In the spring of 1862 Emily Dickinson initiated a correspondence with the liberal minister and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose advice to young authors she recently had read in the Atlantic Monthly and whom she would come to call her "Preceptor." She sent him some of her verse as well, and although he did not rave about her poetry, he clearly found this new writer of considerable interest. Shortly after they began to correspond he evidently asked her to send him a photograph of herself. Her coy reply in July 1862 is justly famous. "Could you believe me--without?" Dickinson asked, for she "had no portrait, now." But, she continued, "[I] am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur--and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves." Believing her description accurate, she asked, "Would this do just as well?" 

This striking verbal portrait is even more significant because of the paucity of images of this famous American writer. Hitherto, she has been known only through an oil painting of the Dickinson children, a silhouette, and a daguerreotype taken ca. 1847 when Emily was in her mid-teens. There was no known image of her as an adult. 

Now we may have one. Philip Gura recently purchased the item pictured below. This 3 7/8" by 5 1/2" albumen photograph, which originally was mounted on photographer's board, is identified in pencil on the verso in nineteenth-century hand, "Emily Dickinson/Died/r[?]ec[ieved?]/1886 [the year she died]." Some people see the word "Dec" instead of "rec" and think it may mean
"December." This may be, but if so, it might indicate the month in which the image was received, for she died in May. 

Recent assessment of the image suggests that it may be a cabinet-card-sized paper copy of a daguerreotype taken in the mid-1850s, perhaps made from the original after Dickinson's death. 

Although the identification is not yet fully established, in this image we see the same strong features evident in the daguerreotype owned by Amherst College. Preliminary comparison of computer-generated negatives of the well known daguerreotype (which is a mirror-image and thus shows her features reversed) and those of this photograph reveals strong similarities in the eyes, nose, mouth, and slope of shoulders. A forensic anthropologist will more thoroughly analyze this image to the extant daguerreotype. Prof. Gura also is trying to trace the fairly distinctive chair to studios in communities which Dickinson might have visited, and as well trying to link the handwriting to someone in Dickinson's circle of acquaintances. 

An article about this photograph appears in the May 22nd, 2000, New Yorker


October 24th: I finally have a report prepared by Dr. Richard Jantz, Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, and it is very positive. After comparing several key points--viz., centers of eyes, nostrils, corners of mouth, etc.--he writes that "The fit [between the two photos] is quite good . . . .actually pretty impressive and perhaps makes the case well enough [without the need for further forensic work]." 

"Based on our analysis," h concludes, "the photographs do exhibit a consistent pattern and relationship between the identified cranial landmarks and gross morphological features." He continues, "Overall, the images are consistent, and we are unable to exclude the individual in the suspect photograph." Although such analysis can never be fully conclusive, it is indeed meaningful, particularly when paired with other circumstantial evidence that has been assembled for an essay I am preparing on the photograph and attempts to verify it. 

Over the summer I also have followed many leads with regard to the handwriting but have not yet had any success. It may be that the identification was penned by a descendant of whoever had access to the original image, making such identification difficult. On a more positive note, the Daguerreian Society Newsletter has just published the image, with a request to members of this photographic history society to offer any aid they can in the identification of the studios in which such a distinctive chair was used. Finally, one interested visitor to this website has offered an intriguing tidbit with regard to the puzzling word, "Dec." or "Rec." on the verso. In the March 3, 1898 issue of the Hampshire Gazette, in an article about the "Todd-Dickinson Court Case," it is noted, erroneously, that Dickinson died on December 16, 1886, a possible explanation for why whoever had this image penned "Dec.", if that is indeed the word. A photograph of this article is found on page 126 of Polly Longsworth's The World of Emily Dickinson

Front of Image 

(c) Philip F. Gura 2000 
All Rights Reserved 

Back of Image 

(c) Philip F. Gura 2000
All Rights Reserved