In the aftermath of Katherine Parr’s passing, Lady Elizabeth Tyrwhitt, one of her closest friends, recalled, “Two days afore the death of the Queen, at my coming to her in the morning, she asked me where I had been so long, and said unto me, she did fear such things in herself, that she was sure she could not live. Whereunto I answered, as I thought, that I saw no likelihood of death in her. She then having my Lord Admiral by the hand, and divers others standing by, spake these words, partly, as I took it, [in delirium], ‘My Lady Tyrwhitt, I am not well handled, for those that be about me careth not for me, but standeth laughing at my grief, and the more good I will to them, the less good they will to me.’”
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.”
“In terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand.”
This unusual mourning brooch, which dates to between 1830 and 1840, is a late example of the sepia painting technique popular up to a century earlier. Sepia miniatures in the neoclassical style, such as the one below right, were painted with dissolved human hair on ivory tablets and typically feature weeping women and willows, funeral urns, graves, and other scenes and symbols of loss.
This brooch is dedicated by reverse inscription to “M. Thayer,” but little more can be known about the deceased, as the inscription includes no dates of birth or death. Thayer was likely occupationally connected to the sea, although the image may be wholly allegorical. A ship sailing toward a distant safe haven, accompanied or guided by birds, may be read as the soul journeying toward the afterlife in the company of angelic beings.
“Being lost at sea strikes an image of loss and departure that evokes the very essence of sadness. In the very literal sense, there is the loss of the body that prevents the kind of closure that physical remains offer. Yet, in terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand. It is not surprising that symbolism featuring the sea has been appropriated by mourning jewellery. The physical and symbolic departure of the soul away from the mourner as a result of a death at sea, during both peace and war times, are depicted in 18th and 19th century jewellery,” writes Lord Hayden Peters at the magnificent site, The Art of Mourning. His article on this topic deserves to be read in full, rather than summarized by me.
A mourning piece connected to a sailor or ship’s officer would have been worn by someone like the young woman above, were she widowed. In this detail of a circa-1850 daguerreotype, the couple were portrayed likely on their wedding day. The groom wears gold hoop earrings, marking him as a career sailor who may have transversed the world several times.
“Men’s earrings are nothing new, old salts will tell you. Even before the days of pirates, mariners who had sailed the China seas or had done any Asiatic duty took to wearing earrings as a mark of their service in the Orient. It was the campaign ribbon of its day. The modern gob, after he has sailed in Asiatic waters, gets his ears pierced and a ring inserted, then goes to a tattoo parlor and has various Chinese legends etched on the shank of his left leg. But not all men who wear earrings are veterans of Asiatic sea service. The custom has been adopted by many who have sailed in the Central, South, or Southwest Pacific without entering the waters of the China Sea,” wrote Hal J. Kanter in the Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1945.
Sailors of old believed that piercing their earlobes increased their eyesight and hearing or would prevent sea sickness. They were also quite concerned about dying at sea and not receiving a land burial. Sailor victims of shipwrecks hoped the value of their gold earrings would be put toward a proper Christian burial by those who found their bodies washed up on shore. Ω
It provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.
I purchased this mourning brooch from an eBay seller in 2008—I was the only interested party. Granted, it is not a particularly attractive brooch and has seen rough handling. However, it provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.
The key to its power is the reverse inscription, which reads: “In memory of Ernest. Died 4.30 AM, 11 January 1862. Latitude 31° degrees 30′ South, Longitude 14° degrees 40′ East. Aged 2 Years and 11 Months.” Whilst holding the brooch in my hand, I plugged the coordinates into Google Earth, which took me not to a point on land, but the inky dark sea. This confluence of coordinates placed the baby Ernest off the African coast, about 500 miles west of modern Bitterfontein, South Africa. Ernest had died aboard a ship.
Did the boy die soon after leaving or just miss the end of a long voyage? This brooch was located in England until I purchased it, so was more likely that the ship sailed toward Europe, rather than Australia or Cape Town, then a part of the rapidly expanding British Cape Colony.
I’m burningly curious why this baby has no inscribed last name, yet someone loved him so much that they noted the exact time and longitude and latitude of his death. Why not just inscribe “died at sea”? I want to know whether Ernest’s mother was there with him. Did he pass away in her arms? Was she a passenger or a convict? (The last transport to Australia wasn’t until 1868.) Was she a ship’s cook or perhaps a missionary’s wife?
To slip into death at half-past four a.m. surely indicates it was disease that took Ernest, as it often does, deep in the darkness. I can imagine the dim light of a lantern, a weeping but resigned mother pressing a cool cloth to the child’s forehead, the gentle creak of the ship’s timbers, and the waves rocking him to sleep.
Ernest was likely buried at sea; if so, his small bones are long dissolved on the ocean floor. All that is left of his little life is a lock of fair hair curled into a plume that was fixed by gum arabic to a piece of milk glass, decorated with a few sprigs of gold wire, and encased in black enamel over pinchbeck.
If Ernest’s family had recorded his last name on the brooch, I might be able to find him in public records to flesh out the story of his short existence. As it is, the only hope of knowing more about Ernest is to find a record of the ship he died on by narrowing down vessels in the area at the time—a mammoth task, albeit one that might be possible online someday. Challenges like this are more conquerable now than it ever before, and with each passing year, newly digitized historic data comes online to the joy of historians and genealogists everywhere. Ω