The poet, professor and eBay Collector finds Dickinson photo

By Pamela H. Sacks


WORCESTER — It may be the smartest purchase Philip F. Gura ever made. Or the most disappointing.

Mr. Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an avid collector of daguerreotypes and old photographs.

Three years ago, he was scanning lists on eBay and came across an image identified as that of poet Emily Dickinson. It piqued his curiosity, because he knew there was only one known image of her, taken when she was 17.

When Mr. Gura pulled up the print on the Internet auction site, he was astounded. It bore a remarkable resemblance to the documented photograph of the dark-eyed, dark-haired Miss Dickinson, which is kept at Amherst College. Written on the back in 19th century script was her name and “/died/rec 1886,” the year she died.

Mr. Gura quickly researched the life of the famous American writer and consulted with scholars.

“They said, `You should take a chance. It looks awfully convincing,’ ” he remembered.

He bought the albumen print for $481 and embarked on detective work to verify the identity of the slender, somber-looking woman. The sleuthing involved a Dickinson biographer, a forensic anthropologist and a scholar of dress.


Mr. Gura studied portraits of Amherst and Boston photographers of the era in search of the distinctive chair in which the alleged Miss Dickinson sits. He compared the script on the back of the image with autographs of people whom the poet knew.

Mr. Gura said recently in a telephone interview that he has arrived at a possible scenario of where and when the photograph may have been taken, and who may have had it. Tonight, he will share his ideas in a lecture at the American Antiquarian Society titled “How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson.”

The most encouraging evidence that the image is that of the elusive, reclusive Miss Dickinson is contained in a report from forensic anthropologist Dr. Richard Jantz, of the University of Tennessee.

Dr. Jantz measured several key points of the faces of both photographs — centers of eyes, nostrils, and corners of mouth — and wrote last October that the comparisons are “quite good,” and “actually pretty impressive, and perhaps makes the case well enough.”

“Overall, the images are consistent and we are unable to exclude the individual in the suspect photograph,” Dr. Jantz’s report states.

This was good news, indeed.

Frequently in these types of cases, the measurements are found to be askew; one image does not match the other, Mr. Gura said.

“They couldn’t say that in this case,” he said. “They also couldn’t say that these measurements would be precisely right.


“It’s very exciting,” he added. “A lot of people believe it is very, very probably her, but that’s where we are at this point.”

A key person who is persuaded is biographer Alfred Habegger. He has endorsed the image as an authentic portrait of the “Belle of Amherst” in an appendix to his book “My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson.”

Mr. Gura’s visit to Worcester is a return to his roots, so to speak. He spent his childhood in Ware, and his parents still live in the area. He attended Ware schools and graduated from Phillips Academy Andover.

He went on to Harvard University, where he wrote his honors thesis on the early church history of Ware. He also earned his doctorate at Harvard. He has held several fellowships at the Antiquarian Society.

Mr. Gura said he relishes diversity and does not like to be pegged as a scholar in one area of study. He has written books on Puritan radicalism in New England and the history of the banjo, a subject that was entirely new to him when he undertook the research. He is now completing a volume on the history of the Martin Guitar Co.


“I work in American studies,” he said. “I pick any topic in American culture and follow it up.”

He was, of course, familiar with Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but the details of her life were unfamiliar to him. Now, he may know her as well as anyone could.

“She was such a mysterious person and so reclusive, there might be a way of explaining where this image went,” Mr. Gura said. “That’s what the talk is about.”