A Mystery Photo From a Reader’s Garage

A Mystery Photo From a Reader’s Garage

So you've come across a photo that is reportedly of a famous person. How do you confirm whether or not this is the case? Photo Detective Maureen A. Taylor shares tips on identifying the true subject of your photograph.

famous person old photo identify

This week’s photo turned up in someone’s garage.  The man is supposed to be either Jesse James or Doc Holliday.   I’m not sure how this image came by this reputation.  It’s neither man. The person who submitted it was right to follow their intuition.  She didn’t think it was them either.

Here’s what you can do when you’re faced with a photo you think might be someone famous.

Google the person

Let’s cut right to the heart of the matter.  Facial matching.  Search for the name of the famous person on images.google.com.    Does the person in your photo look like the most reputable image of the famous one?   About 99% of the time, it’s a lookalike.  The man in this photo doesn’t resemble James or Holliday.

History clues

When you’ve researched the reputed person, you’ll find life dates.  How do they compare to the image in your hand?   The photo of this family dates from circa 1912.  The collars and hair bows help with the date. James died in 1882 and Holliday in 1887.  The facts don’t add up.

So who’s in the picture?

It could be someone in the family of the current resident of the house or if the house is old enough those folks could have once lived in the dwelling.  Perhaps other residents left behind the photo at another time.

  • Census records can help you determine which relatives had three boys and a girl in 1910. Search for surnames known to be in your family tree.
  • City directories will let you determine who was living in the house in a particular year.  House directories that list by street address could be helpful but generally aren’t found outside of large cities.

You might have to toggle back and forth searching various families in the census and the city directories.   If you have no matches, it’s time to post it on a reunion site.

DeadFred.com is one of the most popular of those.  You can post the photo.  While this man doesn’t know who they are, he now has a date for it. That might help someone.  Since he knows where he found it, that information should be entered in the description as well.

A local historical society social media page might be interested in sharing the image too.  It’s possible someone in the community misplaced this lovely picture.

I hope it finds a home rather than a place in a trash bin.


Want to become a photo detective? Our Family Photo Detective book will teach readers how to identify and verify people in family photographs by comparing facial features in a collection of photos.

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