The McGrawville Experiment

In about 1849, a mother and child were photographed in a New York town where visionaries struggled to change the world.

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1/6th-plate daguerreotype from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A long inscription is penciled inside the case of this daguerreotype: “The picture of Flora and her mother, taken when she was three years old at McGrawville, Cortland Co., NY.

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The penciled inscription inside the daguerreotype case.

“I’ll think of thee at eventide/ When shines the star of love/ When Earth is garnished like a bride/ and all is joy a-bove/ and when the moon’s pale genial face/ is shed or [sic] land & sea/ and throughs [sic] around her soft light/ t’is then I think of thee. EM

“Flora & I are in the parlor as I write this, talking of the war, etc. etc. Henry …?… is buried Thursday Oct. 30th, ’62.”

The sentimental verse is likely based on “Better Moments,” by poet Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), printed in 7 July, 1827’s New-York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette, Volume IV, as well as and in the New Mirror’s Poems of Passion in 1843. Willis’s poem includes the lines: “I have been out at eventide/ Beneath a moonlit sky of spring/ When Earth was garnished like a bride/ And night had on her silver wing.” It is uncertain whether variants of Willis’s poem existed that included the stanza scriven in the case, or whether the writer “borrowed” a few lines of it for his or her own poetic creation.

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Charles Reason was a born in New York City of a free black family from the Caribbean. At New York Central College he was, until 1852, a professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin, and French, and an adjunct professor of mathematics.

McGrawville, Cortland County, New York, was once home to New York Central College, an institution of higher learning founded by the antislavery American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1848 and which held its first classes in 1849—a date congruent with the fashions worn by Flora and her mother.

The college “opened its doors to any student able to pay the modest tuition regardless of sex, race, or religion. Blacks constituted an estimated half of its enrollment,” explained historian Catherine M. Hanchett. “Some came from New England, from Virginia, from Canada West [Ontario]. Some where fugitive slaves, others newly freed. Several were members of prominent black families.”

The college employed at least three Black professors—Charles Reason (1818-1893), George Boyer Vashon (1824-1853), and William G. Allen (1820-aft. 1878), the latter of whom was at least two-thirds white, but who would cause scandal by asking for the hand of a Caucasian student, Miss Mary King.

Fittingly, the college also served as a stop along the Underground Railroad that assisted escaped slaves heading to Canada.

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This article from the Carolina Watchman of Salisbury, North Carolina, 24 February, 1853, both excoriates and libels Professor Allen and Mary King. The couple would eventually marry and leave the United States. They remained together for the rest of their lives, living in Italy, Ireland, and other European nations.

A smallpox epidemic in 1850 led to the deaths of some of the college’s African-American students—all were buried on the campus beneath tombstones extant today. Illness at the school seemed persistent, as student William Austin wrote to his family on 23 May, 1852, “There has been and is at present a considerable sickness among students but Mumps and Measles are to blame but I think they will not injure me.”

Otherwise, Austin found the nearby villages and the college bucolic. “This is a beautiful section of country, somewhat uneven, but just enough to awaken mankind to the romantic beauties of nature,” he wrote. “The boarding hall is some thirty rods [165 yards] from the college so that we have a pleasant walk to get there to meals which are at 6 1/2 o’clock in the morning, at noon, and at 5 P.M. The Ladies all room at the hall. The Gentlemen at the College.”

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Throughout its existence, New York Central College faced constant racist and misogynist criticism from both southern and northern states. It was “an institution confessedly established for the purpose, figuratively speaking, of whitening the blacks and blackening the whites,” pronounced the Buffalo Courier of 4 July, 1851, during a state funding appropriation battle. “It is said that one of the professors, an accomplished and skilled teacher, has crispy hair and a southern skin,” the Orleans Republican of Albion, New York, snickered on 9 July. The article continued with a quote from a Mr. A. A. Thompson, who was of the opinion that “‘Rather than give $4,000 [in state money] to that vile sink of pollution … they ought to give it to a mob that would raise [sic] it to the ground.’” Later in July, the Albany Argus called the college, “an institution repulsive in its objects and character.”

However, one female graduate had another opinion of the school that recognized her innate equality. Angeline Stickney wrote of her alma mater, “I feel very much attached to that institution, not withstanding all its faults, and I long to see it again, for its foundation rests upon the basis of Eternal Truth—and my heartstrings are twined around its every pillar.”

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Classes were taught on the first two floors and the men’s dormitory was on the third. Courtesy McGraw Historical Society.

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The inscription states that Flora was three when the daguerreotype was taken in McGrawville, which, when fashions are considered in tandem, makes the approximate year of her birth between 1848 and 1850. On 30 October, 1862, the writer was in the parlor with Flora, then in her teens, speaking about the ongoing Civil War. The indecipherable surname of Henry, who was buried that day, might lead to a breakthrough, but thus far no guesses of mine have yielded results.

How was Flora’s family connected to McGrawville? Was she the child of a teacher, an administrator, abolitionist Baptists, or simply part of a local Cortland family? Where did Flora and her people go after leaving McGrawville? Why did the burial of Henry raise memories of the more than decade-old daguerreotype, and what motivated the writer to pencil the poem and message in the case at that time? These questions remain stubbornly unanswered. Ω

This is His Orphan: What it Shows and What it Doesn’t

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Widow and Orphan, Albumen Carte de Visite, Circa 1868. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This English carte de visite (CDV) is one of the most popular in my collection, if Flickr views and Pinterest re-pins equate to evidence, that is. It shows a young British widow—identifiable as such by the white ruching on her black bonnet—squatting in the background, having just propelled her black-clad daughter toward the photographer. The widow stares forward forlornly, her hand over her mouth, indicating without words her shock and concern for their future. It is a candid, painfully honest pose, and one rarely seen in types of images. She is no “Hidden Mother,” but a vital element of a tableau meant to convey the message, “This is his orphan.”

The reverse stamp on the CDV reads “T. Bennett, Photographer, 46 Foregate Street and Church Street, Malvern.” According to research conducted by the creator of Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland, 1840-1940, Thomas Bennett “opened his first studio in Worcester in 1856. At different times, he operated at five studios in Worcester and three in Malvern under his own name and the business continued under the name of Bennett & Son and Bennett & Sons until at least 1916.”

“The 1861 census records the [Bennett] family living at his shop at 46 Foregate, Worcester, where he is described as a Lay Clerk (of the church) and photographer. His firm Thomas Bennett and Son is thought to have been established about 1856. His branch in Great Malvern was possibly the second photographic studio” in that town—this information gleaned from the Malvern Records Office. Bennett threw open the doors of his Malvern studio in 1868 and the CDV of mother and daughter could not have been taken long afterward.

Helpful Flickr historians pellethepoet and EastMarple1 spotted one of Thomas Bennett’s studios in the foreground of the CDV below. The building at bottom righthand corner, with the word “photos” just visible above the door, was almost certainly where this Worcestershire widow brought her daughter to mark their terrible loss in a fixed image that could never be altered.

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CDV of Malvern, Worcestershire, Circa 1870. Courtesy Collection of pellethepoet.

My CDV appears on many Pinterest pages, and in particular, one where user comments suggest that this little girl is dead, held up by props, or suspended with wires.

This is not a deceased child. In the photo, her eyes were caught whilst tracking the photographer, and she supported herself to a degree through her hand, wrist, and arm. One of her feet was slightly lifted as she prepared to take a step.

Bodies were not embalmed at the time this image was taken. That preservation process came into practice during the American Civil War as a way of returning bodies of dead Union soldiers to their families. It was not widely used in the United States or Great Britain for another 40 to 50 years.

Dead bodies that are not embalmed do not stand on their own, even during rigor mortis, without some sort of brace or rigging. There is no evidence in the historical record that these types of devices were used during regular postmortem photography. Sometimes unidentified bodies or murder victims such as Katherine Eddows, a victim of Jack the Ripper, were propped up to be forensically photographed.

Further, it should be asked why a mother would choose to allow the corpse of her dead daughter to be held up by wires or clamped in some sort of brace when she herself could have cradled the body—as is seen in so many other postmortem images?

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A mother from Philadelphia dressed in full mourning, which differs from a widow’s full mourning, cradling her presumably dead infant. Albumen CDV, Circa 1870. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The props that photographers did use were to keep people still, not to hold them up, as is clearly seen in the photograph below. Ω

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A young boy is photographed while held still by a posing stand. Circa 1890. Unknown provenance.

Dashing Through the Snow

Even the fake kind, or the missing altogether….

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Tintype, circa 1870.

Oh my. After this debacle, let’s hope there was snow outside to sled on.

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Austrian unused real photo postcard, circa 1905, stamped “Fotographie L. Strempel, Klosternburg, Stadplaz.”

Okay. Well, at least there is fake snow. And a fake dog.

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Phyllis and Barbara Nute on Christmas Day, Winthrop, Maine, circa 1927. Paper print.

This is more like it: Real snow outside and the girls are rocking those gifts from Santa.

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Edward Miller on his sled, paper print, circa 1915.

A happy boy on his sled the back garden of what seems to be a row house. A woman stands at the end of the wooden-plank walkway, probably his mother. I hope Edward’s father took him to a local park where there were many high hills to fly down.

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Unmarked albumen print on cardboard, circa 1915.

A wistful girl sleds on a snowy day near the family farm. Everything about this image charms me—from the baggy pants, the bottle curls, and mad hat to the upturned, pointed noise of the sled and the low mountain beyond. I wish I knew more about her, but sadly there is no photographer’s impression or inscription. Ω


All images: Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I’ve Almost Got You

These people are identified by inscriptions, yet their stories remain stubbornly untold—at least for now.

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Mother and child, possibly Elise Briggs and her daughter Elise Von Rodenstein, albumen carte de visite, circa 1865, by the studio of Thomas Rodger, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This beautiful carte de visite (CDV) is identified on the reverse as “Elise Von Rodenstein.” When I purchased it, I had great hopes of uncovering a full biography, but this has not yet happened. The first problem I encountered was not knowing whether the snood-wearing, polka dot-dressed mother or the equally polka-dotted child was Elise. If the infant, she may have been the Elise Von Rodenstein born in 1865 or 1866 in Fort Washington, New York, United States, to German immigrant Charles Von Rodenstein and his American wife, Elise Briggs. I am skeptical of this, however, as I can find no connection to Scotland.

Elise von Rodenstein’s potential mother, Elise Briggs, was enumerated on the 1881 Census of Kingston City, Ontario, Canada, with her six Von Rodenstein children. (Interestingly, half of the children were Catholics and the other half adherents of the Church of England.) The census said that Elise Briggs was born about 1833 in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. In 1890, Elise and her children’s enumeration escaped the conflagration that destroyed most of the decade’s U.S. Census.  In that year, Elise Briggs lived in Washington, D.C., with one of her other daughters. She was also likely the same woman who died in Manhattan, New York City, 28 October, 1920, aged 88.

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Thomas Rodger in the mid-1860s.

Elise Von Rodenstein became a nun. In 1910, she was at the Sacred Heart Convent and Loretta Sisters Schools in St. Charles, Missouri, working as a teacher, By 1915, she taught at the Academy of the Sacred Heart at University Avenue and 174th Street, New York City. Between 1920 and 1930, Elise was a nun at the Convent and Academy of the Sacred Heart in Rochester, New York. She eventually became Mother Superior of a Philadelphia convent and died there of acute coronary occlusion on 9 March, 1961.

The photographer of this CDV is quite well known. Thomas Rodger (1832-1883) studied at St. Andrews University, learned to produce the silver iodide-coated paper calotypes introduced in 1841, and became an assistant at Lord Kinnaird’s studio in Rossie Priory.

During the 1850s, Rodger won multiple awards for his photographic achievements, and in 1877 he was given the International Photographic Exhibition Medal.

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The Brown family, 1/4th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1852. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Written inside the case of this delightful daguerreotype is “W. K. Brown, 45 yrs old; Wife, 41 years old; Minnie, 2 years old.”

Every time I look at baby Minnie’s grumpy face I can imagine her thoughts: “I hate my dress! I hate my boots! I hate my spit curls! And you behind that big box on sticks—I. Hate. You. Too!”

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No doubt but that her parents had the patience of saints.

I’ve looked to no avail for a Minnie Brown born between about 1848 and 1855. There are a few W. K. Browns and hundreds of W. Browns—William Browns, Wilhelm Browns, Walter Browns, Wilfred Browns, Wesley Browns—but none with a daughter named Minnie. If Mrs. Brown’s first name had been part of the inscription, I might have been able to suss out the family’s traces. Doing so may still be possible as more records come online. Until then, at least I can smile at eternally cranky Miss Minnie.

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Unmarked carte de visite of a woman in deep mourning, circa 1863. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

“Wife of Hugh Holmes” is written on reverse of this melancholy CDV. Assuming the heartbroken subject wore mourning for her spouse, I have looked into records of a number of men. The most promising was Hugh P. Holmes of Maine, who was born in 1833 and who died of Typhoid in August 1861, one month into his service with the 7th Regiment, Maine Volunteer Infantry. However, I can find no record of a marriage for this man. Hugh Holmes’s father filed a pension claim on his son many years later, but no widow is listed in the paperwork.

Another possibility is that Mrs. Holmes was not in mourning for her spouse, but for another close family member. This may indeed be more likely because Mrs. Holmes’s bonnet does not include white inner ruching signifying a widow. However, this practice was less common in the United States than in Great Britain. If this Mrs. Holmes did not mourn a spouse, it will be nearly impossible to identify her. Ω


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A happy New Year, Gentle Readers. May 2017 be kind to all your clan!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

—1788 poem by Robert Burns set to the tune of a traditional folk song.

We Were Happy Here

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Unknown American hamlet, Real Photo Postcard, circa 1910. Written on the reverse is “To keep.”

“We were happy here
Even in the cold spells
Even with the roads
Like a frozen river
We would keep each other warm
And we were happy here
With the soup on the fire
And the wind in the chimney
And the floors too cold for bare feet…”

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Unknown town, real photo postcard, circa 1905.

“And we were happy here
When the Spring broke the ice
And there were limbs to be cleared
And the melting snow
Let the pines spring back up
Toward the sky…”

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Unknown Maryland town, real photo postcard, circa 1905.

“But we were happy here
With our simple life
It was our whole life
And we were happy here
Before the news came
That the world was small
And the roar was loud
And not quite so distant after all…”

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Middletown, Maryland, postcard, circa 1940.

“But we were happy here
When the cries of our babies
Were the only cries
And our bad moods
The only bad moods
Which we coaxed and stroked
Just like our own private fires.”

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My mother, Sally Garnand (right), on the farm of her Aunt Edna Newton, King George County, Virginia, circa 1936.

“But we were happy here
Before….” Ω


Words: “Private Fires” by Andreas Vollenweider. Images: Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection. 

Adorable Moppets

The first of a occasional series.

Tartan and Striped Socks

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Tintype, circa 1880. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection. His hard-soled, lace-up boots are pretty darned adorbs, too.

Big Brother, Little Sister

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1/6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1849. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection. The image is shown here in its open case. Nearly all of the earliest forms of photography were presented in wooden cases.

Worried Will

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British 1/9th-plate relievo ambrotype, circa 1858. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection. In this version of an ambrotype, created in 1854 by a Scottish photographer named Urie, the background surrounding the sitter is scraped away and replaced with one of a number of options, including a solid color, a vignette mat, or a false background. When I purchased this ambrotype there was nothing behind the boy’s image, so I had to create a backdrop.

Daddy’s Darling

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1/9th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1850. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection. This beautiful little girl, who is literally falling out of her dress, wears a coral necklace (thought to protect children from diseases) but the object in her hand remains a mystery.

Ω

In Memory of Ernest

It provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.

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Pinchbeck and black enamel mourning brooch. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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