Abraham Lincoln Deathbed Photo: New Documentary Explores if It’s Real

Abraham Lincoln Deathbed Photo

Getty Abraham Lincoln

A debate is raging about the authenticity of a new photo claiming to show Abraham Lincoln lying on his deathbed, and the search to discover if the image is authentic will be explored in a new documentary on the Discovery Channel, “The Lost Lincoln,” airing on Sunday night at 9 p.m.

Whitny Braun, a California investigator featured in the documentary, said she’s forensically explored the photo for two years and she’s “99% convinced” that the photo is genuine. “In the world of authenticating, this is like finding the Holy Grail,” Braun told ABC News. Braun believes the photo shows the U.S.’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, lying on his deathbed after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865.

ABC News described the image as “haunting, depicting a gaunt-faced man with a familiar beard, staring ahead lifelessly. The right eye is bulging and appears disfigured from an unseen wound.” Few have seen the photo and it is locked up in a safe deposit box by the owner of the photo, an Illinois dentist.


The Photo’s Backstory & How It Remained in the Dark for So Long Is Explored in the Documentary

The documentary’s producer, Archie Gips, said that the photo made its way to Braun and Discovery in a very roundabout way, the New York Post reported. Braun said that she was first alerted to its existence two years ago when an Illinois dentist called her “out of the blue.” Braun told the outlet, “My first reaction was ‘how could this be.’ How could a plate like this go unnoticed for 150 years? My initial thought was that it was too good to be true.”

The documentary explores the photo’s path and states that it was taken by Henry Ulke, a professional photographer, who lived in a boarding house across from Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was shot. The president was brought into the boarding house after being shot and died the next morning. According to the Post, the documentary claims that Ulke took the photo “surreptitiously” before Lincoln’s body was brought from the boarding house to the White House.

The reason experts were unaware of the photo’s existence is that Edwin Stanton, the War Secretary at the time, was firmly against photos of the deceased president. The photo was instead quietly given to the family of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, and it eventually made its way to Margaret Hanks in the 1980s, Lincoln’s second cousin once removed.

Gips told ABC News that Hanks sold the photo along with a collection of Civil War artifacts to auctioneer Larry Davis before her death in 1986. On the photo was attached a Post-it note with the words “Cousin Abe.” According to the Post, Davis has since filed court documents alleging that his ex-wife stole the photo and sold it to Jerald Spoler, the Illinois dentist who contacted Braun.


Experts Are Divided About Whether the Photo Is Real or Not

Braun said she was convinced of the authenticity of the photo after speaking to ballistics experts who said that there would likely be no exit wound, ABC News reported. Facial recognition experts also pointed to a “slight scar” under the man’s lip which is consistent with a scar Lincoln was known to have. The photographer’s descendants have told Braun that “death photos” were Ulke’s specialty, and they were often taken with the eyes open.

Gips agreed with Braun. He said, “There will be plenty of naysayers, of course, as there is with anything, especially the historians.” However, he said the secrecy surrounding the photo convinced him that it could be authentic. “It’s a really important piece of history that’s incredible,” Gips added. “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.”

Lincoln expert Harold Holzer has seen it and doesn’t believe the image is real. Holzer wrote “The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print” in 1984, which explored the 130 known photographs of the president. Holzer said one of the last known photographs of Lincoln before his death showed that he had a wispy beard, almost a goatee, whereas in the photo the beard is much fuller.

Holzer also cast doubt on Lincoln’s attire and said he’d been stripped of his clothes at the boarding house so doctors could look for other wounds. In the photo, however, the man is wearing a shirt.

The Discovery Channel documentary is set to air Sunday night, but Spolar has filed a request with a California judge to stop the broadcast, which Discovery said in its reply was a “patently frivolous” request.

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