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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Not everyone on the murder board was swayed by Richter and Zeller’s conclusions, however. The center’s vice president, Garry Adelman, had serious misgivings. But none of the heavy hitters on Murderers’ Row was more skeptical than William Frassanito, the Gettysburg photo pioneer whose sleuthing had shown that one of Gardner’s iconic battleground shots was staged.


It’s round midnight at the Reliance Mine Saloon, and Fraz, as he is known, is nursing his third Coors Light of the evening. He rose, as he does every day, at 4 p.m., and entered this cavelike Gettysburg tavern at 10:30 on the nose, as he does every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Bellied up to the bar, stroking his whiskers, Fraz looks like a worn and weathered Walt Whitman pondering the silence. He shifts a little creakily on his stool—he’s 67 now—and begins to tick off reasons Richter’s Lincoln is not Lincoln. Carefully, cheerfully, he says: “For starters, the guy on the horse looks like a Cossack. His beard is longer and much fuller than the wispy, trimmed one the president wore in his studio session with Gardner 11 days before. Lincoln had an unmistakable gap between his goatee and his sideburns. If you’re going to spy him in a black speck in a distant background, at least get the beard right.”

For his part, Oakley never bought into Richter’s Lincoln, either. He chuckles at the idea that Gardner was a long-range paparazzo. He maintains that the photographer was taking “establishing shots” that showed the pageantry of the procession and the breadth of the gathered crowd. “Gardner was well used to photographing the president and wouldn’t have been overly excited by a distant view of him that he knew would be difficult to see and market,” he says. “If Gardner did manage to capture an image of Lincoln, either on a horse or on foot, it most likely was by accident.”

After unearthing his own accidental Lincoln in the second Gardner stereograph, Oakley wrote to the Library of Congress and asked if the left-side negative of that view had ever been scanned. It hadn’t, so Oakley ordered a copy. Curiously, Richter and Zeller had been requesting the very same scan for years, to no avail.

As it turned out, the left half was in better shape than the right, but Oakley’s Lincoln looked fuzzy even when blown up. Oakley knew that Gardner, in the studio session, had taken a profile portrait of Lincoln facing left, just like the possible Lincoln he was now looking at. The Gardner profile would offer the most accurate representation of Lincoln’s hair and beard as they were on dedication day, so Oakley downloaded a high-resolution scan of it from the Library of Congress website and used Photoshop to cut out a separate image of the face. He then overlaid that face on the figure in the second stereograph, sizing it to the same scale and rotating it to look downward, just as the man in the stereograph photo is doing.

“All the landmarks—jaw line, beard, hair, cheekbones, heavy brow, ears, line up perfectly,” Oakley says. Most astonishingly, when his researchers triangulated the location of the speakers’ stand from four photos of the ceremony, his Lincoln appeared in precisely the right spot.

One thing mystified Oakley, however. Why was his Lincoln on Seward’s left when eyewitness accounts and the Bachrach photo have him seated on Seward’s right? The answer, Oakley says, became clear when his team got its 3-D model together and synced the virtual cameras with the actual photos. The stand, they concluded, was three feet off the ground, and the 6-foot-4 Lincoln was not seated on it, but standing in front of it.

The new scan also revealed what Oakley calls the “most damning evidence” against Richter’s man on the horse being Lincoln. The figure appears to have epaulets on his shoulders that were not visible in previous iterations. “If those are indeed epaulets,” says Oakley, “the man is in uniform, despite the top hat, and cannot be Lincoln.”

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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