Show & Tell: A Map of Matrimony

Library of Congress // Public Domain

This undated “Map of Matrimony,” held by the Library of Congress, represents itself as a handy guide for "timid lovers," promising to help them navigate "the orbit of affection to the true haven of conjugal happiness.” The map, which was probably published in the 19th century, was one of many popular maps of love published in the United Kingdom and the United States starting in the late 18th century.

These maps translated the fraught journey from the first blush of courtship through matrimony into tangible geographical features. This map features a “Coast of Doubt,” a “Whirlpool of Reflection,” “Shoals of Fickleness,” and (in a nod to the real world) a “Cape of Good Hope.” Acknowledging that lovers would suffer agonies of confusion as they tried to navigate romantic situations, the maps physicalize emotions, recognizing that pity, treachery, jealousy, and prudence could feel as insurmountable as mountains, or as influential as prevailing winds.

While many maps of matrimony, like this group collected by Barron Maps, were intended for wall display, such maps were also occasionally found on Victorian valentines, one type in a class of parody card that was, as Lucinda Matthews-Jones writes, harmlessly fun. Such cards took many forms: “Bank notes from the bank of love, rebus valentines or word puzzles, and fake marriage certificates or telegrams.” Unlike cruel “vinegar valentines,” these humorous cards gently satirized courtship, offering a little social commentary on the common stages and rituals of the process.

Since maps of matrimony were a popular art form practiced across decades and continents, the archive of surviving examples offers interesting points of connection. Here’s one circa-1825 Map of Matrimony, which was professionally printed. Compare it with a hand-drawn example that antiquarian bookseller and author Tim Bryars offers on his blog, and another homemade map of matrimony, this one in an autograph book compiled by a Canadian woman. The two hand-drawn maps echo features found in the printed version—all three offer “Mountains of Delay, inhabited by Lawyers,” a “Land of Spinsters” off to the west, and a “Petticoat Government” to the south—suggesting that people who made homemade love maps may have copied liberally from printed versions. 

By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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