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William Roe Howell was born on April 9, 1846 at Goshen, New York. His father, DeWitt, was a wealthy farmer and landowner. His mother, Jane Roe, was the daughter of a lawyer from Blooming Grove, New York. This affluent home included four brothers and a sister. His first love was drawing and painting but that developed into a professional interest in photography. Howell began his career  with a gallery in his home town of Goshen. Around 1863, he moved to New York City and went into partnership with two brothers, Henry and Robert Johnston, whose photography studio was located at 867 Broadway.  Robert Johnston began his photography career as a daguerreotype artist around 1854, probably working with Mathew Brady since their addresses are both listed in New York City directories at 359 and 205 Broadway. 

About 1866 the Johnston firm's name changed to Johnston & Howell. Howell went into sole proprietorship around 1867. He began gaining recognition for his photography around 1870. At the age of 24, photographic journals were hailing him as an "accomplished young artist." His studio was situated at the foot of Broadway in the district called "Ladies' Mile." Here the fashionable upper class shopped and paraded up and down Broadway. This location was ideal for Howell because it drew in a host of celebrities to have their photos done including showman P. T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill Cody, Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer. Howell also opened a studio in Brooklyn on Fulton Street which later was sold to photographer Frank E. Pearsall.

The highlight of Howell's career came in 1873 when he became one of five Americans to be awarded a special grand prize at the World's Fair held in Vienna, Austria.  More than 300 photographers from around the world displayed their work.  The Philadelphia Photographer praised Howell's entries as "truly elegant specimens of photography" in the June issue.  An album of these photos, known as Howell's Album of Studies, sold in the U.S. for $8.00.  It contained 24 cabinet card-sized photographs mounted on 8"x 10" cards, bound together in cloth.  The May 1874 issue of Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, published by the photographic firm of E. & H. T. Anthony, stated: "This is by far the finest collection of photographic portraits that has ever appeared in book form." However, the Anthonys had a financial stake in the album since they were the distributors.  During this time he was also the photographer for New York College, several of the New York City Ward schools, the senior class photographer for Princeton College (1869-1870 and 1872-1873), and class photographer for the United States Military Academy at West Point (1873).  He won gold medals from the American Institute annual fairs in 1870, 1872, 1873, 1875 and 1879.

Howell moved his New York studio around 1878, possibly because the small building he occupied at 867 Broadway was being demolished (the new building at that location was completed in 1882). He relocated to 889 Broadway and to 26 West 14th Street around the same time. It's unknown which studio he occupied first after the move from 867 Broadway. Later, at 26 West 14th Street, Howell partnered with another photographer by the name of Meyer. It's not known who this person was.  Howell seems to have gone into retirement in 1880, most likely for health reasons. The August 1880 edition of Anthony's Photographic Bulletin states that he was retiring in Bloomfield, New Jersey.  No Howell photographs have been found with a New Jersey address.

Howell moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 intent on opening a studio there, but a bizarre incident happened only a year later--he disappeared.  According to an article in the Washington Post, March 26, 1887, he vanished two weeks before the formal opening of his studio.  He left his wife and five children penniless, having put most of his money into his business.  Apparently he had no money either and also left his overcoat at home.  His wife, Fannie (Fannie Charlotte Scott, whom he married in 1870), admitted that Howell was an eccentric man and was bothered by his business partner's complaints that he was spending too much money.  "Maybe he just got tired of the whole thing and his family, too, and cut loose from us," she said.  She also was concerned that Howell's brother (possibly James) and his mother took no interest in the disappearance.  Howell must have returned home shortly afterwards since there was no follow up to this story.  His business is listed in the 1888 District of Columbia directory, but not in 1889.

Howell moved back to New York sometime after the closing of his Washington studio and lived only about a year.  He died December 13, 1890 of tuberculosis, indirect cause was "mal-nutrition" states his death certificate.  He was living at the home of fellow photographer, Lawrence Perkinson, who ran a studio in Harlem at 125th Street.  After the Washington, D.C. episode he and Fannie must have soon divorced.  Scott was given as Fannie's last name in her obituary, and she was buried in Washington's Glenwood Cemetery, not Goshen, even though she lived in Brooklyn, New York.  William's obituaries don't mention him having a wife or children.  (The above photograph shows Howell as a young man, taken at the Johnston Brothers studio, the studio which he would later own.)