Sunday, February 20, 2011

How Billy The Kid Helped Me Identify a Family Tintype

John Calvin and Phoebe Cook Trowbridge
Circa January 6, 1867 - Rushville, Indiana
Likely their wedding photo

My maternal grandmother, Mary Fern (Newby) Runyan, had 8 or 9 tintypes in her collection which I inherited last year. They belonged to her parents, Charles Lee and Ida May (Trowbridge) Newby. None of them were identified.

About my 4th year into genealogy I came in contact with a distant cousin, Frances VanderWeide, who mailed me a thick package containing information on her Grunden lineage and which included photos of her great grandfather, James Alexander Grunden, the brother of Charles Newby's mother, Mary Louisa (Grunden) Newby. When I opened the package a photo of James slid out into my lap. Well I nearly peed my pants! There in my lap was the identical image as that in one of my own tintypes! It was of James in his Civil War uniform and obviously he had purchased several of the images to give to various family members. So! That was the first of my tintypes to be identified.

Five of my tintypes, including the one of the couple above, came in decorative thin brass frames. Four of those, including the one above, had glass in front of the tintype. Three of them, not including the one above, have Tax Stamps on the back and make them easy to date. These five tintypes have cost me more time than I'd ever care to admit. I have been obsessed with finding out who these people are.

Tintype of Billy the Kid,
who posed for the picture
in a Fort Sumner, N.M.,
gambling hall in
late 1879 or early 1880
I always thought the man in the picture above looked like my great grandmother's father John Calvin Trowbridge, except for the was wrong. It was parted on the opposite side as what was shown in the other two later photos I had of him. This is where Billy The Kid stepped in to help. I had read and read about tintypes but somehow never understood that a tintype is a mirror image. An article I found on Billy the Kid explained how, after all these years, the "left hand gun" was not left handed after all. That notion stemmed from the fact that in this tintype of him he appears to be wearing his gun holstered on his left hip. In reality, it is on his right hip. This was startling news and I quickly got my tintype out and studied it with renewed interest. 

Now that I understood about tintypes being mirror images, I realized that not only was the hair parted in the right place, but there was also another more telling clue that I had not noticed before. John Calvin Trowbridge's right eye dipped down in the inner corner whereas his left eye was perfectly straight. Both regular photos showed the down turn...and so did the "opposite" eye on the tintype! Any doubts I may have had previously were now dissolved. Unmistakably, this was John Calvin Trowbridge and the woman in the picture could be none other than my great, great grandmother, Phoebe (Cook) Trowbridge!
The three faces of John Calvin Trowbridge
He is youngest in the tintype on the right,  middle age is on the left and older age is in the center. Enlarging will help to see the downturn of the right eye in each photo. Remember that it will look like the left eye in the tintype.

After removing the tintype from it's decorative frame and glass I was able to scan it and save it to my computer and enlarge it. One of the things I could not see with the naked eye was that Phoebe is wearing a brooch at her neck. It has the face of a man on it and is turned sideways.

Enlarging it further and turning it right side up gives a slightly better view...

So now I have a new mystery; who is this man? Phoebe's father was still living so I can only imagine the image to be that of her first husband, another man named John Trowbridge, and distantly related to John Calvin Trowbridge. But, would a woman wear her dead first husband's likeness while marrying another? 

The framed tintype 

Below is a later photo of Phoebe, thought to have been taken about 1882.
Phoebe (Cook) Trowbridge
cir. 1882
I don't think I'll be forgetting about the mirror image thing too soon and I'll always be grateful to William H. Bonny, aka Billy The Kid, for the myth of the "Left Handed Gun", made famous by the 1958 movie of that name starring Paul Newman.  Or, maybe I should just be grateful to whoever wrote that article. I never could find it again, at least not the exact same one, but there seems to be plenty of them written about this particular subject!

Now if I can just get those other tintypes identified.....



  1. The subject of the portrait in the brooch looks to me very much like the man sitting next to her!

  2. Lisa,
    What a wonderful post. I guess I'm going to have to pull out the one I have and give it another go. I didn't know about the mirror image.

  3. I love what people are doing with tintypes these days. So much history still waiting to be shared! :)

  4. Brett...I do believe you might be right! I hadn't considered the possibility that it was an image of a LIVING person, but why not? Thanks! I probably need to read up on portrait brooches as I think I may be confusing them with mourning brooches.

  5. Lisa, I am inclined to agree with Brett as well. What an exciting discovery, it sure makes for an super interesting post too.

  6. Not sure if I'm going to jump on the bandwagon or not. The man in the brooch looks as if his face might be a bit rounder. At first I thought it might be her husband, but not I'm not sure.

    Regardless, great post! Learned something new as well - the mirror tintype. Now I need to go back and look at the ones I have.

  7. great info! love your blog!