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Dorsal Debate

June 2024
4min read

A report from the field on the battle to authenticate what its owner still hopes is the earliest Lincoln photograph

The debate over the so-called earliest daguerreotype of Lincoln has moved south —anatomically speaking, that is. Having spent months comparing the face in the controversial photograph with faces in dozens of known Lincoln images—using computer overlays and state-of-the-art video “morphing” techniques to reveal similarities and differences—both advocates and detractors have now taken matters in hand: the right hand, to be precise.

The idea for the new approach was generated by Dr. Ralph B. (“Monty”) Leonard, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. In a telephone call to this writer after first reading about the photo in American Heritage , Dr. Leonard wondered whether the daguerreotype’s owner had ever subjected its subject’s vividly delineated right hand to a “dorsal vein comparison” with Lincoln’s own right hand. “These patterns never change with age,” Dr. Leonard maintained, adding that he had begun experimenting with such tests at Bowman Gray to help identify John Does.

Leonard went on to purchase a plaster cast of Lincoln’s right hand from the Mazzolini Artcraft Company of Cleveland and then carefully traced the venous pattern it revealed. His conclusion: The back of Lincoln’s right hand had H-shaped veins; Hoffman’s daguerreotype showed a man with X-shaped veins. “That was enough for me,” he said. “This was anatomical evidence that it’s not Lincoln. I’m sorry to say that. I’d love to have proven that it was Lincoln. But vein patterns are set down in the embryonic stage, and while weight fluctuations and other variables may change their density, they don’t change the way they’re structured.”

Not so fast, replied the picture’s owner, Robert Huffman, who has traced his daguerreotype back to the descendants of Lincoln’s assistant private secretary, John Hay. “Based on the procedures the doctor used,” he argued during a recent visit to New York, “I’d be more upset if the test indicated that it was Lincoln.” For one thing, Huffman charged, Dr. Leonard had relied for his comparison on a modern commercial reproduction plaster cast many generations removed from the original made from life in Springfield, Illinois, by Leonard Wells Volk in May 1860. Besides, he pointed out, Lincoln’s right hand was unnaturally puffy the day the cast was made, badly swollen from shaking the hands of hundreds of well-wishers after winning the presidential nomination three days earlier. Dr. Leonard replies that he also studied a photograph of an older Volk cast from the Smithsonian and reiterates his belief that mere swelling does not shift vein patterns.

Not content merely to rebut an unfavorable scientific test, Huffman and Joseph Buberger, the photographical dealer who has led the campaign to authenticate the portrait, proceeded to trot out their own experts to counter Dr. Leonard’s theory. Grant Romer, the historian at the George Eastman House in Rochester who was not prepared to positively authenticate the Hoffman daguerreotype when American Heritage first published it, declared in an interview in February, “At this point I think it is Lincoln.” Dr. Leonard’s vein comparison, he asserted, is questionable because it assumes that the Volk cast is unimpeachable. “It’s not Lincoln’s hand,” he pointed out. “It’s Volk’s cast.”

But the debate has not merely become a dispute between experts in science and history. Hoffman’s supporters now include scientists with impressive high-tech credentials of their own. One is Albert B. Harper, a Hartford-based expert in forensic anthropology best known for helping unravel a grisly, widely publicized Connecticut murder case in which the victim was ground up in a wood-chipping machine. Harper’s work not only led to a positive identification, based only on minuscule bone, tooth, and fingernail fragments, but helped identify and convict the murderer. “I’m no expert on Lincoln,” Dr. Harper said in a recent interview, “but I do know veins, and I believe hands can be rotated to achieve maximum differences between veins on the very same hand. So I disagree with Dr. Leonard’s findings. From what I can see, the hand from the plaster cast is actually entirely consistent with the hand in Huffman’s daguerreotype. The hands are simply held differently.” Earlier, in a formal report prepared for the owners of the picture, Dr. Harper had concluded: “The high degree of similarity and congruence” between the daguerreotype and known Lincoln photographs is “so overwhelming that it is impossible to conclude anything but that the individual portrayed on the daguerreotype is Abraham Lincoln.”

The latest—and probably the most celebrated—entrant in the controversy is Dr. Henry C. Lee, the director of Connecticut’s State Police Forensic Science Laboratory, who supervised Dr. Harper’s wood-chipping investigation. The Taiwan-born scientist has been described by The New York Times as “perhaps the nation’s most respected forensic scientist.” The same Dr. Lee was later hired by O. J. Simpson’s defense team to re-evaluate DNA evidence.

In a January 23 letter to Joseph Buberger, Dr. Lee wrote: “You should be proud of yourself. You have done some excellent research and gathered sufficient evidence and materials to sustain your findings.” Pressed during a subsequent interview to comment on the Leonard dorsal-vein tests, a harried Dr. Lee—he was juggling more than 350 homicide cases as he spoke—reiterated that Buberger “did a super job. His work seems sound. It looks fine to me—a pretty close match to Lincoln.” But Dr. Lee quickly added: “I can’t make a positive ID. I look at fresh bodies, fresh kills. I have too many cases. I just got another murder. Now another guy has sent me a Lincoln. When I saw his letter, I said, ‘Oh, Jesus, not again!’”

(The “other guy,” it might be noted, turned out to be Albert Kaplan, a New York stockbroker who has been trying for more than fifteen years to prove that his own daguerreotype shows a young Abraham Lincoln. By the criterion James Barber sets forth in the accompanying article—that is, subjective response—it seems a far less likely contender than Hoffman’s image.)

If all this appears to be a particularly frustrating example of experts who disagree, it is worth remembering that the whole field of what David L. Grieve, editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification , calls “art forensics” is brand-new, and scientists and historians are just beginning to come to a consensus on the best available criteria.

And so the debate over the Huffman daguerreotype proceeds. And around the same time the scientific combatants were arguing over Lincoln’s veins, one new piece of information of a decidedly non-technical variety trickled in. It came from Judge Robert Houston of Geneseo, New York, who “at long last,” in his own words, was ready to provide Robert Hoffman with his eagerly awaited recollection of how the picture was once kept in the home of John Hay’s descendants. “I do recall the presence of the picture in the house,” wrote Houston, who married into the same family. “There was a long table in the drawing room. One of the drawers of the table contained various items, including a plaster mask of Lincoln’s face, and there was also in the drawer the Lincoln daguerreotype you now own.”

Ironically—or perhaps appropriately—the “plaster mask of Lincoln’s face” that Judge Houston remembered was undoubtedly the work of Leonard Wells Volk, the very same sculptor who made the cast of Lincoln’s hand whose visible veins either do or don’t prove that Robert Hoffman’s daguerreotype is Abraham Lincoln.

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