When Hannah McCracken Kelly died in 1855, she left two small children who would retain no memory of her and possess no photographic image other than this postmortem daguerreotype.
Hannah B. McCracken was the daughter of John and Mary McCracken (or Mecracken), who farmed in Claysville, Washington County, Pennsylvania, during the early 19th Century. Named after the “Great Compromiser” U.S. Senator Henry Clay (1777-1852), the town is located on the line of the Cumberland Road which forms its Main Street. Claysville is 18 miles east of Wheeling, West Virginia, and 10 miles west of Washington, Pennsylvania. The town was laid out in 1817 and remained unincorporated until 1832.
John McCracken was born about 1795 in Pennsylvania and died 28 December, 1865, in Claysville. His wife, Mary, the daughter of Samuel Caldwell of Buffalo Township, was born in about 1797 and died 4 August, 1878. The couple married in Washington County on 30 December, 1820. They are buried together in the old Purviance Cemetery, Claysville.
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.
“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
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.
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
“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
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).
Upon receipt of the carte, I scanned, enlarged, and enhanced the image. Immediately I became aware of motion blur caused by the child’s arms moving during the exposure.
Within eBay’s vintage and antique photo subcategory, every slightly odd-looking baby is a dead baby. I confess that when I saw the listing for the carte de visite (CDV) above, I thought this was an infant gone, never to grow up, forever to sleep, dressed in angelic white and buried in a tiny coffin so unfairly made-to-fit, her grave topped by a small stone lamb. This was cruel fate; this was a Victorian postmortem. But those who explore the Victorian propensity to mark gut-wrenching loss via photography should take this story as a cautionary tale, not unlike the one I featured last November, “To Be, or Not to Be, a Victorian Postmortem.”
The CDV’s backstamp is that of “John Davies, Portrait & Landscape photographer, BelleVue High Street, Weston-super-Mare. Formerly with the late T. R. Williams, London, Photographer to the Queen and Royal Family.” There is also a handwritten inscription: “Alice Maud Culley, 8 weeks old, Aug. 1879.”
Upon receipt of the carte, I scanned, enlarged, and enhanced the image. Immediately, I was aware of motion blur caused by the child’s arms moving during the exposure. Alice Maud Culley wasn’t dead. I could then plow into the public records because of the fortuitous identification upon the reverse.
The photographer may have told the children to hold hands and grab the waist belts to keep their arms still during the exposure.
This ambrotype is not only endearing, but raises several points of interest: First, both children were stood atop chairs and with that placement came the possibility that either could topple—especially the younger child who looks about age two or three. The belts around the siblings’ waists were not part of their costumes—it is likely they were both strapped to metal stands that photographers used to provide stability for their subjects, as well as to keep young sitters like these from wandering out of the frame. (That this was sometimes necessary is illustrated the adorable image below. How refreshing it is to see a mother cracking up at the antics of her toddler whilst Daddy or a studio assistant tries to keep the child from escaping.) The photographer may also have told the siblings to hold hands and grab the waist belts to keep their arms still during the exposure.
Both children may also have been head clamped, as can be seen in the Victorian cartoon below. Contrary to what duplicitous eBay sellers and 14-year-old goth bloggers might propose, these metal stands were not used to hold up dead bodies. The cartoon below clearly shows how posing stands worked to help keep sitters still.
Secondly, it is unclear whether the child on the right of the ambrotype is a boy or a girl. The center-parted hair argues female, but the rest of the outfit says boy despite the floral top and long cotton bloomers under a buoyant checked skirt.
Also tantalizing are the partial words visible at the edges of the image. At one point, the sticky back of the ambrotype was covered by newspaper. If still intact, this may have yielded a clue about this image’s precise date and location of origin. Ω
If the baby was not dead, but sleeping, why was he laid on a covered cushion or small table instead of being held in his nanny’s arms?
This is an puzzling image—and one for which I am interested in reader input. The inscription on the image, printed in pencil, reads: “Mother, Me, Duncan (died 10-19), and Nanny McFalls.”
When I purchased the cabinet card, I presumed that it was a postmortem image showing a deceased child guarded by his or her nanny, who wore a black bow on her white cap as well as a black dress with a white pin-front apron. The child’s well-heeled mother, in a proper dark dress, raised her eyes to heaven as if for angelic support, clutching her remaining offspring, who held a large china doll and looked warily at the camera.
The baby rested upon a draped piece of furniture in a position that indicated the illusion of sleeping rather than in-one’s-face death, which was a style of Victorian postmortem images that grew increasingly popular as the turn of the millennium approached.
The infant showed no visible signs of illness, rigor mortis, or decomposition. The child was not dressed for burial but wore regular clothing for an infant of his age, including little hard-soled leather walking shoes. The nanny’s hand rested on his arm while she faced the camera without any grief apparent. If the baby was not dead but sleeping, why was he laid on a covered cushion or small table instead of being held in his nanny’s arms? Also, he was old enough to be woken to have his picture taken. Why would he have been posed this way if he was just having a wee nap?
The fashions shown in this image date it, I am confident, between 1887 and 1890. This accords exactly with the presence of photographer Edmund Geering in Abderdeen, Scotland. Geering was an Englishman born in Sussex in about 1843. He was active as a photographer in Kincardineshire by 1871. He married a Scotswoman and was, according to Aberdeen city directories, operating out of 10 Union Place from the early 1880s to about 1889.
So the fashions, the type of photo, and the career of the photographer all place the image in the late 1880s. This brings me to the death date noted in the inscription: “10-19.” What does it mean? October 19? October 1919? If the latter, this is not a postmortem image at all and is instead simply a photo of an affluent woman, her children, and her servant. If the date refers only to a month and a day, why is there no year?
One possibility is that Duncan was not the baby, but the child. The baby grew up to become the writer of the inscription and Duncan was actually the child in the frilly dress holding the doll. In fact, the child’s hair was parted on the side, which was one indicator of maleness in an age where boys and girls dressed alike during the first years of life. In this scenario, it was the baby’s brother, Duncan, who died as an adult in October 1919.
My fellow Flickr historian and actual cousin, Laura Harrison, opined, “If you look at the order of names, it would seem ‘Me’ is the tot and ‘Duncan’ is the baby. With October 1919 being the date of death, and assuming the picture was taken between 1881 and 1891, the baby could have served in World War I and died in 1919 from battle injuries. A lot of soldiers died in the years after the war due to injuries.”
Good point, cousin.
After looking at the reverse inscription, Flickr user Christie Harris chimed in, “The inscription looks like it was probably written well after the photo was taken; I think the 1919 [death date] would be more likely.” I agree with Christie that the handwriting of the inscriber was quite modern and was added many years later.
And so we are left with a mystery. Actually, two: I genuinely want to know more about Nanny McFalls. I searched for her as best I could, but with so little to go on, I could not identify her. In the image, she seems a cheerful, young Scottish woman who cared about her charges and who was loved enough in return to earn a place in her employer’s family portrait. Ω