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
“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.
How Instantaneous Views changed photography and let us travel to a fixed point in time.
This is genuine time travel: You are looking at a sky in a southern clime taken on the early afternoon of 12 July, 1865. A handwritten paper glued to the reverse provides the exact date. When this fraction of a day was preserved, the Civil War was over but for a few months; this part of the sky was again above the United States, not the Confederacy.
There was a house amongst the trees—its triangular roof and chimney visible mid-left. The sky was bright blue and the clouds were gentle fluffs that, nonetheless, hinted rain. By them the great hot orb of the sun was obscured enough to safely see and photograph. The revolutionary iodized collodion process used by the photographer allowed images to be taken in as little as a few seconds, depending on the light, and this picture probably would have required the briefest of exposures.
According to an article by Colin Harding at the Science and Media Museum’s blog, “The earliest photographic processes normally required exposures of many seconds, or even minutes, rendering the photography of movement impossible. However, with the right combination of lighting, subject, lens and plate size, exposures of a fraction of a second, whilst still very difficult to achieve, were possible. The taking of such photographs became known as ‘instantaneous photography’. Whilst the term was in common usage during the 19th century, there was surprisingly little discussion or agreement as to precisely what it meant. In practice, it was applied to any photograph which contained an element of movement or which was taken with an exposure of less than one second.”
Because of the need for exposures of draconian length with the earliest forms of photography, objects in motion had never been successfully captured, and this made Instantaneous Views wildly popular. As the British Journal of Photography enthused in October 1862, “Omnibuses, carts, cabs, wagons, and foot-passengers in shoals in active movement, are all ‘arrested’… In the immediate foreground is a man, without his coat, wheeling a barrow, his left leg poised in mid-air, in the act of stepping…. One individual in a black suit, with his hands in his pockets, and looking on excellent terms with himself, is sauntering towards the spectator. The whole scene is full of life, and the photography leaves nothing to be desired.”
What was true of crowded city streets was also true of nature. Stereo images such as the one below allowed the world to be recorded in its majesty, both in 2-D and arrested motion. To viewers who had never seen an actual ocean—and there were many of them—an image like this one would have been awe-inspiring. Ω
All images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
I’m also pleased to announce that I will be bringing you photographs from the Jesse Cress Collection—many of which are daguerreotypes elderly men and women who were born in the mid- to late 1700s. Here is one to whet your appetites.
The wedding of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren was so popular that children in wedding attire began to reenact the marriage ceremony.
By Beverly Wilgus
The highlight of the 1863 New York City social season was the February 10 “Fairy Wedding” at Grace Episcopal Church of two of P. T. Barnum’s “little people,” Charles Sherwood Stratton and Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. In the theatrical world, they were known as General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren—he stood 2’10”; she, 2’6″. There were 2,000 invited guests and Barnum also sold tickets to the reception after the wedding for $75 each. Although 15,000 ticket requests came in, only 5,000 were available. One newspaper, the Cleveland Daily Leader, noted that after the particulars were announced by Barnum, “then followed such a universal toadyism…all for the sake of begging, buying, or stealing invitations to the wedding.”
In spite of the event’s commercial nature, Tom and Lavinia’s marriage was a true love match. (Barnum, however, thought Lavinia was too tall for Tom and that her smaller sister Minnie would have been a better choice of a bride.) Lavinia had also been romantically pursued by Thumb’s rival performer, George Washington Morrison Nutt, whose stage name was Commodore Nutt, but Lavinia’s heart belonged to the Little General from the start. After their marriage, the couple lived in domestic harmony for twenty years until Tom’s death on July 15, 1883.
The Leader, which was only one of scores of newspapers around the world that covered Tom and Lavinia’s nuptials, explained to its readers, “Tom Thumb was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1838. He weighed nine pounds and a-half when born, but stopped growing at eighteen months old. Barnum took him in at ten years old and he has been a public character ever since. Miss Lavinia Bump was born in Middleboro, Mass., in 1842. She grew until one year old and then stopped… She and the General met a few months ago at Boston and a ‘mutual understanding’ developed.”
On the day of the wedding, the bride wore “plain white satin, the skirt en traine, being decorated with a flounce of costly point lace, headed by tulle puffings; the berthe to match. Her…hair, slightly waved, was rolled a la Eugenie…. Natural orange blossoms breathed their perfume above her brow and mingled their fragrance with soft sighs of her gentle bosom,” all-but moaned the Leader. Thumb was resplendent in a black dress coat and a vest of white silk, “his appearance that of a little old man in whom the juices of life were yet rich and whose jolly days were not done.”
After the wedding, the couple greeted reception guests from atop a piano amidst a mountain of gifts. At the end of the evening, Thumb ardently and grandiloquently thanked their guests and he and his wife withdrew, shortly thereafter to begin a European honeymoon. From start to finish, stated the Irish Meath People and Cavan and Westmeath Chronicle, Barnum had arranged the Fairy Wedding “with a true eye to business.”
Following the wild popularity of the wedding, a rather strange practice developed and has continued until today. Plays based on the event became popular, with children in wedding attire reenacting the marriage ceremony. My husband and I collect photographs of the original couple but also have a collection of photographs of children engaged in this activity from the 19th Century through 1950. The weddings were indeed so popular during the century after the actual event that there were professional Fairy Wedding planners who advised on the faux nuptials and rented out costumes.
Many Fairy Weddings were staged as fundraisers by churches and schools. For example, Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Telegraph of November 30, 1888, noted that a Tom Thumb Wedding was held on Thanksgiving evening at Wesley Union Church. It included the mock bride and groom, maids of honor and groomsmen, and the bride and groom’s family. “The couples were appropriately and beautifully attired and of such costly material, fitting splendidly the little bodies and producing much excitement even among the men and women,” the newspaper stated. The children performed with “great propriety and dignity, and won high praise.”
In 1893, the Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, Daily News, reported a Tom Thumb Wedding held at the G. A. R. Opera House on May 12. “The youthful participants enacted their parts well and the quaint costumes created no end of amusement for the audience.” And the North Carolina Wilmington Messenger of February 28, 1894, published that “all the little boys and girls who took part in the ‘Tom Thumb Wedding’ at the Grace Church entertainment last night are requested to meet at city hall this afternoon [in their costumes] to be photographed.”
We possess a clipping from 1950 of my husband, Jack, acting as best man in a Tom Thumb Wedding at his family’s church. And if the term “Tom Thumb Wedding” is entered into Google, one will find many posts about churches, schools, and private birthday parties performing these weddings as late as just a few years ago. Ω
All images courtesy of the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
A selection of unidentified daguerreotype and ambrotype portraits.
An amazing story about abolition-era rock stars.
Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)
On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”
“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”
It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were…
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