19th Century Photo of Joseph Smith’s “Caractors” Discovered

Jacob Hicks Photo  of the 'Caractors'INTRODUCTION

Back in November of last year [2012] I was scouring the internet looking for photographs of David Whitmer that I could use as a basis for a portrait of a younger version of David that I planned to paint. I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a picture of David Whitmer that was included in a collection of photos taken by Jacob Hicks and posted by the Clay County Museum in Missouri.[1]

Curious, I searched through the collection to see if there were any more pictures that I might be interested in and to my surprise I found two photos of the “Caractors” document that was reported to be in the possession of David Whitmer until his death in 1888, which Whitmer had always affirmed [2] was the “original paper” that Martin Harris took to Charles Anthon in 1828.

These photos of the “Caractors” document were taken by Jacob T. Hicks who was (according to the Clay County Museum) “the first professional photographer in Clay and Ray Counties (Missouri).” I noticed at this time that these photos had been posted three years earlier (in 2009).

Jacob T. Hicks

Photographer Jacob T. Hicks

Jacob Hicks “was born in Liberty, Missouri on October 6, 1840 and died in Liberty, Missouri in March of 1924. He retired in 1912. His niece, Mrs. B.P. (Nadine Fisher) Thompson – who lived in Liberty – preserved the collection of his glass negatives.”

The original “caractors” document, also known as the “Anthon Transcript” was described as a “fragment” by Frederick M. Smith (grandson of Joseph Smith, Jr.) in 1941 in a letter to John A. Widtsoe. This “fragment” was “eight inches by three and one-fourth inches” when it came into the possession of the Reorganized Church in 1903, but was believed by some to have been torn from a larger document.[3]

As you can see, the picture that I discovered in December of 2012 shows the complete document before it had been torn off.  The fragment that contained the “caractors” was probably torn off sometime before 1884, because it is described as having the same dimensions then as it did in 1903.[4]

It also may be possible that the “caractors” were torn off in an effort to give strength to the narrative of David Whitmer – that this was the original copy of the characters that Martin Harris took to New York city in 1828, since the rest of the document could date it to (at the least) a few years after that time.

I immediately searched to see if anyone else had discovered the document, but could find nothing about it anywhere online.  I decided to keep the matter to myself, since I was working on a paper about a possible connection between the Kinderhook plates glyphs and the Book of Mormon characters.

There the matter stood until March of 2013 when I was e-mailed by Don Bradley about my Kinderhook research. Don and I had been corresponding off and on about the Kinderhook plates since 2011 when he had given a presentation about them at a F.A.I.R. Conference that year which resulted in a spirited on-line discussion.[5]

The main focus of Don’s research was a connection to Joseph Smith’s short “translation” of the Kinderhook Plates with the G.A.E.L.,[6]while my approach was oriented towards a Book of Mormon characters connection.  Don had encouraged me to pursue this avenue of thought and would check back with me from time to time to see how I was progressing with my research.  He did so again in March of 2013, and it was then that I decided to share my discovery with him.  He messaged me back, “You’ve found something amazing here.”

Don then offered to help me research the possible origin of the document, and provided some helpful insights about the handwriting on the document and the phrase “The Generations of the Book of Adam”. But Don was very busy with other projects; so I then got in touch with Dan Vogel, who has been instrumental in helping me to reconstruct the possible history and handwriting on the newly revealed portion of the document from the Hicks photo.

I would like to thank Don Bradley and especially Dan Vogel for his insights in helping me flesh out the possible history of the “Caractors” document, which I could not have done without the pictures of various documents (and analysis) he kindly provided me with.

I would also like to thank Brent and Erin Metcalfe, whom I have never met, (or communicated with) who I understand are doing their own treatment of this discovery; who (I am sure) will be able to provide even more insight into this photo. The reason that I wish to thank the Metcalfe’s, is for the clue about the photo sitting of David Whitmer in 1867 that they left at the Hicks Collection earlier this year.

This article will be divided into four parts, the first will be about the early history of the Book of Mormon characters; the second will deal with Martin Harris’s trip to see Charles Anthon and Samuel Mitchill; the third will cover what happened to the various character documents after the Church moved to Ohio; and the last section will be about the Hicks photo and what it adds to understanding the origins of the “Caractor” document.

Go to Part I: The “Caractors” from the Gold Plates.


[1] The two photos from the Jacob Hicks Collection may be found here, and here, accessed June 3,2013.

[2] In 1884, a St. Louis Republican reporter wrote,

 “At this stage of the explanation, Mr. Whitmer showed those present a specimen of the characters copied from the plates. It is on a piece of strong paper about four by eight inches, and covered with one hundred or more hieroglyphics and figures.

 It is the identical specimen which was sent to Prof. Anthon, of New York, and shown by him to Prof. Mitchell, of which the New York papers made mention at the time. The specimen was sent to Prof. Anthon by Martin Harris and returned to him. Profs. Anthon and Mitchell both admitted they were ancient characters, resembling the reformed Egyptian and Hebrew characters. Mr. Whitmer holds these characters, as well as the manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the records of the church, in great reverence, and would not part with them for any money or allow them to go out of his house. ”  (The St. Louis Daily Republican, July 16, 1884).

 [3]The Improvement Era, January 1942, page 58.

 [4] The Deseret News, March 25, 1884. See also, the Bear Lake Democrat, March 28, 1884. On October 10, 1886, the Omaha Herald made a cut or fac-simile of the characters and printed it with an article titled, “David Whitmer Talks.”

 [5] See, http://mormondiscussions.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=19831&start=84, accessed June 3, 2013. And here, http://www.mormondialogue.org/topic/55214-don-bradley-and-the-kinderhook-plates/page__st__160, accessed June 3, 2013.

 [6] The G.A.E.L. is Joseph Smith’s Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language. For Don Bradley’s Kinderhook Plates presentation, see: http://www.fairlds.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Don-Bradley-Kinderhook-President-Joseph-Has-Translated-a-Portion-1.pdf accessed June 3, 2013.