Portrait of Emil Bessels in Fur Parka, 1880, by the United States National Museum Photographic Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-007, Image no. MNH-1122A.

Smithsonian Collections, But Make It Fashion: An Archival Mystery Solved

For Social Media Day, we’re recapping how a Facebook follower solved an archival mystery by giving a name to our most popular “unidentified male model.”

“Were these pictures taken in or around Bushwick (by any chance)?”

“That’s probably a modern picture of a bartender, I’m sorry, a ‘mixologist,’  in Portland. It was taken by his friend that only does plate glass photography, because anything else isn’t pure.”

“I see this dude at Trader Joe’s every day”

“Less 1880s more 2014 Instagram beard model at Burning Man”

“Yo what’s his @ ?”

Two photographs of a man wearing a fur coat. The hood is on in the left photo.

As you might be able to discern from the comments above, these photographs of a man modeling a fur parka are always pretty popular on social media. Though we strive to get those “likes,” our main goal is to share Smithsonian history through our collections. Unfortunately, we didn’t know much about this Archives icon, who was labeled as an “unidentified male model” with Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology in the 1880s. That is, until one of our social media followers helped solve the mystery.

Sometimes, social media is terrible. But most times, it’s pretty darn wonderful. 

In April 2020, we used the images of the model to make a light joke about wearing the same sweater all week while working from home. You had to be there. But what came of the facetious post was the answer we had been waiting for in the Facebook comments when Heidi Moses, a volunteer with the Smithsonian Transcription Center, recognized the man as German naturalist Emil Bessels.

Card of Bessels in a uniform and holding a gun.

After a short search, our photo archivist confirmed that the nineteenth-century heartthrob was, indeed, Bessels and we were able to update our records immediately. The mystery was solved thanks to our generous social media follower and we closed the book on the former mystery man forever. 

Psych! 

What came out of a brief, online search of Bessels, dear reader, is a murder (?) mystery.  

Tune in for part two of this story in August, when we’ll explore more about Bessels, the Polaris expedition in the Arctic, and the suspicious death of explorer Charles Francis Hall. 

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