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An 1860 lithograph drawing of Thomson’s ambrotype studio, where Lincoln was photographed following his Monmouth speech in 1858.

‘Developing’ the history of Monmouth’s Lincoln photograph

David Thomson Jones is the great-great grandson of Hugh Laughlin Thomson, an Ohio native who settled near Biggsville in 1852 and served eight years as Henderson County circuit clerk. Hugh Thomson’s brother, William Judkins Thomson, came to Monmouth from Pennsylvania in 1856, where he established an ambrotype studio on the south side of the Public Square, just east of Main Street. Ambrotypes were portraits on glass that bridged the technological gap between daguerreotypes and dry plate negatives.

The Thomsons were devout Presbyterians and active in the new Republican Party. William Judkins Thomson was one of several Republican leaders who welcomed Lincoln to Monmouth and shared dinner with him at the Baldwin House hotel, prior to his afternoon speech. An article in the Nov. 26, 1884, edition of the Monmouth Evening Gazette stated that Thomson was “a friend of Mr. Lincoln” and persuaded him “to sit for a negative.”

Lincoln’s Oct. 11 visit to Monmouth followed a similar visit to Monmouth by his opponent, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, Oct. 5, during which he spoke on the Public Square. On Oct. 7, Lincoln debated “The Little Giant” at Knox College. On Oct. 9, he spoke at Oquawka and Burlington, Iowa. On the morning of Oct. 11, he took the train from Burlington to Monmouth. Arrangements had been made for a huge gathering to welcome him on the Oquawka road, but torrential rains had washed away those plans.

Lincoln was met at the Monmouth CB&Q depot by circuit clerk William S. Laferty, who had a carriage waiting, but despite the rain, Lincoln elected to walk the seven blocks to the Baldwin House on East Broadway. A Monmouth correspondent for the Chicago Tribune wrote that rain continued to fall, and that until 1 p.m. it was assumed that no one from the country would show up for the speech, so it would be moved indoors to a hall. About noon, however, large crowds began forming and it became apparent the speech had to be given outdoors. A stage had been constructed on the Public Square, but according to eyewitness Harry B. Young, the location “was changed to the lumber yard at the corner of East Fourth Avenue and South First street, because the square was a sea of mud. A stage was built for the speaker and when the rain came up an improvised top of rough boards, slanting in order to let the rain run off, was made for it.”

The Tribune correspondent noted that Lincoln spoke for three hours, with the entire audience seemingly “perfectly wrapt in attention.” The reporter for the Monmouth Review (a Democratic paper), however, described the speech as “coldly received by the small crowd present.”

Just what time the speech ended is uncertain, but it seems likely that Lincoln’s next destination was Thomson’s ambrotype studio, as daylight probably would have been required to capture the portrait. In a 1932 letter to Monmouth photographer Fleming Long, Alexander S. Thomson, a nephew of the photographer (who was 14 during Lincoln’s visit) recalled assisting his uncle in the studio that day. He began his recollection by mentioning the speaker’s stand was in front of his uncle’s studio, so perhaps Lincoln delivered some additional remarks from the original stage before having his photo taken.

After Lincoln finished his address, the nephew recalled, “he threw his cloak around himself and came into the front room of the studio where many politicians followed him. Uncle invited him into the back gallery, closing the door on the crowd. As he came in I placed a chair for him to sit down and wait a little while Uncle was preparing for him. As he sat down he took me by the hand, asked my name and asked about my school work and other things along the line of boy talk. … When Uncle had placed him in position, I was standing at one side, a little back but where I could see plainly. I saw him as he sat on the chair, the same as you see him in the picture.”

Alexander Thomson’s 1937 obituary notes that in later years, he spoke about “the uncanny carrying powers of Lincoln’s high pitched voice, the outstretching of his enormous right arm as his chief gesture, and the great hand waving for silence. It was the proudest moment of his young life as he led Lincoln from the platform to his uncle’s shop and watched the taking of the picture, which was a laborious process in those days.”

According Monmouth historian Emily Roberts Hubble, William Laferty entertained Lincoln with a two-hour reception in his home across from the Baldwin House “when the exercises were over in the afternoon.” While it’s possible the reception occurred before the portrait was taken, it seems more reasonable to assume the photo was taken first, as the sun set on that date at approximately 5:30.

On the 70th anniversary of the speech in 1927, the Review Atlas interviewed the photographer’s son, John N. Thomson, who was just 2 at the time of the photo, but whose older brother William was 6. He recalled that after the photo Lincoln took William next door (to N.A. Rankin’s store) and “filled him with candy and figs.”

William Judkins Thomson would abandon the photography business by 1862 and become Warren County clerk, serving in that post until 1866. He died in 1869 at the relatively young age of 46. While the cause of his death is uncertain, one wonders if it might have been related to his use of carcinogenic chemicals. The ambrotype process used cadmium compounds, which, according to Monmouth College chemical hygiene officer Kathy Mainz, are potentially hazardous, as are other chemicals used in the process, including ammonium bromide, dimethyl ether, glacial acetic acid, potassium cyanide and bichlorate of mercury.

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Photographer Thomas Harrison of Galesburg made this 1896 copy of Thomson’s Lincoln ambrotype, which was grudgingly lent by his widow.

In 1896, when journalist Ida Tarbell was writing her 20-part series on Lincoln for McClure’s Magazine, Thomson’s widow, Margaretta, was asked to lend the Lincoln ambrotype to be sent to New York City for an engraving to illustrate the article, but she refused. Eventually, through the intervention of Col. Clark E. Carr of Galesburg and State Sen. Fred E. Harding of Monmouth, she allowed the picture to be copied by Galesburg photographer Thomas Harrison, who forwarded a print to McClure’s.

At some point, Monmouth photographer John Nicol also made a copy of the ambrotype and angered the Thomson family when he made and sold prints on photographic blanks belonging to his predecessor in the business, Thornton Peel — thus giving them the appearance of age and authenticity. Additional prints were made in the 1930s by Fleming Long, who purchased Nicol’s business.

The original ambrotype eventually traveled to Los Angeles, to the home of the photographer’s daughter, Elizabeth Bailey. It was purchased in 1982 by the National Portrait Gallery from a Los Angeles photograph gallery.

Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.

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Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter.

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