It's a Photo of a Bearded Dead Man. Could It Be Priceless?

Some experts believe the dead man is Abraham Lincoln
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 1, 2020 12:40 PM CDT
Updated Oct 4, 2020 7:31 AM CDT
It's a Photo of a Bearded Dead Man. Could It Be Priceless?
This image shows Dr. Stanley Burns, left, and Dr. Whitny Braun looking over what some believe is a photo of Abraham Lincoln, captured hours after his death on April 15, 1865, in a scene from the documentary "The Lost Lincoln."   (Unrealistic Ideas/Discovery via AP)

The image is haunting, depicting a gaunt-faced man with a familiar beard, staring ahead lifelessly. The right eye is bulging and appears disfigured from an unseen wound. Some experts believe the man is Abraham Lincoln, captured hours after the nation's 16th president succumbed to an assassin's bullet on April 15, 1865, in a heretofore unknown photo of incalculable emotional and historic value. Others dismiss the mere possibility. The original ambrotype image is locked away in an Illinois safe deposit box, the subject of court fights and accusations of robbery and, on Sunday, a Discovery network documentary that attempts to unravel the mystery behind it. If The Lost Lincoln even airs. As of Thursday, it wasn't entirely sure it would. The man who currently owns the photo has asked a California judge to stop it, a lawsuit Discovery dismisses in court papers as "patently frivolous." The AP has the fascinating backstory:

  • "In the world of authenticating, this is like finding the Holy Grail," said Whitny Braun, a California investigator whose effort to determine if the photo is real is traced in the documentary.
  • Braun learned about the image two years ago when she was cold-called by Jerald Spolar, the Illinois dentist who claims ownership. She didn't believe the story. At first glance, the face looks different—thinner, smoother—than the image most Americans are familiar with.
  • After looking into it for two years, Braun said she's 99% convinced the photo is genuine.
  • Discovery, meanwhile, is putting its reputation on the line. The network is either telling the world of a historic treasure or producing the 2020 version of The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults, Geraldo Rivera's laughingstock 1986 special that revealed an empty safe.

  • As the story goes, the image was captured by Henry Ulke, a professional photographer who lived across the street from Washington's Ford's Theatre in the boardinghouse where Lincoln was brought after being shot. Lincoln died early the next morning, and Ulke supposedly took the picture in secret before the president's body was taken to the White House.
  • It was an ambrotype, a photo created via a process in which a glass negative is placed on a dark background. That alone has led some experts to doubt the picture's authenticity, since ambrotypes were largely out of style by the mid-1860s.
  • The photo was quietly given to the descendants of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln's mother, in Illinois, and by the 1980s it was in the possession of Margaret Hanks. Before she died in 1986, she sold a collection of artifacts to Larry Davis, an auctioneer and Civil War buff from Quincy, Ill. They included the ambrotype, affixed with a Post-it note saying "Cousin Abe."
  • Davis alleges in court papers that his ex-wife stole the ambrotype and sold it to Spolar. The dentist disputes that he bought stolen property, said lawyer Bill Holbrow III, and has spent several years trying to prove the photo is genuine.

  • As for how Braun arrived at her conclusion, she consulted with facial recognition experts, medical experts, a ballistics expert, Lincoln scholars, and descendants of Ulke. The facial experts said the man in the image had a slight scar under the lip consistent with one Lincoln had. Ulke's descendants explained how Henry Ulke specialized in "death photos," particularly ones with the eyes left open.
  • But critics point out inconsistencies: For instance, in one of the last photographs of Lincoln taken alive, his once-full beard was wispy, almost a goatee. But the man in the image has a full beard. Braun said there's evidence that the photo was retouched to add more facial hair and to color the cheeks, making them appear smoother.
  • If the photo is proven genuine, there's no telling what it would be worth on the open market. In 2011, billionaire William Koch paid $2.3 million for the only known photograph of the Wild West gunfighter Billy the Kid.
  • Speaking of money, Spolar is also suing Braun, saying she violated a nondisclosure agreement made when he showed her a copy of the image, and that she's attempting to profit off somebody else's property. Braun declined comment on the action.
(More Abraham Lincoln stories.)

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