from our sight. We may raise an image of them in our minds
but that has not the tangibility of one we can
see with our bodily eyes.
~ Flora A. Windeyer ~
In last week's Web Wandering Wednesday I posted a photograph I believed to be a postmortem image and said, "I Think She's Dead!" Your comments and skepticism were dead on (pun intended).
I have spent the last week in the public library, on the computer, and on the phone with Iowa to resolve some of the major issues. Will we ever be certain of this young woman's status at the time she was photographed? I doubt that we will, but with the following research we can make some educated guesses.
I have provided links to images that illustrate some of the points discussed. The links are all of postmortem photographs. Some of the photographs are disturbing to our twenty-first century sensibilities. If you are uncomfortable with postmortem photographs, please don't look.
Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Photography was expensive and most photographs were taken to commemorate a special occasion or event in a person's life. The largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, however, were postmortem photographs. A fact I found surprising until I researched the justification for the statistic.
Some estimates indicate that one-third of all photographs taken during this period of time were postmortem photographs. My research indicates this was because the deceased had not lived long enough to celebrate a special occasion, had been unable to afford a photograph, or had already lived a long life prior to the advent of photography. The postmortem photograph would have been the only photograph made of the person.
It is evident from the comments to my post and my own experience with postmortem photographs that they are largely unseen and unknown. This can be attributed to the fact that as the response to death changed in America many of these photographs were destroyed by family members that found them gruesome.
A postmortem photograph was, in many cases, the only portrait made of a child or an adult and much pride and artistry went into them. Infant and child postmortem photographs are heartbreaking, but they were cherished by parents and family that had no other form of rememberance. I found the following example one of the most heartbreaking of all the photographs I have seen. The child had obviously been ill, note the medicine on the table. The father holds the child; the mother looks inconsolable. One of the very strangest postmortem photographs of a child I have ever seen can be found here. I can offer no explanation for the posed drama found in this photograph.I had never seen a postmortem photograph of an adult sitting in a chair; neither had most of you who commented. Early postmortem photographs had more variety than later ones which were funeral photographs. The body was often shown sitting or even standing in an attempt to make the appearance of the deceased more life-like. So the deceased sitting in a chair or even standing was not uncommon.
This is a photograph in my collection that I have considered suspicious for several reasons. The stand, the position of the feet, the fact the right leg does not appear to be touching the floor, the unnatural look of the hands, and the vacant expression. Is it a standing postmortem? Stands were used for the living, of course, and the appearance of the feet could be the result of polio or a birth defect. More research may or may not solve the mystery.
Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective, observed that the young woman was holding a letter in her hand. Maureen is at a decided disadvantage in not having the original photograph or a scan of the area of the hands. In looking at a blow-up of the hands I found shadows and pixelation, it didn't look like a letter to me. But, for the sake of argument, let's say there is a letter in her hand. Would that be so uncommon as to make this photograph one of a living person? Again, in an effort to make the deceased appear to be living, props such as toys, flowers, books, and newspapers were used when taking postmortem photographs.
The following are examples: A postmortem photograph of a young woman sitting up with her eyes open, holding a book. Another, an image of a man sitting in a chair. A circa 1860 postmortem photograph of a deceased man in a chair with table and book. The body is arranged so as to appear lifelike, as is this postmortem photograph of a man sitting in a chair with a newspaper in his lap. The most disturbing of this group is the young woman whose photograph was taken nine days after her death.
There has also been much discussion about the fact that the young woman appears to have been photographed in a professional studio. That can be surmised from the chair, the painted backdrop and the photographer's imprint. The question is whether or not photographers photographed the deceased in their studios. The following is an 1865 advertisement for just such a service by the photographers Southwork and Hawes. L.H. Crawley of The Virtual Dime Museum has also submitted an advertisement from the September 1847 Brooklyn Eagle for J.B. Leathers.
Southwork & Hawes
We make miniatures of children and adults instantly . . . and of Deceased Persons either at our rooms or at private residences . . . We take great pains to have miniatures of Deceased persons agreeable and satisfactory, and they are often so natural as to seem, even to Artists, in a quiet sleep.
L.H. Crawley - The Virtual Dime Museum
So taking the deceased to a photographer's studio was done. In researching the photographer credited with taking the photograph in question, (Ph. W. Lenz, 1190 Iowa, Dubuque, Iowa) I found another Lenz in business in Dubuque, who made tombstones. Perhaps the business was kept in the family.
Further research found that an 1878 Manual of Necroscopy suggested, "In a well-appointed mortuary provision should be made for photography." This apparently leaves the option open for the mortician to act as photographer, or the photographer to make use of the mortuary facilities. Our young woman could have been photographed in either place.
The photographer remains a mystery. In 1895 and 1896 the Lenz Brothers were photographers in Dubuque, Iowa. Our photograph does not list the studio as Lenz Brothers, but rather as Ph. W. Lenz. It is unknown if the Ph. stands for a name or for Photographer. It has not been determined if this is one of the Lenz Brothers' photographs or one by an entirely different photographer. The Dubuque Library has not found the photographer. They are also researching morticians for the period 1880 - 1900. If they find any information I will post an update. A search of Ancestry, Heritage Quest, Sanborn Maps, and other genealogical sites have resulted in no information.
Many of you questioned whether she could be blind. I am doing some research into women wearing glasses and I have this photograph to offer. The blind often wore glasses with tinted or black lenses. It didn't make the blind more comfortable, only those looking at them.
While it's possible our young woman is blind, I believe even a blind woman would have been uncomfortable with her dress tucked under her in such a manner and her legs at such an odd angle. The fact that she looks blind or sleeping is most probably a credit to the artistry of the photographer.
You have the benefit of my research, has it changed your mind? Is she dead or alive?
One can no more look steadily at death than at the sun.
If you are determined to look steadily at death and postmortem photography, I suggest the following sources.
A Family Undertaking - Gone But Not Forgotten. POV, PBS.
Death The Last Taboo
Haunted When It Rains
Morbid Anatomy: Contemporary Post-Mortem Photography
Post-Mortem Photography - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Postmortem Photography - A Set on Flckr
Thanatos Archive - Postmortem and Mourning Photography
Burns, Stanley B. Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Twelve Trees Press, 1990.
Burns, Stanley B. & Elizabeth A. Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions. Burns Archive Press, 2002.
Darrah, William C. Cartes de Visite in 19th Century Photography. Gettysburg: Darrah, 1981.
McCulloch, Lou W. Card Photographs, A Guide To Their History and Value. Exton, Pennsylvania: Schiffer 1981.
Mace, O. Henry. Collector's Guide To Early Photographs.Iola, Wisconsin: Krause, 1999.
Mautz, Carl. Biographies of Western Photographers. Nevada City, California: Carl Mautz Publishing, 1997.
Newth, A.H. A Manual of Necroscopy. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1878.
Nickell, Joe. Camera Clues. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Palmquist, Peter. Pioneer Photographers Of The Far West A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Boston: MIT Press, 1995.
Severa, Joan. Dressed For The Photographer. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1995.
Suspicious. Photograph (Card Mount). Unknown. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Preston, Washington. 2008.
Blind. Photograph (CDV). Unknown. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Preston, Washington. 2008.