Hello, Gentle Readers. I’m sorry to have been away so long. I spent the COVID lockdown and a long summer of isolation writing a book that will hopefully be published in mid-2021. Now that is accomplished, I’m planning to start a new series of articles here. Thank you for your patience. In the meantime, enjoy this recent addition to my small collection of “hidden mother” photos. The original is a cased tintype from about 1862. (Colorized by by the AI program DeOldify). Ω
Mourning images from my collection.
How the awesome power of highly caffeinated coffee may continue to shape Union soldiers’ Afterlives.
On a chilly, drizzly day in March 2018, my lifelong boon companion Julie and her daughter, my honorary niece, joined me for a day trip to Gettysburg. My niece had never visited the town or battlefield before. In addition to seeing the historical sites, she was keen to undertake some EVP/ITC recording with her “Weird Aunt,” as I’m known to her circle. That day, we combined the driving tour and the ghost hunting, practicing what I call a “drive-by”—rolling the vehicle to a stop, lowering the window, turning on an iPad ghost box app and digital recorder, and inviting anyone present to speak.
(Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVPs, are recorded human voices that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC, uses various forms of electronic devices, such as the so-called ghost box, to generate white noise or randomly generated phonemes from which it is theorized that spirits can shape speech.)
After purchasing an excellent driving tour CD with the marvelous Stephen Lang narrating, we set off, shortly reaching McPherson’s Ridge and the railway cut near the McPherson farmhouse, which saw heavy engagement during the first day of fighting. Before the battle, the area was excavated, but no rail tracks had been laid. This made a perfect spot for entrenchment by both sides as the battle lines shifted throughout the day.
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.
Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
By Beverly Wilgus
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”―Marcus Aurelius
We see the still, worn body of old lady, prepared for burial by her family and laid out, most likely, upon her own bed.
This photograph may have been both this woman’s first and her last. She was likely a child in the 1790s and a young wife and mother when Jane Austen wrote her literary oeuvre. The story of her life unfolded during the waning of one century and the child years of another. For many, by the time this post-mortem ambrotype was taken, familiar patterns of life had been radically altered by the industrial revolution. The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars had rolled by like awful storms. The British Queen would shortly lose her dearest love and plunge herself into perpetual mourning. America was spilling out across a vast continent and tensions were escalating to the point of eruption between its North and South. War was a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening the young men of her family, but mercifully, she never saw it blot out the sun.
A note tucked inside the case of this 1/6th-plate reads, “Grandmother Whitney—mother of Samuel. Born between 1775 & 1780.” The plate is stamped “Melainotype for Neff’s Pat 19 Feb 56.”
In John Towler’s 1864 opus on what was then state-of-the-art photographic technology, The Silver Sunbeam, he writes, “The melainotype takes its name from the black background upon which it is taken…. Very thin plates of sheet-iron are covered with a protective varnish or Japan, of which one is of a rich black or brown-black color, highly polished, and without flaw, for the reception of the collodion and the collodion picture. Glass in this sort of picture is entirely dispensed with, and so is also the black Japan, the black velvet, and paper. This type is by far the easiest and the quickest to take, and in general the most satisfactory when taken. Melainotype plates of all the variable photographic sizes, and of variable qualities, can be obtained from the photographic warehouses.” 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.
The posing of mother and child may also deliberately highlight the loss of her long and well-cared for hair.
This stunning tintype, circa 1875, of an American mother and infant, is owned by collector and Your Dying Charlotte contributor Beverly Wilgus, who notes, “This little tintype is not as much a ‘hidden mother’ as a mother who chose to put the emphasis on the baby. I do wonder about her very short hair. One explanation could be that she has been very ill, maybe after a difficult birth, and her hair was cut short for comfort.”
It is possible that the woman pictured suffered from puerperal sepsis (called childbed fever) in the aftermath of delivery, which had been combatted, in part, by hair cropping. If true, this mother surely thought the tintype image celebratory—even triumphant: She had survived; her magnificent reward was the healthy infant draped over her shoulder, offered visually to posterity.
The sitter was lucky—a scarce survivor of a bitter scourge. “Childbed fever killed at the cruelest moments. It was described as a ‘desecration,’ an aspect of the natural world that felt almost deliberately evil. What caused it? Some thought ‘a failure of uterine discharge;’ others, a little later, called it ‘milk metastasis,’ noting that the internal organs of the women who died seemed covered in milk. Eventually, it was accepted that the fluid was not milk at all. It was pus,” wrote Druin Burch in a Live Science article, “When Childbirth Was Natural, and Deadly.” When obstetricians and midwives talked of “delivering women,” he explained, they meant delivering them from the deadly perils of childbirth.
“It was the purpose of the author to describe a number of novel and curious effects that can be obtained by the aid of the camera, together with some instructive and interesting photographic experiments.”—F. R. Fraprie, 1922
By Beverly Wilgus
In 1893, H. P. Ranger was granted Patent No. 505,127 for a “Mirror For Use In Photography.” This was a device comprised of two adjustable mirrors set at an angle. When a subject was placed in front of it, his or her image was reflected in each mirror and that reflection was again reflected, resulting in five or more figures—the number of figures determined by the angle of the mirrors.
The above schema is from an article published in Scientific American in the 1890s that was included in the 1896 book Photographic Amusements by Frank R. Fraprie and Walter E. Woodbury. My husband and I own a copy of the 1931 edition that still contains the original illustrations.
Also from the book is the illustration above: “Diagram Showing The Method Of Production Of Five Views of One Subject By Multiphotography.”
“Because I feel that in the heavens above
The angels, whispering one to another,
Can find among their burning tears of love,
None so devotional as that of ‘Mother,’
Therefore, by that dear name I have long called you,
You who are more than mother unto me.” — Edgar Allan Poe
A quick note: I will be having surgery on Tuesday, 4 April, and will be taking at least a four- or five-day hiatus to recover. I will return as soon as possible. Promise.