History Mystery: Dating Door Keeper Buckingham

PO Buckingham J

This undated portrait of John E. Buckingham is part of the Photographic Portrait Collection, an assembled collection of images of individual which were donated to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., through the years.

History Mystery: The circa 2004 catalog record for the portrait of John E. Buckingham dated the image to 1865. When the photograph was pulled in 2015 for research regarding the assassination of President Lincoln, it was noted that the back, or verso, included a long note that threw doubt on the original cataloging.  Our task was to confirm (or deny) the existing metadata, and along the way determine whether the item, which was “found in collection” over a decade ago, did indeed have any discernible provenance.

Item Identifier: PO Buckingham J.

Hypothesis: The portrait itself is undated. The History Mystery team believes that while the date on the catalog record seems to be derived from the note on the verso, it actually references the subject’s tenure at Ford’s Theatre at a particular time, rather than indicating the date the photograph was taken.

Background: This undated portrait of John E. Buckingham (1828-1909) is part of the Photographic Portrait Collection, an assembled collection of individual portraits (both originals and copies), arranged alphabetically, that were donated piecemeal to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., through the years. There are as many sources and creators for the images as there are subjects; it’s the kind of catch-all collection that’s great for identifying individuals for whom a researcher may need to find a visual likeness – and often a nightmare for sourcing and tracking down how, why and where an image became part of our holdings.

Methodology: We decided to take a closer look at the image itself and search our accession database – which was nascent when the item was first cataloged, with many accession records only in paper form – as well as physical and online resources in the Kiplinger Research Library.

Here’s how the image was cataloged in 2004, with the record dating the photograph to 1865 (the screenshot is from our current online catalog platform, but the record hadn’t been updated since the original cataloging was done).


This catalog record indicates the image was taken in 1865. But was it? Read on!

While the catalog record doesn’t mention the caption on the verso, it seems apparent that the caption was indeed referenced, and it seems that perhaps the first sentence was read as “Mr. John E. Buckingham, the [crossed out] door keeper of Ford’s Theater [mental comma added] in April 1865.”

The New Yorker is great on commas, so we won’t go there. But if the sentence is read with a comma mentally inserted by the reader, it might seem as if the caption indicates the photograph is of Buckingham when he was a door keeper at Ford’s, specifically, in April 1865. If read as written, without a comma, and with the added benefit of reading the rest of the caption, which also references a circa 1900 interview, and shows a date at the bottom of the note that indicates it was written in 1914 – if read that way, it seems plausible that the caption-writer is adding contextual information about Buckingham, e.g. noting his employment during a fateful month in American history, rather than dating the photograph. (And if you read through that run-on sentence without taking a breath, take a bow).

While it’s not immediately clear whether the the verso’s inclusion of April 1865 refers only to Buckingham’s service at Ford’s Theater or is intended to date the image as well, it is clear the note was written years after the night Lincoln was shot, by someone other than the subject, and most likely not by the photographer. Could it be the donor?

Take a look.

PO Buckingham J verso

The verso of the image identifies three dates. Are any of them the date of the photograph was taken?

The spindly handwriting reads:

Mr. John E. Buckingham, the —* door keeper at Ford’s Theatre in April 1865. Mr. Buckingham was the last person to whom Booth spoke before shooting the President. “What time is it,” asked Booth as he entered the theater. “Look at the clock and you will see,” replied Mr. Buckingham. From an interview with Mr. Buckingham, Jan. 1900.

Cordelia Jackson.

May 6/[19]14

[*editor’s note: two words were crossed out – and we need fresh eyes to decipher them.  Several folks have written us with ideas – including “venerable store,” “reusable show,” and “venerable stage.” Venerable seems to be the first word, but the jury’s still out on the second. What do you think? Let us know at info@dchistory.org]

The Clues: Before getting into technical considerations such as dating the image by photograph type or clothing, or trying to decipher the signature at the bottom of the caption, we went right for the low-hanging fruit. Buckingham would have been about 37  when Lincoln was shot. The thirty-something History Mystery team decided that no matter how tough the Civil War was on Washingtonians, by appearances Buckingham was closer to sixty than 35 when the picture was taken. Doubt has been introduced.

As for provenance, there was no accession number associated with this image, either physically or in the catalog record, that might have pointed us in the direction of the how and why the image came into our holdings. Now, every repository inevitably has items that are “found in collection.” Essentially this means that at the time of cataloging, the item itself revealed no credible information about the donor, and that no accession record, correspondence or other information could be located within a reasonable time (and with available technology) to shed light on the situation. Some items will remain forevermore in this sad provenance limbo – but as databases become more robust and as staff and volunteers find time to fall down rabbit holes in search of the answer, identification for others may emerge.

Next we worked on the signature, Wheel of Fortune-style, writing down the letters we recognized and leaving a space for those we didn’t. The second word – Jackson – quickly emerged.

Searching the accession database for a donor whose last name was Jackson turned up two vintage donations, one from 1917, credited to a Cordelia Jackson of Georgetown. While neither referenced a portrait of Buckingham, at least now the somewhat indecipherable full signature was a lot easier to read.  Searching the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, we found that Cordelia Jackson was a frequent contributor to the Records, and an active member of the organization, the precursor to today’s Historical Society of Washington, D.C.. The Records had a very handy feature that noted additions to the collections: the Annual Report of the Curator.

In the Seventh Annual Report to the Curator, for example, dated January 12, 1901, several donations are listed and attributed as “presented by Miss Cordelia Jackson,” such as “Sketch of the Old Bank of Columbia” and a newspaper or program from the 25th Anniversary of the Metropolitan M. E. Church.  Number 88 on the curator’s list for that year, however, comprises individual photographs that are not apparently connected with a particular donor/presenter. Voila: Photograph 88(f) is identified as J.E. Buckingham. Was our initial hunch – that the signature was that of the donor – a red herring?

A final reference to Cordelia Jackson can be found in another wonderful feature in the Records: the Report of the Chronicler, which mentioned everything from weather to notable events of the year. And under the entry for October 2, 1951: “Cordelia Jackson, life-long resident of Georgetown, author, and former Librarian of the Columbia Historical Society, passes away from the scene of Washington.”

Tearing ourselves away from the Records (it’s easy to get immersed), a quick Google search for Buckingham located his memoir, Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which was published in 1894. And lo and behold, the image that ran with the book looked mighty familiar.The image also appears – with information about the creator but the date created listed as “unknown” – in The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

Conclusion: The image was not taken in 1865; the verso’s caption reflects the knowledge of the photograph’s subject but not of the capture time. Based on Buckingham’s lifespan, his appearance in the image, and the publication date of his memoir, the time frame has been updated to circa 1894, when Buckingham would have been in his early seventies.

The image has been tentatively identified as a donation made in 1900, per the Seventh Annual Report of the Curator.

And, we think, fourteen years later, perhaps while looking for something else, the image was “found in collection” and the faithful Librarian, Miss Cordelia Jackson, added a signed, dated, contextual caption on the back.

There are still rabbit holes to explore, certainly, but for now we’re comfortable with this updated time frame and the slightly less mysterious provenance. The catalog record has been updated to reflect what is known – and what is still unknown – about the image, and the attached images now include a scan of the verso. After all, while the portrait itself is important as a visual record of a longtime Washington resident, it’s the verso of the card that strikes a particular cord this year, the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

In this 150th anniversary year, we invite you to explore responses to the assassination as seen through the collections of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. as well as those of repositories all over the world. Head on over to Remembering Lincoln, a project of Ford’s Theatre, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.