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Is This The First Photograph Of Abraham Lincoln?

June 2024
6min read

Unknown until now, it just may be

The face stares at us across time, a haunting patina of sadness clinging to its outsized features. It is a strong, young face—surely innocent of, yet somehow foreshadowing, the bloody future that lay ahead for America.

Its owners say it is the very first photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a precious, hitherto unknown sixth-plate daguerreotype made in Springfield at the time Lincoln had risen no higher in politics than the Illinois legislature. Its detractors argue that it is merely a look-alike. Although collectors uncover so-called new and unknown Lincoln photographs with numbing regularity—images invariably proven spurious—this portrait is different. It comes with a pedigree, having descended from the family of the sixteenth President’s own private secretary.

Feature by feature, the subject is uncannily Lincolnesque—even if the overall impression fails to mesh with his known photographs (not surprising, since all but one were taken at least fourteen years later).

The familiar giant ear protrudes like a pitcher handle, and the coarse, carelessly brushed (or, more likely, hand-arranged) hair clumps in spikes at the top and side of the head. The “disordered condition” of his hair, as Lincoln once described it, would cause his wife, Mary, to take a powerful dislike to a later, equally unkempt image and perhaps, too, accounts for the longtime obscurity of this pose.

The nose looks odd somehow—almost glowing. Does it reflect the harsh glare from the unfiltered light pouring down from the primitive photographer’s skylight? Or might it be the sunburned nose of a circuitriding lawyer who traveled endless miles on horseback on the open prairie in search of legal business? The shirt collar is pulled up high, perhaps by the photographer himself, in an attempt to conceal as much as possible of Lincoln’s long, scrawny neck. Yet one can almost see the strong chest muscles beneath the fabric of the vest.

The mouth does look softer than the one in later portraits. But like that in all the known images, it can be made to perform a uniquely Lincolnian trick of nature: Cover one side of the mouth, and the other side curls up in a half-smile; now cover the smiling side, and the other sags in a frown. Is this a coincidence, or as scholars have speculated in explaining the phenomenon in other portraits, the lingering after-effect of a horse’s kick to the child Lincoln’s head—an injury that left him unconscious for nearly a day and may also have caused the eerily roving eye visible in later pictures?

As for the eyes, they look lighter and brighter here than the mournful ones so familiar in later photographs and in the iconic engraving on the five-dollar bill. But harsh lighting may again explain the translucence. Besides, not even Lincoln’s contemporaries could agree on their precise hue, variously described as blue, gray, and hazel (for the record, Lincoln called them gray).

And then there is that ham-sized hand—surely large enough to have once held fast to a flatboat tiller or gripped a rail-splitter’s ax—here tucked Napoleon style into the waistcoat, its identifiable scars (like the thumb injury suffered fighting off attackers during a trip down the Mississippi) frustratingly concealed.

This is the pose the subject holds for the long exposure required by early daguerrean cameras. He tries hard to look dignified, even statesmanlike. It is that laborer’s hand that betrays him. And one cannot help wondering if it isn’t the same hand that, years later, would invariably split open the kid glove his wife vainly hoped would contain it for “proper” handshaking at official White House receptions.

If this is Lincoln, it is certainly the earliest portrait we have of him, or are likely ever to have, since it dates to the very dawn of the photographic era in the West. Joseph Buberger, of North Haven, Connecticut, is a well-known historian of and dealer in antique photographica who has emerged as the picture’s most impassioned champion, calculates its precise date—based on the thickness of the glass and the style of the brass mat that cover it, as well as the design of the small leather case in which the 3½by-3-inch image is contained — as 1843. That year the ambitious lawyer-politician would celebrate the birth of his first child and lament his failure to win his party’s nomination for Congress. At age thirty-four he still lived with his growing family at the noisy Globe Tavern, in downtown Springfield, Illinois. His prospects for the future remained dim. Buberger has traced the movements of several itinerant photographers across the Illinois plains and can place at least two professional camera operators in Lincoln’s hometown in 1843.

Buberger did not end his research there. Using computer-aided overlay techniques developed by his fellow dealer Alien Phillips, he flipped the daguerreotype into a non-mirror image (since the original is a reverse image to begin with) and superimposed it atop known Lincoln photographs, including the first and one of the last. In each composite most of the features lined up perfectly. Finally Buberger sent the image to the Biomedical Visualization Department at the College of Associated Health Professions, University of Illinois at Chicago. There technicians fed their sophisticated computers three known Lincoln photographs from varying eras, and three hundred additional images as well, plus the daguerreotype. The computer spit out all three hundred teasers, clustering the known Lincolns together with the image presented here.

Wrote Professor Lewis L. Sadler, who conducted the experiment: “In my experience I have observed this type of clustering only in cases where we had photos of the same individual and in cases of identical twins. … I would have to conclude that there was nothing to indicate that this was not a photo of Abraham Lincoln, and further, there was a very strong indication that the bone structure of the face of the unknown individual and that of Lincoln are very similar in proportion.”

Such data have convinced Grant Romer, Director of Education at the prestigious International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. He has officially declared, “I recognize the case for the probable cause to believe the subject of the daguerreotype is Abraham Lincoln.” In a recent interview Romer added: “It was the Chicago test that did it for me. I know full well that a lot of people out there see Jesus in their spaghetti, and that image-hungry Americans seem to find ‘Lincolns’ much in the same spirit. But this is a compelling image. It may be hard to reconcile with other poses, but this is a younger man. Of all the ‘Lincolns’ I’ve seen, and I’ve seen plenty, this is the one that has to be seriously looked at. It’s fit to be brought to a wider audience.”

Not every expert agrees. Perhaps the country’s leading scholar of Lincoln photographs, Lloyd Ostendorf, had dismissed the image, as have historians at the Illinois State Historical Library. But none of them was told about the portrait’s provenance, and that is what separates it most distinctly from other wouldbe Lincolns.

Its current owners, Robert and Joan Hoffman of Pittsford, New York, who keep it safely ensconced in a local vault, bought it from a now deceased antiaues dealer from a nearby town. An earlier owner had kept it for fifty years, after obtaining it from one of the area’s best-known families, the Wadsworths.

Alice Hay Wadsworth, to whom the material belonged, was the daughter of John Milton Hay, Lincoln’s assistant White House secretary and later Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt. Miss Hay married Sen. James Wadsworth and eventually retired with him to upstate New York. Apparently she retained the daguerreotype all her life without telling anyone about its existence. But such secrecy was not unusual in the Hay clan. Alice’s brother, Clarence, also kept an unknown Lincoln photo to himself, a bearded presidential-era print that did not see the light of day until 1969, more than a hundred years after Lincoln’s death.

Nor was the daguerreotype the only piece of Lincoln memorabilia to come out of the Wadsworth estate. There was also a lock of presidential hair, long since sold at auction, and an assortment of Hay documents and letters. Perhaps most significant of all, the trove boasted a scrapbook of Civil War newspaper clippings apparently amassed by Hay while he worked for Lincoln. Historians have long known about Hay’s passion for saving news stories. Another such volume, containing exam- pies of Hay’s poetry published in wartime newspapers, resides in the John Hay Library at Brown University. The Hay librarian Jennifer B. Lee notes that its odd 9¾-by-6¼-inch dimensions correspond exactly to the scrapbook, which the Hoffmans now own along with the daguerreotype. The daguerreotype is assuredly Hay’s own.

One can imagine the elderly John Hay giving each of his surviving children a priceless Lincoln photograph, but doubts about the Wadsworth daguerreotype are understandable. For while it is not unreasonable to imagine that Hay possessed a photograph of Lincoln as President, it is harder to understand why he would be entrusted with a priceless, one-of-a-kind image of a clean-shaven Lincoln taken years before Hay even knew him. Might it have been delivered to Hay by Mary Lincoln because she disliked it so? Perhaps —but Mary also came to dislike Hay, making it difficult to comprehend why he would have been so favored.

Might it instead be one of the images that contemporary look-alikes occasionally sent to Lincoln during the White House years, like that of a Chicago post office employee, Daniel T. Wood, who wrote in 1864: “I am often calld. Abraham Lincoln … I Suppose, for the reason we were not so favored in the game of Snatch, when Beauty was passd ” ? That particular, long-forgotten correspondent enclosed a photo, but it has never been found. Of course, Wood’s was far more likely a common paper carte de visite than a precious daguerreotype with breakable glass. Few would have parted with an example of the latter—even for a President.

It is precisely its one-of-a-kind nature that consumes the unbridled believer Joe Buberger, who concedes that he started out “engrossed” by it but now counts himself “obsessed.” Buberger is no mere cheerleader. Previously he unearthed daguerreotypes of Sam Houston and Frederick Douglass, both now in art museums, and his reputation in the field is impeccable. Buberger remains certain that the Hoffman daguerreotype unquestionably reveals Lincoln and, what is more, is “not merely a paper print developed from a negative. It is that rarest of images, a direct reflection of Lincoln himself. It is what Lincoln would have seen if he looked into a mirror—a spirit image,” he concludes, echoing the very phrase by which early promoters heralded the invention of the daguerrean process.

Besides, Buberger inquires, with the assurance of someone who already knows the answer to his question, “Considering how much this man looks like Lincoln and where the picture came from, there is no doubt in my mind.” At the very least, as Grant Romer puts it, “it unquestionably deserves to be brought to a wider jury.”

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