Helen Keller and Lizzie Borden

Two recent news stories caught my eye, quite literally. Each reported the discovery of a previously-unknown childhood photograph of a legendary American woman. The women couldn’t be more different : the notorious Lizzie Borden and the inspirational Helen Keller. In each case, the newly-discovered photographs give us a rare glimpse into the childhood of these women — in both cases, the new photographs may be the earliest known photographs of their subjects.

I think we’re going to be seeing more stories like this, as organizations of all sizes and individuals of all ages are going through their old pictures looking for things to scan and share through digital library projects, or photosharing websites like Flickr. Or, as in the case of the Library of Congress and many other libraries, both ways.

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden was the central figure in one of the most famous crimes of the nineteenth century, the horrific double ax-murder of her father and stepmother in 1892. Her father was a prosperous businessman, a pillar of the community of Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie was the respectable spinster daughter, living in the family home. Could the quiet Sunday school teacher have simply snapped one hot summer day, and murdered the old tightwad and his shrewish wife? She was accused of the crime and tried in one of the most widely-reported trials of the day, and acquitted, but the suspicion that she got away with murder followed her for the rest of her life, and interest in the case remains strong to this day.

The new photograph was discovered by Stefani Koorey, publisher of “The Hatchet: Journal of Lizzie Borden Studies,” in the collection of the Swansea Historical Society. It’s the picture of a young girl, eight or nine years old, wearing a straw hat with a feather and a coat with a satin-lined color. Lizzie Borden isn’t identified in the photograph, but Koorey has no doubt it’s her — the Globe quotes her as saying, “I’ve been staring at her face for about 20 years. I know those eyes.” If authentic, this would be the earliest known photograph of Lizzie Borden.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller was left deaf and blind by an illness in early childhood, and the story of how she learned to communicate with the help of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, are the basis of the play and movie “The Miracle Worker.” Keller graduated from Radcliffe College and became a well-known author, speaker and political activist.

The new photograph was found in a large collection of photographs recently donated to the New England Historic Genealogical Society by Thaxter Spencer of Waltham. His mother, Hope Thaxter Parks, befriended Helen Keller as a child in the summer of 1888, when the Keller family was vacationing on Cape Cod. The new photograph shows eight-year-old Helen sitting outdoors with Annie Sullivan, holding a doll on her lap. Young Helen loved dolls, and DOLL was the first word that Annie Sullivan spelled into the young girl’s hand, but this is the first known photograph of her that show her holding a doll.

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