Thursday, September 8, 2016

In Search of Mathew Brady

As an addendum to a month in upstate New York my husband and I went in search of the birthplace of Mathew Brady, the preeminent photographer of the Civil War. We found it, since it’s well-marked and in a location that doesn’t have to compete with other monuments. Or did we?

The marker is on the south side of NY 28 in Johnsburg, Warren County, a few miles beyond Warrensburg, maybe fifteen miles from Lake George Village.  Turn left at the wax museum and you’ll find it. (I made that part up. You actually have to head north out of Lake George and turn northwest).

Brady himself was apparently confused (or untruthful) about where he was actually born. He wasn’t entirely sure of the date either. Through most of his life he claimed to have been born in Warren County, in either 1822 or 1823. A few years ago local historians located the foundation of Brady’s supposed birthplace, on private property in the woods a few hundred yards in back of the marker site.

The story took a strange turn during the summer of 2015 when the metal marker, post and all, disappeared. It required a backhoe or other heavy equipment to dislodge, so the thief must have been looking for something more than the value of the scrap metal. Perhaps it was somebody to whom photography was really, really important. Or perhaps it was an Irish nationalist.

During the campaign to raise money to replace the sign and the discussions that surrounded it, a pesky little almost-fact emerged. There was no written evidence to support the idea that Mathew Brady was born in Johnsburg, just Brady’s repeated word for it, but there was some evidence that the famous photographer was actually born in Ireland. Brady himself included his Irish origin in his draft registration in 1863. The local historians compromised by noting that the foundation was of Brady’s childhood home. There’s no longer a statement on the birthplace.

There is a growing consensus that Brady fibbed for most of his adult life and that he really was Irish-born. It’s a surprising realization about the man who described his art as the “great and truthful medium of history.”