This is His Orphan: What it Shows and What it Doesn’t

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Widow and Orphan, Albumen Carte de Visite, Circa 1868. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.

Helpful Flickr historians pellethepoet and EastMarple1 spotted one of Thomas Bennett’s studios in the foreground the CDV below. The building at bottom righthand corner, with the word “photos” just visible above the door, was almost certainly where this Worcestershire widow brought her daughter to mark their terrible loss in a fixed image that could never be denied.

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CDV of Malvern, Worcestershire, Circa 1870. Courtesy Collection of pellethepoet.

My CDV appears on many Pinterest pages, and in particular, one where in the comments it is suggested that this little girl is dead, held up by props, or suspended with wires.

This is not a deceased child. In the photo, her eyes were caught while tracking the photographer, and she supported herself to a degree through her hand, wrist, and arm. One of her feet was slightly lifted as she prepared to take a step.

Bodies were not embalmed at the time this image was taken. That preservation process came into practice during the American Civil War as a way of returning bodies of dead Union soldiers to their families. It was not widely used in the United States or Great Britain for another 40 to 50 years.

Dead bodies that are not embalmed do not stand on their own, even during rigor mortis, without some sort of brace or rigging. There is no evidence in the historic record that these types of devices were used during regular postmortem photography. Sometimes unidentified bodies or murder victims such as Katherine Eddows, a victim of Jack the Ripper, were propped up to be forensically photographed.

Further, it should be asked why a mother would chose to allow the corpse of her dead daughter to be held up by wires or clamped in some sort of brace when she herself could have cradled the body—as is seen in so many other postmortem images?

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A mother from Philadelphia dressed in full mourning, which differs from a widow’s full mourning, cradling her dead infant. Albumen CDV, Circa 1870. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The props that photographers did use were to keep people still, not to hold them up, as is clearly seen in the photograph below. Ω

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A young boy is photographed while held still by a posing stand. Circa 1890. Unknown provenance.

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.

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

Alice Isn’t Dead: A Cautionary Tale, a Family History

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.

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Mary Jane Stayman Culley holding eight-week-old Alice Maud Culley in August 1879. Albumen carte de visite. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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 cautionary tale, not unlike 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.

Alice’s mother, Mary Jane Stayman, was a dressmaker who may have created the ensemble in which she was photographed.

Alice Maud Culley was the daughter of Henry Edward Culley. He was born in 1847 in Cockfield, County Durham, England, a village on the edge of Teesdale. Alice’s mother, the beautiful and elegant woman pictured, was Mary Jane Stayman, a dressmaker who may have created the ensemble in which she was photographed. In 1851, Mary Jane was born in the historic Teesdale market town of Barnard Castle. The town takes its name from the venerable fortification at whose foot it grew, which was erected in the 12th Century by Bernard de Balliol and rebuilt by Richard III.

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A postcard of Barnard Castle taken in about 1910.

Alice’s maternal grandparents were Thomas Stayman (d. 1893) and Elizabeth Stokell, the former of whom was born in 1817 in East Layton Yorkshire; Elizabeth was a native of Winston, Durham, born 1811. They married in early 1839 in Teeside. By 1851, the Staymans lived in Barnard Castle, the census reporting that Thomas worked as an agricultural laborer with his wife and children Ann (b. 1840), Elizabeth (b. 1841), John (b. 1842), Margaret (b. 1846), Thomas (b. 1849), and baby Mary Jane living in the home.

In 1861, the Staymans lived in Galgate Street, Barnard Castle, only a few doors from the Teesdale Union Work House, built in 1838 to hold approximately 140 of the paupers of Union’s 44 parishes. Later, the family lived in Baliol Street.

Alice’s father, Henry Culley, was the son of William Blakey Culley (1817-1893), a flax worker, and Maria Snaith (1817-1880). The family appears on the 1851 Census of Hartwith cum Winsley, Yorkshire—a smattering of houses in the ancient parish of Kirkby Malzeard in the West Riding, now part North Yorkshire. Henry’s eldest sisters Eliza and Jane were, at this date, both “factory girls;” his older brothers William and John were scholars but also factory workers; the youngest children—Margaret, Henry, and Robert were under their mother’s care at home.

By 1861, the Culleys removed to Barnard Castle. William Culley listed his employment as “flax dresser.” Henry was then the eldest child still living at home, with his brother Robert and youngest sisters Maria and Elizabeth. All of them attended school and Henry’s good, clear signature remains on extant documents.

The new trooper swore an oath to “defend Her Majesty, Her Heirs, and Successors, in Person, Crown, and Dignity, against all enemies.”

Henry’s elder brother John joined the British Army’s 2nd Regiment of the Life Guards, formed in 1788 as the monarch’s main mounted protectors. Military attestation papers state that John brought his brother into the same regiment on 27 May, 1868, when Henry was a 19-year-old blacksmith. The following day at Marylebone, the new trooper swore an oath to “bear true allegiance to Her Majesty, Her Heirs, and Successors” and to “defend Her Majesty…in Person, Crown, and Dignity, against all enemies.”

The records also include a description of Henry: He was 6′ tall with a fresh complexion, hazel eyes, and sandy (later described as “reddish brown”) hair. His medical exam related his appearance in even more detail: He weighed 162 pounds; the circumference of his chest over the nipple was 37″; his muscular development was “middling;” he had been vaccinated against smallpox in childhood but was revaccinated two days after joining the army. We even know that on 27 May, 1868, whilst he sat for the military physician, his pulse was 72 beats and his respiration was 20 inspirations per minute.

Henry Culley and May Jane Stayman married at the Register’s Office, Teeside, Durham, on 26 September, 1869. Mary Jane’s elder brother Thomas became a blacksmith, as did Henry, so it is possible that the couple met through her brother, or perhaps they became acquainted long before, during their adolescence in Barnard Castle. The 1871 Census, taken on 2 April, placed Mary Jane, then pregnant, in her hometown with her family. She may have visited before the birth or spent part of her pregnancy there. Her child, Henry Edward, Jr. (Oct. 1871-31 July, 1930), safely arrived later that year in St. Pancreas, London.

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An early photo of the 1747 Market Cross at Barnard Castle by Walter Benton & Company, Glasgow, Scotland. Henry Culley and Mary Jane Stayman would have known this view well.

In late October 1872, Henry committed a breach that separated the couple for six months. His records note that on 28 October he was placed in confinement for insubordination. The following day he was tried and imprisoned until 16 April, 1873. When released, he was no longer a trooper, but made a horse-shoeing blacksmith for the regiment instead. He then settled into military life without further incidents, his commanding officer noting “Habits regular. Conduct very good.” After two years, he was promoted to corporal-farrier on 28 June, 1875.

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A corporal-farrier of the Life Guards.

The image at right shows an unknown corporal-farrier dressed as Henry would have appeared on parade. The Farriers’ uniforms were sombre blue and they wore axes at the side.  When on parade, troopers drew their swords and the farriers drew the axes, as pictured.

At the time of his promotion, Henry and Mary Jane had a second son Charles Snaith, born in 1874 at Barnard Castle (d. 1950). A third, John Stayman (d. 1973) arrived 12 July, 1876, at Windsor. Alice Maud, the first daughter, came into the world in late Spring 1879, either at Regent’s Park Barracks, St. Pancras, London, or at the Knightsbridge Barracks at Windsor.

When she was two months of age, she traveled with at least her mother and likely with her father and gaggle of brothers to the Somerset holiday town of Weston-super-Mare, where the Birnbeck Pier offered a pleasant walk in the salt air and the little boys could play at the water’s edge.

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Weston-super-Mare in the late 1890s. Alice and her mother were photographed here in 1879.

At some point during their holiday, Mary Jane dressed herself in fashionable raiment and Little Alice Maud in what may have been her christening dress. At Davies’ gallery on the busy High Street, mother and daughter sat together for their portrait, which I hold in my hand today, 138 years later.

Of the photographer, “John Davies was born in Tetbury 1839. He was apprenticed to a watchmaker in London; however his interest in scientific instruments was such that he designed and made” at least two brass and mahogany orreries sold in 2009 by a descendant, wrote Dreweatts Donnington Priory Salerooms, which sold the objects. “Photography was another interest which resulted in him setting up in business, in partnership with his brother Martin, as photographers, printers, booksellers, and stationers at 14 High Street, Weston-super-Mare, in 1873. ‘Davies Brothers’ continued to trade after John’s death in 1919 until the premises was destroyed in an air raid in 1942.”

Henry Culley’s medical record states that he suffered from the effects of a “predisposition” to haemoptysis—acute bronchitis with coughing of blood.

In 1881, the Culleys lived at 40 Red Hill Street, St. Pancras, according to the census. Mary Jane was pregnant with another boy, Thomas Alfred George (d. 1968), who was born that summer. Emma May arrived in 1883 and Frederick Barnabas (d. 1969) in early 1885.

Corporal Henry Culley had begun to suffer greatly from the negative health effects of his career. His medical record states that as early as 1869 he suffered from a “predisposition” to haemoptysis—acute bronchitis with coughing of blood. He had tonsillitis in June 1870 from “catching cold in the stables,” bronchitis from “exposure” in March 1873, and “acute rheumation”—probably of the hands—in July 1875, also caused by exposure.

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A pressed glass souvenir bowl commemorating Queen Victoria’s 50 years on the British throne, called the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Large and enthusiastic celebrations took place all around Britain 20 and 21 June, 1887. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Henry received a severe burn to his foot in June 1877 (one hopes a hot horseshoe was not the cause); another attack of rheumatism followed in July 1882. The final entry to his record was “paralysis (local)” on 12 May, 1886. Whether the cause of this condition was a stroke or otherwise, it left him permanently unable to perform his duties. Shortly thereafter, Henry was “discharged in consequence of being found unfit for further service.”

Now without a prestious position or income, former Corporal-Farrier Culley and his brood left London for Leeds, Yorkshire, taking up residence there before the birth of Edith Victoria on 21 June, 1887 (d. 1966)—her mother having labored through the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Before the 1891 Census, there was yet another daughter born named Ethel. (A tenth child and final son, Sam, would be born in 1894 when his mother was 43. He died at age 13 in 1907, the only Culley child not to reach adulthood.)

On Sunday, 5 April, 1891, the census takers found the Culleys at 57 Anchor Street, Hunslet, Leeds. Henry, aged 42, and his teenaged son John worked as advertisers for Watson’s, soapmaker. Joseph Watson and Sons ran their soapworks out of Whitehall, Leeds, and I believe that Henry and John Culley may have been two of many individuals who walked the streets wearing large painted banners and boards, pitching products such Watson’ Matchless Cleanser and others the soapmaker sold.

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Anchor Street, Hunslet, Leeds, in 1964. At the turn of the century, the Culleys lived at number 57, which is the terrace house farthest left. Photo courtesy West Yorkshire Archive Service.

A decade later, the family was still almost fully intact at 57 Anchor Street. Henry had taken work as a porter and the girls as assistant chemists and apprentice bonnet or cigar makers. One son was a postman, another a steam engine fitter.

Alice married Tom Booth the following summer on 3 August at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Hunslet. The son of Yorkshireman James William Booth (b. 1856) and Jane Briggs (b. 1859), he followed his father’s trade of glass bottlemaking. Tom was born 10 September, 1879, and baptized at age ten at St. Mary the Virgin. Much like Alice, he had grown up in a terrace house bursting with siblings—for at least some of that time at 11 Springfield Place on Woodhouse Hill. Alice gave birth to a son 1 June, 1902, who was named Harry after her father. A daughter, Ellen, was born 1 July, 1908.

In 1911, the final census to which we have access, Tom, Alice, and their children lived at 1 Balmoral Grove, Hunslet, with Harry and Ellen. Mary Booth was born in 1911 and Alice Booth in 1913. I hope that when the 1921 Census becomes available in 2022 (or sooner, if genealogists have their way), that the stories of the Booth children can be added to meaningfully.

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The block of Balmoral Grove where Tom and Alice Booth lived in 1911. West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Harry Booth wed Agnes Bell in the same church as his parents, St. Mary the Virgin, on 17 March, 1928. His namesake grandfather and his grandmother almost certainly attended the service. Henry Culley would live another two years, dying in January 1930, aged 81. Toward the end of that year, Alice Maud Culley Booth, the not-dead infant of the summer of 1879, followed him out of life. (Her husband outlived her by 13 years, dying in June 1843, also in Leeds.)

Mary Jane lived to see her granddaughter Ellen marry Thomas Reginald Wilson, a boilermaker, the son of John William Wilson, cable layer, on 16 March, 1935, also at St. Mary the Virgin.  Mary Jane passed away at age 87 in early 1938. On 8 March, 1948, Harry Booth, then of 2 New Pepper Road, died at 128 Beckett Street, Leeds. The estate he left was £399 14s. 6p. His wife Agnes died in late 1960, with her daughter Ellen Booth Wilson following in 1965. Ω

Say “Cheese”

The photographer may have told the children to hold hands and grab the waist belts to keep their arms still during the exposure.

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Siblings, 6th-plate ambrotype, circa 1855. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.

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Smiling mother and fleeing toddler, albumen cart de visite, circa 1860. Photograph by Whipple, 96 Washington Street, Boston, Massachussetts. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.

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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

To Be, or Not to Be, a Victorian Postmortem

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?

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Written on reverse: “Mother, Me, Duncan (Died 10-19), and Nanny McFalls,” Scottish albumen cabinet card by the studio of E. Geering, Aberdeen, circa 1888. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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?

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The cabin card’s reverse with the inscription at the top.

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