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Only known original photo of Sarah Bush Lincoln found
This photograph of Sarah Bush Lincoln was recently discovered in the collection at the Stephenson County Historical Society in Freeport. It is the only known original photo of her. Kevin E. Schmidt/The Journal-Standard

FREEPORT — A photograph of a tremendously influential person in the life of Abraham Lincoln has turned up at the Stephenson County Historical Society in Freeport.

The only known original photograph of Abraham Lincoln's step-mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, has been found at the society's local museum. Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln was the second wife of Lincoln's father, Thomas Lincoln. She married Thomas on Dec. 2, 1819, when the future president was 10 years old.

Tom Vance, former site superintendent at Lincoln Log Cabin state historic site in Lerna, said that it was "absolutely the first he's heard" of the photo. He said that the discovery is very exciting for historians and others interested in the history of Abraham Lincoln.

"It is very significant," Vance said. "That would double the number of known pictures (of Sarah Bush Lincoln)."

Historians say she was a leading influence in her stepson's life.

"His step-mother was a person who understood Abraham Lincoln," said Kim Bauer, Lincoln curator at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield. "They thought alike and had same temperament. She commended him on his ability to reason and think. She fostered that in him while his father was more pragmatic.

"She understood the importance of education and was an advocate for allowing him to read and have time away from physical demands of farm life," Bauer said.

Historians say the portrait likely was taken during the 1850s or early 1860s and is an original ambrotype — an image formed on a glass plate. It has been in the possession of the Stephenson County Historical Society since the 1960s, its value unknown.

For many years, the picture has been displayed with the society's permanent Lincoln exhibit. Its rarity and significance were discovered only by an accident of fate.

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Joe Grove of Dixon, an avid collector of Lincoln memorabilia, recognized the photograph during a trip to Freeport to view the Civil War exhibit at the museum. Already familiar with the image of Sarah Lincoln from previous research and seeing copies of another pose of Sarah Lincoln, he was convinced the one on display was indeed Sarah Lincoln. He said the sight of the portrait in Freeport "stopped me in my tracks."

Museum tour guides allowed him to remove the photo from the display case and in so doing he found on the back of the case the hand-written inscription, "Sally Bush — Abraham Lincoln's stepmother and Thomas Lincoln's second wife."

Soon digital photos were taken and sent to Chuck Hand, a prominent dealer in Lincoln artifacts, and Wayne Temple, a noted historian and Lincoln scholar, who agreed with Grove's opinion.

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Suzy Beggin, director of the Stephenson County Historical Society, said it obtained the photograph on March 15, 1968, through a donation by Freeport resident, William Koenig. Koenig did not remember whether he had purchased the collection himself or had inherited it from his father and grandfather's collection. Both had been  avid collectors of anything pertaining to the 16th president of the United States.

Beggin said the piece was described as, "a small wooden leatherette covered case in brown with scroll designs covering both sides, 2 small hook & eye fasteners on side. When opened it shows a stained picture of Lincoln's step-mother, Sally Bush Lincoln. It is behind glass. The picture is framed by gilt & red velvet — the opposite side is just a piece of maroon velvet."

Beggin says the ambrotype is not actually behind glass. Instead, as in the case of ambrotypes, the image is directly on the back of the glass.

Copies of another image of Sarah Lincoln are on file at the State Historical Society in Springfield. Local historians do not presently know where the original of that image is being held.

Contact Harriett.Gustason@journalstandard.com or (815) 232-0165.

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