Errol Morris, documentarian and now blogger for the New York Times, brings us a fascinating investigation into the history of a single photograph (technically an ambrotype). Morris's article Whose Father Was He? explores the mystery of a photograph of three children, found on the body of a Union soldier who fell at Gettysburg in 1863. Here's the photo:
The story of the photograph, the soldier, and all the events that followed is massive and strange. In typical Morris style, the story becomes partly about its own telling -- how do we interpret history? How does evidence survive? And so on. But first, there's the mystery. Here's how Morris sets the scene (emphasis added):
The soldier's body was found near the center of Gettysburg with no identification &emdash; no regimental numbers on his cap, no corps badge on his jacket, no letters, no diary. Nothing save for an ambrotype (an early type of photograph popular in the late 1850s and 1860s) of three small children clutched in his hand. ... [This is] a story in which this photograph of three small children was used for both good and wicked purposes. First, the good.
Four men on their way to Gettysburg were forced to stop at Schriver's Tavern when their wagon broke down. They heard the tale of the fallen soldier and saw the photograph of the children. One of them, Dr. J. Francis Bourns, a Philadelphia physician on his way to tend to the wounded from the battlefield, was intrigued. He convinced Schriver to give him the photograph so that he might attempt to locate the dead man's family. Perhaps he was touched by the poignancy of the photograph &emdash; three children, all under the age of ten, now without a father. As a life-long bachelor he might have yearned for a wife or family of his own. On the other hand, perhaps he saw it as an opportunity for financial gain.
What happens next is a story of historical detective work, genealogy, nineteenth-century marketing, a cruelly mismanaged orphanage, embezzlement, a worldwide whaling voyage (!), Mayan hieroglyphics (!!), and at its core, a family tragedy told in the letters of the soldier to his wife back home...and by his descendants.
The story is broken into five increasingly rambling parts. See: Part one (the core story), part two (an extended interview with Mark Dunkelman, the author of a book about the story), part three (which opens with the line, "There is something magical and sad about chronicling the history of a man who went more than halfway around the world on a whaling ship and then died (presumably alone) in a small town, a couple of hundred miles from his home."), part four (more on Dr. Bourns, the orphanage he established, and a ton of material about the descendants of the soldier). Part five comes out tomorrow.