Facial Features Analysis and Comparison Is The Answer

by Joelle Steele

To learn more about analyzing faces in photographs, check out Joelle Steele's new book, Face to Face: Analysis and Comparison of Facial Features to Authenticate Identities of People in Photographs.

NOTE: I no longer analyze photos believed to be the James Brothers, Billy the Kid, or Abraham Lincoln. Please do not submit them as I do not respond.

If you've read my article about all the alleged photos of Abraham Lincoln that are floating around on the Web, you already know that I am very meticulous in analyzing and authenticating the identities of people in old photographs. And, while I would love to find a genuine and previously unknown photo of almost any historic figure, they seem to be as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. Most of the photos that people send me or that I find while browsing the Web, are not the real deal on close examination. And so, here I am again, writing an article about photographs of a couple other famous — or should I say notorious — historic figures: outlaws Frank and Jesse James.


I am an anthropometrist specializing in the analysis and comparison of facial features for the purpose of identifying people in photographs. I have been doing this for more than 30 years, and I know for certain that it is never enough to merely look at a photo and say it is someone based on the fact that there is a similarity in appearance. Likewise, it is never acceptable to make an assumption about the person in a photograph based on the fact that the photo was found with other photographs of people who knew or were associated with that person. Also, being a historian and an expert on a historical figure does not necessarily qualify a person to authenticate the identity of a person in a photo based on the anatomy of the head and face. Most of my clients are family genealogists who know their family histories inside and out and they are still unable to make positive identifications of some of their own relatives in old photographs. That's why they contact me.

I studied cranial and facial anatomy in order to accurately authenticate the identity of people in photographs. You can't do facial features analysis without that knowledge. I do a very careful, detailed analysis of the head and face. I look at the shape of the head, the overall bone structure and shape of the face, and the position of the ears — the ears being one of the most important aspects of making a positive identification. I look at the features in proportion to the rest of the face and their relationship to all the individual features themselves. I carefully measure the facial features on each face. That's where bone structure is so important. In short, I leave no stone unturned in authenticating the identity of a person in a photo.

And when I do identify a person, it is never about my opinion as to whether or not a photo is of a particular person. It is not even about my interpretation of the details of a photo. And it is definitely not about probability. It is all about the facts, the details of the photo. It's all about exact measurements and proportions. And the facts speak loud and clear. Two faces are either 100% identical and therefore a match, or they are not a match at all.


The following are known and authentic images of Frank and Jesse James. The top three are of Frank. The bottom four are of Jesse. The fourth one of Jesse belongs to the Library of Congress, was reportedly taken in 1882 (he died April 3, 1882), and was verified by his widow as being a photograph of her husband. I have analyzed all of these photos, and while I have some minor doubts about the first photo of Jesse because of the ear lobes and mouth, I will allow that it is probably due to the lack of clarity in the digital image, and that these are therefore all photos of Frank and Jesse.

Frank James photo Frank James photo Frank James photo

ABOVE: Three authentic photos of Frank James.
BELOW: Four authentic photos of Jesse James.

Jesse James photo Jesse James photo

Jesse James photo Jesse James photo

There are essentially three sets of photos that I analyzed for the purpose of this article. The images are purported to be Frank or Jesse James, and they are from the Spencer Collection, the Ellison Collection, and the Duke Collection. Here are my findings. If you first take the time to read my book, Face to Face: analysis and Comparison of Facial Features to Authenticate Identities of People in Photographs, you'll better understand for yourself what I look at when I make my analyses, and what I hope to teach you about anatomical analysis and its use in the identification of people in photographs.


The photo below was sent to me from a collector in England who believes it is of Frank and Jesse. Part of the reason that he believes this is because there is some very old writing on the back that appears to say Frank and Jesse James. However, this could have been a joke on the part of the person who wrote those names, possibly making a reference to the bad behavior or appearance of the men in the photo. I don't know which brother each is supposed to be but, in the end, it's a moot point, since neither is Frank or Jesse.Spencer photo

When I first saw the Spencer photo, the photos that were submitted for comparison were somewhat wanting in quality. I went online and searched for better exemplars to which I could compare the Spencer photo. The first things I looked at were the shapes of the skulls, and they were similar to those of Frank and Jesse. But, when I looked at the ears, I knew something was way off. Frank had very obviously large ears that stuck out from his head. Just look at his photos in the real deal photos above. You simply cannot miss those ears, and while one of the men had ears that stuck out a little, they didn't match the ears of Frank and they did not line up at all with the facial features in the same way that Frank's ears do, and the men in the photo are looking straight ahead, so no mistaking the alignments of the features.

But, what if one of the men in the photo was Jesse? My next step was to align the features in each man and compare that alignment to an authentic photo of Jesse, even though I had studied Jesse's photos previously and was pretty sure it was not a match. This is a preliminary analysis only that allows me to see the facial proportions of the underlying bones structure at a glance. It often rules out matches immediately, as it did in this case, but I always measure everything just to be sure.

Comparison photo of  Jesse James and the Spencer faces

After measuring, I found that Unidentified #1 has eyes that are spaced farther apart than those of the other two men. Jesse's eyes are set more deeply with the eyebrows slightly higher than those of the other men. Again, a condition of the brow ridge bones. The shapes of all their noses are different: Jesse's is turned up at the tip, Unidentified #2's is pointed, and Unidentified #1's is flat at the bottom. And both unidentified men have longer noses than Jesse's. That's bones again. Unidentified #2's mouth is not the same as Jesse's. Just these few differences are more than enough to indicate with 100% certainty that neither of the unidentified men could be Jesse.


Betty Dorsett Duke claims to be the great-granddaughter of Jesse James. She claims that Jesse was not killed by Robert Ford in 1882 and that he instead assumed the identity of James L. Courtney and died in 1896 in Blevins, Texas. Someone else claims that one of Ms. Duke's photos (Unidentified #1 below) is of her ancestor Travis Barron (11/3/1839-11/15/1891), half brother of Mary Ellen Barron Courtney. I'm not interested in any family controversy over who is related to who and whether Jesse was killed or not. I am only interested in analyzing the photos on Duke's Web site that she claims are those of the man also known as Jesse James.

According to Ms. Duke's Web site, in 1999, William S. McCann, Forensic Science Multi-Media Lab Supervisor for the Austin Police Department, examined Duke's photo and compared it with "historically accepted photos" of the James family. He determined "with a high degree of certainty" that the faces were a match. But, when I'm identifying faces, I never deal in such "probabilities." With thorough measuring of the facial features, it is 100% certainty or it is not a match.

Comparison of Jesse James and unidentified men

I did the same type of preliminary alignment for the Duke photos that I did for the Spencer photos and then measured them. In the preliminary, Unidentified #1 is very close to Jesse in alignment, and so I was very hopeful that this would be a match. The two men do look very much alike, far more so than do any of the other non-matching photos of Jesse, and their heads are straight, even though Jesse's is in 3/4 view. But, when I measured and then also looked at the individual features, it was not a match at all. The ears align well, but their individual characteristics do not match. The temple process of Unidentified #1 is much narrower than that of Jesse. The nose is again incorrect, as it tilts down and not up like Jesse's. Unidentified #1 has a "widow's peak" and Jesse does not. This alone will rule out a match since widow's peaks are fully formed by the time a child is 5 years old, and do not suddenly appear with age. The slope of the foreheads for these two men do not match and neither do the slopes of their mandibles (jaw bones). On a more "cosmetic" level, Unidentified #1 has much bushier eyebrows, and they are straighter than Jesse's, whose are more slightly arched. And so, again, not a match.

Unidentified #2 also didn't measure up. The jaw line is not quite right, as it starts to square off slightly towards the chin, and Jesse's does not. In addition, his nose tilts down and Jesse's tilts up, and his cheek bone is not as pronounced as Jesse's. However, he could be a match with Unidentified #1. But that's too hard to tell for sure because the quality of the image for Unidentified #2 is very poor.


Here are some photos that are believed by their owners, Greg Ellison and Michele Ellison, a.k.a. the Ellison Collection, to be those of the James brothers. According to the Ellisons, they had these and other James gang and James family photos authenticated by Philip W. Steele, a historian and author (and no relation to me) who served for more than 40 years at the Jesse James Farm and died in 2007. After measuring and comparing all of these photos with known photos of Frank and Jesse, I do not agree with his findings.

Unidentified photo Unidentified photo Unidentified photoUnidentified photo Unidentified drawing

ABOVE: Photos believed to be of Frank James (Ellison Collection).
BELOW: Photos believed to be of Jesse James (Ellison Collection).

Unidentified photo Unidentified photo Unidentified photo Unidentified photo Unidentified photo

Frank James. In analyzing the photos purported to be of Frank, I immediately ruled out the first three of the Ellison photos shown above. In the first one, nothing is a match to Frank. In that photo and also in the second, the ears are completely wrong. The first one's are way too small to belong to Frank. In the second, the ears don't stick out nearly enough to be Frank's. And, lastly, in the third photo, the eyes are far larger in proportion to the head than those of the real Frank. Ruling out those three left me with two images that could potentially be of Frank.

Comparison photo of Frank James and unidentified men

Unidentified #1 was apparently hand-tinted by a less-than-skilled individual many years ago, and so some of the features are not as accurate as they should be, and it's impossible to tell what they might have looked like before someone took a paintbrush to them. With doctored photos like this, it is always difficult to make a 100% match. The ears are close in appearance to Frank's, and so is the nose, and they align correctly, as do the eyes. But the eyelids aren't a good match and neither is the mouth. Can't say it's a match for sure, only that it is a maybe, and in my book, that's not a match unless I can analyze the originals and see something in them that I don't see in the digital image above.

As for Unidentified #2, I thought this might be Frank at first because the features align so well. But, after measuring and looking at the details of the face and ears, they are too far off to be Frank. The ear does not match in shape, the nose is a different shape, and the forehead and chin are not tall (high, deep) enough in proportion to the rest of the face to be Frank's.

Jesse James. After analyzing the photos purported to be of Jesse, I ruled out some immediately. The first and fourth have mouths and eyes that are bigger in proportion to their heads than are those of Jesse. The first and second also have "widow's peaks" and Jesse does not. Again, as I mentioned previously, widow's peaks do not come and go from a person's hairline during their lifetime. That left the third and fifth photos as possible matches, so I measured them.

Comparison photo of  two Jesse James photos and two unidentified men

I selected two known and authentic photos of Jesse for this comparison because Unidentified #1 looked young, and so I compared it to Jesse at age 16. But, as it turns out, the photo of Jesse at 16 is not the best exemplar for use in comparisons because Jesse was photographed from a very slightly elevated angle that alters the alignment of the upper part of the ears with the eyes. Not a very significant variation, but even so, I compared Unidentified #1 with another photograph of a young Jesse, and it's not a match either. Unidentified #1's nose is not tilted upward, and the bone structure indicates that the eyes are too far apart and the chin is not quite long enough to be Jesse's.

Unidentified #2 is also not a match with either of the two known and authentic photos of Jesse in the composite. In addition to other differences in measurements, the nose is not tilted upward, the eyebrows are not arched, and the ear shape is not the same. I also noted that the hair was quite curly/wavy in Unidentified #2, and I see no evidence that Jesse's was that wavy, if at all. (The hair is really not an issue as it could have been waved, just an observation.)


Unidentified photo Unidentified photo

I was referred to these photos by someone who found them on the Web. They were on a site called Historical Western Photos and were purported to be of Jesse James. Neither are Jesse. Remember to always look at the bone structure before all else. Even if the features in these two photos matched — which they don't — measuring indicates that the bones are not a match at all for known and authentic photos of Jesse.


It is always disappointing for me to discover that a photo is not of the historic figure it is purported to be, and it is often devastating to the person who owns the photo. But, it would be a far greater disservice to the real person and to their role in history to misidentify them. And the reason so many would-be historic photos are regularly misidentified is that they are being authenticated by people who lack the anatomical knowledge and attention to facial details that is necessary to make a proper identification. That lack of knowledge and attention further results in a mistaken belief that there can be a percentage of probability as to whether or not a face is that of a particular person. Collectors beware! Do your homework and make sure you hire someone who knows what they are doing when they authenticate the identity of the people in your photos.

This article last updated: 01/09/2011.

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