Esther Lyons, “Klondike Girl” : Was Her 1894 Yukon Expedition A Lie?

[Esther Lyons at the] Summit of Chilkoot Pass, Yukon Territory. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12624

By Andrew Chernoff     June 19, 2016

On April 25, 2014 Jeff Bridgers of the Library of Congress published an article, Caught Our Eye: Esther Lyons, “Klondike Girl”.

A curious picture of a woman mountaineer caught his eye as he happened upon it in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog of the Library of Congress where he works.

His first thought was: “What is the Wicked Witch of the West doing traversing a high mountain pass in the Yukon Territory?”

That led to two more questions: “Who was Esther Lyons?” and “Why is her likeness superimposed on this scene?”

According to Bridgers, he didn’t have to look too far for answers, as a “Summary” provided in the catalog record explained that the “Photograph shows the actress Esther Lyons inserted into a picture of Chilkoot Pass.”

Bridgers explained, “Although Lyons wrote a series of articles about the expedition she claimed to have taken, and lectured about it for the rest of her life, later research indicated there is no evidence of her participation in the expedition and that, in fact, she could not have been on the expedition at that time.”

The Yukon expedition of 1894 was led and organized by photographer Veazie Wilson pictured below:

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Four pictures in total were discovered having Esther Lyons inserted into pictures of photographer  Veazie Wilson’s 1894 Yukon expedition. The first is at the beginning of this article, and the other three are below.

Raft, Lake Linderman

[Esther Lyons on a] Raft, Lake Linderman, British Columbia. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12626

Camp Lake Bennett

[Esther Lyons at] Camp Lake Bennett, British Columbia. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12627

Theater at 40 Miles

[Esther Lyons outside the] Theater at 40 Miles, Yukon Territory. Photograph by Veazie Wilson, 1894. Composite photograph copyrighted by Esther Lyons, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12625

Bridgers article cites a cataloger’s “Note” in the Group Record  that provides further information into the hoax:

“Actress Esther Lyons (1864-1938) used these photographs to illustrate her 1898 series of articles in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly describing her participation in the 1894 trip. The original photographs appear without Lyons in [Veazie] Wilson’s Yukon Gold Fields Guide (1895) and in Glimpses of Alaska (1897). Research has indicated that Lyons was acting in the East and Mid-west during the Wilson expedition. Nevertheless, she continued to lecture about the trip for the rest of her life.”

Here are the original photographs as published by Thomson Stationery Company Ltd of Vancouver, British Columbia, under the title, “Glimpses…Of The Yukon Gold Fields And Dawson Route”  in 1897.

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According to Giuliana Bruno, in his book, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film, in 1897-98, Esther Lyons gave four sets of lectures at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, one of the most important cultural institutions in North America at the time. She billed herself as the “first white woman to cross Chilkoot Pass”. Her talk involved “nearly one hundred and fifty colored lantern photos.”

Veazie Wilson died in 1895, and Lyons claimed she purchased the Veazie Wilson photographs from his widow.

In 1897, Lyons published a booklet of Veazie Wilson photographs from his Alaskan journey, and was touring the continent in the fall, giving lectures titled “A Woman’s Trip to the Klondyke,” including one in Toronto, about her journey through that northern place with the Wilson party. That was followed in early 1898 by a series of articles in Leslie’s Weekly, titled An American Girl’s Trip to the Klondike, describing her trip to the Yukon. Lyons claimed to accompany Wilson on his journey to the Yukon, and repeated this theme while touring the continent giving talks illustrated by Wilson’s excellent photos of the trip. (Source:  “Unraveling the mystery of Esther Lyons” by Michael Gates).

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Esther Lyons (Robinson) died on October 26, 1938.

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The Montreal Gazette – Oct 28, 1938

Links (from Bridger’s article) concerning related information to this story:

  • These “Klondike Girl” photographs are examples of composite photographs. The Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM) defines composite photographs as “photographs made through multiple exposure of negatives, sandwiching negatives, or other means of combining negatives.”  See a variety of composite photographs via the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
  • A related visual format is a montage, which the TGM defines as “compositions made by juxtaposing or superimposing multiple pictures to create a single image. [A montage] May be produced by pasting together whole or partial pictures or by recopying multiple images through photography or scanning.” Compare the visual similarity of montages to composite photographs.
  • Read about an example of photo sleuthing in “Solving a Civil War Photograph Mystery” in which the facts are revealed behind a photograph purported to picture  General Grant [on Horseback] at City Point.
  •  “The Mystery of Ester Lyons, the ‘Klondike Girl’,” by Melanie J. Mayer, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Summer 2003, pg. 115-129.

Also, “Unraveling the mystery of Esther Lyons” by Michael Gates, Friday October 18, 2013, Yukon News

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