Thursday, July 19, 2007

Part Two: Who Does This Look Like?

Alright, this story has legs.

You may recall my report on July 2nd about an auction set to take place at the end of the month. Nest Egg Auction Gallery, a Maine-based organization, claims to have a priceless photograph…well, not exactly priceless…the bidding starts at $100,000!

They claim this is a photograph (above) of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, along with Mary’s sister, Elizabeth Todd Edwards. They claim this is the real deal.

Don’t take my word for it, go to their website and view their “evidence:”

Flash Animation

Press Release

Anthropomorphic Analysis

Last night I stumbled upon an article in The Times Record, a newspaper in Maine, that not only discusses the purported photograph, but it also cites yours truly as a skeptic!

As I read this article I felt so bad for Melville Robbins, the 78 year old fellow who has been kicking himself for letting this “national treasure” slip through his hands.

I figure I should give Mr. Robbins a few reasons not to feel bad.

Let me be clear here. In my view, scholars would be ecstatic if a previously unknown photograph, featuring Lincoln, his wife, and sister-in-law came to light. However, the evidence must be convincing.

I can only speak for myself when I say I have weighed the evidence and the “Nest Egg Photo” smells rotten to me.

The provenance rests on one claim. They say this photograph was once owned by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of Gettysburg fame. Let’s say Chamberlain did indeed own the photograph, what does that mean? Their theory appears to be that President Lincoln gave Chamberlain this photograph. Quite a leap of faith, is it not?

Is there any evidence that Lincoln ever met Chamberlain? Chamberlain wrote about everything else, why wouldn’t he write anything about the time the president gave him such a personal memento? Why would the president give Chamberlain a pre-presidential photograph of himself, his wife, and her sister? Moreover, why would Lincoln give away this one-of-a-kind photograph to an officer from Maine? Wouldn’t Lincoln want to hang onto this photograph?

But in my miind there is an even bigger problem with the photograph’s provenance. There is absolutely no mention anywhere of a photograph featuring Lincoln, Mary, and Elizabeth. Forget that Lincoln’s letters do not mention such a photograph, it is not mentioned in any of the interviews with Lincoln’s associates—and there are hundreds of such interviews, including interviews with Mary, her sister, and brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards. No mention of the photograph.

In my view, the photograph does not pass the provenance test. I don’t think President Lincoln gave this photograph to Chamberlain, nor have I seen credible evidence that Chamberlain himself owned this photograph. Most troubling, however, I have seen no evidence that a photograph featuring Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Elizabeth Todd Edwards even exists.

Now to the “Anthropomorphic Analysis.” First, the experts who conducted the study are not identified. What are their credentials? What other projects have they worked on? How reputable are they? By not identifying the experts, I am left with more questions than answers.

Onto the photograph itself.

“After analyzing the facial features of approximately 15 known photographs of Abraham Lincoln,” the report begins, “we have determined the following similarities to this particular ambrotype photograph:”

So they are comparing known photographs of Lincoln against this photograph. I have reservations. My fear is that they are going to try to “make it fit.” In other words, why not mix in a few photographs of people who aren’t Lincoln to establish differences in physical characteristics?

They go onto review the 15 Lincoln photos and find that Lincoln had a “well defined jaw line, or mandible.” The man in the “Nest Egg Photo” also has “a pronounced jaw line and distinctive lips.” Bingo! No measurements, no photographs to compare, just a match.

They compare the “vermillion area and the vermillion border to the labial commissure” and they have found that the “dimensions appear to be very, very similar.” No measurements, no photographs to compare, merely the scientific “very, very similar.”

Next, they compare the “philtral column which runs form the lower portion of the nose to the upper lip.” They found that these “also appear to be very, very similar and dimensional.” No measurements, no photographs to compare, but this time it is not only “very, very similar” but it is also "dimensional."

Now it's time to go mole hunting! They find a “slight shadow in the natural crease of the lower malar prominence area which is the exact location of a mole. This similarity is evident in all comparison photographs.”

Lincoln did indeed have a distinctive mole on the right side of his face, but I am not sure where the mole is on the “Nest Egg Photo.” I am sure they studied a much better scan than I have access to, but it appears that this fellow’s mole is too low—it is even with his lips. Every picture of Lincoln I see clearly shows a mole located above his mouth.

They also claim matches with the “nasal bridge” and the left eye, but they save the best for last. Here it is in full:

“The most striking similarity to Abraham Lincoln in this ambrotype photograph is the left hand shown draped down. It is is [sp] a known fact that Abraham Lincoln suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome. In close examination of this hand, is that of a person suffering from this ailment. Our conclusion is with so many similarities that the probability of someone, by chance, requesting a photograph with two women similar to Mary Todd and Elizabeth Todd Edwards, and a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln and a third parties hand with Marfan’s Syndrom, is extremely unlikely.”

Fantastic! I am supposed to believe this is Lincoln based on the “Marfan Hand?” First off, it is not “a known fact” that Lincoln suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome. It is a theory, not a fact. There is a big difference between what we think and what we know. Can we do a DNA test and determine if Lincoln suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome? Perhaps.

However, if Lincoln did indeed suffer from Marfan’s Syndrome, what does that mean for the authenticity of this photograph? They have diagnosed the man in this photograph as having Marfan’s Syndrome based on the what? Are there members of the American Medical Association who can diagnose Marfan’s Syndrome by looking at the photograph of a man’s hand?

In my view, the evidence is simply not convincing. I have not seen any evidence that suggests a photograph featuring Lincoln, his wife, and sister-in-law ever existed. I can't tell you who these three individuals are, but I do not think Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, or Elizabeth Todd Edwards appear anywhere in this photograph. Randomly assigning names to these faces—and thereby monetary value—seems irresponsible.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely correct. I saw the press release published in one of the antique/auction trade publications. I contacted them toe xpress my extreme skepticism regarding the image and the individual who published the story admitted that she had simply taken their word for it. No question the photo is either someone else or simply a fraud.

Anonymous said...

I didn't believe that it was authentic when I saw the website. Now, I am trying to find out information regarding the sale but I haven't found anything. I am sure if it had been real it would have made some major press.

Alan said...

Another possibility: let us assume for a moment that this IS a photo of Elizabeth Edwards and her unmarried sister Mary Todd (the older woman passes well enough for Elizabeth and the younger, though not plump enough of face, could be Mary). The question that arises IS, what is Lincoln's marfaned hand doing draped over Elizabeth's shoulder. That was NOT the etiquette of that time or place. Consider on the other hand that the gentleman might be Ninian Edward's, Elizabeth's husband and mary's guardian. Ninian regularly wore a beard: however, men have cause to shave beards from time to time. Ninian's face, not unlike Lincoln's, tended to be thin and gaunt. That would explain the intimate familiarity of the draped male hand. ADL Land o Lakes FL

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding me? A person would have to be drunk to think for even a second that these people could be Lincoln, Mary and Elizabeth! I have been studying the Lincoln family for 20 years and have seen enough photos of all 3 to know this is not them! First, there is no physical resemblance and second, none of them would have ever had a photo of just the 3 of them in this fashion, especially Elizabeth! She had too much class! Right now, I can't think of anything more rediculous!