Who are These Women? Lessons in Photograph Identification

The following photograph, I’m sure you’ll agree, is intriguing. Posing together are two women, one of whom appears to be multiracial, the other white. Are they sisters? sisters-in-law? cousins? No one knows for certain, because no one knows exactly who these women are. All that is certain is that they were somehow connected to the Knight family of Jones County, Mississippi.


Who are these women?

Who are these women?

This photograph embodies the problems faced by authors of biographical studies—that of identifying accurately the subjects of their photos. Simply because a donor identifies a person as so-and-so doesn’t make it so. When that book is published, the author will quickly learn if others disagree with the donor’s opinion! No where is this more evident than in two rival photos published elsewhere on this blog (see here and here), both of which are claimed to be of Rachel Knight. In truth, no one can say definitively that either of the two competing photos is of Rachel. Yvonne Bivins believes that the second photo is Rachel because it fits her grandfather’s description of what she looked like, while Annette Knight has identified the same woman as Martha Ann Knight, her grandmother and a daughter of Rachel’s.

 In regard to the first picture, which appeared on the cover of my book, The Free State of Jones, I have long since relinquished my claim that it is Rachel. Yet, while some believe that the photo is of either Anna or Lessie Knight (Rachel’s granddaughters), others, including Dianne Walkup, still believe that it may indeed be Rachel.

To understand why, let’s return to the photo at the top of the page. Dianne believes that the woman on the left is the same woman who appeared on the cover of my book, and that both are Rachel. She and her sister Aggie believe that the woman on the right is Newt Knight’s white wife, Serena. They reason that she looks like a young version of the aged Serena who appears with her husband Newt in a photo taken late in the nineteenth century (see p. 154 of Free State of Jones). Since they also believe that Rachel and Serena came to terms with sharing Newt’s affections, they are not surprised that the women would pose together. It was George Ann’s relationship with Newt after Rachel’s death in 1889, Dianne asserts, that caused Serena to leave Newt’s household (ex-slave Martha Wheeler asserted the same. See p. 159 of Free State of Jones). The fact that Serena moved into the household of her son-in-law, Jeffrey (son of Rachel) and her daughter, Mollie (Jeffrey’s wife), is viewed by Dianne as further proof that Serena was alienated by George Ann’s relationship with Newt, but not from her multiracial family.

Yvonne Bivins believes just as firmly that the above photo is not of Rachel and Serena. Rather, Yvonne believes the woman on the left might be Anna Knight (consistent with other photos of Anna), and that the woman on the right might be Candace Smith Knight, who she identifies as the wife of Anna’s brother, John Howard Knight. Candace Smith was from the multiracial Smith/Ainsworth family. Many members of this family were white-skinned despite their “one drop” of African ancestry. If Yvonne is correct, then, this is a photo of multiracial sisters-in-law.

Clearly, unless a person’s name appears on an old photograph (and even then there’s a chance it’s wrong), or unless there is broad consensus among descendants about who that person is, one has only theories, not facts, to guide in the identification of photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sometimes theories will produce consensus, but often they don’t. Given all the uncertainty, is anyone surprised to learn that NO photograph purported to be of Rachel Knight will appear in my forthcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War?!

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Vikki Bynum

13 replies »

  1. The person on the left of the above picture is Anna Knight.

    Not sure about the other person. I have a copy of this and will see if anything is written on the back,



    • Thanks, Dorothy. I am going to post a return visit to that photo in question very soon, so if you find any additional identification on the photo, please let us know!






    • A copy of the photo in question who I believe to Rachel is in the possession of Martha Doris Welborn. It was given to her late husband, Herman by Lacy Knight along with many other items. I still stand my belief that this is indeed a photo of Rachel based on the description of Rachel as told to me by my mother and her cousin, Cleo Knight Garraway and matches one that I saw in the box of photos along with other possession of Anna Knight obtained by Florence Blaylock. Also, a careful examination of photos of Anna as a young woman and the photo on the cover of The Free State of Jones shows that they are the same person, especially when they of super imposed over each other.

      For some reason, my relatives seem to question my extremely careful, extensive and monetarily expensive research. Knowing that many white descendants of the Knights might question the research, I was meticulous in documenting my sources of information, however, I find some of my relatives have problems with findings that do no coincide with their perception of the relationship between Rachel and Newton Knight. These perceptions I believe may have been instilled based on Ethel Knight’s book, Echo of the Black Horn, where she describes Rachel standing on the auction block. The only child born to Rachel and fathered by Newton Knight that was white in appearance, was John Steward Knight. The other children had medium brown complexions, namely, John Madison, Martha Ann, John Floyd and Augusta Ann. This applies to Rachel’s children Jeffrey and Fan, as well.



  3. Dorothy,

    Thanks for adding your voice to this debate. I welcome all opinions, and think it would be interesting to display side-by-side some of the other photos of Anna Knight that show a strong resemblence to this photo. If you’d care to submit them, I would be happy to post them.



  4. This is a fascinating blog. I’m glad I ran across it. I have a couple of ideas about identifying people in old photos, learned while working in a museum.

    These are beautiful and stylish women. Look carefully at the dress styles. Young women will be likely to wear the current styles of their day, while elderly women may wear “out of date” styles if they have worn the same “best” dress for years.

    Also, I always check the earlobes. Some people have earlobes attached all the way to the bottom, while others have loose or detached lobes. Earlobes are especially useful in deciding whether two portraits are of the same person at different ages, when other features may have changed.


    • Martha,

      Thank you for your praise for Renegade South, and thanks especially for some very useful information about how to analyze photos! I’ll definitely be putting those ideas into practice.



  5. Vikki,

    I’ve seen this type of image create more issues in family photos than any other. It opens a can of worms and often makes identification more difficult.

    This image is what is known in archival circles as a “crayon enlargement.” With early photographic processes, it was not possible to get reprints or enlargements until printing-out paper came along. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes are negative images–in other words, they ARE the original negatives, and there was no way to produce copies. They are one-of-a-kinds because they’re often the only copy. (Later in the tintype period a method was developed to expose multiple plates in camera so that one would have several tintypes of the same sitting.)

    When paper came along in the form of carte-de-visite and cabinet card photographs, the process of enlarging was invented. Family members could now send off their precious dags, ambrotypes, and tintypes, and the copy house would re-photograph them and print out a lifesized, faint image onto a large paper canvas. Using the faint, underlying image, the in-house artists would then fill it in with crayon, charcoal, pastels, etc. (almost like paint-by-numbers). This is why they appear to have an “airbrushed” quality.

    Here is where the problem lies with crayon enlargements: families could “create” history. Families who did not have an image of their matriarch and patriarch together, widows who did not have an image sitting together with their late husbands, etc. could submit two or more individual photographs and the enlargers could place them together (Photoshopping before Photoshop was invented!). You can almost always discern the individual nature of the original photos of the two sitters. They often appear in unnatural poses in relation to each other, and sometimes their ratios don’t match. And yes, the enlarger could even make them appear to tilt their heads towards each other!

    Yes, this makes things more difficult, yet more interesting, too. Whoever these women are, one then wonders if one of the families constructed an image such as this for the purpose of validation, or even reconciliation. Bear in mind that crayon enlargements were created from the 1860s-1920s, and the sitters were often deceased. Photo houses would advertise the process as a way for families to memorialize their loved ones.

    In researching and writing my upcoming book on my Covington County ancestor, antebellum planter Robert Magee, I had to learn a good bit on the art of photo identification. I’ve learned that, before one can ID or confirm a sitter, one has to narrow down the date of the image as much as possible. Doing this, alone, can rule out many possibilites of identity. One first has to ascertain the type of image, as most of the photographic processes have a particular range of years of production. After that, you can focus on further dating by clothing and hairstyles.

    Unfortunately, narrowing down the date of the original images depicted in crayon enlargements can be the most difficult, as you will often find that the clothing can be updated by the enlarging artist (very frustrating). I’ve seen crayon enlargements of men with hairstyles that can be dated to the 1850s, yet they’ll have ties that weren’t around until the 1890s. Families and artists alike took great liberties with these crayon enlargements!

    Sometimes, you can actually find the original dag, ambrotype, or tintype that a crayon enlargement is based upon. I have several examples in my own collection.

    By the way, the image on page 154 of Free State of Jones is one of these crayon enlargements. The original images of the two sitters may have been made at different times.

    Love your work, and flipping love this blog!



    • Brian,

      How interesting and informative! I appreciate your taking the time to explain this process of “crayoning,” and the problems and uncertainties it creates. It reminds me of a group photo from the 1890s that I have in my possession in which one can detect fairly easily on close study that the person of interest had been “added” after the fact. I’ve also seen photos where a loved one was added to a family photo after their death for sentimental reasons–what a way to confound future family researchers! It’s well to remember that long before photoshopping came into vogue, alterations were being made.

      I’m glad you like the blog, and thanks so much for your insights!



  6. anyone who might know about, or could point me in the correct direction, would really help me. my family has deep, sturdy roots in both jones and forrest counties, mississippi. my paternal grandparents are robbins and temple, both families living in or around laurel during my grandparents’ childhoods. my maternal grandparents are smith and harper with homesteads around collins (i may have that confused with clinton) and eastabuchie. there is also a great, great grandmother that is said to have been 100% choctaw. any and all information can be used to declare a potential ancestral lineage, or to help rule out the possibility. also, please advise me of anything i may be doing wrong, i.e., using family names without stopping to consider that it could create sadness or other ill feelings for surviving family. thank you, rob.


  7. As far as to who the women are in the photograph I have no clue. I was researching my great grandmother ella bivens knight and clicked on this and on that and ended up here…lol. My comment is in regards to the woman on the left. Is it possible that this may be a post-mortem picture? If you look closely it appears that there is something behind her that resembles the apparatus they used back then to hold the deceased person upright and in place for the sitting. another possible clue would be how clearly her image is. A good clear photo back then was only obtained by the person getting photographed to be absolutely still as possible, and you couldnt get more still than dead. If it is a post mortem, that might be a vital clue to help with her identity.


  8. Thank you for your comment. It’s true; post-mortem photos were popular during the 19th century. But, no, this is not one of them. This photo has since been identified as Anna Knight (daughter of George Ann Knight and granddaughter of Rachel Knight) on the left. On the right is her closest college friend, who was identified to me by her ancestors a few years ago. Unfortunately, I lost that email message before posting the information, and have forgotten the name of that friend.



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