Special Report

Will the Real Abraham Lincoln Please Stand Up?

A former Disney animator makes a provocative discovery by studying photos taken during the Gettysburg Address

(Alexander Gardner / Library Of Congress, Prints And Photographs Division; Alexander Gardner / Library Of Congress, Prints And Photographs Division / Courtesy Of Christopher Oakley)
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Armed with his findings, Oakley sought audiences with the murder board’s Murderers’ Row. Of course, Lincoln could not have appeared in two different places in the same photograph, so he and Richter couldn’t both be right. Opinion was deeply divided and, with some members, perhaps not unbiased. Richter and Zeller were impressed by Oakley’s technological wizardry, but unmoved by his inferences. “It’s like looking at an ink blot,” says Richter. “If you want to see a butterfly, you can see a butterfly. Personally, I don’t see Lincoln.”

Garry Adelman is not so dismissive. “I have never been a big proponent of John’s Lincoln theory,” he says. “I feel considerably better about Christopher’s ID.” Harold Holzer went farther, disowning Richter’s speck and embracing Oakley’s ink blot as “convincing,” even if not “beyond dispute.” “Pretty amazing,” he says. “It’s like ‘Law & Order’: You keep enhancing an image until you see the suspect.”

You can count Fraz in the Oakley camp. “My sense is that Chris has found Lincoln on the platform,” he says. “The resemblance is 80 percent in favor.” His only question: Why is Lincoln standing below the platform when all the other dignitaries are seated? Oakley’s answer: Now that the crowd has been safely pushed back, Lincoln is preparing to mount the steps.

The implications of Oakley’s detective work do not sit particularly well with Richter and Zeller. Told that Fraz backs the ink blot, Richter’s voice suddenly jumps an octave. “The man I found had to be Lincoln,” he says. “Who else might have been returning a salute but the commander in chief?” Well, pretty much anyone but Lincoln. It’s generally accepted that Ronald Reagan was the first president to salute the troops—Dutch caused a big ruckus in 1981 when he broke ranks on tradition to do so. Lincoln’s response to salutes from the military has been documented. He simply tipped his hat.

So who was Richter’s Lincoln? Fraz has an idea. Hundreds of members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows attended the dedication. Fraz owns the logs of the Gettysburg lodge from 1846 to 1885. “The fraternal order assigned its own marshals to the ceremony,” he says. “No one knows what their uniforms looked like.” He’s betting Horseback Man was an Odd Fellows official or some other marshal.

Zeller, the most ardent defender of John Richter’s Lincoln, accuses Fraz of being disingenuous. “In my opinion, Bill sees this discovery, if considered legitimate and real, as something that he missed, but that he should not have missed. As such, it would be a threat to his legacy and his work in historic photography at Gettysburg. If he was to acknowledge John’s Lincoln as Lincoln, it would mean that he would have to acknowledge the existence of something significant in the photo that he himself overlooked.”

No one has ever questioned Fraz’s integrity before—at least not publicly—and this personal attack from a one-time protégé clearly disappointed him. History, he says, is like a vast puzzle for which most of the pieces will forever remain missing. “The historian’s job is to gather as many pieces as he can from as many sources as possible,” he says. “You come up with as logical an interpretation as you can, always realizing that new pieces will surface indefinitely.” To his mind, Oakley is laying a foundation for future scholars to work with.

We may never know if Oakley’s Honest Abe is Honest-to-Goodness Abe. “All I can say is I’ve sculpted Lincoln, sketched him, painted him and animated him getting shot,” he says. “I’ve been looking at his face for nearly 50 years, and last March, at 3 a.m. in my studio, he looked back.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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