I can’t stop thinking about the career arc of John Plumbe. Though the article in the Des Moines Register claims that he learned photography as a “young man,” a bit of calculation shows that he was at least 30—Plumbe was born in Wales in 1809, and photography was invented in 1839. Further, photography wasn’t Plumbe’s first speculative venture.

Clifford Krainik’s Sinipee, Atlantis on the Mississippi tells the tale of Plumbe’s dream of a railroad connecting the coasts (in 1838) and the loss of this Iowa town to flood. I hope Krainik does finish the biography he’s promised on Plumbe—I’ll read it. The failure of this riverport town would have been just prior to Plumbe’s adventure of founding a chain of 25 photographic studios (in railway towns). Plumbe was the first photographer to picture a president. He also founded a magazine.

He lost it all again around 1848—he sold his stake in the company to the operators and left for California in 1849. He returned to Dubuque, Iowa (apparently having achieved some success) in 1854. He began speculating again on the possibility of a railroad into the port. The crushing financial panic of 1857 put an end to that. Plumbe would have been 48 by then.

He slit his own throat from ear-to-ear (Iowa’s first suicide?) in 1857. This was coincidentally the same year that H.H. Bennett moved into the Wisconsin Dells. I find this “American success story” a little perplexing.