Lincoln’s Ghost

In 1872, Mary Todd Lincoln went to a ‘spiritualist’ photographer who could show in a picture what she had always believed: that her late husband, President Lincoln never left her side. She liked the picture, and refused to believe that it was a fake. Three years she was committed to an insane asylum.

The spiritualist photographer was one Boston engraver named William Mumler who in 1861 took his own photograph and ‘discovered’ the image of a dead cousin in the photograph. What Mumler discovered perhaps was double-exposure, but he nonetheless became the go-to man when it comes to ghost photos. Lincoln photo made him very popular, and Mumler is now credited with launching the popularity of spirit photography. Mumler said Mary Todd Lincoln used an assumed name and a veil and he didn’t recognize her until he was developing the print.

Over the next few decades, many people who flock to spiritual photographers to have their pictures taken in the hope of seeing some long lost relative. Frederick Hudson in London and E. Buguet in Paris followed Mumler’s footsteps. In 1891, when the famous Combermere photo was taken, Alfred Russell Wallace, one of the fathers of the theory of evolution) reflected that spirit photography should be taken seriously. In 1911, James Coates published Photographing the Invisible, a treatise on spirit photography.

Lincoln-Calhoun Composite

The above famous photoportrait of Abraham Lincoln has his head placed upon the photo of another politician, John C. Calhoun. The trickery is attributed to Thomas Hicks – a portrait painter from that era who had painted Lincoln before — who was thought to have created this composite in the early to mid-1860s. Many historians believed that the photo was created after Lincoln’s assassination because there were hardly any heroic, Presidential looking portraits of Lincoln at that time. Calhoun’s image is a wood cut while the image of Lincoln is detailed, because it was taken from Mathew Brady’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln, the same one later used for $5 bills.

In his haste, Hicks didn’t noticed that when he flipped the Brady photo, the President’s famous mole would appear on the wrong side of his face. It was only years later that Stefan Lorant, the art director for the London Picture Post magazine, noticed that the photo was a fake.

The irony was that John C. Calhoun, a former vice president of the Untied States, was a vocal figure on states rights, and an inspiration for the Southern secessionists, even though he died a decade before the Civil War. Calhoun was an outspoken proponent of slavery and talked about it as a “positive good”.

Mathrew Brady’s Lincoln

Despite being a homely man, Abraham Lincoln enjoyed being photographed. He recognized the compelling power of the photograph, and frequented emerging photostudios. There are over 120 daugerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, stereographic cards and cartes de visites of Lincoln.

His favorite photographer was of course Mathew Brady, whose above photo changed the course of the nation. Taken on February 27th 1860–just hours after Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union speech, the photo of the obscure presidential candidates dispelled the notion that hideous Lincoln was unelectable. Three months after it was taken, and publicly circulated, Lincoln was nominated as the GOP presidential candidate. The photograph was widely circulated during the national campaign, both in the illustrated press and through the popular Currier and Ives prints.

A month before the election day, Lincoln received a letter from one Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, New York, which urged him to grow a beard because “[growing a beard would] look a great deal better for your face is so thin,” and it would make him more popular. It would prove to be so. When Lincoln left Springfield on February 11th, 1861, bound for the White House, he was fully bearded. On route, he stopped in Westfield and met Grace and he said he took her advice.

Lincoln would also later admitted that “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president of the United States,” adding the photograph “dispelled the opposition base on the rumours of my long ungainly figure, large feet, clumsy hands, and long, gaunt head; making me into a man of human aspect and dignified bearing.”

John B. Anderson

John B. Anderson was elected nine times to the U.S. Congress before he ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1980. In one of the most embarrassing photo-ops in recent political memory (man, it was a pretty stiff competition too*), Anderson posed besides Lincoln for photographer Barry McKinley.

McKinley and Anderson chose the location because both Anderson and Lincoln came from the same town in Illinois.  People jokingly asked, “Why vote for a man who proves he can’t measure up to Lincoln?” His predictable loss was sad because Anderson was one of a handful of politicians who maintained their integrity throughout their public service. During the Republican decade, candidates were asked if there were any actions in their past that they had come to regret. Most of them, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush dodged the question, but Anderson took it head-on, repenting his vote for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. His popularity increased dramatically overnight.

A Rockefeller Republican, Anderson ran as an independent when Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination. He started out very strong for an independent with over 25%, with endorsements from both sides of the aisle. However the above photo and his reactionary 50 cent per gallon gasoline tax sank his campaign. That November, he received 6 million votes (7%) but failed to carry a single precinct.

(*My favorites include: Gov. Dewey’s maniacal grin with people dressed as cavemen, Dukakis in tank, Bush v. Scanner, Kerry at NASA, Palin at Turkey farm).