These Are Not Francis Cabot Lowell (And One That Is)

The Internet is a great place for information, but it can also be a storehouse for misinformation. A small mistake become an information virus as people replicate that mistake over and over until it starts to appear to be correct.

Likenesses of Francis Cabot Lowell, founder of the Boston Manufacturing Company (BMC) which occupied the historic mill building bearing his name and now home to the Charles River Museum, have fallen victim to this problem. If you Google images of "Francis Cabot Lowell," a number of portraits come up. Some are a result of data association, and when you click through to the page itself the image is correctly attributed (type your name into a search engine and see how many faces come up as a result that aren't you). But many times there are portraits of other persons directly, and completely wrongly, identified as Lowell.

This page of quotations here is one example, as is this page from InformationWeek here. Is that Francis Cabot Lowell? No, that's Nathan Appleton, Lowell's business partner and one of the Boston Associates, the collective of BMC partners who founded the City of Lowell as well as so many other great factory cities around New England. Two other of Lowell's associates, BMC partner Patrick Tracy Jackson and BMC machinist and master engineer Paul Moody, have met the same fate of mistaken identity, though nowhere near the frequency that Appleton has.

Portrait of Nathan Appleton (October 6, 1779 – July 14, 1861)

Portrait of Nathan Appleton (October 6, 1779 – July 14, 1861)

It's understandable how someone so closely tied to Francis Cabot Lowell could find their portrait mistaken for him. Another image which pops up in several places and directly being identified as Lowell is perhaps not so easily explained. Though the YouTube video here, and at the history website found here claim that the stately visage pictured is that of Francis Cabot Lowell, a bit of research shows provides a more than convincing argument that this is not so.

How William Livingston, colonial-era governor of New Jersey, came to be identified as Lowell is a puzzle. While they were somewhat contemporaries, the good governor, however, passed away when Lowell was still at the humble age of 15.

Portrait of William Livingston (November 30, 1723 – July 25, 1790)

Portrait of William Livingston (November 30, 1723 – July 25, 1790)

Another image that may reveal itself in searches both on Internet and through other research, is notable for reasons other than inaccuracy. While the image below is indeed that of Francis Cabot Lowell, it is not our Francis Cabot Lowell. His honor, Judge Francis Cabot Lowell, federal judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts appointed by President McKinley,  was the great-grandson of our Lowell, and, obviously, his namesake.

Judge Francis C. Lowell (January 7, 1855 – March 6, 1911)

Judge Francis C. Lowell (January 7, 1855 – March 6, 1911)

So that brings us to our last portrait, one which is perhaps the least revealing while being the one that is generally accepted to be Francis Cabot Lowell, pioneering American businessman and founder of the Boston Manufacturing Company. A humble silhouette, it is the only known likeness we have that is historically attributed to be his.

The only known likeness of Francis Cabot Lowell (April 7, 1775 – August 10, 1817), founder of the Boston Manufacturing Company.

The only known likeness of Francis Cabot Lowell (April 7, 1775 – August 10, 1817), founder of the Boston Manufacturing Company.

Most men of his social standing would have sat for a formal portrait at some point in their lives, but the lack of such a painting may be due to a number of factors, the most likely of which was his early death at the age of 42. And so, we are left with this seemingly inauspicious profile.

There has been some speculation (such as that on this webpage about the City of Lowell here) that this image may simply be a generic placeholder in lieu of any other extant image. However, the image below—a page from an article entitled The Cotton Industry in New England, in the October 1890 issue of The New England Magazine—depicts the silhouette with the caption "Francis C. Lowell. From a silhouette loaned by Francis C. Lowell, Esq., of Boston," suggesting that the aforementioned grandson, at the very least, believed that the image was that of his notable ancestor.

"The Cotton Industry in New England," The New England Magazine, Page 175, October 1890.

"The Cotton Industry in New England," The New England Magazine, Page 175, October 1890.

And while such a silhouette may seem a trivial image, the American historical importance of the man it represents is inarguably gargantuan.