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Thursday, May 18, 2017 12:09 am

Lincoln’s photographer was unlucky in love

German shot this portrait of Lincoln at his National Gallery Studio on the west side of the city square in Springfield.
One of the first people to photograph Abraham Lincoln with a beard was Christopher S. German, who set up a daguerreotype studio in Springfield in early 1861. Before President-elect Lincoln left for Washington, he sat for German twice: once on Jan. 13, and once on Feb. 9. If Lincoln asked German about himself, he would have learned that the 45-year-old photographer was a Canadian native and a bachelor. Had Lincoln still been around and practicing law two years later, he may well have been approached by German to represent him in his divorce case after the revelation of sordid secrets caused his hasty marriage to unravel.

A few months after he photographed Lincoln, German met 27-year-old Cordelia Lynch. A recent resident of Lafayette, Indiana, she had been living alone in a boardinghouse in Iroquois County when German made her acquaintance. After a brief courtship, during which German apparently learned little about his fiancee’s past, the couple was married on Jan. 1, 1862.

For a year, their marriage seemed to proceed smoothly enough. German was known as a man of “kind and generous disposition” who “made friends wherever he went.” German later claimed that he always treated Cordelia “kindly and affectionately” and “performed towards her all the duties of a kind and attentive husband.” By Cordelia’s own admission, German treated her well and saw that she wanted for nothing.

On Jan. 8, 1863, the marriage imploded. Whether by her own admission or the interference of an outside party, all the secrets that Cordelia tried to keep buried about her past came to light. It must have been an exceedingly unpleasant day in the German household. The Illinois State Journal’s police blotter records that German swore at his wife, assaulted her and threatened to kill her, prompting her to have him arrested. Once out on bond, German went directly to the law office of James C. Conkling to engage his services in securing a divorce.

Christopher Smith German was born in Canada and moved to Illinois before the Civil War. His National Gallery studio in Springfield was on the west side of the city square in January 1861, when he shot the first of at least three Lincoln portraits.
The vast majority of 19th-century legal case files make for dry reading. The exceptions are the odd, juicy slander or divorce cases heavy on prurient details. The case of German v. German is filled with prurient details. Not only was Cordelia accused of being a “common prostitute” who declined to give up her line of work when she married German, but she may well have already been legally married to another man.

According to the bill for divorce, German accused his wife of having “criminal intercourse with other persons and committing adultery with them.” Adultery, that is, if her marriage to German was even legal to begin with, although German now believed that Cordelia had been married to a man named Chauncey Lynch in 1858 and never divorced from him.

Depositions from witnesses painted an unfortunate picture of the marriage. (They also paint an unfortunate picture of women’s rights in the 19th century, as a common question posed to the deponents was “what was [Cordelia’s] reputation for chastity?” Apparently the answers, pure heresay, were admissible in court as evidence against her character.)

One witness reported that Cordelia, her mother, and her sister kept a “house of ill fame” on Wildcat Creek near Lafayette, Indiana. “Her habits were that of a whore, and she made her living in the way such women make theirs,” the witness said bluntly.

Another witness, an Indianapolis photographer, said that he had been on his way back from hunting in Reynolds, Indiana, in the fall of 1862 when he ran into Cordelia in the dining room of a hotel. “I went from the table with her to her room and then had sexual intercourse with her twice,” he said, although Cordelia freely admitted she was married to “a very decent and respectable man” in Springfield. This witness went on to say that Cordelia and her first husband came into his Indianapolis gallery together and disappeared into a vacant room for a half an hour. “When they returned, she gave me to understand that they had been having sexual intercourse,” the photographer said.

The proprietor of the New York House hotel in Lafayette, Indiana, testified that Cordelia had stayed at his establishment for several weeks in 1862. During that time, she was often visited by a man named Joseph Deeds who claimed to be her uncle. The witness indicated that he later learned that Deeds was not related to Cordelia, but was “merely keeping her for purposes of prostitution, and had been intimate with her and paid her way for a long time.”

Finally, a Lafayette doctor testified that he had examined Cordelia around 1859 and found swellings and bubaes in her groin, leading him to conclude that she had syphilis. Her reputation for chastity, the doctor said, was “not very good.”

Based on the evidence presented, Christopher S. German was granted a divorce from Cordelia German on Aug. 20, 1863. Both Christopher and Cordelia went on to marry other people in 1864. Cordelia’s second marriage lasted less than six years; Christopher’s marriage to 21-year-old widow Louisa Van lasted the rest of his life. When he died in 1896, his obituary did not mention his starter marriage to the adulterous Cordelia Lynch.

Erika Holst is a Springfield historian and author of Wicked Springfield: Crime, Corruption, and Scandal During the Lincoln Era.

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