Old Photo Mysteries and Genetics

Old Photo Mysteries and Genetics

At the recent New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) I met Pat McHugh. She told me about a very interesting image in her family collection. The name of the couple is currently unknown. Their clothing and the studio setting suggests it was taken in the late...

At the recent New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) I met Pat McHugh. She told me about a very interesting image in her family collection. The name of the couple is currently unknown.

Their clothing and the studio setting suggests it was taken in the late 1860s. The pair was likely born in at least the early years of that century. It’s not their attire or the setting that makes this image stand out.

Take a good look at the woman in this carte de visite.

Have you spotted anything unusual about her hand?

She has six fingers on her right hand. The extra digit is on the outside of her hand, so according to the Wikipedia page on polydactyly, her condition is known as postaxial polydactyly. The incidence is only .6 per one thousand births for female Caucasian births, and it’s considered an autosomal recessive trait.

This woman wasn’t alone. There are many famous individuals who were born with an extra digit and a good number of fictional characters as well. Anne Boelyn’s extra finger may be a myth.

I’m hoping that armed with a date, Pat can determine who they are on her family tree. Unfortunately, the additional digit is unlikely to be mentioned in any documents. There don’t appear to be any stories passed down in the family about this woman either.

This one image is a reminder to study all the details in a picture very carefully for unusual identification clues. What’s the most unusual thing you’ve found in a family photo?


Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
  • Related Products

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    1. A few more interesting things about the woman:
      1. She is posed revealing her right hand with the extra digit but where one would expect to see her left hand resting on the pile of books, there is a (strategically placed?) hanging glove.
      2. Can we deduce that her right hand was her best-formed hand i.e. she put her best hand forward?
      3. She is very short and lean and her physique calls to mind a woman I once worked with who had very advanced cystic fibrosis. The length of her torso is very small in proportion to the size of her head
      4. The lower half of her body does not align with the upper half the way one would expect and the outline of her knees under her dress is missing. It appears as if she is sitting or rather straddling a box. The outline of her lower body under dress does not sync with what one would expect to see sitting on just a chair alone. All of this leads me to suspect that her skirt is disguising lower body deformities.

    2. Cherie Brumfield

      My Dad (adoptive father) came from a family, several of whom had 6 fingers on one or both hands, but also had 6 toes. Dad, himself, did not but some (not all) of his siblings did and it apparently descended from their father’s line.