Curated Groupings

A Case of Mistaken Identity: William Harlan and Tad Lincoln

Five photographs from the Lincoln Family Album Collection have long been identified as images of Tad Lincoln, including four believed to have been taken in 1871, shortly before his death at the tragically young age of 18.  His body had grown thinner and his face longer as his fatal illness progressed, according to the common assumption.  Recent research, however, has found the real reason for Tad's drastic change: the long, lean young man is not Tad.  He is William Harlan.

William Aaron Harlan was the son of Iowa Senator and Abraham Lincoln colleague James Harlan and the brother of Robert Todd Lincoln's wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln.  William was close to Tad's age, and the two were good friends.  Despite William's close connections to the Lincolns, he has been largely forgotten over time.  The photographs of William in the Lincoln family's collection were not labeled, and subsequent generations of scholars and perhaps even Lincoln descendants forgot about William and assumed the young man in the photographs must be the youngest Lincoln son.  The error is now corrected.  This boy in the background of the Lincoln story, an overlooked member of the small and tightly knit Lincoln-Harlan family, has finally been brought to light.

Learn more about both boys and the connections between their families by clicking on the above images, all taken from the Lincoln Family Album Collection.

Thanks to Joy Conwell at Iowa Wesleyan College and Paul C. Juhl, author of "The James Harlan and Robert Todd Lincoln Families' Mount Pleasant Memories," for their assistance.