Nevada man thinks he has found early image of Ulysses S. Grant

President U. S. Grant, image by either Mathew Brady or Levin C. Handy. Image courtesy Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

President U. S. Grant, image by either Mathew Brady or Levin C. Handy. Image courtesy Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

LAS VEGAS (AP) – A Nevada collector believes he has found a mid-1800s photographic image of Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general who went on to become the nation’s 18th president.

A University of Nevada, Las Vegas archivist says the daguerreotype appears to be an authentic image of Grant, who served two terms as president from 1869 to 1877.

Collector Randall Spencer said he would prefer to sell the image to a historical institution for public display, but would consider selling it to
a private collector to finance his search for vanishing images of U.S. history.

“I was told that the man who had these had bought stacks of daguerreotypes, and they were obviously from a collection because they were all the finest quality I have ever seen,” Spencer said.

Spencer, 56, is an alternative rock ‘n’ roll guitar player who performs under the name Eric London. In the 1970s, his day job was managing the Early American division for a large antique dealership. Later he started his own shop in California’s Bay Area.

“There was at that time still an abundance of Early American photography that had not been examined, especially in San Francisco, because when people went West in the mid-19th century, that’s where they ended up,” Spencer said. “And what really launched me into photography was discovering a picture of Mrs. Thomas Lincoln, Sarah Bush Lincoln, the stepmother who raised Abraham Lincoln.

Spencer thinks it was 1991, but remembers the date clearly: Lincoln’s birthday.

It had been discarded out of a sterling silver photo album that was put up for sale in the same store. He captured the image but wasn’t able to get the album.

That was the point when interest became obsession, Spencer said. He began poring over books and memorizing every known image he could find, captured in the 19th century dawn of photography, of any American historical figure.

Frenchman Louis Daguerre discovered a practical means of developing a photographic image on a metal plate and demonstrated it to the French
Academy of Sciences in 1839.

The following year, American Robert Corneilus found a way to reduce exposure times from several minutes to seconds, and ushered in the age of the studio daguerreotype “likeness.”

Each daguerreotype was the original plate upon which the image was captured, so it was unique; there was no negative from which to make copies. The process flourished less than two decades before ambrotype, the next of many successively faster and cheaper photographic processes, began to replace it.

Spencer said he found his Grant image for sale at the San Jose Photographic Exposition in about 1992.

Spencer said a man had a satchel full of “sixth plates,” of a common size of daguerreotype, about 2 3/4 by 3 1/4 inches, like Spencer’s image of

Spencer said he thought the seller obtained the images at a garage sale. Spencer bought the ones he could afford, but was unable to obtain the
original frames and leather cases in which the images were probably packaged.

Ulysses S. Grant seated on porch with his wife, Julia, and son, Jesse. Image by G.W. Pach. Image courtesy Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

Ulysses S. Grant seated on porch with his wife, Julia, and son, Jesse. Image by G.W. Pach. Image courtesy Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

Grant had at least one daguerreotype taken while he was a lieutenant in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Spencer’s daguerreotype probably was taken a few years later, when Grant was about 30.

“The only time I could figure out that he could have had this image taken was when he was in San Francisco,” Spencer said. “He elaborated in his memoirs on his adventures at Fisherman’s Wharf. It was 1852, the height of the Gold Rush.” He was stationed at Benicia Barracks.

Already a booming, rich city, San Francisco had several daguerreotype studios. The maker of the Grant daguerreotype did not sign it.

Spencer said Dr. Lloyd Osterndorf, a now-deceased expert in the field of photos purported to be of Abraham Lincoln, applied a forensic method of measuring facial features, and could find no significant differences between Spencer’s image and known Grant photos.

Still, Spencer has been discouraged in efforts to have this and other photos he believes historically important accepted as genuine, because institutions want an unbroken chain of custody to prove an artifact is genuine.

Spencer said he would prefer a system that acknowledges probability.

Archivist Peter Michel, director of special collections at University of Nevada Las Vegas compared the image to a known Mexican War photo and said he thought Spencer’s daguerreotype is of Grant.

“The noses strike me as exactly the same in the two pictures, and everything about the picture is correct for the period in which it would
have been taken,” Michel said.

Joe Thomson, a photo historian currently organizing the Review-Journal‘s archives of historic photos, was similarly persuaded.

A rare photo of a person widely admired, Spencer said, has a stronger market than an even rarer photo of some historic scoundrel. And while Grant’s presidency was considered a poor one, most Americans greatly appreciate his winning the Civil War.

Spencer said he hoped to find a corporation or an individual willing to pay $2.5 million for what he called the only image of its kind.

And what would he do with all that money?

“Fund further research,” he said. “Our historic heritage, unacknowledged,
is slipping away every day.”


Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal,

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