Be Your Own Photo Detective

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Sherlock Holmes solved many a mystery, but his exploits don’t compare to the patience and persistence required by genealogists trying to identify old family photos. I’ve spent four years analyzing readers’ picture puzzles for Family Tree Magazine  (see many mystery photo cases on the Photo Detective blog). Although I haven’t cracked every photographic code, I have put names to dozens of unfamiliar faces.

Successful identifications result from partnerships: Readers supply their family data, and I sort through the clues. Faithful readers know it’s possible to identify a picture based on their knowledge of family history and attention to photographic details, such as image type, photographer’s imprint and costume clues.

Here’s one of my favorite photo IDs. The strategies I used have brought me success, either by dating a picture, identifying the subjects or eliminating suspects. Employ these surefire methods to tackle your own mystery pics.

1. Consult family.
In 2001, Rita Werner sent me a candid photograph of two women and a young girl. Werner had found the image in an album that belonged to her grandparents, both born in 1910. At the time, she wrote, “It’s possible that this picture is of my grandmother’s mother, who was orphaned in Indiana and raised by family members in Illinois.” She had shown the picture to several relatives, but no one could identify its subjects. Yet they did notice a strong resemblance to her grandmother’s side of the family.

Werner specifically wanted to know if the picture predated World War I. The little girl’s hair bow and the length and style of the women’s dresses dated the image to 1900 to 1910. Although I answered Werner’s question, I couldn’t identify the image’s subjects.

The photo seemed to be a dead end. No one could identify the group, and having a date didn’t help, either. Then a cousin mailed Werner the missing piece to the puzzle—an early 1900s picture of her grandfather’s family. Werner sent me a jubilant e-mail: “When I saw this picture along with the original one in question, I knew beyond a doubt that I had the identity! Notice the tiny waist on the woman on the right in both pictures. Also, the hairstyle of the woman on the right is the same in both pictures.”

Connecting with family and comparing images resulted in a positive identification. The women belonged to Werner’s grandfather’s side, not her grandmother’s, as others had suggested. Werner discovered that the woman on the left in both pictures is her great-grandmother Adah (Whitaker) Brown, born in 1880. The woman on the right is Adah’s sister Dessa Mae Whitaker, born in 1885. The child in the first picture is Dessa Mary Gerzella Brown, the only sister of Werner’s grandfather. She was about 5 years old when the picture was taken. Werner recalled that her great-aunt never went by Dessa Mary, only Gerzella. “Now when I look at her with fresh eyes, I can see the resemblance to my grandpa!” she wrote. “Gerzella was born in 1904. So now I know that it’s Gerzella holding onto her mother’s and aunt’s hands in a picture taken prior to 1910 because that’s when Grandpa was born—and as you can see, Adah is definitely not pregnant.”