Caught Our Eyes: Esther Lyons, “Klondike Girl”

[Esther Lyons at the] Summit of Chilkoot Pass, Yukon Territory. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12624

[Esther Lyons at the] Summit of Chilkoot Pass, Yukon Territory. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12624

This curious picture of a woman mountaineer recently caught my eye as I happened upon it in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. My first thought was: “What is the Wicked Witch of the West doing traversing a high mountain pass in the Yukon Territory?” But, this playful impression was soon supplanted by two more germane questions: “Who was Esther Lyons?” and “Why is her likeness superimposed on this scene?”

I didn’t have to look too far for answers, as a “Summary” provided in the catalog record explains that the “Photograph shows the actress Esther Lyons inserted into a picture of Chilkoot Pass. Although Lyons wrote a series of articles about the expedition she claimed to have taken, and lectured about it for the rest of her life, later research indicated there is no evidence of her participation in the expedition and that, in fact, she could not have been on the expedition at that time.” But, why did she bother?

[Esther Lyons on a] Raft, Lake Linderman, British Columbia. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12626 on, 1894. Copyright by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12626

[Esther Lyons on a] Raft, Lake Linderman, British Columbia. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12626

[Esther Lyons at] Camp Lake Bennett, British Columbia. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Copyright by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12627

[Esther Lyons at] Camp Lake Bennett, British Columbia. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12627

[Esther Lyons outside the] Theater at 40 Miles, Yukon Territory. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Copyright by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12625

[Esther Lyons outside the] Theater at 40 Miles, Yukon Territory. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12625

I was intrigued when I noticed that there are three more similar scenes “documenting”  Lyons’ participation in this Yukon expedition.  A cataloger’s “Note” in the Group Record  provides further specifics: ”Actress Esther Lyons (1864-1938) used these photographs to illustrate her 1898 series of articles in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly describing her participation in the 1894 trip. The original photographs appear without Lyons in [Veazie] Wilson’s Yukon Gold Fields Guide (1895) and in Glimpses of Alaska (1897). Research has indicated that Lyons was acting in the East and Mid-west during the Wilson expedition. Nevertheless, she continued to lecture about the trip for the rest of her life.” (See Melanie G. Myers’ article on “The Mystery of Ester Lyons, the ‘Klondike Girl'” cited in “Learn More” below.)

To our contemporary eyes exposed to countless images and trained to observe trickery and fakery in pictures, these late 19th century photographs appear obviously to have been manipulated. But, one wonders if viewers over one hundred years ago might have been less skeptical than our jaded 21st century sensibility?

Learn More:

  • These “Klondike Girl” photographs are examples of composite photographs. The Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM) defines composite photographs as “photographs made through multiple exposure of negatives, sandwiching negatives, or other means of combining negatives.”  See a variety of composite photographs via the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
  • A related visual format is a montage, which the TGM defines as “compositions made by juxtaposing or superimposing multiple pictures to create a single image. [A montage] May be produced by pasting together whole or partial pictures or by recopying multiple images through photography or scanning.” Compare the visual similarity of montages to composite photographs.
  • Read about an example of photo sleuthing in “Solving a Civil War Photograph Mystery” in which the facts are revealed behind a photograph purported to picture  General Grant [on Horseback] at City Point.
  •  ”The Mystery of Ester Lyons, the ‘Klondike Girl’,” by Melanie J. Mayer, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Summer 2003, pg. 115-129.

One Comment

  1. John Barnes
    April 26, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    If you’re wondering why, you need only look at the very well documented economic conditions of actors in the US, Canada, and Britain in the 1880-1930 era. Rehearsal pay was all but unknown (so that even after getting cast an actor generally had to both rehearse 3-6 hours daily and work a separate full time job until the first pay envelope, generally about 10 days after opening). When a show flopped, actors were often the “first not paid.” Until a bit past WW1, in many smaller companies actors were expected to supply their own costumes, have their hair done at their own expense, etc.

    So any actor who found a steady gig continued in it if it was at all bearable. Hence such things as shilling in medicine shows and stooging in religious revivals, the “greatest hits from a bunch of plays you’ve read” tours of Western mining camps (good example can be seen in the movie Tombstone), and tab shows (essentially being a living mannequin to illustrate a lecture or sermon, good re-creation in this Sawyer Brown video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNTGetENYys). Anything that resulted in getting paid most weeks was a good thing, and if one of them worked, you went with it. (The touring Uncle Tom’s Cabin productions sometimes had actors who started out as Liza’s baby crossing the ice in 1870 and finished up as elderly Uncle Tom sometime in the 30s; why leave when work is so hard to get? — And one not-unknown-at-all alternate actor gig was delivering various educational lectures as Professor GuyFromNotHere, some about real subjects (researched perhaps from an encyclopedia),many about fakeable things like psychic phenomena or the customs of the people of Madeupistan, and perhaps most like this: a little research, staying fairly far away from people who might contradict her, and Klondike Girl was set for life. Beat the daylights out of trying out for five chorus roles a day to get the chance to be unpaid for three months in the hopes of making it into a successful musical.

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