New Dickinson Daguerreotype?

"Could you believe me--without? I had no portrait, now. . . ."
-Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, July 1862 (L268)

Turner and possible Dickinson
Image: courtesy of owner
All Rights Reserved


Kate Scott Turner Anthon (right) with woman proposed to be Emily Dickinson (left), c. 1859

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Revised August 14, 2012. This web page will be updated periodically with corrections and new information.

The Emily Dickinson Museum welcomes the revelation by Martha Nell Smith at the 2012 Emily Dickinson International Society meeting of a possible new daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson. Should the new image stand up to scrutiny and verification, it will become only the second existing photographic likeness of the reclusive Amherst poet. For 125 years a single familiar image taken at age 16, ca. 1847, has been Dickinson’s only authentic photograph. While it has become an international icon, it’s a picture her family considered a poor resemblance and she herself disliked.

Several photographs purporting to be of Emily Dickinson have emerged over the years, only subsequently to be discredited. Although there is still more to learn about the "new" daguerreotype, the circumstantial and physical evidence assembled thus far is intriguing. The new image depicts two women seated side by side. The woman on the right has been identified as Kate Scott Turner (later Anthon), a friend of the Dickinson family; the sitter on the left may be Emily Dickinson. The photograph is believed by its owner, a daguerreotype collector, to have been taken ca. 1859-60, when Dickinson was about 30 years old. Although the photographer remains unidentified, the collector speculates it may have been Springfield, MA, photographer J.C. Spooner, who advertised as late as 1859 that he was still making daguerreotypes by request, despite ambrotypes having by then become a less expensive, more popular choice of photograph.

"This is a fascinating development," said Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum. "Dickinson’s most prolific period of writing occurred while she was in her early thirties. After viewing her always at age 16, seeing a woman who could be the adult Emily Dickinson, a working poet, reshapes one’s thinking. Since other images have been proposed but not proved to be Dickinson, scholars will be carefully sifting the evidence for this picture, and the Museum heartily encourages close study of this new image."

The new daguerreotype was purchased in 1995 (by a collector who chooses to remain anonymous) from among items of an "estate cleanout" offered for sale by a Springfield, MA, junk dealer. The buyer said he had a hunch at the time he acquired it that the woman who appears left-most to the viewer might be Emily Dickinson, and pursued several lines of inquiry to prove his theory. He began his odyssey by trying to determine who the other woman might be, identifying her after some years of investigation into the poet’s life and her cohorts by the two moles visible below either side of her mouth. These moles, one more prominent than the other, matched those present in a portrait of Kate Scott in her youth. (The portrait is reprinted in Richard Sewall’s Life of Emily Dickinson.) They also matched moles apparent in another hitherto unknown portrait of Kate Anthon discovered by the daguerreotype owner at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, New York, where Kate was born and lived for many decades of her life.

Physical features have also served as the starting point for identifying the second sitter in the photograph. Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center ophthalmologist Dr. Susan Pepin has carefully examined the eyes in the new image and compared this feature with Dickinson’s eyes in her ca. 1847 portrait. Director of Neuro-Ophthalmology at Dartmouth Medical School, Pepin has long been interested in Dickinson’s eye problems, which include a recognizable astigmatism in one eye. After taking precise measurements of distinct characteristics of the eyes from enlarged images of both daguerreotypes (mirror images which show features reversed), she believes that the ca.1847 and ca.1859 portraits are of the same person. Other facial features Pepin finds identical in both portraits are the position of her right earlobe and the configuration of the area between the nose and upper lip. (See Pepin's full report.)

Clothing worn by the two figures in the daguerreotype has offered additional clues. There is a marked similarity in the style of dress worn by the Dickinson figure in the new picture to that worn by the poet in the ca. 1847 portrait. According to preliminary observations of clothing historians, the gown in the new picture appears to be about a decade out of date, its fashion popular in the late 1840s. Some biographers have noted that Emily wasn’t particularly style-conscious in her attire. Mrs. Turner’s mourning garments, however, date from her first husband’s death in May 1857, establishing a time after which the portrait occurred. A swatch of blue-checked fabric in the collections of the Emily Dickinson Museum is similar in pattern and sheen to that worn by the left-hand figure in the daguerreotype. Further study of the fabric worn in the new daguerreotype would be needed to know whether it matches the swatch in the museum’s collection.

Michael Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College’s Frost Library, commented, "There’s been some careful investigation of the new daguerreotype, which thus far indicates the image could be Emily Dickinson. We anticipate much more research must be done before a definitive identification can be made, but the Archives at Amherst College exist to support exactly this kind of inquiry. It’s a great find that opens new avenues of Dickinson research and may shed new light on our existing collections."

Turner’s presence in the daguerreotype strengthens the possibility that the second woman could be Dickinson. If that proves to be the case, the photograph adds weight to the importance of a known but heretofore underplayed friendship of Dickinson’s late twenties. Kate had been a classmate of Sue Gilbert at Utica Academy in New York State eight years before Sue married the poet’s brother Austin and came to live in the home called The Evergreens, next door to the Dickinson homestead in Amherst. The lively Cooperstown widow made several lengthy visits to Sue and Austin Dickinson at The Evergreens beginning in January 1859, and quickly became Emily’s dear friend as well. Exchanges of letters and poems document their intimacy and an eventual falling out between them. Emily and Kate’s relationship was detailed in a 1951 biography titled The Riddle of Emily Dickinson by Rebecca Patterson, a book discounted by scholars when it appeared sixty years ago, but which may find greater acceptance among readers today. Patterson was prohibited by Scott heirs from citing her sources, which enabled the book’s too-easy dismissal.

Why might the reclusive Emily Dickinson, famous for claiming to have no photograph, have succumbed to posing for a portrait with her arm around her friend Kate Turner? How might such a daguerreotype have found its way to a Springfield junk dealer? Why was there no mention of such a photograph in contemporary documentation? Answers to these and other questions are likely to become a new quest for Dickinson scholars. Scenarios involving others--Samuel Bowles, Elizabeth Holland, or perhaps Lou and Fanny Norcross—will generate several avenues of inquiry. Bowles was the popular, racy editor of the Springfield Republican, as well as a prized friend of all the Dickinsons. His eye for attractive intelligent women led him to visit The Evergreens when Kate Scott Turner was in town. Other confidantes of the poet were Springfield resident Elizabeth Chapin Holland, whom, like Sue, Dickinson cherished like a sister, and her beloved cousins Louisa and Fanny Norcross, entrusted with many Dickinson secrets.

As the quest for clues and evidence unfolded, Dickinson biographer and Museum board member Polly Longsworth and Amherst College Archives and Special Collections’ Margaret Dakin cooperated with the daguerreotype owner in researching various aspects of the new image and historical details surrounding it. Additional information about research and evidence concerning the image is available at the Archives and Special Collections web site. Both the Emily Dickinson Museum and College Archives possess precise daguerreotype copies of the original, presented by the owner, who retains the original. Martha Nell Smith, Professor of English at the University of Maryland who publishes widely on Dickinson, picked up the trail in 2010, and has discussed the image and its context in various academic venues in the last three years. The Museum’s daguerreotype copy will be on display in the Tour Center through December.

As further research is conducted on this new piece in the Dickinson puzzle, the recently discovered daguerreotype will elicit a range of opinion about the life and work of a famously private poet. As Emily Dickinson biographer Polly Longsworth observed, "Dickinson may have surprised us once again. It's that uncanny ability she has - there's always something she hasn't yet told us. It catches people in her vibrant web."

The Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and The Evergreens comprises two Dickinson family homes, furnishings, and three shared acres of Dickinson family property. The Homestead (built ca. 1813) was the birthplace and residence of the poet, and the place where she composed nearly all of the 1,789 poems known today. The Evergreens was the 1856 home of the poet’s brother and sister-in-law, Austin and Susan Dickinson. Devoted to the story and legacy of poet Emily Dickinson and her family, the Museum is owned by the Trustees of Amherst College and overseen by a separate Board of Governors charged with raising its operating and capital funds. It is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, March through December. For additional information, contact Jane Wald, Executive Director, or 413-542-2154.

The Archives & Special Collections in Frost Library is the primary repository for rare books, archives, and manuscripts at Amherst College. Approximately half of the known manuscripts of Emily Dickinson along with the ca. 1847 daguerreotype portrait and other family artifacts are held by the Archives. A wealth of material that documents the history of the College – from Samuel Fowler Dickinson’s role in founding the school through Ned Dickinson’s tenure in the College Library – is also available in the Archives. Archives & Special Collections is located on the A-Level of Frost Library on the main quad of Amherst College. The Archives is open to all qualified researchers from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, Monday through Friday, year round.

Website Exhibition at Dickinson Electronic Archives 2:

The Dickinson Electronic Archives 2 creates a scholarly environment that showcases the possibility of interdisciplinary and collaborative research and explores the potential of the digital environment to reveal new interpretive material, cultural, historical, and theortetical contexts. In doing so, the DEA2 will open a space of knowledge exchange for a networked world of scholars, students, and readers. By the end of August, Dickinson's readers will find an exhibition on the new daguerreotype that will offer essays by and reports on the work of the early principal investigators, essays by scholars beyond the world of Dickinson, a discussion space for comments from all interested readers, and more.

Further Reading:

Biographies and focused works address Dickinson's personal relationships. A small sample includes:

  • Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Random House, 2001).
  • Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ed. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith (Paris Press, 1998). Addresses the poet’s relationship with Susan Dickinson.
  • Patterson, Rebecca. The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951). Posits Kate Anthon as a love interest.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974).
  • Wolff, Cynthia G. Emily Dickinson (New York: Knopf, 1986).

For information about two previously released controversial images, please consult:

  • The Abromson Photograph: owned by Herman Abromson, printed in Richard Sewall’s Life of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University Press, 1974, 1980) on p. 752 in 1980 edition.
    Nickell, Joe. "A Second Photo of Emily Dickinson," in Real or Fake? Studies in Authentication (University Press of Kentucky, 2009)
  • The Gura photograph: albumen photograph owned by Philip Gura, printed in Alfred Habegger’s My Wars are Laid Away in Books: the Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Random House, 2001) between p. 366 and 367. See Appendix 1 and website image.
    For refutation of its authenticity, see George Gleason, "Is It Really Emily Dickinson?," The Emily Dickinson Journal, Volume 18, Number 2, Fall 2009, pp. 1-20 (The Johns Hopkins University Press).