Is Lincoln Here?

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It was, up to that point, the photo opportunity of the century.

Here was the nation’s President-elect, Abraham Lincoln, visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia en route to his inauguration—the defender of the Union seeking inspiration at the cradle of American independence. Adding resonance was the sacred day: Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1861.

 

It was, up to that point, the photo opportunity of the century.

Here was the nation’s President-elect, Abraham Lincoln, visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia en route to his inauguration—the defender of the Union seeking inspiration at the cradle of American independence. Adding resonance was the sacred day: Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1861.

Lincoln rose to the occasion. Outside he personally hoisted the American flag atop the hallowed building. “It flaunted gloriously to the wind,” recalled Lincoln, “an omen,” he hoped, “of what is to come.” Facing the threat of civil war, Lincoln defiantly declared, “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”

Deep in the “immense” crowd a local photographer named F. D. Richards aimed his camera and exposed several pictures. They proved imperfect: blurry, distant, and partly obscured by the branches of overhanging trees into which onlookers had climbed for better views. Lincoln and his seven-year-old son, Tad, who had accompanied him, could barely be detected in the knot of dignitaries on the wooden platform fronting the building. Nevertheless, these shots have long been considered priceless records.

But now it seems Richards may have been busy earlier that same day. One summer afternoon in 1994 Jerrold Neidig, formerly a teacher and designer of special makeup effects for motion pictures and now a writer, was browsing through an antiques fair near his Sonoma, California, home. At one of the booths the long-time Lincoln enthusiast and collector of nineteenth-century photography casually picked up a stack of old stereographic photos—twin images mounted side by side on cardboard for viewing through a stereoscope (an early form of 3-D). One of the shots seized his attention.

“I was immediately and irresistibly drawn,” he recalls, “to this picture of a formation of Civil War-era soldiers, a large gathered crowd, Independence Hall, and, most notably, a man in a tall hat appearing at the rear.” Neidig suddenly suspected, but did not yet dare believe, that he might have found an important, unknown picture of Lincoln. He quickly purchased it … for all of five dollars. He has been exhaustively studying it—along with the events of February 22, 1861—ever since.

 

From the outset there was one vexing problem. Lacking a date and photographer’s stamp, the picture bears only an unrevealing caption: “Rear of State House [a period name for Independence Hall], Philad’a.” Why would the creator of such a newsworthy picture fail to identify his subject or himself? The question remains unanswered. Possibly the photographer believed he had not captured Lincoln clearly yet could still salvage a generic scene of the historic building—a forerunner of today’s picture postcard—to appeal to tourists. Or, as Neidig suspects, it might be a pirated copy, whose publisher dared not defy copyright laws by taking formal credit for it.

Whoever issued it, there is no doubt that the photo portrays a major event. Uniformed men ring the crowd (Lincoln was well guarded on his visit by both local police and Army units). Civilian onlookers appear well dressed and well organized. Something important is occurring.

The photograph shows the rear of Independence Hall. With a temporary platform hugging the main entrance that day, the President-elect probably would have approached the building from the back and then walked through the interior to get to the front. Or perhaps, as Neidig believes, security concerns required that Lincoln, already receiving death threats, arrive at a controlled area.

 
Weighing all the evidence—the site, the soldiers, the formally attired crowd, the tall man arriving in the top hat to evident fanfare—the question becomes: If not Lincoln at Independence Hall, then who, and why?
 
 

Tantalizingly visible on the right-hand gate pillar in the foreground of the picture are the torn remnants of a temporary sign. The surviving letters seem to read “——ic Celeb——.” Might it once have invited onlookers to a “Civic Celebration”? Quite possibly.

The trees appear leafless, accurately suggesting winter. Unfortunately the hands of the tower clock are indistinct, even in computer-enhanced blowups. But the scene appears bathed in early-morning brightness. That day citizens began streaming “from all parts of the city towards the State House … at the rising of the sun.” The flag raising was completed, as Lincoln put it, “in the light glowing sun-shine of the morning.” The newly found photograph fits that chronology.