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On The Whole, He’d Rather Not Be In Philadelphia

April 2024
1min read

This hitherto unpublished daguerreo-type was found in the same cache of photographs that included the slave portraits we published in our June, 1977, issue. All the pictures were apparently collected by Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz in the mid-nineteenth century to bolster his theory of “special creations” (which held that each race was a distinct species), and later came to be stored in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

This portrait was made by Frederick and William Langenheim, Philadelphia’s most prestigious cameramen of the 1840’s, but the brooding sitter was unidentified. Nonetheless, he struck us as resembling an African Bushman. Anthropologists consulted by the Peabody agreed. But what would a Bushman have been doing in Philadelphia in the 1840’s?

Contributing unwittingly to the march of science—or pseudo science—seems to be the answer. In February, 1848, Dr. Samuel Morton, Agassiz’ collaborator, exhibited before the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia a live, eighteen-year-old “Bushman … boy,” brought to the city “under the kind and paternal auspices of Capt. Chase, United States Consul at the Cape of Good Hope.”

In his address, Morton described the boy’s curious complexion (the color of a “dried leaf”), his small nose (“so flat as to scarcely be seen in profile”), and his extraordinary tufted hair (“each hair [having] the appearance of an ordinary steel watch spring”).

Since Morton and Agassiz often exchanged their latest findings, it seems safe to assume that the boy shown here, thousands of miles from his homeland, was Dr. Morton’s celebrated exhibit.

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