By Curt Wood
It is funny how one thing can lead to another within the field of numismatics, outside numismatics or even both at the same time. I know from personal experience that such a journey can sometimes lead to discovery. Let me elucidate.
I’ve been an eager numismatist since the age of 9. Like most who begin our king of hobbies in their youth, I started with nary an ounce of sophistication and even less knowledge of the field upon which I was embarking. But I progressed over time and with that progress increased the fun as well.
I collected some nice numismatic pieces – coins, tokens, medals, paper money, exonumia – and added some books and periodicals as well. One day I was reading about the beautiful Saint-Gaudens double eagle coin and learned that its designer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, had been selected for that designing chore by none other than the President of the United States, a zestful American Renaissance man named Theodore Roosevelt. I decided to read up on both Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt.
Reading about Teddy Roosevelt led me to watching TV documentaries about him and his times. I especially enjoyed watching the black and white newsreels that had been made of Roosevelt in the 1901-1918 period. I am a professionally trained cinematographer and a former freelance television news-film cameraman, so the early T.R. newsreels fascinated me.
In watching those ancient newsreels of Roosevelt, I became familiar with his behavior in crowds and during public speeches. Most fascinating somehow was the impeccably dressed Roosevelt’s obvious obsession with formal hat etiquette. His elegant top hat, following carefully studied and rigorously practiced protocol, was constantly and politely tipped and removed and then placed back on his head only to be removed again seconds later and held at his side or placed near his shoulder, or in the case of the funeral of President William McKinley in September 1901, placed respectfully over his heart. All of this led me to write this.
My paternal grandfather, Wade Wood, who lived 1873 to 1961, had left a box of old photographs he had produced as an amateur photographer from the 1890s to the 1940s. He was a farmer in Missouri and South Dakota and had even built himself a photographic darkroom in his farmhouses so he could develop his film and make his own prints. This was at a time when few amateurs did this.
There came a day more than a half century after Wade’s death when I happened to be looking through the box containing his photos, which were mostly portraits of his family and friends. One photo, a fading portrait of Wade’s young sons Wayne and Russell, had something on its back I’d never noticed before. It was another photographic print that had nothing to do with Wayne and Russell.
Glued to the back of the portrait was a photo of the Presidential inauguration of McKinley. I’d never seen it before because I’d never looked at the back before. I looked carefully at the inaugural photo with a powerful magnifier made necessary by the fact that the photo was only 1.75 x 2.75 inches.
Looking at the men sitting near McKinley as he spoke and seeing outgoing President Grover Cleveland, I realized it was McKinley’s first inauguration March 4, 1897, rather than his second on March 4, 1901.
The bigwigs, of course, were up on the speaker’s platform with the President and down below was a huge crowd.
I turned my attention to the audience section of the sepia-brown photograph.
I saw that someone had penned a small letter “X” in black ink over one of the listeners. I looked at the man below the “X,” who though part of the audience seemed to stand apart and alone.
There was something familiar about him, something about the dignified stance, his gentlemanly clothing and the way he held his top hat to his coat between his chest and his shoulder, something no one else in the crowd was bothering to do though most had hats.
It hit me. “It can’t be,” I thought, but there it was. It was the man from the newsreels, Theodore Roosevelt.
I put down my loupe and did some quick reading about Roosevelt. He was not becoming vice president. That was four years in the future. On this day he was making his first appearance on the national stage. He was becoming assistant secretary of the Navy.
This was before he would lead his men up San Juan Hill in 1898 in Cuba, before he was selected as McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 election and before his presidency and the selection of Saint-Gaudens for the double eagle.
The tiny photograph was a wonderful glimpse of history. It was new yet over a century old. Had my grandfather journeyed to Washington, D.C., with his gear and taken one or more pictures of the inaugural?
If he did not, and if someone else had shot the picture, why was it glued to the back of a photograph obviously shot by Wade Wood about 20 years later? Who scrawled the “X” on it and why?
Wade Wood is no longer with us to answer, nor are Wayne and Russell, who would later write songs for Roy Rogers’ cowboy movies.
As a 70-year-old incurable numismatist and history buff, I know that about the time the first nickel 3-cent piece was introduced Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson became the first two U.S. Presidents ever to appear in the same photograph on March 4, 1865. This photo with Roosevelt perhaps taken by my grandfather is the first three-President photo when you remember McKinley and Cleveland are also in it.
I’ve been told that prior to his marriage in 1902, Wade Wood sometimes would travel by train alone to explore his state and sometimes locales beyond it. Whether he was in Washington, D.C., with his camera cannot be said with certainty, but it seems likely.
I plan to donate the original print showing the 1897 inaugural ceremony to the Library of Congress. I’ve already given them a 1966 color 16mm motion picture film I made of a California gubernatorial candidate named Ronald Reagan, so this seems appropriate.
At the present time, let’s give a friendly tip of Roosevelt’s top hat to Numismatic News editor Dave Harper. Though I discovered this 1897 photographic treasure, it was Mr. Harper who appreciated it enough to give the world its first look at it.
This “Viewpoint” was written by Curt Wood, Van Nuys, Calif.
To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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