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Dating Old Photos
Dated Imprints
Public Domain

'Dr' J Atkyn

Beaver Island MI

Copyright 2006 by Andrew J Morris

This report is going to be a bit shorter than usual, an example of a photographer on whom we just couldn't find much info -- along with a probable explanation of why that is. We usually include information from original sources such as census records or vital records, to bolster our biographical sketches, but in this case there just is not any such information available. Still, we have an interesting story to tell (based on secondary sources) and an example of a fine daguerreotype from this mysterious artist.

Most of what we know about J Atkyn comes from a slightly biased biographical sketch from historians of the Strangite sect of Mormonism. They are loath to say anything good about him ... after all Atkyn was implicated in the assassination of the founder and leader of their group, James J Strang. Ironically, he also took the only known photograph of Strang, the image we have reproduced below.

It is not our purpose here to describe the Strangite religion, the interested reader can find details on that group by searching that term in any Internet search engine. Suffice to say that they were an offshoot of Mormonism, begun by James Strang, a disciple of Joseph Smith after Smith's death. Strang and his followers settled in Voree Wisconsin and on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.

Dr J Atkyn first made his appearance on Beaver Island in 1850, kicked off a steamboat for refusing to pay his fare, according to the Mormon biographer. Whatever his true status may have been, it does not appear that he was practicing photography at that time. He soon left the island, but returned in 1852 claiming "the charity of James J. Strang as a brother master-Mason in distress." Recovering his health he was off again, and spent some time in Council Bluffs Iowa, where he is accused of instigating an anti-Mormon handbill lampooning the church leaders there in 1854.

Perhaps he also learned the daguerreian process at Council Bluffs, or maybe he stopped in Chicago for a while, but by the summer of 1855 he returned to Beaver Island as a daguerreian artist, though lacking the required equipment. He proposed to go east for the daguerreotyping apparatus, and return for the winter to take portraits.

He did return later that year, but penniless and without the equipment. He claimed to have been robbed "under operation of chloroform in the cars near the Niagara suspension bridge" -- and even had a newspaper clipping describing the crime. The skeptical Mormon historian points out that the clipping did not name the victim however, so we are left uncertain on the truth of the claim.

In any case, he persuaded James M Wait, a merchant on the island, to purchase the camera and other equipment, valued at $200, which Atkyn promised to repay out of his profits from the venture. Apparently Atkyn was operational by late 1855, as on December 6th Strang wrote in the Northern Islander, a newspaper Strang edited and published on Beaver Island:

We have examined specimens of Daguerreotypes taken by Bro. A. at the Saint James Daguerrean Gallery. We feel fully justified in stating that they are equal to any in the western states, and inferior to none. Whether the artist is more skillful, his chemicals more scientifically compounded, his apparatus superior, or his sitters better looking, we know not.

The next spring (1856) the following ad appeared:

Correct and Life-like Daguerreotypes.
J. Atkyn. Daguerrean Artist.
St. James Hall, Beaver Island, Mich.

Having fitted and furnished his Daguerrean Room in a style for comfort and convenience, not surpassed by any in Manitue and adjacent counties, will be happy to receive visitors. His mode of taking pictures completely obviates the necessity of sitting from one to three minutes. It can be done as well in from ten to thirty seconds, and in all cases less than one minute.

N. B. Instructions in the art, with all the late improvements, given. Ladies and gentlemen would do well to give him a call. His pictures are taken on silver plate, over which is a coating of gold. They will not corrode at sea, or change in any climate; are beautiful in tenor, bold and clear in effect. Call and examine specimens, at St. James Hall.

Gallery open from 9 A.M., to 4 P.M.

Likenesses taken in clear or cloudy weather.

Beaver Island, April 28, 1856.

Here is the only daguerreotype currently identified as being Atkyn's work, a portrait of James Strang:

James Strang portrait by Atkyn

A couple weeks after the above ad appeared, Atkyn left the island for Chicago, along with Dr Hezekiah D McCulloch, and the Mormon's believe they conspired against Strang. As soon as Atkyn left, his studio equipment was seized for debt by Franklin Johnson, McCulloch's business partner, so claims of collusion between the two seems unlikely. In any case, Strang was shot by Thomas Bedford and Alexander Wentworth on June 20th 1856. The reasons given by non-Mormon historians involve no conspirators, while Mormon historians claim McCulloch, Johnson, Atkyn and others 'were involved'. Whatever the truth, that is the last mention we find of Atkyn.

So why is Atkyn so difficult to find in census and other records? Strang may have been correct when he accused Atkyn of fostering animosity against the Mormons, saying that he "assumed a new name once in a few days, ever on the move," during the days just before the assassination. It may have been a life-long habit. I suspect the records do not exist for Atkyn because he used other names. Without some clues as to his age, place of origin, and real name -- it is impossible to locate him in genealogy records.

Consider the name Atkyn. The indexes for all US censuses list only a dozen references to ATKYN, all of those 1900 or later. The name ATKYNS has about the same, though they start a bit earlier, by 1870. The more probable ATKIN spelling has just a bit over 50 citations, while ATKINS has tens of thousands. So perhaps his name was really Atkins? Craig's Daguerreian Registry lists only two Atkins whose first names begin with the letter J, and both of those are in New York at the time in question.

Another of Craig's listings for Atkins comes closer to the mark, though the initial is given as C -- "C Atkins Possible daguerreian, Jefferson Street, corner of Randolph, Detroit, Mich., 1859, employed by G. Grelling. He lived at 47 Madison Street." The only candidate we find in the 1860 census is Charles Atkins, age 20, living in his father and mother's household with a brother and a sister -- occupation 'painter.' No way to know if he was the 'possible daguerreian' or not, certainly he was too young to be Dr Atkyn.

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