Man says mysterious Civil War photo was really teenage hoax

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Posted: Apr 13, 2015 5:11 AM
Man says mysterious Civil War photo was really teenage hoax

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — For three decades, the stained and blurry photograph presented a great mystery to Civil War historians.

It was a picture taken of another photo, which appeared far older and was encased in a peeling, gilded frame. In the foreground of that photo stood a man, his back to the camera, wearing an overcoat and a hat and carrying a pole or fishing rod. In the center, visible amid the stains and apparent water damage, was a ship.

Did this picture show the only known photograph of the ironclad Confederate warship the CSS Georgia?

The 120-foot ship armored with strips of railroad iron never had a chance to earn much glory in the Civil War. Its engines proved too weak to propel its 1,200-ton frame against the Savannah River's currents, so the Georgia remained anchored off Old Fort Jackson as a floating gun battery. Confederate sailors sunk their ship in December 1864 as Gen. William T. Sherman's Union troops captured Savannah.

The CSS Georgia had never fired a shot in combat.

Several artists of the period published illustrations of the Georgia, but the details varied and no blueprints survived.

But there was that photo. It seemed to show a ship with the Georgia's design: an armored casemate covering the entire deck, sides sloped at 45-degree angles.

Though it was never authenticated, the photo became an unofficial part of the ship's history.

The Georgia Historical Society has records showing a John Potter donated the photo of the photo in March 1986. The documentation included the description: "Only known photograph of Civil War Ironclad C.S.S. Georgia mounted in plexiglass frame."

As the Army Corps of Engineers embarked this year on a $14 million project to raise the Georgia's wreckage from the river, archaeologists publicized the image online and in news stories — including an Associated Press story — hoping to track down the original photo.

"Wanted: A Photo Of This Confederate Battleship," read the headline above the image on the Army Corps website.

"There are a lot of characteristics in the photograph that lead us to believe it is the CSS Georgia," Julie Morgan, the Army Corps archaeologist in charge of raising the ironclad's remains, said in a February interview. "On the other side, there are some skeptics who believe it's a complete fake."

Robert Holcombe, former curator of the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia, told the AP in February that while the original photograph would be needed to confirm if the image was authentic, he believed it was real.

"Most people seem to think so," he said. "Or else it's an awfully good fake."

Now, the man who took that photo of the photo all those years ago, says he wants to clear the record: It is a fake.

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Here was the story John Potter told 30 years ago:

The Savannah native was at a yard sale when he found the photograph in an antique frame. Inscribed on the back of the frame was "CSS Georgia." He didn't have the $175 the owner wanted, so he took a photo of it and mailed it to historical groups in Savannah.

Here is his new story, which he told exclusively to The Associated Press:

When he was a teenager in Savannah, Potter, his brother Jeffrey and a friend shot a short 8mm movie about the building — and destruction — of the CSS Georgia in a fictional battle with Union troops.

For the movie, they built an 18-foot long boat of plywood and Styrofoam, as well as a smaller 2-foot model. They based the design, in part, on his grandfather's recollections of details passed down by word of mouth through generations of their family. Potter also used an illustration of the ironclad he found on a postcard.

At some point, Potter decided to test whether he had the skills to pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood special effects artist.

Potter's younger brother put on a coat and straw hat went out to a marsh with a cane fishing pole and Potter took a photo. He took another photo of the 2-foot model. He cut out the boat's image, glued it onto the photo of his brother, then used dirt and Elmer's glue to create the illusion of a photo faded by age and stained by water or chemicals.

He bought an old picture frame and beat it up even further. He put the photo in it. Then he drove 120 miles to a yard sale — or maybe it was a flea market — in Waycross, Georgia, put the picture down and took a Polaroid of it. He laughs now, when he remembers that it had seemed so important that he actually do this at a yard sale, so at least that part would be true. "Who knows what goes through the mind of a kid," he said.

Potter sent out the photo to historical groups, setting off the sporadic, and fruitless, search for a CSS Georgia photo that he now says never existed.

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The peeling gilt frame that once held the disputed photo, is now filled with a portrait of Potter's deceased pug, Puggy Van Dug.

Potter, 50, lives alone, in a cluttered, one-story house off a secluded road of rundown and abandoned homes in Lenoir, a former furniture mecca in North Carolina. He never married, never had kids. When a reporter showed up at his door, he remarked it was first visitor he'd had in years.

He never became a successful special effects artist.

After high school, he moved to California and landed a job with a movie studio, but he returned to Savannah a year later to be with a girlfriend, he says. Potter opened an antiques store and began providing props for movies filming in the area. Later on, he set up his own special effects shop, and says he worked on a sequel to the movie "Swamp Thing" — which was filmed in Savannah — though his name doesn't appear in the credits. A green piece of the movie's monster costume is among memorabilia filling his home.

Potter eventually drifted between jobs, including a stint as a maintenance man for the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. He lived in a trailer behind the lighthouse.

He spent many a night quenching his thirst for Pabst Blue Ribbon at Huc-a-Poos, where he left a lasting mark.

On one wall hangs Potter's photo — a mock police mug shot — with the words: "Tybee Record — 77 PBRs in one night." In another corner, Potter's old laptop computer is nailed to the wall with a steel spike driven through its center. Written in marker is the message, "Rot in Hell, Devil Box."

"Potter's a crazy guy," said Eric Thomas, owner of Huc-a-Poos. "He's also a lovable guy. He's out there, but he's fun to be around."

After their father died in 2011, Potter and his brother moved to the North Carolina mountains.

Then, last month, his brother Jeffrey, the only person who shared the secret of the photograph's true history, killed himself at age 48. His death was confirmed by police records in Lenoir. Potter returned to Savannah with his brother's ashes a week later, planning to scatter them off the beach of neighboring Tybee Island. A memorial and potluck with friends was arranged by Thomas, Huc-a-Poos' owner.

Thomas said Potter told him he only had $40, so the bar owner reached out to Potter's friends at the bar to raise enough money for his brother's cremation.

Potter said he'd completely forgotten about the photo and had no idea the fuss it had caused until he saw it a few months ago on the Army Corps website.

Then he had a choice: play along, or come clean.

He decided to play along — for a few weeks. But after his brother's death, he reconsidered, and reached out to AP to reveal the hoax, he said.

"I'm not in good health. I didn't want to drop dead and carry that to my grave," he told AP.

"Plus, I don't care anymore. What are they gonna do, sue me? You want to take my termite house in North Carolina and my 14-year-old Buick? Come and get it."

Potter said he never made any money off his hoax and never could have tried to sell the original photo he had made.

"If you ever opened it, you would see it was printed on paper that said Kodak," he says.

And he's a little taken aback that people took him so seriously.

"I didn't intend to hurt or embarrass anybody, because I really love history," he said. "But there's still a lesson there: Do your dang homework. Don't assume anything."

Army Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said the agency always steered clear from stating whether the image was real or fake — "We just flat didn't know."

Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society, said Potter's photo will remain in the group's archives along with updated information that it appears to be a hoax.

"It just shows you to question everything," Groce said.

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But is Potter now telling the truth?

As proof to back up his new story, Potter presented AP the 8 mm movie he and his brother had made. He showed old photos. One showed a young man he said was his brother, standing in a marsh wearing a coat and straw hat and carrying a cane fishing pole — much like the figure in the ironclad photograph. Another showed the same boy carefully holding, atop his fingertips, the small model of the ship, which looks identical to the ghostly image in the photograph. Another showed a pug lying next to a model of the ship. A fourth showed the long elusive photo in its frame on a quilt, next to a K-Mart bag, a bunch of Polaroids of the photo, the model of the ship and a Mad magazine from 1984.

Potter showed an ad he bought in his Jenkins High School yearbook to promote the 8 mm film. It shows the brothers dressed as Civil War soldiers, with a Confederate flag behind them, beneath the caption: "A New Film By John Potter: 'The C.S.S. Georgia-Ironclad.'"

He also showed AP the picture frame, which he still has. As for the photo that was in the frame, Potter says because he used glue to "age" it, it was stuck to the frame. So it got shredded long ago when he removed it.

After his brother's death, Potter told Thomas about the hoax. Yet the bar owner suspects the ironclad photo may be real and Potter has it.

"I said, 'What are you going to do with it?' And he said, 'Do with what?'" Thomas recalled. "And I said, 'The picture.' And he said, 'I'm going to sell it.'"

Thomas said Potter had been drinking and he didn't push him.

And several times, Potter himself seemed to suggest to the AP that maybe he was pulling some sort of elaborate double hoax.

But he dismissed that theory as "too wacky" to imagine.

"I do not have the original. I did not have it restored and I did not make a copy to get people off my back, because that's crazy talk. That's crazy talk."

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Mitch Weiss reported from Lenoir, N.C. and Associated Press journalist Alex Sanz contributed to this report.