Camera Workers, 1858-1950

The British Columbia, Alaska and Yukon Photographic Directory, 1858-1950

Willoughby, Richard G.[1, 2]

Male May 1833? - 1902


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  • Name Willoughby, Richard G. 
    Nickname Professor 
    Born May 1833?  Boone County?, MO Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Male 
    Where Active (Non-Specific Address) 21 Jun 1888  Alaska Find all individuals with events at this location 
    "The Silent City" mirage photograph hoax 
    Died 13 May 1902  Seattle, WA Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Association Bruce, Miner Wait (Relationship: Friend) 
    Association Badlam, Maude I. (Relationship: Undefined) 
    Association French, L.B. (Relationship: Undefined) 
    Association Taber, Isaiah West (Relationship: Undefined) 
    Person ID I23  Camera Workers | W, vol. 1, 1858-1900
    Last Modified 13 Jan 2017 

  • Notes 
    • STATUS: Amateur.
    • BIOGRAPHICAL SUMMARY: Like many men of his era, Willoughby drifted west and then north. His principal occupation was as a gold prospector and miner. Although he married 1854, family life appears not to have agreed with him. In 1857, having returned to Missouri from three years in California, Willoughby began to put as much distance as possible between himself and his wife and their infant son. The spring 1858 Fraser River Gold Rush drew him north from California and he eventually found his way to Sitka, AK, after participating in the 1860s Cariboo Gold Rush and the 1870s Cassiar Gold Rush. He moved to Juneau, AK, in the fall 1880 and bought property there for his home in Jun 1881.

      Willoughby, also known as Professor Willoughby, was an amateur photographer and, according to Alaska historian R.N. DeArmond

      a master story-teller and entertainer ... One of his most famous exploits was the Silent City hoax in which he peddled hundreds of photographs from a glass plate negative which had allegedly been made at Glacier Bay and showed a ghost city.

      Probably the earliest book account of The Silent City photograph is Badlam's The Wonders of Alaska (1891). Badlam misdates the photograph as 21 Jun 1889. Many other travel guides and descriptive accounts of Alaska published in 1890s and early 1900s speak of The Silent City hoax and all refer to the image as depicting Bristol, England.

      Winter and Pond acquired the negative or a good copy print from which they generated two slightly different prints. The version numbered Winter and Pond 101 was published in Jordan's 1897 refutation of the hoax, at which time the photograph was identified as depicting Bristol, England. In 1994 Mattison confirmed with a staff member of the Bristol public library that Willoughby's Silent City photograph was indeed taken in Bristol.

      Cole (1980) states that Willoughby purchased a photographic kit in 1887 on a trip to Vancouver Island. Among the supplies was a box of exposed glass negatives and on one of those was the over-exposed image of Bristol. While the appearance of icebeg mirages is a well-known optical phenomenon called a Fata Morgana (Corliss, 1984), it took the showman genius of "Professor" Willoughby to create the miracle of The Silent City that fooled no one.

      Other photographers or studios credited with attempting to photograph The Silent City a year after Willoughby claimed to have done so are photojournalists Miner W. Bruce and L.B. French; Miss Maude Badlam and E.H. Husher of I.W. Taber & Company.
    • IDENTIFYING MARKS: Two Winter and Pond prints found in albums at AHL are titled on the print surface "R.G. [sic] Willoughby's Mirage - the Silent City - Alaska" (7.5 x 5 inches) and "101 R.G. [sic] Willoughby's Mirage [the Silent City,] Alaska" (7.5 x 4.5 inches). A third print, measuring 8 x 10 inches, duplicates the first one from the albums, and is AHL PCA 87-2738.
    • REFERENCES: (Sitka) The Alaskan, 1888 07 21/4 ("While in Glacier Bay last trip, Dick Willoughby succeeded in securing two excellent negatives of the wonderful city reflected on the glassy surface of the Pacific glacier); Badlam (1891); Jordan (1897); Shannon (1923); DeArmond (1967); Cole (1980); Corliss (1984); Letter, I.M. Spartz to D. Mattison, 1988 06 29; Letters, DeArmond to Mattison, 1988-1992; Letter, Mrs. E. Jeffery, Central Library, Bristol, England, to Mattison, 1994 06 16 (Ref. AR/EJ).

  • Sources 
    1. [S43] COLLECTION: AHL.
      Winter & Pond Collection, PCA 87, albums

    2. [S653] Grinnell (1901), Grinnell, Joseph, (Elgin, Ill. : David C. Cook Pub. Co., 1901), 44.
      "He [Thornton] claims to have seen the Silent City, a mirage exactly resembling a distant view of a large city. Several have seen it, and one man, a photographer whom I met at Juneau two years ago, claims to have a photograph of it. I have heard it intimated that the photo is a fake. Prof. Jordan's article on the Silent City in the March, 1898, number of 'Popular Science Monthly' is to the point. Thornton says there is no doubt about photos and cuts of the mirage being unauthentic, but he affirms that he and five men of the Prince Luigi party saw it just as he describes it. We had a big discussion on mirages last night."