Lost Photo Of Lincoln Of His Deathbed Surfaces — But Some Historians Are Skeptical

Published October 6, 2020
Updated February 27, 2024

"Not every man with a beard photographed after 1861 was Abraham Lincoln."

Abraham Lincoln Deathbed Picture

DiscoveryThe purported Abraham Lincoln deathbed photograph.

A newfound photo allegedly depicting President Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed has some historians convinced — while skeptical experts are frustrated. The subject of Discovery’s new documentary Undiscovered: The Lost Lincoln, the picture’s 155-year journey is certainly unbelievable.

According to ABC News, the image was reportedly captured mere hours after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth.

While some experts are thoroughly convinced this is the real deal, others are far more skeptical. For Whitny Braun, the California investigator whose efforts to authenticate the image are chronicled in Discovery’s new documentary, there’s no doubt that it is. Well, she’s at least 99 percent sure.

“In the world of authenticating, this is like finding the Holy Grail,” she said.

According to The New York Post, however, some accredited skeptics have described the excitement over this seeming artifact as hysteria. With the image appearing only now — 155 years after America’s 16th president died — they may have a point.

An official clip from Discovery’s new Undiscovered: The Lost Lincoln documentary.

“I’ve seen enough of these things to know that this is a whole lot of hysteria about something that is not Lincoln,” said Harold Holzer, author of The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print. “Not every man with a beard photographed after 1861 was Abraham Lincoln.”

While Holzer could be dismissed by eager believers as a blanket skeptic, he’s the author of a 1984 book that traced all 130 known photographs of Lincoln to the smallest verifiable detail. With rigorous work under his belt, Holzer claims to have found some historical irregularities about this latest image already.

For instance, the man in the photo is wearing a shirt. Holzer explained that Lincoln’s clothes were stripped from him in a frantic rush to discover any additional wounds shortly after the shooting. Then there’s the image quality, itself — taken with an outdated ambrotype yet unusually well lit.

“It’s going to take a lot for me to take this seriously,” said Holzer. “It doesn’t scan.”

On the other hand, truth is often much stranger than fiction. The story of how this photo fell into Braun’s hands is a prime example of that statement and may leave undecided viewers convinced of its authenticity.

Stanley Burns And Whitny Braun

DiscoveryDr. Stanley Burns and Dr. Whitny Braun looking at the photo in question.

Braun spent two years researching the photograph with the documentary’s producer Archie Gips and they say that the circumstantial evidence is too overwhelming to cast aside.

But in the beginning, Braun was as skeptical as Holzer when she got a call from an Illinois dentist named Jerald Spolar. Though the face in the photo he showed her resembled Lincoln’s, Braun couldn’t believe a random dentist owned a historical photo of the president on his deathbed.

“My first reaction was ‘how could this be,'” recalled Braun. “How could a plate like this go unnoticed for 150 years? My initial thought was that it was too good to be true.”

As the story goes, professional photographer Henry Ulke captured the image. He fortuitously lived across the street from Ford’s Theatre — in the very boarding house Lincoln was brought after being shot. Before the president died the next morning, Ulke secretly snapped away.

Oddly enough, the photograph was an ambrotype, created by using a glass negative on a dark background. Since this method had gone out of style by the mid-1860s, skeptics are adamant no further inquiry needs to be made regarding the photo’s veracity — or lack thereof.

Deathbed Of Abraham Lincoln

Wikimedia CommonsAbraham Lincoln’s deathbed in the Petersen boarding house shortly after he died.

As for the photo’s 155-year disappearance, it was purportedly kept secret when Lincoln’s secretary of war Edwin Stanton demanded any images of the dead president remain private. Holzer explained that only one known image of Lincoln dead exists, taken when he was lying in state in New York.

Nonetheless, the image was given to the descendants of Nancy Hanks — Lincoln’s mother and a distant cousin of actor Tom Hanks. In the 1980s, it was in the hands of Margaret Hanks, a second cousin once removed from the president.

Before she died in 1986, Hanks sold a collection of artifacts including the photo of Lincoln to an auctioneer and Civil War aficionado named Larry Davis. The Post-it note adorning the historical artifact read: “Cousin Abe.”

In the end, Davis alleged that his ex-wife stole the photo and sold it to Spolar. The dentist vehemently disputes that he purchased stolen property, and has tried to authenticate the photo ever since. With Braun’s help, Lincoln scholars, medical, facial recognition, and ballistics experts have weighed in.

The collective input convinced Braun to forge ahead. Small details like the slight scar under the man’s lip, for instance, are consistent with what we know about Lincoln. Additionally, the man’s right eye appears to be bulging, which would be consistent with a gunshot wound to the head.

However, so far her work has yielded her nothing but legal trouble and criticism.

An AP segment covering the recent $81,250 sale of Abraham Lincoln’s lock of hair.

“It’s not credible,” Holzer stated plainly.

He isn’t the only one keen on shutting this historic claim down, though. Spolar asked a California judge to stop the documentary from airing — and court papers show that Discovery called this a “patently frivolous” request.

The dentist also sued Braun on the alleged grounds that she violated a non-disclosure agreement made when he showed her a copy of the photo. He claims she is attempting to profit off of his property, while Braun herself has stated the photo “belongs to the American people.”

Ultimately, it’ll require further analysis from objective and accredited researchers to establish just how confident the public should be of the photo’s authenticity. As it stands, each side seems to have a rather convincing case.

“There will be plenty of naysayers, of course, as there is with anything, especially the historians,” said Gips.

“It’s a really important piece of history that’s incredible. It’s not what you’d expect. You’d expect to see blood pouring out of his eye. But you get a sense of eeriness. You don’t get a shock value or disgust.”

After learning about the deathbed photo of Abraham Lincoln, read about Abraham Lincoln’s lock of hair selling for over $81,000. Then, learn about Abraham Lincoln’s surprising wrestling career.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.