(A post from Dr. James Cornelius, the curator of the Abraham Lincoln Collection here at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)
The well-known photographs of the Lincolns’ pet dog Fido have their own story, just as that poor dog did. Like so much in the Lincoln field, the old story may not be true.
Spoiler anti-alert: There is nothing politically important in this minor discovery. But people like dogs — the Lincolns liked dogs — so let us put our noses down and follow the trail.
'Everyone says' that because Fido could not join the family for the exciting and loud train ride to Washington, D.C., in 1861, Willie and Tad took along a photo of him instead; or perhaps all three, as seen here. But I cannot find this story printed any earlier than a 15 February 1954 Life magazine article by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt. The great myth-maker Carl Sandburg, who loved a shaggy dog story, does not mention Fido in his 6 volumes on Lincoln (1926-39).
Nowadays, lots of people recall the outline of Mrs. Kunhardt’s lively write-up about Fido and the neighbor, John E. Roll, who inherited him when the Lincolns left town. She had recently met the son John L. Roll, age 90, who told her the story. She admitted he was aged, and he admitted that his memory was fading. But she was a skillful writer who determined to enliven one of the many photos in the great Meserve / Kunhardt horde of photos.
The story: that Willie and Tad, perhaps with adult help, took Fido to Mr. F.W. Ingmire’s photographic studio in late 1860 or early 1861 for these three snaps — then left their beloved mutt with the Roll boys, till they returned to Springfield some day.
Thanks to the pioneering work in Dick Hart’s book “Springfield, Illinois’ Nineteenth-Century Photographers” (2005), we can check all of the known backmarks on Ingmire cdv’s over his many years at work. (If you do not already have a copy of Hart’s book, you probably must find one in a library; he printed only a few, and mostly gave them away.) More recently, thanks to the digitized editions of both Springfield newspapers, the Register and the Journal, we can also hunt for ads. Census records and city directories help, too.
And guess what? In 1860-61 Rev. Ingmire was working as a Baptist minister and a sewing-machine agent. He ran dozens of ads in those years for his agency. He began to pay for a photographer’s license ($10.00 during wartime) in 1862. And he first ran an ad for that new business in October 1864, when lots of soldiers passing through Camp Butler made it a profitable trade.
Although these facts do not prove that Ingmire did not snap Fido in 1860 / 1861, it seems to make it very unlikely. The ‘matched set’ of 4 photos that Ingmire sold — with identical backmarks, dated in the Hart book to 1865-66 — includes Fido, Old Bob, Lincoln’s Home, and the hillside (2nd) tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. True, 2 of those could have been taken earlier, but Old Bob was held by two mournful grooms, Rev. Wm. Trevan and Rev. Henry Brown, only when the Lincoln Home was draped in black, at funeral time, 4 May 1865.
I speculate that Ingmire saw a commercial opportunity after Lincoln’s death and quickly took those photos. The font on the labels is identical on the four. So is the design of the backmark. We can forgive John Roll in forgetting by 1953 whether his long-ago dog got a picture in 1861 or 1865.
Here is the kicker: If the Lincoln boys had a Fido photo in the White House, why does it not have an 1860-61 backmark? In fact, their one surviving copy today (middle, chin up) is identical to the 1865 images, in backmark and label. If someone took it for them in 1861, why would it have needed a label ‘President Lincoln’s Dog’? The family’s photo album is today in the ALPLM, along with about half of the photos that it once held. The other half, including the Fido photo the Lincolns owned, belong to the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. All evidence points to its creation in 1865. Okay, maybe Willie or Tad lost 1, 2, or 3 originals, and the album got refilled with 1 after 1865. That is rangy guesswork. The physical evidence is that every image of Fido we have seen at ALPLM bears the late-Ingmire backmark.
Susan Haake, curator at the Lincoln Home, points out that the non-descript gray background in the Fido photos does more or less match the background seen in Willie and Tad photos from Springfield in late 1860. This is a fair point. But many studios then used only a gray background, and there is no evidence that Ingmire took those boy photos, or any others, that year.
In 1893, John Roll became an entrepreneur, too: he copyrighted his old 1865 photo (Ingmire was dead) and had it enlarged by a local man named Pietz, possibly to sell at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition.
The Kunhardt story soon got legs. Ruth Painter Randall’s 1952 full biography of Mary Lincoln does not mention Fido. But her 1955 book “Lincoln’s Sons" does (p. 85), repeating Kunhardt’s speculative 1954 tale about the photo. Oddly, RPR’s 1958 book "Lincoln’s Animal Friends" omits the photo story, though Fido’s life is lovingly described over a few pages. Since then, every writer seems to have cribbed from the 1954-55 tales of one woman or the other.
I mentioned the “poor dog” Fido. Aficionados know that he was killed by a drunk man in 1866. A forthcoming book by Matthew Algeo about Lincoln’s wide-ranging contact with animals will give new details of that episode, including the Rolls’ response.
For now, let us remember man’s best friend — how he ambled leash-free in Springfield, while he lived in the hearts of the Lincoln boys and adults in Washington, D.C. The costliness of any of the three Fido photos on the market today is evidence that a lot of other people have a heart for him, too.
Please write to me if you know if Roll’s Fido story was written down before 1954; or if you know of physical evidence that Ingmire had a studio before 1862.
My thanks to Mark Johnson, Susan Haake, and Dick Hart for their input, and to Jane Gastineau in Fort Wayne.