Monday, January 26, 2009

Here's My Opinion

It is my opinion that the little girl is not dead.

So what could be the reason for why she looks as if she's sleeping other than that she is dead?

Sleeping, yes, but I believe it is illness. I believe she may be suffering from the disease Encephalitis lethargica, often called sleeping sickness, or a similar disease of the time. There was an epidemic of Encephalitis lethargica from around 1917 until 1928. Those who survived sank into a semi-conscious state. I also think I see signs of pain in her face, not the smooth face of death.

The clothing would place the photograph at about 1911. There is an electric chandelier, electric lights were common in homes after 1905. The child has a Teddy bear. They were introduced in 1903 and were mass produced by 1906.

So why is she the center of attention in the photograph? This may be a celebration. Perhaps it's the child's birthday. Even though she is ill, her parents may have dressed her in her best clothes, bought presents for her and placed them around her, and commemorated the occasion with a photograph. To me the toys look new and I'd love to know what's in the boxes. Chocolate?

All this is pure speculation.

Many children were removed from their coffins and placed in very peculiar situations to obtain a photograph. Often they were surrounded by family and their favorite toys. It was not unusual. But I still believe she is not dead and that this is an unusual photograph.

The following are the reasons why I think this is not a post-mortem photograph.

Although we can't see the entire table, the fruit is less than the substantial meal you would have expected friends and relatives to have brought to a viewing or funeral. Fruit was often difficult to acquire and signified celebrations. ie. The Christmas orange.

The Food

I find the cat in the photograph a little unsettling if the child is dead. Were my child alive, although ill, I would allow the cat to run around and might even find it a comfort. If my child were dead, I would remove the cat to another part of the house.

The poses of the people in the photograph are far too casual for something so serious as a family photograph commemorating a dead child.


The young woman pictured below is wearing a dress with a satin-like finish. The conventions of funeral dress would have precluded fabric of this sort being worn to a viewing or funeral. Even for families that were not wealthy certain customs were followed and I believe this would have been one of them. It is the type of dress that would be worn to a celebration.

Unconventional funeral dress

It has been suggested that the man casually posed above is wearing a mourning ribbon. I do not have a scan of a high enough resolution to really see the ribbon. The scan below looks more like a campaign ribbon, but there is no way to be sure.


My research into funeral customs found that a mourning ribbon for a child would have been white. This is not. Also, the other men in the photograph should have been wearing mourning ribbons as well. Particularly the man who appears to be the father; the man next to the flowers and directly behind the child. No other man is wearing a ribbon.

Also by convention, the flowers should have been white or light colored carnations if this was a viewing or funeral for a child. It is of course possible that white could not be found and any flowers were better than none.


There are two things in the photograph, however, that cinched my opinion that she is not dead. The first, I call rampant smiling.


There are far too many people smiling for this to be a post-mortem photograph. While those who appear to be the parents are serious, they are not sorrowful. It is not a sorrowful group. None of the smiles appear to be attributable to the flash.

Serious - Not sorrowful

Women were very house proud during this time in history. While the piano remained piled high for a celebration with friends, if the house were to be used for a viewing for a dead child and people who were not close friends would be stopping by, I think they would have cleaned house.

What is on the piano? It looks like a guitar case and a violin and the piano has sheet music at the ready. More a celebration than a viewing.

So I am relying on the impression the photograph gives me, as many post-mortem photographs are staged very similarly to this one.

I sent these impressions on to Jack and here is what he replied:

"Thank you very much for taking the time to give your feedback on this photo. When I first purchased this, I had serious doubts about it being a post-mortem, and for obvious reasons, (the smiles being the main one)… but then, the more people I showed it to, the more I was getting the opinion that it was. In fact, I would say that out of the 20 or so comments I have received so far, 17 think it’s a post-mortem, which was very surprising to me. Now, after hearing your valued opinion, I am swayed once again to think that it is not.

You made some great observations. The thought of it being a sleeping sickness crossed my mind as well, actually, though I kept that to myself because I hadn’t taken any time to research it. The lack of the coffin did not factor much into my decision, as I own many “no doubt” post-mortem photos of children and adults posed as if sleeping, and many others of children posed with their favorite toys, much like the girl in this photo."

So what did you decide? Don't forge to leave your comment.


Blogger Lidian said...

I was going to say that this is a post-mortem photograph; but, fM, your brilliant deductions have really made me think that you are on to something!

In Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, I seem to remember that most of the victims of the "sleeping sickness" were older than this child - people in their teens and twenties, mostly. I don't recall him mentioning children having caught it, though I suppose it is possible.

I am going to think about this some more and if I have anything useful to add I will come back. This is fascinating and strange indeed...

March 27, 2009 at 5:04 AM  
Blogger Cindy said...

well, now I just think you're a genius! Great details noted here and while I did notice the people smiling and thought that was odd, I had no knowledge of the illness and thought the items on the floor with her were simply her favorites (i didn't notice the boxes, I couldn't make out what they were) You ARE a genius!!! Thanks!

March 27, 2009 at 6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Illness makes sense here. Many of us have probably celebrated a birthday or Christmas with an elderly relative who is present physically, not mentally. This little girl may have even been the victim of an accident that left her comatose.

You analysis of the stage "props" add credence to the celebration idea. I wonder, with the little girl as the center of attention, could this have been her birthday?

Thanks for a good morning puzzle, fM.

March 27, 2009 at 6:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you, the main reason being the smiling faces. The lady with the cat in her lap almost has the "cat-who-ate-the-canary" expression on her face!
Interesting that the cat is looking directly at the camera.
I love these types of images and your analysis(es)of them. Morbid, but so very interesting!


March 27, 2009 at 7:26 AM  
Blogger GenealogySleuth said...

I agree she is not dead and that it is probably some date of note. I don't know about the illness. It looks like it is meant to be some sort of joke. An illness like that would hardly be a laughing matter.

March 27, 2009 at 1:24 PM  
Blogger M. Diane Rogers said...

Now that's a very interesting idea, footnoteMaven. Were many children/people treated at home, I wonder, and would their bodies in coma look so 'natural'? I have a Canadian relative who suffered later from 'Post Encephalitis Lethargica' - ended up in a 'mental hospital' where she died in 1941.
Don't know when she contracted the disease. That is on my list of things to investigate someday...
The little gir's shoes/boots might be of interest too but can't really see. I was thinking now of polio...

March 27, 2009 at 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read the venerable Maven's thoughts yet. But here are mine: Several people are smiling. The little boys don't look scared (I remember my great-grandma saying she was forced to touch her great-grandfather's head when he was dead to avoid nightmares and it scared her A LOT - I think many children would be scared of a dead person let alone a dead child). I may be wrong, so hopefully someone else will know, but I don't think the dead were placed on the floor, but were laid out in a respectful manner. So, I vote she is alive, but something seems to be wrong with her.

March 28, 2009 at 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Connie Moretti said...

Something about the informal position of the girl's legs as well as the relaxed smiles of the family made me immediately think she was alive, however my instant analysis had nowhere near the depth of yours. The placement on the floor, as Andrea pointed out, also seems inappropriate for a dead child.

March 30, 2009 at 8:56 AM  
Blogger Nikki - Notes of Life said...

Maybe she was simply bored with waiting for everyone to be ready to have the photograph taken!

The girl isn't the only one who appears to be asleep... Note the man stood by the door!

The man stood behind the one sat with the little child, seems to have quite a maddened look on his face and seems to be staring across the room.

Is that a bed on the right-hand side? If so, it seems to be blocking a door!

On a more serious note... I agree, I don't think she's dead.

March 30, 2009 at 10:02 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. said...

I think this is simply a party where someone has fallen asleep and is being teased.

May 18, 2009 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger Kalishnikitty said...

She is dead. No one would stage a post mortem photograph. At that time PM's were very common. Her doll and Bear are in front of her as with other PM's. Here pinky the only exposed finger looks discoverer at eh end of it. Witch is common with blood pooling after death. I won a copy of sleeping beauty and have studied this on several forums dedicated to this.

Anyone at that time who saw this pic would think it is a PM, you just didn't'lay children on the floor like that with their toys, unless they were dead...or this family is the Addams family and likes sick jokes.

I think is is more then likely a funny crack was made, maybe the baby broke wind or the photographer said something to make them laugh. The guy next to Grandma looks embarrassed.

August 20, 2009 at 6:22 PM  

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