In the second half of the 19th Century, at the height of the Victorian Age, the union of photography and the supernatural spawned strange and enthralling results.
By Beverly Wilgus and Ann Longmore-Etheridge
Early in the practice of the photography, ghostlike images appeared on daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. The explanation for them was not supernatural: Because of the need for long exposures, in some cases of more than a minute, anything that moved whilst the camera lens was open went either unrecorded or appeared transparent in the final product. In 1856, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), an important figure in photography’s evolution, described in his book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction the method by which amusing extras could be created in photographs. Brewster advised that sitters should be posed and after the majority of the plate exposure was finished, a new person should move into the scene and stay for the final seconds. This would result in a “spirit” presence.
Whilst Brewster clearly promoted this method for what it was—a trick—others with an interest in the expanding religion of Spiritualism saw ghost images as proof of life after death. It should be noted that the Victorians were not the only folk taken in by the callow exploitation of technology they did not fully understand.
With the first affordable digital cameras in the 1990s came a veritable epidemic of “ghost orb,” “rod,” “vortex,” “portal,” and “skyfish” photos on the new World Wide Web. The promulgating of them, in some case, led to recognition and profit. These types of images were, and still are, the result of the compact distance between the flash and the lens of digital cameras illuminating dust, water droplets, bugs, camera straps, individual hairs, fingertips, human breath, and more. In 2018, we generally accept this explanation, but in 1995, the debates between believers and skeptics were as inflamed and impassioned as they were a century before, in the age of spirit photography.
William Mumler (1832-1884) of Boston is the best known of the many 19th-century American spirit photographers. Mumler claimed to have stumbled upon his miraculous ability by accident, but “as word spread, Mumler’s hobby became a lucrative business, and soon he was taking spirit photographs from dusk till dawn, summoning lost loves beneath his skylight, and dispensing solace to a public addled by the rising death toll of the Civil War,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Dan Piepenbring in an October 2017 review Peter Manseau’s book, The Apparitionists. “The images retain their intimate, macabre tint even now. His subjects assume stately, almost catatonic poses—the process required them to sit still for a full minute—their expressions pensive and inscrutable, their arms stiff and expectant. As for the spirits, they have the denatured texture of blighted leaves. Translucent smudges against a sooty backdrop, they sometimes coalesce into personhood only under scrutiny, in the same way that faces emerge from clouds. Stare at enough of them in sequence and you’ll fall into a loop of cognitive dissonance: they look so fake that they must be real, and then so real that they must be fake.”
Arguably, Mumler’s most famous image is of U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wearing widow’s mourning, taken some seven years after the president was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Mumler claimed in his autobiography that he hadn’t recognized Mary Lincoln when she came to his studio wreathed in a black veil, yet he duly produced an image showing the president gazing lovingly upon his wife. Whilst 99.9-percent sure today that the image is a fake, we can hope without hypocrisy that it comforted Mary then.
Another notorious spirit photographer was Frenchman Edouard Isidore Buguet (1840-1901). Also a medium, Buguet rocketed to fame in the early 1870s, but his success was short-lived. Frank Podmore wrote in his 1902 book, Mediums of the 19th Century, Vol. II, that in June 1875, “Buguet was arrested and charged by the French Government with the fraudulent manufacture of spirit photographs. When put on trial Buguet made a full confession. The whole of his ‘spirit’ photographs were, he stated, produced by means of double exposure.”
A plethora of witnesses testified favorably about the photographer and when “these witnesses were confronted with Buguet, and heard him explain how the trick had been done, one after another they left the witness-box, protesting that they could not doubt the evidence of their own eyes. . . . [I]t came out in the evidence that a very clearly defined head … which had been claimed by M. Leymarie as the portrait of his almost lifelong friend, M. Poiret, was recognised by another witness as an excellent likeness of his father-in-law, still living at Dreux, and much annoyed at his premature introduction to the spirit world,” noted Podmore.
In his 1911 book Photographing The Invisible, James Coates devotes two chapters to English spirit photographer Robert Boursnell (1832-1909). The first begins, “It appears that before Mumler got his first picture in 1861, Mr. Boursnell got curious appearances on his plates, not only spoiling them but leading to disagreements with his employer, who accused him of not cleaning the glass properly. These splotches came at intervals. For a long time, there was a lull. Boursnell was a medium; that was the trouble.”
The lull Coates mentions lasted 40 years. When Boursnell again picked up photography as an older man, the same results allegedly manifested, leading to the appearance of spirit faces and figures. As a spirit photographer, “He was strikingly successful and in 1903 the spiritualists of London presented him with a signed testimonial and a purse of gold as a mark of their high esteem. A hundred chosen spirit photographs were put on exhibition in the rooms of the Psychological Society at Portman Square,” stated Nandor Fodor in 1934’s, An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science.
“Like every other spirit-photographer, he also was accused of fraud,” Fodor continued, noting that evidence of the fraudulent production of Boursnell’s images was presented to the London Spiritualist Alliance. “Duplicates, triplicates, and quadruplicates of Boursnell’s spirit pictures were numerous. A tracing could be made from one form in one photograph to the form in another, and not the slightest difference in detail could be discovered.”
Despite this, Boursnell—like Buguet—never lost the faith of his followers and was still considered by Coates to have been a genuine medium. In one example, Coates’ argument against the swipe of Occam’s razor seems particularly tortured. During the first decade of the 20th Century, an Australian man called Barnes sat for Boursnell in London. One of the ghost extras in the resulting image was conclusively proven to be a blurry reprint of a published portrait of assassinated Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Instead of viewing this as evidence of fraud, Coates saw it as proof that mental images from human minds might appear in spirit photos. Barnes, Coates explained, had read a book with the same image as its frontispiece sometime before visiting Boursnell.
Both the Spiritualism and the technology of the 19th Century required faith. In the 20th Century, the late Arthur C. Clark professed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For the average Victorian, the arcane processes of early photography were tantamount to paranormal occurrences. To today’s average folk, the Internet and technology-driven VR realms we inhabit are effectively the same. What is constant is this, as expressed by songwriter Roy Harper:
“That we both may share
The hope in hearing
That we’re not just
Spirits disappearing.” Ω
Every village has its quirky characters. My own, Myersville, Maryland, was once home to a cantankerous teacher, reverend, and still-breaker nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”
“Myersville—Emphasizing the need for lights in the streets of Myersville, there was a stoning encounter on Saturday night, when Robert J. Ridgely, a school teacher at Burkittsville and a resident of Myersville, was stoned by four or five young men of the town. Reports have it that Mr. Ridgely stoned back, but as the teacher could not be located this morning, this could not be verified.
Mr. Ridgley has an ugly cut over one eye, which bled profusely, and Wilber Shepley, one of those in the in the party stoning Mr. Ridgley, also has a cut, probably inflicted by a stone, although one report has it that Mr. Shepley sustained the cut by striking a telephone pole, while running.
“The stoning incident has aroused a number of people in the town, and it is stated that there is a stronger sentiment for electric lights, many residents claiming the affair would not have happened had the town been well lighted.”
The victim in this article, Robert Johnson Ridgley was born in Myersville in January 1867 to William Worth Ridgley (1822-1901) and his wife Martha Matilda Johnson (1834-1920). (Note: The family name is spelled variously as Ridgely, Ridgeley, and Ridgley. For consistency only, I am using the latter.) William Ridgley was well-known in the area for his success as a farmer although he was blind. His tenacity and determination were certainly inherited by his son.
As an adult, Robert Ridgley received a scholarship from the Maryland State Normal School in Baltimore, later rechristened Towson University, starting his studies in September 1895. Before that, he was a teacher at Loys Public School. After his father’s death, he lived with his mother and a servant, Susan Shank, the latter of whom worked for Ridgley until at least until 1940. Keeping a long-term, live-in servant of this type is a positive testimony to Ridgely’s character, which was sometimes maligned by his fellow Myersvillians.
Ridgley faced the boys’ ire on that unlit October night because he was Myersville’s weirdo, thus a natural honey to the local bully bees. These same miscreants gave Ridgley the nickname “Buffalo Bill”—after wild-maned, Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody—because he wore his brown hair over his shoulders, potentially as an expression of sexual ambiguity. Ridgley never married; he may have been homosexual, transsexual, or asexual. Myervillian Clara Grossnickle Metzer expressed this in doggerel, “He shunned the ladies/Marrying was not a sin/But he much preferred/ To fight with the men.” John Grossnickle, also a bad poet, wrote of Ridgley, in an ode that began “There was an old man in our little place/who wore long hair and a funny face,” that people could neither call Ridgley “a lad nor a lass/He was neither Balaam nor Balaam’s ass.”
Even before the 1913 stoning incident, the local lads responded with glee when Ridgley, who was then an elected town burgess, was arrested for allegedly assaulting Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Wolfe. The Frederick News of 11 October, 1908, reported the boys hooted, cheered, and loudly banged pots and pans in celebration as the prisoner and the deputy sheriff waited at the trolley stop for the next car into Frederick to place Ridgley before a judge. Wolfe sued Ridgley for $500 because of the incident.
At some point during the same year, “Guy Shank called [Ridgely] ‘Buffalo’ at Melvin Shepley’s Post Office. Mr. Ridgley promptly threw him to the ground and sat on him, hoping someone would call the sheriff. Charles Poffenberger ran to his home and told his mother Mrs. John Poffinberger what was happening. Mrs. Poffenberger, a very determined woman, grabbed a tea kettle of hot water from the stove, and walked up the street, freeing Guy from his captor,” states The History of Myersville, 1971 edition. Whether Mrs. Poffinberger actually scalded Ridgley to achieve her goal was not reported.
As well as teaching at a succession of local schools, including Burkittsville, Harmony, and Mt. Tabor, Ridgley was an avid agriculturalist. He owned a farm near Harmony—a settlement near Myersville—where he grew both crops and fruit. “Some of the finest apples in the county have been raised by Mr. Ridgley,” the News lauded in May 1911. On 12 November, 1921, vandals destroyed 30 of Ridgley’s apple trees. A News item stated, “The trees were beginning to bear fruit and were chopped off close to the ground.” This destruction was attributed to Ridgley’s unwillingness to allow hunting in the orchard and was one of a number of revengeful acts that occurred in the community.
Ridgley was a member of the religious sect called the Brethren (also known as the Dunkards), was against the use of music during religious services, and was teetotal. According to The History of Myersville, he thoroughly “disapproved of strong drink,” loved to debate, and frequently took on alcohol proponents. The History states, “He often talked about the horrors of liquor, the need for Prohibition and how all the contents of the stills must be thrown into the rivers. Inevitably, someone in the audience would stand up and say, ‘Shall we gather at the river?'”
In 1913, after the local lads cheered his arrest, Ridgley made an extended trip to Europe, during which he visited Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He told the News that he was much impressed with the cleanliness of Germany and delighted by the excellent crops produced there, however, Italy was dirty and unimpressive. Whilst in Germany, he traveled to the town of Swartzanau, a borough of Bad Berleburg in today’s North Rhine-Westphalia, and purchased a granite block as a cornerstone for the Myersville Church of the Brethren, then under construction. The Brethren originated in Swartzanau so the cornerstone carried great significance to the congregation at home
Ridgley’s generous nature was further illuminated in a News article of 24 May, 1911, that reported Harmony School four students were treated to a trip to Washington, D.C., at Ridgley’s personal expense for their exemplary attendance and academic performance. Ridgley hired a car to drive them—some had never been in an automobile before—and made sure they had a memorable time. “Since he has been teaching at Harmony School, Prof. Ridgley has done much to make the several courses attractive to the pupils. Progressive in every way, this is not the first premium awarded by him for good work at the school, as a result, his pupils idolize him,” the News noted.
Earlier that year, Ridgley offered a total of $15 in prizes to Harmony School students who made winning entries in an agricultural display contest. A News article of 11 March 1912 reported that Ridgley put up prize money at another agricultural display at Mt. Tabor School.
For some years, probably beginning in the late 1920s, Ridgley served as reverend of the Myersville Church of the Brethren. He was described thusly in the Frederick Post of 11 March, 1935, which noted that the body of Mrs. Mary Snyder of Harmony was discovered in her home by Rev. Ridgley who had called in on his way to church. (She died of a heart attack.) In May, however, Ridgely was ousted from his position, he claimed, because he had turned to still-breaking, targeting local moonshiners who paid no income taxes on their product.
When Prohibition was overturned by the 21st Amendment in December 1933, Ridgely surely felt great anger and despair. His hatred of alcohol—born from powerful religious beliefs and probably also from negative personal experiences—required a new focus. Clara Metzer’s poem states, “His stature was straight/And lots of brawn/Was sure in his mind/He never did wrong … His hair was long/and in this his strength/To carry out his convictions/He would go to all lengths.”
According to the History of Myersville, Ridgley “was an informer for the Internal Revenue Service. Every time the ‘revenuers’ broke up a still, Ridgely would put a white flint stone between the sidewalk and the curb in front of his house. Pretty soon, the whole space in front of his house was covered with white flints.”
The Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland, reported on 12 October, 1934, that during a raid instigated by Ridgley, Wilber Horine was arrested and arraigned for operating a still on his Myersville farm. (Charges against him were later dismissed.) On 4 January, 1935, the News ran a story titled “Again Leads Agents.” It detailed how Rev. Ridgley took federal agents “to the site of an illicit still in the mountains near Wolfsville, six miles north of Myersville. Three men, the small still, which had ceased operation only a few hours previously, and 225 gallons of mash and other equipment were seized… It is said that Rev. Mr. Ridgley received information … that the plant was in operation and rode about 10 miles on horseback to investigate the matter personally.”
Just a few weeks later, the HagerstownDaily Mail reported that Lloyd Leatherman, a farmer near Wolfsville, was raided by agents who discovered 50 gallons of hard cider in his home. Ridgley had provided the tip and went with agents to Leatherman’s farm. “Rev. Ridgley assisted in destroying a still and other equipment, which … appeared to have been recently set up for the purpose of manufacturing applejack…. The residents of Myersville say the Rev. Ridgley has openly served notice that he intends to continue his personal activities until the section is free of moonshiners. It is claimed that shiners have been operating boldly in the mountains of the section for several years during which time several barns were destroyed by fire and one murder committed, all being blamed on drunken brawls.”
In August 1936, two local boys—Willis Brunner and Murphy Beall—tried to steal some of Ridgley’s white stones, as well as damaged his gatepost and taunted the old man with calls of “Buffalo Bill!” Ridgley shot Beall, aged 19, in the legs with buckshot. Whilst in hospital, the 3 August Daily Mail reported that Beall told investigators, “‘I do not care to have anything done about the shooting.'” This position can be read either as a result of Beall’s remorse or that Beall saw Ridgley as a wacko, but he was Myersville‘s wacko, so hands off—a weird, but well-observed, protective response amongst community members.
Ridgley was busting stills as late as October 1949, when the Morning Herald reported, “Sleuthing by the Rev. Robert J. Ridgley of the Church of the Brethren, Myersville, resulted in the discovery of an illegal still in that area.”
In early 1950, 83-year-old Ridgley’s robust constitution failed. “Mr. Robert J. Ridgley, retired school teacher and dealer in antiques, who has been ill at the Emergency Hospital for several months, returned home [to] Myersville following his recovery,” announced the News of 7 April, 1950. The cause of his prolonged hospital stay was not made public. The following year, in September, he was well enough to travel by bus to Rockwell City, Iowa, to visit his brother Champ, who lived there with his family. It was Ridgley’s swan-song adventure.
The irascible Ridgley died at Guilford Nursing Home, Boonsboro, Maryland, 15 October, 1952. A few days later, the contents of his Will, written in long-hand in February 1910, was discussed by the News. “A lot in Myersville is bequeathed to the Church of the Brethren to be used for the site of a meeting house with the provision that no musical instrument be used in any part of the religious service…. The bequest is one of several involving churches made by Mr. Ridgley, who left an estate in excess of $10,000,” noted the newspaper on 24 October. The Grossnickle Church of the Brethren, located some miles outside of town, was bequeathed 17 acres upon which to build a children’s home, if possible, otherwise to dispose of it to the church’s profit.
“The testator directs that his books, furniture, farming equipment, horses, and cattle be sold at public sale and the proceeds be equally divided … to keep in repair the cemetery at Grossnickle’s Meeting House and the cemetery near Haw Bottom where his father is buried.” The rest of his property and real estate was to be sold and money given to his brother’s children “after careful inquiry by my executors [concludes they are] industrious, honest, and temperate people individually,” the News quoted.
In his Will, Ridgley asked to be buried at the Grossnickle Church Cemetery, as near as possible to the grave of Elder George Leatherman (1827-1907). “I feel that I owe practically all from a spiritual standpoint to this Grand Good Man,” he wrote only three years after Elder Leatherman’s death. It is possible that Leatherman served as a grandfatherly influence in young Robert’s life, as well as a religious mentor. Ridgley’s wish was not granted. His obituary states that he was buried at Myersville United Brethren Cemetery, which refers to today’s Mount Zion United Methodist Church Cemetery. Ridgley was a member of this congregation before joining the Myersville Church of the Brethren. His grave is unmarked.
Amongst those who attended the public auction of Ridgley’s estate was Beatrice Toms. In her book Bits and Pieces of My Lifetime, she recounted, as a depressed young teen, encountering Ridgley on a Myersville street. Ridgley comforted Toms, telling her “Things will be better, just wait and see,” and “Little lady, if I ever can be of any help to you, please call on me. I would be proud to help you, if I may.”
The effect of his gesture “was like a life-line being tossed to a drowning soul,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I ever had the occasion to speak with him again, but his kind words had resurrected my self-esteem…. The memory of his kindness and concern lives with me to this very day.”
At the sale, Toms purchased “a handmade walnut pie cupboard and his handcrafted walnut secretarial desk, at which he must have sat and composed many of his sermons, essays, and readings.” The objects reminded her daily of Ridgley. “To me,” she closed, “he was a man among men.” Ω
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Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after a team of scientists led by Western University learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.
Research published in June 2018 in Scientific Reports—Nature includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition.
“It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. student in Western’s Department of Chemistry and lead author of the scientific paper.
“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time,” continues Kozachuk. “But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the tablecloth.”
The identities of the woman and the man are not known. It’s possible that the plates were produced in the United States, but they could be from Europe.
For the past three years, Kozachuk and an interdisciplinary team of scientists have been exploring how to use synchrotron technology to learn more about chemical changes that damage daguerreotypes.
Invented in 1839, daguerreotype images were created using a highly polished silver-coated copper plate that was sensitive to light when exposed to an iodine vapor. Subjects had to pose without moving for two to three minutes for the image to imprint on the plate, which was then developed as a photograph using a mercury vapor that was heated.
Kozachuk conducts much of her research at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and previously published results in scientific journals in 2017 and earlier this year. In those articles, the team members identified the chemical composition of the tarnish and how it changed from one point to another on a daguerreotype.
“We compared degradation that looked like corrosion versus a cloudiness from the residue from products used during the rinsing of the photographs during production versus degradation from the cover glass. When you look at these degraded photographs, you don’t see one type of degradation,” says Ian Coulthard, a senior scientist at the CLS and one of Kozachuk’s co-supervisors. He is also a co-author on the research papers.
This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s paper and the images Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.
Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10×10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.
“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong Sham, Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation at Western University. He also is a co-author of the research and Kozachuk’s supervisor.
This research will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to seeing what’s below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.
The prospect of improved conservation methods intrigues John P. McElhone, recently retired as the chief of Conservation and Technical Research at the Canadian Photography Institute of National Gallery of Canada. He provided the daguerreotypes from the Institute’s research collection.
“There are a lot of interesting questions that at this stage of our knowledge can only be answered by a sophisticated scientific approach,” said McElhone, another of the co-authors of today’s paper. “A conservator’s first step is to have a full and complete understanding of what the material is and how it is assembled on a microscopic and even nanoscale level. We want to find out how the chemicals are arranged on the surface and that understanding gives us access to theories about how degradation happens and how that degradation can possibly or possibly not be reversed.”
As the first commercialized photographic process, the daguerreotype is thought to be the first “true” visual representation of history. Unlike painters who could use “poetic license” in their work, the daguerreotype reflected precisely what was photographed.
Thousands and perhaps millions of daguerreotypes were created over 20 years in the 19th century before the process was replaced. The Canadian Photography Institute collection numbers more than 2,700, not including the daguerreotypes in the institute’s research collection.
By improving the process of restoring these centuries-old images, the scientists are contributing to the historical record. What was thought to be lost that showed the life and times of people from the 19th century can now be found. Ω
“Some of my best friends have told me that I need not expect to be happy anymore unless I would marry again and have advised me to do so.”
Myersville, July 10th, 1852
I hope you will not think hard of me for thus approaching you so unexpectedly, as my mind has bin [sic] for some time a good deal taken up with you in regard to coming to see you in order to have some private conversations with you, not knowing at all whether my company would be agreeable or not, but take this plan of ascertaining something about the state of your mind.
Dear Emma, you are well acquainted with me and know all about my situation. You know that I have bin unfortunate in the loss of a very dear and kind companion, one in who my whole soul delighted to honor and respect. But she has gone I trust from a world of trouble and sorrow to one of happiness and joy, and I can have no more comfort nor consolation from her anymore, only with a firm hope and expectation of meeting her again in those blissful regions where parting shall be no more. I can do no more than to respect her memory, which I will ever do.
We read in the Bible that it is not good for man to be alone. I have realized that to be a very true saying indeed. I was once as happy as any person could be in the enjoyment in the company of my much-lamented Mary, but how different my case. With all I have I have no enjoyment & some of my best friends have told me that I need not expect to be happy anymore unless I would marry again and have advised me to do so, although I do not wish to do so for some time yet. But I have come to the conclusion to do so providing I can suit myself. I now feel like a lost sheep, lonely and without anyone to cheer me or comfort me, and if it was not for the comforts and the consolations of religion, I would often times have to despair in sorrow. But thanks be to God that he still comforts and consoles me. I find that I can never be happy again in this world without fixing my affection on one again in who I am satisfied will be a kind companion to me, and dear Emeline, you appear to the only one I can have any idea of going to see at the present and of fixing my affection upon.
You will please excuse me for being so bold in writing to you so soon in my present situation and not knowing anything about your mind on regard to the matter, but I hope you will consider the matter well and then reply to me & let me know as soon as you can something about the state of your mind in regard to the matter. I would like after some little time to have a private talk with you, as I cannot give you the same satisfaction in writing that I could if I was present with you. And you may perhaps see some difficulties in the way which perhaps can be removed.
If these few lines are received by you as they are sent, you can truly rely on me as one who would treat you with kindness and respect. If this does not meet with your approbation, all I ask of you is to tell no one about it except your parents, only burn it, and I hope there will be no harm done and you can respect me as you have always done, and I will do the same.
If you should have any other engagement with any person, I would not wish to interfere upon …?…. I would not like to attempt anything of the kind if your parents should not be satisfied to it.
I have many reasons for this movement, which at the present I could not give, but I have many things to say to you which would no doubt be interesting to you could I have the opportunity to do so, as I would not like …?… should you be …?… to come there to see you. But we can correspond with each other and it will not be found out, perhaps.
Please do as I have said in regards to not telling any person.
The plaintive writer of this remarkable missive was born 28 February, 1819, on a farm in Foxville, Frederick County, Maryland, to Ignatius Brown (1781-1830) and Elizabeth McAfee (1781-1853). Ignatius Brown was a member of the Frederick County Militia, who, on 12 October, 1804, was commissioned as a lieutenant and later became a captain. Brown served in the War of 1812 and later operated a waterpower sawmill located between Foxville and Deerfield. The captain was also a constable and magistrate. He died of typhoid fever on 12 March, 1830, in Foxville, when his son Joseph was just 11.
On his father’s side, Brown descended from early English and Dutch settlers of New York and New Jersey. Joseph’s maternal line were Scots—indeed, Joseph Brown’s tombstone is decorated with Scottish thistles. Perhaps this heritage was significant to him, even after spending his life amongst the heavily German and Swiss population of Myersville, about 12 miles southwest, where he resettled as a young man and eventually set up a thriving mercantile business.
Joseph Brown was in Myersville by 3 October, 1843, when he married a local girl named Mary Doub. Her people were descendants of French Huguenots, who first resettled in Germany, and then came to the Colonies in about 1712. They were amongst the group of settlers who built a religious settlement at Jerusalem, now on the outskirts of Myersville.
Mary Doub Brown was the daughter of John Doub (1799-1824) and Sophia Floyd (1802-1877). The Doubs’ union produced Mary on 11 October, 1823, and another daughter, Caroline (1821-1891). In 1824, John Doub died at the age of 24. Sophia was left to watch his burial in Jerusalem cemetery, perhaps with her two tiny girls beside her. She shortly did what the majority of widowed women with dependents had done for millennia: She found a new husband and provider, Michael Hoffman (1805-1860). The marriage was entirely successful. Sophia and Michael produced five children, one of whom was Emeline Hoffman (1834-1898).
Mary Doub’s life would have been spent wholly in the domestic circles of her birth family, then her family by marriage. The years that Mary spent with Joseph were his salad days. With his wife beside him, Brown developed his large mercantile establishment at what is today 205 Main Street. Brown clearly felt she was more than an adequate helpmeet. The letter indicates that Joseph Brown deeply loved Mary Doub and that, during the decade they were man and wife, he felt that she lived up to the wifely standards of the age; she was his “very dear and kind companion, one in who my whole soul delighted to honor and respect.” Sadly, we know little else about her—not her height, build, the color of her eyes or hair, nor any of her thoughts and feelings.
The Browns’ marriage produced three daughters. First was Sophia (1844–1911), named for her grandmother and who married prosperous carriagemaker John T. Hildebrand (1829-1923). Next was Sarah E. (1848-1898), called “Sallie,” who, in 1879, at the age of 31, married merchant and public notary Peter R. Langdon (1859–1920) and made up for lost time by bearing five children before the age of 40; and last, the unusually named Arbelon (1851– 1919), who married Dr. C. W. Harper (1838–1909).
Years ago, I acquired a photograph of the middle of Brown’s first three daughters, Sallie, through an independent source. It was not until I obtained Joseph Brown’s letter that my research finally allowed me to link Sallie Brown to her family. It is in the face of Sallie, with her neat dark hair, oval face, and uniform features, that we can perhaps catch a glimpse of Mary Doub, with whom, her husband attested, “I was once as happy as any person could be in the enjoyment in the company of my much lamented Mary, but [now] how different my case.”
Mary Doub Brown died 3 February, 1852, of unknown causes. She was laid to rest in Jerusalem, near the father she could not remember, and next to her brother, Ezra Valentine Hoffman, who died at age 21 in the spring of 1848, four years earlier.
Mary’s loss left Joseph Brown staggered. As his late wife’s mother once lacked a father for little her girls, he was now a widower with eight-, five-, and one-year-old daughters. Brown was more than emotionally bereaved; he desperately needed a wife to care for his children and run his home, and we must wonder whether his best friends’ advice to marry again, without which, they said, “I need not expect to be happy anymore,” was not also given in the hope of reknitting a shambolic household.
After fixing his mind on the idea of remarriage, it seems Brown cast a mental net for possible candidates and came up with one name alone: Emeline Hoffman, his late wife’s younger half-sister. When Joseph Brown wrote to her, Emeline was nineteen years old. She may have been staying with relations in Petersville, about 18 miles south of Myersville. It is also possible that she was living in Middletown, about five miles away, as her family appears, albeit without her, in the 1850 Census of the district.
Whether Emeline was in Petersville or Middletown, she was somewhere other than Main Street, Myersville, as Brown wrote that “my mind has bin for some time a good deal taken up with you in regard to coming to see you in order to have some private conversations with you.” He asks her to write to him from her current location: “I hope you will consider the matter well and then reply to me & let me know as soon as you can something about the state of your mind in regard to the matter. I would like after some little time to have a private talk with you, as I cannot give you the same satisfaction in writing that I could if I was present with you.” Towards the end of the letter, he tells her that he wants “to come there to see you. But [until that time,] we can correspond with each other and it will not be found out, perhaps.”
Turning to the physical letter, “Miss Emeline Hoffman” is the only writing on the front of the folded pages. (There is no envelope.) Adhesive-backed postage stamps were mandated in the United States in July 1847, so the lack of both a stamp and address indicates that the letter was furtive, delivered to Emeline by a third party. That person may have been a friend of Brown’s with personal business near where Emeline stayed or may have been one of the friends who told him to marry again and who was keen to undertake the matchmaking journey. Whoever it was, Brown clearly counted on his or her discretion.
In both the United States and Great Britain, marriage between a man and his dead wife’s sister was considered taboo by ecclesiastical law—it was perceived as akin to incest. However, that did not stop grieving men from wedding the sisters of their spouses.
In 1835, the British Marriage Act firmly quashed such unions, although marriages of couples already wed stayed legalized. The desire of men to wed their spouses’ sisters remained so common, however, that by 1842 a bill was introduced into Parliament to end the prohibition. It was defeated, but that loss reignited the public debate that continued unabated through the reign of Victoria and into that of her son, Edward VII. Finally, The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907 was passed, as was the clarifying Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act of 1921, giving both types of marriages equal legality.
Today, in an age of very different social mores, we must strive to understand the drivers of these affinal marriages. As it was in Britain, in the United States, unmarried sisters often dwelt with married couples, or visited for long periods of time to help with childbirth, childcare, nursing, and housekeeping. For example, during her final illness in 1821, Elizabeth Branwell cared for her sister Maria Branwell Brontë, the mother of the literary Brontë sisters, who was dying of ovarian or uterine cancer. Elizabeth came the considerable distance from Penzance, Cornwall, to the parsonage at Haworth, Yorkshire, and after Maria’s death, “Aunt Branwell” remained with the six Brontë children for the rest of her life. She did not marry her brother-in-law, Vicar Patrick Brontë, but the matter may well have been discussed between them.
Anne D. Wallace, professor and head of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, writes in On the Deceased Wife’s Sister Controversy, 1835-1907, “In the 1849 Commons debates…a Mr. Cockburn, supporting a bill to legalize [deceased wives’ sisters marriages], calls the deceased wife’s sister ‘the person who, of all other human beings, was the best constituted and adapted to act as a substitute for the mother. She was already, as it were, half a mother to them from her very position; and even the law regarded her in the place of a parent. The children, who would have shrunk from a stranger, turned with affection towards the sister of their mother.’”
Wallace also provides the example of Prime Minister and Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone, who “speaking in opposition to [these marriages] later that year, waxed more eloquent, but in very similar terms: ‘No doubt the children of the first wife derived an inappreciable advantage from the care of the sister of their mother after her death. She stood to them in a natural relation, approved by God and man; and, mindful of the tenderness which united her to one now removed, she carried the overflowings of her tenderness to the offspring of the beloved person who had been called away.’”
In the United States of Joseph Brown and Emeline Hoffman’s day, the debate was as vociferous. As in Britain, the primary disconcertion was committing incest in the eyes of God. Other arguments against the marriages included that should a man was allowed to lay with his wife’s sister after her death, little would prevent him from doing so before he was a widower. The sure destruction of the family would follow.
Martin Ottenheimer, professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, writes in Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage, “Acrid debates over marital law in the country during the first half of the nineteenth century were dominated by concerns with the moral consequences of the affinal marriages. Incestuous relationships, in general, were viewed in terms of social and moral implications of marriage. Affinal kin were treated no differently from consanguineal kin in legislating prohibitions. Each side of the debates relied primarily on biblical interpretation and ecclesiastical authority for their arguments…. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the debates over the regulation of marriage no longer focused on biblical exegesis and moral concerns. The emphasis had shifted to the results of empirical investigations into the health of various human subgroups and to the possible physical consequence of consanguinity for offspring.”
Whilst much has been written about why sisters were all-but-tailor-made replacements for a lost mothers, and whilst no one of the Nineteenth Century would disagree about a man’s need for woman to tend his home and mother his children, little has been said about what truly lay in a man’s heart, as opposed to his head, to spur him to marry his sister-in-law. Surely, in cases where the heart played an important role—and Joseph Brown presents every indication of a man being primarily moved by his emotions—that cause is the same as already mentioned in regard to nieces and nephews: the sister-in-law possessed the same ability to soothe and comfort the widower, who yearned the return of the woman he’d lost.
A well-known American example of this psychological phenomenon is Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president, slaveholder, and lonely widower. Much has been written about how Jefferson established a long and, most likely, genuinely loving relationship with his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings, but little has been said about Sally’s true relationship to her owner: As was Emeline Hoffman to Joseph Brown, Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s affinal sister. Sally’s mother, Betty Hemings, was the daughter of a Welsh ship captain and an African enslaved woman. Betty’s owner was a white planter and slave trader John Wayles, who was also the father of Jefferson’s wife Martha. Soon after the death of the last of his three wives, Wayles took Betty as his mistress and had six children by her, of which Sally was the last, born in 1773.
Although she was two-thirds white, Sally was still a slave, and she came to be owned by Thomas Jefferson through his marriage to Martha Wayles. According to Isaac Jefferson, a former slave at Jefferson’s Monticello, “Sally Hemings’ mother Betty was a bright mulatto woman, and Sally [was] mighty near white…. Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back.” Her sister Martha was also beautiful—tall, lithe, and dearly and deeply loved by Jefferson.
Whilst with Jefferson in Paris when he served as U.S. ambassador to France, Sally turned from a child to a young woman who may have looked, moved, and spoken very much like her sister. “Interestingly, [Jefferson historian Annette] Gordon-Reed believes that speech patterns may have been one more way that Sally Hemings actually reminded Jefferson of Martha. Besides resembling each other physically, half-sisters can resemble each other ‘in the tone and timbre of voice, and mannerisms.’ Furthermore, Gordon-Reed points out that ‘even before they were together in Paris, the Hemingses and Jeffersons lived in close proximity to one another and interacted on a daily basis, creating as this did all over the South, a mixed culture of shared language, expressions, sayings, and norms of presentation,’” writes University of Richmond Professor Suzanne W. Jones in her 2011 article “Imagining Jefferson and Hemings in Paris” (Transatlantica: Revue D’Etudes Americanes.)
It is entirely possible that Emeline Hoffman, due to her shared DNA and upbringing, was as familiar to Joseph as Sally Hemings was to Jefferson. Emeline may not only have looked and spoken like Mary but may have emitted similar pheromones that sparked an attraction on a more primal level. A 2012 article by Scientific American, probed the issue: “‘We’ve just started to understand that there is communication below the level of consciousness,’” says Bettina Pause, a psychologist at Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf, who has been studying pheromones and human social olfaction for 15 years. ‘My guess is that a lot of our communication is influenced by chemosignals.’”
What transpired after Emeline received Joseph’s missive is not known, but the ultimate outcome is that she did not marry him. The “Why not?” may be speculated in several scenarios: One possibility is that for either religious or personal reasons, her parents did not wish their daughter to make an affinal marriage. Like Joseph Brown, the Hoffmans were Lutheran and may have agreed with scriptural prohibitions against a man marrying his late wife’s sister; they may also have thought the age gap between the two was too great, or that Emeline was not prepared to take on her sister’s three children. Another scenario is that Emeline rejected Joseph for her own religious or personal reasons, including that she had set her sights on another man. A third possibility is that Emeline and Joseph did court, with or without her parents’ permission, but ultimately decided they would not be compatible as man and wife.
What is definite, however, is that Emeline did not do as Joseph requested: She chose not to destroy his letter and apparently kept it for the rest of her life. There is no chain of provenance, so it must be speculated that the letter was found amongst her papers by her children who also chose to save it from fire or rubbish tip because they appreciated the affection that had existed between, if not Joseph and Emeline, then the Brown and the Hoffman families. The letter has now survived for more than 165 years, preserved by descendants or other owners until I became its current custodian in late 2014.
The letter’s tale, written on very fine rag paper that now feels also like worn cloth, remained intact through the years, as did the fondness, I believe, between Emeline and her brother-in-law. Indeed, for the rest of their lives, they dwelt near each other, attended the same church, and could almost surely be found at the same social and family events.
The woman who became Brown’s second wife and the stepmother of his children on 28 March, 1853, was 20-year-old Magdalena Charlotte Schildknect, known as “Lenah.” The couple had four additional children. Brown was widowed for the second time when Lenah died on 6 January, 1874. In 1878, Brown married a third wife, 35-year-old Lugenia Routzahn (1843-1915).
On 18 September, 1855, Emeline Hoffman wed farmer and laborer David Kinna (1832–1912) and had nine children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. She died 15 September, 1898, at the age of 64, and is buried in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Cemetery with her husband beside her.
Joseph Brown made his last appearance on the 1910 Census. He was then 91 years old, living off his own income, at what is now 199 Main Street. As is fitting for such a long-lived and well-respected man, he was surrounded by multiple generations of his family. He had then been married to Lugenia for 32 years—longer than his first two marriages combined.
Brown continued to run his mercantile business until 1902, when failing eyesight forced him to retire, ending a “business life of more than fifty years,” during which “he had walked more than 23,000 miles, [as] his place of business was 1/4th of a mile from his residence, ” stated A Brief History of the the Middletown Valley, 1849-1880.
Joseph eventually lost his sight entirely, but the History of Frederick County, Maryland, Volume I, in a section that dates from before Brown’s death, pointed out, “He retains a remarkable memory and can intelligently speak of events of Frederick County for three-quarters of a century past.”
At age 93, Brown died 3 November, 1912, in Myersville. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in a row close to the building. Both Joseph and Emeline rest on the same green hill with the spouses they eventually chose—still brother and sister, but never lovers. Ω
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“Platitudes for the fallen officer were given in great numbers and the correspondent concluded with a highly personal plea: ‘Poor Joe! May the turf lie lightly on his manly breast.’”
“In the spring of 1864, the pages of Schuylkill County’s most important newspaper was filled with information of exciting events from America’s increasingly bloody civil war. But amid the news of battlefield drama also came the sorrowful news of local soldiers cut to pieces during hellish combat in the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside.”