Top 10 People with Only One Known Photograph

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We love to look at pictures because it gives us a chance to remember a specific moment in time.  For this reason, family portraits are among the most cherished items in most households.  In the 1830s, the first commercially successful photographic process, the daguerreotype, was invented.  Daguerreotype photography spread rapidly across the United States in the early 1840s.  People loved the process because they were able to obtain an exact likeness of themselves and their family members for the first time, making portrait photographs extremely popular.

The first use of photographic film was pioneered by George Eastman.  Eastman’s first camera was named the “Kodak” and was offered for sale in 1888.  The time period between the first photo and the first commercially sold camera (1838-1888) has become known for a large collection of rare pictures.  Many famous outlaws from the American Old West and influential personalities from the middle of the 19th century have only a few known photographs.

In some rare instances, famous historical figures are known to have only one existing photograph.  This article will examine ten famous people with only one remaining picture.  Some notable figures that were not included are Mary Seacole, Bahadur Shah II, David Owen Dodd, Ike Clanton, Moondyne Joe, Regina Jonas, Etta Place, and Louis Keseberg.

10. Karl Denke

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In 1870, Karl Denke was born in Münsterberg, Silesia in the Kingdom of Prussia (now Zi?bice in Poland).  There is not a great deal of information about Denke’s life as a child, but as an adult he was well-liked in the community.  Between the years of 1918 to 1924, Denke operated a rooming house in his hometown.  His tenants affectionately called him “Papa.”  He also played the organ for the local German church.  It has since been realized that Denke led a much more sinister lifestyle.  He was a mass murderer that cannibalized the remains of over 30 people.

On December 20, 1924, one of Denke’s tenants, a coachman by the name of Gabriel, heard cries from Denke’s flat.  After rushing down to see if everyone was alright, Gabriel witnessed Karl Denke in the process of murdering a man with an axe.  The police were called and Denke was arrested.  In his house, the officers found the remains of human flesh in huge jars of curing salts.  They discovered a ledger that contained the details of over 30 people Denke had murdered and cannibalized.  The ledger had information about the victim’s weight and how to pickle a human.  Apparently, Denke had specialized in killing beggars, tramps, and journeymen who seemed unlikely to be missed.  In a disturbing fact, he sold the flesh of his victims to the local market in Breslau (today’s Wroclaw).

The Picture

The day after Karl Denke was arrested he committed suicide in jail by hanging himself with his suspenders.  Denke was never fully interrogated by the German police and little is known about his true personality.  After his death, one photograph was taken to document the case.  The picture shows Denke’s dead body and is the only known picture of Karl Denke.

9. Johnny Ringo

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Johnny Ringo was an outlaw of the American Old West.  He was born in Greensfork, Indiana, of distant Dutch ancestry.  In 1879, Ringo turned up in Cochise County, Arizona Territory.  He quickly made an impression on the town when he shot an unarmed man named Louis Hancock in Safford, Arizona for refusing a drink of whiskey.  Hancock survived the gunshot, but the event gave Ringo a reputation for anger.  On January 17, 1882, Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats in the streets of Tombstone and almost got into a gunfight.  Both men were arrested by chief of police James Flynn and hauled before a judge for carrying weapons in town.

It remains unclear, but Johnny Ringo could have participated in a large number of robberies and killings with the Cowboys.  In March of 1882, Ringo was suspected by Wyatt Earp of taking part in the murder of his brother Morgan.  On July 14, 1882, Johnny Ringo was found dead in the crotch of a large tree in West Turkey Creek Valley, near Chiricahua Peak, Arizona.  He was shot once in the head.  Ringo’s revolver was found hanging by his hand and the death was officially ruled a suicide.

Many people have been put forward as Ringo’s possible murderer, including Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Mike O’Rourke, and Buckskin Frank Leslie.  Author Louis L’Amour has found no information in Old West history to commend the idea that Johnny Ringo was a noteworthy “badman.”  It has been speculated that perhaps Ringo’s memorable name, coupled with his confrontations with the “good” Earp brothers, has contributed to his current-day reputation.  In the movie Tombstone, Johnny Ringo is portrayed as a leader of the Cowboys and one of the best shots in the Old West.

The Picture

Around the year 1880, Johnny Ringo posed for his only known photograph.  In the picture, Ringo can be seen with a large and bushy mustache, which is typical for men during the early 1880s.  He is wearing a nice suit and is groomed for a professional portrait.

8. Ichabod Crane

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In 1787, Ichabod Crane was born in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey.  In 1809, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the USS United States, a 44-gun frigate commanded by Stephen Decatur.  During the War of 1812, Crane served on the Niagara Frontier.  In 1832, he led five companies in the Black Hawk War.  The Black Hawk War was a conflict between the U.S. Government and the Sauk Native American tribe headed by Black Hawk.  During the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), Crane commanded the 2nd Artillery unit and acted as Commander of the U.S. Army District of Northeast Florida.

Ichabod Crane died in October 1857 while still on active duty.  He is buried in Asbury Methodist Cemetery, in New Springville, not far from his former home.  Crane’s grave marker bears the inscription: “He served his country for 48 years and was much beloved and respected by all who knew him.”  The name of Ichabod Crane is familiar as it was used by Washington Irving in his novel The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Washington Irving never admitted that the character is named after Colonel Crane, but the two men met at Fort Pike located on Lake Ontario in Sackets Harbor, New York in 1814, while Irving was an aide to New York Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins.  The similarity between the two Ichabods seems to end with the name, as Colonel Crane was known to be a respected military man with a loving family.  Cranes’ somewhat unusual and memorable first name Ichabod comes from the biblical name of the grandson of Eli the High Priest and son of Phineas.

The Picture

In 1848, Ichabod Crane posed for a daguerreotype photograph.  It was taken for his official U.S. military portrait.  The portrait remains the only known picture of Crane.  At the time of his death, Ichabod Crane was a Colonel, 1st Artillery, in the U.S. Army.

7. Jack Swilling

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Jack Swilling was born on April 1, 1830, at Red House Plantation, Anderson, South Carolina.  In the 1850s, Swilling was elected captain of the Gila Rangers militia company that was formed for protection from Apache stock raids on miners in the Arizona territory.  In 1860, the Gila Rangers made an expedition to the unexplored Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona to “chastise” Apache raiders.  This resulted in some noteworthy discoveries, including the existence of the Hassayampa River and traces of mineral riches, including gold.

During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Swilling was a Confederate States Army minuteman, but could not fight much due to injuries he sustained in 1854.  He was also a civilian aide to the U.S. Army during the end of the war.  In 1863, Jack Swilling played an important role in the settlement of the previously unexplored central Arizona highlands in the vicinity of modern-day Prescott, Arizona.  He sparked a major gold rush in the area, and in turn led to the establishment of Arizona’s first Territorial Capital at the brand-new town of Prescott.

In 1867, Jack Swilling founded the city of Phoenix, Arizona.  He organized the first successful modern irrigation project in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and started a small farming community that has since grown into the modern day Phoenix.  In the early days, Jack Swilling was one of the most prominent leaders of the Phoenix settlement and was its first postmaster and first justice of the peace.  Jack’s friends remember him as an honest, hard-working, and generous man that was always ready to help people in need.  “Swilling would put his own life at risk for others, literally riding to the rescue when he heard of an Apache attack.”

The Picture

In 1878, Jack Swilling died near the small mining community of Gillette, a few miles south of today’s Black Canyon City.  The details surrounding his death are unclear and he is survived by only one known photograph.  The picture shows Swilling with long hair and holding what looks like a pistol in one hand and a hat in the other.  It is unclear when the photograph was taken.

6. Margery Booth

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In 1905, Margery Booth was born in Wigan, Greater Manchester, England.  In 1936, she began her singing career in Covent Garden, London, but moved to Germany in the late 1930s and achieved fame with the Berlin State Opera.  At the outbreak of World War II, Booth was positioned at Freigegeben Stalag IIID by the Third Reich, a camp for potential recruits to the British Free Corps.  At the camp she worked as a British spy with agent John Brown and obtained details surrounding British traitors.  During the war, Booth helped prisoners of war send coded messages back to their chiefs in London.

On one occasion, Margery Booth met and sang for Adolf Hitler at a British prisoner of war camp.  While singing for the Fuehrer, Margery had a collection of secret ciphers hidden inside her undergarments.  Hitler was so taken by Booth’s performances that he once visited her dressing room, and sent her 200 red roses wrapped in a sash with a swastika on it.  After being discovered as spy, Booth endured torture by the Gestapo, but kept her silence.  At the end of the war, Margery escaped to Berlin and fled to Bavaria.

Margery Booth was a valuable spy during World War II and the information she provided was used to convict both Lord Haw Haw and John Amery of treason.  Unfortunately, after returning to England Margery was rejected by the people and viewed as a Nazi sympathizer.  She was not offered work and eventually forced to move to New York, where Booth died from cancer in 1952.

The Picture

The only known picture of Margery Booth was taken at Freigegeben Stalag IIID during World War II.  On the photograph Booth wrote “With kindest remembrances, Good luck, Margery Booth.”  The picture emerged from a private collection in 2010 and was auctioned off at Ludlow racecourse in Shropshire.

5. Blind Lemon Jefferson

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“Blind” Lemon Jefferson was an American blues singer and guitarist from Texas that was born blind.  He was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s and had a strong influence on the Texas Blues scene.  Jefferson is remembered for his distinctive high-pitched voice and guitar play.  He was one of the first people to record a solo blues guitar album.  Between the years of 1926 to 1929, Jefferson released about 100 tracks with a large number of popular songs.  He traveled around the United States and was a popular act.  Blind Lemon Jefferson helped make Paramount Records the leading music recording company for blues in the 1920s.

At the height of his popularity, Blind Lemon Jefferson died in Chicago on December 19, 1929.  His death certificate officially states the cause of death as “probably acute myocarditis.”  However, a large number of theories have been proposed.  In the 1930s, rumors circulated that a jealous lover had poisoned his coffee.  Others think he died of a heart attack after becoming disoriented during a snowstorm (i.e., he froze to death).  Some people have written that Jefferson was attacked by a dog, while others claim that he was killed while being robbed by a guide escorting him to Union Station.

In 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (later Wortham Black Cemetery) under an unmarked grave.  In 1967, a grave stone was placed in his honor at the cemetery.  In 2007, the cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery.  Given his influence on the history of music, it is unfortunate that we don’t know more about Jefferson’s life.  His sound has influenced a large number of great recording artists, including B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Canned Heat, and Robert Johnson.

The Picture

Around 1926, Blind Lemon Jefferson posed for his only known photograph.  The picture is of bad quality and was heavily retouched in the 1920s.  Record executives even painted a fake tie on the photo.

Just like Jefferson, Robert Petway is a blues musician that has only one known photograph.  Robert Petway recorded only two sessions for Bluebird Records (Chicago) in 1941 and 1942.  He released 16 songs and suddenly disappeared in the early 1940s.

One of Robert Petway’s most influential songs is Catfish Blues, which was recorded in 1941.  Muddy Waters used the lyrics and style of the song for his first single Rollin’ Stone.  Robert Petway’s short musical career influenced some notable blues and rock musicians, including John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix.

4. Samuel Wilson

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In 1766, Samuel Wilson was born in historic Arlington, Massachusetts, to parents originally from Greenock, Scotland.  In 1789, Samuel and his brother Ebenezer moved to Troy, New York, where they went into business.  At the time of the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson was a prosperous middle-aged meat-packer in Troy.  He obtained a contract to supply beef to the Army, which he shipped in large barrels.  The barrels, being government property, were branded with the initials U.S. for United States, but the teamsters and soldiers would joke that the initials referred to “Uncle Sam”, who supplied the product.

Over time, it was believed that anything marked with the same initials (U.S.) was also linked with the name Samuel Wilson.  On September 15, 1961, the United States Congress issued the statement: “Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.”  If you are unfamiliar with the image, Uncle Sam is a national personification of the American government.  To honor Wilson’s achievement, a collection of monuments were built in his honor, one in Arlington, Massachusetts, and the others at his grave in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, and outside his second home in Mason, NH.

The Picture

There is only one known photograph of Samuel Wilson.  It was taken sometime before his death in 1854 and shows Uncle Sam’s grey hair and stern facial expression.  The photo is small and of low resolution, but you can still see the famous expression that made the image so popular in America.

3. Billy the Kid

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William H. Bonney (Billy the Kid) was a 19th-century American gunman who participated in the Lincoln County War and became a frontier outlaw in the West.  According to legend, he killed 21 men, but the actual number is generally considered to be between four and nine.  Bonney was 5 feet 8 inches (173 cm) tall with blue eyes, a smooth complexion, and prominent front teeth.  He was said to be friendly and personable at times, but could have a bad temper.

Contemporaries have described Billy the Kid as a “neat” dresser who favored an “unadorned Mexican sombrero.”  Bonney was relatively unknown during his lifetime, until New Mexico’s governor, Lew Wallace, placed a price on his head in 1881. In addition, a collection of newspapers published stories about Billy the Kid.  Bonney was incredibly skilled with a firearm, which has contributed to his image as both a notorious outlaw and beloved folk hero of the Old West.  After his death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, several biographies were written about Billy the Kid.

The Picture

Sometime in late 1879 or early 1880, Billy the Kid had a ferrotype (tintype) photograph taken by an unknown photographer.  The photograph is a 2 x 3 inch (5.08 x 7.62 cm) picture and the only image of Bonney which scholars agree is authentic.  A tintype is a photo made by creating a direct positive on a sheet of iron metal that is blackened by painting and lacquering.

After Billy the Kid’s death, Dan Dedrick, one of Billy’s rustler friends, kept the picture and passed it down to his family. The ferrotype appeared in several copied forms before the original was made public in the mid-1980s. The original photograph of Bonney was sold at auction on June 25, 2011, in a three-day Western show.  It was purchased for $2.3 million dollars, some six times the estimate.  The picture became the 6th most expensive photograph ever sold.

2. Chief Seattle (Si’ahl)

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The American Indian Wars is the name used in the United States to describe a series of conflicts between American settlers and the native peoples of North America.  The wars were spurred by ideologies such as Manifest Destiny, which held that the United States was destined to expand from coast to coast on the American continent.  As a result, the Indian tribes were pushed westward.

Many tribes rebelled, but other Native American leaders accepted the white settlers and tried to form a friendly relationship.  One of these men was Si’ahl (Chief Seattle).  In 1780, Chief Seattle was born on Blake Island in the state of Washington.  He was a prominent figure among his people and earned the reputation as a leader and warrior.  Si’ahl was known as a great orator.  It was said that when Chief Seattle spoke, his voice carried from camp to camp, a distance of 3/4 of a mile.  In 1856, during the Battle of Seattle, Si’ahl kept his people out of the fight.

There is a lasting controversy over a famous speech given by Chief Seattle concerning the concession of native lands to the settlers.  Even the date and location of the speech has been disputed, but the most common version is that on March 11, 1854, Si’ahl gave a speech to a large crowd in Seattle, Washington.  After Chief Seattle’s death, Dr. Henry A. Smith wrote an English version of the speech based on notes.  Chief Seattle purportedly thanked the white people for their generosity, demanded that any treaty guarantee access to Native burial grounds, and made a contrast between the God of the white people and that of his own.  Chief Seattle died June 7, 1866, on the Suquamish reservation at Port Madison, Washington.  The city of Seattle and numerous related features in the Pacific Northwest are named in his honor.

The Picture

In 1864, at the age of 84, Chief Seattle posed for a picture taken by E. M. Sammis.  The photograph remains the only known picture of Chief Seattle.  Unfortunately, Si’ahl has his eyes closed in the image.

1. Emily Dickinson

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In 1830, Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a family with strong community ties.  As a child she was stricken with a “deepening menace” of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her.  Emily Dickinson lived a reclusive lifestyle and was rarely seen outside her home.  She wrote nearly eighteen hundred poems, but had fewer than a dozen of them published during her life.  Many of her poems contain short lines, no titles, and often use slant rhyme.  In her work, Dickinson deals with the themes of death and immortality.

Most of Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not recovered until after her death in 1886, when Lavinia, Emily’s younger sister, found her cache of poems.  Lavinia burned most of Emily’s correspondence (by request of her sister), but recognized the value of the poetry.  Emily Dickinson’s first volume was published four years after her death and her work has remained in print since 1890.  Dickinson is now considered a persistent figure in American culture.  Twentieth-century critic Harold Bloom has placed her alongside Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Hart Crane.  Today, Dickinson’s life is taught in American literature and poetry classes all over the United States.

The Picture

In December 1846 or early 1847, Emily Dickinson had a daguerreotype photograph taken at Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Massachusetts.  The picture remains the only authenticated photo of Emily Dickinson.  As a child she had a portrait painted with her family.  The original photograph is held by the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College.

BONUS:  Leo Tolstoy

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Lev Tolstoy (known in the West as Leo Tolstoy) was a Russian writer of novels and short stories.  His two most famous works, the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are widely considered to be two of the greatest books ever written and a pinnacle of realist fiction.  Many people consider Tolstoy to be one of the greatest authors ever.  During his lifetime, Tolstoy was known for a complicated personality and extreme moralistic views.  He became noted as a social reformer and strongly rejected the use of violence to solve problems.  Tolstoy’s work had a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Picture

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In May of 1908, Leo Tolstoy was photographed at his Yasnaya Polyana estate (12 kilometers (7.5 mi) southwest of Tula, Russia) by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky.  The picture remains the only known color photograph of the writer.


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15 Comments

  1. there are multiple photographs of Tolstoy. I saw a documentary on him, and they used photos from many different stages of his life -photographs. I have even seen film footage of Tolstoy. a simple google images search brings up a number of examples. Saying colour photo is a bit of a cheat as well, I might add.

  2. I can give you 3 more to add to your list. Chief Seattle (b, 1786 d. 1866), Frederic Chopin (composer b. b. 1810 d. 1849 the photo was taken just months before his death) and Constanze Mozart (widow of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) b. 1762 d. 1842. (Photo taken in 1840) and I believe that a daguerrotype of Nicolo Paganini ( violinst, composer) also exists.

  3. Didn’t Sarah Winchester only have one known photo? That’s who I thought of as soon as I saw the headline…

  4. Dalton Daily on

    Andrew Jackson (7th U.S. President) only had one picture of him taken by an early version of a camera.

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