When Shannon Tracy started reconstructing the face of LDS prophet Joseph Smith, he didn't plan to reconstruct history as well.
He was just excited at having the chance to build an accurate three-dimensional image of the martyred prophet, one that would really resemble the LDS leader."I've always been interested in and frustrated with the number of images of Joseph Smith," said Tracy, who works full-time as a technical sales consultant for Folio Corp. For the past 18 months the Provo man has also taken on the task of researching, defining and detailing not only the face of Joseph Smith but the full-scale images of both the prophet and his brother, Hyrum.
"From a very young age I was intrigued by his charisma, his ability to create excitement and commitment in thousands of followers. I found myself wanting to look into the same face that those people saw."
Since no documented photographs of Joseph Smith exist - except one daguerreotype held by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that hasn't been verified as Joseph Smith - Tracy's challenges were great.
He had to ferret out hundreds of facts and verify each minute detail. He started by borrowing copies of the death masks of the two men on display at the Museum of LDS History and Art and augmented his work with photographs of the skulls in possession of the RLDS Church. The skulls were photographed in 1928, when Joseph and Hyrum's bodies were exhumed and reburied in Nauvoo.
He spent hours with RLDS historian Ronald Romig and Glen Leonard, director of the LDS Museum. He pored over pieces of Hyrum Smith's clothing, owned by LDS Church Patriarch Emeritus Eldred G. Smith.
He and his team of 3-D image experts from Zygote Media - Chris Creek, Roger Clarke and Eric Merritt - Dr. Kent Van De Graaff, BYU professor emeritus of human anatomy; Dr. Niles Herrod, a Provo maxillofacial surgeon, and archivists have spent countless hours on four computers using 12 software programs marking the death masks, working them in grids on computer screens and rotating the digitized skulls. The project cost $18,000.
The story of that journey is written in a recently released book titled "In Search of Joseph."
"I am not an author and never intended to try and be an author, but there was so much information collected that it's even rewritten history in certain areas. I felt if I did not share what we'd learned, I would be neglectful."
Fitting the 3-D faces - based on the death masks of Hyrum and Joseph - onto the photographs of the men's skulls, Tracy and his team have discovered large and small discrepancies in some of the common beliefs about the deaths of the prophet and his brother.
For instance, the skull believed to be Hyrum's actually turned out to fit the death mask of Joseph and vice versa. Apparently the skulls had become switched at some point.
The skull originally thought to be Hyrum's was damaged extensively in the facial area, and it was assumed that the bullet wound he sustained to his face accounted for the major loss of bone structure. Actually, the heavily damaged skull was that of Joseph, probably due to his falling or throwing himself out of the jail window in Carthage, Mo.
When making the death mask Joseph's head was apparently tilted back to get more information into the clay - which means when the head is on the proper angle, Joseph's jaw appears stronger and his posture more comfortable than history has portrayed.
"I realized there were a lot of problems and knew I'd be contradicting a lot of assumptions," said Tracy, who did not "switch" the skulls without intense scrutiny first.
"Here I needed my experts. This is an exact science. It has to fit exactly. It's of no value to me to force a fit, and the masks just wouldn't match with the skulls reversed."
The wear pattern on the top molar caused by a missing first molar helped team members make proper alignments with Joseph's jaw in the skeletal photograph.
"Very, very crucial," said Tracy, since it's known that the prophet tended to grind his teeth.
When the photographs of the skulls were rotated correctly and matched to the corresponding mask, they fit like a hand to a glove.
On Joseph's face, the left cheekbone and eye socket were slightly recessed. Hyrum's skull proved to be larger, his facial structure more square and even. Both men had big heads and were large people. Joseph was more portly than Hyrum.
Only the hair was done with any artistic license, said Tracy, since there are no hair impressions in clay available of how the hair was cut and combed.
Eyelashes and eyebrows are "where eyelashes and eyebrows should be," all based on forensic science. "We know he had piercing blue eyes."
Romig of the RLDS Church said Tracy's work and research is "probably the best research that's been done up to date."
Romig says he believes as well that the photographs of the skulls of Hyrum and Joseph have been reversed.
"I've been very interested in the visual image of Joseph Smith. When I was in Utah two years ago, I met Shannon and we talked. Since then we've, in a sense, collaborated, and I think the results are good."
Jan Shipps, a religious history professor at Indiana-Purdue University who has spent 20 years researching Mormonism, said the work Tracy and others like him are doing in three-dimensional computer research is moving history to an arena akin to archaeology and other sciences.
"This is a promising approach to historical figures in general," said Shipps from her home in Bloomington, Ind. "When there are death masks involved and a computer, it allows historians to get to subtleties and dimensions you might otherwise miss."
Shipps said she was aware of Tracy's work, and though she has not seen the finished product, she thinks the science itself is a "really promising approach."
"It's very interesting that it comes at a time when so many people are saying history is sort of in the eyes of the beholder, nothing but a perception," said Shipps. "It'll point the way for other parts of history because once you `see' it, you never think about a figure in history the same way. It puts depth to history."
Shipps also, however, cautioned about wholesale acceptance of computerized images, because computers can be made to lie. "We found that with the manipulation of numbers when computers first came on the scene."
Along the journey, Tracy felt he had an incredible amount of "good luck" as doors opened and opportunities arose to do things he had thought impossible. The RLDS church, for instance, had never let the skull photographs out of their archives before.Comment on this story
"I'm just a regular person. This project has taken a life of its own," said Tracy. "This project is more than just me.
"It brings the reality home that these are people who lived, who were babies and children who grew and suffered, who had physical defects."
In the end, with the face of the prophet watching from his computer, Tracy introduced himself to an image he now feels really looks like the man who ushered the gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into this dispensation. "Brother Joseph," he said, "I'm Shannon Tracy."