Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Well Who Are They Then? (MyCanvas follow-up)

First things first, if you haven't done so already, now is your chance to read Who Are All These People? -- a post that I wrote in 2016 as a guest blogger for MyCanvas.

In that post, I start off with what I thought was a photograph of my great great grandfather Benno Bodenheimer that turned out not to be him.  This photo might be the most annoying photo I've every run into, and I've spent way way way too much time on it.

In this post, I'll explain how I figured out who was actually in the photo, and I'll tease a little of the punchline right now. The way I discovered who the people were was likely the single most aggravating moment in all of my family research efforts.

The Photo

A cousin of mine first sent me this photo on 20 Oct 2009, and we know for certain that the man on the left is my great Grandfather's brother, Ludwig Bodenheimer.  Seated in front of him is his wife, Else Bodenheimer geb Hahn.    There are a lot of photos of her parents, so it was initially assumed that the mystery couple on the left were his parents -- which they weren't (if you've been following along). 

Ludwig and Else Bodenheimer (left) with mystery couple (right)

So, if the mystery couple aren't Ludwig's parents, and they aren't Else's parents... Well, who are they then?   I'd have to dig deeper.

How I Figured Out Why They Were, Step-by-agonizing-Step

I stole this list of steps from my earlier MyCanvas post, and updated it for this specific case:

  • Date the Photo: I left this step off my original list as it seemed too obvious: it is just that critical. You need at least a range so that you can rule out people who died before the photo was taken.  I estimate this photo to be 1915 based on other photos of Ludwig and Else who were married in 1911.  It could be 5 years in either direction. 
  • Estimate People's Ages: This is also a new step, where you estimate the ages of everyone in the photo, thus have a birth-year range when you look at the tree in the next step. Based on the estimated date of the photo, you can often rule people out as being too old or too young to be the person in the photo.  Ludwig was born in 1876, and the mystery man in the photo looks older than him, but not that much older than him, so maybe born about 1860?  
  • Family Tree: Since the mystery couple is likely related to either Ludwig or Else, I made sure that I had a complete tree for both sides of the family.  Done. Check.  And when looking at the tree I first looked at uncles and aunts on both sides -- one generation up based on my estimates on ages and dates. 
  • Build a Bigger Tree: And, yes, I then added more people to make it even bigger.  The people on the tree are the possible matches.   Rule out those who couldn't be in the photo. Rule in those that would be about the right age and don't have reference photos. 
  • Ask Your Relatives: This is were I got off-course in the first place and was corrected. One person said it was Ludwig's parents, and the other helped prove it wasn't. Nobody could help with who they really were. 
  • Couple Up: This sort of applies in this case. I assume the other couple is a married couple. They might not be, but that's my assumption. 
  • Find More Photos: I found a photo of Ludwig's aunt and uncle, Hermine and Salomon Bodenheimer to do a comparison.  There are indeed similarities!  Both women have wavy hair, both men have sharp noses. The problem is with Salomon's beard.  The mystery man doesn't have one.  Here's a strange fact for you: once most men reach the age of 40 they have the same facial hair for the rest of their lives.   
Hermine (geb Weiss) and Salomon Bodenheimer
Mystery couple close-up for comparisons
So, I sat with that one as a possible connection for a few months. Salomon Bodenheimer was born in 1855, which is just about right on my estimated date I did earlier. But it just didn't seem to be right, especially with the facial hair issue.  So, I made one last effort. I did one more thing. 

The Annoying Solution

Ah, yes... there is another step.  If all else fails there is the forgotten step. The first step in fact.

Turn the photo over, and take a look at the back.   Is there anything written on the back?

I didn't actually have the back, all I had was the one scanned image that I'd been sent by my cousin in 2014. So, I wrote him an email asking if it had anything on the back.

Yep, here's what he sent back!  These is IN FACT a ton of writing on the back.

The postcard is addressed to Herrn N. Hahn at Königstraße 41/42 in Berlin, which is Neumann Hahn's home address -- the father of Else Bodenheimer geb Hahn.  

So, I enlarged and rotated the text, and then had the old German handwriting transcribed. 

Herzliche Grüße aus angenehmer Gesellschaft Z
Liebes Papachen: Wie du siehst habe ich mir eine neue Regenkluft geleistet nur sie dir zu zeigen habe ich mich sogar photographieren lassen. herzlichen Gruß Else
Wir gefallen mir dir liebe Onkelxxx ? Liebste Grüße Alex und Johane Hirsch
It starts with, Warm greetings from pleasant company...  Signed with a "Z" at the end. 

Then Else writes, Dear Daddykin: As you can see I got myself a new raincoat.  I have even let them photograph me just to show you. Happy greetings, Else  And yes, Else is wearing what looks like a raincoat as she sits on the bench. 

Then, at the end, someone else added, [something] we favor me you love uncle xxxx? Dearest Greetings Alex and Johane Hirsch

Alexander and Johanna Hirsch

And there we have it.  The mystery couple must be Alex and Johane Hirsch of Hamburg, who are in fact on the tree!  Alexander Hirsch and his wife are in-laws of Neumann Hahn's very own sister Rebekka Hirsch geb Hahn who lived in Hamburg.  And, better yet, Alexander was born in 1861 -- I was only about a year off in my estimate! Not at all who I expected them to be, and certainly people I did not have any photos of before this! 

The other part that fits is that Rebekka had a son whose name started with a "Z"... so Else also saw her cousin Zvi Hirsch on the same day.  

The cousin who sent me the photo (who is on the Hahn side, which should have been another clue) also sent me a rescanned image of the original at higher quality. 

Ludwig and Else Bodenheimer with Alex and Johane Hirsch, circa 1915

So in conclusion, here's my updated method on how to....

How To Identify People in Old Photos (2020 Update)

I'm going to repost a revised list of steps I've talked about before, with updates for this example.

  1. Look at the Back: Always scan the back of your photos, and ask for the backs of any photos that people send you. Even if they appear blank, there can be really great information such as a small imprint of the paper manufacturer -- and yes, there are sites you can use to date photo paper. 
  2. Date the Photo: Getting an estimated date is just plain critical. You need at least a range so that you can rule out people who died before the photo was taken.  
  3. Estimate People's Ages: Estimate the ages of everyone in the photo, in order to have a birth-year range when you look at the tree in the next step. Based on the estimated date of the photo, you can often rule people out as being too old or too young to be the person in the photo.   
  4. Family Tree: Build or gather a full family tree for the general families suspected to be in the photo. These are your possible candidates to rule in or out!
  5. Build a Bigger Tree: And, yes, as you get a toehold with one person, immediately build out their complete tree up and down and all around. Confirming one person is a big win. 
  6. Ask Your Relatives: Yes, sadly you have to talk to people and ask. The older generation often knows exactly who they people in the photos are -- it's your job to get more suspects from their memories. 
  7. Couple Up: Many times, married couples are standing next to each other in group photos. Likewise children are with siblings or hanging on their mother. This rule is not set in stone, and yet can often help narrow things down. 
  8. Find More Photos: Getting more photos for your list of suspects can help rule in and out people. Also, you may luck out and find another photograph from the same day and place, and that one has writing on the back identifying the people and places. 

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