What would Honest Abe say — is this death photo of him that went unnoticed for 150 years real or fake?
The image is eerie – with all the Lincoln trademarks, the gaunt face and famous beard. The right eye is slightly bulging, indicative of some disfigurement — or wound.
Some experts say it’s a long-lost picture of the country’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, taken hours after he was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865 — and they call it a priceless historic find. The original ambrotype image is locked in an Illinois safe deposit box.
“In the world of authenticating, this is like finding the Holy Grail,” said Whitny Braun, a California investigator who told the Associated Press she believes the image to be “99% real.”
Braun’s forensic work to determine the authenticity of the photo is featured in Discovery’s special, “The Lost Lincoln,” which airs Sunday at 9 p.m.
Others are skeptical. Up until now, only one photograph of Lincoln’s body was known to exist, which is a blurry image taken from a distance while his body lay in state.
“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. “Not every man with a beard photographed after 1861 was Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot for me to take this seriously. It doesn’t scan.”
The man in the photo is wearing a shirt, but Holzer said Lincoln’s clothes were stripped off him to check for other wounds when he was brought to the boardinghouse. Holzer also said that it’s odd an ambrotype was used at a time when it had gone out of style and also noted the unusually good lighting.
The story of how the photo found its way to Braun is complicated, according to Braun and the documentary’s producer, Archie Gips.
Braun said an Illinois dentist named Jerald Spolar called her out of the blue two years ago. At first, she didn’t believe his story but spent two years researching the photo’s authenticity and talking to facial recognition and ballistic experts, doctors and Lincoln scholars.
“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.”
According to the documentary, a professional photographer named Henry Ulke, who lived across from Ford’s Theatre in the boarding house where Lincoln was brought after being shot, took the picture. Lincoln died early the next morning. Ulke supposedly took the picture surreptitiously before Lincoln’s body was taken to the White House.
The photo’s existence was not known because Lincoln’s influential War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, nixed any pictures of the dead president. Somehow it was given to the descendants of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, in Illinois and by the 1980s had wound up in the possession of Margaret Hanks, a second cousin once removed of the president.
She sold the photo as part of a collection of artifacts to Illinois auctioneer and Civil war buff Larry Davis in 1986 not long before her death.
Included in the collection was the ambrotype, affixed with a Post-it note saying “Cousin Abe,” Gips told the AP.
Davis, for his part, has alleged in court papers that his ex-wife stole the ambrotype and sold it to Spolar.
Braun said that ballistics experts, which included her father, as well as facial experts, convinced her the photo was legit. Ulke’s descendants also told her that Henry Ulke specialized in death photos in which the corpses’ eyes were open.
Spolar has sued to stop the documentary from going forward though it is scheduled to air Sunday, the AP said. Spolar also sued Braun, saying she violated a non-disclosure agreement signed at the time he showed her the image and is profiting off his property.
Neither Spolar, 75, or his business partner, Tonny Jill Williamson, returned calls from the Post Saturday. Larry Davis, 76, hung up when the Post called him.
If the photo is genuine, experts say it could be worth up to $2.3 million.
With Eileen AJ Connelly