Between 1818 and 1821, a group of mummies was taken from an Egyptian tomb into the light of day for the first time in centuries.
In mid-1835, the Church bought four of those mummies, along with two or more rolls of papyri. The Prophet Joseph Smith then obtained, through revelation, what we now have as the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price.
Those events—the unearthing of the mummies and their later purchase in Kirtland—are known to have occurred, but much of what happened in between has puzzled scholars for 150 years.
Many Church members, of course, have read how the mummies and papyri came from Egypt to Kirtland, Ohio. The story is recorded in Church history; it was told by Michael H. Chandler, the man from whom the mummies were purchased, and was written by Oliver Cowdery. But that story has been the subject of intense study. “The historical background of the Book of Abraham has always been obscure in the Church,” says H. Donl Peterson, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
Bit by bit, however, facts have come to light to establish what happened after the mummies were removed from their long-darkened tomb. With the help of researchers in Italy, during the past year Dr. Peterson has discovered the will of the man who brought the mummies out of Egypt, along with other documents that shed light on the character of the man himself and record the journeying of the mummies and papyri.
Briefly, the story told to Oliver Cowdery by Michael Chandler relates that crews directed by Antonio Lebolo unearthed eleven mummies with accompanying writings in Egypt in 1831. Mr. Lebolo was traveling to Paris, but en route he put in at Trieste, where he became ill and died. It was said his will specified that the mummies and papyri be sent to his nephew, Michael Chandler, of Dublin, Ireland. From Dublin, they were sent on to New York City, where Mr. Chandler claimed them in the winter or spring of 1833. He exhibited them throughout the eastern United States. While in New York City, he was told by a stranger that Joseph Smith could translate ancient languages. Two years later Mr. Chandler took his exhibit to Kirtland, Ohio, where the mummies and papyri were shown to Joseph Smith.
The Prophet was asked to translate a few of the characters from the papyri. His translation agreed, so far as Mr. Chandler could determine, with translations offered by learned men in the East. Shortly, a sale was negotiated; with money from two major donors and subscription donations by the Saints, the Church bought the four mummies and the papyri.
One overriding certainty about the papyri is that it resulted in inspired scripture. But questions about how the papyri came to the United States and into the hands of Joseph Smith have remained unanswered since 1835. What, for example, was the real relationship between Antonio Lebolo, the Piedmontese gendarme sometimes referred to as a “celebrated French traveler,” and Michael Chandler, an Irishman? Where is proof that the mummies were in truth willed to Mr. Chandler? Were the mummies actually sent from Trieste to Dublin, then on to New York City? Some of Mr. Lebolo’s contemporaries in Egypt paint him as a villain; what kind of man was he really?
These are just “some of the questions we’ve never had any answers to,” Brother Peterson says.
Some information was already available before Brother Peterson began his research. It was known that Antonio Lebolo, from the Piedmont area in what is now Italy, worked in excavations in Egypt in the late second and early third decade of the 1800s. He was employed by Bernardino Drovetti, another Piedmontese who was later French consul general in Egypt. Dr. Peterson’s research has revealed that Drovetti had distinguished himself as a colonel under Napoleon and that Lebolo had served as a French officer in the gendarmarie in the Piedmont. (Legal documents show that Mr. Lebolo signed his first name in its French form—“Antoine”—during the Napoleonic occupation.) When Napoleon was deposed, it became politically necessary for Lebolo to leave the country.
In Egypt, Antonio Lebolo was the supervisor of tomb excavations in the Theban area for his friend Drovetti. “The digs were taking place in El Gournah, on the west bank of the Nile, across from the ancient city of Thebes, which is the present city of Luxor,” Brother Peterson explains. The science of archaeology was then in its infancy at best, and it would be inaccurate to call the excavators archaeologists. They looted tombs of artifacts and mummies that went not only to some of the most prestigious museums in Europe, but also to private collections of the wealthy who exhibited their Egyptian curios for guests.
It was a “dirty business” that bred not only competition, Brother Peterson points out, but also thievery and, sometimes, violence. Antonio Lebolo was accused of both. It is important to note that his accusers have been labeled as equally guilty by other observers, and their accounts may be self-serving. From this distance in time, it may be impossible to learn the truth, Brother Peterson says. However, reports of one countryman, Count Carlo Vidua, indicate that Mr. Lebolo was a conscientious Drovetti employee who unearthed a number of Ptolemaic mummies (from the period of Greek influence in Egypt) on his own time. These were mummies from members of the priestly class, who took great care to preserve their important papyri documents. Lebolo hosted many European dignitaries amid the ruins of the Theban excavations.
While in Italy in 1984 to research Antonio Lebolo, Brother Peterson and his research assistant, Bruce H. Porter, enlisted the aid of Church members Adriano Comollo, a former BYU student who had also had some training in genealogical research; his wife Jerrilyn, originally from Arizona; and Patricia Pianea, an interpreter and translator. While Brother Peterson was researching in Egypt, Brother Comollo located the will of Antonio Lebolo in the papers of a notary named Buffa who served Mr. Lebolo beginning in 1810. The notary, equivalent to a family lawyer, had been serving the Lebolo family since the late 1700s.
Brother Peterson returned to Italy to join in the search and photograph the documents. The Comollos continued the effort after the BYU professor returned to Utah. They discovered documents that fill in many of the blanks about Antonio Lebolo’s life from his first marriage in 1797 until his death in 1830.
The documents indicate, for example, that Lebolo returned to his home in Castellamonte sometime in 1825 or 1826. Lebolo’s first wife had died in 1821 in Castellamonte while Lebolo was exiled in Egypt. His second wife was from Africa—a black woman who had been a slave. Antonio Lebolo had seen that she received a Christian education and married her in June 1824. She had two small daughters, and one of them apparently became gravely ill for a time in Trieste during their return trip to Italy. She had been given some last rites by a priest—hence, perhaps, the story that Antonio Lebolo had himself died in Trieste, Brother Peterson suggests. Three sons were born to Antonio and his African wife, Anna Marie.
The papers of the notary show that Antonio Lebolo was a respected man in Castellamonte, “very well-to-do” at the time of his death on 19 February 1830, but he was not a very good manager, Brother Peterson says. His will disposed of assets valued at 30,000 lira, but much of that was in uncollectible debts. There was no mention of any mummies.
An 1831 document pertaining to the Lebolo family, however, makes it clear that Pietro, Antonio’s oldest son by his first wife, Marie, traveled to Trieste to obtain money on behalf of the family for eleven mummies that had been entrusted to one Albano Oblassa. Pietro was also authorized to obtain payment for a menagerie of exotic animals his father had sold to a couple. Lebolo had kept ostriches while living in Trieste, and since ostrich feathers were highly prized for fashionable dress, these may have been ostriches.
Documents show that the mummies were subsequently sent from Trieste to New York. Dublin, Ireland, is not mentioned in the document. An Italian man in Philadelphia was commissioned to serve as an agent for the Lebolo family to sell the mummies in the United States. Among the Lebolo papers, there are letters inquiring about the money that was to have come from the sale.
“How Michael Chandler fits in is still a mystery,” Brother Peterson comments. His connection with the Lebolo family, if any, and how he came into possession of the Egyptian artifacts have yet to be established. But Brother Peterson says he has discovered sixty-one Philadelphia newspaper advertisements for the Chandler exhibit.
Michael Chandler sold the mummies over a two-year period. Two or more went to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where they were used as cadavers for medical students. By the time he arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, he had only four left. Joseph Coe (later a troublesome apostate) and Simeon Andrews each contributed $800 toward the $2,400 purchase price for Mr. Chandler’s Egyptian items; member donations made up the rest. The mummies and the papyri were presented to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Documents show, Brother Peterson adds, that Mr. Chandler had been pursued for several years by lawsuits, probably as a result of the Egyptian artifacts, including one suit filed in Geauga county, where Kirtland is located. Evidently the suits were unsuccessful. For $600—just one quarter of the money he got for the mummies and papyri—Mr. Chandler bought a fine Parkman, Ohio, farm, settled into the life of a farmer, and raised a family of twelve children. He died in October 1866.