Photo Detective: Same Name, Different Faces

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Vicky Hess’ mother-in-law gave her several photographs tentatively identified as Catherine Johnston. But that name belonged to two women in Hess’ family. Is the child in this tintype Catherine Clark Johnston (born in 1819) or her daughter, Catherine Johnston (born in 1857), who married Thomas Parker? Let’s see how the clues stack up.

In the late 1850s and the 1860s, little girls often wore their hair pulled back with a ribbon, as in this photo. The bows on this girl’s dress remind me of Grandma Tyson in a previous Identifying Family Photographs column—but that would date the picture to the late 1860s or early 1870s, ruling out both Catherines.

It’s possible this toddler is the younger Catherine or a sister. When the costume data is confusing, look at other aspects of the photograph such as props. Since I haven’t yet located information on the reclining sofa and toy horse, though, these items don’t influence the current assessment of this portrait.

Genealogical Data
I asked Hess for more family information and other portraits of both Catherines. It appears from the genealogical data that the elder Catherine (born in 1819) had another daughter, Lucy, who’d be the right age for the tintype taken in the 1860s.

Photographic Comparison
Hess also sent me a print of a young woman (figure 2) and a copy of a tintype family portrait (figure 3). Both of these photos alrady were identified as Catherine Johnston. The caption accompanying the figure 2 image reads “Mother at age 20, Catherine Johnston Parker.” The costume clues in that photo support the caption information—at the time of this portrait in 1877, women wore dresses with ruffled necklines and trim.

The whole Johnston family appears in figure 3. The image likely depicts Catherine Clark Johnston, her husband and seven of their fifteen children. Clothing details such as the women’s dresses and narrow collars date this picture to around 1860. If Hess could sort out the names and birthdates of the children, she could date the photo to soon after the baby’s birth. But the frequent births complicate naming the children. Without more pictures of each child, it’s a challenge to put names and birth dates with faces.

So who’s the girl in the original tintype? She might be the younger Catherine, but she also could be Lucy, Catherine’s sister born two years later. To more-specifically answer her inquiry, Hess should:

Locate pictures of Lucy and compare them to both the family portrait and the tintype of the child.

Compare the eye color of the child in figure 1 with the known 1877 portrait of Catherine Johnston Parker (figure 2). The girl in the tintype appears to have blue eyes, but it’s difficult to determine Catherine Parker Johnston’s eye color—viewing the original image would help. Obviously a brown-eyed Catherine would rule out her being the blue-eyed child in the tintype.