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Some Historical Figures Predate Photography, But Thankfully These Ones Don’t

Steve Palace
Polish-born physicist Marie Curie (1867-1934) and her husband, French chemist Pierre Curie (1859-1906), hold hands with their daughter, Irene, in the garden of their home near Paris, France. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Polish-born physicist Marie Curie (1867-1934) and her husband, French chemist Pierre Curie (1859-1906), hold hands with their daughter, Irene, in the garden of their home near Paris, France. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Photos of iconic figures are available with a couple of clicks. The existence of cameraphones and the like means that, if someone notable is around, chances are they’ll get snapped.

It was different back in history, of course, with painted portraits and sculptures revealing those who existed before the modern camera was invented.

When photography came about, it changed how we saw well-known people forever. Here are some who were caught on camera during these exciting decades.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass told the world about the horrors of slavery, based on first-hand experience. Hailing from Maryland, he escaped his fate to push for abolition, traveling across the Atlantic to spread the word. He supported a range of causes, including women’s rights.

He passed away from a heart attack at the age of 77. Douglass “remained an active speaker, writer and activist until his death,” writes History.

Frederick Douglass portrait
American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who helped recruit African-American regiments during the Civil War, ca. 1879. (Photo Credit: © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Marie Curie

Born in Poland in 1867 as Maria Salomea Skłodowska, Marie and her husband Pierre Curie blazed a trail through the fields of psychics and chemistry. Their efforts in establishing the idea of radioactivity earned them the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, alongside fellow physicist Henri Becquerel.

Marie won her own Nobel Prize in 1911 for chemistry. Tragically, she died due to a disease of the blood, contracted after exposure to radiation.

Madame Curie in her lab
Madame Curie noted physical chemist, poses in her Paris laboratory. Undated photograph. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Harriet Tubman

Born in Maryland in the early 19th century, and the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie, Tubman ran unimaginable risks by fleeing her enslavement.

“I grew up like a neglected weed,” she told Benjamin Drew in 1855, “ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.”

She became associated with the Underground Railroad, a secret network that enabled others to do the same. In 1913 she passed away and received military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery, New York.

Harriet Tubman,
Harriet Tubman, American born in slavery, escaped 1849, and became leading Abolitionist. Active as a ‘conductor’ in the Underground Railroad. Photograph (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)


While a 1970s disco classic immortalized Grigori Rasputin, his life and legacy were far from the realm of good times. A fixture at the court of Czar Nicholas II, he achieved a mystical status as a spiritual advisor.

Born in 1869, this Russian convinced people he had powers beyond their wildest imaginations. It all came crashing down in 1916, when he was shot as part of a conspiracy to remove him from his influential position.

Rasputin (1871-1916), Russian adventurer healer of czarevitch , protege of the czarina, he was murdered by Prince Ioussoupov. This is a 1908 colorized document (Photo Credit: Apic/Getty Images)

Butch Cassidy

Born in Utah, Robert Leroy Parker – or “Butch” Cassidy, through his role as a butcher – passed into Wild West history. He was in charge of the legendary gang of thieves called the Wild Bunch. Cassidy shared that responsibility with The Sundance Kid.

Raindrops probably fell on his head, however when he reportedly died it was in Bolivia, via a hail of bullets. His death there in 1908 was never confirmed.

Portrait of Butch Cassidy
Portrait of Butch Cassidy, one of the most famous and friendliest western outlaws, taken in prison in 1894. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Blair/Corbis via Getty Images)

Calamity Jane

The movie starring Doris Day is a firm favorite. But of course the real Calamity Jane – Martha Jane Canary – was somewhat different from her Hollywood counterpart. Entering this world in the 1850s, she went on to become part of the fabric of the Old West.

Not that she was a stranger to fictionalized exploits. It’s thought her 1896 autobiography strayed a bit from what actually happened. Canary died in 1903 from a combination of pneumonia and inflammation of the bowels.

Calamity Jane on Horseback. (
1901-Calamity Jane on horseback. (Photo Credit:
Bettmann / Contributor)

Martin Van Buren

He may have had the nickname “The Little Magician,” yet Van Buren’s box of tricks didn’t help him during his time in office as 8th President of the United States. Starting off as Vice President in the 1830s, he reached the White House and ran the show during a period of instability.

He said: “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”

Born Maarten Van Buren in New York (1782), he worked as a lawyer and statesman. In the late 1840s, he tried for the Oval Office again, unsuccessfully. This time he represented the coalition Free Soil Party. He also helped found the Democrats. Van Buren died in 1862 aged 79 as a result of bronchial asthma and heart failure.

Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States of America (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Harriet Beecher Stowe

The author of the game-changing novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Stowe was born in 1811 in Connecticut.

Her powerful story of African American slaves hasn’t aged brilliantly – namely, its stereotypical portrayals of Black people – but is still regarded as an important work. Stowe passed away in the late 19th century, aged 85.

Portrait of author Harriet Beecher Stowe
Portrait of author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Undated photograph. (Photo Credit:
Bettmann / Contributor)

George Armstrong Custer

He was the American cavalry commander who went down in history for the wrong reasons, after his catastrophic defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Over 200 men died on Custer’s watch during the Great Sioux War of that year.

Born in Ohio in 1839, his tactical errors are held up as a classic example of military mismanagement. At one point he confessed that while he “must wish for peace” he added: “if I answer for myself alone, I must say that I shall regret to see the war end.” Custer’s war finished prematurely after he was shot twice.

A seated right-profile of George Armstrong Custer
A seated right-profile of George Armstrong Custer in major general’s uniform, sometime after October 19, 1864. (Photo Credit: George L.  Andrews / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)


The legendary leader of the Apache may have ended his days as a prisoner. But his resistance to hostile forces trying to take Native American land made him a true hero in the eyes of many.

Starting out in what is now New Mexico in 1829, Geronimo got his famous name through conflict. His actual name was Goyahkla, “the one who yawns.” In 1909 he contracted pneumonia following a riding accident and passed away the same year.

Studio portrait of Geronimo
Studio portrait of Native American Apache Indian chief and warrior Geronimo (c.1829 – 1909) wearing an honorary medallion and Western clothes. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“I was born where there were no enclosures,” he said. Though sadly that didn’t continue for the last decades of his life.

Annie Oakley

Phoebe Ann Mosey, better known as Annie Oakley, was a female sharpshooter who became a sensation while working in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She was so talented that she earned more than anyone in the show except Buffalo Bill himself.

Portrait of Annie Oakley
A profile portrait of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, New York, circa 1890. (Photo Credit: White/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

She also taught other women how to shoot, being a strong believer in female self-defense. This portrait of Oakley was taken circa 1890. Annie Oakley died in Greenville, Ohio, on November 3, 1926. She was 66 years old.

Bonnie and Clyde

Arguably the most famous crime couple in the world, Bonnie and Clyde, traveled throughout the United States during the Great Depression. Along with their gang, they committed various different armed assaults. Although they are most famous for their bank robberies, they actually preferred to rob funeral homes and stores. 

Bonnie and Clyde
Portrait of American bank robbers and lovers Clyde Barrow (1909 – 1934) and Bonnie Parker (1911 -1934), popularly known as Bonnie and Clyde, circa 1933. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

They were an interesting pair, a waitress and a poet who wanted to live a more exciting life. They certainly got that, ending up on the run from the predecessor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation. Their efforts to evade the authorities were initially successful, but they eventually culminated in an ambush and shootout in Louisiana on May 23, 1934. The couple tried to defend themselves, but they were quickly shot by the officers, dying instantly. 

Helen Keller

Helen Keller, born June 27, 1880, was a remarkable person not only for her ability to live and communicate without the ability to see, hear, or speak, but also because she became a vehement disability rights advocate, writer, and educator. She became the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and went on to write 14 books, including her world-famous autobiography.

Helen Keller in her later years
Headshot portrait of American educator and activist for the disabled Helen Keller, wearing a pearl necklace and a dress with a semi-square cut neckline, circa 1956. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She also penned numerous other essays on a variety of topics including faith, blindness prevention, fascism in Europe, and atomic energy. Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, a few weeks before her 88th birthday. 

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was born on November 30, 1835, and became one of the greatest writers of American literature of all time. He wrote such classic novels as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

Mark Twain in a white shirt
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). American author. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

He wove the backdrop of the Southern states of the US with a humorous writing style that cemented his legacy as an American author. He also became a popular public figure who was admired by friends and critics alike. Twain died on April 12, 1910, of a heart attack. He was 75.

Nikola Tesla

The Croatian-American inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla provided the world with invaluable contributions to modern electricity distribution systems using alternating currents. Born on July 10, 1856, he immediately showed academic promise and pursued a career in engineering.

portrait of Nikola Tesla
Portrait of Serbian-American inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla, aged 34, circa 1890. (Photo Credit: Napoleon Sarony/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

He invented remote control radio communications after creating a model ship that could be controlled using electrical signals, and earned many awards for his contributions to engineering and science. Tesla died on January 7, 1943, of coronary thrombosis, leaving behind the legacy of his work. 

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was a Black American journalist, activist, and researcher who battled sexism, racism, and violence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born into slavery on July 16, 1862, she grew up in a racially divided America. She led an anti-lynching campaign throughout the United States, making her an early leader of the civil rights movement.

Ida B. Wells portrait
Portrait of American journalist, suffragist and Progressive activist Ida Wells Barnett 1890s. (Photo Credit: R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Additionally, she fought for women’s suffrage. She died of kidney failure on March 25, 1931, before her autobiography could be finished, but it was posthumously published after being edited by her daughter in 1970.

John Quincy Adams

This photo of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, is one of the earliest known photographs of a president. The daguerreotype was taken in March 1843 by Philip Haas. He produced three versions but there is only one still in existence. 

John Quincy Adams
Portrait of John Quincy Adams from a daguerreotype; silver print, circa 1840s. (Photo Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Adams, however, wasn’t a fan of the art form. Allegedly he said that the photograph was ugly and it looked far too similar to him. It wasn’t taken while he was in office, but rather 15 years afterward while he was working in Congress. Aside from this work, Adams was also a member of many different political parties throughout his career, and also served as a diplomat. 

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, biologist, and geologist, was one of the first to suggest that all species come from a common ancestor. At the time, his theories were widely rejected by fellow scientists and religious institutions, but today, his theory of evolution as the result of natural selection is considered to be one of the foundations of modern science.

Charles Darwin
British naturalist and writer of ‘The Theory of Evolution’ Charles Robert Darwin. (Photo Credit: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

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Darwin published his findings on evolution in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. For his contributions to science, he received an honorary burial in Westminster Abbey.