Mystery Justice Identified. Probably.

The mystery man (Mass. Supreme Judicial Court via AP)

I mentioned last month that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had asked the public for help identifying the man in the portrait shown above. Court staff assumed he was a former justice, mainly because his portrait has been hanging in the courthouse for umpteen years (give or take), but there’s no name plate attached so they weren’t really sure. See Court No Longer Recognizes Justice” (Feb. 8, 2018).

Well, the court announced on March 29 that it had solved the mystery. So if you had “Lemuel Shaw” in your office pool, congratulations, you’re a winner.

Also kind of a loser. But still.

According to the court’s press release, the mystery was solved by Trial Court Assistant Chief Court Officer Keith Downer, who in addition to his trial-court-assistant-chief-court-officer duties also has experience in forensic science as well as the antiques and fine-art business. Downer inspected the painting and did a little research, but the breakthrough seems to have been his use of UV and other light sources to examine the canvas more closely. When he did so, he discovered the initials “LS” on the top rail of the canvas stretcher. Did the court have any former justices with those initials?

It did. In fact, it had a former chief justice with those initials, and one who had been on the court for thirty years. Lemuel Shaw also served four terms in the state legislature before being appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court, where he served for three decades (1830–1860).1

But nobody knew what he looked like?

That isn’t too unusual for people born in the 18th century (or earlier), I suppose, because there was no photography at all until the first half of the 19th, and so your likeness would only survive if you were important enough to have somebody draw, paint, or sculpt you. But Shaw was important enough, and he lived until 1861, and so it really isn’t that hard to find portraits and photographs of him. A few of them are in the gallery below. To me, it’s hard to say whether this is the same person shown in the portrait above. They don’t look that similar at first glance, but the portrait could have been painted when Shaw was relatively young, while the photos were taken when he was in his mid-to-late 70s. But see what you think.

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The “LS” on the canvas is the only evidence cited in the press release, and aren’t canvases usually signed by the artist? But maybe they also put the subject’s initials in there too. I suppose if you did a lot of portraits, all the faces might start to look the same after a while.

In any event, the press release concedes the identification is not 100% certain, but it’s good enough for the court. So it considers the mystery solved.

The court says it got 42 “informed guesses” from members of the public, naming 24 different individuals. Ten people guessed “Lemuel Shaw,” and they will be invited to attend a ceremony in which a name plate that is probably accurate will be attached to the portrait. And that will more or less settle the matter.


1 Shaw was also Herman Melville’s father-in-law, which probably explains the famous first line of Moby Dick, “Call me Lemuel.”