Even Presidents Get Lost: Archivist Recovers a Picture of a Young FDR

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The process of going through our stores of historical images and documents is sure to result in lovely little surprises like this one.

FDR-Brooklyn-Navy-Yard-Laying-Keel.png

National Archives

Michael Horsley was in the middle of a long day scanning glass plate negatives at the National Archives' Digital Imaging Lab in College Park, Maryland, when a single caption leapt out from among the hundreds whizzing across his monitor: "Laying the Keel of U.S.S Battleship No. 39 Arrival of Asst. Scty [sic] F.D. Roosevelt, & Others." In that instant, Horsley's brain fired that there was something there, and he asked his colleague to go back through the images that had passed by to find it again.

Horsley got a closer look at the image. A man in the foreground on scaffolding, watching a group of dignitaries pass below. "Striding confidently in the front of the group," Horsley writes on the Archives' blog, NARAtions, "was a smiling figure wearing a stylish derby hat with his head cocked staring straight at the camera." Could it be the future president? Horsley knew that at some point Roosevelt had contracted polio and used a wheelchair thereafter, but he wasn't sure when that had occurred. Could this photo show Roosevelt walking?

Horsley zoomed in. The man certainly resembled Roosevelt.

FDR-Brooklyn-Navy-Yard-Close-up.png

National Archives

When Horsley googled "FDR" and the "Brooklyn Navy Yard," he was able to confirm the then-assistant secretary's Navy Yard visit during the keel-laying ceremony on the day the photograph was taken, March 16, 1914. The figure was FDR.

Horsley reflects on the discovery, "Thanks to the emphasis placed on digitization and new social media tools that NARA is deploying, it is likely an experienced historian or an astute citizen archivist would eventually have discovered the image when it becomes available online." But, he goes on, such finds also occur even before the public sees the images, as archivists prepare these analog bits of history for life online.

One final, haunting footnote to the discovery: The stories of this man and this ship would intersect again, less than three decades later, when Roosevelt took to the airwaves to announce to the nation the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of the ships lost that day was the Battleship Arizona, or "Battleship No. 39," as it is labeled above, which exploded and sank with more than 1,000 men on board.


Via @pbump.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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