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Naked Abe: The Japecake Hoax That Never Was

March 30, 2011

Some years back, when Japey was in a particularly mischievous mood, he became irrationally obsessed with the idea of starting a web-based hoax in the hope that it would go viral. The idea was to come up with a story that was so incredible, yet plausible, that the entire web would be abuzz with debate and speculation.

Determination of “success” would be simple:

1) The story would get at least one mention in a major media outlet; or
2) It would be definitively debunked on the informative and very entertaining urban legends website snopes.com.

At the time—when sinister accounts of anthrax-by-mail were still fresh—I had the idea of spreading a paranoid, dire rumor about the bizarre exotic fruits that were then enjoying a widespread vogue in supermarkets. (I mean, seriously—who even buys all of those spiny, prickly, unpronounceable things?) The prospect of attracting “official” attention as the result of a phony food scare caused some worry, however, so I settled on a tried-and-true web favorite: nudity. Who doesn’t like nude photos of famous people? Especially the slave-freeing kind of famous people?

Thus was born the “discovery” of hitherto unknown photos of the Great Emancipator, just the way God made him, with his railsplitter in plain view. So, in a rare instance of playing it straight, Japey announced the find in a faux news release written in his best wire-story English. The idea was to make the evidence sound believable yet vague enough to prevent the kind of fact-checking that would have quickly derailed the ruse. (This was circa 2003, remember, when Google was a lot less powerful and deep web research entailed some actual work.) Historical fact (e.g., relating to the famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and his nephew, Levin Handy) was interwoven with pure bullshit and thoughtful observations from fictitious authorities. (One, “George Lochary,” was named in tribute to actor David Lochary, the inimitable star of John Waters’ early films who died of a PCP overdose.)

Once the article was completed, Japey e-mailed it to several co-conspiratorial friends, and also posted it to some photography and history newsgroups, as well as a number of those odious sites that promise to work PR miracles for free. And then he waited. And waited. Sadly, almost no one bit, even to expose the ridiculous fiction of the whole thing, except for a few half-hearted, desultory remarks from newsgroup trolls. (The article can still be found, fossilized and unnoticed, in a handful of the original postings.)

Oh, well. That’s the hoax business for you. I guess I might have had more success if I’d claimed that the moon landings took place on a soundstage.

Still, since Japey hates to waste anything, and he thought you might enjoy the original article, he has resurrected it (below) for your reading pleasure. In the unlikely event that anyone would like to make my dream come true though the magic of Photoshop, have at it! I’ll add any WordPress-friendly (be resourceful!) submissions of a birthday-suited Lincoln to this post with full credit, a link, and any commentary the creator cares to provide. Pro tip: The bigger the stovepipe hat …

* * * * *

NEWLY DISCOVERED PHOTOS SHOW LINCOLN IN NEW LIGHT

BETHESDA, Md.―A team of historians and scholars today announced the discovery of two previously unknown photographs of Abraham Lincoln, including one of the President posing nude.

The startling images were unearthed in the attic of a Bethesda home in July. Experts, including historians, photographers and a forensic pathologist, have studied the photos and concluded that they’re genuine. George Lochary, a member of the authentication team who is writing a book on the history of American photography, describes the photos as “shocking, unprecedented and wonderful.”

Karen Averill, an archivist and restorer who scrutinized technical aspects of the photos, concurs. “Not only did these photos pass muster on every detail on our checklist―the emulsion, the mount, even the background details―they just sing. They’re indescribable. You can’t even talk about them in terms of a Holy Grail of photography, because no one even suspected they existed.”

The shroud of mystery that surrounds the photos won’t be lifted for some months, when they’ll be publicly unveiled for the first time in a half-hour television documentary to air in the spring. Meanwhile, Lochary, Averill and a handful of colleagues are continuing their research into the origin and history of the photos.

Sitting President

Based on the poses, Lochary speculates that the images, each measuring about four by six inches, may have been intended as preliminary studies for an untraced or unrealized work of art. One of the photos shows a three-quarter view of a barefoot Lincoln clad in a toga and laurel wreath, sitting in a chair and holding a scroll in his right hand. According to Lochary, “This is a typical pose for neoclassical sculpture, but it clashes with our notion of Lincon as a folksy, homespun man of the people. He looks rather stiff and uncomfortable, even beyond what you’d expect for a photographic sitting of the time.”

Causing a greater stir, however, is a photo of Lincoln standing next to the same chair in a near-complete state of undress. Lochary says, “He actually looks more relaxed in this one, though all he’s wearing is some sort of short cloak or drapery around his neck. His right hand rests on the back of the chair, and his other arm is akimbo, with his hand on his hip. His right leg is crooked and propped up in front of his left, and he leans a little toward the chair, as though he’s using it to support his weight. It’s a rather jaunty pose, and he doesn’t seem the least bit aware of his nakedness.”

Unmasking a Photographer

Though the well-preserved photos carry no identification, comparisons with known and documented images date them to 1863, as Lincoln struggled to lead a nation divided by civil war. Averill says that the photos may have been taken by none other than Mathew Brady, the famed photographer who produced several iconic images of the President. “The style, craftsmanship and general look are just right for Brady’s work, though we obviously don’t have anything quite of this nature to make direct comparisons.”

Robert Vance, a photographer who works with antique cameras and obsolete photographic processes, says that evidence within the images lends credence to a Brady attribution. “Believe it or not, the first thing I noticed was the chair. It’s the same chair, or an identical one, that can be seen in several photos known to have been taken in Brady’s studio at 350 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

The most intriguing clue of all may lie not in the photos themselves, but in the wrapper in which they were found. A scrawled signature, “Levin Handy,” could provide the ultimate link between the photos and Brady, says Lochary. “Brady had a nephew named Levin Handy who took care of him in his declining years, even allowing him to open a studio in his home. In a way, a Handy connection raises more questions than it answers, though if Brady were to entrust these to anybody before his death, it would have been his nephew.”

Abe for Sale?

Though the owners have not yet decided what to do with the photos, they are weighing several options, according to Averill. “It would be nice to see photos of this importance go to an appropriate institution, but their monetary value is obviously tremendous. There’s no way to know how much they might bring at auction, but I don’t think there’s any question they would set a world record. As it is, they’re being kept very securely.”

The most expensive photograph to date, an 1842 daguerreotype of a Greek temple, sold at Christie’s London in May for £565,250, or $922,488 (€789,654).

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. sonnypi67 permalink
    March 30, 2011 8:08 am

    I remember this. I was sure it was going to play. I mean, who wouldn’t be intrigued by nudey shots of old Honest Abe. The dude is definitely a looker. Grrrrrlllll. Alas, it was not to be.

    • March 30, 2011 10:59 am

      I know, right? The unkempt beard, the retro clothes, the eye-rolling attitude toward the South, the fixie horse and carriage … he’s practically, dare I say, a hipster.

      • sonnypi67 permalink
        March 30, 2011 11:07 am

        He’s probably more grunge than hipster, don’t you think? It’s the beard.

  2. March 30, 2011 11:44 am

    Oh Honest Abe, we hardly knew ye!

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