Friday, August 8, 2008

Book Review: "The Dead Horse Investigation" by Colleen Fitzpatrick

Colleen Fitzpatrick's latest book is titled "The Dead Horse Investigation: Forensic Photo Analysis for Everyone." It is published by Rice Book Press, Fountain Valley, CA., copyright 2008 by Colleen Fitzpatrick, 239 pages, softbound, $25.50 cover price. Colleen's web site is

The book is intended to provide examples of new ways to look at old photographs so that the reader can develop their photo detective skills. The basic premise is that no detail should be ignored, however insignificant it seems. The introduction says:

"Old photographs are part of the legacy that our ancestors have left us. Each person in an unidentified photograph was just as much a human being as you and I, with a name, a personality, a family history, and quirks. Yet many of these people remain unidentified because no one remembered to put their names on the backs of their pictures.

"But there is hope that life can be breathed back into these cardboard images with a little bit of ingenuity. The name of a person in a picture may not be lost forever."

In this book, Colleen uses many of the photographs that are on her web site to demonstrate how she, and other contributors to her site, solved many family history puzzles based on the clues provided by the photograph media in addition to analyzing the clues in the photograph. For instance, the paper type, the edges, the shape, the mat, writing on the back, photographers' marks, lot numbers, etc. may define an approximate time or a certain photographer and location.

The author uses case studies (many of them from her web site) to describe the clues found in the photographs to determine the names of the subjects, the date, setting or location of the photograph, the photographer, etc.

Colleen devotes two chapters (60 pages) to a history of photography, describing how photography "developed" - it's an amazing story. She describes the process and shows examples of Daguerrotypes, Ambrotypes, Union Cases, Tintypes, Cartes de Visite, Cabinet Cards, collodion and gelatin prints right up to modern times. There is a chapter on fake and doctored photographs.

The final chapter is about the title case - The Dead Horse Investigation. Colleen goes step-by-step through the process used by several researchers to determine the date, time and location of a photograph of a dead horse lying in the middle of a street with the horse's owner in top hat sitting on the carcass. In the process of analyzing the photo, the researchers found a locomotive "hiding" in plain sight. There is a PDF of the analysis of the Dead Horse Picture here.

Details of many of the cases mentioned in this book can be seen at Colleen's web site - Colleen hosts a weekly forensic photograph contest at Some of the weekly contest entries are in her CDROM of the 30 Best Photo Quizzes. She has another CDROM of 30 more Photo Quizzes in work. Colleen has also written two other books - Forensic Genealogy and DNA & Genealogy.

Reading and applying the lessons learned from this book will help every family history researcher get the most information out of their family photographs. Colleen likes to say "You will never look at an old photograph the same way again!" I heartily agree!

This is an excellent book for researchers to have in their personal library, and for genealogy societies to put on the shelves of their local libraries for community patrons to find, browse through, and get excited about analyzing their photographs and searching for their family history.


footnoteMaven said...

I have been to two of Colleen's lectures and love her.

We have even talked photos. I own all of her books except this new one and have ordered it.

She is a wonder.


Genealem said...

I know Colleen personally and you are right! She is a wonderful WONDER! What she doesn't know about photographs may fit on the head of a pin.