The thumbnail caption for Evan Kail’s latest TikTok video has three words: “Please Help Me.”
While his moniker on social media is Pawn Man, the collector actually runs a gold and silver bullion business. It’s on the side that he collects rare items and historical memorabilia, sharing the most interesting finds with his 100,000 followers, a count that’s now grown to half a million. After Kail found a book he believed contained never-before-seen photos of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, he reached out to his followers for help.
For the first 20 pages, the photos appear to be from a U.S Navy service member sent to China during the Allied Nation’s proxy war in Southeast Asia around 1938. But when Kail flipped the next page, instead of finding more photos of monuments and military maneuvers, he found at least 20 pages of pure chaos.
“When I got that book… and I opened it and I got beyond that page, I screamed,” he said in a TikTok video that now has been liked over 1.9 million times and has over 40,000 comments and shares. “Somehow that guy who took those photos was present for the Rape of Nanjing. And he took about 30 photographs that are unknown to history that are worse than anything I’ve ever seen on the internet. “
The disturbing black and white photos show piles of bodies, beheadings, and other tortures captured in the book’s photographs and annotated, all of which were so graphic Kail could not post them on TikTok without risking his account getting banned. He did end up posting several on Twitter — along with his reasoning: he was sharing the video to get the attention of the research community.
“How he took these photos and got away and nobody did anything,” he says in his video. “The simple fact is: a museum needs to take that.”
The Rape of Nanjing, also known as the Massacre of Nanjing (and previously anglicized as Nanking), was a historical assault by the Japanese Imperial Army against the Chinese city of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. According to the International Military Tribunal and UNESCO, the massacre of Nanjing was the “organized and wholesale murder” of at least 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians, and does not include the bodies not recovered and the tens of thousands of rape victims. Only documented by a minor cache of international civilians and a Nazi party member who stayed in the city’s Safety Zone, there are famously few records of evidence left of the incident, as documented in journalist Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.
But are the photos in the book real? According to another social-media history buff, that’s the wrong question.
Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, research historian and creator of the Fake History Hunter account on Twitter said that while the photobook might contain authentic photos from the sailor and authentic photos of war, she does not believe the graphic pictures she has seen are from the Nanjing massacre. Instead, she says, they were most likely photos from several war events ranging in age, packaged and sold as souvenirs to the owner, who put them in his album as a memento.
“If the photos were unique and really taken by the previous owner of the album, they should have been completely new,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I managed to trace some of the photos and discovered that they had been public for years, decades in some cases. They even appear in stock photo company archives.” As she noted on Twitter, some of the photos date back to 1905.
Teeuwisse sees this fervor as one of many common ways historical artifacts can gain new (and oftentimes incorrect) life on social media and says people have a responsibility to treat potential discoveries with real care to avoid misinformation.
“I think you should always do a bit of basic research yourself and when you think you have something truly special,” she says. ”Perhaps first check with other experts or museums before you tell the world.”
None of the photos have been verified by an official museum or historical society, but Kail believes in their authenticity enough to stake his two-year experience as a collector on them. He’s currently working to have them authenticated. But when he spoke to Rolling Stone on Thursday afternoon, he said he had already been contacted several times by a museum that said it was located in Nanjing.
When asked about photos that had matches to other already known photographs from different eras, Kail said he had never heard of sailors putting souvenir photos into their own books. But even if they aren’t real, he’s glad that so many people were educated on the history behind the Nanjing massacre.
In the meantime, he’s trying to get in touch with a museum, hopefully the Smithsonian, to take the photos.
“I’m trying to get it in a place where it can have as many views as possible,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It’s such important history and history is doomed to repeat itself. I see a lot of stupid shit that was going on back then and still going on today. And this, you know, it’s a lesson.”