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Abraham Lincoln’s Jewish Photographer

Material and photographs contributed by Jean Powers Soman, great-grandaughter of Samuel G. Alschuler

Samuel G. Alschuler, born in Bavaria in 1826, operated a photographic gallery in Urbana, Illinois when political hopeful Abraham Lincoln came by to have a portrait taken.

Lincoln was wearing an old linen duster which was inappropriate for the portrait, and had no other coat available. The photographer, about a foot shorter than the circuit lawyer, loaned his own coat.

"The coat belonged to the photographer, Samuel G. Alschuler, an immigrant from Bavaria, and Lincoln's arms extended through the sleeves "about a quarter of a yard." Lincoln had agreed to pose for Alschuler, but when he showed up in his old linen duster, the cameraman loaned him a velvet-collared jacket. A witness wrote later that Lincoln "was overcome with merriment" when the short coat "proved to be a bad misfit." In developing the portrait, Alschuler left his fingerprints near the bottom, visible as a series of weird arcs in the lower right corner of the enlargement. The original glass ambrotype was bought directly from Alschuler by W. H. Somers, a circuit-court clerk who knew and admired Lincoln. A photographic copy of the ambrotype was subsequently owned by Lincoln's fellow lawyer and biographer, Henry C. Whitney, who first met Lincoln in 1854 while traveling from Danville to Springfield."*

* Hamilton, Charles, and Ostendorf, Lloyd, Lincoln in Photographs, Morningside, Dayton Ohio, 1985, p. 11.

Whitney tells the story of the photographer's coat in Life on the Circuit with Lincoln.

In the fall of 1857, Lincoln attended at the photograph gallery of Sam. Alschuler in Urbana, to have his picture taken: he was attired in a linen coat: doubtless the same one which he wore to Cincinnati just before, and which Stanton so rudely lampooned. The artist suggested that he should wear his black coat. Lincoln replied that he had left it home, and had none other there.

"Try my coat," said the accommodating artist: and the future emancipator was taken in a borrowed coat, with a velvet collar on, which shows plainly:—the picture being still in existence. On another occasion, earlier, a very poor artist induced him to sit and took a daguerreotype which resembled (not Lincoln but—say) the Wandering Jew: and exposed it in his outer show-case.*

Nearly three years later, Lincoln posed again for Alschuler, this time at the request of Whitney. The second sitting is the last of the 1860 photographs and Lincoln's first with a beard.

"The first whiskers sprout: Photograph taken Sunday, November 25, 1860. Picturing the President-elect with a half-beard, this unique portrait was preserved by Henry C. Whitney, a youthful attorney who had traveled the Illinois circuit with Lincoln. Some thirty years later it turned up in the files of Chicago photographer C. D. Mosher, and was saved from destruction by Herman Herbert Wells Fay, a custodian of the Lincoln Tomb."*

* Hamilton and Ostendorf, Op. Cit., p. 67.

Lithograph of the last Lincoln photograph taken by Alschuler. Lincoln funeral procession in Chicago, (May 1, 1865). [University of Illinois Library Collection]