Think of the hundreds of notable people from the 19th century – from U.S. presidents to Wild West outlaws and from groundbreaking scientists to brave civil rights campaigners. How many of those do you think were actually photographed? Well, the answer is more than likely to truly amaze you. Read on to see 40 unexpected images from the dawn of photography that captured iconic figures.
40. Calamity Jane
Here, Calamity Jane stands in this photo from the 1880s – pistol holstered, rifle in hand and turned out in Wild West buckskins. C.J.’s life story is a murky one and has been very much embroidered over the years – not least by herself. It’s reasonably certain, though, that she was born Martha Jane Cannary in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. Her parents are said to have been habitual petty crooks, but after a mythically wild life Jane eventually found a berth with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sadly, she died a chronic alcoholic in 1903 and was buried next to a fellow legendary figure: Wild Bill Hickok.
39. Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 and is recognized as one of the greatest artists of the modern era. If we are to judge artistic merit in dollar terms, van Gogh is near the very top of the tree. For example, his Portrait of Doctor Gachet sold for $82.5 million to a Japanese industrialist in 1990. Yet during his lifetime, the artist sold only one of his exuberantly wonderful paintings. And that thing about his ear? He actually only chopped off a part of his ear lobe. Although, tragically, it’s true that he struggled with mental health issues and eventually ended his own life in 1890.
Born in 1829, Geronimo was a legendary leader of the Chiricahua Apache. He stood at the head of his people as they resisted the incursion of settlers onto their ancestral lands in the south-west. His nemesis was Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, who induced him to surrender after years of resistance in 1886 with a promise of exile in Florida. Instead, Geronimo and his reduced band of followers were handed a term of forced labor. He remained a prisoner of war until his death in 1909.
37. Harriet Tubman
This portrait of Harriet Tubman was taken in 1895 – although her age at that time is uncertain. All we know is that she was born into slavery in Maryland’s Dorchester County probably between 1820 and 1825. Her life as a slave was one of regular and brutal beatings, but Tubman’s spirit remained untamed. She’s remembered with reverence today for her part in the Underground Railway, which transported slaves from the South to freedom in the North. Amazingly, Tubman guided more than 300 African-Americans from their bondage to liberty.
36. President Andrew Jackson
You might criticize this photograph of Andrew Jackson for its murkiness. But it’s worth pointing out it was taken in 1844 or 1845 – some 175 years ago. Jackson was born in 1767 and was 78 years old at the time of this portrait. For a clearer picture of the man, take a look at a $20 bill – they’re graced by his face. He served two terms as president from 1829. Regarded as a hero by some for his military exploits against the British and Spanish, he’s a controversial figure for others. That’s because of his part in the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands.
35. Susan B. Anthony
Susan Brownwell Anthony was around 28 when this photo was taken. Raised as a quaker, she was born in 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts. Anthony is remembered for her pioneering work on women’s rights and with the temperance movement. She also raised her voice against slavery. Sadly, the activist was never to see the fruits of her energetic campaigning for votes for women. Anthony died in 1906, but women didn’t attain universal suffrage until 1920.
34. Billy the Kid
Given Billy the Kid’s reputation as a hell-raising gunslinger, this 1878 photo of him – he’s on the left – is somewhat incongruous. We guess it shows that even murderous outlaws need a bit of downtime. Born in New York City in 1859 or 1860, Billy went by the name of William H. Bonney, Jr. but his real name is uncertain. He’s said to have slaughtered 27 men before his own untimely death at the age of around 21 – shot dead by Sheriff Patrick Floyd Garrett in 1881. By the way, this photo reportedly turned up in a junk shop for $2 and went on to sell for $2.3 million.
33. Charles Dickens
This photo of the great author was taken in 1867 or 1868, when Charles Dickens had already published such timeless works as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812. As a 12-year-old, his father’s financial woes forced Dickens to leave school and work for a time in a factory. This was a harrowing experience which he never forgot, and it colored much of his work’s humanitarianism.
32. John Brown
Ardent anti-slaver John Brown is seen here in a daguerreotype – one of the earliest forms of photograph. Brown holds the flag of the Subterranean Pass Way, which aimed to help slaves escape from bondage. He also led a dramatic armed raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 in the hope that his action would trigger a slave uprising. But soldiers attacked the rebels, who were forced to surrender. Brown was convicted of treason, slave insurrection and murder and hanged.
31. Belle Starr
Sat on a handsome mount and elegantly kitted out, Belle Starr cuts a dashing figure in this 1886 photograph. Styled as the “Bandit Queen,” Myra Maybelle Shirley – born in 1848 – was one of the Wild West’s most notorious female outlaws. She hung out with the likes of Jesse James in Cherokee territory and served a nine-month sentence for horse stealing in 1883. The man in the photo is believed to be Deputy U.S. Marshal Charles Barnhill – her arresting officer at the time. Starr was murdered by persons unknown in 1889 at the age of 41.
30. Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud – born in 1856 in what is now the Czech Republic – poses in this 1872 photograph with his mother Amalia. Freud’s legacy is bluntly stated by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which says that “[he] may justly be called the most influential intellectual legislator of his age.” He invented psychoanalysis, a discipline which has paid for many a modern psychotherapist’s leather chaise longue. He’s perhaps best known for his creation of the Oedipus complex, which posits that all males want to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers.
29. Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok was born in 1837 in the modern-day city of Troy Grove in Illinois. He is credited with being one of the lawmen who made the Wild West a little bit tamer. And his character is well observed in an encounter he had with a bear in 1858. The stubborn bruin blocked Hickok’s path, so he shot it. This only served to enrage the animal which attacked him. Wild Bill apparently escaped with his life by drawing his knife and cutting the bear’s throat. In 1876 Hickok was shot in the back and killed as he played poker in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota.
28. Thomas Edison
In this image – probably taken in 1878 when he patented his wonderful invention – Thomas Edison poses next to his prototypical phonograph. The machine was able to record and play back sounds so that today we can enjoy Spotify. In fact, the origins of all of our marvelous communication gadgets can be rightfully traced back to Edison’s work on telegraphy and telephony. Remember to thank him as you tap away on your smartphone.
27. Emily Dickinson
Taken around 1847, this image is a graceful portrait of renowned American poet Emily Dickinson. Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, she is revered for her verse. Yet of the almost 1,800 poems she wrote, only ten were actually published while she was alive. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes her work as being “distinguished by its epigrammatic compression, haunting personal voice, enigmatic brilliance and lack of high polish.”
26. Butch Cassidy
Looking every inch the dapper gent with his bowler and watch chain, Butch Cassidy gazes confidently at us from sometime around 1900. Robert LeRoy Parker – a name later abandoned – was born in 1866 in Beaver, Utah. He went on to become a leading member of the Wild Bunch outlaw gang. It specialized in holding up trains and robbing banks. There’s also an enduring mystery about Cassidy’s death. It might have been in 1909 in Bolivia, or 1911 in Uruguay or even in 1939 in Nevada or Washington, depending on who you believe.
25. President Franklin Pierce
President Franklin Pierce looks rather stiff as he stares into the middle-distance in a photo from sometime between 1855 and 1865. The immobility is thanks to the limitations of early photography which required long exposures accompanied by almost deathly stillness by the subject. Born in 1804 in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, Pierce served a single term in the White House from 1853.
24. Conrad Heyer
In 1775 Conrad Heyer was a private in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. But what makes this picture utterly astonishing is that Heyer was born in 1749 – almost a century before photography became a thing. And he was indeed 103 years old when this image was taken in 1852. The doughty centenarian lived on until 1856. It’s said that he is the American with the earliest birth date ever to have been photographed – making this image a stunning window into the past.
23. Grigori Rasputin
Extravagantly bearded Grigori Rasputin is seen here in the Russian city of St. Petersburg with his wife Praskovia and daughter Matryona. Known to history as the “Mad Monk,” Rasputin wielded a mysterious power over Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. A group of aristocrats who were angry over his inordinate influence over Nicholas plotted to kill him in 1916. They fed him poisoned cakes, but that didn’t do the trick. One of the conspirators then shot him twice but still he survived. Finally, his killers tied Rasputin up and pushed him through a hole in the ice covering St Petersburg’s Neva River, and at last he drowned.
22. Buffalo Bill
With his immaculately groomed facial hair and his rakishly angled hat, Buffalo Bill looks positively debonair in this photograph from more than a century ago. William Frederick Cody was born in 1846 in Scott County, Iowa. His working life – which started from the age of nine – included spells as a buffalo hunter, a Pony Express rider and a U.S. Army Scout. But he’s best remembered as the impresario that ran Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which made him internationally famous.
21. Frederick Douglass
Looking every inch the distinguished elder statesman in this image from 1879, Douglass was around 60 when he sat for this portrait. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Tuckahoe, Maryland to a white father he never met and an enslaved mother. At age eight he was consigned to a family in Baltimore. He escaped his bondage in 1838 and took the name Douglass to evade slave hunters. He went on to become perhaps the most prominent African-American of his era – a fierce campaigner against the inhumanity of slavery.
20. Annie Oakley
Accessorized with gloves and a double-barreled shotgun, Annie Oakley looks undeniably sharp in this portrait from the 1880s. Born in 1860 in Ohio’s Darke County with the name Phoebe Ann Mosey, she’s said to have been a crack shot from an early age. One tale relates that she shot and sold so much game that she paid off the family farm’s mortgage. Oakley rose to fame as a sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. One of her crowd-pleasing tricks was to shoot from 30 paces at a playing card held sideways – slicing it in two.
19. Mark Twain
Samuel Clemens – rather better known as Mark Twain – is seen here in a photograph from 1850 when he was 15 and not yet one of America’s best-loved authors. Of course, he would go on to write such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its companion volume The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also known for his pithy epithets such as “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”
18. George Armstrong Custer
George Armstrong Custer looks like the epitome of a resolute U.S. Cavalry officer as his sharp eyes stare glare at us in this shot from 1865. Of course, the man’s name inevitably evokes the phrase “Custer’s Last Stand.” That happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 when Custer and his 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed by warriors from the Sioux and Cheyenne peoples. They were defending the women and children of their nearby village. And all of Custer’s battalion – 210 of them – were killed.
17. Harriet Beecher Stowe
Born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a prominent campaigner who highlighted the hideous human misery of slavery. She came to national attention in 1852 for her best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which achieved sales of 300,000 within a year of publication. The book’s anti-slavery message is said to have done much to mobilize large sections of public opinion in opposition to human bondage in the U.S.
16. Prince Albert
This hand-colored print of the grandly named Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – Queen Victoria’s husband – dates from 1848. Victoria proposed to her cousin in 1839 and the happy couple married the next year with Albert taking the title of Prince Consort. Tragically, typhoid took his life in 1861 at the age of 42. Grief-stricken Victoria then remained in mourning for the subsequent 39 years of her life.
15. President James K. Polk
James Knox Polk served a single term as the 11th U.S. commander-in-chief from 1845. Unlike the 11 U.S. presidents who have been denied a second term by the voters, Polk did not stand for re-election. It was poor health that stopped him standing for a second time for the highest office, and indeed he died in 1849 just three months after leaving the White House. His most notable achievement as president was the acquisition of Texas and California for the U.S.
14. Jesse James
Jesse James certainly looks like a dangerous outlaw, with a stylishly cocked hat, two pistols in his belt and one in his band. Which, of course, is exactly what he was. This portrait dates from around 1864 when James was a youth of about 17 or so. After a spell fighting for the Confederate cause, James and his brother Frank turned to banditry – forming the notorious James Gang which held up banks and trains. He met a violent death in 1882 at the age of 34 when one of his own gang – Bob Ford – gunned him down for reward money.
13. Booker T. Washington
Born a slave in Virginia’s Franklin County in 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington was one of the most prominent African-Americans of his day. Despite his extremely unpromising start in life, Washington gained an education through his own efforts and became a teacher. He acted as an advisor on African-American matters to two presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. He was a controversial figure, though. Some African-Americans regard him as a great leader, while others though him too acquiescent to white ascendancy. And there were white southerners who were outraged by his access to the president.
12. Wyatt Earp
A smartly turned-out Wyatt Earp posed for this portrait in 1869 or 1870 when he was 21. In an eventful life, Earp pursued a variety of callings including gambler, saloonkeeper, confidence man and gunslinger. But it is as a lawman that posterity best remembers him. The most storied incident of his colorful career came in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, with the infamous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Earp, three of his brothers and Doc Holliday shot dead three bandits from the Clanton Gang, with whom they’d had a disagreement.
11. Confederate President Jefferson Davis
This image shows Jefferson Davis with his wife Sarah Knox at some point before he became president of the Confederacy. He held that position from the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The cause he led was of course defeated and in 1865 he was arrested by the victorious Unionists, charged with treason and imprisoned. Though he was released after two years and never brought to trial.
10. Edgar Allen Poe
Here we see a somewhat disdainful looking Edgar Allen Poe in a portrait from 1849. Born 40 years previously in Boston, Massachusetts, the author is best remembered for his spine-chilling short stories which have terrified generations of readers. These include such classics as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher. Plus, his work The Murders in the Rue Morgue is credited with launching the modern detective yarn.
9. Emmeline Pankhurst
This early example of news photography shows eminent British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested at the gates of London’s Buckingham Palace in 1914. Born in 1858, she is the best-known of the British women who campaigned energetically for women’s right to vote. Pankhurst was arrested and imprisoned multiple times in the early 20th century. Sadly, she died just weeks before the British Parliament passed the 1928 Representation of the People Act, which granted women the same voting rights as men.
8. President Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren poses in this early 1860s shot with a quizzical smile and some of the wildest hair ever seen atop a U.S. commander-in-chief. Van Buren served a single term from 1837 as the eighth president. He was unfortunate enough to be at the nation’s helm when a financial crisis hit just months after he’d won the election. That resulted in a severe depression, hundreds of bank closures and many bankruptcies. The voters decided not to give him a second chance at the 1840 presidential poll. He then stood again eight years later without success.
7. Leo Tolstoy
Count Leo Tolstoy – photographed here in 1897 when he was just short of 70 – provided some of literature’s most enduring works. The Russian’s great novels Anna Karenina and, of course, War and Peace remain absolute classics today. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, he spent much of his youth “drinking, gambling, and engaging in debauchery.” Later in life he became devoutly religious, although he formed his own brand of Christianity – resulting in his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.
6. Nikola Tesla
This photograph of the inventor Nikola Tesla – taken around 1896 – shows a thoughtful-looking man who has an unmistakable look of keen intellect. Though the portrait does him justice, since he was a prolific innovator. His work still underpins alternating-current electrical power as well as radio technology. Tesla arrived in the U.S. from Serbia in 1884 with four cents to his name. Although his inventions brought him adulation they earned him little in the way of personal wealth. Sadly, later in life he became increasingly eccentric and died penniless.
5. Ulysses S. Grant
This 1864 image shows Ulysses S. Grant looking for all the world like the archetypal rugged military leader in the field, which is exactly what he was. By common consent, Grant was the foremost of the generals who secured victory for the Union in the grueling Civil War. Once the conflict was at an end, Grant’s military prowess then brought political success. Yes, he won the presidential election of 1868 and would go on to serve two terms in the White House.
4. Laura Bullion
This rather stark portrait is actually a mug shot taken by the Pinkerton detective agency in 1893. Laura Bullion – who also went by the name of Della Rose – was born in in around 1876 in Knickerbocker, Texas. She rose to fame, or infamy, because of her close association with the Wild Bunch gang and some of their train-robbing exploits. Bullion was captured in 1901 and sentenced to five years imprisonment. After early release she moved to Memphis Tennessee where she lived on – apparently blamelessly – until 1961.
3. Walt Whitman
This 1862 portrait of a luxuriantly bearded Walt Whitman shows the great poet in apparently pensive mood. Whitman was born in Long Island’s West Hills in 1819 and his 1855 collection of poems Leaves of Grass is recognized as a seminal milestone in American literature. Before he found his métier as a poet, Whitman worked as a journalist, teacher, printer and house builder. He also wrote some poetry early on, but it was of little merit. His verse blossomed in later life so that he became accepted as one of the leading figures in the U.S. literary pantheon.
2. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth sat for this portrait in 1870 when – as best we know – she was in the first half of her 70s. She was born into slavery in around 1797 in Ulster County, New York. That state abolished slavery in 1827, so Truth gained her freedom and became an ardent anti-slavery campaigner. Her first campaign was a legal one to free her son who had been sold into slavery in the south – a battle she won. A fervent Christian, she took the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 and traveled the nation fighting for an end to slavery.
1. The Sundance Kid
Harry Longabaugh gives every appearance of being the most respectable of citizens with his top hat, tailored coat and elegant companion Etta Place. In fact, he was much better known to the world as the notorious bandit the Sundance Kid. Along with his buddy Butch Cassidy, he was of course a member of the Wild Bunch gang of outlaws. The Sundance Kid may have died in a hail of bullets in Bolivia in 1908, or he may have lived on for years under an assumed identity. The facts are murky.