Errol Morris on a photo mystery

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In a five part New York Times online series, documentary filmmaker and blogger Errol Morris tackles the fascinating mystery of this Civil War-era photograph. From the article, titled "Whose Father Was He?:
No name – but a soldier brave, he fell.
We shall find her, without a name;
This picture, sometime, will tell whence he came.
– Emily Latimer, “The Unknown”

The soldier’s body was found near the center of Gettysburg with no identification – no regimental numbers on his cap, no corps badge on his jacket, no letters, no diary. Nothing save for an ambrotype (an early type of photograph popular in the late 1850s and 1860s) of three small children clutched in his hand. Within a few days the ambrotype came into the possession of Benjamin Schriver, a tavern keeper in the small town of Graeffenburg, about 13 miles west of Gettysburg. The details of how Schriver came into possession of the ambrotype have been lost to history. But the rest of the story survives, a story in which this photograph of three small children was used for both good and wicked purposes.
Whose Father Was He? (Part One)



  1. Here’s a link to all of Errol Morris’ work at the NY Times. The first contribution, a three-part investigation into some photos of the road in Sebastapol, is especially interesting. Reading his columns gives you a lot of insight to the mind of the man behind such wonderful documentaries.

  2. I’ve dabbled in genealogy for most of my adult life, and identifying random photos is one of the hardest tasks those of my ilk face.

    This is a fascinating story, and I look forward to the rest of the installments.

    What a horribly bittersweet moment for his widow — to see the photo and at least know where her husband was, combined with the crushing realization that he’d never be coming home. (But sadly also somewhat of a relief to have the photograph back in her possession, given the expense and rarity of such a portrait at the time).

  3. That’s my great-grampa on the left, beside his best friend Hymen Lipman (who was always losing his eraser and borrowing great-grampa’s), and the chick is a young Barbara Bush.
    The matching shirts happened because it was the only bolt of cloth the town taylor had at the time.

  4. Make sure not to look at the footnotes, though, or you’ll see the mystery revealed.

    In my research, I’ve found J. Francis Bourns to be a pretty great shyster. I hope that Morris looks at a little of the aftermath of the discovery (I’ll avoid spoiling for those who want some of the mystery).

  5. Jeaguilar — THAT is cool…and that is why I remain spellbound by genealogy and old photos.

  6. I love it when Genealogy pops up in one of its many guises. My great granddad didn’t fight at Gettysburg, but he and his unit (1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery) was at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, and survived those horrors.

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