Funeral Fragments

“When old Francis died in 1913, Dad sent him off in a hearse pulled by four black horses followed by mutes carrying ostrich feather wands and a procession of friends and family in the deepest mourning possible.”—Barbara Nadel

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An invitation to the funeral of Ruth Evelyn Cooper, who died of pneumonia in the aftermath of influenza. She was one of upwards of 50 million people whose deaths were associated with the 1918 influenza pandemic. Ruth was born 21 June, 1898; she was the daughter of mail carrier George F. and Clara Good Cooper of Murrell, Ephrata Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
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This glass slide captures one moment in the lengthy funeral proceedings of Queen Victoria, as her coffin wended its way through London, 2 February, 1901. The slide is unmarked save for the handwritten inscription, “The Queen’s Coffin.” It does not appear to be part of a commercial set and may be a personal remembrance of the day taken by someone in the crowd. (Note the two boys looking down on the passing procession from the high wall on the right.)
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This photo shows ephemera from the funeral of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769–14 Sept., 1852). It resides in the museum of Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, England. The duke was beloved for leading the defeat of Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo, 18 June, 1818. He went on to become a prime minister and is still considered to be one of Great Britain’s chiefest politicians. The handwritten note reads: “Relics of the Funeral of the late Duke of Wellington. No.1 Silver lace from the car. 2. Cloth from the Hall. 3. Silver Tissue from the Canopy. 4. Tape from the Canopy, Chelsea Hospital. 5. Autograph of the late Duke, Nov. 1852.”
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This circa-1905 albumen print captures a wintertime military funeral procession in Newport News, Virginia. It’s possible that it was headed to Hampton National Cemetery for a veteran’s burial. Behind the hearse bearing an American flag-draped casket are mourners on foot, as well as a long procession of carriages and early automobiles.
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On 11 October, 1918, a public funeral was held in Belfast, Ireland, for twelve American soldiers, victims of the Otranto disaster, and men who died from pneumonia after being landed in Ireland from a troop ship. During the march through the city from the Victoria Barracks to the City Cemetery, the coffins rode on open hearses, with a guard of honor composed of British soldiers. Glass plate image courtesy Library of Congress.
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This is one-half of a stereoview card labeled, “The cortage leaving the White House, President McKinley’s funeral, Sept. 17, 1901, Washington, DC. Underwood & Underwood, Publisher, New York, London, Toronto, Canada, Ottawa, Kansas.” William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States, serving from 4 March, 1897, until his assassination on 14 September, 1901, six months into his second term.
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Even when I was a child in the 1960s, it was still considered important to photograph the funeral floral arrangements sent by loved ones. In this albumen cabinet card, circa 1885, we see flowers and a sheaf of wheat in tribute to “Our Friend” Celia. The sheaf indicates that Celia died in old age.
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My father, James Arthur Longmore, took this black-and-white photograph at Arlington National Cemetery in the aftermath of the funeral of John F. Kennedy, 25 November, 1963. My parents were among the thousands who lined the procession’s route. I was with them in my pram, aged five months. My father held me up as the caisson carrying the president’s coffin passed so that I “could see history occurring,” he said. This picture is from later in day, after the grave had been covered and the site was open to grieving citizens.
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The bill for the 1949 funeral and burial of Mrs. Roush. The total fee was $234.75, including $150 for embalming, $12.95 for a burial dress, and $12 for an ambulance that presumably transported the body from the family home to the embalmer.
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In the wake of the funeral, this memorial shadow box may have been filled with cloth flowers to symbolize the floral tributes at this unknown decedent’s grave, as well as the hope of her eternal youth in Heaven. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

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Unless otherwise noted, all images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.’”

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Katherine Parr, Queen of England and wife of King Henry VIII. He was her fourth 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.’” Browne stated that he then measured the coffin and found it to be 5 ft. 10 in., but a height of about 5 ft. 4 in. was considered tall for a woman of the 1500s. A height of 5 ft. 10 in. would have bordered on freakishly tall and would have been commented upon by her contemporaries. (Mary, Queen of Scots, for instance, was about 6 ft. and this was noted repeatedly.)

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.

Their Lives Well Lived

“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

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An elderly woman in her final sleep, 1/9th-plate postmortem ambrotype, circa 1860. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.

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Grandmother Whitney, postmortem cased melainotype, circa 1856-1860.

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

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Postmortem tintype of a very old woman, circa 1863. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
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An elderly nun in her coffin, 1/6-plate daguerreotype, circa 1858. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

Witness to Disaster

William Parry Rees was a man who died too young, but lived long enough to view an American tragedy.

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Funeral arrangement for William P. Rees, photographed by Edwards Brothers, 162 and 164 Main Street, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This wonderful funeral cabinet card includes a photograph of the deceased William P. Rees, as well as date of his death (4 March, 1891) and his age (“23 years and 4 months”). It also features the interesting inscription “A.O. of K.M.C and K. of G.E.” The first denotes the deceased’s membership in the fraternal society Ancient Order of Knights of the Mystic Chain. The second refers to his membership in the Knights of the Golden Eagle, a fraternal organization founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1872. The orders’ original objectives were to help its members find employment and aid them while unemployed. Membership was open to white males over 18, without physical or mental handicaps, who were able to write and to support themselves, were law-abiding of sound moral character, and of the Christian faith. There was a female auxiliary called the Ladies of the Golden Eagle.

A splinter group of the Knights of Pythias, the AO of KMC was founded in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1870. According to a website about the order, “Though it seems to have been quite popular in PA, it doesn’t seem to have made much headway outside of that state—it is not listed among the top forty fraternal orders in the world almanac of 1896 and probably had no more than 10,000-15,000 members at its peak. Like most small orders, it did not survive the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

Another site about the AO of KMC states that “This group was founded in 1871 in the traditions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Amongst the founders were freemasons and Knights of Pythias. Some of the characteristics of this order can be traced to these two groups. The Knights of the Mystic Chain has three degrees: Knighthood, Mystery and Chivalry…. There was also a separate paramilitary uniform-rank and a degree for women: Naomi or the Daughters of Ruth. In 1889, the order started to work in insurance, however it never grew larger. At its top it had around 40,000 members. It disappeared in the first half of the 20th century.”

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William Parry Rees

William Parry Rees, the deceased young man who belonged to both of these groups and from whom these flowers—and possibly funeral expenses—presumably came, was born in Cefn Bychan, Denbighshire, Wales, in about 1866. He was the son of Baptist minister Llewellyn Rees (b. October 1835, Glyntawe, Breconshire, Wales) and his wife Elizabeth Edwards (b. 7 June 1839, Ystradgunlais, Breconshire, Wales, daughter of Edward Edwards and Elizabeth Parry), who wed in 1861. His elder brother Henry E. had been born in August 1863 in Carmarthenshire; his younger sister, Kate W., was born in Cefn Bychan in 1869.

The 1871 Wales Census places Elizabeth Rees alone at the address 1 Cefn Bychan, with her young children. The enumerator names her as head of household, but also notes in a scribble that the missing Reverent Rees “is abroad.” Cefn Bychan (“Little Ridge” in Welsh) is part of the larger community of Cefn within the County Borough of Wrexham. The area was heavy with iron, coal, and sandstone—therefore quite industrialized, with mining, blast furnaces, forges, and stone cutting aplenty.

The Rees family had crossed the Atlantic to the United States by the early 1870s. This is made clear by the 1880 census of Millville, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, which recorded the birth another son, Llewellyn, Jr., in Texas about seven years before. Further evidence in the 1900 census narrows the emigration year to 1871, probably just after the Welsh census indicated the Reverend Rees was abroad. Chances are that he was already in America and that his wife and children followed when the way had been prepared.

Sadly, the Rees’s daughter, Kate was not to long enjoy her new life in America. Eleven-year-old Kate and her seven-year-old brother Llewellyn both died 11 November, 1880, certainly from infectious disease, and were buried in Johnstown’s Grandview Cemetery on 13 November. It must have been a terrible blow to Elizabeth and Reverend Rees. Like many grieving parents, they tried to replace the beloveds they had lost. The following year, 42-year-old Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter they named Edith. Elizabeth fell pregnant again in 1882, but the child died at birth. Grandview cemetery recorded the burial of a “Son of Elizabeth Rees” in the same plot as other Rees family members. Mysteriously, that interment did not take place until 1890, although the death had occurred eight years earlier, suggesting the infant was first laid to rest in another location.

Both Reverend Rees, his eldest son Henry, and second son William (whose professions were listed as railroad engineers), appeared in an 1887 city directory for Johnstown, living in Elk Street, Morrellville, a borough just outside of the town. They and the rest of the Rees clan were shortly to witness one of the most horrific disasters in U.S. history—the apocalyptic flood that devastated Johnstown on 31 May, 1889. The catastrophe resulted from the failure of the South Fork Dam of the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town, killing 2,209 people.

“The South Fork dam held back Lake Conemaugh, the pleasure lake of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a prestigious club which included such famed entrepreneurs as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick on its membership rolls. Officials there feared the dam would fail…. The lake was a little over two miles long, a little over a mile wide at its widest spot, and 60 feet deep at the dam itself,” wrote Edwin Hutcheson in Floods of Johnstown.

The flood was described by Hutcheson as “a body of water which engineers at the time estimated moved into the valley with the force of Niagara Falls. [It] rolled into Johnstown with 14 miles of accumulated debris, which included houses, barns, animals and people, dead and alive.”

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Main Street, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after the 1889 flood.

There are a number individuals surnamed Rees who died in the Johnstown flood, but none of these were definitively related to the Reverend Llewellyn Rees family. In fact, the 1889 Johnstown directory denoted men killed by crosses typeset beside their names. Reverend Rees is included in that directory—sans cross—as the pastor of the Baptist church in Morrellville. The same directory includes a lengthy news account of the flood and notes that “Morrellville…escaped with slight comparative loss, and the same is true of all towns farther down the river, but the people of these had the exciting and heart-rending experience of rescuing many that had floated down from Johnstown, and of seeing others go by without being able to assist them.” The reverend and his sons would almost certainly have been amongst the rescuers who tried to save people during the flood and who searched for survivors and victims in the aftermath.

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Men removing a body from the debris after the Johnstown Flood.

On 4 March, 1891, less than two years after his town was decimated, railroad engineer William Rees died of as yet undiscovered causes—as young has he was, infectious disease or accident are surely to blame. He was buried several days later in the Grandview Cemetery Rees family plot.

In 1893, the Johnstown directory listed Reverend Rees at 234 Fairfield Avenue. His eldest son Henry, also resided in the house. The reverend and Henry were listed at the same address in 1899. With them was Elizabeth Rees and Edith, still a student.

The 1900 census of Johnstown placed the Reverend Rees and his wife alone in their home. Eldest son Henry was in Johnstown, but had a new home with his wife Esther Cole, whom he had married in 1896. Esther had been born in Wales in December 1871 and had come to America in 1897. If the marriage date of 1896 is correct, it implies that Henry had returned to Wales and there found a bride. Also living with the couple was Esther’s niece, Mary Cole (b. January. 1888, Wales), who had emigrated in 1898 or 1899. In 1901, the couple had a son whom they named Ralph E. Rees. Esther Cole Rees died 27 February, 1908.

The Reverend Rees died 15 March, 1911, and is buried at Grandview. Daughter Edith Rees, became a school teacher at the Bheam School just down the street from the family home, remained with her mother, Elizabeth, until at least 1920, when both women are recorded together on the census. Elizabeth Rees died of a cerebral hemorrhage 3 September, 1922, and was buried at Grandview three days later.

Henry Rees appears on the 1910 census of Wilkensburg, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, as a 47-year-old widower and a laborer at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. His wife’s niece, Mary, also dwelt with Henry, probably caring for his son, and may have doing so since his birth. Ralph would eventually go west to Billings, Montana, appearing on censuses there after 1930. He married a woman named Beatrice and had at least one son and two daughters.

Daughter Edith also went west to Kirby, Big Horn County, Montana, where she married William H. Furman (24 Nov., 1874-22 May, 1955). Edith died 5 January, 1971. Ω

Freddie, My Love

“Oh, Mrs. Crane, he looked so pretty. He looked as if he was asleep and dreaming a very pleasant dream.”

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A partial letter from “Julie” to “Mrs. Crane,” single page with black borders, page one. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I have in my collection this incomplete letter from the mid- to late 1800s written by an American woman named Julie who had endured the loss of her fiancé, Freddie. Julie’s letter was for another woman—her elder and probably close family friend, Mrs. Crane.

Julie and Freddie were young, possibly in their teens. Julie was quite literate, but her writing contains numerous errors, phonetic spellings, and a general disuse of commas, full stops, and quotations that is endemic to the era. I have corrected her mistakes and added modern punctuation in the quotes below.

“I sat and looked at him all night,” Julie wrote at the top of the single page, recalling the aftermath of the passing. “So many spoke of his smiling and happy beautiful countenance even in death. He looked too beautiful to bury.” She then hopped backward in time, writing, “He was sensible until two minutes before he died, but whether he realized he was really dying, I know not.”

Next she confides in Mrs. Crane, “About two hours before he died, I sat crying and he looked at me. I said, ‘Freddie darling, how can I give you up?’ He raised his hand and said ‘Oh, Julie, don’t.’”

Don’t? Don’t weep? Don’t imply that he was dying? Don’t tarnish his “good death” with female hysteria? Perhaps Freddie’s command was more prosaic: The dying man needed to move his bowels. “[H]e wanted to get on the chamber [pot] and I asked him if I should tell his mother. He said, ‘Mother is weak.’ I said, ‘Freddie, shall I help you?’ He said, ‘Yes, please,’ so I [assisted] him,” she next wrote. Of all the letter’s painful details, this strikes deepest—a heartbreaking intimacy, demanded by circumstance, between a couple who may never have seen each other unclothed.

This passage also raises the question of what killed Freddie at an early age. It could have been tuberculosis (“consumption”) and it is easy to ascribe it as the likeliest cause, but Freddie mentions that his mother is weak—potentially recovering from whatever disease her son then had. Possibilities include cholera, dysentery, typhoid, influenza, yellow fever, and malaria. However, many of these, including consumption, fail to leave a corpse too lovely to put in the ground.

Julie continued, “All that week he could not bear to have [me] out of his sight. I stayed by him all that week, night and day, until he was buried. The last night I [sat] up and kept cloths on his face.” Here, Julie may have meant she placed cold cloths on her fiancee’s visage to keep it from discoloring before the funeral.

In 1891’s Polite Society at Home and Abroad, author Annie Randall White noted, “When the funeral is held at the house, the family do not view the remains after the people have begun to assemble. Just before the clergyman begins the services the mourners are seated near the casket, the nearest one at the head, and the others following in order of kinship. If it is possible, they are placed in a room adjoining, where the words of the service can be heard. They are thus spared the pain of giving way to their grief before strangers. Those who are present should look at the dead before they take their seats for the service, although it is customary for the master of ceremonies (usually the undertaker) ere the coffin lid is closed, to invite all who so desire, to take a last look, ere parting forever.”

“Oh, Mrs. Crane,” Julie wrote, “he looked so pretty. He looked as if he was asleep and dreaming a very pleasant dream. I think some day I shall see him again where there [are] no more partings.”

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Although this real photo postcard may date from as much as 60 years after his death, it illustrates a home viewing in about 1905 that may have differed little from Freddie’s. White lilies drape the coffin and the table beside the young man, who is likely a son of the house, but possibly a young father. He rests in his casket, nestled in bright white crinkled satin beneath a canopy a black netting edged in white. Above him are twin hand-colored portraits painted over underlying photos. At left, the planter is of art nouveau/craftsmanesque style, perhaps a red base with trails of blue. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

After Freddie’s burial, Julie remained with his family. “I am here at his home yet. They seem to think the world of me. His father said I should stay with him as long as he lives but I don’t know. Sister Mary was married the 24th of last month to a Frenchman. My sister Emiline died in August. My cousin died in August—she had been married 8 months. My brother-in-law that lived near us died 1 year ago this month with….”

And there, maddeningly, it ends, leaving little more to note than the hope that Julie found love again, established a family, and lived a full life. Time’s window closes and we must move on, so very much against our wills. Ω

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Julie’s partial letter, second page.