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Daguerreotype found: Is it Oliver Cowdery?

PROVO, Utah — A newly discovered daguerreotype in the Library of Congress is almost certainly a likeness of Oliver Cowdery and, if so, promises to be the clearest, most accurate known image of the "Second Elder of the Church" who was with the Prophet Joseph Smith during the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, according to the man who discovered the photo.

Patrick A. Bishop reported his findings in a presentation at a Nov. 10 symposium at BYU marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Brother Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

Co-sponsored by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and the BYU Religious Studies Center, the symposium featured presentations from 14 scholars. Other proceedings from the symposium will be covered later in the Church News.

An employee with the Church Educational System, Brother Bishop found the photo while doing research stemming from his master's thesis completed at Utah State University, in which he has sought to obtain photographic images of early Church leaders.

On Feb. 6 of this year, Brother Bishop was doing some research for Ron Romig, head archivist of the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church) and was perusing an Internet Web site of the Library of Congress, viewing copies of photographs that provide examples of 1840s clothing styles. He came across one image which, from his earlier work, he immediately recognized as Oliver Cowdery.

"I saved it to my hard drive as 'Oliver ??' and didn't think another thing of it," Brother Bishop said at the symposium. "About three days went by, and I just had a sleepless night. I can't go into the details of it, but I just could not sleep. And I woke up the next morning determined to do a study on it. I didn't know what the end of it would be; I just decided to do a study of it."

The result has been a 95 percent certainty that the daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) is indeed of Oliver, he said. If so, it is significant, because it would be the only known photographic likeness in existence of the man who, with Joseph Smith, received the priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist and later, Peter, James and John.

The best image to date of Oliver Cowdery is an engraving copied in 1883 from a daguerreotype borrowed from Oliver's daughter, Maria, at the behest of Church President Joseph F. Smith.

President Smith called James H. Hart on a special mission to Southwest City, Mo., to obtain the daguerreotype. After several hours of effort, Elder Hart persuaded Maria's husband, Charles Johnson, to lend him the daguerreotype. Elder Hart then took it to New York City to be engraved by Hall and Sons, which Brother Bishop identified as "the most well-known engravers in the whole United States at the time."

The engraving was then published in an article in the Church magazine, The Contributor, along with engravings of David Whitmer and Martin Harris, the other two of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Meanwhile, the daguerreotype was returned to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. Shortly thereafter, the daguerreotype was destroyed in a house fire, along with an oil painting of Oliver Cowdery. Until this year, the only known images of Oliver were copies made from the engraving of that daguerreotype, including an oil painting by artist John Willard Clawson that hangs at the Joseph Smith birth place in Vermont.

It was fortuitous that the engraving was made, Brother Bishop said, for it provides a basis of comparison for the newly discovered image at the Library of Congress.

Titled in the library's catalog as "Unidentified man, half-length portrait, with arm resting on table with tablecloth," the daguerreotype was taken by James Presley Ball, whose name is engraved on the brass plate just below the image, along with the city where he was employed, Cincinnati, Ohio.

"He was one of the first black photographers in the United States," Brother Bishop said. "His work is worth thousands of dollars. The reason the Library of Congress had this image was not because it was an old 1840s image, it was because of who took the image."

J. P. Ball opened a shop in Cincinnati in 1845, just north of Tiffin, Ohio, where Oliver was practicing law at the time. And in 1846, Ball traveled around Ohio as an itinerant photographer.

"So there are two likely scenarios here," Brother Bishop said. "One is that J. P. Ball would have come to Tiffin and taken the photograph there. The other is that at some point Oliver would have gone to Cincinnati, Ohio, either on a political run, because he's hugely into politics at that point" or for a legal trial, during which trip he might have had the photograph taken.

"Research is ongoing to try and, 100 percent, put J. P. Ball and Oliver Cowdery in the same place at the same time, but we're just grateful to know that they were at least in the vicinity at the same time period," Brother Bishop noted.

Other factors support the likelihood that the photograph is indeed of Oliver Cowdery, Brother Bishop said, including the clothing in the image, which matches the 1840s time period.

Also, "forensics evidence" supports it, he said, explaining that a grid-line comparison with the engraving made from the other daguerreotype of Oliver matches the location and shape of facial features "with exactness."

And the only physical description of Oliver known to exist, one given by his law partner William Lang, matches the photograph, Brother Bishop said, quoting the description: "Mr. Cowdery ... had an open countenance, high forehead, dark brown eyes, Roman nose, clenched lips and prominent lower jaw. He shaved smooth and was neat and cleanly in his person. He was of light stature, about five feet, five inches high, and had a loose, easy walk. With all his kind and friendly disposition, there was a certain degree of sadness that seemed to pervade his whole being."

Brother Bishop said if the image does prove with 100 percent certainty to be of Oliver, "what a marvelous blessing it will be to look into those eyes ... and say, 'That is a man who saw through the veil on multiple occasions. There is a man who saw the Savior Himself; who saw John the Baptist; Moroni; Peter, James and John; Moses; Elias; Elijah; even father Adam.'"

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