The Ugly Battle Over an Alleged Abraham Lincoln Deathbed Photo
The new Discovery Channel special “The Lost Lincoln” investigates a suspected deathbed photo of the 16th U.S. president that some experts believe is the real deal.
Abraham Lincoln was photographed 130 times during the course of his life. But a new Discovery Channel special asks, what if there’s an additional snapshot of the 16th commander-in-chief—on his deathbed?
Even setting aside the debatable importance of such a photograph—which wouldn’t prove anything, or provide insights into his final moments—the likelihood that this image could have remained unknown and hidden for 155 years seems very low. Nonetheless, The Lost Lincoln (premiering Oct. 4 as part of Discovery’s new “Undiscovered” series) embarks on a thorough examination of the photograph to determine whether it’s the real deal. The results are, to put it mildly, underwhelming.
The Lost Lincoln is driven by the sleuthing of Dr. Whitny Braun, a professor of bioethics at California’s Loma Linda University, and a self-described “authenticator of rare artifacts.” Braun claims that in 2018, she received a call from a man who claimed he had a genuine 19th-century photograph of the just-deceased Lincoln, which he himself had obtained from Larry Davis, an auctioneer and collector. Unable to stop thinking about this “haunting” and “macabre” picture, Braun embarked on a nearly two-year inquiry into its legitimacy, which is documented here with the sort of breathless anticipation, overblown twisty-turny melodrama, and definitive statements that immediately sends one’s skepticism through the roof.
The Lost Lincoln sets its scene with immoderate introductory pronouncements—“the murder of Abraham Lincoln was the most shocking event in American history!”; this photo is “the most valuable historical find of our time” and “an image that you’ll never forget”—before staging a dramatic reenactment of that fateful April 14, 1865, night at Ford’s Theatre, when John Wilkes Booth ended Lincoln’s life with a shot from his derringer. Such context is to be expected, although the corniness of this material, full of fuzzy faces and slow-motion, suggests this Discovery endeavor is more concerned with delivering tantalizing suspense and mystery than a sober and serious examination. Ensuing talk about how the photograph could be “priceless” (or at least worth “millions”) further strains to define Braun’s venture as historically significant.
Certainly, a photo of the recently assassinated Honest Abe would be of some sensationalistic curiosity, not to mention fetch a considerable price on the open market. Yet that’s not the same thing as being meaningful. Don’t tell that to The Lost Lincoln, however, which treats its subject as a matter of titanic national significance. Braun’s quest is broken down into three categories, all of which she says must be successful in order to verify the photograph’s authenticity. First is “provenance,” meaning Braun needs to trace the photograph’s chain of custody from the Petersen House room where Lincoln died, to its whereabouts today. Next is “forensics,” which aims to establish that the man in the photograph is Lincoln. And lastly is “timeline,” the process of figuring out whether there was a window of opportunity for the photograph to have been taken that night.
From an investigative standpoint, that’s a rather sound plan of action. The Lost Lincoln’s persuasiveness, though, begins to diminish the moment we see a digital reproduction of the photo itself—because, quite frankly, it doesn’t look much like Lincoln. That doesn’t stop Braun, who chats with historians, as well as photography and facial recognition experts, in order to ascertain whether they believe this gaunt, dead-eyed individual is the president. Given that the documentary special runs 84 minutes, it’s predictable that initial interviewees don’t shut Braun down from the get-go, nor that the documentary—in an effort to keep tensions high—has Braun experience setbacks as well as triumphs in her search for the truth.
Repetition is key to The Lost Lincoln, which keeps hammering home the same points about the value of the photograph, and the possibility that it could be real. The latter case is made in numerous ways: it’s an ambrotype, a photo-on-glass technique that was still prevalent during the 1860s; Lincoln’s deathbed was photographed by the Ulke brothers, who lived in the Petersen House, meaning they could have taken this snapshot as well; the photograph’s “chain of custody” checks out; and high-tech software indicates that there’s a 77 percent chance the corpse featured in the ambrotype is the illustrious president. Braun treats all of this “evidence” as reliable. Viewers, on the other hand, are apt to view it with a far more jaded eye, especially since it’s often less convincing than its talking heads claim, and so much of it is presented in a hokey “ah-ha!” way that causes one to suspect they’re being played.
Exacerbating that feeling are repeated interludes in which Braun stands in front of an evidence board (decorated with photographs, names, and newspaper clippings) like a detective in a Hollywood thriller. The more people say things such as, “We could have a true American treasure here,” the less inclined one is to believe it; the show’s persistence, however understandable, undercuts its credibility. That pushiness also gives away its final conclusions, which feel predetermined from the start. Still, the finale is open-ended enough to make a sequel possible, given that the actual photograph is being stored in a safety deposit box because of a legal dispute over who owns it, and thus this entire analysis is based on modern reproductions and attendant testimony from individuals who’ve never been anywhere near the original.
By the time Braun enlists her firearms-expert father to clarify whether a derringer gunshot would produce an exit wound—which isn’t present in the photograph—and the show wastes minutes on end gawking at super-slow-motion shots of unrelated modern weapons being fired into ballistic gelatin (presumably because it just looks cool), The Lost Lincoln has turned borderline goofy. Subsequent scenes of people oohing and ahhing over the photograph (including Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE and was portrayed by Will Smith in Concussion) certainly don’t help turn things around. And a final Harvard-educated doctor’s declaration that, “This is Abraham Lincoln. I have no doubt,” does little more than raise doubts, not only about the photograph but about the trustworthiness of everyone and anything on display.
All of which is to say that The Lost Lincoln may be convinced that it has the answer to its central question, but few will come away from this latest Discovery Channel special feeling nearly as certain.