There’s nothing like a photo riddle when the picture and the facts don’t add up. In my experience solving that particular problem relies on more than the pictorial evidence. You have to dive into family history in detail.
Let’s take Joan Lee’s photo of a young couple and their child as an example. It’s a symbol of a long complicated family story that has so many twists and turns it’s like a maze. A good way to gain freedom from the intricacies of this tangled web is to sort out the facts and list a series of questions.
This photo was given to Joan by a descendant of her husband’s great grandfather’s brother. He’s identified as Fred Klingbeil, his wife and their son. It came with a sad story: The little boy supposedly drowned in Three Mile Lake in Ontario. If this is true, Joan can’t find the proof. There’s no death record, no cemetery record and no headstone where the family lived in Ontario.
But Joan has an even bigger problem. Does this photo even depict Fred Klingbeil? A timeline of his life compared to the photographic details conflict. He was a man on the move. (If anyone wants the exact citations for this article, please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Joan will be happy to supply them.)
Here are the facts of his life:
1882: Fred is born in Detroit, Mich., to Julius and Amelia Klingbeil, recent immigrants from Germany. According to family letters, Amelia was pregnant with Fred during their passage to America.
1891: Fred appears on the Canadian census for Windermere, Ont.
1902/03: A newspaper in Enderlin, ND, mentions that he’s in town to build an addition onto his widowed mother’s house.
1910: According to the U.S. Federal Census, Fred lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota working as a wallpaper hanger.
In October of 1910 he marries for the first time in Idaho. His bride, Marie Evans, states on the marriage record she’s from Aberdeen, Wash.
Here’s where it gets tricky. For this to be a photo of Fred and Marie with a son, it would have to be taken after 1910. But this woman’s dress, with the belted waist and tight-fitting bodice, dates from about 1900.
Her hairstyle confirms the date. In my new book, Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles, I examine photos and discuss men’s and women’s hairstyles. The topknot on the crown of her head was common from the late 1890s to the turn of the century. By 1910, women wear their hair full around the face with a bun on the top. It’s a different look from what’s seen here. The father’s upturned collar, suit style and silk tie are consistent with c. 1900 as well.
So is it a different Fred, or does it depict a different family?
You won’t believe where this family history mystery goes! I’ll be back next week with part 2. Stay tuned.