Amateur Historians

 
The advent of the Internet has had both positive and negative effects. People with no academic background in research or American history have become “experts”. Everything they read online (assuming, of course, it confirms their assumptions) is taken as gospel. We recently spoke to one individual who insisted that typewriters were invented in the 1840s and were routinely used during the Civil War. Must be true… he found the information online!

The worst manifestation of this trend is the growing number of people who purchase old photographs then identify them as unknown portraits of famous people, thereby enchanting the value of their holding immeasurably and making them look like geniuses. During the past twenty years or so, we have seen “newly-discovered portraits” of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln and many others. Any tall guy with a stovepipe hat is Lincoln. Any fat guy is Douglas. Any guy with a walrus mustache is either Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson.

Recently, we saw a story about two California brothers who purchased a nice outdoor sixth-plate daguerreotype on eBay for $1259. These fellows seem to have unbelievable luck in making such finds. They supposedly have uncovered a Wyatt Earp family photo album, the earliest known photograph of Los Angeles, and previously unknown portraits of Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. They have an “elite” team of three women who do much of their online research.

The daguerreotype in question shows a bunch of people posing outside a free-standing building, possibly a school or orphanage, given the number of children. A tall man wearing a white linen duster and dark stovepipe hat is seen in the foreground. The brothers believe this is Lincoln. They contend that a shorter man seen nearby is Douglas and that Mrs. Adele Douglas is also in the picture.

Dr. Mathew Pinsker of Dickinson College, a well-respected Lincoln scholar and author, pooh-poohed the piece. An “advanced Lincoln collector” in Illinois agreed that it showed Lincoln and even identified the locale as “Knoxville, Illinois” (Perhaps he meant Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois). Some park rangers at the Lincoln National Home site in Springfield thought it showed Lincoln. Accordingly, the brothers think this might be the only known photograph of Lincoln & Douglas together, taken during their debates in 1858.

The latest daguerreotype we have seen was taken in March 1857. We don’t believe they were still making them in 1858. How likely is it that Lincoln and Douglas both happened to be visiting a school or orphanage in 1858, that a mobile daguerreotypist was at-hand, and that the two adversaries decided on-the-spot to pose for a souvenir photo? Not to mention that, on a small photograph, taken from a distance, the details of facial expression are generally indistinct. Makes the whole thing problematic, don’t you think? But, who are we to argue with such eminent authorities? And, as one brother said, “Nobody really knows history.” So, in an age where facts and history are disputed from all sides, everyone’s an expert and one opinion is just as good as another? Right?

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