Which of these pictures do you believe is the last one ever taken of Abraham Lincoln while he was alive?
Recently I’ve received quite a number of inquiries from students wanting to know the true answer to that question. The volume of inquiries makes me believe that a wonderful teacher somewhere has given an assignment to his/her class on this subject. If so, it’s a good exercise because there is so much conflicting information on this topic that I wanted to be sure myself before commenting.
So the first thing I did when faced with this ‘puzzle’ was to investigate the subject from all angles. First I took what I knew about the subject and mixed that with what I could find in books, on the Internet, from the personal opinions from peers and finally, comments from the experts.
I try very hard to only publish information that is verifiably true in an attempt to keep the historical record straight. With the advent of the Internet and self-publishing, it is astonishing to see how much information is posted as fact, when in fact, it is incorrect. The Internet has become a huge game of ‘BROKEN TELEPHONE LINE’ on which factual information quickly becomes outdated, twisted, misquoted, misunderstood and worst of all, reported as the God’s honest truth.
Case in point is the question the students have asked. During Mr. Lincoln’s political career, he participated in many photo sessions as well as sittings for life paintings and even two life masks. The three photos presented at the start of this article are the ones most claimed by sources to be the last photo taken of the President. A quick search on Google helps to prove this point. I found these claims on websites, in books and even in auctions for pictures being sold on ebay. There can only be ‘one last photo’ of Mr. Lincoln taken while he was alive. I say ‘alive’ because there is one authenticated photo in existence of the slain President in his coffin in NYC but that is a different story entirely.
To start with, let me clarify why there is so much confusion over this issue. Basically, the pictures above were taken at two different photo sessions in 1865. One was an impromptu session with photographer Henry F. Warren on the south balcony of the White House on March 6, 1865, just two days after Lincoln’s 2nd inauguration. In that session, Mr. Warren took three pictures of the President.
The other was a formal portrait sitting with photographer Alexander Gardner. At that session, Gardner took a total of five photographs. The date of this session is where the confusion exists. Originally, most Lincoln scholars accepted a date of Monday, April 10, 1865 as the day the sitting took place. Several books published in the 1960s by well-respected Lincoln authors agreed with this date. April 10 meant that these photos were taken just days before Lincoln’s assassination on Friday, April 14.
But a few years ago, new evidence was found by Mr. Harold Holzer, an eminent Lincoln scholar from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The evidence indicated that the date of April 10 was not correct and was more likely Sunday, February 05, 1865 instead. This being the case, the Warren photo suddenly became the last known one of Lincoln alive and to this day, it is still considered so.
I have corresponded with Mr. Holzer on numerous occasions and so I wrote to him to ask about this information. He wrote me a nice email in response and included some specifics about the circumstances surrounding his discovery.
Below is a description of the two photo sessions from an article written by James J. Nance for the February 2008 issue of Kentucky Monthly Magazine entitled “Lincoln’s Last Portrait”. Nance credits references from the book “Lincoln in Photographs” by Lloyd Ostendorf and Charles Hamilton, and describes both the Warren and Gardner sessions.
UPDATE: March 10, 2009: The Henry F. Warren section of this article, which was based on the Ostendorf and Hamilton photographs may not be 100% correct. I have inserted notes in red where differences of opinions between Lincoln experts vary. Also, a new Warren photo has just become public which may show the President in front of the White House. Although this article does not cover that photograph, I have included it, and a close up, to help put it in context with the rest of the article.
Since the Warren photo is considered the last known one of Lincoln alive, I’ll cover that one first. Then I’ll cover the Gardner session which took place about one month earlier. As well, I have included the information on the Mathew Wilson painting that helped to verify the real date of the Gardner sessions.
The photograph was in a family photo album belonging to Ulysses S. Grant VI, the great-great grandson of President Grant. On the back of the photo is Henry F. Warren’s seal and a government tax stamp. A written inscription reads “Lincoln in front of the White House”.
I received an email from another Lincoln expert, Professor Ronald Rietveld, Emeritus Professor of History at California State University in Fullerton, California. Professor Rietveld is well known in Lincoln circles as the person who, at age 14, discovered the only known photograph of Abraham Lincoln in death. With regards to the Warren photo, I was surprised to learn that Professor Rietveld owns an original copy. Here is his response to my inquiry about the Warren and Gardner photos.
Your impression that the last known photograph of Lincoln in life was taken by Henry F. Warren on Monday, March 6, 1865–is correct! Indeed, it was taken late afternoon on the south balcony of the White House. And I possess an original copy of that photo which was given to me by Bert Sheldon, a secret service agent at the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House. I think I was about 17 when he gave it to me in Washington, D.C. The other two photos which you attached were taken at Alexander Gardner’s Gallery in Washington, DC on Sunday, February 5, 1865. The last formal pose which Gardner took was a close up. However, the glass plate cracked, and after a single print was made, the glass negative broke completely and Gardner threw the broken pieces away. I do not know when they began giving the date of April 10, 1865 for Gardner’s photos. But the Kunhardts in Twenty Days  missdate the photograph on pages 10-11 of their book. However, the very last photograph taken of the president, as I think you are aware, is the single print of the dead president lying in state in New York City Hall, April 24, 1865, which I discovered in the Nicolay-Hay Papers at the Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Illinois on July 20, 1952 at 14.
I hope this is of some help. — Ron Rietveld”.
THE ALEXANDER GARDNER PHOTO SESSION (February 05, 1865)
“On a cold bleak Sunday morning on February 5th, 1865 Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by his young son Tad, paid a short visit to the Washington DC photography studio of Alexander Gardner. The Gardner photograph session on February 5th took slightly over an hour from the president’s demanding schedule and consisted of five poses. The first showed a serious looking Tad leaning on a table, beside his amused seated father. All the other poses showed Lincoln sitting in a comfortable Queen Anne style padded chair with minor variations. Of the seated poses, the first had Lincoln with his hands on his legs, the second with his hands grasping the chair arms, and the third with his hands together in his lap holding a pencil and his reading glasses. The third pose, known today to Lincoln scholars as O-116, is the most revered of all Lincoln photos… ”
In an article written by Linda Merrill called Abraham Lincoln, February 5, 1865 on http://picturingamerica.neh.gov a great description of the Gardner/Lincoln session is presented.
“Gardner’s surprisingly candid photographs have proven more enduring, even though they were not originally intended to stand alone as works of art. This half-length portrait of Lincoln (above) is one of the finest from that February studio session. The president sits comfortably in a sturdy chair, his left elbow resting on its arm, his right on his own slightly elevated knee. There is nothing in this photograph to indicate Lincoln’s exalted position: we might just as well be looking at a humble country doctor. His clothing appears plain (though not unfashionable) and his loosely knotted bowtie has been left slightly askew. By this point in his public life, the president had sat for dozens of photographs, and he would have been mindful of the need to hold perfectly still during the several minutes it took to make an exposure. In this print, Lincoln’s eyes look steadily toward the camera but his hands fiddle impatiently with his eyeglasses and pencil as if to remind the photographer that he had more important things to do. What draws and holds our attention is Lincoln’s expression, which the poet Walt Whitman described as “a deep latent sadness.” At the time this picture was taken, Lincoln had weathered the worst of the war and almost succeeded in his fight to preserve the Union, yet he was painfully aware how much that cause had cost the nation. Lincoln appears much older than his fifty-five years, and Gardner did nothing to flatter the president’s haggard, careworn features. The photographer may even have exaggerated them, for the turn of Lincoln’s head leaves one side of his face slightly in shadow, making his right eye and cheek appear hollow and cadaverous.
Before this session ended, Gardner asked the president for one last pose. He moved his camera closer and took a photograph of Lincoln’s head, shoulders, and chest. Mysteriously the glass plate negative cracked. Gardner carefully took it to his dark room and was able to make one print, with an ominous crack across Lincoln’s face, before it broke completely and was discarded. This print, known as O-118, still exists to this day. Over the years many people have associated this crack with a symbolic foretelling of the assassin’s bullet that awaited Lincoln 10 weeks later”.
But at the time of the session, Lincoln could spare so little time to pose, so the artist needed recent photographs to work from. The pictures served their purpose, but the resulting painting—a traditional, formal, bust-length portrait in an oval format—is not particularly distinguished and hardly remembered today.
For Professor Ronald Rietveld’s website, please link to:
If you are interested in Abraham Lincoln, you should read these interviews by two Lincoln experts:
(posted on November 10, 2008)
(posted on December 08, 2008)