Source: Library of Congress
By Jeff Bridgers
This curious picture of a woman mountaineer recently caught my eye as I happened upon it in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. My first thought was: “What is the Wicked Witch of the West doing traversing a high mountain pass in the Yukon Territory?” But, this playful impression was soon supplanted by two more germane questions: “Who was Esther Lyons?” and “Why is her likeness superimposed on this scene?”
I didn’t have to look too far for answers, as a “Summary” provided in the catalog record explains that the “Photograph shows the actress Esther Lyons inserted into a picture of Chilkoot Pass. Although Lyons wrote a series of articles about the expedition she claimed to have taken, and lectured about it for the rest of her life, later research indicated there is no evidence of her participation in the expedition and that, in fact, she could not have been on the expedition at that time.” But, why did she bother?
I was intrigued when I noticed that there are three more similar scenes “documenting” Lyons’ participation in this Yukon expedition. A cataloger’s “Note” in the Group Record provides further specifics: ”Actress Esther Lyons (1864-1938) used this photograph to illustrate her 1898 series of articles in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly describing her participation in the 1894 trip.
The original photographs appear without Lyons in [Veazie] Wilson’s Yukon Gold Fields Guide (1895) and in Glimpses of Alaska (1897). Research has indicated that Lyons was acting in the East and Mid-west during the Wilson expedition. Nevertheless, she continued to lecture about the trip for the rest of her life.” (See Melanie G. Myers’ article on “The Mystery of Ester Lyons, the ‘Klondike Girl’” cited in “Learn More” below.)
To our contemporary eyes exposed to countless images and trained to observe trickery and fakery in pictures, these late 19th century photographs appear obviously to have been manipulated. But, one wonders if viewers over one hundred years ago might have been less skeptical than our jaded 21st century sensibility?
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