Oakley pulls together information the way a field marshal gathers an army. What separates him from other Abe-olitionists is his animator’s eye—he’s been trained to track and recreate movement and understand how it works.
“I became a Lincoln freak at age 5,” he says. He still remembers the Great Emancipator’s stern visage looming above him on a kindergarten wall in Crystal Lake, Illinois. “I know this sounds silly,” says the 51-year-old professor, “but when I saw that picture, I felt like I knew him and that he was a nice man.”
Oakley is a genial fellow, too. His outlook on life is sardonic and amused, and his home is a sometimes-whimsical testament to his fascination with the nice man in the picture. Amid the sculptures, sketches and paintings of Lincoln are dozens of books, medallions, life casts of his face and hands, and a CD of Oakley’s very first high-school animation—a stop-motion re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination. (The Super 8 film starred G.I. Joe as Lincoln; a Kewpie-like doll as his wife, Mary; and the Lone Ranger as John Wilkes Booth.) In storage are two boxes of figurines he made in college during an abortive stab at a clay-animated Gettysburg Address, the spiritual forefather of Virtual Lincoln.
During the early 1980s, shortly before he began cranking out cartoons for “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Oakley bought a book about Gettysburg that featured a David Bachrach photo of a dense throng of soldiers. In 1952, Josephine Cobb, then the chief of the Still Photo Section of the National Archives, hunted in the background and—focusing on a slight rise that suggested where the stage was—spied the hatless Lincoln. For more than a half century, that was believed to be the lone image of Lincoln at Gettysburg.
Six years ago, a Civil War hobbyist named John Richter magnified the first Gardner stereograph enough to pick out, deep in the crowd, a man on horseback amid what appeared to be a military procession. Too tiny to see with the naked eye, the tall, slim rider sported a bushy beard and a top hat. His white-gloved left hand was raised to his forehead in apparent salute.
A close-up view of the right portion of Gardner’s follow-up photo revealed that the horseman had lowered his hand. In both shots, the man’s back was to the camera. Though neither offered a clear view of his face, the more Richter stared at the enhanced 3-D images on his screen, the more certain he was that he had something special.
Richter is a director of the Center for Civil War Photography, a Web-based community of self-made experts. The core members compose a kind of murder board for anyone who thinks he has a new finding. The murder board is as hard to please as Madonna, for whom Oakley once created a backdrop video she used on tour. “These guys are approached all the time by people who literally see Jesus in a piece of toast,” Oakley says.
In Richter’s case, the center’s president, Bob Zeller, was dead certain that the figure was the president on his way to the stage. Zeller reasoned that Lincoln rode on horseback to the ceremony while wearing a top hat and white riding gloves. Gardner, he deduced, had taken rapid-fire photos of the faraway president. Or rapid-ish, considering that the shots may have been taken as much as ten minutes apart. “I’m absolutely convinced,” said Zeller, who later teamed up with Richter to write the book Lincoln in 3-D.
The discovery of possible Lincoln photos made national news. The claim was endorsed by no less an eminence than Harold Holzer, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.