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The Jupiter Talisman Myth

by Sam Katich

Critics claim that Joseph Smith had a Jupiter Talisman on his person when he was martyred and cite this as proof of his fascination with the occult. For example, anti-Mormon writers Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson make use of this oft repeated claim in their dismal work, Mormonism 101. They write:"The fact that Smith owned a Jupiter talisman shows that his fascination with the occult was not just a childish fad. At the time of his death, Smith had on his person this talisman...”[1] Did Joseph have this Talisman on him when he was murdered? What would the meaning of it be if he did?

This well circulated claim[2] finds it’s origins in a 1974 talk by Dr. Reed Durham. Durham said that Joseph "evidently [had a Talisman] on his person when he was martyred. The talisman, originally purchased from the Emma Smith Bidamon family, fully notarized by that family to be authentic and to have belonged to Joseph Smith, can now be identified as a Jupiter talisman." [3]

The source of the now famous Talisman story, which Dr. Durham bases his findings on, originated from Wilford C. Wood, who was told it by Charles Bidaman, who was the illegitimate son of Lewis Bidaman. Lewis was Emma Smith's non-Mormon second husband. Charles was born out of an affair between Lewis Bidaman and Nancy Abercrombie, which occurred while Lewis was married to Emma. Charles was taken in by Emma at the age of 4 and raised by her until she died 11 years later.[4]

Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote that the Talisman, or silver pocket piece as described in 1937, came up for sale when Charles Bidamon advertised items that supposedly belonged to Joseph Smith. One item listed was "a silver pocket piece which was in the Prophet's pocket at the time of his assassination."[5] Wilford Wood, who collected Mormon memorabilia, purchased it in 1938 with Bidamon's certificate that the Prophet possessed it when murdered. The affidavit sworn to by Charles Bidamon at the time of Wilford C. Wood's purchase was very specific:

"This piece came to me through the relationship of my father, Major L. C. Bidamon, who married the Prophet Joseph Smith's widow, Emma Smith. I certify that I have many times heard her say, when being interviewed, and showing the piece, that it was in the Prophet's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage, Ill."[6]

Anderson noted that Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, which at the time of her death he was but merely a fifteen-year-old boy.

Durham based his comments on Wood's description for the item which was: "This piece [the Talisman] was in Joseph Smith's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage Jail." [7] However, in the report of the contents on the Prophet's body after his martyrdom, which Emma Smith took into her possession as his wife, there was no mention made of any such Talisman like item. If there had been such an article, it would be listed.

In 1984, Anderson located and published the itemized list of the contents of Joseph Smith's pockets at his death. The list was originally published in 1885 in Iowa by James W. Woods, Smith's lawyer, who collected the prophet's personal effects after the Martyrdom. The contents from the published 1885 printing are as follows:

"Received, Nauvoo, Illinois, July 2, 1844, of James W. Woods, one hundred and thirty- five dollars and fifty cents in gold and silver and receipt for shroud, one gold finger ring, one gold pen and pencil case, one penknife, one pair of tweezers, one silk and one leather purse, one small pocket wallet containing a note of John P. Green for $50, and a receipt of Heber C. Kimball for a note of hand on Ellen M. Saunders for one thousand dollars, as the property of Joseph Smith. - Emma Smith." [8]

No Talisman or item like it is listed. It could not be mistaken for a coin or even a "Masonic Jewel" as Durham first thought. Anderson described the Talisman as being “an inch-and-a-half in diameter and covered with symbols and a prayer on one side and square of sixteen Hebrew characters on the other.”[9] Significant is the fact that no associate of Joseph Smith has ever mentioned anything like this medallion. There are no interviews that ever record Emma mentioning any such item as was attested to by Charles Bidamon. One would at least expect her to have said or written something along the lines of "and he always carried this medallion" or something.

More recent arguments contend that Wood’s list was exagerated or was an all together different type of list. For example, as neither Smith’s gun nor hat were on the report, the list must not be complete. It should be obvious, however, that the reason they were not on the list of contents on the person of Joseph Smith is because they both were not on him in the most literal of senses. The record clearly states that he dropped his gun and left it behind before being murdered and it is unlikely if he were wearing his hat in the jail cell that it would have remained on him after a gun fight that ended in a second story fall through a window. Critics also argue that another reason the Talisman was not accounted for was because Talismans are worn around a persons neck, hidden from view and secret to all (including Emma no less), thus, it was overlooked as part of the inventory. While it may be true that they are worn around the neck, the certification very clearly states that the Talisman was “in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred.” So which is it? In his pocket like a lucky charm or secretly worn around his neck as such an item should properly be used? Either way, the record is clear that he did not have a Talisman on his person at the time of his death. The rest is speculation. No more can be said for the argument that discredits Wood’s published account of Joseph’s possessions. The critics contend that a prisoner could not possibly have had a penknife, so how accurate can the list be? Obviously the fact that he had a gun makes the possession of a knife a matter of no consequence. [10]

As a final note to the saga, when Durham was later asked how he felt about his speech regarding the Talisman, he replied:

“I now wish I had presented some of my material differently.” “For instance, at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidaman, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable." [11]

There is only one source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person, and that source is Charles Bidamon. The artifact’s existence has long since been twisted, distorted, and fabricated into anti-Mormon rhetoric designed to somehow discredit Joseph Smith. If such an artifact were to have been in his possession, it would again only go to show the prevailing cultural climate at the time and certainly does not reflect on the validity of the Church. Similarly, if the inventory of Joseph pocket’s could be taken at face value, it would make the Church no more valid in the eyes of the critic. The conclusion thus being that the presence of such artifacts are meaningless from the perspective of our current culture and understanding and they do not serve to prove or disprove Joseph as a prophet. If one can accept Quinn's insistence that the talisman was literally, in some way, in Joseph's possession at his death, the meaning and conclusion would be that such an item would have been a protection against enemies, witchcraft, and sorcery. It could also have been used as an amulet of luck, love, protection, healing, astrology, or ritual magic as it was used by thousands of other Americans who customarily wore the then in-vogue amulets or talismans. [12] One must wonder, if Joseph were to have had a lucky rabbit’s foot in his pocket, would it be argued that he had a bizarre fascination with rabbits and worshiped the Velveteen Rabbit god? No doubt those looking back on our generation will be appalled that some carried around dead animal parts in their pocket for luck.


1. Mormonism 101, p. 255. This paper is extracted from my review of this book. Click here for more discussion and conclusions on Joseph and the occult.

2. Stephen Robinson writes of the Talisman story: "In the case of the Jupiter coin, this same extrapolation error is compounded with a very uncritical acceptance of the artifact in the first place. If the coin were Joseph's, that fact alone would tell us nothing about what it meant to him. But in fact there is insufficient evidence to prove that the artifact ever belonged to the Prophet. The coin was completely unknown until 1930 when an aging Charles Bidamon sold it to Wilford Wood. The only evidence that it was Joseph's is an affidavit of Bidamon, who stood to gain financially by so representing it. Quinn uncritically accepts Bidamon's affidavit as solid proof that the coin was Joseph's. Yet the coin was not mentioned in the 1844 list of Joseph's possessions returned to Emma. Quinn negotiates this difficulty by suggesting the coin must have been worn around Joseph's neck under his shirt. But in so doing Quinn impeaches his only witness for the coin's authenticity, for Bidamon's affidavit, the only evidence linking the coin to Joseph, specifically and solemnly swears that the coin was in Joseph's pocket at Carthage. The real empirical evidence here is just too weak to prove that the coin was really Joseph's, let alone to extrapolate a conclusion from mere possession of the artifact that Joseph must have believed in and practiced magic. The recent Hofmann affair should have taught us that an affidavit from the seller, especially a 1930 affidavit to third hand information contradicted by the 1844 evidence, just isn't enough 'proof' to hang your hat on."(Stephen E. Robinson, BYU Studies Vol. 27 (1987) p.91)

3. Dr. Reed Durham’s Presidential Address before the Mormon History Association on April 20, 1974.

4. Jerald R. Johansen, “After the Martyrdom” [Horizon Publishers, 1997], 79.

5. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” BYU Studies Vol. 24, No. 4 (Fall 1984): 541.

6. Ibid. p. 558.

7. Ibid., with the original coming from LaMar C. Berett, The Wilford Wood Collection, Vol. 1 (Provo, UT: Wilford C. Wood Foundation, 1972) 173.

8. Anderson, The Mature Joseph Smith, p. 558; Anderson points to its original source in J. W. Woods "The Mormon Prophet" Daily Democrat (Ottumwa, Iowa), 10 May 1885; and in Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (Des Moines: Homestead Publishing Co., 1916), 271.

9. Ibid. p. 541

10. These are examples of later arguments by Quinn in an attempt to refute Anderson.

11. Gilbert W. Scharffs, “The Truth about ‘The God Makers’” (SLC, Utah: Publishers Press, 1989), 180.

12. D. Michael Quinn (1998), Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged (SLC: Signature Books), pp. 89-90, 94.