What's Behind a Photo? the Lady of a Castle and Her Unexpected Ties to American Naval History

By Viney, Mike | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

What's Behind a Photo? the Lady of a Castle and Her Unexpected Ties to American Naval History


Viney, Mike, The Midwest Quarterly


Introduction

At age 19, Gustavus Conyngham (1744-1819) immigrated with his father to the American Colonies to make a new home. He started his career as a merchant seaman with the shipping house of Conyngham and Nesbitt. Gustavus married Ann Hockley (1757-1811), an American woman, who purportedly gave birth to their American children. Conyngham joined the American struggle for independence from Great Britain, leveraging his experience as a merchant seaman to serve in Americas first navy. On two occasions he was commissioned as a Captain in the Continental Navy; however, both commissions were lost during the war, the first when he was detained by the French and the second when imprisoned by the British. Without backup documentation of these commissions, Congress failed to recognize Conyngham's service, and he would spend years seeking the recognition he deserved. A century after his death, proof of the commission finally surfaced and posthumous recognition of his contributions to American independence followed. To date, three U.S. destroyers have been named in honor of Captain Gustavus Conyngham; a man forgotten by the U.S. Congress in his own time. Research inspired by a recently discovered 1935 press photograph announcing the christening of one of these destroyers, USS Conyngham (DD 371) sheds new light on the ancestry of Captain Gustavus Conyngham and his familial ties to two relatives that sponsored ships in his honor (see the Conyngham family tree at the end of this article). Our story begins with the allure of a photograph.

The Allure of Photographs

Photographic images freeze a moment in time. The photo ages; however, a person's image does not. There is an unusual power in photographic images because they vividly tie us to the real world and to our own mortality. Photographs connect us to past lives, once living individuals with hopes and dreams. There is a feeling they should be remembered, but humans do not excel where memory is concerned. Countless photographic images become adrift in the marketplace of collectibles, disconnected from people possessing knowledge of their historical context. Thus, they may elicit feelings of curiosity--what stories lie behind people captured in a photograph? Photos invite us to investigate what is behind the image, to take a journey, so that we can reconnect the memory of people to known historical timelines. An early clue may sometimes be found on the back of a photo. However, when turning family photos over, we are often greeted with an absence of writing. More often than not, a matriarch or patriarch can provide needed information that no one else in a family possesses. Absent the knowledge of a family elder it is easy to see how quickly the history of images can be blurred.

A photograph not only preserves us in a moment of time; occasionally, it moves the observer to rediscover history; this is the story of such a photo. The author recently discovered a photograph advertised in the following manner, "1935 Press Photo Miss Alice Conyngham Gifford Johnson." Mrs. Johnson just happened to be the original owner of an unusual residence in Colorado being researched by the author. Little did he know that the serendipitous encounter and subsequent purchase of this photo would lead to a trail of discovery, one that ties to and alters the recorded timeline for Captain Gustavus Conyngham. The 20th century black and white photo reveals a mature woman possibly in her 30s with dark hair and vibrant eyes (fig. 1). She exhibits an air of confidence and is adorned with what appears to be a pearl necklace. One might surmise she is of European descent, but what is behind the photo?

Press Photograph

Turn the photo over and part of this woman's place in history comes into focus (fig. 2). The paper tag or cutline and stamps identify this image as an ACME news photo (Cycleback, "Tips"). Press photographs were used for stories and advertising in newspapers, magazines, books, and promotional materials (Cycleback, "Judging"). …

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