Adopting an Orphan Photo

The young man on a cream colored card now occupies a place of honor on my desk. He came with a name and a place. A few quick clicks and I found his history. A story of fame, love and despair.

I wish I could say that he’s the only abandoned photo I’ve ever found but he isn’t.

Walk into any antique shop, browse eBay or go to an estate sale and you’ll see family photos some unidentified and some with names on them. No matter how many times I see one of those pictures sitting in a dusty bin, it’s an uncomfortable moment. I want to take each and every one of them home. I know I’m not alone.

As a genealogist and historian I have the skills to reunite those pictures with a family member. You might have those skills too.

These left-behind images are commonly called “instant ancestors,” “orphan photos,”or “found photos.” Taken in from estate or dropped off at the curb, these images often find other homes. People buy them with no knowledge of who’s depicted. They get adopted as family.

If you’ve located one of these pictures in a shop or at a yard sale, turn it over and see what’s on the back. With any luck it has the name of a person or persons written there. The idea of an identified abandoned photo makes family historians gasp in shock. Not because it’s an unusual event, but because it got left behind. I’d love to find a photo of an ancestor I’ve never seen before and I bet you would too. That’s the attraction to the orphan photo movement. It’s part of our wish to see what our ancestors looked like.

It’s hard to imagine that no one wanted it.

A box of photos sitting on a shelf is like the Island of mis-fit toys in the cartoon Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. They are waiting to be wanted and rescued. It happens on purpose or by accident. At some point those portraits were no longer valued by kin or perhaps they didn’t have any known living relatives. They end up sold to the highest bidder in an online auction, framed by someone looking for an interesting image, used as an online conversation starter or thrown out.

Unidentified woman, 1880s

It’s not always clear how they ended up in a type of lost and found so far from home like this woman from Copenhagen. She likely had family here in the U.S., but she was abandoned. Nameless. She belonged to someone at some point though.

These sturdy nineteenth century images have a better chance of being saved. On heavy card stock they are more like an artifact than a disposable piece of paper. They are treasured for their antiquity.

Snapshots taken by the roll in the twentieth century don’t stand a chance.

At a recent photo show I watched while a dealer sat with a scrapbook photo album from the 1930s. You know the kind. Pictures held on aging pages with little black corners. As the dealer turned each page she removed all the pictures and put them in a box with other images from other albums. No more story. No family history. A life reduced to the quality of the image, the odd subject matter or the lack of good picture taking. Mixed in a box with lots of other now meaningless pictures.

What would you do?

You have it in your power to reconnect someone with a lost piece of their past. The easy access to online databases like, Family search and others means that locating details about that person’s life can be easy. You can find individuals related to the person in the photo.

Would you do it? Purchase that picture. Do the research and contact the person. As family historians do we have a moral responsibility to do so or do we keep the pictures for ourselves because they are interesting?

What would you do?

If someone contacted you saying they found a photo of one of your relatives abandoned. Would you be suspect of their motives? Would you be happy? Would you respond or just not care?

Let’s keep in mind that family discarded those photos in the first place. A colleague has had limited success reconnecting folks with their pictures. She does the research but no one claims the images. It’s sad. Would you try knowing that success wasn’t guaranteed?

A Tragic Tale

As the Photo Detective, I find it impossible to look at these “lost” images and not imagine the lives led by the individuals depicted. They lived their everyday lives much like ours. They loved, ate, slept and worked.

What stories do your pictures tell?

The young man in the photo changed my life.

Using online databases like I was able to piece together his story. Get ready. It doesn’t have a happy ending.

There is nothing in the photo of the well-dressed bearded physician to foretell this tale. It is a moment frozen in time when he visited a studio near his home and signed the back “With regards.” It’s a message to someone– his future wife, a colleague, a patient or a neighbor. Perhaps he handed these out like social currency to everyone he met.

He was the son of a Massachusetts governor, a scion of a well-to do family who marries a young woman from an extremely wealthy family from the upper Mid-West. They marry in February of 1880, have their only child, a son, in the Fall and by the next February the handsome father is dead. The newspaper report is to the point. On a trip back from New York City he suddenly shot himself through the heart outside in a train washroom. His traveling companion was a doctor who ran a hospital for those facing mental illness and addiction.

His young wife never remarried. His son grew up, found a bride, had children and other descendants. Many of these are online today. Not a one includes his picture or the story of his life.

This picture gives me the power to reach out and touch his family. Hear the story. Find the truth. Put the pieces back together.

Because of this photo I’m extending my photo detective skills to images I stumble across not just the photo mysteries I solve for clients. It’s part of a larger mission to give these images back to the families that “lost” them. Maybe someone will find a picture of one of my relatives and return the favor.

I’m using Instagram as a photo reunion tool. Join my quest to put photos back in the hands of family on Instagram #Photodetective. Let’s use social media to reconnect family to their “lost” pictures.

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