Death Photo of Abraham Lincoln Proved, or More Fake News?
The discovery of a haunting photograph of Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed has created controversy thanks to the airing of a documentary which follows a California investigator on her hunt to discover if the image is authentic, or not. For many years North American history enthusiasts have debated over the authenticity of photographs that appear to show a deceased Abraham Lincoln. The American statesman and lawyer, who served as the 16th president of the United States from 1861 to 1865, was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth on the 15 th April 1865 while attending the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C..
Now, a photograph has surfaced which appears to show Lincoln’s ghostly face and iconic beard, with a bulging right eye, consistent with someone having been shot in the head. While 99% of alleged Lincoln photographs are definitely fakes, according to ABC News the investigator, Dr. Whitny Braun, is “99% convinced the photo is genuine.” If it’s real, how has it survived under the historic radar for 150 years? And if not, is it just another dollop of fake news? Is “99% convinced” enough, in this day and age, to persuade a skeptical public of the image’s authenticity?
Image released by Discovery shows Dr. Stanley Burns, left, and Dr. Whitny Braun looking over a photo of what some believe is Abraham Lincoln, captured hours after his death on April 15, 1865, in a scene from the documentary “The Lost Lincoln.” After looking into it for two years, Braun said she's 99 percent convinced the photo is genuine. The documentary airs on Sunday. (Unrealistic Ideas/Discovery)
The Holy Grail of Photographic Authentication
Until now, only one authenticated photograph of Lincoln’s body was known to exist, taken from a distance while his body lay dead. This new photograph is the centerpiece of a new Discovery Channel special titled The Lost Lincoln. According to Braun, who features in the documentary, so far as authenticating Lincoln images are concerned “this is like finding the Holy Grail.”
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Of course we should reserve all judgment until watching the documentary. Nevertheless, the internet is buzzing with Lincoln specialists who are discussing the photograph, but perhaps not in the way Discovery Channel marketing department expected. The weight of historians are rejecting the entire claim as yet another fraudulent hoax.
Artifacts related to Abraham Lincoln have been important to collectors since his death. In 2015, a year marking 150 years since his assassination, there was a flurry of activity with museums across North America exhibiting artifacts in interesting new ways. In the image we can see the chair in which President Lincoln was sitting when shot at Ford’s Theatre in 1865. (Public domain)
March of the Lincoln Skeptics
A NewYork Post article refers to Harold Holzer, a leading scholar of Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the American Civil War era, who serves as director of Hunter College's Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Having inspected the 130 known photographs of the former president, Holzer is quoted as saying that “not every man with a beard photographed after 1861 was Abraham Lincoln,” before adding that it will “take a lot for me to take this seriously.”
Illustrating Holzer’s skepticism regarding the authenticity of this photograph, he points out that the deceased man in the photo is wearing a shirt, while Lincoln ’s clothes “were stripped off him to check for other wounds when he was brought to the boarding house.” Furthermore, besides Holzer finding it odd that an ambrotype was used at a time when it had gone out of style, he also noted that the photograph was “unusually well-lit,” akin to a studio environment.
There are 130 known photographs of President Abraham Lincoln, including this one taken just two months before his death. (Public domain)
Alleged Origins of the Missing Lincoln
Regarding how the new alleged image of President Lincoln came to be, Braun and the documentary producer, Archie Gips, told Associated Press, that Jerald Spolar, an Illinois dentist, called Braun two years ago and showed her the image. She has spent the subsequent two years subjecting the photograph to facial recognition software and ballistic models, and obtaining the opinions of doctors and Abraham Lincoln academics.
The documentary will claim that an American photographer called Henry Ulke lived in the boarding house opposite Ford’s Theatre, the location Lincoln was brought after being shot, and where he supposedly took the sneaky picture. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, is said to have kept the image and that by the 1980s it was in the possession of Margaret Hanks, a second cousin once removed of the president. Hanks allegedly sold the photo in 1986 to Larry Davis, an auctioneer and Civil War enthusiast from Illinois, who says his ex-wife stole the image and sold it to Spolar, the dentist.
Sharks Are Circling: Legal Action
According to the Associated Press article, Spolar has already sued the producers attempting to stop the documentary from being filmed. Braun was also sued for having violated a non-disclosure agreement that was formalized when she saw the image. The investigator is accused of profiting from the controversial photograph.
If the photograph is genuine it is believed that it might fetch up to $2.3 million, and this is perhaps why so many players are battling at the courts, all chomping for a bite of the Lincoln pie. However, the potential dividends will only become a reality if specialists like Harold Holzer sign off on the photographs’ authenticity, which won’t be happening anytime soon. When Braun first saw the alleged image of the dead president, according to the New York Post, her “initial thought was that it was too good to be true.” Let’s hope she’s not right!
Top image: The famous death photo of Abraham Lincoln, now the subject of the Discovery Channel documentary, has yet to be revealed. It depicts the dead body of the famed President after his assassination. This painting by Alonzo Chappel, is entitled The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln. Source: Public domain
By Ashley Cowie