From U.S. presidents and Wild West outlaws to groundbreaking scientists and brave civil rights campaigners, the 19th century is packed with iconic figures. But how many of those do you think were actually photographed? Well, the answer is more than likely to truly amaze you. Read on to see 40 unexpected images from the dawn of photography that captured iconic figures like you've never seen them before.
1. Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane’s life story is a murky one, and it has been very much embroidered over the years — not least by herself. It’s reasonably certain, though, that after a mythically wild life, Jane eventually found a berth with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sadly, she passed away in 1903 and was buried next to a fellow legendary figure: Wild Bill Hickok. We can see the sharpshooter here in stunningly clear resolution.
It's unclear how she earned her nickname, though Jane claimed a military officer gave it to her after she helped put down a Native American uprising. He reportedly said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains."
2. Vincent Van Gogh
If we are to judge artistic merit in dollar terms, Vincent van Gogh has to be near the very top of the tree. Yet during his lifetime, the artist sold only one of his paintings. And that thing about his ear? In reality, he actually only chopped off a part of his ear lobe. That's not to minimize his mental health struggles, though — they resulted in his death in 1890.
Despite his troubles, Van Gogh was a passionate man who advised, "Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well."
Born in 1829, Geronimo was a legendary leader of the Chiricahua Apache. He stood at the head of his people as they resisted the incursion of settlers onto their ancestral lands. His nemesis was Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, who induced him to surrender after years of resistance in 1886 with a promise of exile in Florida. Instead, Geronimo and his reduced band of followers were handed a term of forced labor.
Geronimo once said this of his legendary status: "I was no chief and never had been, but because I had been more deeply wronged than others, this honor was conferred upon me, and I resolved to prove worthy of the trust."
4. Edgar Allen Poe
Here we see a somewhat disdainful-looking Edgar Allen Poe in a portrait from 1849. Born 40 years previously in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, the author is best remembered for his spine-chilling short stories which have terrified generations of readers. These include such classics as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe also penned a number of classic poems, like "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee."
The author had a surprisingly eerie view of the world. He explained, "The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"
5. President Andrew Jackson
You might criticize this photograph of Andrew Jackson for its murkiness, but it’s worth pointing out it was taken in 1844 or 1845! Jackson was 78 years old at the time of this portrait. For a clearer picture of the man, take a look at a $20 bill — they’re graced by his face. He served two terms as president, starting in 1829, and Jackson has always been a controversial leader.
It was also a bit of a miracle that Jackson survived to old age, as a man named Richard Lawrence attempted to assassinate him in 1835. Luckily for the commander-in-chief, Lawrence's gun malfunctioned.
6. Susan B. Anthony
Susan Brownwell Anthony was around 28 years old when this photo was taken. Raised in the Quaker faith, she was born in 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts. Anthony is remembered for her pioneering work on women’s rights, as well as her leadership in the temperance movement. Sadly, the activist didn't live to see women attain universal suffrage in 1920. However, Anthony remains one of the most celebrated figures in American history.
To put her fame in perspective, Anthony was the first woman to ever have her likeness featured on an American coin. This dollar coin first entered circulation in 1979.
7. Billy the Kid
Given Billy the Kid’s reputation as a ruthless gunslinger, this 1878 photo of him – he is the figure on the left – is somewhat confusing. We have to guess it shows that even murderous outlaws need a bit of downtime now and then! By the way, this photo reportedly turned up in a junk shop for $2, though it went on to sell for a whopping $2.3 million at auction.
Only a couple of confirmed photos of the outlaw exist today, so there is no question why this picture brought in such a pretty penny. Who knows if there are more out there?
8. Charles Dickens
This photo of the great author was taken in 1867 or 1868, when Charles Dickens had already published such timeless works as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812. As a 12-year-old, his father’s financial woes forced Dickens to leave school and work for a time in a factory. This was a harrowing experience which he never forgot, and it colored much of his work’s humanitarianism.
Even generations later, Dickens is still considered among the greatest authors in the English language. His classics include Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations.
9. John Brown
Ardent anti-slavery advocate John Brown is seen here in a daguerreotype – one of the earliest forms of photography. Most famously, Brown led a dramatic armed raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 in the hope that his action would trigger a slave uprising. But soldiers attacked the rebels, who were forced to surrender. Historians named the attack as a key event that led to the Civil War.
After the botched raid, abolitionists tried to obtain a pardon for Brown, but they were unsuccessful with their pleas. He went on to be publicly hanged in West Virginia.
10. Belle Starr
Sat on a handsome mount and elegantly kitted out, Belle Starr cuts a dashing figure in this 1886 photograph. Styled as the “Bandit Queen,” Myra Maybelle Shirley was one of the Wild West’s most notorious female outlaws. The man in the photo is believed to be Deputy U.S. Marshal Charles Barnhill — her arresting officer at the time. It is curious that these would-be foes were willing to pose together.
Belle Starr was a close collaborator of Jesse James, though her life ended three years after this snapshot was taken. Authorities still aren't sure which gunman took her life, or why.
11. Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud — born in 1856 in what is now the Czech Republic — poses in this 1872 photograph with his mother Amalia. Freud’s known for developing the concept of psychoanalysis, a discipline which has paid for many a modern psychotherapist’s leather chaise longue. He’s perhaps best known for his divise Oedipus complex theory, which is less credited today, but this methods laid the foundation for many modern techniques.
Here is one of the pioneer's more frightening conclusions: "Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility."
12. Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok is credited with being one of the lawmen who made the Wild West a little tamer. His character is well observed in a scary encounter he had with a bear in 1858. Wild Bill apparently won the battle by drawing his knife and — well, you get the picture. Hickok met his maker during a poker game in 1876 while holding an arrangement of cards that's since become known as the Dead Man's Hand.
Hickok cleverly built up his own legend by exaggerating his body count and possibly inventing a story about wrestling a bear. In his later years, he also toured with William Frederick Cody, AKA Buffalo Bill.
13. Thomas Edison
In this image, probably taken around 1878, a young Thomas Edison poses next to his prototypical phonograph. The machine was able to record and play back sounds, which at that time was an impressive feat. In fact, the origins of all of our marvelous communication gadgets can be rightfully traced back to Edison’s work on telegraphy and telephony. Though out of his many patents, Edison might be best known today for the light bulb. Illuminating!
And where did he get all his ideas? Well, Edison once claimed, "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."
14. Emily Dickinson
Taken around 1847, this image shows a graceful portrait of renowned American poet Emily Dickinson. Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, she is revered for her verse and remembered for her unusual lifestyle. Yet of the almost 1,800 poems she wrote, only ten were actually published while she was alive. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes her work as being “distinguished by its epigrammatic compression, haunting personal voice, enigmatic brilliance and lack of high polish.”
Dickinson's eccentricities grew as she got older. She became increasingly reclusive, and according to some, she would only wear white clothing toward the end of her life. Granted, some of her quirks have been overstated.
15. Butch Cassidy
Looking every inch the dapper gent with his bowler and watch chain, Butch Cassidy gazes confidently at us from sometime around 1900. Cassidy went on to become a leading member of the Wild Bunch outlaw gang, who specialized in holding up trains and robbing banks. No one knows for sure when Cassidy died. It might have been in 1909 in Bolivia, 1911 in Uruguay, or 1939 in Nevada or Washington.
It's likely that the outlaw died while in South America, though some remain adamant that he did return to the United States after fleeing the authorities. Scientists have exhumed gravesites looking for Cassidy, but there are no firm answers yet.
16. President Franklin Pierce
President Franklin Pierce looks rather stiff in this photo from sometime between 1855 and 1865. The immobility is thanks to the limitations of early photography, which required long exposures accompanied by almost deathly stillness by the subject. Born in 1804 in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, Pierce served a single term in the White House from 1853. He's not remembered as one of the better White House executives, though the fault isn't wholly his.
Upon entering the Oval Office, Pierce was reeling from the tragic death of his son. He was also a chronic alcoholic, an addiction that his political opponents often used to skewer him.
17. Conrad Heyer
What makes this picture utterly astonishing is that Conrad Heyer, a Revolutionary War soldier, was born in 1749 — a century before photography even existed. And he was indeed 103 years old when this image was taken in 1852. The centenarian lived on until 1856. It’s said that he is the American with the earliest birth date ever to have been photographed, making this image a stunning window into the past.
Heyer saw many of the American Revolution's key events firsthand. Most notably, the Massachusetts native took part in the legendary crossing of the Delaware River alongside General George Washington.
18. Grigori Rasputin
The extravagantly-bearded Grigori Rasputin is known to history as the “Mad Monk.” A group of aristocrats who were angry over his inordinate influence over Tsar Nicholas II, who treasured the monk's supposed mystic and healing powers. As a result, a plot to kill him emerged in 1916. While it was ultimately successful, the operation certainly did not go as planned. Rasputin was famously hard to kill — no matter what they threw at him.
The conspirators fed him poisoned cakes and shot him twice, but he managed to survive. Finally, he was tied up and pushed into the icy St Petersburg’s Neva River, and at last he drowned.
19. Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley looks undeniably sharp in this portrait from the 1880s. Born in 1860 in Ohio’s Darke County with the name Phoebe Ann Mosey, she’s said to have been a crack shot from an early age. Oakley rose to fame as a sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. One of her crowd-pleasing tricks was to shoot from 30 paces at a playing card held sideways — slicing it in two.
Oakley had no time for gender conventions of her era. She once explained, "God intended women to be outside as well as men, and they do not know what they are missing when they stay cooped up in the house."
20. Buffalo Bill
With his immaculately groomed facial hair and his rakishly angled hat, Buffalo Bill Cody looks positively debonair in this photograph from more than a century ago. Bill's working life — which started at the age of nine — included jobs as a buffalo hunter, a Pony Express rider, and a U.S. Army Scout. But he’s best remembered as the impresario that ran Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which made him internationally famous.
Cody performed all over the world, including at Queen Victoria's Jubilee at the monarch's personal request. He also took Russian royals on a buffalo-hunting expedition.
21. Frederick Douglass
Looking every inch the distinguished elder statesman in this image from 1879, Douglass was around 60 when he sat for this portrait. He escaped his bondage in 1838 and took the name Douglass to evade slave hunters. He went on to become perhaps the most prominent African American of his era. He was a fierce campaigner against the inhumanity of slavery. Douglass realized how important photography would become, and he made sure to boost his image in order to advance the cause of abolition.
As a result, historians estimate that Douglass was photographed more times than any other person in the 19th century. He was truly on the cutting edge of media.
22. Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens — better known as Mark Twain — is seen here in a photograph when he was 15 years old. Of course, the author would go on to write such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its companion volume The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also known for his pithy epithets such as “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” However, the famous writer wasn't always in such a good mood.
In his later years, bad investments and failed business ventures led Twain to the brink of bankruptcy. Apparently he was a sucker for get-rich-quick schemes, not unlike some of his characters!
23. George Armstrong Custer
This image shows us the portrait of a doomed man. Of course, this man’s name inevitably evokes the phrase “Custer’s Last Stand.” That happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 when Custer and his 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed by warriors from the Sioux and Cheyenne peoples. They were defending the women and children of their nearby village. And all of Custer’s battalion – 210 of them – were killed.
Though Custer was long heralded as a hero, more modern military experts have concluded that he poorly maneuvered his forces into a trap that led to an unnecessary slaughter.
24. Harriet Beecher Stowe
Born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a prominent campaigner who highlighted the misery of slavery. She came to national attention in 1852 for her best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which achieved sales of 300,000 within just a year of publication. The book’s prominent abolitionist message is said to have done much to mobilize large sections of public opinion in opposition to human bondage in the U.S.
Her massive hit led to a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. Word has it that he greeted her by saying, "So you're the little lady who started this great war!"
25. Prince Albert
This hand-colored print of the grandly named Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha — who later became Queen Victoria’s husband — dates from 1848. Victoria proposed to her cousin in 1839, and the happy couple married the next year. Tragically, typhoid took his life in 1861 when he was only at the age of 42. Grief-stricken Victoria remained in mourning for the subsequent 39 years of her life.
Despite his short life, Albert made a big impact, especially in pushing his wife to open up reforms that turned Britain into a constitutional monarchy.
26. President James K. Polk
James Knox Polk served just a single term as the 11th commander-in-chief of the United States starting in 1845. Unlike most of the presidents before him, Polk did not stand for re-election. It was poor health that stopped his political ambitions, and indeed he died in 1849 just three months after leaving the White House. His most notable achievement as president was the acquisition of Texas and California for the U.S.
Polk's tenure is associated with the idea of Manifest Destiny, the idea that it was God's will for the U.S. to expand its borders and promote its way of life.
27. Jesse James
Jesse James certainly looks like a dangerous outlaw — which, of course, is exactly what he was. This portrait dates from around 1864 when James was a mere youth of about 17 or so. After fighting for the Confederate cause, James and his brother Frank turned to banditry. They formed the notorious James Gang, and they held up banks and trains, becoming national celebrities in the process. Of course, their sucess couldn't last forever.
The government put a big price on the criminal's head, and ultimately James' death came at the hands of Robert Ford, who was one of his fellow outlaws.
28. Booker T. Washington
Born a slave in Virginia’s Franklin County in 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington was a hugely prominent voice in the African American community. Despite his extremely difficult start in life, Washington gained an education through his own efforts and became a teacher. He acted as an advisor on African American matters to two presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Washington had a unique perspective on how far he'd come from his humble roots.
"Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome," the great intellectual once said.
29. Wyatt Earp
In an eventful life, Wyatt Earp pursued a variety of callings including gambler, saloonkeeper, and gunslinger. But it is as a lawman that posterity best remembers him. The most storied incident of his colorful career came in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, with the infamous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Earp, three of his brothers, and Doc Holliday shot three bandits from the Clanton Gang, with whom they’d had a disagreement.
Best-selling books and Hollywood movies, including Tombstone starring Kirk Russell and Val Kilmer, have only increased Earp's fame in the decades since his death.
30. Harriet Tubman
This portrait of Harriet Tubman was taken in 1895, although her exact age at that time is uncertain. Her life as a slave was miserable, but Tubman’s spirit remained untamed and spurred her on toward freedom. She’s remembered with reverence today for her part in the Underground Railroad, which transported slaves from the South to freedom in the North. Amazingly, Tubman guided more than 300 African Americans from their bondage to liberty.
Tubman quipped, "I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."
31. Confederate President Jefferson Davis
This image shows Jefferson Davis with his wife Sarah Knox at some point before he became president of the short-lived Confederate States of America. He held that position from the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The cause he led was of course defeated, and in 1865 he was arrested by the victorious Unionists. He was imprisoned, though he was released after two years and never brought to trial.
After his release from prison, Davis understandably struggled to find a new career path. He bounced around between many different positions in the U.S. and Europe, while occasionally speaking or publishing to earn some money on the side.
32. Emmeline Pankhurst
This early example of news photography shows the eminent British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested at the gates of London’s Buckingham Palace in 1914. Born in 1858, she is the best known of the British women who campaigned energetically for women’s right to vote. Sadly, she died just weeks before the British Parliament passed the 1928 Representation of the People Act, which granted women the same voting rights as men.
The famed feminist argued, "Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs."
33. President Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren poses in this early 1860s shot with a quizzical smile and some of the wildest hair ever seen atop a U.S. commander-in-chief. Van Buren served a single term from 1837, and he was unfortunate enough to be at the nation’s helm when a financial crisis hit just months after he had taken office. The voters decided not to give him a second chance at victory in 1840.
In the following years, Van Buren tried to muster support for another presidential nomination, but his fellow Democrats opted for other candidates. He then retired from politics.
34. Leo Tolstoy
Count Leo Tolstoy, photographed here in 1897 when he was just short of 70 years of age, provided some of literature’s most enduring works. The Russian’s great novels Anna Karenina and, of course, War and Peace remain absolute classics today. Despite a wild upbringing, Tolstoy became devoutly religious later in life, though he was ultimately excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. It seems that he was a complicated man full of contradictions.
Some of Tolstoy's best-remembered lines include “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself" and “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
35. Nikola Tesla
This photograph of the inventor Nikola Tesla, which was taken around 1896, shows a thoughtful-looking man who has an unmistakable look of keen intellect. He was truly a prolific innovator, and his work still underpins alternating-current electrical power as well as radio technology. Although his inventions brought him adulation, they earned him little in the way of personal wealth. Sadly, later in life he became increasingly eccentric and died penniless.
Among his stranger habits, Tesla became obsessed with pigeons. He spent much of his day feeding the birds in the park, and he personally nursed any injured pigeons he found back to full health inside his own home.
36. Ulysses S. Grant
This 1864 image shows Ulysses S. Grant looking for all the world like the archetypal rugged military leader in the field, which is exactly what he was. By common consent, Grant was the foremost of the generals who secured victory for the Union in the grueling Civil War. Once the conflict was at an end, Grant won the presidential election of 1868 and served two terms in the White House.
Grant's record in the White House is mixed. While a number of scandals rocked his Cabinet, he did push for a number of successful reforms in the face of Reconstruction.
37. Laura Bullion
This rather stark portrait is actually a mug shot taken by the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1893. Laura Bullion rose to fame — or infamy — because of her close association with the Wild Bunch gang and some of their train-robbing exploits. Bullion was captured in 1901 and sentenced to five years in prison. She was released early and moved to Memphis Tennessee, where she lived on – apparently blamelessly – until 1961.
As she entered middle-age, Bullion did leave the outlaw life behind — a decision perhaps made easier by the fact that many of her old comrades had been killed. She worked as a draper and seamstress, though struggled to make ends meet.
38. Walt Whitman
This 1862 portrait of a magnificently-bearded Walt Whitman shows the great poet in a pensive mood. Whitman's 1855 collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, is recognized as a seminal milestone in American literature. Many generations of students have also read "O Captain! My Captain!," his heartbreaking ode to the late Abraham Lincoln. Before he found his métier as a poet, Whitman worked as a journalist, teacher, printer and house builder.
Introspective and often droll in his work, Whitman wrote, "I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best."
39. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth sat for this portrait in 1870 when, historians believe, she was in the first half of her 70s. She was born into slavery around 1797 in Ulster County. Since New York State abolished slavery in 1827, Truth gained her freedom and became an ardent anti-slavery campaigner. Her first campaign was a legal one to free her son who had been sold into slavery in the south — a battle she won.
A gifted speaker, Truth mesmerized crowds with images like this: "Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters, and which they see as they look up to them, though they are ever so far away from us, and each other."
40. The Sundance Kid
Harry Longabaugh, who earned the nickname The Sundance Kid in his younger years, gives every appearance of being the most respectable of citizens with his top hat, tailored coat, and elegant companion Etta Place. In reality, he was much better known to the world as the notorious bandit known as the Sundance Kid. Along with his buddy Butch Cassidy, he was, of course, a member of the Wild Bunch gang of outlaws.
Though he and Butch Cassidy were outlaws, the pair were remarkably nonviolent. It's believed they never killed anyone while they lived in the United States.