In our quest to rid the world of fun and joy, we've done a number of posts fact-checking viral images. Sometimes we'll come across an image that just doesn't smell right, and enlist the help of experts to determine its authenticity. And sometimes, even the experts aren't quite sure.
That was the case recently with a photo posted by @HistoryInPics purporting to show a girl wearing prosthetic legs in the year 1900. I found out that the description of the photo was accurate, but not before both I and an expert in the history of prosthetics were convinced it wasn't.
Everything about the photo (above left) and its date made me skeptical. I assumed that it might be a photo of a girl wearing braces for something like polio rather than artificial legs. The legs seemed far too technologically advanced for an early date like 1900. So I emailed Dr. David Serlin, a professor at UC-San Diego and co-editor of the 2002 book Artificial Parts, Practical Lives Modern Histories of Prosthetics.
Dr. Serlin's specialty was post-World War II prosthetics, but I thought he still might have an opinion on the circa 1900 image. Turns out, he had just been looking at the photo not two weeks earlier, wondering the same thing I was.
"The image depicts a girl wearing orthopedic braces," Serlin wrote, seemingly confirming my suspicions. "Hinged prosthetic legs would not have been available at this time (ca 1910, IMHO) for little girls. The lace up and harness gives away that she probably suffered a childhood illness or accident."
I was ready to consider the matter closed and declare it an inaccurate description of the photo, but Serlin's lack of certainty made me want to dig around a bit more. The word "probably" makes me nervous.
After some more research I found the image on sites I considered more reliable than @HistoryInPics. These sites claimed that the artificial limbs in the photo were credited to a man named James Gillingham (1839-1924). Gillingham was a well-respected shoemaker in the UK who began making artificial limbs after a local man lost his arm in 1863. I wrote back to Dr. Serlin asking about the new details I'd found.
"Gillingham was an extremely skilled maker of artificial limbs," Serlin said, "so if these are attributed to him I stand corrected (no pun intended). They resemble orthopedics from the same period, which is why I assumed that is what they were."
At the turn of the 20th century, most artificial legs were still incredibly primitive. And it's not clear how well the young girl in the picture would've been able to move, even with these fantastic looking artificial legs.
"They're quite incredible given the balance and strength that would have been required of the little girl to wear them," Serlin wrote, "let alone use them on a regular basis."
They were so far ahead of their time—and as a result, so difficult to use—it seems impossible that they would have worked. And yet, apparently, they did.
As people like Sarah Werner and Slate's Rebecca Onion have pointed out recently, sometimes the worst crime committed by historical picture accounts is that they strip out all context. Want to learn more about the image? Well, good luck. You're given no more information than a short caption and an interesting picture. Few people have the time or energy to do a research project on every image they come across online. Which is why so much bullshit gets passed around as real.
And it's not just history Twitter accounts run by teenagers that strip out identifying information and add to confusion on the web. Too often error-riddled sites like Retronaut do precisely the same thing, posting photos and documents that deliver on the gee whiz nature of online media, without providing crucial links for people who want to find out more — such as who may have created the image or what's actually occurring in it.
When it comes to online media, we're all doing our best. There's a lot of amazing history to wade through in this never-ending sea of ones and zeroes. And this is both the blessing and curse of our primitive, early 21st century experiment with online sharing. It's a big sandbox and there's plenty of room for everyone to play. Just be careful around the kid who hands you an Ewok action figure and tells you it's Chewbacca.