Apparitions of the Aperture

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.

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Cased tintype spirit image by an unknown photographer, circa 1868. Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection. (Unless otherwise noted, all images in this article are courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus.)

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.

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This English stereoview card from the early 1860s titled “The Ghost in the Stereoscope” noted that it was “kindly suggested by Sir David Brewster.”

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.

With the first affordable digital cameras in the 1990s came a veritable epidemic of “ghost orb,” “rod,” “vortex,” “portal,” and “skyfish” photos on the new World Wide Web. The promulgating of them, in some case, led to recognition and profit. These types of images were, and still are, the result of the compact distance between the flash and the lens of digital cameras illuminating dust, water droplets, bugs, camera straps, individual hairs, fingertips, human breath, and more. In 2018, we generally accept this explanation, but in 1995, the debates between believers and skeptics were as inflamed and impassioned as they were a century before, in the age of spirit photography.

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The back of this 1875 carte de visite (CDV) states, “This picture was made December 25th, 1875, in Cincinnati by Jay J. Hartman under the most rigid test conditions, in a gallery he had never visited before … all manipulations of the plate being done by a skeptical photographer … and all the time closely watched by 16 respectable, intelligent gentlemen.”

William Mumler (1832-1884) of Boston is the best known of the many 19th-century American spirit photographers. Mumler claimed to have stumbled upon his miraculous ability by accident, but “as word spread, Mumler’s hobby became a lucrative business, and soon he was taking spirit photographs from dusk till dawn, summoning lost loves beneath his skylight, and dispensing solace to a public addled by the rising death toll of the Civil War,” wrote The New Yorker‘s  Dan Piepenbring in an October 2017 review Peter Manseau’s book, The Apparitionists. “The images retain their intimate, macabre tint even now. His subjects assume stately, almost catatonic poses—the process required them to sit still for a full minute—their expressions pensive and inscrutable, their arms stiff and expectant. As for the spirits, they have the denatured texture of blighted leaves. Translucent smudges against a sooty backdrop, they sometimes coalesce into personhood only under scrutiny, in the same way that faces emerge from clouds. Stare at enough of them in sequence and you’ll fall into a loop of cognitive dissonance: they look so fake that they must be real, and then so real that they must be fake.”

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Mumler’s 1872 CDV of Mary Todd and the ghost of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

Arguably, Mumler’s most famous image is of U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wearing widow’s mourning, taken some seven years after the president was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Mumler claimed in his autobiography that he hadn’t recognized Mary Lincoln when she came to his studio wreathed in a black veil, yet he duly produced an image showing the president gazing lovingly upon his wife. Whilst 99.9-percent sure today that the image is a fake, we can hope without hypocrisy that it comforted Mary then.

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Two CDVs by William Mumler in the Wilgus Collection. Left: A young spirit girl holds a flower under the nose of Captain R. Montgomery of Hodgsdon Mills, Maine. The child was recognized as his dead daughter. Right: A ghostly cleric presents Henry C. Gordon, an American medium credited with levitation, with a crucifix of which he appears aware.

Another notorious spirit photographer was Frenchman Edouard Isidore Buguet (1840-1901). Also a medium, Buguet rocketed to fame in the early 1870s, but his success was short-lived. Frank Podmore wrote in his 1902 book, Mediums of the 19th Century, Vol. II, that in June 1875, “Buguet was arrested and charged by the French Government with the fraudulent manufacture of spirit photographs. When put on trial Buguet made a full confession. The whole of his ‘spirit’ photographs were, he stated, produced by means of double exposure.”

A plethora of witnesses testified favorably about the photographer and when “these witnesses were confronted with Buguet, and heard him explain how the trick had been done, one after another they left the witness-box, protesting that they could not doubt the evidence of their own eyes. . . . [I]t came out in the evidence that a very clearly defined head … which had been claimed by M. Leymarie as the portrait of his almost lifelong friend, M. Poiret, was recognised by another witness as an excellent likeness of his father-in-law, still living at Dreux, and much annoyed at his premature introduction to the spirit world,” noted Podmore.

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Buguet carbon prints, circa 1874. Left: “The Count de Medina Pomar with the spirit of his father, General the Count de Medina Pomar.” Right: “Sitters: Mons. Leymarie and Mons. C. Spirit: Edouard Poiret.”

In his 1911 book Photographing The Invisible, James Coates devotes two chapters to English spirit photographer Robert Boursnell (1832-1909). The first begins, “It appears that before Mumler got his first picture in 1861, Mr. Boursnell got curious appearances on his plates, not only spoiling them but leading to disagreements with his employer, who accused him of not cleaning the glass properly. These splotches came at intervals. For a long time, there was a lull. Boursnell was a medium; that was the trouble.”

The lull Coates mentions lasted 40 years. When Boursnell again picked up photography as an older man, the same results allegedly manifested, leading to the appearance of spirit faces and figures. As a spirit photographer, “He was strikingly successful and in 1903 the spiritualists of London presented him with a signed testimonial and a purse of gold as a mark of their high esteem. A hundred chosen spirit photographs were put on exhibition in the rooms of the Psychological Society at Portman Square,” stated Nandor Fodor in 1934’s, An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science.

“Like every other spirit-photographer, he also was accused of fraud,” Fodor continued, noting that evidence of the fraudulent production of Boursnell’s images was presented to the London Spiritualist Alliance. “Duplicates, triplicates, and quadruplicates of Boursnell’s spirit pictures were numerous. A tracing could be made from one form in one photograph to the form in another, and not the slightest difference in detail could be discovered.”

Despite this, Boursnell—like Buguet—never lost the faith of his followers and was still considered by Coates to have been a genuine medium. In one example, Coates’ argument against the swipe of Occam’s razor seems particularly tortured. During the first decade of the 20th Century, an Australian man called Barnes sat for Boursnell in London. One of the ghost extras in the resulting image was conclusively proven to be a blurry reprint of a published portrait of assassinated Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Instead of viewing this as evidence of fraud, Coates saw it as proof that mental images from human minds might appear in spirit photos. Barnes, Coates explained, had read a book with the same image as its frontispiece sometime before visiting Boursnell.

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A 1902 cabinet card of Robert Boursnell posed with spirit extras.

Both the Spiritualism and the technology of the 19th Century required faith. In the 20th Century, the late Arthur C. Clark professed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For the average Victorian, the arcane processes of early photography were tantamount to paranormal occurrences. To today’s average folk, the Internet and technology-driven VR realms we inhabit are effectively the same. What is constant is this, as expressed by songwriter Roy Harper:

“That we both may share
The hope adhering
That we’re not just
Spirits disappearing.” Ω 

 

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There is no photographer’s name or studio on this circa-1895 cabinet card, but “Olivia Sheppard” is handwritten on the reverse. There are references in the literature of the period to a female dress reformer and spiritualist Olivia F. Shepard, and likely this is the same woman. The “spirits” surrounding her include two Caucasians, an Arab, and two American Indians.

Preternaturally Lovely: Britain’s Queen Alexandra of Denmark

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Albumen carte de visite (CDV) of future Queen Alexandra when Princess of Wales, taken at Sandringham in 1863. This image was marketed by the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, 54 Cheapside and 110 Regent Street. There is also a sticker on CDV’s reverse: “Juvenile Book Depot and Passport Agency, C. Goodman, bookseller and stationer, 407 Strand.” Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia of Denmark as a young woman, circa 1860. She was born 1 December, 1844, in the Yellow Palace in Copenhagen, the daughter of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (later King Christian IX of Denmark) and Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel. Her upbringing was not extravagant and she remained close to her parents and siblings, even after marrying Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and taking up her new life in Great Britain. Library of Congress.
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September 1862: A group photograph to mark the engagement between the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra. Included are members of the Princess’s family including Prince Christian of Denmark, later King Christian IX; Princess Louise, later Queen of Denmark; Leopold, Duke of Brabant; Marie Henriette, Duchess of Brabant; and Princess Dagmar of Denmark. According to an 1879 issue of the magazine Harpers Bazaar, “A younger generation are fond of recalling the April morning when the young Princess of Wales reached England. The boat touched the shore, and the multitude crowding the quay saw a mere slip of a girl nervously clinging to the railing on the deck, and looking with a pale, pretty face at the new country, her dress plain almost to shabbiness, and her bonnet of so old-fashioned a make that a London milliner was hurriedly telegraphed to for a more lilting head-gear for the future queen’s entry into London. A wave of applause and cheers went up as the Prince of Wales embraced his betrothed and conducted her to the shores of her new home. The same day she was driven through London in great state, and a lady near enough socially to be good authority has told us of her pretty, girlish timidity when the crowd stared at her, with cheers and wild demonstrations of delight.” Courtesy Royal Collection.
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The Dagmar Necklace, a wedding gift given to Princess Alexandra in 1863 by her father, King Christian IX of Denmark. It was created by court jeweler Julius Dideriksen to include 118 pearls and 2,000 diamonds set in gold. It features a replica of an 11th Century Byzantine cross found in the grave of Queen Dagmar of Denmark, the wife of medieval King Valdemar II. The original cross is considered a Danish national treasure. The Dagmar Necklace is occasionally worn by British Queens to this day. Royal Collection.
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10 March, 1863: A hand-tinted albumen print of the Prince and Princess of Wales after their wedding at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Queen Victoria watched the service from the Queen Catherine of Aragon Closet. The monarch, whose adored husband, Prince Albert, was dead not yet two years and who still deeply mourned him, burst into tears during the service. Royal Collection.
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September 1863: The new Prince and Princess of Wales a few months after their marriage. “I frankly avow to you that I did not think it possible to love a person as I do her,” he wrote to his mother. Alexandra penned, “If he were a cowboy I should love him just the same and marry no one else.” Despite his constant affairs, she never stopped loving him, nor he, her. Royal Collection.
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1864: Alexandra with her firstborn child, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, called Eddy, who was second in line for the throne after his father, the Prince of Wales. Prince Eddy died of influenza in 1892, leaving his mother heartbroken. Royal Collection.
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1869: An intimate albumen CDV of Alexandra, her long hair loose, with the Prince of Wales and their first three children. Alexandra was a hands-on mother who loved to care for her children. Mrs. Blackburn, the royal nursery’s head nurse, recalled that the Princess of Wales “was in her glory when she could run up to the nursery, put on a flannel apron, wash the children herself and see them asleep in their little beds.” Alexandra suffered from rheumatic fever during the birth of Louise, Princess Royal, seen in her mother’s lap in this CDV. The illness combined with labor almost killed Alexandra, and although she recovered, the rheumatic fever left her with a permanent limp. Her gait was later emulated by other women to whom she was a style and fashion icon. Royal Collection.
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A tartan gown worn by Alexandra in 1870. Bath Fashion Museum.
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Alexandra gave birth to Prince Albert Victor in 1864, Prince George in 1865, Princess Louise in 1867, Princess Victoria in 1868, Princess Maud in 1869, and Prince Alexander John, who lived only one day, in 1871. “The Princess’s children were born in such rapid succession that much of her time has been spent in their nurseries; and as a mother, she has excelled even the proverbial English standard. The three nurseries at Marlborough House are fitted up in no way luxuriously, but with every possible contrivance for the comfort and pleasure of the little inmates, and the Princess herself visits them night and morning. Every want is made known to her, every order given by her in person; and looking at the recent picture of her, with her five children grouped about her, one can see her at her best—the happy, loving mother,” reported Harper’s Bazaar. Royal Collection.
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1881: Alexandra, Princess of Wales, wearing the Dagmar Necklace given to her by her father. Royal Collection.
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27 July, 1889: Alexandra posed with her sons George, Duke of York, and Eddy, Duke of Clarence, on the wedding day of Louise, Princess Royal, to Alexander Duff, Duke of Fife. Royal Collection.
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This embroidered silk dress, worn by Alexandra in 1893, proves her figure remained virtually unchanged by six pregnancies during 30 years of marriage. Bath Fashion Museum.
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A smiling Alexandra, Princess of Wales, captured outdoors when in her late 50s, circa 1900. A keen amateur photographer herself, the Princess of Wales holds a Kodak Brownie camera. Collection unknown.
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April 1901: This illumination of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra was part of the Federation Celebrations in Brisbane, Australia. The royal couple had became king and queen on 22 January, upon the death of Queen Victoria. Courtesy Aussiemobs.
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Obverse, commemorative coronation medal for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, 9 August, 1902, at Westminster Abbey. The coronation had to be postponed for several months after the king suffered appendicitis and required emergency surgery. Mark Etheridge Collection.
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Queen Alexandra dressed in coronation robes.  She was Queen Consort during her late 50s and 60s, until 6 May, 1910, when King Edward passed away and her second son ascended the throne as King George V. Royal Collection.
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1901: King Edward and Queen Alexandra dressed for the opening of Parliament. Alexandra wears black mourning for her late mother-in-law Queen Victoria. Courtesy Royal Collection.
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A late-stage mourning gown worn by Queen Alexandra for her mother-in-law in 1902. (In the background is a mannequin dressed in a mourning gown and widow’s cap worn by Queen Victoria.) This photo was taken by the author at “Death Becomes Her,” an exhibition of mourning costumes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, January 2015.
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The Family Order badge of Queen Alexandra. Royal Collection.
1904: A caricature of the Queen during a trip to Norway. She is portrayed carrying her camera. From one of Alexandra’s personal scrapbooks. Royal Collection.
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Queen Alexandra and her younger sister, Dowager Tzarina of Russia Marie Feodorovna (formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark), ride in the funeral procession of King Edward. Postcard, collection unknown.
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1913: Alexandra, Queen Dowager, dressed in state eveningwear and jewelry, including sash with Royal Family Orders. Library of Congress.
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1915: A sepia-toned bromide print of Queen Mary of Teck (left) and Dowager Queen Alexandra. The image is an early copy of a photo now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, taken by Christina Livingston Broom. Whether this vignetted image was sold by the National Portrait Gallery or originated with Christina Broom is unknown. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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Dowager Queen Alexandra, her daughter Maud, Queen of Norway, and her grandson Crown Prince Olaf,  from “Court Life from Within,” by Eulalia, Infanta of Spain, published 1915.
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Alexandra lived to see the birth of her great-grandson George Henry Hubert Lascelles on 7 February, 1923. This postcard shows four generations together: Queen Alexandra; King George V; Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood; and baby George Lascelles.
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The Dowager Queen in her late 70s, just a few years before her death. As Alexandra grew older, she became the victim of increasing hereditary deafness. Toward the end, she developed mild dementia. Alexandra suffered an unexpected heart attack and died at 5:25 p.m., 20 November, 1925, at Sandringham, Norfolk. Library of Congress.
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A postcard of the tomb of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. She was buried there on 28 November, 1925, after a royal funeral at Westminster Abbey, London.

Ω

Those I Know Not

A selection of vintage images from my collection featuring sitters whose identities, sadly, are unknown.

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An English matriarch sits resplendent for this tinted 1/6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1849. It is likely by Beard’s Photographic Institute, London and Liverpool, which was run by Richard Beard (22 December 1801–7 June 1885). Beard enthusiastically protected his business through photographic patents and helped establish professional photography in the United Kingdom. He opened his London and Liverpool studios in 1841. Clouds were frequently painted in as a backdrop by his studio staff.
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A woman wearing spring fashions uses a finger to mark her place in a book in this 1/6th-plate American daguerreotype, circa 1852. Perhaps she wanted to imply that she had been reading outdoors.
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I title this American, circa-1858, 1/6th-plate ambrotype “A Man, His Hair, and His Wife.” The husband has a feminine beauty, especially with the delicate tinting of his cheeks. His wife, brooding, intense, and potentially vengeful, may be wearing a large mourning brooch.
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This early English, 1/4th-plate ambrotype features a Victorian teen who could be a character in a Dickens’ novel. She points to an illustration in a book, but I cannot decipher the title or the meaning of her gesture. The image was taken in about 1852.
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As photography matured, it became possible to make copies of early, singular photographic images. In the 1890s, this cabinet card was created of a daguerreotype taken in about 1855.

Ω


All images copyright the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Comet Brooches: A Legacy of the 19th Century’s Sidereal Wanderers

“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe

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Halley’s Comet brooch, 1835. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.

The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.

Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.

The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.

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“At that time, throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet, which some call ‘the long-haired star’: it first appeared on the eve of the festival of Letania Maior, that is on 24 April, and shone every night for a week.”—The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, 1066. In this section of the Bayeux Tapestry, Halley’s Comet serves as an omen of Duke William’s victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Above a group that points at the strange sight are the words “ISTI MIRANT STELLA”—”These men wonder at the star.”

Throughout history, the comet’s apparitions brought fear and awe to earthbound viewers, who saw comets as a predictors of great and potentially horrific events. In 218, for example, Roman historian Dio Cassius termed it “a very fearful star,” and of the 1456 comet pass, Bartolomeo Platina named it “a hairy and fiery star” that he heard would bring “grievous pestilence, dearth, and some great calamity.” Its 1066 apparition is commemorated by the Bayeux Tapestry—the great embroidered epic of the Norman Conquest—as a portent that Duke William of Normandy’s ascension to the throne of England was literally writ in the stars.

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Drawings of Comet Halley, 1836, by John Herschel. Gouache on black fabric mounted on paper. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

The 1835 comet apparition predated photography by nearly a decade, but astronomical drawings were made by Sir John Frederick William Herschel from a position in South Africa. In the lead up to Halley’s Comet’s arrival, and during the months it graced the night sky, Georgians indulged their love of symbolism and used the shape of the comet, with its long tail, as the basis for generally singular, and relatively expensive, gold jewelry—although pinchbeck and gilt 1835 brooches can be found. These pieces commemorated the comet apparition in conjunction with the human events that transpired during its nightly reign, such as births, betrothals, marriages, and deaths.

My brooch fits the latter of these, but there are many stunning examples that evoke the joy and wonder felt by those with comet fever. For example, the lovely duo below, sold by Rowan & Rowan, are gold with a foiled citrine and garnets.

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Gold, citrine, and garnet 1835 Halley’s Comet brooches.
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This lovely gold 1835 comet brooch, which sold on eBay in 2016, features a saphiret glass stone that prong-set and cushion-cut.
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A gold, diamond, and pearl 1835 comet brooch.
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An English, 9-carat gold, chrysolite, and ruby 1835 comet brooch. Courtesy CJ Antiques.

Halley’s was not the only comet visible to those living in the 19th Century. Stuart L. Schneider, the author of Halley’s Comet: Memories of 1910, noted, “Most people who saw Halley’s comet in 1986 were disappointed with the comet’s showing. We were not as fortunate as the folks living in the 1800s…. In 1811 there was a beautiful comet with a tail 100,000,000 miles long. It was called the Great Comet of 1811 and was visible for 17 months. In 1843, a comet appeared … with a tail twice as long as that of the Great Comet of 1811. Abraham Lincoln commented on Donati’s Comet of 1858. It appeared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Civil War soldiers saw the Comet of 1861, which had six or more tails. In 1874, Coggin’s Comet appeared in the skies, and in 1882 a comet appeared that was visible for 4 months.”

I own another comet brooch that may commemorate one or both of the century’s unexpected celestial visitors, Comet Tebbutt C/1881 K1, or the Great Comet of 1881, and the Great Comet of September 1882, C/1882 R1, which Schneider alluded to above.

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The September 1882 Comet photographed by Sir David Gill from the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Comet Tebbutt was visible during the summer and Autumn of 1881, finally becoming lost to observers in early 1882. It was followed later that year by another comet of such luminosity that, at its perihelion, it was visible next to the sun in the daytime sky.

After it was gone—“buried in the darkness of space”—Professor H. A. Howe of Denver University wrote in The Sidereal Messenger’s May 1884 issue, “This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny. Then, perchance, it will again burst unexpectedly into view, to be firmly bound by the chains of mathematical analysis, which, more tenuous than gossamer, are stronger than steel.”

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Although this “French Jet” (black glass) comet brooch was likely produced in multiples, the design may have appealed to women who lost loved ones during the 1881-1882 comet apparitions. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

When Halley’s Comet returned in 1910, it brought age-old fears with it, as well as a new wave of comet jewelry. Author Christopher S. Cevasco, wrote that the 1910 apparition “came with its own doomsday predictions. One of the gases discovered in the tail through spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen, leading French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion to predict that when the earth passed through the comet’s tail, the gas ‘would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monsieur Flammarion was not only an astronomer but an author of science fiction novels, and fortunately here it seems he let his imagination run away with him. Notwithstanding many panicked Earthlings running out to buy gas masks, anti-comet pills, and apparently even anti-comet umbrellas, the planet suffered no harm given how diffuse the gas was.”

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) also believed in the portents of comets. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died 21 April, 1910, just after the comet reached its brightest. Ω

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A brooch made for the 1910 Halley’s Comet apparition.
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A black opal comet brooch from 1910.
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A 1910 comet brooch of gold and pastes.

The Unquiet Afterlife of Katherine Parr

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The card beneath the blonde lock inside this circular frame reads, “Hair of Queen Catherine Parr, last consort of Henry, taken the night she dyed September 5th 1548, was buried in the Chapel of Sudeley Castle, Near Winchcombe.” The Queen’s relic was sold by Bonhams, London, in January 2008 for £2,160 to Charles Hudson of Wyke Manor, Worcestershire. His estate once belonged to Katherine. Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.

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.’”

(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Katherine Parr, Queen of England and sixth wife of King Henry VIII. He was her third husband.

A few days earlier, on 30 August, 1548, at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, 36-year-old Katherine had given birth to her first child. She and her most recent husband, Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour, named the healthy baby girl after Katherine’s adult stepdaughter, Princess Mary Tudor. Despite the polar opposition of their religions—Mary was a devout Catholic and Katherine an evangelical Protestant—the two were close.

Not present as Katherine’s condition degenerated was her second royal stepdaughter, Princess Elizabeth, who had lived at Sudeley with the Queen. The reason why was tied to what Lady Tyrwhitt heard the feverish Katherine say to the Lord Admiral. Seymour had sexually harassed, if not actually molested, Elizabeth on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, Katherine sided with the man she desperately loved and with whose child she was heavily pregnant. Elizabeth was sent away from Sudeley in disgrace, as if Seymour’s faults were her own. A rapprochement between stepmother and stepdaughter had just begun at the time of baby Mary’s birth.

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Queen Katherine Parr was far from a nursemaid to Henry VIII. In her early thirties when they married, she was pretty, intelligent, and Henry adored her.

Katherine Parr’s storied life began in Blackfriars, London, sometime in August 1512. The daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Lady Maud Green had known King Henry peripherally for many years before he married her in 1543. Both she and her mother were ladies in waiting to his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Katherine appears to have served in the household of Princess Mary.

When Katherine wed the King, she had been married twice before—first, as a teenager to Sir Edward Borough, the grandson of 2nd Baron Borough of Gainsborough Hall. A year after the young man’s death in 1533, she married middle-aged John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer of Snape Castle, North Yorkshire. In 1536, during the Pilgrimage of Grace, Snape Castle was captured by rebels and Katherine and her Neville stepchildren were held hostage and threatened with death if Baron Latimer did not acquiesce to their demands. The beleaguered Latimer saved his family, but died in 1543, leaving Katherine as a 30-year-old widow.

Slender, vital, and attractive, Katherine wanted to marry for love before her youth was lost. The man she wanted was Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third queen, Jane, who died in 1537 after the birth of Prince Edward. Instead, the widowed Lady Latimer’s hand was solicited by King Henry. He married her in July 1543 at Hampton Court.

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Henry VIII toward the end of his reign.

In 1544, Queen Katherine, who loved color and finery, was described by de Gante, the secretary to the Duke of Najera, thusly: “She is of a lively and pleasing appearance and is praised as a virtuous woman. She was dressed in a robe of cloth of gold and a petticoat of brocade with sleeves lined with crimson satin and trimmed with three-piled crimson velvet. Her train was more than two yards long. Suspended from her neck were two crosses, and a jewel of very rich diamonds and in her head-dress were many and beautiful ones. Her girdle was of gold with large pendants.”

Katherine, who was the last in the divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” series of Henry’s queens, was also his second-longest legal spouse, married to him for three years and five months. The King’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon officially lasted 24 years; he was married to Anne Boleyn just short of three (although, arguably, they had been a couple for far longer); Jane Seymour died after a little more than a year; Anne of Cleves lasted six months; and Katheryn Howard was queen for a year and a half.

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The Victoria and Albert Museum believes that this sketch by Hans Holbein can be identified as Katherine’s fourth husband, Thomas Seymour.

Although there is every indication that Henry and Katherine had a genuinely loving marriage, as the King’s health failed and the daily discomfort he felt ratcheted toward agony, he was convinced by the pro-Catholic faction of the court that his Queen was a dangerous heretic who plotted against him. Fortunately, a copy of the arrest warrant was leaked to Katherine by a well-wisher, and she used her quick wits to convince the King that in matters of faith, she looked only to him for answers and direction. Henry was mollified, and when the officials arrived to arrest the Queen, he berated them as “knaves and fools.” The King and his wife were perfect friends again and would remain so until he died, 28 January, 1547.

Not wasting time, the dowager queen sped into a marriage with Thomas Seymour after a widowhood of just six months. But what began in joy ended, as it so often did for women, in a slow, febrile death. Mary Seymour was a week old when the dowager queen succumbed to puerperal sepsis. Mary would die in early childhood, probably in the household of Katherine’s close friend, Catherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk.

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A 1782 drawing of Katherine Parr’s partially opened lead coffin.

After her death, Katherine lay in repose at Sudeley for a short time, then her body was wrapped in cere—a cloth treated with wax—and placed in a form-fitting lead coffin. Into the soft lead was impressed, “KP. Here lyeth Queen Katheryne Wife to Kinge Henry the VIII and The wife of Thomas Lord of Sudely high Admy… of Englond And ynkle to Kyng Edward VI.” Miles Coverdale preached a sermon and Lady Jane Grey was the chief mourner at the funeral, which is believed to be the first protestant service of its kind in England.  Afterward, the Queen was buried within the chapel.

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Unopened lead coffins of adults and infants at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Somerset. Photo by Graham Hobster.

Katherine rested beneath Sudeley Chapel for well over two centuries. But as the estate and church went to ruin above her, she remained largely unchanged, as was pronounced in an account by a Mr. Brookes of Reading of the opening of the Queen’s grave in the late 18th Century. This was provided to the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archeological Society, Vol. XIII (1895) by Brookes’ niece.

In the summer of the year 1782, “Mr. John Lucas (who occupied the land of Lord Rivers, whereon the ruins of the chapel stand) had the curiosity to rip up the top of  the coffin, expecting to discover within it only the bones of the [Queen], but to his great surprise found the whole body wrapped in 6 or 7 seer cloths of linen, entire and uncorrupted, although it had lain there upwards of 230 years. His unwarrantable curiosity led him also to make an incision through the seer cloths which covered one of the arms of the corps, the flesh of which at that time was white and moist. I was very much displeased at the forwardness of Lucas, who of his own hand opened the coffin. It would have been quite sufficient to have found it; and then to have made a report of it to Lord Rivers or myself.”

It was probably at this time that hair clippings and a swatch of fabric from the sleeve of Katherine’s burial dress were taken.

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A piece of fabric cut from Katherine Parr’s gown. Collection of Sudeley Castle.

The account continued, “In the summer of the year following 1783, his Lordship’s business made it necessary for me and my son to be at Sudeley Castle, and on being told what had been done the year before by Lucas, I directed the earth to be once more removed to satisfy my own curiosity; and I found Lucas’s account of the coffin and corps to be just as he had represented them; with this difference, that the body was then grown quite fetid, and the flesh where the incision had been made was brown, and in a state of putrefaction; in consequence of the air having been let in upon it. The stench of the corps made my son quite sick, whilst he copied the inscription which is on the lead of the coffin; he went thro’ it, however, with great exactness. I afterwards decided that a stone slab should be placed over the grave to prevent any future and improper inspection, &c.”

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Mourning pieces made with Katherine Parr’s hair and tooth removed from her skull. Provenance and location of these relics unknown.

This was not the last time that the corpse was disturbed. In 1792, her coffin was dug up by drunken revelers and reburied upside down. Twenty-five years later, Lord Chandos, who then owned Sudeley, wanted to move Katherine to a safer tomb. The exhumation was done by Rev. John Lates, who had undertaken the repair of the chapel, and Edmund T. Browne, a Winchcombe antiquary, whom, Transactions notes, wrote of this discovery on 18 July, 1817.

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An 18th Century, navette-shaped pendant containing Katherine Parr’s hair. Ad vivum portraits of the Queen uniformly show her with auburn hair, but some of her existing locks are quite blond. This one, however, is indeed auburn. Whether this represents her actual hair color, or the triumph of pheomelanin over eumelanin, is uncertain.

Browne reported that “after considerable search…the coffin was found bottom upwards in a walled grave, where it had been deposited…. It was then removed to the Chandos vault, and…we proceeded to examine the body; but the coffin having been so frequently opened, we found nothing but the bare skeleton, except a few pieces of sere cloth, which were still under the skull, and a dark-coloured mass, which proved to contain, when washed, a small quantity of hair which exactly corresponded with some I already had. The roots of the ivy, which you may remember grew in such profusion on the walls of the chapel, had penetrated into the coffin, and completely filled the greater part of it….

“We then had the different pieces of lead, which from time to time had been cut from the coffin, firmly nailed together, so as to present the original form of the coffin, and it was placed on two large flat stones by the side of that of [the former] Lord Chandos. Dr. Nash said, ‘The Queen must have been low of stature, as the lead which enclosed her corpse was but five feet four inches in length.’” Actually, a height of about 5 ft. 4 in. was considered middling for a woman of the 1500s and accords well with a woman who, when live, was neither described as tall or small.

Browne concluded, “The ancient chapel, which had been desecrated by the Puritans, was thoroughly renovated under the direction of Sir John Gilbert Scott, and a handsome decorated altar-tomb, surmounted by a gothic canopy, was erected on the north side of the Sacrarium to the memory of Queen Katherine Parr, whose effigy was rendered as correctly as it could be from the portraits which are extant.”

Safe under the alabaster image that returned stone flesh to her bared bones, Queen Katherine Parr’s restful eternity had at last begun.

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A waxwork of Queen Katherine Parr lying in repose at Sudeley Chapel, where her remains rest today. This display was part of a special exhibition on the 500th anniversary of Katherine’s birth that I attended in October 2012.

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.

The Silent Ones

Some pieces of mourning jewelry offer enough facts to fill volumes. Others are stealthy and secretive, unwilling to share the stories of the dead or their grief-stricken survivors.

 

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A large and beautifully carved Whitby jet mourning brooch for E.M.H., circa 1860. Purchased in Newbury, England.
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A tiny mourning or sentimental brooch, circa 1825, featuring the hair of two unknown individuals. What looks like finely woven hair inside some brooches is actually fabric called “checkered silk” inserted by the manufacturer, over which the hair relic was meant to be laid. Here, the contents of the viewing chamber clearly show the hair atop a scrap of this cloth.
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A Regency-era, gold eye-shaped memorial or sentimental brooch, circa 1800, purchased in Hungerford, England. It is more likely this is a lover’s-eye type brooch and not a mourning piece, although it is impossible to know with certainty. The brooch contains one person’s hair looped into a Celtic knot with similarly colored checkered silk behind it.
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This mourning brooch, circa 1870-1875,  features Prince of Wales hair plumes of two individuals. It is a large brooch, measuring about 3 inches wide. The brooch is pinchbeck, but beautifully done and in immaculate condition. Sadly, there is no inscription. The date I assign is early 1870s, but this is provisional and based on what I can glean from references. It may be later; it may be earlier, but I doubt by more than five years in either direction. Purchased in Hungerford, England.
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This English mourning or sentimental brooch of coral and Gold, circa 1820, contains what is likely braided locks from two people. While this may be a mourning item, coral was considered a protective substance for children. It may be that this tiny brooch, usually called a lace pin, may contain the hair of two siblings or of a child’s parents, or perhaps a child’s godparents.
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Agate mourning brooch of pinchbeck, agate, and black enamel, circa 1850. Inside is the interwoven hair of two deceased individuals. The gothic letters that encircle the viewing compartment read “In Memory Of,” a phrase used used throughout the 19th Century on mourning jewelry.