Earliest Known Photo of Abraham Lincoln

The earliest known photo of Abraham Lincoln is well known and commonly seen today, but did you know it was unknown to the public until 1896?
The daguerreotype, attributed to photographer Nicholas H. Shepherd, was taken in 1848 when Lincoln was a 37-year-old frontier lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and a Congressman-elect.
Young Mary Lincoln
Mary Lincoln in 1848This picture — along with an accompanying one of Mary Lincoln from the same year — hung in the Lincolns’ home for decades (from the time oldest son Robert said he could first remember as a child growing up). Whether it was hung in the White House is unknown, but after the assassination Mary Lincoln kept it with her belongings as she traveled the United States and the world. After her death, the photos became the property of Robert Lincoln, the oldest and only surviving Lincoln son.

Interestingly, the existence of this photo was not public knowledge until December 1895, when it was published in McClure’s magazine with the permission of Robert Lincoln. McClure’s obtained the image after Robert had revealed its existence to writer Ida Tarbell when she interviewed him in Chicago early in 1895. Tarbell related in her book, All in the Day’s Work, her meeting with Robert and his offer of the unpublished daguerreotype to her for her article. “I held my breath. If it was true!” she wrote. “I held my breath still longer when the picture was finally in my hands for I realized that this was a Lincoln which shattered the widely accepted tradition of his early shabbiness, rudeness, ungainliness. It was another Lincoln, and one that took me by storm.”

The photo also took the country and the world by storm when it was published. The magazine even did a follow-up article solely on the public reaction to the photo, including quotes from national figures opining on the image.
Two people who may not have been impressed, but even upset, about the publication of the Lincoln daguerreotype were John Hay and John Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln’s White House secretaries and historians in the midst of completing a multi-volume life of Lincoln. The two were also personal friends with Robert Lincoln, and Robert gave them exclusive access to all of his father’s papers and materials for their book.
Robert wrote to Hay in November 1895 explaining how and why he gave the photo of his father to Tarbell to print, and not to Hay and Nicolay:
“It was among a lot of inconsequential things kept packed up by my mother which I examined carefully for the first time, after I returned from England in 1893. This examination was a business that I might have done at any time after her death in 1882 but there was no reason for thinking it of consequence, and I dreaded it.”
Robert added that he decided to give the photo to Tarbell to use “to put her under a little obligation to me,” since he had little trust for reporters or historians, which he said, appears to have worked.
Mary Lincoln Isham, Robert Lincoln’s oldest daughter, presented the original daguerreotypes of Lincoln and Mary to the Library of Congress in October 1937.


Mary and Tad interviewed by NY World in 1871

When Mary Lincoln and her 17-year-old son Tad returned to American after nearly three years in Europe, they traveled from Liverpool, England to New York City on the steamship “Russia.” They were noticed immediately by the press when the ship docked, and shortly after they checked into their hotel, a female reporter from the NY World called on them for an interview. Not many people know the full interview in Q&A format was printed in the World on May 13, 1871. I have attached pdf scans of the interview. Enjoy!


Lincoln Lore Interview

Lincoln Lore magazine published an interview with Jason regarding Mary Lincoln for the Ages, in its Fall 2019 issue.

Sara Gabbard:  Your book is defined as “an analytical bibliography.”  Please explain how you chose this particular approach.

Jason Emerson: This approach — this entire book, in fact — really just came about organically. While I was preparing for publication an edition of a previously unpublished manuscript about Mary written in 1927 (Myra Helmer Pritchard, The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow as Revealed by Her Own Letters, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2011), I wondered where that book, if it had been published at the time, would have fallen in the timeline of works about Mary Lincoln. I started to create a simple bibliography, and the more I dug for resources the more I realized that no extensive bibliography of Mary Lincoln had ever been done. So I decided to do one myself because I thought it would be fun and I thought it would be a great addition to Mary Lincoln scholarship. I decided to make it analytical (originally I called it “annotated” but my editor at SIU Press, Sylvia Frank Rodrigue, suggested that “analytical” was a more accurate description) because, in my experience, people refer to books and articles about Mary all the time without understanding the true value or accuracy of the references. I wanted to offer up descriptions and analyses of the works to help people know what the references truly say and what I, as a Lincoln scholar with more than 20 years of research and experience under my belt and the person who has researched and published more about Mary Lincoln than any other scholar ever, think about them.


Mary Lincoln for the Ages

Jason’s newest book, Mary Lincoln for the Ages, is published. Check it out on or Southern Illinois University Press.

Mary Lincoln for the Ages is part narrative historical inquiry and part analytical bibliography. It contextualizes Mary Lincoln’s life and thoroughly reexamines nearly every word ever written about her. In doing so, this book becomes the prime authority on Mary Lincoln, points researchers to key underused sources, reveals how views about her have evolved over the years, and sets the stage for new questions and debates about the themes and controversies that have defined her legacy.