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
“Many cultures accept the faulty nature of memory. They know even the photograph only gets it halfway right. They believe there is only one way to bring the dead back to life, story.”― Jon Chopan
This beautiful young woman was photographed somewhere in the antebellum United States in about 1852—a date I assign for two reasons. First, the fashions she wore, which include a distinctive corset type, ribbon choker, and an open-front bodice—all styles that were enormously popular in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Second, ambrotypes, which are produced by a wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, became commercially available in 1852, so the image cannot date any earlier.
The subject was surely not more than about 18 years old when photographed and she appears to wear a wedding ring, making it possible that this is a bridal image. At some point, a large curl of her thick brown hair, still as glossy as the day it was cut, was tucked behind the ambrotype packet between slips of newspaper. The text of the newsprint is largely advertising for several companies in northern states, but there is also a mention of the Union occupation of Memphis, Tennessee, which began in June 1862. Together, these facts make it likely the young woman belonged to a northern family.
Could this image and lock of hair have been carried by a Civil War soldier during his military tenure? Might he have opened the case often to recall his wife as she had been decade earlier in the first heat of their attraction? This is a romantic flight of fancy, but not without tiny wings: Soldiers on both sides of the divide carried photographic images of loved ones and these pictures were frequently found with, on, or near their battlefield corpses.
In 2012, the Associated Press (AP) reported on several such images held in the collection the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. At the time, the museum released the photo below on the “admittedly remote chance someone might recognize a familial resemblance or make a connection to a battlefield where they were found,” the AP noted. The article stated of the cased image, “Private Thomas W. Timberlake of Co. G, 2nd Virginia Infantry found this child’s portrait on the battlefield of Port Republic, Virginia, between the bodies of a Confederate soldier and a Federal soldier.”
Perhaps the most famous of familial photos found amongst the Civil War dead was the “orphans of the battlefield.” After the massive military engagement at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the first week of July 1863, a local girl recovered an ambrotype of three children that was purportedly clasped by a dead Union soldier. The Philadelphia Inquirer of 19 October, 1863, both set the scene and described the image in detail: “Wounded, he had laid himself down to die. In his hands…was an ambrotype containing the portraits of three small children…two boys and a girl…nine, seven and five years of age, the boys being respectively the oldest and youngest of the three. The youngest boy is sitting in a high chair, and on each side of him are his brother and sister. The eldest boy’s jacket is made from the same material as his sister’s dress … [It is] desired that all papers in the country will draw attention [so] the family…may come into possession of it.”
The image was reproduced around the nation and carte de visite copies of the ambrotype were sold en masse to help speed the identification and for the benefit of the dead soldier’s family. It was just a matter of time before a friend showed Philinda Ensworth Humiston of Portville, New York, the October issue of the American Presbyterian. “Philinda, stunned and heartsick, read the description of the picture and realized it matched exactly the features of the ambrotype she had sent to [her husband] Amos,” wrote Mark H. Dunkelman in Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston.
On 19 November, the very day President Lincoln gave his renowned address at the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, the Presbyterian announced that the orphans of the battlefield had names: Franklin Goodwin, Alice Eliza, and Fredrick Roy Humiston. The dead soldier was their 33-year-old father, former sailor and harness maker Amos Humiston, a sergeant in the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry. His decomposed body was later located where it was shallowly buried on a local farm. The remains were carefully coffined and transported to the new cemetery where he was laid in Grave 14 of New York’s Section B.
Dunkelman wrote in his biography of Amos Humiston that 2 January, 1864, the Reverend Isaac G. Ogden of the Portville Presbyterian Church “handed the bloodstained ambrotype to Philinda. Ogden noted, ‘her hands shook like an aspen leaf, but by a strong effort she retained her composure.’” The widow was also given all proceeds from the carte de visite sales. When, in October 1866, the orphans and widows’ National Homestead opened in Gettysburg, Philinda and her children lived there for three years until she married farmer Asa Baines and removed to Shirley, Massachusetts.
During the remainder of the war and in its aftermath, the story of Amos Humiston and the ambrotype he held during his final moments was never forgotten. Songs and poetry were writ, including one poem by a Scotsman of Dumfries, Steve Rady, that includes the lines: “A soldier lies in battle, face buried in the mud, a picture of his children there painted with his blood; Fighting for his freedom, he fought until his death; He kissed his children’s picture as the took his dying breath.” Rady read his poem aloud in Gettysburg on 5 July, 1993, at the unveiling of a monument to Humiston. Ω
“Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us. We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives. We sift through the evidence of their love, reassure ourselves of their affection and its biological genesis. We can steal and lie and leave and they will love us.”—Megan Mayhew Bergman
I wish all mothers a happy day of love and peace. For all you have done and will do, you are saluted.
A selection of unidentified daguerreotype and ambrotype portraits.
“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”—John Berger
James Morley writes of this ambrotype of Channon Post Office & Stationers, Brompton Road, London, circa 1877: “I have found historical records including newspapers, electoral rolls, and street directories that give Thomas Samuel Channon at a few addresses around Brompton Road, most notably 96 and 100 Brompton Road. These date from 1855 until early into the 20th century. These addresses would appear to have been immediately opposite Harrods department store.”
The limited research I have done on this image, which is a stereoview card marked “State Block, New Hampshire, W.G.C. Kimball, Photographer,” leads me to believe it shows mourners of Concord, New Hampshire native Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804–October 8, 1869), 14th President of the United States (1853–1857).
The banners affixed to the carriage read “We miss him most who knew him best” and “We mourn his loss,” as well as another phrase that ends in the word “forget.” The image also features an upside down American flag with thirteen stars.
This dry-plate glass negative shows a group of locals gathered at the smithy, Manafon, Wales, during the Montgomeryshire by-election of 1894. You can read more about this image at James Morley’s site, What’s That Picture?
Beverly Wilgus writes of this 1850s image, “The overwhelming majority of daguerreotypes made were portraits. It was the ability to capture and preserve likenesses of loved ones for an affordable cost that made the daguerreotype such an immediate success. From the beginning there were daguerreotypes of houses, cityscapes, and landscapes. We do not know the ratio of portrait to non-portrait but do know that over the years of searching we have seen thousands of portraits for every one non-portrait. We have three antique and three modern outdoor examples in our collection of over 150 daguerreotypes.
“This 1/2 plate daguerreotype is of a white house behind a picket fence. There are eleven people in the yard, on the porch, or in a window. The man in shirt sleeves at the center of the picture holds a baby and the three figures on the right appear to be children. Is it a new house or was there a traveling daguerreotypist in the neighborhood? Is it an extended family or neighbors who dropped in for the day? We will never know since there is no information or identification with it.”
This stereoview street scene shows a busy day in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, facing north up Broadway from the corner of Chestnut. It was published by Underwood & Underwood in 1908. Ω
“Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look’d with human eyes.”—Alfred Lord Tennyson
This poignant American brooch, which measures about 1.75 inches tall and dates to the late 1860s, contains a tintype image of a boy of about eight years wearing a wool jacket. Around the inner rim of the viewing compartment is a thin braid of blond hair, presumably that of the child in the photograph.
The brooch has a unique swivel mechanism that I have never seen before. Usually, the brooch body revolves to bring to the front a second viewing compartment (in this case the back side contains only checkered silk). On this brooch, however, it is the pin mechanism that rolls to whichever side will serve as the reverse.
This lovely American woman, who is pictured in fashions of about 1850, once looked out at those who loved her from the black enamel setting of this mourning brooch just as she now studies us, the denizens of an age perhaps unimaginable to her. The daguerreotype is delicately tinted to give her cheeks the rosiness of life and to highlight her gold brooch and earrings.
This large rolled gold brooch contains a ruby ambrotype (an ambrotype made on red glass) of a beautiful English woman whose first name, Emily, is inscribed on the reverse. It dates to about the same year as Beverly Wilgus’s brooch, above. Ω
This mid-1850s, whole-plate daguerreotype of a woman and three children is from the collection of Beverly Wilgus, another of the antique photo collectors of Flickr who has graciously allowed me to present her images. Of it, she writes, “[W]e have had the glass replaced by a conservator. It is our only whole plate daguerreotype (6 ½” X 8 ½”), which is the largest size that was in common production…. I have been asked why there is not father with the family. While it is possible that the father is deceased, I like to think that the photograph was a gift for him.”
If this image was a gift for Father, it was almost certainly purposefully posed to remind him, or any viewer, of his absence—the blank space in the middle the group screams to be filled. It is reminiscent of the portrait of the Bronte sisters, now known as the “Pillar Portrait,” which hangs in the National Gallery in London.
Painted in 1834 by the sisters’ talented, ego-driven, and alcohol-fueled brother who was then attempting to become a portrait artist, Branwell Bronte chose to eliminate himself and insert a column instead. It has been argued that he felt the composition was too crowded or that it was done in high dudgeon—we may never know which for sure. Charlotte died in 1855, at about the same time as Beverly’s daguerreotype was taken. After the death of Charlotte’s father in 1861, her husband, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, cut the painting from its frame, folded it up, and took it with him to his native Ireland, where it languished for many years. During that time, the “ghost” of Branwell began to appear through the paint—part spectral bogeyman, part prodigal son.
Another of Beverly’s images—this one an ambrotype also taken in the mid-1850s—again makes use of empty space to convey the message of loss. And in this image, it is indisputably death that has struck twice, leaving two pointed shapes like stab wounds between the three young people. A “reader” of this portrait, and it was yet very much a time of encoded meanings in art and photography, would know immediately that the teenage girls wore mourning gowns: the dark, wide lace collars of their dresses leave no doubt that the entirety of their costume is black. Between them is their younger brother, now the man of the family, reassuringly touching his elder sister’s arm. He seems stoic but unprepared for the task.
This final image used props to fill the void caused by death. Whilst the husband and wife focused on a point stage left (she almost certainly dressed in mourning), between them sat a plant stand covered by what must have been a colorful, almost childish string doily, upon which an elaborate picture frame was placed. It contains an image a girl and possibly a boy. The message can be taken no other way: “These were our children; now they are no more.” Ω