Upon entering the MTC, I was “issued,” among other books, “A Marvelous Work and a Wonder,” by LeGrand Richards. It was an amazing book to read, and it opened my eyes to many new gospel truths. After time, however, I realized that at least a few things are erroneously taught therein.
For example, in the book, Richards gives a brief history of how Joseph Smith acquired the papyrus to translate the Book of Abraham. He explains how a man named Michael Chandler inherited several mummies from his uncle, a French explorer named Antonio Lebolo. Upon accepting the Egyptian relics in New York City, Chandler discovered numerous rolls of papyri therewith and was allegedly told by “a stranger” that he should “seek out the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, as probably the only man who could render a correct translation of the ancient manuscripts.” (A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, LeGrand Richards, pg. 404) Richards continues to describe how Chandler sold the artifacts to the Prophet and how they eventually fell victim to the great fire of Chicago in 1871. I can’t begin to count how many times during and after my mission I had taught this story as I learned from Richards' book.
In 2001, however, I attended a lecture on the Book of Abraham at BYU, where Dr. John Gee briefly mentioned a few historical differences that I had never heard before and were not mentioned in Richards’ book. After his presentation I approached him and asked him about the contradictions - he opened my mind to the real story.
While most of the facts and information remain true today, Richards erred in a few respects. First, Chandler certainly was not of any relation to Lebolo, and Lebolo was not French but Italian. Chandler was simply a salesman who took advantage of an opportunity to make money by touring the northeast with mystic Egyptian artifacts. Secondly, as a salesman, Chandler purposefully crafted a sensational story of how he happened upon the artifacts, and how he was directed to seek out a Prophet of God. In reality, there was no “stranger” at the port of New York City, but it made Chandler’s story more appealing to the early Saints.
Lastly, because Richards’ book was printed in 1950, it did not contain the most significant change to the storyline wherein the LDS Church ultimately acquired 11 of the original papyri originally owned by Joseph in 1967. These 11 fragments are today in the exclusive possession of the Church and have been extensively translated and studied.
The following is, to my current knowledge, an accurate timeline of the acquisition, loss, and rediscovery of the Book of Abraham (or at least a portion thereof):
- 1818-1822: Antonio Lebolo worked as superintendent of the archeological excavations in Upper Egypt for the French consul general, Bernardino Drovetti. During this period he discovered 11 mummies in a tomb in Thebes.
- 1822: Lebolo returned to his native town of Castellamonte, Italy, taking these mummies with him. Sometime between then and his death, he arranged with the Albano Oblasser Shipping Company in Trieste to sell the 11 mummies.
- 1830: Antonio Lebolo dies. The 11 mummies are subsequently shipped to New York City to be sold.
- 1833: Michael H. Chandler purchases the mummies either for himself or acting as an agent for others. Chandler unwraps the mummies and discovered several papyri therein.
“On opening the coffins,” the Prophet Joseph Smith tells us, “[Chandler] discovered that in connection with two of the bodies, was something rolled up with the same kind of linen, saturated with the same bitumen, which when examined, proved to be two rolls of papyrus.” These rolls of papyrus were beautifully written “with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation.”
- 1833-1835: Chandler travels throughout the northeastern United States displaying the mummies and selling one now and then as opportunity arose.
- 1835 (July): Chandler arrives in Kirtland, OH, to display the mummies and papyri there. At this point he only has 4 mummies left. Due to Smith's notoriety and claim to have translated the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, Chandler asks Joseph Smith to look at the scrolls and give some insight into what was written on them. The Prophet takes an interest in the papyri and purchases them and the mummies for $2400 (approx. $60,500 in 2008). Joseph chipped in $1800, Simeon Andrews $800, and Joseph Coe $800. Joseph stated:
“... with W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them.” (History of the Church, vol. 2, pg 236.)
- 1844: Joseph Smith dies. Sometime after Joseph’s death, Emma marries Lewis C. Bidamon. The mummies and papyri remain in the possession of his mother, Lucy Smith, until her death. They display the artifacts in Nauvoo for an admission price for some time.
- 1856 (May): Lucy Smith dies on the 14th, and on the 26th Emma Smith Bidamon sells the artifacts to Abel Combs. Ten weeks Combs sells two of the mummies and some of the papyri to the St. Louis Museum.
- 1863 (July): The St. Louis Museum was closed and its collection moved to the Chicago Museum.
- 1864: The Chicago museum is sold to Joseph H. Wood, and renamed as Wood’s Museum.
- 1871: The 2 mummies and the papyri were destroyed in the great fire of Chicago.
Contrary to what LeGrand Richards claims in "A Marvelous Work and a Wonder," Abel Combs had, in fact, not sold all of the papyri to the St. Louis museum but had kept some pieces that had broken off the main rolls and were later mounted in picture frames. When Combs died, he willed these papyri to his housekeeper, Charlotte Weaver Huntsman, who had nursed him during his final illness before his death. When Charlotte died, her daughter, Alice Combs Weaver Heusser, inherited the fragments.
- 1918: Alice Heusser approached the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with some papyri in her possession; the museum declined to accept them. Alice later dies and the papyri are inherited by her husband, Edward Heusser.
- 1947: Edward Heusser sells the papyri to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- 1966 (May): Aziz Suryal Atiya, a non-LDS distinguished professor of history at the University of Utah, discovered 11 papyri fragments in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art archives when he recognized one as the vignette known as Facsmile No. 1 from the Pearl of Great Price.
- 1967: An anonymous donation to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art made it possible for the LDS church to acquire the papyri.
The 11 papyri fragments that the LDS Church has in its possession today came from 3 separate rolls containing ancient Egyptian religious texts:
1) A Book of Breathings – A sort of abbreviated Book of the Dead, that belonged to a man named Hor the son of Usirwer.
2) A Book of the Dead – Belonging to Tshemmin, the daughter of Eschkons
3) A Book of the Dead – Belonging to a woman named Neferirnub.
Although not found among the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Prophet also owned a third Book of the Dead belonging to Amenhotep son of Tanub, and the hypocephalus (Facsimile 2), that belonged to a man named Sheshonq.
(NOTE: The picture accompanying this text is extant papyri showing the original vignette considered to be the source of Facsimile 1)