Mystery solved of unknown justice portrait displayed in courthouse

Lemuel Shaw Portrait Unveiling with correct guessers_1523473963630.JPG.jpg

At an event at the John Adams Courthouse today, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants welcomed members of the public who helped identify the mystery of the unknown justice as the Honorable Lemuel Shaw, where they were invited to view the portrait and the attachment of the name plate to the portrait frame. A direct descendant of Lemuel Shaw who reached out to the court after learning about the identity of the justice in the portrait also attended the event.

“We are here to celebrate the naming of what had been previously known as the unknown justice. The identity of that particular gentleman had been a mystery for a quite a long time,” said Chief Justice Gants. “The fact that we were able to identify him as Lemuel Shaw is a tribute to the industriousness of a number of people. We are extraordinarily grateful for the interest in our court.”

Supreme Judicial Court Director of Education and Public Programs Cliff Allen announced the names of the 10 contest participants who correctly guessed Lemuel Shaw and spoke briefly about the history of Lemuel Shaw and the Supreme Judicial Court. Social Law Library Executive Director Robert Brink spoke next and gave a biographical presentation on Lemuel Shaw. Relying on historical texts, Executive Director Brink said that Hon. Shaw was considered “one of the most successful lawyers and respected legal minds in Massachusetts” and “one of the most important and influential judges in the United States during what historians call the formative period of American law, the period from the Revolution to the Civil War.”

“The case of the unknown portrait is now closed. And the verdict is that it is a middle-aged Lemuel Shaw, one of the greatest judges in Massachusetts and American history,” Executive Director Robert Brink said.

Following Executive Director Brink’s presentation, Chief Justice Gants noted that at the time that Lemuel Shaw was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Supreme Judicial Court justices were also trial court judges. Chief Justice Gants said that the reasonable doubt instruction that Lemuel  Shaw used to instruct juries is almost the same as the instruction that is used today.

Assistant Chief Court Officer Keith Downer, a 25-year veteran of the Massachusetts Trial Court, described how he provided his expertise in forensic science to assist the court in the identification. In addition to the forensic examination, he has 47 years of knowledge of the antiques and fine art business. Assistant Chief Court Officer Downer described how he did a visual inspection of the painting and did limited research, without seeing any of the informed guesses that were made. He found that the very basic and obvious features narrowed the painting to a small field of study. Following the visual examination, he conducted a UV light absorption or reflection test using a UV-A (blue or black light), which allowed him to see things the naked eye cannot. Next, bright yellow and bright white light tests allowed those present to see the loop script initials “L S” become visible on the top rail of the stretcher. At the event he gave a demonstration of his methods using some of his forensic equipment.

The event ended with a tour of the historic John Adams Courthouse.

The Supreme Judicial Court received 42 total informed guesses. The guesses suggested 24 individuals, not all of whom were justices of the court. The top guesses were: Lemuel Shaw (10); Thomas Dawes (4); Samuel Sumner Wilde (3); Ethan Allen Greenwood (2); Simeon Strong (2); Levi Lincoln (2); and Marcus Morton, Sr. (2).

The Supreme Judicial Court announced on March 29th that it had received credible information that the unidentified justice is the Honorable Lemuel Shaw (b. 1781 – d. 1861), who was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court as Chief Justice on August 31, 1830, retiring on August 21, 1860. While it may be impossible to conclude with 100% certainty the true identity of the justice, the court believes that the most persuasive arguments, confirmed by the forensic report that the court received, point to a younger Lemuel Shaw whose portrait was painted before or around the time he was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1830. 

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