By Beverly Wilgus
Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
By Beverly Wilgus
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, the newest, 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
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning.
At the close of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th, memorial pieces with hair were generally small, delicate, and graceful. However, the oncoming Victorian era would turn “the entire ritual of mourning into a public display, and the jewelry changed accordingly, becoming larger, heavier, and more obvious,” wrote the curators of the Springfield, Illinois-based Museum of Funeral Customs in Bejeweled Bereavement: Mourning Jewelry—1765-1920.
In December 1861, Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg-Gotha, died of what is thought to have been typhoid fever. Married for twenty-one years, their happy union resulted in the birth of nine children. The forty-two-year-old prince’s demise shattered Victoria. For the rest of her life the queen wore mourning, and required many courtiers who served her and who attended court functions to do the same.
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning. For example, in the first nine months, the only acceptable jewelry was made of black glass, dyed pressed animal horn, gutta-percha (a latex plastic derived from tropical evergreens), vulcanite and ebonite (rubber treated with sulfur and heat), bog oak (fossilized peat), or carved from jet (a fossilized wood that washes up on west coast Yorkshire beaches, and was extracted from shale seams, particularly around between Robin Hood’s Bay and Boulby). In later stages of mourning, gold or pinchbeck (a composite metal) and hair-work jewelry commemorating the deceased was worn. Many of these items bore the motto “In Memory Of” and featured heavy black enameling.
In the United States, not one woman’s loss, but the losses of millions drove the mourning jewelry industry to its zenith. Between the years 1861-1865, the nation was locked in a horrific civil war that left thousands bereft of their loved ones. Soon after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The resulting wave of grief may well have been the “high-water mark” of the hair work phenomenon. (“High Water Mark” was a title bestowed upon the a copse of trees on the Gettysburg Battlefield by John B. Bachelder, the first government historian of the Gettysburg battlefield, who realized its significance during the intense fighting now known as Pickett’s Charge.)
The collective grief was dissipated almost fully during the 1870s. By the early 1880s, many young adults had only sketchy memories of war and children had none at all, and in the way of rising generations, they chafed against their elders’ mourning habits. “Young people began to look at their parent’s elaborate rituals with distaste, the fashion industry experienced a backlash of sorts, and [mourning] jewelry was once again smaller and not much on display,” noted the curators of the Museum of Funeral Customs.
The custom of mourning jewelry had petered out almost entirely before World War I, although sentimental items such as “Mizpah” pins and rings (“Mizpah is an emotional bond between people who are separated either physically or by death. Mizpah jewelery is worn to signify this bond. From Genesis 31:49 of the Bible. ‘And Mizpah; for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another,’”) and celluloid photo buttons and were quite popular, as was name jewelry—including appellations such as “Mother,” “Sweetheart,” “Sister,” and others)—that has never since lost its appeal.
The mid-20th century marked a volte-face in the way the Western world dealt with death. Two world wars yielded staggering fatalities, making a collective psychological withdrawal inevitable. In addition, in peacetime, fewer and fewer people were dying at home; they disappeared into hospitals only to be seen again in their coffins, already embalmed and prettified by strangers. The idea of touching the dead and retaining any biological material from them became repugnant to the majority of the population. Discussing death became culturally distasteful, if not taboo. Even as late as 1993, when I encountered my first glimpse of mourning jewelry, I wouldn’t have spoken of my interest in death and death customs to anyone except my most trusted friends. Ω