This English carte de visite (CDV) is one of the most popular in my collection, if Flickr views and Pinterest re-pins equate to evidence, that is. It shows a young British widow—identifiable as such by the white ruching on her black bonnet—squatting in the background, having just propelled her black-clad daughter toward the photographer. The widow stares forward forlornly, her hand over her mouth, indicating without words her shock and concern for their future. It is a candid, painfully honest pose, and one rarely seen in types of images. She is no “Hidden Mother,” but a vital element of a tableau meant to convey the message, “This is his orphan.”
The reverse stamp on the CDV reads “T. Bennett, Photographer, 46 Foregate Street and Church Street, Malvern.” According to research conducted by the creator of Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland, 1840-1940, Thomas Bennett “opened his first studio in Worcester in 1856. At different times, he operated at five studios in Worcester and three in Malvern under his own name and the business continued under the name of Bennett & Son and Bennett & Sons until at least 1916.”
“The 1861 census records the [Bennett] family living at his shop at 46 Foregate, Worcester, where he is described as a Lay Clerk (of the church) and photographer. His firm Thomas Bennett and Son is thought to have been established about 1856. His branch in Great Malvern was possibly the second photographic studio” in that town—this information gleaned from the Malvern Records Office. Bennett threw open the doors of his Malvern studio in 1868 and the CDV of mother and daughter could not have been taken long afterward.
Helpful Flickr historians pellethepoet and EastMarple1 spotted one of Thomas Bennett’s studios in the foreground the CDV below. The building at bottom righthand corner, with the word “photos” just visible above the door, was almost certainly where this Worcestershire widow brought her daughter to mark their terrible loss in a fixed image that could never be denied.
My CDV appears on many Pinterest pages, and in particular, one where in the comments it is suggested that this little girl is dead, held up by props, or suspended with wires.
This is not a deceased child. In the photo, her eyes were caught while tracking the photographer, and she supported herself to a degree through her hand, wrist, and arm. One of her feet was slightly lifted as she prepared to take a step.
Bodies were not embalmed at the time this image was taken. That preservation process came into practice during the American Civil War as a way of returning bodies of dead Union soldiers to their families. It was not widely used in the United States or Great Britain for another 40 to 50 years.
Dead bodies that are not embalmed do not stand on their own, even during rigor mortis, without some sort of brace or rigging. There is no evidence in the historic record that these types of devices were used during regular postmortem photography. Sometimes unidentified bodies or murder victims such as Katherine Eddows, a victim of Jack the Ripper, were propped up to be forensically photographed.
Further, it should be asked why a mother would chose to allow the corpse of her dead daughter to be held up by wires or clamped in some sort of brace when she herself could have cradled the body—as is seen in so many other postmortem images?
The props that photographers did use were to keep people still, not to hold them up, as is clearly seen in the photograph below. Ω
The sons of Albert Berthoud and Marinda Boyton Root left Pennsylvania for Kansas, Colorado, and beyond, but they never stopped writing to the people of Wellsboro.
Albert Berthoud Root was born 3 October, 1813, in Farmington, Connecticut. His parents were Connecticut-born Noah Root, Jr. (1777-10 Oct., 1854), and Nancy Smith (1779-17 May, 1845.) The Root family had come to the American Colonies in the mid-1600s, and can be traced as far back as John Roote, who was born 24 January, 1576, in Badby England.
Between 1830 and 1832, Albert married the slightly older Marinda Boyden, who had been born in Royalton, Windsor County, Vermont in 1809. From the fashions displayed in this pair of cabinet cards, the originals were daguerreotypes taken in about 1850. They likely belonged to the descendants of the couple’s third son John C., as he is referenced on the reverse of each image: “Albert B. Root. John C. Root father,” and “Mrs. Mariandra Root Boyden. John C. Root mother.” The cabinet cards, which date to about 1890, are both marked “F. C. Lutes, Topeka, Kans.”
What Marinda actually called herself is up for debate. In the public records she appears as “Marinda,” “Miranda,” “Lavinda,” “Mariandra”—even “Gorinda.” However, Marinda appears most often, and is most likely correct.
Hannah Carroll gave birth to Marinda’s father, Joseph Boyden, Jr., less than a year before her husband set off to fight in the American Revolution.
Marinda’s paternal grandfather was Revolutionary War veteran and Walpole, Massachusetts, native Joseph Boyden (b. 4 December, 1729). According to a Sons of the American Revolution membership application filed by a descendant, Jonathan Boyden was a private in Captain Jeremiah Smith’s Company of Colonel John Smith’s Regiment, “which marched on the alarm of April 19, 1775, service 7 days; also Capt. Bullard’s Co., Col. Joseph Read’s Regt. Muster roll dated August 1, 1775. Service 2 months, 1 day; also company return dated Roxbury, Sept. 26, 1775; also order for bounty coat or its equivalent in money dated Dec. 20, 1775; also Capt. Daniel’s Co., Col. Ephram Wheelock’s Regt. Reported discharged Oct. 16, 1776; also Capt. Oliver Clap’s Co., Col. Wheelock’s Regt. Under command of major James Metcalf, marched to Rhode Island on the alarm of Dec. 8, 1776, service 21 days, at Warwick, RI, reported drafted for 3 weeks service at Warwick. Also Capt. Jacob Haskin’s Co., Col. John Jacob’s Regt., enlisted July 2, 1778, service 6 months, 1 day, at Rhode Island, enlistment to expire Jan. 1, 1779.”
The above reference to a “bounty coat” leads to this little-known historical tidbit taken from Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: “On the 5th of July, 1775, a resolve was passed to provide each of the noncommissioned officers and soldiers of the army … with a coat, and 13,000 were ordered to be provided by the towns and districts, in accordance with a regular apportionment. This gift of a coat was considered in the nature of a bounty, and later, at the time of their distribution, the men in service were permitted to choose between acceptance of the coat or a sum of money in lieu thereof.”
Joseph Boyden’s wife Hannah Carroll gave birth to Marinda’s father, Joseph Boyden, Jr., in Walpole on 4 August, 1774, less than a year before her husband set off to fight in the American Revolution. Joseph, Jr., was later enumerated there with his then-widowed mother on the 1790 census of the town.
More than a half a century later, in 1854, a local paper wrote of Joseph, Jr., after his death and burial in Wellsboro Cemetery, Tioga County, Pennsylvania, “He grew to manhood [in Wapole], married Abigail Gilmore [b. 1781 in Wrenthan, Massachusetts; known as “Nabby”] on 2 October, 1799, in Walpole, and in 1848 came to Tioga County, Pennsylvania, and located in Delmar township. He was the father of nine children, as follows: Nancy, who married Enoch Cheney; Harriet, who married Charles Bond; Sanford; Addison; Lemuel; Miranda, wife of Albert Root, of Wellsboro; Eliza, wife of Lemuel Colvin; and Maria, who married Lyman Whitmore. Addison, Mrs. Root, and Mrs. Colvin are the only survivors of this family.”
Boyden died in Charleston township on January 5, 1854; his wife died 11 July, 1858, and was also buried in Wellsboro Cemetery, as are many other members of Marinda’s father’s family.
Root “came to Wellsboro in the winter of 1849, where he followed the trade of a mason as long as his health would permit.”
According to Albert Root’s obituary, which was published in the wonderfully titled Wellsboro Agitator, he had lived for some years in Binghamton, New York, with Marinda and their children. Root “came to Wellsboro in the winter of 1849, where he followed the trade of a mason as long as his health would permit. He was the father of a large family of children most of whom survive him. ”
The children of Albert and Marinda Boyden Root were Maria Louise (1833-1912); Joseph A. (1836-1926); Franklin Albert (3 July, 1837-1926), John C. (1839-1924); Eugene Bathobe (9 October, 1841-1917); Nancy (b. 1845); Josephine (b. 1847); and Henry C. (b. 1849), who were all born in Binghamton, New York, and Julius, who was born in 1851 in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.
The Root family appears on the 1850 census of Wellsboro with baby Henry aged only two months old. At the other end of the sibling spectrum, the eldest son Joseph III was a day laborer—later he would become a mason like his father. It was around this time that Albert and Marinda sat for the original daguerreotypes from which these images were copied.
A decade later, in 1860, the Roots still lived in Wellsboro. Albert once more gave his occupation as a mason; son John was a jobs printer, and Eugene a day laborer. The eldest children had established homes of their own; the youngest of the progeny were still with the parents.
Son John C. appears as a 22-year-old printer on the list of men subject to the military draft in 1863, as does his elder brother, the mason Joseph III. While it appears that neither John nor Joseph fought in the Civil War, their brothers Henry and Eugene did.
Henry was a member of Company A of the 187th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The company participated in the siege of Petersburg, the Yellow Tavern, and fighting on the Weldon railroad, one of the main arteries of the South to ship supplies to Petersburg and Richmond. Eugene served as a private in Company I, 45th PA Infantry. He enlisted 21 September, 1861. The unit mustered at Camp Curtain on 21 October for a three-year enlistment under the command of Colonel Thomas Welsh. Among the bloody battles in which they fought were Antietam, Cold Harbor, South Mountain, and the Wilderness. Eugene’s unit mustered out 17 July, 1865.
Franklin, known as Frank, also did not serve. This is explained by his entry in Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, Etc.; “He was educated in the country schools of New York and Pennsylvania, and in his boyhood worked on a farm. He was later hod-carrier and stage driver in Pennsylvania. At the age of twenty he came to Kansas, where he worked first in the office of the Herald of Freedom at Lawrence, and in the latter 50s was local editor on the Quindaro Chindowan. When the Civil War broke out he was assistant postmaster at Atchison, and was prevented from enlisting by his resignation not being accepted.”
By 1870, only sons Eugene and Julius remained with Albert and Marinda in Wellsboro. Both followed their father into the profession of mason—in Eugene’s case, his obituary makes clear he was a stone mason. Not long thereafter, Eugene married Elizabeth Kriner (b. 1854) and they became the parents of children Nellie Miranda (b. 1876) and Albert Laverne (15 April 1886-19 December, 1966). Eugene lived until 11 October, 1917, when at 10:30 in the morning, he died of valvular disease of the heart. Julius did not grow old; he died of consumption on 21 June, 1871, at the age of just 20 years.
A decade later, the 1880 census enumerated 44-year-old son Joseph III living with Albert and Marinda. Two years afterward, Albert Root died on 12 May, 1882. The Agitator of 16 May reveals, “Mr. Albert B. Root, an old and well-known resident of this borough, died at his home on Pearl Street last Saturday morning after being ill a few days with pneumonia.” He was buried in Wellsboro Cemetery. Marinda Boyden Root died 22 April, 1899. It seems logical that she is buried with her husband in Wellsboro Cemetery, but if this is the case, her grave is unmarked.
“Westward, Ho! Mr. John C. Root, who, boy and man, apprentice and foreman, has been in the Agitator Office for nine years, left for Kansas last Friday.”
Albert Root’s obituary states, “Three of his sons are engaged in the newspaper business in the West.” Two of those were John and Henry, who were both in Atchison Kansas in 1879, along with John’s wife Elizabeth (“Libby”) Bell (b. July 1842) and one-year-old daughter Mary. (John and Libby were married on 30 December, 1866, in Atchison.) Albert and Marinda’s firstborn daughter, Maria, also went west. She married blacksmith Samuel King (b. May 1836-15 June, 1886). The couple went to Kansas in 1864.
The circumstances around son John’s migration were reported by the Agitator, 20 December, 1865: “Westward, Ho! Our much esteemed foreman, Mr. John C. Root, who, boy and man, apprentice and foreman, has been in the Agitator Office for nine years, left for Kansas last Friday. He goes into the Daily Free Press Office, Atchison, Kansas, of which his brother [Harry C. Root], and our old friend and correspondent, is publisher. He takes with him what every young man, may, by equal fidelity and industry, command: the best wishes of all who know him, and the regrets of many, ourselves among the number. A tender hearted, more faithful and honest, and honorable man never breathed. Such a man must prosper wherever he goes. And may he prosper abundantly in his new home.”
Frank Root married Emma Clark in Topeka, Kansas, on 21 October, 1864. He regularly communicated with the Agitator about life in the new territory. Some of these printed letters mention his brothers and other former Wellsboro immigrants to Atchison. For example, on 3 March, 1868, he wrote, “I have lately received calls from G. D. Sofield, Lazell Kimball and John B. Emory, all from Wellsboro. Your quiet little place is well represented here. Bailey and Emory are selling goods, Kimball is recruiting his health, and John C. and Henry C. Root are ‘sticking type’ in the Daily Free Press office. All are well pleased with our ten-year-old city and bright prospects before her.”
“Frank Root is again in the newspaper business. This time he is publishing a neat weekly paper in North Topeka, called the Times.”
Henry Root also became a regular correspondent to the Agitator. (The brothers’ fascinating published reports from Kansas can be read in their entirety here.) Henry wrote of his brother, “Frank Root is again in the newspaper business. This time he is publishing a neat weekly paper in North Topeka, called the Times. Frank says his forte is in the newspaper business, and somehow he can’t keep out of it. He has got a live town to support him in his latest enterprise, and no doubt he will succeed.”
Henry Root returned to Wellsboro at least once, presumably to visit his parents and siblings. He mentions being there in the fall of 1876 in one of his letters to the Agitator. John also made at least one return visit to Wellsboro. Henry wrote on 2 July, 1877, “John C. Root, an old ‘typo’ in the office of the Champion and who is well known by everybody in Wellsboro and Tioga County, left on Wednesday last for a few weeks’ trip visiting his old home in Wellsboro. It is hoped the ‘boys’ will take good care of him while there. He has not been home for ten years.”
On 10 May, 1880, Henry wrote of Frank, “Frank A. Root has left Kansas, settling in Colorado, and will shortly commence the publication of a weekly paper at Gunnison City, in the southern portion of that State. This valley is said to be rich in agricultural as well as mineral wealth, and Frank predicts he has struck a big bonanza. A large emigration is flocking into this country.” (A fascinating series of letters that Frank wrote to the Agitator from primordial Gunnison can be read here.)
A year later, the Agitator of 5 July 1881, reported, “Mr. John C. Root, of Atchison, Kansas, arrived here on a visit to his parents last Friday. Mr. Root is a compositor in the Daily Champaign office at Atchison. It is four years since he last visited Tioga County. We are indebted to Mr. Root for some interesting western journals.” It was the last time John saw his aged father, and it was possibly also a last meeting with his mother.
John appeared in the 1885 and 1895 Kansas censuses with Libby and adult daughters Elva May (b. December 1871) and Annabel W. (b. March 1873). The 1880 U.S. census of Atchison showed the couple living with both, who are enumerated as “Elva May Hall” and “Hannah McClung,” as well as Annabel’s husband Charles McClung. John’s career was noted as compositor (print typesetter), whilst his son-in-law was a railroad brakeman.
On 3 February, 1901, Henry Root wrote to the Agitator, “The Overland Stage to California, by Frank A. Root, a former Wellsboro boy, now of Topeka, will soon be ready for the printer. It will contain upwards of 600 pages, including 200 or more illustrations, many of them from original drawings. The book itself will be an authentic history and personal reminiscences of the Overland Stage line and Pony Express between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean, carefully written by Mr. Root, who for some time was messenger in charge of the express and agent of the Post Office Department between Atchison, on the Missouri river, to the Rocky Mountains in the early 60s.”
By the taking of the 1910 census, the household of John Root had shrunk to himself, wife Libby, and daughter Annabel, who was married to a new man, the German “A. Wernimthier,” whose professional was as a “teletype operator, newspaper.”
Remarkably, we get a glimpse of Annabel as an elderly lady and former working woman in 1951, when the Atchison Daily Globe reported on 5 May, “When the Globe installed its first linotypes almost 50 years ago, three compositors were sent to Chicago for six weeks to learn how to operate and maintain the new machines, according to Mrs. A. W. Wernimthier of Lawrence, the former Annabel Root, who was one of them. The other two were Frank Watson and Jake Arthur. Mrs. Wernimthier had been setting type by hand for the Globe several years, and her father, John C. Root, long was a Globe printer. Adolph Wernimthier came from Chicago to set up the new linotypes, and four years later he and Annabel Root were married. Mrs. Wernimthier came to Atchison yesterday for the funeral of her sister, Mrs. Elva May Edlin.”
“In the old town I learned the printing business and there had my last school days way back in the ’50s.”
On 2 August, 1911, the Agitator reported that “Mr. Frank A. Root of Topeka, Kansas, the author of The Overland Stage to California, has the distinction of furnishing the first volume for the Green Free Library in Wellsboro. And it is proper that he should do so, for he is a Wellsboro boy…. On the flyleaf he writes the following autograph letter:
“‘I have known Wellsboro more or less from the first time I saw the little village in 1849. My admiration for the place and its people and institutions [is] lasting. In the old town I learned the printing business and there had my last school days way back in the [1850s]. I want to congratulate Wellsboro on its free public library and herewith I send the new institution one free passage by The Overland Stage to California.’ The volume… contains the personal reminiscences and authentic history of the great overland stage line and pony express and mail transportation from the Missouri river to the Pacific coast. Mr. Root was for years messenger in charge of the express and agent of the Post Office Department to look after the transportation over the plains and mountains…. Mr. Root is also the late publisher of the Atchison Free Press, the Atchison Champion, Waterville Telegraph, Seneca Courier, Holton Express, North Topeka Times, Gunnison, Col., Review-Press, and the Topeka Mail.”
Frank and Henry were still writing to the Agitator as late as the early 1920s, and continued to include memories that bring into the lives of the Root family. On 8 July, 1820, Frank wrote, “While enclosing my subscription for the Agitator, I am reminded that in the old Advertiser office, directly south across Main Street (opposite Dr. Robert Roy’s pioneer drug store,) in a one-story log building, I began work as an apprentice in 1850. This was the first printing office I was ever in. Wm. D. Bailey, who learned the trade with the Bergers in the Harrisburg Telegraph office, was proprietor and editor of the Advertiser, he having started the paper in the latter [1840s]. My first day’s work for Mr. Bailey was sawing up into stove lengths a cord of wood in the rear of the office. Before finishing the printing trade at times I worked also in the Banner and Eagle offices….”
Frank Root died at the home of his son, George Root, 324 Lindenwood Avenue, Topeka, Kansas, 20 June, 1926.
“He is full of reminiscences of Wellsboro in early days and he has written of them in former years most interestingly for the Agitator.”
On 9 August, 1922, the Wellsboro & Vicinity News published that “Henry C. Root, of Topeka, Kansas, is spending a month around his old home in Wellsboro. He is a veteran of the civil war and has been in the West since 1865. Mr. Root has been connected with prominent newspapers in Kansas for years. He is now a bailiff of the State Supreme Court. He is full of reminiscences of Wellsboro in early days and he has written of them in former years most interestingly for the Agitator. He says the first money he earned as a boy was paid him by Dr. Robert Roy, and a little later he was ‘roller Boy’ in the Agitator office when the paper was printed on a hand-lever press. For two days at such service each week he earned the princely wage of $1.”
In 1924, the Agitator noted that Henry was one of only eight living Civil War veterans of Company A of the 187th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The group gathered in Wellsboro in early September, 1924.
In February 1932, Henry, was diagnosed with myocarditis and sent for care to the military home in Leavenworth, Kansas. Just two weeks later, on 14 March, he passed away. Henry Root lies buried in Topeka Cemetery. Ω
“Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly the perception of prison camps at the time. In it, the players look healthy, even happy. The spectators are just as engaged. Lively conversations are taking place around the makeshift diamond. There are no guards, no guns, no torture, no death.”
“In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Otto Boetticher left his job as a commercial artist to join the 68th New York Volunteers. Shortly after enlisting, Boetticher, who was born in Germany and came to the U.S around 1850, was captured and sent to a prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. He wasn’t there very long. Thanks to a prisoner swap and after only a few months in captivity, he was set free.
“Before leaving, however, Boetticher, did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.”
Continue reading at Ken Zurski’s constantly amazing blog, Unremembered. Ω
In Britain in the 1800s, the widow’s grief of Queen Victoria helped spur the creation of mourning jewelry, but in the 1600s, the impetus was the judicial murder of an anointed king.
Charles Stuart, later King Charles I, was born in Fife, Scotland, 19 November, 1600, to then King James VI of Scotland, later James I of a unified Britain, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark. He was a second son, never meant to rule. Yet, Charles had the role of heir foisted on him at the death of his beloved, handsome, and accomplished older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, who died unexpectedly in 1612.
Charles was small, sickly, and had a stammer. He was also intellectual, loved and patronized the arts, favored elaborate high Anglican worship in the age of the Puritans, and married a Roman Catholic—the delicate and beautiful Princess Henrietta Maria of France, known as Queen Mary, after whom the U.S. state of Maryland is named. Charles also believed profoundly in the Divine Right of Kings, was willful and stubborn, and refused to make the compromises that could have prevented a civil war, the destruction of the monarchy, and his own death.
As had the life his similarly-natured paternal grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, his own earthly days ended in execution by beheading on 30 January, 1649. His final words were “I go from a corruptible to an uncorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”
After his death, loyal adherents of King Charles ordered a small number of memorial rings made incorporating various Stuart motifs, portraits, and locks of the dead king’s hair. Antique jewelry expert JJ Kent, in Jewelry Guide, Volume I, wrote that a ring, “said to be one of the seven given after the King’s death, was possessed by Horace Walpole and sold with the Strawberry Hill collection. It has the King’s head in miniature and behind, a skull; while between the letters C. R. is this motto: ‘Prepared be to follow me.’”
Another of the rings was in the hands of a gentleman who wrote to Notes and Queries in June 1862, more than 200 years after Charles’s death: “I possess one of the rings alluded to [in a previous issue]. The family tradition is that it was given to a maternal ancestor, one of the Finnes family, by King Charles on the eve of his martyrdom. The portrait, in enamel, is set between two small diamonds.”
During the Commonwealth and the Restoration, Royalists created hundreds of additional rings, pendants, and other jewelry items memorializing the king. Multiple examples exist today in museums and private collections. Remarkably, new memorial jewelry for Charles was created in 1813, when his body was discovered in the burial vault of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour at Windsor. The coffin was opened in the presence of George, the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and his private physician, Sir Henry Halford, who later wrote a detailed account of what transpired.
“[There was] an internal wooden coffin, very much decayed, and the Body, carefully wrapped up in cerecloth, into the folds of which a quantity of unctuous or greasy matter, mixed with resin, as it seemed, had been melted, so as to exclude, as effectively as possible, the external air. The coffin was full [and] great difficulty was experienced in detaching [the cloth] from the parts which it enveloped….
“On removing the pall, a plain leaden coffin… bearing an inscription ‘King Charles, 1648,’ in large legible characters, on a scroll of lead encircling it, immediately presented itself to the view. A square opening was then made in the upper part of the lid, of such dimensions as to admit a clear insight into its contents. [The head] was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view…. The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct… and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness….
“…On holding up the head, to examine the place of separation from the body… the fourth cervical vertebra was found to be cut through its substance, transversely, leaving the surfaces of the divided portions perfectly smooth and even, and appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument, and which furnished the last proof wanting to identify King Charles the First.”
Halford noted that the King’s hair appeared black, but “a portion of it, which has since been cleaned and dried, is of a beautiful dark brown colour. That of the beard was a redder brown.” More hair was then snipped for the new mourning jewelry.
JJ Kent wrote in the Jewelry Guide, “The hair at the back of the head appeared close cut; whereas, at the time of the decollation, the executioner twice adjusted the King’s hair under his cap. No doubt the piety of friends had severed the hair after death, in order to furnish rings and other memorials of the unhappy monarch.” The head was then replaced, the coffin closed and resoldered, and the vault left by all and sealed up. In 1888, it was opened again at the order of another heir to the throne, Prince Bertie, later King Edward VII, to return relics, including a piece of one of Charles’s vertebra and a tooth, which had been removed by Halford 75 years earlier. Ω
All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was not valued by her descendants, who found her mourning brooch too disgusting to keep.
In about 1996, while trawling for hair-work brooches on eBay with a tax return smoldering in my pocket, I found a listing with a ridiculously blurry photo of what looked like—just maybe—a Regency era mourning brooch. The accompanying item description encapsulated the prevailing 20th century attitude toward mourning jewelry. As I recall, it read something very close to “We found this pin that belonged to grandma. It has hair in it! Eww! Get it out of our house!” I obliged for about $40; no other bidders were willing to take the chance with that kind of sales photo. One- by three-quarters-inch in size, this type of small brooch was known as a “lace pin” and used to secure veils, ribbons, pelerines, and other accessories. They were also worn by men as lapel pins.
The 210-hundred-year-old gem that I received was made of 10-karat or higher plain and rose gold with completely intact niello and inset faceted jet cabochons. (Niello is a black metallic alloy of sulfur, copper, silver, and usually lead, used as an inlay on engraved metal.) The brooch was in pristine condition, bearing the inscription “Mary Palmer. Ob. 3 July 1806, aet. 38.” The abbreviation “Ob.” is from the Latin obitus—“a departure,” which has long been a euphemism for death. “Aet.” is from the Latin aetatis—“of age.”
My Mary was probably born in 1768—the year when the Massachusetts Assembly was dissolved for not collecting taxes and Boston citizens balked at quartering British troops. Additionally, John Hancock had refused to give royal customs agents access to his vessel—one of the first acts of physical resistance to British authority; a month later, that same authority would seize Hancock’s ship. In Scotland, the first encyclopedia was published; in London, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes was imprisoned for penning an article that criticized King George III. His arrest kicked off riots that led to the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.
In 1838, British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth would name his youngest son John Wilkes Booth in the jailed MP’s honor. By the birth of this future presidential assassin, Mary Palmer had been dead for 32 years. The world on which she closed her eyes had recently seen Napoleonic War hero General Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, repose in state at St. Paul’s, the the surrender of Dutch Cape Colony to the British, explorers Lewis and Clark begin their journey back from the Pacific, the distribution of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, and the start of Thomas Jefferson’s second term as U.S. president.
All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was lost on and to her descendants, who found her memorial brooch too disgusting to keep.
One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of a cremains and hair as diamonds.
It can be postulated that the major televised tragedies and wars of the early 21st century have made displays of public and personal grief more acceptable. Or perhaps rising generations are rebelling against the old ways, as they are wont—their elders did not speak of death, therefore they will. In either case, for whatever collective reasons, many years after I purchased the Mary Palmer memorial brooch, I stumbled across the website Memorials.net and read, “Memorial jewelry is, perhaps, thenewest, most novel idea in the memorial industry [emphasis mine] and it is becoming more popular every year…. Memorial jewelry is…used to store locks of hair of family members whose bodies have been buried, and memorial jewelry often simply encloses a special picture of a loved-ones. Many pieces of memorial jewelry are also engraved with special memorial quotations.”
Clearly, someone needs a history lesson. However, the acknowledgement of momentum is spot on. For example, the growing preference for cremation has led to jewelry that contains, or is made from, a portion of the deceased’s ashes. Much like the Victorian jeweler Dewdney, today companies and artisans who specialize in memorial jewelry offer it in various styles of precious and semiprecious metals with personalized engraving.
Touching the deaths of children, independent artisans have begun to craft pieces meant for those who have lost infants or experienced stillbirths and miscarriages. One such enterprise, La Belle Dame, explains on its website, “We created our miscarriage and infant loss jewelry to help mothers feel connected to their little ones, to have a tangible something to touch and give them strength when they need it most.”
One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of cremains and hair as diamonds. These are formed by carbon extraction while the ashes and hair are subjected to extreme heat and pressure, replicating the process that occurs naturally in the earth. According to one company, writting in almost the same heavily sentimental language of the Victorians, “The diamonds are available in brilliant and beautiful yellows and blues like a sunset captured in time or a wave upon the ocean.” The gems can be set into rings, pendants, or brooches that memorialize the dead.
Today’s mourners who commission these pieces can be assured they shall be cherished—if not by their own descendants, then by future collectors. And perhaps, in that long-off century, someone will feel a tickle that grows into a powerful urge to discover who the dead once were.
As for Mary Palmer, I cannot tell her story yet. I have identified a number of British and American women with this name born at the right time, but none of these offer a corresponding 3 July, 1806 death date—and at any rate, if Palmer was a married name then none of the Marys born in 1768 are correct. I hope that one day I will locate Mary in extant records and piece together a life that will stand as meaningful to me, if not to those who shared her blood. Ω