Reader Paula Prince questioned the accuracy of a photograph we published in our December 2018/January 2019 issue that purported to show suffrage leader Matilda Joslyn Gage among a group of suffrage demonstrators (Letters, FI, April/May 2019). Prince argued that the clothing depicted was inappropriate for the claimed date of 1876; she argued that the photo must date from substantially later. In my reply, I noted that the photo (obtained from a stock-photo archive that identified it as an 1876 photo including Gage) was ambiguous and might be dated more reliably if the distinctive building in the background could be identified.
CFI Libraries Director Timothy Binga rose to the challenge, and what can I say? We (and our stock-photo service) were wrong. Paula Prince was right. Binga’s research revealed that the building in the background housed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, an organization that sought a Constitutional amendment giving women the vote. The building was located on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., steps from the White House. The Congressional Union leased the house in autumn 1915 and retained it for two years.
During this time, it was apparently common for visiting suffragist groups to line up in front of the building and display their protest banners. The photo we published shows one of those “lineups”; it must date from 1915–1917. Because Matilda Joslyn Gage died in 1898, obviously she is not in the photo.
The misidentification of this twentieth-century image appears to be longstanding. As director of the Freethought Trail, I peruse a good deal of Gage-related material, and this photo keeps turning up, most recently in poster art for Pushed Aside: Reclaiming Gage, a new opera enjoying multiple performances in west-central New York State near Gage’s home in the village of Fayetteville. (The Matilda Joslyn Gage Center, based there, is a coanchor of the Freethought Trail.)
Speaking of the Freethought Trail, there’s a serendipitous connection to agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll, whose Dresden, New York, birthplace is the Trail’s other coanchor. The building that once housed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage is now known as the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe house, named for the businessperson and diplomat who built the house in 1828. It was one of three historic buildings that were preserved in 1961 and integrated into the Howard T. Markey National Courts Building, site of the United States Court of Federal Claims and the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The historic building immediately adjacent to the Tayloe house was the Cosmos Club building, which in its turn was erected upon the site of Ingersoll’s Lafayette Square residence. Go figure.