October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
Written history is fiiirly manageable stuff. The facts that are known can be artfully arranged to conceal those that are not known, or anyway to make them less noticeable. Awkward questions can be left unanswered just by leaving them unasked.
Historical photographs are quite another matter. The camera lens makes an instantaneous statement of fact, often a very comprehensive one. Elusive details that nobody present would otherwise have remembered, or would have agreed on if he had remembered, are caught at a single, irrefutable wink. There they are, quietly but stubbornly correcting the subjective impressions of partisan reporters; visual shards for the reconstruction of “what really happened.”
Yet this sometimes leads to pu/zles and surprises. It is a commonplace that ten minutes after an accident you can get ten different versions of the event, depending on whom you query; but if someone happened to take a photograph at just the right moment, you might think the facts would arrange themselves in a straightforward way. They don’t always clo so.
In the February AMERICAN HERITAGE , there was a story on Mayor Gay nor of New York, which included a prizewinning news photograph snapped at just the moment when Gaynor was shot by an irate citizen on the deck of a departing ocean liner in 1910. The person supporting Gaynor has been clearly identified as Benjamin G. Marsh, Secretary of the Gommittee on Gongestioii of Population for New York City (a committee, it may lie remarked in passing, that should have tried harder). Rushing up behind Gaynor is a stout, bearded gentleman who in that bewhiskered day might have been almost anybody’s grandfather. With that thought in mind, consider the following photographs and excerpts from letters that arrived in our office after publication of the picture:
”… I was wondering why your picture caption did not identify the man standing behind the wounded mayor? The man is Robert Todd Lincoln [Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son], who had the uncanny habit of being around when people were shot at! … He was present … when Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield. In 1901 he was among the guests who witnessed Leon Czolgosz shoot President McKinley.”
”… The picture was familiar to our family because the startled gentleman behind the Mayor was Mr. William Strauss, grandfather of my wife, nee Elizabeth Strauss… .”
”… Among those friends who had assembled [to wish Mayor Gaynor bon voyage ] was my father, Dr. George Albert Smith. … ,4s they came on deck, a waiting photographer approached the Mayor requesting his picture. … As the picture was about to be taken, shots rang out—the Mayor staggered—his secretary lunged to his side—and my father rushed forward, as the photograph reveals.”
Sympathetic but baffled, we dispatched a young lady to the New York Public Library to check the newspapers for August 10, 1910, and determine which one of these interesting claims was correct. She came back with the caption that was printed under the picture in the New York World on that date: “This photograph was taken by a World photographer an instant after Mayor Gaynor was shot. Supporting him is Benjamin C. Marsh. … Rushing to his assistance is Edward J. Litchfield, a Brooklyn neighbor of the Mayor.”
Are there any other candidates?
An even greater puzzle has grown out of—we ehoose the expression carefully, as will be seen in a moment—our frontispiece photograph in the June, 1967, issue. The focus of interest here, of course, is the succulent one-piece bathing beauty being surveyed by the celebrated Earl Carroll as part of the contest for the title of The Modern Venus. Although various members of our staff examined this picture with much care and enthusiasm, not a single editorial eye noticed a peculiarity since drawn to our attention by several letters from readers who must have looked at the whole thing more objectively than we did. Here is one such letter:
“I found the picture series on the 1931 ‘birdwatchers’ and ‘birds’ in the June —67 issue amusing and nostalgic. One thing mystified me, however. While glancing at the picture of the erstwhile bathing beauties, I noticed that there was a feminine left forearm seeming to spring forth from the brow of Earl Carroll and grasp the vertical shaft of the scales’ height-measuring device. As far as I can tell there is no body in the photograph to which the forearm should properly belong.
Trick photography? Optical illusion?
Perhaps it belongs to one of the Coney Island ghosts I heard about during my boyhood in Brooklyn!”
Well, we went back to our picture source to see if there was any sign of trick photography or fancy dodging in the darkroom: there was none. So far, in addition to Mr. Simon’s suggestion about ghosts, it has been proposed that the arm obviously belongs to Venus herself, who in the tradition of Greek goddesses is indeed emerging full-blown from the brow of Earl Carroll, twentieth-century Zeus of female pulchritude; or that, alternatively, the arm is one of the two notoriously missing from the Venus of MiIo, here materialized in order to help measure the contenders for her name. Any other inore or less reasonable speculations will be gratefully entertained.
One picture that we published in a recent issue evoked special interest but luckily led to no puzzles. A photograph in the April A MERICAN H ERITAGE showed ail American seaman oil the gunboat Panay firing at attacking Japanese planes with a Lewis gun. In his haste to reach his post, he had neglected to put on his trousers. Readers wanted to know the identity of this impetuous hero, and we are pleased to report that he was—and is—Ernest R. Mahlmann, chief boatswain’s mate at the time of the Panay incident. Mahlmann won the Navy Cross for his out-of-uniform performance; he is now retired and lives in EImhurst, Long Island. This tribute to him, by Vaun Al Arnold, appeared in the Bureau of Navigation Bulletin shortly after the episode:
Commend me to that noble soul Who, in the battle’s heat, Rushed to his post without his pants, The bomber’s dive to meet; Who stood upon the rocking deck In careless disattire, With shirt tail flaunting in the breeze, To deal out fire for fire. Old Glory’s color deepened As she floated o’er this son— The man who had no time for pants But plenty for his gun. Come, name a million heroes, But to me tliere’ll never be A finer show of nerve and grit On any land or sea— Then dwell upon your epics; Should you feel an urge for chants, Recall the sinking Panay And the gunner minus pants!