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Published on Sunday, November 16, 2003.
Last modified on 11/16/2003 at 2:53 am

Man without a face: Mystery continues in hunt for image of Chief Crazy Horse


As a boy growing up in Italy, Pietro Abiuso often dreamed of the Old West. All the freedoms and riches of the gold rushes. The dangers of bears, bison and prairie blizzards. The inconceivable vastness of the Great Plains.

Most of all, it was Crazy Horse who owned the young Italian's imagination. He was a man who fought to the end, who gave everything for his tribe. Even today, 47-year-old Abiuso remains passionate about Crazy Horse. His eyes sparkle, and he peppers his rhetoric with Christ-like references.

"Crazy Horse was the ultimate warrior!" Abiuso said. "Just think of the way he died for his people!"

But Abiuso's hero from history is without modern form or face. No photographs of the Lakota warrior are known to exist, and only his descendants are said to know where he is buried. If anything, this only adds to Crazy Horse's grandeur and mystique.

After immigrating to the United States and taking a job with the U.S. Postal Service in New York, Abiuso's fascination with Crazy Horse only grew. He was particularly intrigued by rumors of a photograph. One night, Abiuso had a dream and this dream set the course of his life for the next 20-some years.

"I remember it well. He was looking for his grave, just me and Crazy Horse," Abiuso said. "He turned and looked at me once. I remember his face."

Abiuso then saw a photograph of the man in his dream in a book, "To Kill an Eagle: Indian Views on the Last Days of Crazy Horse." The sight sent a chill down his spine.

"It was exactly the same face," Abiuso said. "I could tell right off the bat it was him."

Abiuso began a quest to locate the photo and authenticate the image of his dreams. He has succeeded, he said. This is what brought him to Billings recently. He was here to see and touch an index card-sized piece of tin that Abiuso believes bears a portrait of Crazy Horse. The tintype is now owned by the Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen, about 70 miles south of Billings.

That's a big claim. An authentic photograph of Crazy Horse would be the Old West's version of the Holy Grail. Abiuso has no doubt of the man in the tintype.

"I'm more sure he's Crazy Horse than my father's my dad," Abiuso said, as he opened a briefcase full of historical documents he claims provides clear proof. "I've got evidence that is - how do you say? - a bombshell, a slam dunk."

Other historians and descendants of Crazy Horse think the claim is false. The tintype supposedly bearing the portrait of Crazy Horse is actually an image of No Neck, a chief who surrendered with Crazy Horse in 1877, said Donovin Sprague, a history instructor at Oglala Lakota College and Black Hills State University in South Dakota.

Sprague is also a descendant of Crazy Horse's mother's family and the author of a collection of historical photos, "Images of America, Cheyenne River Sioux."

"The justification they use to prove it's Crazy Horse is the very same information that was disproved 50 years ago. He's on record he did not want his photo taken," Sprague said.

"I know for a fact that a lot of our family and people didn't want their pictures taken. It was like a ghostly thing. They believed some gadget like that could capture your soul. They had a taboo against it."

Crazy Horse's great-grandson, Don Red Thunder, of Dupree, S.D., has the same view. Red Thunder said it was "crazy" to think his great-grandfather would have agreed to sit for a formal portrait for the enemy.

"He didn't trust the white man; he stayed away from any cameraman," Red Thunder said. "There were no photos taken of him."

Custer Battlefield Museum Director Chris Kortlander said his museum doesn't have a large enough budget to squander money on possible fakes. The tintype was purchased on eBay for $6,500 only after extensive research was done. Although the image contains clues to convince Kortlander of its authenticity, an old pamphlet contains "the smoking gun," Kortlander said.

The document is an original copy of frontier photographer James Hamilton's catalog of images. The museum purchased it on eBay for $850. The catalog lists more than 200 tintypes by Hamilton. Photograph 104 is listed as Crazy Horse.

"I'm confident in front of a jury of 12 that we would win the trial," Kortlander said. "That's always my golden rule when purchasing something like this ... can this piece be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?"

Photographer James Hamilton left Sioux City, Iowa, in the spring of 1877 to photograph the gold rush under way in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Among others on the expedition was his son, Charles, who later became a judge in Iowa.

Charles Hamilton recounted the journey in a Nov. 27, 1928, speech to the Academy of Science and Letters of Sioux City. Text of the speech was published in the Winter 1972 edition of "Annals of Iowa."

James Hamilton thought it would be a good business venture to "go out into this new country and secure photographs of frontier life," his son said.

Along with the heavy photographic gear and a portable studio, the expedition carried 2,000 pounds of flour and 1,000 pounds of bacon. Their journey to Rapid City took 46 days. Charles Hamilton worked a small gold claim in the Black Hills while his father traveled on to Camp Robinson, a small army outpost in northwest Nebraska.

This is where Crazy Horse and his band eventually surrendered on May 6, 1877, not quite a year after Crazy Horse found victory at Little Bighorn.

Hamilton said his father "secured negatives of all of the leading Indians of all the tribes" at the two agencies near Camp Robinson.

"They were dressed as frontier Indians are supposed to be dressed," he added.

"The Indians had a superstition about having their pictures taken and would not consent unless some white man was beside them and had his picture taken at the same time. But my father very readily secured their pictures without their knowledge or consent," Hamilton said.

Crazy Horse was bayoneted in his kidney by a guard at the fort on Sept. 5, 1877. Word of his death later created quite a stir.

"That night the body of Crazy Horse was brought to the ridge of hills just west of the barracks at Spotted Tail," an Indian agency near Camp Robinson, Hamilton said. "Indian signal fires were burning in all directions. You could hear the chanting of the old women at the grave of Crazy Horse."

The body was then buried in a temporary grave at nearby Camp Sheridan. Hamilton photographed the grave, said Tom Buecker, curator of the Fort Robinson Musuem.

Buecker, by the way, said he believes Hamilton photographed the grave, but is "middle of the road" in his belief of Hamilton capturing an image of Crazy Horse while he was alive.

For one thing, the man in the image is standing on what appears to be tile or a large carpet. In 1877, Camp Robinson was a temporary barracks built of logs and boards. Most of the camp was dirt or plank flooring. Some of the officers might have had small bits of carpeting for their quarters.

A larger doubt, however, is cast by the fact that the photograph remained hidden for so long, Buecker said. People have been trying to find photos of Crazy Horse since the 1900s. If Hamilton had a photo of Crazy Horse, why didn't he promote it?

"The photo should have turned up before now," Buecker said. "If somebody would have had a picture of Crazy Horse at that time he really would have exploited it."

The alleged Crazy Horse tintype took a twisty path to the Custer Battlefield Museum. Abiuso, the Italian-born devotee, explained the history of the piece of tin.

Crazy Horse's trusted friend Baptiste "Little Bat" Garnier convinced him to sit for a portrait, assuring him the image would be kept secret until after his death. Crazy Horse had no superstitious fear of cameras, Abiuso said, but he believed anonymity would keep him safe from Indian and white enemies.

Little Bat owned the tintype until he was murdered in 1900. The image was passed on to his wife, a cousin of Crazy Horse, and eventually the couple's daughter, Ellen Howard, who stored the portrait in a trunk at her home in Pine Ridge, S.D.

The next owner was Fred Hackett, who acquired the image and a sworn letter from Howard for an unknown amount of money. Hackett and author J.W. Vaughn published the tintype in 1956 in the book, "With Crook on the Rosebud."

The tintype eventually landed in the hands of historian Carroll Friswold, who wrote an introduction to the book, "The Killing of Chief Crazy Horse." Abiuso tracked down Friswold's son by searching motor-vehicle records in states across the West. Abiuso could not afford to buy the tintype, but he kept close track of it.

Abiuso said he was happy to see the Custer Battlefield Museum purchase and display the tintype.

He said he used eyewitness reports of Crazy Horse's clothing and physical traits to authenticate the tintype. Crazy Horse's medicine man, Chips, provided detailed descriptions in later historical interviews.

In great detail, Abiuso went over some of the characteristics. Everything from the blanket over his arm to the way he wears his hair and the fur draped over his shoulder matches Crazy Horse's description, Abiuso said. Abiuso even uses the stance of the man in the image to back his claim.

A tintype, it should be noted, is like a mirror image. The plume that appears to be dangling on the left side of his face is actually on the right side, Abiuso said.

One of the main pieces of evidence is the slightly drooping left cheek of the man in the image. Crazy Horse was shot in the face by his lover's husband. Skeptics say they see neither a scar nor a drooping cheek, but the Custer Battlefield Museum claims to have had the image scanned by a facial skeletal specialist, "who agrees with our opinion," said Kortlander, director of the museum.

Crazy Horse was also described as having light skin and light hair, characteristics easily seen in the tintype, Abiuso said.

"I know this is him," Abiuso said.

He pointed out that he has no ownership in the image or financial stake in proving its authenticity.

Although sasquatches are arguably the reigning kings of Western folklore, rumors of a Crazy Horse photograph can't be far behind. Historical sleuths have been tracking such images for more than a century.

The debate is nowhere closer to being solved.

Anthropologist and Bureau of Indian Affairs official Steve Feraca spent years investigating the notion. He wrote about his efforts in the winter 1964 issue of Frontier Times magazine.

"Tourists and other curiosity seekers have been sold what were purported to be pictures of Crazy Horse by Indians who very often acted in good faith. On the other hand, enterprising Caucasians have knowingly sold thousands of fakes," Feraca wrote. "A small number of the Pine Ridge Sioux sincerely believe that they possess the tintypes or other pictures of Crazy Horse. None of these pictures look alike."

Feraca thought his best chance at finding the truth was to interview the last person alive who knew Crazy Horse.

During one of his research trips in 1954, Feraca's interpreter, Jimmy Broken Leg, took him to the home of John Y. Nelson, a man in his 90s. Broken Leg told Feraca, "Old John would welcome us with great joy if a little 'mini piha' (foamy water) could be provided. I, who have always despised the policy of prohibiting alcohol to Indians, readily agreed," Feraca wrote.

After drinking several beers, Feraca steered the elderly man "to the subject of the possibility of the existence of a picture of Crazy Horse. (Nelson) was definite on that score. No pictures! The only photo known to him was that taken by Doctor McGillicuddy who attended the warchief as he lay dying in the jailhouse. Crazy Horse, says Old John, turned to the wall as the picture was being taken and the resulting photo or tintype was worthless," Feraca wrote.

Descendants of Crazy Horse wish people would put the issue to rest. Money motivates many of the claims, said Donovin Sprague, a descendant and university instructor.

"I'm sure (the Custer Battlefield Museum) has got some money in that tintype and they'd like to get that back, but it's never going to be Crazy Horse," he said.

Sprague added that he would love to be able to see a photograph of his distant relative: "I would like to see one. I would be honored."

Crazy Horse's direct descendants are forming a corporation to protect the name Crazy Horse. The name of the business, Tasunke Witko Tiwahe Inc., translates from Lakota to "Crazy Horse Family Inc."

At present, 169 different products, businesses and groups - including a trucking company and a rock band - use the name Crazy Horse, said Don Red Thunder. In the future, those who use the name will need to pay, Red Thunder said. Proceeds will go to Crazy Horse's descendants, and then to the rest of his tribe.

"We're protecting his name. That's the way our family was raised," Red Thunder said.

The Custer Battlefield Museum welcomes skepticism, said chief curator James "Putt" Thompson. They expected the image to be greeted by some degree of controversy.

"When you create a myth, it's very powerful," Thompson said, referring to what he believes is a myth of a camera-shy Crazy Horse. "It has caused a little bit of stir. I love it. Let's talk it out."

The museum is considering holding seminars and inviting historians to further study the image. Many have already come, Thompson said.

Abiuso traveled all the way from Long Island, N.Y., to finally see the image he has spent 23 years tracking.

"I can't wait to touch it," Abiuso said, less than an hour after his plane landed at Billings Logan Airport.

The issue might never be put to rest.

It's always difficult to prove identities in old photographs, said John Doerner, chief historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Doerner, however, believes No Neck is the man in the tintype, not Crazy Horse. Doerner's opinion is based on viewing several authenticated images of No Neck.

"There's always reason for doubt," he said, adding that, if the tintype was Crazy Horse, "it would probably be the find of the century."

There's about 15 different photographs attributed as being Crazy Horse, Doerner said. A copy of one such portrait hangs in a KFC restaurant in Crow Agency.

"The one at KFC is actually Crazy Iron Horse," Doerner said.

Doerner says the best contemporary evidence comes from Crazy Horse's descendants. They share his blood and know stories that will probably never be shared outside the family, including the exact location of Crazy Horse's final resting place. Their views should be respected, he said.

The Crazy Horse photo debate has persisted, perhaps, because many people find it inconceivable that a great war hero could vanish into history without a photographic trace. By 1877 photography was barely in its teenage years, but even farmers and foot soldiers were sitting for portraits.

"In a certain way, it's unique that a photograph of Crazy Horse hasn't been authenticated," Doerner said. "Everybody can use their imaginations. That's probably one of the things that makes him so mystical."

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