‘This is like finding the Holy Grail’
NEW YORK, Oct 5, (AP): The image is haunting, depicting a gauntfaced 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 beloved 16th president succumbed to an assassin’s bullet on April 15, 1865, 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 attempted to unravel the mystery behind it. “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 Discovery’s special, “The Lost Lincoln”.
The man who claims to own the image is suing to halt the show from being aired. After looking into it for two years, Braun said she’s 99% convinced the photo is genuine. She and the special’s producer, Archie Gips, say it makes too much sense for it to be real than not. Discovery, meanwhile, is putting its reputation on the line. The network is either telling the world of an 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. “I’ve seen enough of these things to know that this is a whole lot of hysteria about something that is not Lincoln,” said Harold Holzer, whose 1984 book, “The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print”, traced the 130 known photographs of the former president. Braun learned about the image two years ago when she was coldcalled 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.
As the story goes, the image was captured by Henry Ulke, a professional photographer who lived across the street from Washington 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 process where a photo is created by using a glass negative 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
It was kept secret because Lincoln’s powerful secretary of war, Henry Stanton, was strongly opposed to any images of the dead president. Only one fuzzy photo is known to exist, taken from a distance when Lincoln’s body was lying in state in New York, Holzer said. The photo was quietly given to the descendants of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, in Illinois (actor Tom Hanks is a distant cousin), and in the 1980s was in the possession of Margaret Hanks, a second cousin once removed of the former president. Before she died in 1986, she sold a collection of artifacts to Larry Davis, an auctioneer and Civil War buff from Quincy, Illinois. They included the ambrotype, affixed with a Post-it note saying “Cousin Abe”, Gips said. Davis, who would not comment when reached by The Associated Press, 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. Braun goes through a lengthy process herself, consulting with facial recognition experts, medical experts, a ballistics expert, Lincoln scholars and descendants of Ulke. “My first reaction was ‘how could this be’,” Braun said. “How could a plate like this go unnoticed for 150 years? My initial thought was that it was too good to be true.” The experts convinced her.
The ballistics expert – Braun’s father – showed how it was unlikely there would be an exit wound from the bullet fired into Lincoln’s head. 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.
“There will be plenty of naysayers, of course, as there is with anything, especially the historians,” Gips said. But the photo was taken in complete secrecy and shared with very few people, which only makes him believe it more, he said. The human frailty caught in the image is what is haunting to Braun.