A Rare Period Tintype of Abraham Lincoln: The "Beardstown Portrait"
Sixth plate tintype, Lincoln's cheeks, and lips delicately tinted, with brass mat and preserver, lacking a case, ca 1860.
Perhaps one of the best known -- and rarest -- portraits of Lincoln is this image of the beardless lawyer dressed in a white linen suit. The portrait was taken by 18-year-old Abraham Byers in his Beardstown, Illinois studio on Friday, May 17, 1858. Other than the original quarter plate ambrotype curated at the University of Nebraska, this image is the only extant period copy of this important sitting we are aware of. No other copies have been illustrated in any publications documenting the photographs of the 16th President (see Lorant 1941; Meserve 1944; Hamilton and Ostendorf 1963).
Lincoln was in Beardstown defending Duff Armstrong, the son of an old friend who had been accused of the night-time murder of Jason P. Metzker. Faced with an eyewitness who claimed he had seen the murder take place at a distance of 150 yards, Lincoln produced an almanac to reveal the murder had taken place on a moonless night and thus the witness could not possibly have seen the crime. The jury delivered a not guilty verdict after a single ballot in what soon became known as the "Almanac Trial." Lincoln scholars agree that the Armstrong acquittal was the future President's most celebrated courtroom victory.
Byers would later recount that he encountered Lincoln after the trial and asked if he could take his picture. "He cast his eyes down on his old holland linen suit which had no semblance of starch in it and said: 'The clothes are dirty and unfit for a picture.'" Byers insisted, and leading Lincoln to his studio, captured this remarkable likeness using the ambrotype process.
Hamilton and Ostendorf (1963: 14-15; 370) note that Byers exposed two nearly identical ambrotypes, one of which is curated in the Special Collections at the University of Nebraska; the other was illustrated by Ida Tarbell in the November, 1895 issue of McClure's Magazine locating it in the holdings of the Lincoln Monument Association. An online search of the Association's collection failed to locate the plate, and presumably it no longer exists.
The present sixth plate tintype is a crisp copy of the Byers image; it is laterally reversed from the original ambrotype and is printed on a sheet of relatively thin japanned sheet iron, with the plate lacking any maker. Both the thickness of the plate and surviving mat and preserver are typical of photographic materials widely available in the years before the Civil War and after.
While tintypes of Lincoln were widely circulated during and after his lifetime, both to make the public aware of his likeness during presidential campaigns, and as mourning relics, the Beardstown portrait was not used for these mementoes. Given the clarity of the plate, we suspect the tintype was copied directly from the original Byers ambrotype. An important recent discovery from a Colorado family.
This Beardstown copy portrait descended in the family of Willard Mayberry (1902-1959) of Elkhart, Kansas. Mayberry, a newspaper publisher, was active in Republican politics, and served as Secretary to fellow Kansan Alf Landon during his term as Governor, and later candidacy for President. Mayberry's descendants know little about how the tintype was acquired, only that it had always been in the family lockbox, kept in an envelope from the Seattle studio of famed photographer Edward S. Curtis, which bears the inked notation: "For Willard Mayberry Elkhart, Kansas."
Oregonian. The article illustrates the tintype and relates it was the prized possession of Mrs. Charles Darling of the Roosevelt Hotel. According to Mrs. Darling, the tintype had been given by President Lincoln to her late father Colonel Thomas Lawrence Byrne who fought for Massachusetts during the Civil War. Byrne, according to his daughter, had been a "personal aide" to the martyred president. Since her father had died when she was young the exact circumstances surrounding the gift were not known, but that "Copies of the same picture were given to the other personal aides but that only a few existed."
This story is clearly apocryphal. A search of Civil War service and pension records found Thomas Lawrence Byrne (1842-1873?), a 19-year-old Irish born machinist who enlisted in 1861, serving in Company B of the 11th Massachusetts. His military records indicate Byrne was a native of Beardstown, Illinois, though a search of Federal census records prior to his enlistment failed to locate him in that town, and more than likely this represents a transcription error. The 11th Massachusetts was recruited almost entirely from neighborhoods around Boston; Beardstown was one such location.
Byrne enlisted as a Private, was promoted to Sergeant, and took part in the Battles of First and Second Bull Run where the 11th sustained 40% casualties in 20 minutes. Byrne was wounded on the first day at Gettysburg and was discharged from Federal service in November 1863. After the War he lived in Beardstown, Massachusetts and was a member of GAR Post 11 (Abraham Lincoln) in nearby Charlestown.
By 1870 he had married, and moved to Humboldt, Kansas. He apparently died around 1873, leaving his wife Clara (1847-?) with three children, Charles (12), Lawrence (10) and Mabel (7). At Clara's death, Mabel inherited the Beardstown tintype. Mabel married a dentist, Charles A Darling, and between 1900-1930 lived in Whatcom and Spokane, Washington, Portland, Oregon, and finally, Los Angeles. She died in that city in 1948. Mabel and Charles apparently separated sometime before she moved to Portland (though she continued to list herself as "married" in the 1920 and 1930 censuses). In both Portland and Los Angeles, she worked at, and resided in hotels suggesting she was involved in the hospitality industry.
While the real story of how Thomas Byrne acquired the Beardstown tintype is lost to history, he was never a Colonel, and never an aide to Lincoln. As a member of the Abraham Lincoln post of the GAR in Charlestown, it is logical that Byrne might have had the tintype as a memento of the President he served. Unfortunately, it does not explain how he came to acquire what is an extraordinary Lincoln rarity. The story related by Mabel in 1926 had been passed along by her mother, probably to enhance the memory of a father who had sacrificed so much for the President he served.
How did Mabel meet Willard Mayberry, and pass along the tintype? In his capacity as Secretary, Mayberry may have visited Los Angeles with Alf Landon in 1936 during the presidential campaign and stayed at the hotel where Clara worked.
Hamilton, Charles and Lloyd Ostendorf
1963 Lincoln in Photographs: An album of every known pose. University of Oklahoma Press.
1941 Lincoln: His life in photographs. Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
Meserve, Frederick Hill
1944 The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Harcourt, Brace and Co.