As It Happens

Who's that judge? Portrait of mystery man hangs in Massachusetts court

For years, the people working at Massachusetts's Supreme Judicial Court have had a mystery hanging over them - literally.
For years, officials at Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court tried unsuccessfully to identify the mystery jurist in this portrait. (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court via AP)

Story transcript

For years, the people working at Massachusetts's Supreme Judicial Court have had a mystery hanging over them — literally.

The court is asking the public to help identify a judge whose portrait remains outside the chambers of the John Adams Courthouse in Boston, whose name has apparently been lost to time.

Cliff Allen, director of education and public programs, says officials recently attempted to identify and document every now-retired justice that worked since the court's founding in 1692. Only a single portrait — and oil painting by an unknown artist — remains unidentified.

Allen told As It Happens host Carol Off that the man in the painting likely served over 200 years ago, roughly between 1780 and 1820.

"Just prior to our constitution being written in 1780, our court wore wigs, and right after 1780 they stopped wearing wigs," he said. "So this individual could possibly have pictures that we do have of him ... wearing a wig."

Cliff Allen has been leading the curious investigation into the identity of the unnamed man whose portrait hangs in the halls of the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. (Submitted by Cliff Allen)
Chief Justice Ralph Gants told the Associated Press they have essentially ruled out that the man was a chief justice, but say he must have been an associate justice because they can't imagine why else his portrait be in the court.

The man's dark coat and white shirt with a ruffled wrap was common fashion in the 40-year period between 1780 and 1820, said Allen.

Compounding the problem is the portrait appears to depict a relatively young judge, made early in his legal career.

"Almost all of the portraits" in the court's possession "were painted at the end of the judge's career," explained Allen.

"So it's a big difference between someone who looks like he's probably in his 40s, and judges back then who could have retired in their 70s or even in their early 80s."

Public appeal

Officials have attempted to use multiple facial recognition programs and consulted the Massachusetts Historical Society — to no avail so far.

The court has now made an appeal to the public to help with any clues they might have on the identity of their mystery judge.

"I basically said, listen, if we have not been able to identify it, why don't we set loose the public to see if they can put on their Sherlock Holmes' hats and help us to track down who this elusive and mysterious justice is?" Gants told the Associated Press.

So far, Allen said he has received a multitude of tips from the public, including from history buffs and individuals who love a good mystery.

The court doesn't have a cash reward for whoever correctly identifies the man in the portrait. But whoever does will be invited to the court to accompany Gants at a ceremony where he will unveil a plaque bearing the mystery judge's name, and get a guided tour of the John Adams Courthouse.

With files from the Associated Press.