Murder in Miniature

A visit to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., to view the fiendishly intriguing Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

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‘The Barn,” or “The Hanging Farmer,”  a Nutshell Study created in about 1946.

Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962), regarded as the “mother” of forensic science, was also the first female U.S. police captain, although the title was honorary. In 1936, Glessner Lee came by a sizable inheritance—her father was cofounder of the International Harvester Company—and she used it to help build a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School. It was during the decade afterward that Glessner Lee crafted many of the 20 known Nutshell murder dioramas.

Corine May Botz wrote in The Nutshell Murders of Unexplained Deaths that “[Lee] took a special interest in training police officers because, as the first to arrive on the scene of a crime, they had to recognize and preserve evidence critical to solving the case. At the time, most police officers inadvertently botched cases by touching, moving, or failing to identify evidence. Lee was also extremely interested in better integrating the work of, and communication among medical experts, police officers, forensic investigators and prosecutors.”

In the Nutshell Study above, farmer Eben Wallace was found hanged in his barn. His wife told police, “When things did not suit Eben he would go out into the barn, stand on a bucket, put a noose around his neck, and threaten suicide. I always talked him out of it. On this afternoon, he made the usual threats, but this time I did not follow him to the barn right away. When I did, I found him hanging there with his feet through a wooden crate.”

From this information, as well as studying the death scene, students could deduce that the bucket Eben usually stood on during his suicide attempts had been taken from the barn for other purposes, and drag marks indicated he’d replaced it with a flimsy wooden crate. A logical conclusion would be that the farmer fell through the crate and accidentally made good on his long-stated suicide threats. But did he? Perhaps one of the reasons we remain fascinated with the Nutshell Studies is because the mysteries do not have answers. They were meticulously crafted to tease the minds of investigators.

“Every element of the dioramas—from the angle of miniscule bullet holes, the placement of latches on widows, the patterns of blood splatters, and the discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses—challenges trainees’ powers of observation and deduction. The Nutshells are so effective that they are still used in training seminars today at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore,” noted the Renwick Gallery’s Curator Nora Atkinson.

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In the Nutshell study “The Dark Bathroom,” which Gleesner Lee created circa 1944, Maggie Wilson, an epileptic, was discovered dead in her tub. When police arrived they found the scene above: water pours from the faucet over Maggie’s face—although the tub stopper is not in place, which casts doubt on whether Maggie was drawing a bath at the time of her death. Her legs are stiffened by rigor mortis, indicating she may have died earlier than witness accounts suggest. A bottle and empty glass are knocked over on the bathroom rug—perhaps an indication that Maggie was “self-medicating” and slipped on her bath rug, fell backwards, and drowned under the running water?

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Robin Barnes has been discovered lying dead on the floor next to the refrigerator in the Nutshell Study, “Kitchen.” The door is open and the ice cube tray is on the floor next to her. A pie sits on the stove, all the gas jets are on, and Mrs. Barnes shows the tell-tale reddish coloration of death by asphyxiation. The doors to the room are locked and have newspaper stuffed around their edges. But was her death a suicide, an accident, or a staged homicide?

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In the “Red Bedroom” Nutshell Study, Marie Jones, a prostitute, was discovered dead by her landlady, Mrs. Shirley Flanagan, who gave the following statement: “On the morning of Thursday, June 29, 1944, she passed the open door of Marie’s room and called out ‘hello.’ When she did not receive a response, she looked in and found [Marie stabbed in the bedroom closet]. Jim Green, a boyfriend and client of Marie’s, had come in with Marie the afternoon before. Mrs. Flanagan didn’t know when he had left. As soon as she found Marie’s body she telephoned the police who later found Mr. Green and brought him in for questioning.”

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Mr. Green, when questioned, said, “He met Marie on the sidewalk the afternoon of June 28, and walked with her to a nearby package store where he bought two bottles of whiskey. They then went to her room where they sat smoking and drinking for some time. Marie, sitting in the big chair, got very drunk. Suddenly, without any warning, she grabbed his open jackknife which he had used to cut the string around the package containing the bottles. She ran into the closet and shut the door. When he opened the door he found her lying as represented by the model. He left the house immediately after that.”

By studying the crime scene above, trainees might agree that the booze bottles indicate hard drinking, but why is there blood on the wooden floor and the rug, if Maggie stabbed herself in the closet?

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In “Saloon and Jail,” created in about 1945, Frank Harris, a dock laborer, is discovered dead in a jail cell on the morning after a police officer found him unconscious on the pavement outside a public house.

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The deceased, Ruby Davis, is just visible, lying facedown at the foot of the stairs in this Nutshell Study, “Living Room.” According to her husband, Reginald, the couple “spent the previous evening, Thursday, May 21, quietly at home. His wife had gone upstairs to bed shortly before he had. This morning he awoke a little before 5:00 a.m. to find that his wife was not beside him in bed. After waiting a while, he got up to see where she was and found her dead body on the stairs. He at once called the family physician who, upon arrival, immediately notified the police.”

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The Nutshell Study “Sitting Room and Woodshed” was thought lost until its 2003 rediscovery in the attic of Glessner Lee’s former family estate.

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Richard Harvey, foreman in an ice-cream factory, was found dead by his mother in the “Striped Bedroom.” Mrs. Harvey gave the following statement: “On Saturday night, April 27, Richard came home for supper as usual and after supper went back to work. He always worked late Saturday nights to get ready for the Sunday trade. She didn’t know when he came in as she went to bed early.

“Sunday morning she let him sleep while she went to church and then, as usual, proceeded to her sister’s for the day. When she returned home Sunday evening, Richard wasn’t around so she opened his door and found the premises as represented by the model. Richard was married about a year ago and brought his wife home to live. She was a nice girl and they were very happy. His wife was away now visiting her parents for a few days in another state. Richard was a good boy but sometimes he had a little too much to drink, especially on Saturday nights. The dishpan belonged in the kitchen. She didn’t know how it came to be in Richard’s bedroom.”

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Here, Dorothy Dennison, who was missing, has been discovered dead on the floor of the “Parsonage Parlor.” There is a knife in her abdomen, her legs are slightly spread, and her dress is pulled up. A hammer rests not far from her head. Blood has saturated the floor. But why is the furniture covered and uncollected mail by the door? Where is the rector? And who left bite marks on Dorothy’s exposed chest?

39360613921_f5317ace4b_zThe body of Arthur Roberts, a local insurance salesman, was found by police who responded to a call from a friend of the victim, Mrs. Marian Chase. His body rests just inside the open door of the Nutshell Study “Log Cabin.”

Mrs. Chase was questioned and said, “She had met Arthur Roberts at the log cabin on Wednesday, October 21, 1942, at 5:15 p.m. They were in the habit of meeting there. Roberts was married and was living with his wife. Mrs. Chase was also married but was not living with her husband. Roberts had told her at this meeting that the affair between them was ended. There was no quarrel. Mrs. Chase and Mr. Roberts were standing at the foot of the bunk. He turned toward the door, took a package of cigarettes from his outside pocket, selected a cigarette, but dropped it. As he stooped over to pick it up—a shot was heard—he fell flat—a gun dropped beside him. Mrs. Chase said she picked up the gun but then replaced it. It did not belong to her. She then ran out of the door, jumped into her car and drove to summon the police.

“The gun was identified as belonging to Arthur Roberts. Mrs. Chase identified the handbag on the bunk as hers. A single bullet had passed entirely through Mr. Roberts’ chest from front to back and the powder around the entrance hole indicated that it had been fired at fairly close range.”

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Glessner Lee works on a Nutshell Study in the mid-1940s.

“Although the past century in forensic science had yielded many innovations, few women have been credited with advancing the field. A notable exception is Frances Glessner Lee,” wrote Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and prolific author.

“In written instructions, Lee urged those who were preparing to observe a scene to imagine themselves as less than half a foot tall. They must look at the entire scene, searching for clues that might not be obvious, such as a bullet caught in a ceiling, a weapon in an odd position, or evidence of behaviors that deflected a determination of suicide. They were urged to think carefully before they developed a theory.”

Those lucky enough to view the Nutshell Studies at the Renwick three-quarters of a century later were identically urged. Among the cheek-to-jowl crowd assembled on that frigid winter day were scores of young people, their parents in tow, enthusiastically searching for the clues in each diorama. Among these will be at least a few of criminal investigators and forensic scientists of the 21st Century. Frances Glessner Lee still teases minds today. By that, I think she would be well pleased. Ω

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In the Nutshell Study titled “Unpapered Bedroom,” an unknown woman has been discovered dead in a rooming house. The landlady said she and a man registered together as Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. “He paid for the room up to six o’clock that evening and said not to disturb his wife, as she wanted to sleep late,” she told police. Under the pillow beside her is a large amount of blood.

Band on the Run

Callithumpian band? Wholesale arrests? Mayor Ephraim Smyser Hugentugler? Enjoy this retelling of a shambolic day in York, Pennsylvania, by historian James Rada, Jr.

Time Will Tell

Continental Square.jpg Continental Square in York, Pa. Courtesy of the York History Center.

The metallic reverberating sound of gongs repeatedly sounded throughout downtown York, Pa., in August of 1925. It was a sound people recognized as the alert on a fire truck. Somewhere in York, a fire was burning.

“During the disturbance patrons of theaters, hurriedly snatched their wraps and fled from the amusement places to ‘go to the fire.’ Others telephoned or went to their homes,” The York Dispatch reported.

People attending a municipal band concert at Farquhar Park heard the gongs over the music and streamed out of the park, seeking the fire or their homes to make sure that it wasn’t burning.

The problem was that there was no fire. “A callithumpian band mounted on a truck which also carried, despite their objections the bride and bridegroom, coursed about downtown streets for about an hour last evening,” The York…

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Funeral Fragments

“When old Francis died in 1913, Dad sent him off in a hearse pulled by four black horses followed by mutes carrying ostrich feather wands and a procession of friends and family in the deepest mourning possible.”—Barbara Nadel

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An invitation to the funeral of Ruth Evelyn Cooper, who died of pneumonia in the aftermath of influenza. She was one of upwards of 50 million people whose deaths were associated with the 1918 influenza pandemic. Ruth was born 21 June, 1898; she was the daughter of mail carrier George F. and Clara Good Cooper of Murrell, Ephrata Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
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This glass slide captures one moment in the lengthy funeral proceedings of Queen Victoria, as her coffin wended its way through London, 2 February, 1901. The slide is unmarked save for the handwritten inscription, “The Queen’s Coffin.” It does not appear to be part of a commercial set and may be a personal remembrance of the day taken by someone in the crowd. (Note the two boys looking down on the passing procession from the high wall on the right.)
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This photo shows ephemera from the funeral of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769–14 Sept., 1852). It resides in the museum of Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, England. The duke was beloved for leading the defeat of Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo, 18 June, 1818. He went on to become a prime minister and is still considered to be one of Great Britain’s chiefest politicians. The handwritten note reads: “Relics of the Funeral of the late Duke of Wellington. No.1 Silver lace from the car. 2. Cloth from the Hall. 3. Silver Tissue from the Canopy. 4. Tape from the Canopy, Chelsea Hospital. 5. Autograph of the late Duke, Nov. 1852.”
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This circa-1905 albumen print captures a wintertime military funeral procession in Newport News, Virginia. It’s possible that it was headed to Hampton National Cemetery for a veteran’s burial. Behind the hearse bearing an American flag-draped casket are mourners on foot, as well as a long procession of carriages and early automobiles.
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On 11 October, 1918, a public funeral was held in Belfast, Ireland, for twelve American soldiers, victims of the Otranto disaster, and men who died from pneumonia after being landed in Ireland from a troop ship. During the march through the city from the Victoria Barracks to the City Cemetery, the coffins rode on open hearses, with a guard of honor composed of British soldiers. Glass plate image courtesy Library of Congress.
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This is one-half of a stereoview card labeled, “The cortage leaving the White House, President McKinley’s funeral, Sept. 17, 1901, Washington, DC. Underwood & Underwood, Publisher, New York, London, Toronto, Canada, Ottawa, Kansas.” William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States, serving from 4 March, 1897, until his assassination on 14 September, 1901, six months into his second term.
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Even when I was a child in the 1960s, it was still considered important to photograph the funeral floral arrangements sent by loved ones. In this albumen cabinet card, circa 1885, we see flowers and a sheaf of wheat in tribute to “Our Friend” Celia. The sheaf indicates that Celia died in old age.
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My father, James Arthur Longmore, took this black-and-white photograph at Arlington National Cemetery in the aftermath of the funeral of John F. Kennedy, 25 November, 1963. My parents were among the thousands who lined the procession’s route. I was with them in my pram, aged five months. My father held me up as the caisson carrying the president’s coffin passed so that I “could see history occurring,” he said. This picture is from later in day, after the grave had been covered and the site was open to grieving citizens.
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The bill for the 1949 funeral and burial of Mrs. Roush. The total fee was $234.75, including $150 for embalming, $12.95 for a burial dress, and $12 for an ambulance that presumably transported the body from the family home to the embalmer.
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In the wake of the funeral, this memorial shadow box may have been filled with cloth flowers to symbolize the floral tributes at this unknown decedent’s grave, as well as the hope of her eternal youth in Heaven. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

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Unless otherwise noted, all images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Comet Brooches: A Legacy of the 19th Century’s Sidereal Wanderers

“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe

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Halley’s Comet brooch, 1835. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.

The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.

Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.

The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.

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“At that time, throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet, which some call ‘the long-haired star’: it first appeared on the eve of the festival of Letania Maior, that is on 24 April, and shone every night for a week.”—The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, 1066. In this section of the Bayeux Tapestry, Halley’s Comet serves as an omen of Duke William’s victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Above a group that points at the strange sight are the words “ISTI MIRANT STELLA”—”These men wonder at the star.”

Throughout history, the comet’s apparitions brought fear and awe to earthbound viewers, who saw comets as a predictors of great and potentially horrific events. In 218, for example, Roman historian Dio Cassius termed it “a very fearful star,” and of the 1456 comet pass, Bartolomeo Platina named it “a hairy and fiery star” that he heard would bring “grievous pestilence, dearth, and some great calamity.” Its 1066 apparition is commemorated by the Bayeux Tapestry—the great embroidered epic of the Norman Conquest—as a portent that Duke William of Normandy’s ascension to the throne of England was literally writ in the stars.

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Drawings of Comet Halley, 1836, by John Herschel. Gouache on black fabric mounted on paper. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

The 1835 comet apparition predated photography by nearly a decade, but astronomical drawings were made by Sir John Frederick William Herschel from a position in South Africa. In the lead up to Halley’s Comet’s arrival, and during the months it graced the night sky, Georgians indulged their love of symbolism and used the shape of the comet, with its long tail, as the basis for generally singular, and relatively expensive, gold jewelry—although pinchbeck and gilt 1835 brooches can be found. These pieces commemorated the comet apparition in conjunction with the human events that transpired during its nightly reign, such as births, betrothals, marriages, and deaths.

My brooch fits the latter of these, but there are many stunning examples that evoke the joy and wonder felt by those with comet fever. For example, the lovely duo below, sold by Rowan & Rowan, are gold with a foiled citrine and garnets.

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Gold, citrine, and garnet 1835 Halley’s Comet brooches.
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This lovely gold 1835 comet brooch, which sold on eBay in 2016, features a saphiret glass stone that prong-set and cushion-cut.
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A gold, diamond, and pearl 1835 comet brooch.
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An English, 9-carat gold, chrysolite, and ruby 1835 comet brooch. Courtesy CJ Antiques.

Halley’s was not the only comet visible to those living in the 19th Century. Stuart L. Schneider, the author of Halley’s Comet: Memories of 1910, noted, “Most people who saw Halley’s comet in 1986 were disappointed with the comet’s showing. We were not as fortunate as the folks living in the 1800s…. In 1811 there was a beautiful comet with a tail 100,000,000 miles long. It was called the Great Comet of 1811 and was visible for 17 months. In 1843, a comet appeared … with a tail twice as long as that of the Great Comet of 1811. Abraham Lincoln commented on Donati’s Comet of 1858. It appeared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Civil War soldiers saw the Comet of 1861, which had six or more tails. In 1874, Coggin’s Comet appeared in the skies, and in 1882 a comet appeared that was visible for 4 months.”

I own another comet brooch that may commemorate one or both of the century’s unexpected celestial visitors, Comet Tebbutt C/1881 K1, or the Great Comet of 1881, and the Great Comet of September 1882, C/1882 R1, which Schneider alluded to above.

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The September 1882 Comet photographed by Sir David Gill from the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Comet Tebbutt was visible during the summer and Autumn of 1881, finally becoming lost to observers in early 1882. It was followed later that year by another comet of such luminosity that, at its perihelion, it was visible next to the sun in the daytime sky.

After it was gone—“buried in the darkness of space”—Professor H. A. Howe of Denver University wrote in The Sidereal Messenger’s May 1884 issue, “This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny. Then, perchance, it will again burst unexpectedly into view, to be firmly bound by the chains of mathematical analysis, which, more tenuous than gossamer, are stronger than steel.”

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Although this “French Jet” (black glass) comet brooch was likely produced in multiples, the design may have appealed to women who lost loved ones during the 1881-1882 comet apparitions. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

When Halley’s Comet returned in 1910, it brought age-old fears with it, as well as a new wave of comet jewelry. Author Christopher S. Cevasco, wrote that the 1910 apparition “came with its own doomsday predictions. One of the gases discovered in the tail through spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen, leading French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion to predict that when the earth passed through the comet’s tail, the gas ‘would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monsieur Flammarion was not only an astronomer but an author of science fiction novels, and fortunately here it seems he let his imagination run away with him. Notwithstanding many panicked Earthlings running out to buy gas masks, anti-comet pills, and apparently even anti-comet umbrellas, the planet suffered no harm given how diffuse the gas was.”

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) also believed in the portents of comets. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died 21 April, 1910, just after the comet reached its brightest. Ω

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A brooch made for the 1910 Halley’s Comet apparition.
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A black opal comet brooch from 1910.
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A 1910 comet brooch of gold and pastes.

New Year’s Eve: Roaring End, Rowdy Beginning

New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31 December for the first time in 45 B.C. when the Julian calendar came into effect.

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New Year’s Eve in the 19th Century was as jolly and booze-fueled as it is in the 21st. Here, Baby New Year 1838, the first born of the reign of young Queen Victoria, enters stage right as the black-draped old woman of 1837 departs stage left, taking with her the Georgian Era.
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This New Year’s Eve party had it goin’ on. Conga lines—usually drunken Conga lines—became popular in the 1930s and remained so right through the 1950s. The Conga was originally a Cuban Carnival dance.
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Nothing says Swinging ’60s New Year’s Eve like bullet-bra and hot-pants-wearing  go-go dancers workin’ it in a giant glass of champagne.
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And nothing says white middle-class respectability like a well-coiffed matron swilling champagne from a bottle whilst standing under a crucifix. Kodachrome, circa 1958.
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No one did parties like Edwardians did parties and Edwardians did party hardy.  This photo preserves one New Year’s Eve during the Gilded Age, circa 1905.
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A high-frolic and uber-booze New Year’s Eve sometime in the late 1940s.
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Meanwhile, in New York’s Time Square, cone-hat wearing paper-horn blowers signaled midnight.
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The origins of Baby New Year go back as far as the ancient Greeks, but the rather unfortunate personifications at parties began when the Saturday Evening Post published Baby New Year covers. This diapered gentlemen attempted to be the life of the party on New Year’s Eve 1954.
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Some sincerely spooky Mummers paraded through Philadelphia on a cold New Year’s Day, 1909. Real photo postcard.
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Times Square packed with crowds in 1954. Celebrations had occurred there as early as 1904. The ball dropping tradition began two years later, in 1906.
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These swingers celebrated New Year’s Eve in a hot tub during the mid 1970s.
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No one did parties like Edwardians did parties and Edwardians did party hardy, redux. This jovial crowd assembled at Restaurant Martin on New Year’s Eve 1906.
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This woman poured champagne for her besties whilst standing on the dining room table. As one does. Circa 1930.
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Whoopin’ it up with the grandparents. Kodachrome slide, circa 1960.
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Dude in the front row was cut off immediately after this picture was taken. Kodchrome slide, mid-1950s.

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Happy New Year, Gentle Readers. Thank you for following me on this journey this far. Leave a comment, if you can. It is always deeply appreciated. And heed Benjamin Franklin, who advised, “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”

The McGrawville Experiment

In about 1849, a mother and child were photographed in a New York town where visionaries struggled to change the world.

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1/6th-plate daguerreotype from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A long inscription is penciled inside the case of this daguerreotype: “The picture of Flora and her mother, taken when she was three years old at McGrawville, Cortland Co., NY.

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The penciled inscription inside the daguerreotype case.

“I’ll think of thee at eventide/ When shines the star of love/ When Earth is garnished like a bride/ and all is joy a-bove/ and when the moon’s pale genial face/ is shed or [sic] land & sea/ and throughs [sic] around her soft light/ t’is then I think of thee. EM

“Flora & I are in the parlor as I write this, talking of the war, etc. etc. Henry …?… is buried Thursday Oct. 30th, ’62.”

The sentimental verse is likely based on “Better Moments,” by poet Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), printed in 7 July, 1827’s New-York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette, Volume IV, as well as and in the New Mirror’s Poems of Passion in 1843. Willis’s poem includes the lines: “I have been out at eventide/ Beneath a moonlit sky of spring/ When Earth was garnished like a bride/ And night had on her silver wing.” It is uncertain whether variants of Willis’s poem existed that included the stanza scriven in the case, or whether the writer “borrowed” a few lines of it for his or her own poetic creation.

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Charles Reason was a born in New York City of a free black family from the Caribbean. At New York Central College he was, until 1852, a professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin, and French, and an adjunct professor of mathematics.

McGrawville, Cortland County, New York, was once home to New York Central College, an institution of higher learning founded by the antislavery American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1848 and which held its first classes in 1849—a date congruent with the fashions worn by Flora and her mother.

The college “opened its doors to any student able to pay the modest tuition regardless of sex, race, or religion. Blacks constituted an estimated half of its enrollment,” explained historian Catherine M. Hanchett. “Some came from New England, from Virginia, from Canada West [Ontario]. Some where fugitive slaves, others newly freed. Several were members of prominent black families.”

The college employed at least three Black professors—Charles Reason (1818-1893), George Boyer Vashon (1824-1853), and William G. Allen (1820-aft. 1878), the latter of whom was at least two-thirds white, but who would cause scandal by asking for the hand of a Caucasian student, Miss Mary King.

Fittingly, the college also served as a stop along the Underground Railroad that assisted escaped slaves heading to Canada.

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This article from the Carolina Watchman of Salisbury, North Carolina, 24 February, 1853, both excoriates and libels Professor Allen and Mary King. The couple would eventually marry and leave the United States. They remained together for the rest of their lives, living in Italy, Ireland, and other European nations.

A smallpox epidemic in 1850 led to the deaths of some of the college’s African-American students—all were buried on the campus beneath tombstones extant today. Illness at the school seemed persistent, as student William Austin wrote to his family on 23 May, 1852, “There has been and is at present a considerable sickness among students but Mumps and Measles are to blame but I think they will not injure me.”

Otherwise, Austin found the nearby villages and the college bucolic. “This is a beautiful section of country, somewhat uneven, but just enough to awaken mankind to the romantic beauties of nature,” he wrote. “The boarding hall is some thirty rods [165 yards] from the college so that we have a pleasant walk to get there to meals which are at 6 1/2 o’clock in the morning, at noon, and at 5 P.M. The Ladies all room at the hall. The Gentlemen at the College.”

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Throughout its existence, New York Central College faced constant racist and misogynist criticism from both southern and northern states. It was “an institution confessedly established for the purpose, figuratively speaking, of whitening the blacks and blackening the whites,” pronounced the Buffalo Courier of 4 July, 1851, during a state funding appropriation battle. “It is said that one of the professors, an accomplished and skilled teacher, has crispy hair and a southern skin,” the Orleans Republican of Albion, New York, snickered on 9 July. The article continued with a quote from a Mr. A. A. Thompson, who was of the opinion that “‘Rather than give $4,000 [in state money] to that vile sink of pollution … they ought to give it to a mob that would raise [sic] it to the ground.’” Later in July, the Albany Argus called the college, “an institution repulsive in its objects and character.”

However, one female graduate had another opinion of the school that recognized her innate equality. Angeline Stickney wrote of her alma mater, “I feel very much attached to that institution, not withstanding all its faults, and I long to see it again, for its foundation rests upon the basis of Eternal Truth—and my heartstrings are twined around its every pillar.”

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Classes were taught on the first two floors and the men’s dormitory was on the third. Courtesy McGraw Historical Society.

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The inscription states that Flora was three when the daguerreotype was taken in McGrawville, which, when fashions are considered in tandem, makes the approximate year of her birth between 1848 and 1850. On 30 October, 1862, the writer was in the parlor with Flora, then in her teens, speaking about the ongoing Civil War. The indecipherable surname of Henry, who was buried that day, might lead to a breakthrough, but thus far no guesses of mine have yielded results.

How was Flora’s family connected to McGrawville? Was she the child of a teacher, an administrator, abolitionist Baptists, or simply part of a local Cortland family? Where did Flora and her people go after leaving McGrawville? Why did the burial of Henry raise memories of the more than decade-old daguerreotype, and what motivated the writer to pencil the poem and message in the case at that time? These questions remain stubbornly unanswered. Ω

LOL Cats of Yore

Long before Internet memes, the obsession with yowling, murderous, disdainful, aloof, and weirdly adorable felines produced trade cards that are still collected today.

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Adored today, cats were just as freakishly lovable to Victorians, as is proven by this circa-1890 blank advertising trade card.
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“Ha! Tis He. The Maltese. Me rival.” Remember the old saying, “Don’t forget to put the cat out”? There were once many more domestic felines who roamed the night, yodeling for love, murdering small animals, and creating loud mayhem when territorially challenged. This circa 1881 trade card was for Allen’s Lung Balsam, “For the cure of all affections of the lungs, throat and chest, such as consumption, colds, coughs, asthma, bronchitis, croup, whooping cough, pain or oppression of the chest, hoarseness, spitting of blood and all pulmonary diseases.” Drawn by A. B. Seeley. William H. Helfand Trade Card Collection.
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“Fair moon to thee I sing, Prithee all good fortune bring.” Here, the family cat was indeed put out for the night, with the implication that the sleepless family wished they’d done otherwise. Circa 1910.
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“Did you see me get the best of him?” Meeting the Maltese mentioned above inevitably led to this at the door come morning, waiting to be let in for a saucer of milk. Circa-1881 trade card for Gray Brothers Boots and Shoes, 56 Main Street, Galesburg, Illinois.
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Because it’s all fun and games until Fluffy, Jr., takes out the floral trumpet epergne. “Compliments of Beard & Allen, choice Family Groceries, 5 Arsenal Street.” There are multiple variations of this trading card, all showing cats engaged in acrobatics dangerous to the Victorian horror vacui . Illustration by Helena McGuire, circa 1880.
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“Tommy Dodd, Awarded 1st Prize at International Cat Show for Sweet Childlike Expression.” I have no clue what “H. R. Knight, dealer of stoves, new and second hand furniture, also furniture repaired, sign and banner painting” of Grand Rapids, Michigan, thought this would do for his business, but I did suss out some the card’s possible meanings from an internet researcher: “[T]he slang phrase Tommy Dodd turned up many meanings, some related and some clearly not: … odd or peculiar; a cemetery may be known as Tommy Dodd’s garden; thank Tommy Dodd for this or that; a phrase related to coin tossing (mid 19th century) as in tossing odds; penis; sodomite; a style of hat; a glass of beer or a walking stick. The coin-tossing allusion is the one most frequently sited and referred to. It appears that there were numerous beer hall songs devoted to Tommy Dodd and below is the chorus to one I was able to find … : ‘I’m always safe when I begin. Tommy Dodd, Tommy Dodd Glasses round, cigars as well, Tommy Dodd. Tommy Dodd, Now, my boys, let’s all go in, Tommy Dodd, Tommy Dodd, Head or tail, I’m safe to win, Hurrah for Tommy Dodd!'”
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And finally, a cat praised as the all-powerful being it was. French, circa-1915 trade card for the soap Le Chat Savon Extra. Hail, kitteh overlords, and yes, you can haz cheeseburger.

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