The man, the myth, the legend…over a century later, the questions still linger: Who is the man in the picture, and what is he doing sitting on a dead horse in the middle of the intersection of Indiana and Griffith Aves. in Sheboygan, WI?
Those of you who have read The Dead Horse Investigation: Forensic Photo Analysis for Everyone, are aware that we were able to narrow down the date of the famous Sheboygan Dead Horse photo to five possibilities: May 5, 1867, 1872, or 1878, or August 10, 1873 and 1879. Through a fortuitous encounter with a member of the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society named Susan, we have been able to further narrow the date even further.
A short review for new Dead Horse afficianados…
The intersection of Griffith and Indiana Aves in Sheboygan is quite different now than it was in the late 1800s. Today there is a traffic circle located just north of where the man was seated on his dead horse.
The area of Sheboygan pictured was the industrial area in town in those days. Not many records of the development of this area on the south side of the Sheboygan River survive. No earliest date can be obtained from building permits or construction records. City directories have also been of no use. They were not published every year, and where they do exist, the listings only reference intersections or streets, without mentioning specific addresses.
Fortunately, there are other clues that can be used to date the picture. The key to the earliest date the picture could have been taken comes from noticing that the photograph was taken with a wide angle lens. Only using such a lens could the photograph include over half the width of the street, 40 ft.
The wide angle lens was first produced in 1865 in by Emil Busch in Rathnow, Germany. Of course, it probably took some time for news of the lens to reach Sheboygan, and even more time for the photographer to obtain one. The true earliest date of the picture (the date the photographer received the lens) was probably much later than 1865, but we don’t have enough information to know when this happened. All we can say is that the picture must have been taken after the invention of the wide angle lens in 1865.
The latest date the photo could have been taken comes from comparing the shadows of the buildings to information given by the 1880 census. The census for that year tells us that there were three saloons occupying corners of the intersection. The northeast corner is occupied by the Evergreen Hotel, the Italianate building in the background to the right that was a hotel and saloon built long before the 1880s. The southeast corner across from it is empty.
Sheboygan was built on a grid with the streets running north-south and east-west. The photographer was looking to the north along what was then Griffith Ave, now known as 8th Ave. When a line is drawn from the empty southeast corner directly across the street to the southwest corner, it does not pass through the shadow falling on the man. That shadow is being cast by the building that is on the second lot from the corner. We can’t see what was on the southwest corner, but we can conclude that it was empty.
Since there were at least two empty corners at the time the photograph was taken, it must have been produced before 1880.
The picture was taken between 1865 and 1880.
The time of day can be derived by using the man as a sundial. Measuring the length of the shadow he cast would normally be difficult without a correction for the perspective of the camera. That is, lengths as viewed by the camera will appear shortened by the sine of the angle of the line-of-sight of the camera with respect to the length being measured. There would also be a correction for the effects of the wide angle lens, which can also distort lengths.
However as luck has it, the shadows in the picture run directly across the street, so that the sun is exactly in the west (270 degrees azimuth). With the camera facing north-south, the corrections for perspective are much easier. Actually, if we assume that the photographer was far away from the man and the horse relative to the width of the street, we can neglect the effects of perspective all together. This was probably true, although it might not seem like it because of the way the wide angle lens distorts distances.
To determine the time of day, you also need the height of the sun over the horizon, called its elevation. This can be determined by using a little bit of high school trig. The line from the top of the man’s hat to the tip of its shadow on the street is the hypotenuse of a triangle. The line from the same point on the hat to the ground is the side of the triangle opposite the angle we wish to know. The sine of the angle is the length of the opposite side divided by the length of the hypotenuse. Taking the arcsine gives us an angle of 15.7 degrees.
You finally need the coordinates of the man and his horse. According to Google Earth, the man was located about 43 deg 44′ 35″ N latitude, 87 deg 42′ 47″ W longitude.
An ephemeris will tell you that the sun is at 270 degrees azimuth and 15.7 degrees elevation at this location in Sheboygan every year on May 5 and August 10 at 4:52 pm.
To recap, the picture was taken on May 5 or August 10, between 1865 and 1880 at 4:52 pm.
Although the Sheboygan neighborhood shown in the picture was an industrial area, the streets are almost deserted. To help us narrow down the date even further, we guessed that the picture was taken on a Sunday; otherwise we believe that the street would have been more crowded, if not with people, then with wagons and other horses.
Using the perpetual calendar at www.wiskit.com, the only instances when May 5 or August 10 fell on a Sunday were May 5, 1867, 1872, and 1878, or August 10, 1873 and 1879.
In the Dead Horse Investigation, we left it at that. However, during my recent conference in September 2010 in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, a member of the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society named Susan noticed a clue that even the top Dead Horse experts in the world had missed – the leaves on the trees behind the A-frame building in the background to the left.
Because I come from a warm climate, it did not occur to me that the trees in Sheboygan would still be without leaves as late in the year as May. Since the tree looks like it is in full foliage, the picture must have been taken on either August 10, 1873, or August 10, 1879.
If anyone has any ideas on why the scene favors either one of these dates, please contact me immediately. In the meantime, buy the book, don’t wait for the movie!
For more information on how you can purchase your very own copy of The Dead Horse Investigation, visit our order desk at www.forensicgenealogy.info/services.html.
November 26, 2010