A new image of Abraham Lincoln comes into focus

Mike Krumboltz
Yahoo News
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Chris Oakley believes the man in the hat is Abraham Lincoln (Smithsonian)

The tall fellow leaning over in the crowd. Is that Abraham Lincoln?

According to amateur historian Christopher Oakley, it very likely is. A photograph taken shortly before the famed Gettysburg Address shows a large crowd waiting for the speech to begin. Over on the far right, near the speaker's stand, a man in a stovepipe hat is leaning over, looking at the ground. He looks a lot like Lincoln.

Oakley, a former DreamWorks and Disney animator who teaches animation at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, only recently made the discovery, which is detailed in a fascinating spread at Smithsonian Magazine. He spoke with Yahoo News about the find and his lifelong obsession with Lincoln.

Oakley explained that he made the discovery while doing research for the Virtual Lincoln Project, an endeavor that seeks to re-create the Gettysburg Address, complete with the crowds and cemetery in the background.

"I ended up doing a lot of research on the side to figure out who was on the stage with Lincoln at the time," Oakley said. "That's what I was in the process of doing, and because of the Library of Congress has high-resolution images that you can download for free, I was doing that while identifying all these people."

He continued: "I knew from the David Bachrach photograph that was discovered in 1952 by Josephine Cobb that [Secretary of State] William Seward was sitting on Lincoln's left at the Gettysburg Address."

Oakley decided to see if he could download the high-resolution photos taken by Alexander Gardner, which were taken from a farther distance, to see if he could identify anyone else. "I found Seward right away, sitting there." In a second photograph, also taken by Gardner probably about 10 minutes later, Oakley  noticed that "something new had entered the picture. It was the image of a man right next to Seward. ... I instantly recognized the face."

Not content to leave anything to chance, Oakley went to the Library of Congress's website and asked a librarian to scan the left side of the image. "Within a week or two, I had a high-resolution scan of the left side, and apparently I was the only one to get that." Oakley explained that others had requested the high-res scan, but were not able to get it. Oakley attributes his success to a simple case of good luck.

"We know from contemporary accounts that the speaker stand was 3 feet off the ground. And a chair is about 2 and a half to 3 feet tall. Which puts Seward at about 5 and a half to 6 feet off the ground. Lincoln was 6-foot-4. So, this man who entered the frame has to be well over 6 feet tall to be seen where he is."

Oakley also compared the photo he found to a profile photograph of Lincoln taken 11 days earlier. He looked at the hairline, beard, nose and ears. "Because this photo was taken 11 days earlier, we know how long his hair was at the time, which was very short."

The hair length helps to, in Oakley's opinion, rule out the possibility that a man on a horse on the left side of the photo could be Lincoln. In 2007, amateur historian David Richter asserted that that person was Lincoln. Oakley, while saying he takes nothing away from Richter, who didn't have access to the high-resolution scan, believes that was incorrect.

"A lot of people have come to believe that's Lincoln. The only problem is, it's not Lincoln," Oakley told Yahoo News. The high-res scan shows the mystery man on the horse has hair that is too long to have been Lincoln. It also does not include a mourning band that Lincoln was known to wear as his son had died a short time prior and, most telling, the man on the horse is wearing a military uniform. "Why he's wearing a top hat, I don't know," Oakley said.

Oakley used his professional skills while examining the photograph. "Animators are trained to study movement and analyze changes," he said. "That I think is what helped me see the image I saw, that something moved into the frame that wasn't there before, and it caught my attention."

Oakley said he's been a Lincoln fanatic from an early age. He remembers looking at a painting of Lincoln hanging in his classroom. "And I remember sitting there, thinking, 'I knew him and he was a nice man.' Where that came from, I have no idea."

Oakley said he hopes his finding inspires other armchair historians to not be intimidated and to keep digging for "new puzzle pieces that have yet to be found." And he's accepting that perhaps in a few years, someone will come along with new technology or a different photograph and disprove his theory.

"There's always going to be a question mark above it. All we can do is prove it to the best of our ability."