Researching the Mistaken Identification of a Photo

As noted in my previous blog, "A Fiche Fifteen Years Later," I discovered the Arbuckle surname of my father's paternal great grandmother by an interesting fluke. Not long after, I came across a book on microfilm titled, "The Arbuckles of East Wawanosh" written by Doreen Menzies Arbuckle. While I had it on loan, I made copies of a few of the pertinent pages, and in 2008 was able to purchase a copy of the book from Doreen's son, Gavin.

Meanwhile, another Arbuckle descendant and researcher, Sue Edminster, contacted me via my website "Davidsons and Arbuckles of Scotland" and we have since exchanged research and photos, including a photo which had also been published in Doreen's book and referenced as Plate 1.

Fast forward to April of 2011 and a conference between Sue and Maureen Taylor who was dubbed the "Nation's foremost photo dectective" by the Wall Street Journal.  In their exchange, they came to the conclusion that the persons identified in Plate 1 of Doreen's book was most likely not William Arbuckle and Janet (Dyer) as stated.

Sue and Maureen determined this photo (a cabinet card measuring 6½ x 4¼ and glued to the card stock) was most likely taken in the early 1860's or 1870's. Taking this into consideration, along with the fact that William was born in 1784, it was speculated that the man in the photograph was much more likely William's son, Robert. Sue emailed me their findings and asked my opinion. As I set about my own small investigation, I couldn't help but wonder where the mistaken identity had begun, and whether or not it would be possible to make any solid identification.

And so I began. Plate 1 in Doreen's book had contained no identifying marks. It was simply a photo of a couple whose age I guessed to be late forties to early fifties. However, I had received what appeared to be the same photo by another cousin, Gary Arbuckle, whose photo had the photographer's stamped name and address as well as the handwriting of Gary's father: "Mother and father Arbuckle." Another note: "Early 1800's" might - in my opinion, and that of fellow researcher, Carolyn McPherson - have been penned in a different hand. This tiny, additional note, could have been the beginning of the mistaken identity.

Next, I Googled the photographer: "R.T. Dodd, 65 Jamaica St. Glasgow" (Scotland). I discovered he had been a successor to James Bowman, and had done business at that address from the late 1880's to 1900. W.C. Hoit (source of Doreen's photo) was a photographer in Wadena, Minnesota at 208½ Jefferson St. in 1886-1887. Both of these dates indicate the photo was probably not taken in the early 1800's as the handwriting suggests, but rather in the late 1800's. There remains the possibility the photo may have been re-produced as this was not an uncommon practice among photographers to acquire a studio and reproduce photos of their predecessors. However, given the fact that William and Janet had emigrated to Canada in 1853, this option also seems unlikely. So although we have not yet been able to definitely identify the persons, we might conclude by the process of elimination that this photo is not William Arbuckle who died in 1867.

The manner in which the woman's hand is resting on her stomach might suggest (despite her advanced age), she was with child. If this were the case, we could immediately eliminate William's wife, Janet (Dyer), because her tenth and last child was born in 1829. So who might this woman be?

Let's consider the possibility of the gentleman being William and Janet's son, Robert, and his wife Jean (McNiven). Robert had been born in Carmunnock, Lanark, Scotland in 1821 and married Jean when she was not quite twenty, in the year 1847. They had emigrated with his parents to Canada arriving at the port of New York on 26 Aug 1853. By this time Robert and Jean had four children - all of whom were included on the ship's passenger list. If the photo had been taken between the 1860's and 1870's as Sue and Maureen had surmised, Jean might have been pregnant with any of her younger children, the last having been born in 1874 when Jean was forty-six years old ... an age, which (in my opinion) matches the age of the woman in the photo.

Continuing to speculate this is a photo of Robert and Jean, and that the photo was taken in late 1873 or 1874, we are now left to ponder about the photographer and his Glasgow studio address in Scotland. Since all records indicate Robert and Jean resided in Canada until 1880 when they moved to Wadena, and keeping in mind the poor quality and age of their clothing (as we all noted), the likelihood of this couple making a return trip to Scotland seems improbable - as does the theory that this photo might have been a re-print given the fact this technique was relatively new and therefore expensive.  - Still, Sue and I both have that tugging feeling that the persons in the photo are Robert and Jean.

For now, there is no documented proof and so we must settle on the fact that this couple's identity remains unknown. Unfortunately, research into one's family history is sometimes inconclusive.  At times, we are only able to determine that which is not plausible rather than that which is definite. Nonetheless, we shall not despair. Years of research has taught me that when I least expect it, an e-mail will arrive in my in-box with new information. Translated, this means that what is a mystery to me might be common knowledge to another. So until that email arrives, we shall hold out hope for a definitive answer to this Arbuckle quandary.

My thanks to Sue for pointing out the mistaken identity, and to Maureen Taylor for her expertise and input.  To Gary Arbuckle for the second photo and his prompt reply to my inquiry, and to the my very knowledgeable friend, Carolyn McPherson, who so kindly weighed in on this matter.

For Sue's input on the photo, visit her blog post:
Will the Real Robert Arbuckle Please Stand Up

Sue has also posted "Robert Arbuckle Handwriting Analysis" which is a very interesting look into who Robert may have been.


Arbuckles of East Wawanosh by Doreen Menzies Arbuckle was published in 1983 and microfilmed in 1984 by the Genealogical Department of the Church of Latter_Day Saints FHL #1035690, item 5.


Plate No 1, page 5 "William Arbuckle & Janet (Dyer)", Arbuckles of East Wawanosh by Doreen Menzies Arbuckle.
Photo of "Grandmother and grandfather Arbuckle" contributed by Cori Hunt, Gary Arbuckle, and photographed by R.T. Dodd.


Glasgow's Victorian Photographers, R.T. Dodd
Jamaica Street, Glasgow (1901) at YouTube
Secure the Shadow, James Bowman, photographer
Maureen Taylor, Photo Detective | Maureen's Blog

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