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 the 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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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.

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