During his momentous U.S. Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln sat for a photograph after politicking in western Illinois and presented one of the copies to a man severely injured while testing a cannon for Lincoln’s campaign rally.
As a small measure of compassion, Lincoln presented one version of the image to the injured man, Charles Lame, who overcame a deadly infection in an arm torn up by the blast with the help of flesh-eating maggots.
The tale provides an unlikely, ghastly background to the original 1858 ambrotype created during the future nation-saving Civil War president’s ascendancy, an image which the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has added to its collection, officials said Tuesday.
“Original images of Abraham Lincoln are extraordinarily rare, and images with a fascinating back story like this are even more rare,” said Christina Shutt, executive director of the library and museum. “Lincoln fans everywhere should thank Charles Lame’s descendants for this generous donation.”
The ambrotype given to Lame remained in the family and was inherited by Mary Davidson of Hendersonville, Tennessee. When she died in August 2022, her children decided the image should go to Springfield.
Lincoln’s celebrity was on the upswing when he arrived on Sept. 30, 1858, in Pittsfield, about 110 miles (177 kilometers) northwest of St. Louis. He had completed four of his seven headline-grabbing debates with Douglas, whose view that the introduction of slavery into new territories should be up to local voters had drawn Lincoln, a former one-term congressman, back into politics.
Centering largely on slavery, the campaign ended in defeat for Lincoln. But he had forced Douglas into statements that alienated him from slave-holding Southern states to the point that they rejected him for president in 1860, paving Lincoln’s way to the White House.
Following his two-hour Pittsfield speech on Oct. 1, local lawyer Daniel Gilmer, who had opened his home to Lincoln for lunch that day, persuaded the candidate to sit for the ambrotype at the gallery of Calvin Jackson.
Despite Lincoln’s heroic welcome, tragedy had struck the town a day earlier. About the time Lincoln reached the home of his overnight host, supporters Robert Scanland, a longtime Lincoln friend, and Lame, a furniture storekeeper, were preparing an unloaded cannon, which in keeping with political tradition would be fired during the rally, according to a 1968 article by historian LeRoy H. Fischer.
On a second test, Lame was ramming the powder charge when sparks from Scanland’s torch inadvertently ignited it and the cannon fired, severely burning Lame’s face and sending the ramrod through his arm before it penetrated a tree a block away.
Carried to his home, a physician decided not to amputate Lame’s viciously lacerated arm, a risky decision in an era predating antibiotics. Infection rapidly set in, Lame’s temperature rose and he lay on the cusp of death.
So dire was his condition that when Lincoln tried to see him after the rally, Lame’s wife turned him away on doctor’s orders, at which point Lincoln promised that a copy of his photo would be delivered.
“Lincoln’s gift was a small gesture, but it reaffirms his reputation as a man of compassion. The photo … is a physical reminder of his kind spirit and concern for others,” said Ian Hunt, head of acquisitions for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Lincoln was no stranger to disfigurement. A horse’s kick in the head as a child might have contributed to a significantly asymmetrical face which opponents openly mocked.
Lame had a rally in store, however. Horseflies entering the open, unscreened window of Lame’s room swarmed the wound and laid eggs. Although no one understood at the time, maggots feasted on the decaying flesh and with it, the infection. Lame would live nearly four more decades, dying at age 76 in 1897.
The ambrotype, a popular and cheaper alternative to the daguerreotype in the 1850s, was made by creating a photographic negative on glass. It was then placed on a dark background which showed through the clear parts of the negative, giving it the appearance of a black-and-white photograph.
Lincoln’s old friend Gilmer, who was killed leading an Illinois infantry regiment during the Civil War’s 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, received one copy of the ambrotype. Now in the collection of the Library of Congress, it had been significantly damaged by amateur attempts at cleaning over the years.
Fischer believes the one given to Lame was a copy made that day. The image is featured in a small oval and enclosed in a leather-bound wooden case 3 5/8″ high by 3 1/4″ wide (9.2 centimeters by 8.3 centimeters).
As for the image itself, Fischer quotes an artist and Lincoln historian describing the 49-year-old candidate’s “leathery appearance,” untrimmed hair and cock-eyed necktie.
Hunt, also with the library and museum, sees “a man of conviction” while noting that Lincoln would have been exhausted by the campaign trail.
“This is the Lincoln that the voters of Illinois would have been familiar with,” Hunt said. “Not the one we tend to think of today on the $5 bill or in the Daniel Chester French sculpture at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.”
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