Death and the Maiden

“Life asked death, ‘Why do people love me but hate you?’ Death responded, ‘Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.’”—Author Unknown

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Lavada May Dermott, postmortem albumen print on cardboard, 1904. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Lavada May Dermott, seen above laid out in her parents’ home, surrounded by funeral flowers, was born 9 May, 1888, in Goshen, Belmont County, Ohio, to Charles Evans Dermott (1849-1907) and his wife, Sarah Jane Stewart (1853-1936). Sarah was the daughter of Eleazar Evan Stewart (1834-1910) and Honor Brown (1835-1914).

Lavada’s parents married in Goshen 26 January, 1871. They first make an appearance as a family unit on the 1880 Census of that township. Evans Dermott—he went by his middle name—listed his occupation as “huxter.” His father, Irish-born farmer William Dermott (1811-1896) was also a part of the household—his wife, Eliza Kelly (1813-1879), having died the year before.

Evans and Sarah had together four children: William Wilber (1871-1947), Charles E. Dermott (19 June, 1881-23 September, 1944), Lavada, and Lillie F. Dermott (1895-1987). On 20 May, 1900, the eldest son, William, married Grace Stanley King. William spelled the family name as Der Mott and is buried thusly in Forest Rose Cemetery, Lancaster, Ohio. By 1910, the Der Motts lived in Cleveland, Ohio. William became a garment cutter for a clothing company and eventually was the manager of a clothing store. He worked in that position as late as 1940. They had two children: Neil (b. 1902) and William P. (b. 1903).

Son Charles wed Edna Grace Porterfield (1878-1975). They had one son, Charles Lloyd (1919-2004). All three are buried together in Ebenezer Cemetery, Bethesda, Ohio. Lillie Dermott married Walter Earl Secrest (1892-1956). They had seven children: Chester Lowell (1913-1961), Frances Allen (1916-1942), Carl E. (1920-1976), Charles Edward (1922-2007), Walter Glenn (1925-2005), Robert Warren (1927-2005), and an unnamed infant son who was born and died in 1932. The couple are buried in Chestnut Level Church, Belmont, Ohio.

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Goshen, Ohio, in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy Goshen Township Historical Society.

Because the 1890 Census was destroyed by fire, Lavada makes only one appearance, in 1900. Until now her name was recorded as “Savada”—an error that I have corrected at Ancestry.com that will hopefully help anyone else searching for her.

In 1900, her father, Evans, gave his occupation as produce merchant. During the first decade of the new century, Evans tried actively to enter local government. According to the 13 August, 1891, Belmont Chronicle, Evans mounted a losing attempt to join the Democratic ballot for county commissioner. In June of the following year, he lost a place on the ballot for the post of infirmary director. In September 1893, the Wheeling Intelligencer reported, “Evans Dermott, the Democratic candidate for county treasurer, was here yesterday, seeking comfort from disappointed Republicans.”

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Tombstone of Lavada May Dermott, Chestnut Level Church Cemetery. Photo by Roxie.

I am unable to locate a death record or obituary for Lavada. She was only 16 and unwed, so her death was not associated with pregnancy or childbirth. She appears very thin, but does not have the wasted look of death by consumption; nothing visible hints at accidental death. What killed Lavada probably was some other form of hard-striking illness or epidemic, or other, rarer options that are mere speculation. What we do know is that Lavada is buried with her family in Chestnut Level Church Cemetery. Perhaps more information on Lavada will surface as old records and newspapers continue to be digitized. Ω

The How-To of Hairwork

“Warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.”

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The Edinburgh brooch, circa 1850. The only component missing from this otherwise outstanding example is an inscription. Sadly, no more can be known of the deceased beyond that he or she was gray-haired and elderly, and came from a Scottish family that could afford a high-quality death memento. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I purchased this mourning brooch in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1993. It was the foundation of my collection and, at the time, was actually was my second choice—the first being a smaller, plainer piece with a simply coiled blond lock, probably dating from the 1820s or 1830s. The brooch looked more “human” to me, but the shop owner enticed me toward a different brooch, assuring me it was unusual. It dates from the late 1840s to early 1850s.

The body is 14-karat gold or higher with a tube hinge, C-clasp, and a pin that is longer than the length of the brooch—all evidence that an item that was indeed crafted in the 18th or 19th centuries. The hair memento compartment is set amidst a tempestuous lovers’ knot untamed by the somber black enamel embellishment. Inside the glass-capped compartment is a piece of black cloth on which palette-worked gray hair has been affixed. The design is known as Prince of Wales feathers and is decorated with a pearl band, as well as a stalk of barley and ribbon made from gold wire thread.

The Prince of Wales feathers for the Edinburgh brooch were carefully crafted by a professional hairworker. For an exploration of how it was made, one can turn to no better source than the Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Identification and Values by C. Jeanenne Bell, which contains a full reprint of Alexanna Speight’s 1877 booklet, A Lock of Hair. The booklet contains instructions for palette work that were aimed at the Victorian lady who aspired to a new and noble handwork. Taking up the hobby, as Bell notes, would not only give her “the satisfaction of working with the hair of her loved ones, but it also assured her that the precious locks would not be substituted for, or augmented with, another’s”—an ignoble deed undertaken by unscrupulous memorial jewelry makers and feared to occur with regularity.

Speight instructed her readers to first dissolve one small piece of borax and one of soda in a half a teacup of hot water, and to soak the lock of hair for several minutes to remove “oil and impurities” before the hair could “take its place among the fine arts.” The cleaned hair was spread on a palette and scraped with a knife then the cleaning process was repeated with fresh borax and warm water. The hair was then spread on the palette again and the ragged ends chopped off.

Next, a curling iron heated by a candle flame or spirit lamp was used to shape lengths of hair into feather shapes, with Speight coaching her aspiring artists to hold the irons in position until the hair began to steam then allow it to cool before removal. The twist of the curl and the ends were then affixed with gum and these were then left under a small weight for an hour. Afterward, the curls were slightly moistened with water to touch up the shape, if needed, then remoistened with gum and left to dry. The process was repeated for a second and usually third curl.

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Patterns for palette-worked hair from the mid-1800s, with Prince of Wales feathers at bottom right. These patterns were not all meant for use in memorial jewelry, but also for pieces that commemorated friendships, engagements, marriages, and other milestones in a family’s history.

To remove a curl from the palette, writes Speight, “warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.” The curls were then arranged on an ivory, bone, or milk glass, cloth, or even a paper tablet. Speight goes on to teach her readers how to make the delicate gold-wire band and ribbons by twisting the wire around a needle, and the barley stalk by cutting the wire and using gum applied with a camel-hair brush to cement the shape. Similarly, the decorative band was constructed, using gummed paper as a ground, by carefully arranging the gold-wire band and split seed pearls. Finally, the decorative elements were carefully arranged amidst the curls. After drying, any extra gum was removed using spirits of wine.

The design thus assembled, the tablet would be inserted into the selected brooch setting by the jeweler. The final step, in some cases, was the engraving of a memorial or other inscription. Sometimes the entire process was handled by a single skilled artisan—such as the one who placed this advert in the London Illustrated News: “Hair jewellery, Artist in Hair. Dewdney begs to inform Ladies or Gentlemen that he beautifully makes, and elegantly mounts in gold, Hair Bracelets, Chains, Brooches, Rings, Pins, Studs, etc., and forwards the same, at about one-half the usual charge. A beautiful collection of specimens handsomely mounted kept for inspection. An illustrated book sent free. Dewdney, 172 Fenchurch St., London.” Ω

The Patriot’s In-Law: Eliza Schuyler Kuypers

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Eliza Schuyler Kuypers, Mrs. Ethan Allen, Unmarked albumen carte de visite (CDV), circa 1864. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The subject of this CDV is Eliza Schuyler Kuypers, wife of Ethan Alphonso Allen (8 February, 1818-27 November, 1889). Eliza’s husband was the grandson of the American patriot, farmer, philosopher, deist, and writer Ethan Allen (1737-1789) and his second wife Frances Montressor (1770-1834), through their son Ethan Voltaire Allen (1789-1845) and wife Mary Susanna Johnson (26 Sept., 1797-1 Nov., 1818).

Eliza, born in 1820, was the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Schuyler (1771-1801) and her husband Rev. Gerardus Arentz Kuypers of Curacao, Dutch West Indies, who had been born on the island in December 1766 and later came to Hackensack, New Jersey, then to Rhinebeck, New York, to minister to the Dutch community there. Eliza’s grandfather was their son, also named Gerardus Arentz Kuypers (1787-1833), who was educated at Hackensack, and then studied theology under his father. He was licensed to preach in 1787 and served as a collegiate pastor in Paramus, New Jersey. In 1780, he moved to New York City to preach in the Dutch language. In 1791, he earned a Master of Arts degree from the College of New Jersey, as well as a Doctor of Divinity from Rutgers in 1810. It is noted that he suffered from asthma, but died of “ossification” of the heart 28 June, 1833.

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Eliza’s grandfather, Gerardus A. Kuypers, D.D.

Eliza was daughter of his son, Dr. Samuel S. Kuypers (8 March, 1795-10 January, 1870) and Amelia Ann VanZant (1794-1864). Dr. Kuypers was an alumnus of Rutgers and a member of the Medical Society of the County of New York from 1820 until his death.

In the CDV image above, Eliza is most probably wearing mourning after her mother’s death in the penultimate year of the Civil War. Amelia VanZant Kuyper’s demise was announced in the New York Times of 8 January, 1864, as follows: “On Thursday, Jan. 7…in the 70th year of her age. The relatives and friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend the funeral from her late residence, No. 142 2d-av., on Sunday, Jan. 10, at 3 o’clock p.m. without further invitation.”

Ethan Alphonso came to New York City from Norfolk, Virginia, in 1837 and was a drygoods merchant with Colgate, Abbe & Company at 43 John Street. Eliza Kuypers and Ethan Alphonso wed on 25 January, 1844, at the New York City’s Eighth Street Church—the ceremony presided over by the Reverend Dr. MaCauley. The couple had four children: Ethan Allen (17 June, 1845-28 Dec., 1905); Lieutenant Samuel Kuypers Allen (17 April, 1846-18 February, 1884); Amelia Ann Allen (21 February, 1850-1900), called “Lilly;” and Joanna Allen (12 Dec., 1852-15 March, 1857).

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The interesting reverse of Eliza Allen’s CDV, featuring President Abraham Lincoln, was likely offered to loyal Unionists during the Civil War.

Their son, Samuel Kuypers Allen, married Eleanor Wallace on 20 July, 1875. He lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, served in the Marines during the presidency of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, and died childless. Lilly Allen married Reverend Mathew C. Julien on 6 November, 1872. Her husband graduated in 1869 from the College of the City of New York, and became a pastor of the Trinitarian Congregational Church of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in December 1872. Son Ethan married Harriet Ida Perkins (1847-1900) and was a business executive in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Two years after the death of her mother, on 25 February 1866, Eliza Allen died in Hyères, Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France, “after a long but nobly borne illness,” noted the Times. Her body was returned to the United States for burial in New York City’s Marble Cemetery, where her Kuypers relations are also interred. The Times notice read: “The remains of Mrs. Ethan A. Allen, having arrived from Europe, the funeral will take place from the residence of her father, Dr. Samuel S. Kaypers, No. 142 2d-av., on Sunday next, May 20, at 2 o’clock. The friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend.”

The widowed Ethan Alphonso never remarried and died in New York City 27 November, 1889. He is buried, not with his wife, but in an unmarked grave in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Ω


Quotes by Ethan Allen

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Ethan Allen is best known for his role in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, 10 May, 1775. Courtesy North Wind Picture Archives.

On patriotism: “Ever since I arrived to a state of manhood, I have felt a sincere passion for liberty. The history of nations doomed to perpetual slavery, in consequence of yielding up to tyrants their natural born liberties, I read with a sort of philosophical horror; so that the first systematical and bloody attempt at Lexington, to enslave America, thoroughly electrified my mind, and fully determined me to take part with my country.”

On alien life: “It is altogether reasonable to conclude that the heavenly bodies, alias worlds, which move or are situate within the circle of our knowledge, as well all others throughout immensity, are each and every one of them possessed or inhabited by some intelligent agents or other, however different their sensations or manners of receiving or communicating their ideas may be from ours, or however different from each other.”

On the nature of God: “The idea of a God we infer from our experimental dependence on something superior to ourselves in wisdom, power and goodness, which we call God; our senses discover to us the works of God which we call nature, and which is a manifest demonstration of his invisible essence. Thus it is from the works of nature that we deduce the knowledge of a God, and not because we have, or can have any immediate knowledge of, or revelation from him.”

On reason: “Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason.”

Quotes about Ethan Allen

“Without the loss of a single life, with a casual and even comic air wholly incommensurate with the importance of the event, Ethan Allen’s expedition reduced three key British strongpoints—Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and St. Johns in the north (for the latter was impotent so long as the Americans controlled the lake)—and obtained for the American cause what was, for its time and place, an immense booty.”—Kenneth S. Davis, 1963

“There is an original something in him that commands admiration; and his long captivity and sufferings have only served to increase if possible, his enthusiastic zeal. He appears very desirous of rendering his services to the States, and of being employed; and at the same time he does not discover any ambition for high rank.”—George Washington, May 1778

“General Ethan Allen of Vermont died and went to Hell this day.”—Reverend Doctor Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, diary entry, 12 February, 1789

Buntings for a Bon Vivant King

“For to him above all was life was good,
Above all he commanded, her abundance full-handed.”—Rudyard Kipling, 1910

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Albumen print of the Windsor, Ontario Post Office, in May 1910. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

In 1910, Dr. William L. Bates of Sioux City, Iowa, took the boat The Florida on a meandering holiday. One of his stops was Windsor, Ontario, Canada. While there, he photographed the Windsor Post Office, located at Ouellette Avenue and Pitt Street. Bates found the public building draped in mourning after the death of British King Edward VII, who had passed away 6 May. A ladder was propped against one side of the building indicating that the mourning swags were in of the process of being raised, so likely this image was captured within a day or so of the king’s demise.

King Edward VII was born Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, second child and eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on the morning of 9 November, 1841. “Our little boy is a wonderfully strong and large child, with very large dark blue eyes, a finely formed but somewhat large nose, and a pretty little mouth,” wrote Victoria to her uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians, on 29 November. “I hope and pray he may be like his dearest Papa.”

Sadly, “Bertie,” as he was known amongst his family, was little like his erudite, brilliant, moral father or his paragon elder sister, Princess Vicky. Bertie strove to please his parents, who had devised a strict educational program for the heir to the throne, but the boy could never rise to the tonnage of their expectation. Once the grown prince matriculated to Oxford and Cambridge, however, he performed well as a student, giving the lie to his family’s belief that he was somewhat mentally deficient.

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Alexandra and Bertie on their wedding day. Carte de visite courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Bertie was personable, genial, and inclined to a military life that his mother flatly vetoed. He did not protest his parents’ wish that he marry the beautiful and fashionable Princess Alexandra of Denmark, but he chose to lose his virginity in Ireland to actress Nelly Clifden, earning a scalding rebuke by his ailing father, “To thrust yourself into the hands of one of the most abject of the human species, to be by her initiated into the sacred mysteries of creation, which ought to be shrouded in holy awe until touched by pure & undefiled hands!”

Prince Albert died only a fortnight later and the devastated Queen blamed her son for godlike Albert’s ultimate mortality. She wrote of Bertie to her daughter Vicky, “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”

The Prince of Wales married his Danish bride in 1863, and the affection between them resulted in the birth of six children. However, Bertie was incapable of fidelity and took a series of mistresses whom his wife appeared to accept—possibly because Alexandra’s health was badly compromised by childbirth. A post-natal case of rheumatoid fever left her with a limp and hereditary deafness increasingly set in. This did not stop her, however, from undertaking royal appearances for her mother-in-law and being adored by the British people.

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Four generations of British monarchs (left to right): Bertie’s son, Prince George (the future King George V); Queen Victoria; Bertie’s grandson Prince Edward (the future King Edward VIII); and Bertie (the future Edward VII).

Edward traveled extensively as Prince of Wales, greatly enjoying his good will missions and state visits and generally winning hearts. The conasseur of good times put on weight as he aged and by his mother’s death, 22 January, 1901, Bertie had become a portly, dapper, silver-bearded gentleman with his own grandchildren around him. In an early act as king, he donated his childhood home, Victoria and Albert’s Osbourne on the Isle of Wight, to the British people—almost certainly because the place revived unpleasant memories—and chose to reign as Edward VII rather than Albert Edward I, as his mother had desired.

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In 1907, the King posed for an autochrome image in Strathspey, Scotland. He was the first British monarch to be photographed in color. Courtesy Rothschild Archives.

Bertie and his wife were crowned King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra 9 August, 1902. His reign lasted just nine years and a few months, but the time came to be defined by his name—the Edwardian era. It is today recalled fondly as a golden age before two world wars radically reshaped both the map and the souls of humanity.

By 1907, decades of smoking had ruined the King’s lungs and he had developed cancer on his nose that was treated with radium. In May 1910, he had one or more heart attacks and died at the approach of midnight on the 6th, aged 69. Two weeks later, his funeral was the last great gathering of European royalty, many of whom would not survive the coming decade with their kingdoms intact. Bertie was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and there lies today with Alexandra at his side.

As the king reposed in state at Westminster, a poem by Henry Scott-Holland was read for the first time during a sermon at St. Paul’s, encapsulating the affable man to those he loved:

“Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

“Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

“Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

“Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.”Ω

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Edward on his deathbed, drawn by Sir Luke Fildes.

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.

Tales of Innocence and Darkness

The eerie and eclectic photography of Caroline Leech

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All photos copyright Caroline Leech.

Carolyn, an English woman who lives in Spain, writes of herself: “I am an obsessive Victorian and lover of all things Gothic. As a child I would often rather spend my pocket money in the local antique shop on postcards, photos, stamps or coins than in the toyshop. History just always fascinated me.”

31912891283_65cf2621f8_b“I then developed an interest in spirits and faeries and fell in love with writers such as my beloved Charles Dickens, Sheridan LeFanu, Emily Dickinson and with the whole world of Victorian spiritualism, mourning, the faery painters of the time and also the darker aspects of Victorian society.”

32681174485_02339b8c1e_k“I live in a watermill in the middle of a forest, which is always an inspiration to me. I feel I am surrounded by all sorts of spirits.”

30342997980_f63fb34691_k“I have been an antique dealer and visionary artist for years and am also a keen amateur photographer of anything mysterious. My greatest love is of course Victorian photography, these amazing ghosts which pleasantly haunt the pages of my book and the drawers and cabinets of my bedroom.”

25955709410_3133c5fda8_bCaroline’s book of photos and poetry can be purchased at Amazon. You can also visit her Flickr photostream. Ω

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Flowers for Our Father

“You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, like a sheaf gathered up in its season.”

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Albumen cabinet card of funeral flowers, a coffin plaque, and a cabinet card portrait of Abial Thomas. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

On 26 March, 1900, the Alfred Sun of Allegheny County, New York, included this obituary: “Abial Thomas, son of Rowland and Prudence Thomas, was born Sept. 22, 1825, and died Mar. 2, 1900, aged 74 years, 5 months, and 10 days. He was married Sept. 25, 1845, to Mary Crandall, being one of three brothers who married three sisters. In 1848, his wife and infant child died. Mr. Thomas was married again Dec. 1, 1840, to [Ascenath] Jane Stillman. Seven children resulted from this union. Prudence, now Mrs. McHenry, who resides at Alfred Station; Rowland of Hornellsville; Mary, Mrs. Congdon of Hornellsville; Nancy, deceased; Frank of Hornellsville; Lucy, deceased; and Charlotte, Mrs. Melville Green of Hornellsville. Two brothers and one sister also survive, viz., Rowland Thomas of Alfred; Silas Thomas of Milton, Wis.; and Mrs. Alma Green of Silver Lake. Mr. Thomas was taken a little over a week before his death with acute pneumonia, and little hope of his recovery was entertained from the first. The funeral services were held at the 2nd Alfred Church, conducted by the pastor. Text, Acts 26:8.  The funeral was well attended, a good many old neighbors and relatives of the deceased being present.”

Abial Thomas was a lifetime native of Alfred—an unusual locality in that there is a Village of Alfred within the borders of the eponymous town that is the site of Alfred State College, Alfred University, and the New York State College of Ceramics. Abial spent his days as a farmer and later a carpenter, never appearing in the newspapers and leaving few records; he registered for the Civil War draft, for example, but already in his late 30s, Abial did not serve.

2017-01-14-0011 - Version 2The above detail of the cabinet card allows us to see Abial as he was late in life, as well as his coffin plaque. According to Ancestors at Rest, “In North America…the popularity of the practice of removing the plates from the coffin before burial increased. Often the coffin plates were never attached to the coffin but displayed on a stand or table next to it…. This practice started in the early 1840s and was particularly popular in the North Eastern United States, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island…. This practice peaked in the late 19th century (1880-1899) and by the 1920s this practice had all but stopped.”

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Albumen cabinet card of a floral scythe and wheat sheaf. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

After the funeral, the coffin plaques might become parts of hanging wall shrines to the deceased, which were often replete with wax-dipped linen flowers, skeletonized leaves, dyed and shaped feathers, shells, locks of hair, photographs, and other sentimental items.

The wheat sheaf amongst Abial’s funeral flowers is also worthy of note. Unseen at modern funerals, during the 19th Century the wheat sheaf was a recognized symbol of the biblical verse Job 5:26: “You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, like a sheaf gathered up in its season.” This is beautifully illustrated in the cabinet card above, which includes both elements of the verse from Job. The wheat sheaf was regularly given in tribute to the elderly.

“Her life was marked for honesty of dealings and purity of character.”

The Sabbath Recorder of 17 April, 1890, provides us a concise biography of Abial’s second wife, Ascenath Jane, who had died a decade before him. She was “born in Newport, Herkimer Co., N.Y., Oct. 10, 1818, and died at her home in Alfred, after an illness of about five weeks of heart disease, March 29, 1890, in the 72nd year of her age. Mrs. Thomas was a daughter of Ezra Stillman, long known and well remembered. Four sons and one daughter only are now left of his family. Under the ministry of Elder John Green she was baptized and united with the Seventh-Day Baptist Church of Newport, of which she remained a member until it disbanded, and she never removed her membership. Her life was marked for honesty of dealings and purity of character. In 1849, she was married to Abial Thomas, by whom she had seven children. She was held in honorable esteem by all who knew her, and casting all her cares on Jesus, she died, as she had lived, a Christian.”

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Final resting place of Abial, Mary Crandall, and Ascenath Jane Stillman Thomas at Alfred Rural Cemetery, Alfred, New York. Photo by Chuck Metcalfe.
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Abial Thomas circa 1890.

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