A long-overlooked photograph,
displayed for decades in the museum of the Stephenson
County Historical Society in Freeport, turns out to be a
rare historical treasure - the only known original photo
of Abraham Lincoln's stepmother.
The approximately 2-by 3-inch photo of Sarah Bush
Lincoln was correctly labeled in the museum's permanent
Lincoln exhibit. But the county historical society was
unaware that only one other photo of Lincoln's
stepmother is known to exist, and it is found only in
copies - the original is missing.
"We knew it was her. We just didn't know it was such
a big deal," said Suzy Beggin, director of the museum.
The photo is an ambrotype, a 19th-century type of
photograph made on a glass plate, in a
leatherette-covered wooden case. It was donated to the
historical society in 1968 and may have been on display
Late last year, an amateur historian visiting the
museum to research some Civil War artifacts recognized
the resemblance to the other photo of Lincoln's
stepmother, which is a slightly different pose.
After getting permission to take it out of its case,
the historian found an inscription on the back of the
case that read "Sally Bush - Abraham Lincoln's
Stepmother - Thomas Lincoln's second wife."
Beggin said she was originally skeptical about the
discovery, but the use of "Sally," a common 19th century
nickname for Sarah, convinced her.
"That 'Sally' really struck me," she said. "I know
quite a bit about Victorian women, and I know that your
own husband didn't call you by your first name in
public. ... She would have been addressed (in public) as
The use of a familiar nickname meant that "our photo
must have initially been owned by one of her relatives
or close friends," she said.
Lincoln scholar Wayne Temple, who was asked to
authenticate the photo, agreed that the use of the
nickname helps indicate the photo is genuine.
"Since only close family members would have called
the subject 'Sally,' there can be but little doubt that
it is a genuine picture of Lincoln's beloved
stepmother," he said.
The fact that the picture has been in the historical
society's collection for so long also lends credibility
to the claim that the photo is authentic.
While nowadays anything remotely connected to Lincoln
is considered highly collectable, in 1968 a picture of
his stepmother would have been of little value to most
collectors, and therefore not worth faking. And if
someone had wanted to falsify a picture of Sarah Lincoln
back then, they would not have called her "Sally."
Temple said the photo "is a very important piece of
Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln was born Dec. 13, 1788.
Her first husband died, and on Dec. 2 1819, she married
Thomas Lincoln, whose own first wife had died more than
a year earlier. Young Abe would have been 10 years old
at the time of the marriage.
Sarah died on April 12, 1869. The photo was probably
taken a few years before her death.
The photo was donated to the museum by a Lincoln
collector from Freeport, who apparently purchased it
specifically to donate to the museum. Records identify
it as coming from the "Frank E. Winston Collection,
Chicago," but Beggin said she has not been able to
identify Winston or trace the photo's history before
The picture still is displayed in the museum as it
was before its importance was discovered, Beggin said.
"We have not changed the display," she said. ""It's
in a good area, under glass, locked and well protected
from light, heat and humidity."
Beggin said the museum does plan a special event in
July, including a reception to honor Sarah.
Since the existence of the photo at the museum was
announced in the winter 2003, issue of "The Rail
Splitter," a journal for Lincoln collectors, it has
generated considerable interest, Beggin said.
"We've had a big increase in visitors coming to the
museum," she said. "That's always good."
Doug Pokorski can be reached at 788-1539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.