Photo Detective: Clues to Connections

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Figure 1 Figure 2

Rosemary U’Ren inherited a velvet album of photographs that her grandmother rescued from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. While her grandmother obviously thought these images important enough to save, no one took time to identify the people in the album. Rosemary is now trying to re-create identifications to make her grandmother’s efforts worthwhile. She is determined to finish this project even though she knows it might take years.

She submitted two of her mystery images for identification. Figure 1 appears to be a mother and child while Figure 2 is a man in uniform. She is as yet unable to make a connection between the photographs, although she knows one exists.

Family legend recounts the exploits of her grandfather John F. “Fred” Spereisen (a.k.a. Sperisen) (Figure 2). Apparently born in Switzerland circa 1856, he immigrated to the United States as a child. He later ran away from home, lied about his date of birth by up to 10 years and joined the United States 7th Cavalry. Rosemary tried to verify the facts in the story, but has been unable to find her grandfather on passenger lists to the United States. Federal census records for 1900 through 1920 suggest 1856 as his year of birth and 1870 as the year of immigration. She knows he married in 1892 in San Francisco but those records no longer exist. He became a naturalized citizen in 1886 at approximately 21 years of age. Rosemary is currently trying to locate service records for her grandfather. Evidence suggests he was not in the Army at the time of his marriage in 1892.

The lack of evidence makes Fred Spereisen’s photograph both confusing and enlightening. First, there is no verification for this uniform being standard dress for the 7th Cavalry. Examples of men wearing uniforms for that unit appear in the digital collections at the San Francisco Public Library ( and the US Military History Institute ( but none looks like what he is wearing. The photographer, Charles Lanier, operated two studios in San Francisco. He was at 715 Market St. from 1887 to 1895. Both Fred Spereisen’s hairstyle and mustache would be stylish during this period. It appears from the caption on the back that Rosemary’s grandfather or grandmother once ordered a handcolored copy of this photograph. On the back is an address for a Mrs. Sparsan [sic], N 59 Albion Ave., the address the young couple lived at during 1896-1897. There are also instructions for the colorist. Rosemary’s grandfather had blue eyes, brown hair and wore a gray coat with a blue collar. This colored portrait no longer exists with the family. Without any additional data, this photograph dates between 1887 and 1892.

In the family album saved by her grandmother is this portrait of a mother and son. The mother’s dress details aren’t clear, making the photo difficult to date. What is visible is a pleated stand-up collar with a silk ribbon tied around the neck with a brooch, a watch chain and thin net gloves. She wears her hair pulled away from her face. The boy appears to be approximately 12 years of age. It would be helpful to see if he is wearing long or short pants since the length of his pants would help determine the boy’s age. According to the Marshalltown Public Library, Brown first appeared as a photographer in the 1882 city directory. The visible dress details and the date for the photographer suggest that this portrait dates circa 1880.

Rosemary is hopeful that the boy in the picture is her grandfather. At some point the family lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, where her grandfather’s stepfather died. Since the date of Figure 1 is unclear, it might depict Fred Spereisen, but the real problem is that the boy in Figure 1 has brown eyes and the man in Figure 2 has blue eyes. There is a family resemblance between the woman in Figure 1 and the man in Figure 2, but who this woman might be is unknown. Fred Spereisen was an only child.

It is frustrating to have so much information and not be able to make a connection. That there were Spereisen relatives in Iowa is indisputable, but finding out the identity of these two people may be elusive. Rosemary sent copies of the pictures to the Library in Marshalltown in case some one else is researching the same family. She might also consider posting the picture online (see “Reunite with Family Photographs”) or posting a message about the image on family message boards in the hopes of connecting with other families.

Note to readers: Has a photograph helped you discover new information about your family? Have you successfully identified photographs in your family album? I would love to hear about your successes and share them in an upcoming article in Family Tree Magazine. If I use your story, you will win a free copy of my new book, Preserving Your Family Photographs. Hope to hear from you soon at

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at