Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I Think She's Dead!


Recently the photograph above was offered for sale on eBay by jimxb. This seller has some wonderful Victorian and Edwardian photographs.

The description of the photograph:

You are bidding on an ANTIQUE Possible Post Mortem, CABINET PHOTO depicting a Lovely Young Victorian Lady. TO ME, She Looks Dead. Please check out all my PICS, and see what you think. To me, she looks like she's propped up on this chair. Her left arm is very limply just hanging there. Her eyes are closed, her head hanging down. I don't know, to me it looks eerie. I don't think she's alive, but I COULD BE WRONG!! Photographer was Ph. W. Lenz, Dubuque, Iowa.

I would have liked to have won this photograph, but it sold for $147.50 - above my budget for a single card of a woman not wearing glasses.

I took a good look at this photograph and I also believe she is dead. Post mortem photographs are not unusual. They take many forms - lying in bed, lying on a couch, in a casket, or a previous picture placed in a scroll on a memorial card. I have not seen one of an adult propped up in a chair.

I believe she is dead for several reasons the seller did not include in her description.

[1] The position of her legs. Women of the day did not sit with their knees that far apart. The right leg is turned at an awkward angle.

[2] Her dress is stuffed under her thigh. A lady would not sit for a photograph with her skirt stuffed under her. Photographs were expensive and the sitter as well as the photographer wanted them to be perfect. Women were represented in the most genteel pose possible. This is not a genteel pose.

[3] I also agree with the statement that the arms hanging down appear to be awkward. Very unladylike. The eyes look dark and sunken.

Yes, she appears to be dead. What do you think?


Blogger Sally J. said...

Like you, Maven, I've never seen an adult post mortem photo where the subject is propped up in a chair. Casket or bed, yes. On the other hand, I've seen enough post mortem baby photos to last a lifetime. Is there anything more heartbreaking?

Her fingernails look black to me. Or is that just my imagination?

-Sally J.
The Practical Archivist
...and a HUGE fan of this blog!

June 4, 2008 at 2:17 PM  
Blogger Becky Wiseman said...

Totally creepy. Yep, I think she's a goner too! Not a very flattering either ;-) I don't think I've ever seen a post-mortem picture of an adult though I have of small children and infants. Gives me the weeby-jeebies just looking at her. If ya can't take a picture of me before I die, don't take one afterwards either!!!

June 4, 2008 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Thomas MacEntee said...

Deader'n a door nail as Scrooge once said. I also find that the arms appear a bit puffed.

Or could it just be that her corset is a wee bit tight and she has momentarily passed out?

As for post-mortem photos, I know in current times it is fairly common in European countries to take a photo of the deceased while displayed at the wake. My family tends to do this too. And there is no greater excitement than during a vacation slide show to have the deceased literally "pop up" by accident. The end results is usually someone fleeing the room in tears.

June 4, 2008 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

During this period of time people viewed death as just another phase of life.

If they didn't have a photo prior to death they took one at the time of death. The photographer coming to the house. (Remember Terry Thornton's story?)

The thing I find troubling about this photo is the professional backdrop and the wicker chair. Would a photographer have taken that to the home of the deceased?

I really find that more likely than taking the deceased to the photographer's studio.

That's why this is such a mystery and a perfect photograph for some educated musing.

So thank you all for the input.



I'm so honored you enjoy this blog and are a fan. I have always been one of yours!


June 4, 2008 at 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it weren't such an old photo, I'd say she was caught in motion, perhaps shifting positions and looking down. But, as the shutter speeds back then weren't what they are today, she's probably an EX-Victorian Lady (to quote Monty Python's infamous
Dead Parrot sketch

What's Past is Prologue

June 4, 2008 at 5:48 PM  
Blogger Lidian said...

Oh dear, oh dear. Yes, I agree with you and all the above commenters. This is definitely the first post-mortem chair-sitting photo I have ever seen. I just don't know what to add except that I would not want this in my collection, it would give me nightmares (which is not the proper historian's mindset, I know!)

This is just the sort of thing that Wilkie Collins could have written about (one of his sensation novels stars a man with blue skin - from his mercury treatments- for example).

I am torn between being extremely intrigued and rather - freaked out, for want of a better word.

They just couldn't have taken her to a studio could they? Maybe she was a relative of a photographer (possibly a home studio?)

June 5, 2008 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Terry Thornton said...

MAVEN, The only post mortem photo I've seen of an adult was made of the individual lying in a casket -- most dead-like pose I've ever seen but the family wanted a picture so they "could remember" the individual. I took one look at the photo and that is all I remember --- a dead person in a casket!

Your image is interesting --- and I think she either mad (not insane) but angry or else as drunk as a skunk. In any event she didn't wish for her photo to be taken --- and someone forced her into it.

Sally J's comment about fingers caused me to enlarge the photo --- I think those black spots shadows rather than nails.

Creepy picture but totally fascinating.

June 5, 2008 at 6:47 PM  
Blogger The Photo Detective said...

Hmm. Not so fast. The facts are a little confusing. I've seen a lot of postmortem photos and I have a few doubts about this one. Sure, her pose is odd but would a family carry a body to a photo studio to have it photographed. Maybe... The question is why doesn't she fall over. Did you notice that she's holding a "letter" in her right hand. She looks pretty good for a deceased woman. There isn't any slackness in her face other than the closed eyes. I wonder if she's blind and not aware of how she's posed.
I'm not convinced she's dead! Great photo though.

June 6, 2008 at 2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not totally convinced she is dead. Dependent lividity typically sets in 15 to 20 minutes post mortem, rigor several hours. Is it possible that she is "not dead yet"? Very nice, thanks for sharing.

June 6, 2008 at 8:10 PM  
Blogger Nikki - Notes of Life said...

It's an odd one! She does look dead, but could she be blind or disabled in some way?

June 8, 2008 at 12:31 PM  
Blogger Taneya said...

how eerie! i definitely agree with some of the other comments. If she's not dead, this is certainly not the best picture!

June 8, 2008 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Sally J. said...

Hi, I'm back. :-)

And my vote is for deceased.

I did some quick research (read: visited Wikipedia, heh) and found an entry for post mortem photography.

As you can see here, the first two examples are adults posed in chairs. One is flanked by her parents, the other alone.

The man posed alone looks like he could be in a photographer's studio.

June 8, 2008 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger The Photo Detective said...

Ahh! Now you've got me wondering...Why is she holding what appears to be a letter? Hope your research answers that question. Good work Sally! Can't wait for the results.

June 9, 2008 at 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's my two ducats.

I don't think she's dead. I think she's blind.

I don't think she's holding a letter. I think that's part of the ornate back support of the chair.

I also think that her left arm is 'propped over that side of the back support - or arm of the chair - causing the awkward hanging....

I just think the photographer was uncomfortable with his subject and didn't know how to pose her.

Worse yet, if she deceased, this photographer did NOTHING to make her look good!

"Guided by the Ancestors"

June 12, 2008 at 9:31 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. said...

I realize that this is an old post, but just wanted to add my two cents.

It's really hard to say whether this is a post mortem photo.

We really don't have enough evidence to be conclusive in either direction.

I have seen post mortem photos in which the deceases was in a chair. I have even seen post mortem photos in which the deceased was standing, strapped to some mechanism which allowed her to appear, unconvincingly, alive.

The point of post mortem photos, as has been mentioned, is that they are the only remembrances a family might have of the person. The affordability of photography was new at the time. It was no longer out of many family's means. They may never have considered it when she was alive, but if the death was tragic and young, as many were at the time, the loved ones might have decided that they wanted to remember their beloved with this newly available technology. Certainly there was money to be had with post mortem photos as we see so many of them that have survived from the time, some much more elaborate and staged than others.

On the other hand, she could simply be being theatrical. I don't know why someone would pose with their eyes closed, but I can't see why someone wouldn't either. Perhaps she is only a model and this is one of many photos for which she posed. Perhaps the photographer was experimenting? There are a lot of could be's and not many definitives. So, since the story behind the photo has been lost to time, we may never know...

April 5, 2009 at 7:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I am afraid this poor woman is no more. I worked with a museum in Dallas County. There were many deceased portraits where they tried to sit these people up for one last photo. For many it was the only photo.

April 10, 2009 at 3:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me she's obviously dead. 99.9% sure. PM's in chairs are fairly common... the body would often be held in place by belts which you can see in a lot of such photographs (Though I can't see one here).

I would venture to say that the legs look like that because they are strapped to the chair legs. They're about as far apart as the legs of the chair.

And the dress itself looks off - not just the way it's tucked underneath her, but it also looks like she wasn't the one who put it on. For that matter, it looks like it's open at the back.

Just my two cents...

September 29, 2009 at 9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this isn't a blind woman caught in a bad shot, then I'm afraid I lean (heavily, like she does) toward PM photo.

* The chair arm looks too uncomfortable for her to be putting so much weight on it for as long as she would have had to do if she were living.

* Her hair looks charmingly disarrayed to me, but would probably seem like a mess to a living Victorian.

* Anonymous of 29 Sep 2009 is astute to notice that the dress bodice doesn't seem to be fastened in the back - perhaps because there's strapping or a brace to hold her upright in the chair.

I'm wondering about her jaw, though - how did they keep it closed unless there's some kind of bracing that this low-res photo doesn't show? Perhaps the downward tilt is to hide a ribbon or scarf.

And she's not holding anything - that's the drape in the background showing through the arm of the chair.

When people die, they don't always show lividity. Many people take on the aspect of fine ivory once blood no longer circulates. As an RN, I've seen waaay too many dead people.

What's REALLY creepy is when the photog paints open-appearing eyes on the closed lids! Some old photos that look a bit off, but you just can't put your finger on it, try looking at them for the signs that those peepers are painted on.

November 15, 2009 at 12:10 AM  
Anonymous GhostWritings said...

Wow, this is as creepy as a ghost story!

December 28, 2009 at 11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think she is dead. Look at her firmly closed mouth and also at her expression in her face. These are not mouth and face of a living person.

March 9, 2011 at 1:26 AM  

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