“Portrait of a Young Man.”
This is the first in a series of articles on Abraham Lincoln in the bicentennial year of his birth.
For over 30 years, a controversy has swirled over what may be the earliest known photographic image of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1977, Albert Kaplan purchased an unidentified daguerreotype of a young man for $27 from a group of 100 daguerreotypes being sold by an art gallery on 57th Street in New York City.
The sales receipt described the daguerreotype simply as “Portrait of a Young Man.”
Upon seeing the unidentified daguerreotype, Kaplan believed the image was Lincoln. A few days later, after he had a chance to examine Lincoln’s known photographic images, he became convinced the young man was the 16th president.
“When I first saw it, I thought that there were similarities between the handsome, aristocratic and tastefully groomed young man of the daguerreotype, and my mental image of President Lincoln,” Kaplan says on the website he has devoted to proving the daguerreotype is the earliest known photograph image of Lincoln.
In recent months, Kaplan sought out WND to present his daguerreotype and argue his claim.
“Most Lincoln experts have a mental image of Lincoln from his known photographic images, paintings and sculptures,” Kaplan told WND. “When they see the image of the young man of my daguerreotype, they do not see the Lincoln they know.”
“Portrait of a Young Man.”
Kaplan says many Lincoln experts glance at his image and simply dismiss it.
“I do not believe these people are insincere,” he says. “I do not think their denials have anything to do with vested interest.”
Still, the youthful image in Kaplan’s daguerreotype does not show the thin, long-suffering ascetic the public imagination commonly associates with Lincoln.
Kaplan’s image shows a healthy young man in the prime of life.
In his March 26, 1843 letter to Martin M. Morris, Lincoln provided a word description of how he appeared to voters who knew nothing of his background.
Lincoln wrote: “It would astonish if not amuse, the older citizens to learn that I (a stranger, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy working on a flatboat at ten dollars per month) have been put down here as the candidate of pride, wealth, and aristocratic family distinction.”
On his website, Kaplan notes that, “After viewing the daguerreotype image one can readily appreciate how early 1840s voters, who knew Lincoln only by his appearance, would think that he was ‘the candidate of pride, wealth, and aristocratic family distinction.’”
Lincoln experts generally agree that his earliest known photographic likeness is a 1840s daguerreotype in the possession of the Library of Congress. It is generally known by Lincoln experts as Meserve #1, since the daguerreotype was the first Lincoln image published in the 1944 edition of Lincoln collector and expert Frederick Hill Meserve’s book “The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln.”
The Meserve #1 daguerreotype was a gift to Meserve from Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s eldest son.
Tradition says the Meserve #1 daguerreotype was made by N. H. Shepherd, in Springfield, Ill., in 1846, when Lincoln was 37 years-old.
Alternatively, Meserve stated that Robert Todd Lincoln believed the photograph was made in 1848, in Washington, D.C., when Lincoln was a congressman from Illinois.
The Kaplan daguerreotype, by contrast, lacks what collectors call “provenance,” a documented evidentiary history that establishes without break the exact chain of ownership of an antique or historical object of interest.
Not long after Kaplan purchased the unidentified daguerreotype, the New York art gallery director died and the gallery’s records that should have indicated the image’s seller were lost.
Kaplan believes his daguerreotype was made in late August or early September 1841, when Lincoln and his friend, Joshua Speed, traveled to the Speed plantation in Louisville, Ky. Or, possibly the daguerreotype was made in St. Louis, when Lincoln and Speed stopped there on their trip.
Kaplan believes Lincoln gave the daguerreotype to his hostess, Mrs. Lucy C. Speed, Joshua’s mother, the very same lady Lincoln sent a signed photograph of himself when president.
On the occasion of Lincoln’s visit to Louisville, Mrs. Speed gave Lincoln the gift of a Bible.
Supporting Kaplan’s theory is an announcement in the Aug. 31, 1841, edition of the Louisville Daily Journal that T. B. Moore of the itinerant daguerreotypist team of Moore and Ward would be spending a few days at Ormsby House. As Lincoln had a tooth pulled during his visit to Louisville, and T. B. Moore was a practicing dentist as well as a daguerreotype artist, Kaplan believes that perhaps Moore was both Lincoln’s Louisville daguerreotype photographer as well as his dentist.
Lincoln scholars Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis have called Joshua Speed “Lincoln’s only intimate friend.”
Speed was of a prominent Louisville family. He attended college for a year before moving to Springfield, Ill., in 1835.
In 1837, Lincoln had been living in New Salem, and when he arrived in Springfield, he roomed with Speed above Speed’s store.
According to Wilson and Davis, Speed helped Lincoln through a period of suicidal depression following his breakup with Mary Todd in the winter of 1840-1841.
Lincoln biographer Stephen B. Oates noted in his book “Malice Toward None” that Lincoln’s trip to Louisville with Speed in August 1841 represented “a much needed vacation” where “Lincoln opened up about Mary and his depression.”
In January 1841, Lincoln broke off his engagement with Todd in a bout of self-doubt that observers at the time attributed to Lincoln’s “hypochondria.”
In a letter Joshua Speed wrote to Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon, Speed described Lincoln’s depression as follows: “Lincoln went Crazy – had to remove razors from his room – take away all Knives and other such dangerous things – &c – it was terrible – was during the Special session of the Ills Legislature in 1840.”
Lincoln friend James Conklin noted that after this break, Lincoln became so emaciated his colleagues were shocked at his appearance.
The differences between the Kaplan and Meserve #1 daguerreotypes are significant; however, it is possible the two images might have been made seven years apart.
One possible factor in the difference in appearance is the crisis Lincoln experienced over his decision whether or not to wed Todd.
Another cause may be the great unhappiness Lincoln experienced being separated from his family while he was a congressman in Washington.
“I happen to have the ability to recognize people from their photographs,” Kaplan said. “Lincoln scholars may know a great deal about Lincoln, but that does not mean they necessarily have the ability to recognize people visually.
“We all change over the years,” he explained. “Finding an unknown Lincoln daguerreotype has almost become a cottage industry. So, it’s natural Lincoln scholars put my claim in the same category and say, ‘Poor Kaplan, he is either deluded or trying to perpetrate a fraud upon us.’”
Next Article in the Series: A forensic expert examines the Kaplan daguerreotype