A Treasure Without Meaning to Its Clan

All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was not valued by her descendants, who found her mourning brooch too disgusting to keep.

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Memorial brooch for Mary Palmer showing her russet hair with snippets of what might be gold thread that once formed a small design, but which have since become unglued and tarnished. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

In about 1996, while trawling for hair-work brooches on eBay with a tax return smoldering in my pocket, I found a listing with a ridiculously blurry photo of what looked like—just maybe—a Regency era mourning brooch. The accompanying item description encapsulated the prevailing 20th century attitude toward mourning jewelry. As I recall, it read something very close to “We found this pin that belonged to grandma. It has hair in it! Eww! Get it out of our house!” I obliged for about $40; no other bidders were willing to take the chance with that kind of sales photo. One- by three-quarters-inch in size, this type of small brooch was known as a “lace pin” and used to secure veils, ribbons, pelerines, and other accessories. They were also worn by men as lapel pins.

The 210-hundred-year-old gem that I received was made of 10-karat or higher plain and rose gold with completely intact niello and inset faceted jet cabochons. (Niello is a black metallic alloy of sulfur, copper, silver, and usually lead, used as an inlay on engraved metal.) The brooch was in pristine condition, bearing the inscription “Mary Palmer. Ob. 3 July 1806, aet. 38.” The abbreviation “Ob.” is from the Latin obitus—“a departure,” which has long been a euphemism for death. “Aet.” is from the Latin aetatis—“of age.”

My Mary was probably born in 1768—the year when the Massachusetts Assembly was dissolved for not collecting taxes and Boston citizens balked at quartering British troops. Additionally, John Hancock had refused to give royal customs agents access to his vessel—one of the first acts of physical resistance to British authority; a month later, that same authority would seize Hancock’s ship. In Scotland, the first encyclopedia was published; in London, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes was imprisoned for penning an article that criticized King George III. His arrest kicked off riots that led to the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

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The reverse inscription of the Mary Palmer brooch.

In 1838, British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth would name his youngest son John Wilkes Booth in the jailed MP’s honor. By the birth of this future presidential assassin, Mary Palmer had been dead for 32 years. The world on which she closed her eyes had recently seen Napoleonic War hero General Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, repose in state at St. Paul’s, the the surrender of Dutch Cape Colony to the British, explorers Lewis and Clark begin their journey back from the Pacific, the distribution of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, and the start of Thomas Jefferson’s second term as U.S. president.

All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was lost on and to her descendants, who found her memorial brooch too disgusting to keep.

One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of a cremains and hair as diamonds.

It can be postulated that the major televised tragedies and wars of the early 21st century have made displays of public and personal grief more acceptable. Or perhaps rising generations are rebelling against the old ways, as they are wont—their elders did not speak of death, therefore they will. In either case, for whatever collective reasons, many years after I purchased the Mary Palmer memorial brooch, I stumbled across the website Memorials.net and read, “Memorial jewelry is, perhaps, the newest, most novel idea in the memorial industry [emphasis mine] and it is becoming more popular every year…. Memorial jewelry is…used to store locks of hair of family members whose bodies have been buried, and memorial jewelry often simply encloses a special picture of a loved-ones. Many pieces of memorial jewelry are also engraved with special memorial quotations.”

Clearly, someone needs a history lesson. However, the acknowledgement of momentum is spot on. For example, the growing preference for cremation has led to jewelry that contains, or is made from, a portion of the deceased’s ashes. Much like the Victorian jeweler Dewdney, today companies and artisans who specialize in memorial jewelry offer it in various styles of precious and semiprecious metals with personalized engraving.

Touching the deaths of children, independent artisans have begun to craft pieces meant for those who have lost infants or experienced stillbirths and miscarriages. One such enterprise, La Belle Dame, explains on its website, “We created our miscarriage and infant loss jewelry to help mothers feel connected to their little ones, to have a tangible something to touch and give them strength when they need it most.”

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Twenty-first century mourning jewelry exemplified by this platinum ring with a blue cremation diamond. This example is by LifeGem®.

One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of cremains and hair as diamonds. These are formed by carbon extraction while the ashes and hair are subjected to extreme heat and pressure, replicating the process that occurs naturally in the earth. According to one company, writting in almost the same heavily sentimental language of the Victorians, “The diamonds are available in brilliant and beautiful yellows and blues like a sunset captured in time or a wave upon the ocean.” The gems can be set into rings, pendants, or brooches that memorialize the dead.

Today’s mourners who commission these pieces can be assured they shall be cherished—if not by their own descendants, then by future collectors. And perhaps, in that long-off century, someone will feel a tickle that grows into a powerful urge to discover who the dead once were.

As for Mary Palmer, I cannot tell her story yet. I have identified a number of British and American women with this name born at the right time, but none of these offer a corresponding 3 July, 1806 death date—and at any rate, if Palmer was a married name then none of the Marys born in 1768 are correct. I hope that one day I will locate Mary in extant records and piece together a life that will stand as meaningful to me, if not to those who shared her blood. Ω

Sit Down, John: An Adams Image Rediscovered

The historical importance of March 1843 daguerreotype was forgotten until now.

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Newly rediscovered daguerreotype of President John Quincy Adams. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

A new image of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, will be presented for sale by the auction house Sotheby’s later this year. The March 1843 daguerreotype, which Quincy Adams gifted to a friend, remained in the recipient’s family through the generations although its historical importance was forgotten. The image was made during a sitting with early photographers Southworth & Hawes that yielded at least two daguerreotypes. A copy of the other now resides in the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum.

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This daguerreotype copy of a second, cleaner image from the Southworth & Hawes sitting shows the former president as he actually appeared. Daguerreotypes present a mirror image of the subject; daguerreotype copies present the correct frontal view. Although it may appear so, Adams was not photographed in a private home. This set was used in other daguerreotypes taken by Southworth & Hawes. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum.

There is a third, badly damaged daguerreotype of Quincy Adams held by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Adams disliked it, noting in his diary that he thought it “hideous” because it was “too close to the original.” More than a hundred years later, in 1970, the daguerreotype was bought for 50 cents in an antique shop. After identification, it was eventually donated it to the nation.

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John Quincy Adams. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery.

Quincy Adams, born 11 July, 1767, was the son of the second U.S. president, John Adams (30 Oct., 1735-4 July, 1826)—a patriot renown as an American Founding Father. His mother, Abigail Smith (22 Nov., 1744–28 Oct., 1818), called her infant after her dying grandfather, Colonel John Quincy (21 July 21, 1689–13 July, 1767), for whom Quincy, Massachusetts, was named. Quincy Adams spent his formative years with his father on diplomatic missions to France and The Netherlands, studying for some time at the University of Leiden. He would travel to Russia and Scandinavia before returning to America to attend Harvard.

Quincy Adams served as a U.S. senator; a Harvard professor; a minister to Russia, the Court of St. James’s, Portugal, and Prussia; and secretary of state under James Monroe before narrowly winning a four-candidate presidential election in 1824. On 4 March, 1825, he took the oath of office, served one term, and was defeated by Andrew Jackson in the bitter election of 1828.

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In his prime: John Quincy Adams, aged 29, painted by John Singleton Copley. Courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Adams married British-born Louisa Catherine Johnson (12 February, 1775–15 May, 1852) in London in 1797. They had three sons and a daughter named after her mother—the latter of whom was born and died in infancy in St. Petersburg, Russia whilst the Adamses were on diplomatic assignment. One son, George Washington Adams (12 April, 1801–30 April, 1829), became a lawyer and politician. He committed suicide by jumping off a steamship in Long Island Sound in April 1829. Another son, John Adams II (4 July, 1803–23 October, 1834), was private secretary to his father during Quincy Adams’ presidency, then went into business.

John Quincy and Louisa’s youngest son, Charles Francis (18 August, 1807–21 November, 1886), led a distinguished political and diplomatic career, then turned to writing history. Charles’s son Henry Adams (16 February, 1838–27 March, 1918) was a noted historian and husband of photographer Marian “Clover” Hooper, who committed suicide by drinking her own darkroom chemical, potassium cyanide. Both Henry and Clover now lay buried in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery beneath sculptor Augustus St. Gauden’s masterpiece, “Grief.”

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The gravesite of John Quincy Adam’s grandson Henry and his wife Clover, taken in the 1970s. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Quincy Adams, whose grandson Henry was about five when he sat for the newly found daguerreotype, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives on 21 February, 1848. He was carried to the Speaker’s room and placed in a bed; he died there two days later with his wife and son beside him. Quincy Adams was buried first in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, but was later moved to Hancock Cemetery in Quincy, Massachusetts, to rest with his ancestors. Ω

Gardeners Bring Cradle Graves Back From The Dead in Philadelphia

“Being a Grave Gardeners lets them contribute to a place that holds both personal and historic resonance.”

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Photo by Michael Bixler.

Through the stone gates of Woodlands Cemetery, a tranquil, verdant oasis thrives in the heart of University City. The Victorian necropolis, the last undeveloped parcel of the estate of botanist and plant collector William Hamilton, was preserved and a repurposed as a rural cemetery in 1840 as the city and University of Pennsylvania pushed westward. Today, The Woodlands is flourishing with the aid of creative placemaking and inventive programming.

The Grave Gardeners program is the most recent brainchild of Woodlands’ executive director Jessica Baumert and her staff. The cemetery is home to hundreds of “cradle graves,” tombs with both headstones and footstones connected by two low walls that create a bathtub-like basin. In the 1800s, family members of the deceased filled the French-style “cradles” with living, blooming coverlets of flowers. Cultivating these gardens on weekend outings to sylvan cemetery grounds like The Woodlands was a way of keeping a loved one’s memory alive. As descendants scattered and their memories of connections to Victorian ancestors faded, the gardens died out. The Woodlands’ Adopt-a-Grave program enlists the help of volunteers to revive these now scruffy patches of dirt and grass, one grave at a time.

To read this wonderful article in its entirety, click the link below.

Source: Gardeners Bring Cradle Graves Back From The Dead | Hidden City Philadelphia


Thank you to my dear cousin, Elizabeth Harrison, for calling this to my attention.