Double-Checking Photo Clues to Solve a Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor

James Dinan and his wife solved their photo mystery using the resources of the Photo Detective blog archive. You can access it using the navigation on the left.

Here’s the photo they submitted:

It’s a group of men gathered for an outing. They call themselves The Fatal Nine Spot, and the event is a clambake. These types of social occasions were quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I actually own a photo of some members of my family posed with watermelons at a clambake circa 1900.

The Fatal Nine Spot is likely the name of a social organization. Based on the number of men in the image, it was a popular one. There may be a listing for the group in a city directory or a newspaper.

At some point in the 20th century (based on the ink form a ballpoint pen ink, which wasn’t available until mid-20th century), a family member circled this man’s head and wrote “Grandpa Davis.”

It’s great to have an identity for the person in a photo, but James Dinan’s problem was simple: Which Grandpa Davis was depicted? It could be either Robert Washington Davis (b. 1835) or his son William Francis Davis (b.1863).

For this man to be Robert, he’d need to look like a man in his 60s, so William makes more sense. James thought the picture was taken in the 1890s, when William would be 27 to 37 years of age.

The clothing clues in this image, such as the shapes of the men’s ties and jackets and the hair on their heads and faces, determine a time frame of the late 19th century.

In the late 1890s, the fashion for men was to be clean-shaven. While older men lagged behind the times, young men generally followed the current fashion. Just about every man in this image sports facial hair. Most wear large mustaches, which were popular in the 1880s. I’d date this photograph to the early 1890s based on that fact.

Their jacket lapels and ties are a better match to this era as well. Of course there are varieties of facial hair in every generation. There were mustache- related clubs in the late 19th century as well. We have no idea at this point if these men wore this facial hair as part of their club rules, or if they were just being fashionable.

The format of the photo also is a clue. Large group portraits mounted on cardstock of this color and size date from the late-19th century as well.

I’d love to know more about the Fatal Nine Spot club. Here are some tips for researching the group:

  • Use family history information to study resources local to where Grandpa Davis lived.
  • City directories often include information on organizations in the back, near business listings.
  • Newspapers usually include short news bits about events held by local groups.
  • The local historical society may have other photographs of these event or this group. It’s possible the clambake was an annual event.
  • Utilize social media by asking followers if they recognize anyone in the photo. There are a LOT of men in this picture. Photographers would photograph the group then offer them the option of purchasing copies. Grandpa Davis did and it’s likely other men did as well.

It’s a fabulous summer-time mystery.

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