This week we have a guest blogger, Janet DeVries, archivist at the Boynton Beach City Library and author of four books on the history of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach. She tells the story of a mysterious picture found at the library.
The distinguished gentleman stares out of the old photograph. The handsome fellow sports short, carefully combed hair, a clean shaven face, and extremely long sideburns. Who is
he? His identity remains a mystery. A news reporter for WPTV News Channel 5 in West Palm Beach was so intrigued with the image the station ran a story about the mystery man. Since then, people all over the country have been trying to identify him.
Why all the fuss over a guy in a picture? What archive doesn’t have unidentified photographs? The provenance of the 14” by 18” crayon portrait (a charcoal enhanced photograph) is also a mystery. Even the way the portrait was discovered is something out of a Nancy Drew book.
A furniture refinisher discovered a hidden drawer underneath an old display cabinet in the Boynton Beach City Library. Perhaps it wasn’t really a “secret” drawer, but it was stuck closed and no one knew of its existence until the refinisher revealed to us the contents of the drawer. Most of the items were Boynton Beach Historical Society papers and old newspapers, along with two old Boynton post office ledgers from 1913 and 1921.
I put the portrait on display in a vintage camera and photographic exhibition in the library. A news reporter for WPTV saw the “suspect,” I mean the unusual man in the image, and inquired as to his identity. When I simply said “I don’t know,” that question was followed by “where did it come from?” After hearing the story, WPTV broadcast the mystery man’s face on television along with the caption “Most Wanted.” Due to the far-reaching power of the Internet and social media, the image has made its way around the world.
Since then people have been sending in clues. One of the most noteworthy tips came from Maureen Taylor, the internationally recognized photo identification and history expert. Taylor has written several books on the intersection of history, genealogy, and photography including the title Fashionable Folks Hairstyles 1840-1900. The Bostonian called with evidence to the photos age based on hairstyle, clothing and type of photographic image.
Taylor said the photograph dates from around 1880. She concurred that his notable hair were “Burnside” style sideburns, but noted that by 1880 they had become quite exaggerated. The photo detective said “The short hair combined with the facial hair confirms the date. His jacket and tie are also the style from the circa 1880 period. He really liked to show off!”
WPTV once again showed the story on television with some of the new clues. The furniture with the hidden drawer was traced to Mr. G.A. Stevenson, owner of Stevenson Feed & Seed. The old store was located next door to the Seaboard Railway, just west of present day I-95. The place closed years ago and Mr. Stevenson himself is gone.
A number of people are on the case, following leads and tracking down clues. The local Daughters of American Revolution chapter, historical societies and libraries locally and nationally, even postal history experts are conducting their own investigations. Meanwhile, the kindly looking gent in the photograph continues to patiently peer out of his frame as if looking for a relative.