‘Forensic science’ open to human error? Yes! Does it have a better track record than ‘provenance’? In my opinion, yes.

  11. Ardis Parshall on March 21, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Bob, I will accede to everything you say, the moment forensic science can determine the fingerprints, DNA, and shoe size of the man in the image under discussion. Until then, I will maintain that you are dazzled by a fictional form of sciences you do not understand.

    And, by the way, we don’t know the image was not found in Germany, or its neighborhood. Katherine Scannel’s maternal grandparents were immigrants from Bohemia. An adequate provenance would have ruled out that possibility.

  12. Susan M on March 21, 2008 at 11:57 am

    I think it looks more like Hyrum.

    I don’t really get why an old photograph is such a big deal, though. What’s the significance?

  13. Bob on March 21, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    #11: We have reached a point in ‘Forensic science’, where a facial image is as good as a fingerprint, or maybe even DNA.
    I am not “dazzled”, rather ‘trained’ in forensic science. I have a degree in Archeology/Anthropology, and I spent 30 years in a career that required me to have good understanding of forensics. (And ‘provenance’).

  14. Bob on March 21, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    #12: I would say (if it’s real), it helps confirm for us, that others images of him (including paintings) do represent what he looked like.

  15. Ardis Parshall on March 21, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    13: Bob, I rest my case.

  16. Doug on March 21, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Then there is the tool of the smell test. Would a 37-38 year old Joseph Smith look like that? The guy looks like he is in his late twenties. And after having passed thru several lifetimes of challenges, don’t you think it would show on the real Joseph’s face?

  17. Bob on March 21, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    #17: Has someone confirmed when the picture was done?

  18. Ardis Parshall on March 21, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    18: No, but Joseph was 33 in August of 1839 when Daguerre announced his process, and only grew older and older during the years that passed while the process spread. No data available on whether his shoe size changed during those years.

  19. Kevinf on March 21, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    The perils of a lack of provenance are certainly evident in the Mark Hoffman case, as Bill M pointed out. Hoffman was clever enough to have introduced “samples” of alleged handwriting by Martin Harris that were not immediately linked with Hoffman, later used to verify other documents purported to be by Harris that turned out also to be Hoffman forgeries. “Forensic science” would have verified all the writings and inscriptions were made by the same hand, but provenance proved it to be Hoffman’s, not Harris.

    The two go hand in hand in the best of circumstances, but provenance wins out if there is any doubt.

  20. Susan M on March 21, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    #14: I don’t think it looks like him, though! :P

  21. Marianne on March 21, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    When I first heard about this, as an art historian the first thing I did was check the dates of the image (unknown) against the dates of Daguerreotypes (when developed/introduced/widely available). Frankly, I think the image looks too good to be an1839/40 Dauguerreotype, and to my eye the man looks too young to be a 19th century man in his mid-30s who had had some hard life experiences at that point.

    I rely on archaeological context for my research, and with an artifact like this with no provenance, no one can ever say anything more definitive than \”it\’s possible that it is\”. It\’s much easier to demonstrate that it almost certainly is not.

  22. Bob on March 21, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    #25:Generally, we agree. Part of the problem, we are comparing an apple with apple. Just thrown on the table, it’s hard to tell. Perhaps, something will be revealed by provenance, or forensics. As I read it, several different chemical formulas were being tried in Daguerreotypes at this time. Maybe that will lead to a person, place, or time. But watch out for the Darwin/Wallace situation where the science was coming together in many places. Maybe there was a copycat or ‘hacker’ mirroring Daguerre’s work.
    Certainly, we do know what time did to Lincoln and others. But Joseph did seem to hold onto his ‘youth’ better than most.

  23. Bruce on March 22, 2008 at 5:01 am

    Well done, Sis. I’ve read your postings and writings for several years now with constantly increasing admiration.

  24. Bill MacKinnon on March 22, 2008 at 9:09 am

    Susan M. (#12) startled me with her question: What’s “the big deal…the significance ” of “an old picture”? It’s a very good question; one that made me think. IMHO such photographs help us connect to the person in the image and understand their humanity a bit more; they help to clear away other images (paintings and engravings) that we sus[ect are either idealized or just inaccurate in some way. For me such photographs help with that very fundamental question: “So THAT’S what he looked like.” It’s partly a matter of just curiosity, but it’s also the knowing or connecting thing, and the more idealized a person has become over the years, the more helpful such an answer is — at least for me. As a kid I stumbled across Miller’s ten-volume set of photographs taken during the American Civil War published in 1912. Up until that time I had seen only images of the war that were pretty unrealistic woodcuts or paintings. The humanity of what I saw in Miller’s collection really grabbed me…a bit like later seeing the photo taken by Roger Fenton of the cannon ball-littered road down which Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Light Cavalry Brigade had charged shortly before during the Crimean War. I had the same feeling when I first saw the beautiful images taken in Saltillo, Coahuila during the winter of 1846-47 soon after the battle at Buena Vista. The Americans, Mexicans, and even animals depicted came alive for me. Wouldn’t you really like to be in Joseph Smith’s presence today? Doesn’t a photograph take you a step closer to that feeling even if it’s a small one?

  25. Kevin Barney on March 22, 2008 at 9:34 am

    Wonderful (as usual), Ardis. I greatly appreciate your historian mojo. (I like the image and would love for it to be authentic, but fully agree such a judgment will take actual evidence.)

  26. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 24, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    There is definitely a bias that is attached to potentially sensational discoveries. People just WANT things to be so. Science buffs who watch Star Trek make fun of its WANTum physics, which makes up new elements and chemicals and classes of radiation with convenient properties to dirve or resolve a plot. Our evaluation of resemblance between images is usually something we do at an unconscious level. If we see someone fleetingly whom we know well, only a second of exposure can confirm their identity to us. However, it is also well known that seeing someone once in the circumstances of a stressful event (such as a violent crime) is not a good source for fixing in our memories an accurate image, and it is notoriously easy to use the power of suggestion, and sometimes downright hypnosis, to make people THINK that the clear image they get of a suspect in a photo book or a lineup is the image that they saw at the scene of the crime. DNA evidence is objective and cannot be distorted by relating back into our memories a present image. That is why felon after felon has been freed after DNA showed that eyewitness identifications were false.

    I am frankly troubled by the judge’s instruction to the jury to disregard everything they think they know about forensic evidence. I have been a prosecutor, and some of the basic practices depicted in TV programs can in fact have some validity. Part of the problem with widespread knowledge among jurors is that the American juridical system has come to regard the ideal juror as a person who is totally ignorant of everything except the basics of human language. The ideal juror is someone who has learned English as a second language but has no notion about how society or science work. It is an ideal that is unobtainable, and it invites legal advocates for both sides to play on a jury’s emotions rather than any depth of understanding. Our refusal to compensate juries for their service means that no one with a decent income can afford to serve on them for any length of time. The rules of evidence actively conceal informaiton form juries that is relevant to the case, out of an assumption that their prejudices will overcome their judgment. The result is that juries are told only part of the facts and are kept in the dark about the real consequences of their decisions. They are not allowed to take notes, they are not allowed to ask questions of their own, they are not allowed to ask questions about the law. Advocates want to totally control what juries know. So to the extent that precedent-setting cases are tried before juries, some of our most important public decisions are being made by people who are intentionally ignorant.

    Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the Emperor’s New Clothes is a parable about the willingness of human beings to deny the plain testimony of our senses when social expectations demand we do so. I hope that there is going to be some plain old scholarly research about the photo, while everyone else is told to wait for the analysis.

    Personally, the person in the photo looks to young and inexperienced and untrodden to be Joseph. And he does not look confident enough to be Joseph. Even non-Mormon visitors remarked on the charismatic qualities of the man. I sure don’t see anything of that kind of character here. But that’s my subjective assessment.