Was Mathew Brady – the most famous American photographer of all time – born in Ireland or the US?
The issue now seems to have been resolved. Renowned American Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady was most likely born in Ireland and became a US citizen, according to new evidence.
Earlier this year a blue sign commemorating the photographer’s birth place at Warren County, in upstate New York, went missing. A fund was established to aid in replacing the sign, but now it seems that what’s written on the sign may need to be changed.
Following an article in the New York Times on the disappearance of the sign a debate was sparked. A local Johnsburg author, who was cited in the article, discovered the site of Brady’s childhood home while doing research for a book. He firmly believes the famed photographer was born in Warren County. He lists several biographies on the man as proof.
However, on a draft registration card for the Civil War Brady is listed as having been born in Ireland. Also the 1855 and 1860 census records list Ireland as his place of birth, but in later censuses he changed it to New York State.
Several researchers believe that Brady was born in Ireland and came to America at an early age with his parents, Andrew and Julia Brady. He was then raised in Johnsburg before he became famous as a photographer.
He was a celebrity during his time and Brady’s photos are still admired today. In fact, it is Brady’s image of Abraham Lincoln that is used on the $5 bill.
In 1844 Brady opened his own studio in New York. He photographed Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, among other significant personalities. During the Civil War Brady used a mobile studio and darkroom, which he used to develop his vivid battlefield photographs, which brought home the reality of war to the public. He captured thousands of war scenes as well as portraits of generals and politicians.
Sadly, after the war his pictures went out of fashion. The government failed to purchase the master-copies and Brady died in debt.
Mary Panzer, a former curator at the National Portrait Gallery and the author of “Mathew Brady and the Image of History,” told the New York Times, “He was viewed as a celebrity during his own lifetime.
“In fact his portraits, made and exhibited in his galleries, published around the country and around in the world, helped create the very idea of celebrity. Every American who sought fame came to be photographed in his studio.”
In her book Panzer says Brady was born in Warren County. However, more recently she uncovered evidence that changed her opinion.
She said, “From the new documents, I have no doubt that Mathew Brady was born in Ireland.”
According to the 1855 New York census Brady listed his birthplace as Ireland. He also checked the box indicating he was a naturalized citizen. The 1860 census and his draft registration form are the same.
Sandra Markham, an archivist at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, pointed out that before the improved electronic archiving of old documents like these people were simply going on what Brady himself had said, after he become famous.
Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator in charge of the photographs department, provided the Times with possible explanations as to why Brady would have said he was born in the United States. One possible answer lies in the politics of the day and Brady’s financial situation. Rosenheim said signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” were commonplace in New York and Boston at the time. The Irish were hated and discriminated against.
Rosenheim said, “He constantly was having trouble with unpaid bills, and he went through several bankruptcies.”
He continued, “As years passed, he wanted to be more American. He wanted the government to acquire his photographic archives to pay off his debt. I believe the 1860 census is clear. Despite the fact he flopped back and forth, I strongly believe we must take that as evidence he was born outside the United States.”
Panzer said, “The fact that he says New York State and declares himself an American doesn’t mean he wasn’t born in Ireland.
“It means he considers himself an American. It makes perfect sense for Brady to call himself an American because he was. He had earned his ‘citizenship’ one way or the other.”
In Johnsburg some residents aren’t taking the news so well. They aren’t ready to relinquish the town’s most famous son.
Pearsall said, “The only way I know to prove Mathew Brady was born in Ireland would be to find him and his parents on a ship’s passenger list.
“To date, no one has been able to find that documentation. No one can find any immigration record.”
Unfortunately, Ellis Island, which has impeccable records, did not open until 1892. At the time when the Brady’s would have arrived they simply would have landed in Lower Manhattan.
There are also no records in Warren County to say Brady was born there. The county did not start keeping such records until the 1880s.
Despite the lack of proof, Johnstown residents are holding firm. Denise Conti, a retired music teacher, said, “He did some amazing things.
“It’s important to the area to remember this as part of our history. It should be piquing kids’ interest in school. They should be learning about this important person and be inspired by all that he’s done.”
This fall the sign dedicated to Brady will be replaced. The Johnsburg Historical Society has raised over $2,600.
The society’s president Delbert Chambers said, “We absolutely intend to replace the sign, hopefully this fall, but we are holding back a few weeks on the wording to first know the outcome of the birthplace discussion.”