DOWNTOWN — The man best remembered for photographing a beardless Abraham Lincoln also took what's likely the oldest-known photo in Chicago history.
Alexander Hesler's 1855 daguerreotype of the Cook County Court House and City Hall is the oldest image available at the Chicago History Museum. It's also probably the oldest image in the city's history, according to Russell Lewis, executive vice president and chief historian at the museum.
Lewis said the 8-by-10-inch daguerreotype is not on public display. He said it was donated by Dr. Otto Schmidt, who was president of the Chicago Historical Society in the 1920s.
Hesler, a Quebec native, moved to Chicago in 1855. He stayed in the city until after the Great Fire of 1871, moving to Evanston before returning to Chicago in 1880, according to the book Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography.
The daguerreotype photo process was invented in 1839. The term is defined as a picture made on a silver surface "sensitized with iodine [and] developed by exposure to mercury vapor."
The courthouse and City Hall building was erected in 1853 from plans by John M. Van Osdel, Chicago's first architect, according to Encyclopedia of Chicago. Lewis said, at the time, it was the tallest building in Chicago.
The "cupola-crowned edifice" was built because "Chicagoans demanded a far grander county courthouse and city hall as the city's population swelled over 30,000," according to the encyclopedia.
The building, which "stood in the center of the block bounded by Randolph, Clark, Washington and LaSalle streets," was destroyed in the 1871 fire. The daguerreotype from 1855 shows the northwest corner of the building at Randolph and LaSalle, Lewis said.
The Tribune described Hesler, who died in 1895, as "the most famous daguerreotypist in the United States" for many years. He also took several photos of the city in 1858 from the roof of the court house-City Hall building.
Perhaps his most famous photo is the one of a beardless Lincoln taken June 3, 1860, before Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency. According to the American Museum of Photography, Lincoln said of the photograph: "That looks better and expresses me better than any I have ever seen; if it pleases the people I am satisfied."
After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral procession eventually made it to Chicago, and more than 100,000 people packed the Court House/City Hall building and its surroundings, Lewis said.
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