Actually Abe? Experts dispute photo shows young Lincoln

March 17, 2023 GMT

An image of an unidentified man is once again being spread online with the unproven assertion that it shows a young Abraham Lincoln, casting “Honest Abe” into a long-running debate about verification and proof.

The image is a photo of a daguerreotype — an early form of photography using a silver-plated sheet of copper — that was purchased in the 1970s by a stockbroker who then spent decades voicing his contention that it shows Lincoln.

Even after Albert Kaplan’s death last year, when his obituary dubbed him the “discoverer of the daguerreotype of young Abraham Lincoln,”his claim has remained active, including on social media.

But Lincoln experts dispute that the image shows the 16th president. Here are the facts.

CLAIM: A black-and-white picture shows the “earliest known photo of Abraham Lincoln, 1840.”

THE FACTS: A Facebook page dedicated to historic photos re-aired the claim this week, sharing the image with the caption: “The earliest known photo of Abraham Lincoln, 1840.”

Kaplan acquired the daguerreotype in 1977 in New York City and over the years found some supporters to help advance his theory. He recruited a French surgeon, for example, who wrote a 1994 report concluding his analysis showed the image was of Lincoln.

But Lincoln experts have long cast doubt on such findings and say they see no reason to believe the image is of the historic leader.

“This is an image that’s been circulating throughout the historical community for decades,” Harold Holzer, a Lincoln expert and former chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, told The Associated Press. “Its one-time owner advocated for it in person and in correspondence … but it’s never been proven to any expert I know that it is an authentic photograph of Abraham Lincoln.”

The resemblance isn’t strong enough to be convincing, Holzer said, and Lincoln was likely not prominent enough at the time it was purportedly taken to spend the money on his photograph.

Lincoln, who was born in 1809, would have been 30 or 31 years old in 1840 — the year cited in the Facebook post. According to the National Park Service chronology of his life, he had just begun courting Mary Todd, his future wife, and was re-elected to a fourth term in the Illinois General Assembly.

Holzer noted that there’s also no known link tying the daguerreotype to the Lincoln family or to descendants of anyone who might’ve commissioned a photograph of Lincoln.

The claim that the image was taken in 1840 also raises questions because the daguerreotype process was invented in 1839 in France; it was not immediately available and easily accessible in the U.S.

Mark Pohlad, a DePaul University associate professor of art history who has studied Lincoln photography, said that while the photo “is infamous among Lincoln scholars — not one seriously believes it’s actually Lincoln.”

“Anyone who’s familiar with Lincoln’s face can see immediately — with their ‘gut,’ crucially — that the man in the Kaplan photo is not Abraham Lincoln,” Pohlad said in an email. “The nose is the wrong shape, the eyes aren’t thin enough, the eyebrows arch too dramatically.”

Pohlad, too, said that there is no documentary evidence tying the image to Lincoln.

“Images that simply ‘look like’ a famous person are the least convincing kind of historical evidence,” he said.

The earliest known photo of Lincoln, Pohlad said, remains a daguerreotype taken in 1846 or 1847 by Nicholas Shepherd in Springfield, Illinois.


This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.