Rare Original Photo of Wilford Woodruff Discovered on eBay

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 26 March 2015

A Nauvoo-era daguerreotype of Wilford Woodruff was found on eBay recently by photo historian Ron Fox.  Photo by Ryan Morgenegg, Church News.

Article Highlights

  • Ron Fox, a photo historian, found a rare daguerreotype of Wilford Woodruff from the Nauvoo era selling on eBay.
  • The image of Wilford Woodruff, at age 37, is possibly the earliest original image that survived from Nauvoo.

“When I discovered the image and knew who it was, I began to shake. I called my wife in to look at the image. I realized I had found something very special and very valuable” —Ron Fox, photo historian  

It’s one of the most significant discoveries in Church photographic history. A small, wonderfully preserved daguerreotype (dag) of Wilford Woodruff at about the age of 37 taken during the Nauvoo era was found and purchased recently on eBay by Utah photo historian Ron Fox and Anthony Christensen of Anthony’s Antiques and Fine Art.

“When I discovered the image and knew who it was, I began to shake,” said Brother Fox. “I called my wife in to look at the image. I realized I had found something very special and very valuable.” The incredible find was not simply by chance and represents a tremendous amount of work. Brother Fox looked at 70 to 100 dags a day on eBay for about two years, many without any names or identifiers. That’s more than 70,000 images over the past two years.

Taken just two months after the death of Joseph Smith, the dag of Wilford Woodruff shows a strong, vibrant man with the presence and dignity of one who will later become President of the Church. The eBay listing had no name but the description stated, “handsome intelligent looking man.” It was purchased as part of a collection of images from a female antique dealer in western Massachusetts, only 40 miles from the original home of the future prophet.

A Nauvoo-era daguerreotype of Wilford Woodruff was found on eBay recently by photo historian Ron Fox. Photo by Ryan Morgenegg, Church News.

A copy of the actual ad that was placed in the Nauvoo Neighbor by L. R. Foster for people to have a miniature likeness made. Photo courtesy of Alex Baugh.

“I feel a special connection to Wilford Woodruff,” said Brother Fox. “I was blessed to find the first photo of his family, the last known photograph of him at the dedication of Pioneer Park on July 24, 1898, and with this new discovery, the first known documented Nauvoo image of any person. I often feel that I have been led to some of these historical items by inspiration.”

Taking the image to the Church and professors at BYU, Brother Fox sought out professionals to examine the image and give their opinion. “Ron called me to tell me about his find,” said Richard Holzapfel, professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU. “A day or so later he came to Provo to show me the original.”

The image of Wilford Woodruff is most likely the earliest image made in Nauvoo that has survived the ravages of time, said Brother Holzapfel. “We have several images from Nauvoo, but we have them in copies, few originals, so this is exciting on both levels—an early image and an original.”

Alex Baugh, another professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU saw the image as well. “All of the details surrounding the image seem to fit the things we know about Church history,” he said. “It fits the age he would have been at the time, it matches a journal entry he made, and the image looks like Wilford Woodruff. “

“Another interesting thing is an ad that was taken out in the Nauvoo Neighbor on Wednesday, August 14, 1844. It invites people to come and have their ‘likeness taken’ in the studio of Lucian Foster. On August 23, Wilford Woodruff records in his journal that Brother Foster took his and his wife Phebe’s image and ‘obtained a good likeness.’” Wilford Woodruff labored for a time as the office manager at the Times and Seasons and Nauvoo Neighbor and may have known that Brother Foster had placed the ad and likely read it as well.

Brother Fox has made several great historical discoveries in his life. There are the images of Wilford Woodruff and his family; a photograph of the first conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, John Parry; the first flag of Utah; and the first U.S. presidential seal created in 1850 by President Millard Fillmore. “A lot of people don’t realize the historical value of the photos and old artifacts that they might have lying around their home,” said Brother Fox. “History is being destroyed when homes are cleared of these items. I have helped people identify things of value that could be preserved.”

Brother Fox had an interesting home teaching visit a few weeks ago with a 90-year-old sister in his ward. “I noticed an engraving of Brigham Young on her wall with some handwriting on it that was odd. It turned out the handwriting was the personal signature of photographer Charles R. Savage. We also were told that a bunch of glass negatives were in her attic that had significant historical value, since her father was a professional photographer.”

The daguerreotype mentioned in this article will appear in an upcoming book about Wilford Woodruff and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The book had been in the works long before the image of Wilford Woodruff was found, but the timing couldn’t have been better. “I was able to place this image in the book before the print deadline,” said Brother Fox. Outside of this article, it will be the first introduction of the image in over 170 years.