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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who Is That Mustached Man?

I wasn't looking for a "superstar" photograph in a collection, but I found it anyway. I'm Josh Hager, a student in North Carolina State University's Public History Masters Degree program and an alumnus of Duke (B.A., History and French Studies). For a class at NCSU, I was working with the RBMSCL's Technical Services department to process the James Thomas Powers Papers. By process, I had to examine each item in the collection, arrange the items in fashion that made professional and practical sense, and write a finding aid for the collection so that users could examine the papers. (By the way, Powers was a famous Vaudevillian and all-around entertainer on Broadway from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries.)

John Wilkes Booth, undated. From the James Thomas Powers Papers.
The best part of the collection is its photographs. There are over 200 prints, including tintypes, cartes-de-visite, and cabinet cards. These prints depict Powers and his family in theater settings, as well as in personal shots depicting social life in the early 20th century. One photograph stands out as a unique find. Within some photos of relatives of Powers' wife Rachel Booth Powers, I ran into a familiar image. There was neither a label nor a date on the back, which isn't unusual in archival collections. However, I knew this picture was one of the most infamous men in American history. After doing a Google Image search to confirm the identity and conferring with other staff members, we reached a definite conclusion: I had found a new photograph of John Wilkes Booth. The albumen cabinet card, taken in New York state, shows the famous assassin in profile. I can’t be sure, but because of the style of Booth’s clothing, his personal history, and the history of the cabinet card format, I’d place this photograph in the early 1860s; it could be before the Civil War or near its conclusion, making the lack of a recorded date frustrating.

What is this photo doing in James Thomas Powers' papers? Rachel Booth and John Wilkes Booth were likely (distant) relatives in the famous Booth acting family, although I cannot find any definite proof of this. No matter its provenance, the find itself is quite exciting. I can find no exact duplicates of it online so it might be unique. Even if it isn't, it is yet another exciting addition to the Powers papers and to the RBMSCL's collections.

Post contributed by Josh Hager, RBMSCL Technical Services field experience student.

1 comment:

  1. How neat- what a great find! Good motivation for us archivists!