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180404-edgar-me.mp3

How A Longtime SJC Employee And The Public Cracked The Case Of The Mystery Portrait

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Detail of a c. 1830 portrait, now believed to be of Lemuel Shaw, that hangs in the John Adams Courthouse in Boston
Courtesy of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
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180404-edgar-me.mp3

Sprinkled throughout the corridors of the John Adams courthouse, home base for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, are some four or five dozen stately, painted portraits of notable former justices. And as the SJC is the oldest appellate court in the Western Hemisphere, these portraits appropriately range from figures of the distant past to the not-so-long-ago.

I learned this on a recent court portrait tour of sorts with C. Clifford Allen, who worked for decades in the court’s Reporter of Decisions office. Today, he’s the part-time director of education and special programs, and the SJC's unofficial historian. 

Allen explained to me that among the court’s impressive portrait collection is one notable outlier. Unlike most of them, it’s of a relatively younger man. But what really sets it apart? For at least the past few decades, nobody had any clue who it was.

"It was hung just outside Chief Justice Gants' chambers," explained Allen. "So, every time he came out the door, he would see this unnamed justice."

Ralph Gants became chief justice of the SJC in 2014. And earlier this year, his curiosity about the glossy face staring back at him every day finally got the best of him.

"Chief Justice Ganz called me, and he said, 'Do you know who this is?'” recounted Allen. 

Allen broke the bad news to Gants: Nobody knew. But, at the chief justice’s urging, Allen launched an effort to find out who it was. He scoured the court’s archives, consulted the Massachusetts Historical Society, dug through databases at the Smithsonian.

"But I couldn’t find this guy," said Allen.

Desperate, Allen even tried Google face recognition.

"That didn’t seem to work out," he said.

Finally, he bit the bullet and informed the boss.  

"I’ve gone as far as I can go," said Allen. "I can’t come up with the answer. So the chief said, 'How about a contest?'"

They whipped up a press release asking for the public’s help in identifying the mystery man. The release was fortuitously picked up by the Associated Press — and it went viral. Soon the guesses and tips were flowing in from a variety of sources.

"History professors, art historians, amateur historians, American history enthusiasts," said Allen, and from all corners of the globe.

"Boston; Maine; San Francisco; Calgary, Alberta; Shanghai, China," he said.

Allen says they got some 50 "informed" guesses, with varying degrees of supporting documentation. The evidence began mounting that the man was a young Lemuel Shaw, who served as the SJC’s chief justice from 1830-1860. But the tipping point came when they heard from a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, whose case was particularly compelling.   

"He had written his thesis at Columbia on Lemuel Shaw," said Allen.

Just to be sure, with the help of court officer trained in crime scene investigating, they inspected the painting under a variety of specialized lights. And sure enough, in the top right-hand corner of the stretcher bar, hidden under the frame, not visible to the naked eye, they clearly saw the initials "L.S."

Case closed. Last week, Allen informed his new network of sleuths and the public that the mystery had been solved. Still, Allen says there’s still more work to be done.

"I’m still getting feedback from people who were involved in the contest," he said. "It’s kind of fired them up to learn more."

This ragtag collection of amateur gumshoes now want to figure out who painted the portrait, and how it ended up in the court’s collection. And while the quest is no doubt a fun, feel-good project, Allen says there’s also an important lesson here. In his day, Shaw was well-known, even before he served 30 years as chief justice of the SJC.

"Lemuel Shaw was one of the most famous people in America," said Allen. "He was the legal counsel at one of the big banks in Boston. He served in the Massachusetts House. He served in the Senate. Who thought then that someone would not even know who this is?"

Allen says that nothing about our known history is inevitably remembered. It’s why he calls history a living study, and why he’s proud to be a part of this small chapter of it.

"These are the people that gave us the government that we have today," he said. "There are always periods of time when the government is not looked on especially in good terms. But so many things are cyclical. And we have a duty to provide that information going forward when people are ready to accept it again."

For the record, Chief Justice Gants is reportedly elated. So, it sounds like Allen’s own legacy at the court is now also secure.

We now know what kind of thing rouses the curiosity of SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants. What piques yours? Email us at curiositydesk@wgbh.org and let us know. Who knows, we might look into it for you. 

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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