Notes From The Frontier
Updated: May 11
The 1800's Obsession with Death
In the 1800s, Victorians were intimately acquainted with death. The Civil War, the bloodiest war in America's history, touched nearly every family in the country—North and South. The war’s aftermath also left mass carnage in the form of epidemics of soldier suicides and death from opiate addiction and alcoholism. Infant mortality was also horrific, and much higher in America than in Europe. Smallpox, typhus and yellow fever afflicted the masses especially in slums and crowded municipalities and no antibiotics or vaccines existed, nor were most sanitary medical procedures yet recognized. And, to make matters worse, fear of being buried alive, which had happened with terrifying regularity with comatose Civil War casualties mistaken for dead, became a Victorian phobia.
With the advent of photography and the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839, photographing the dead immediately became a mourning ritual for Victorians. Post mortem photographers had a slogan: “Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.” It was a morbid saying that reflected the Victorian fascination with death and the fleeting nature of mortality, as well as the nexus of photography, a new technology that could preserve images beyond death. Even beyond the grave, a loved one could live forever. In fact, death photographs were called “mirrors with memories” and were often the only images remaining of passed loved ones.
Today, post-mortem photography may seem macabre to us. But, to the Victorians, it was a way to cope with ubiquitous death and memorialize lost loved ones. In many cases, photographic images of the deceased were the only images by which to remember them. Thus, post-mortem photography not only sought to capture the image of the deceased, but often attempted to make the deceased appear alive. Great efforts were made to pose the deceased in life-like poses and put them in settings with family members, friends, dogs, even livestock and included posing deceased children with live siblings, dolls, favorite toys, or stuffed animals.
These touching scenes were called “mourning tableaux” and attempted to create the only lasting image of the dead in an evocative manner: a husband holding his deceased wife, a mother holding a dead infant, siblings posing around their lost sister or brother. Some subjects were photographed with their favorite book, Bible, a crucifix, rosary, flowers, or even pets.
Such scenes also sought to create a peaceful and touching pose of “last sleep” that symbolized victory over death. Or, as John Donne’s famous poem, "Death Be Not Proud," popular during the Victorian era declared: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And, death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.” The later invention of “carte de visite,” which provided multiple prints from a single negative, enabled family members to share images with extended family and loved ones of the dead family member. So, the theatricality of death photography became even more important.
Victorian photography used other techniques to add an air of life after death to corpses and hide signs of decay. Tinting was added to enhance the pallor of a deceased person with rosy cheeks or lips. Another technique, which was executed with varying success from poignant or ghastly, was painting open eyeballs on closed eyelids. (See #3 & #4 images.)
Leading daguerreotype photographer Albert Southworth wrote in a 1873 edition of the Philadelphia Photographer of the challenges of posthumous photograph: “If a person has died and friends are afraid that there will be a liquid ejected from the mouth, you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under the operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than a single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe out the mouth and wash off the face and handle them just as well as if they were well persons.”
Some attempted to physically open the eyelids, which usually resulted in a grisly effect. Eyes that remained open after death dried and the exposed cornea turns reddish orange to black. This effect is referred to as "tache noire," meaning "black stain" in French. However, the eyes could be opened if soon enough after death. Opening the corpse’s eyes might seem daunting, photographer Charlie E. Orr wrote in 1873, but “this you can effect handily by using the handle of a teaspoon.”
Death often occurred in the home, the family often prepared the body for burial, and the process of death was an ordinary and common part of life. Also, victims tended to die much faster than in modern day settings in which we prolong life much longer with drugs, medical procedures and antibiotics. So, the ravages of death, dehydration, and disease were often not as evident in Victorian dead. They generally died faster, younger, and more frequently.
Contrary to many myths propagated on the Internet about post-mortem photography, few deceased were propped up in standing positions to be photographed. Head clamp apparatus and posing stands were used to steady living subjects so they didn’t move during the long exposure times required in earlier photography. For example, in 1839, when the daguerreotype was invented, exposure times could require a minute and a half. The stands could not have held up the weight of an adult corpse, let alone in a graceful, and life-like manner. Also, rigor mortis also stiffens the body 2-6 hours after death and can last for 24-84 hours, making posing the body very difficult to impossible.
Another form of documenting the dead was enlisting not only a photographer but also a portrait painter to paint an image from the posthumous photograph. This practice also required extraordinary artifice that resulted sometimes in strangely reanimated scenes of infants floating up to the heavens, adults posing artlessly with dead or twisted stares, or children playing with favorite toys or dolls, proportions strangely akilter. Itinerant postmortem painters usually came from poor backgrounds and were not the crème de la crème of arts schools. Reputable artists could afford to refuse such ghoulish work and left it to struggling young—and often less practiced—artists. This may explain the crudity and awkwardness of many postmortem paintings.
The challenges of photographing the dead tastefully notwithstanding, by the mid-1800s, postmortem photography had become a fundamental ritual of American mourning. Although we may look at such photographs today with morbid fascination and even ghoulishness, there are many writings, diaries and journal entries that indicate Victorians deeply appreciated the ritual and cherished such images.
In 1843, the famous poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to her friend, Mary Russell Mitford:
“I long to have such a memorial of every being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness that is precious in such cases – but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing… the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there forever.... I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved than the noblest artist’s work every produced.”
In an 1873 account, the photographer James F. Ryder wrote that, when he was working in upstate New York, a local blacksmith had once accused him of taking advantage of those in mourning and plying a dishonest trade in photographing the dead. But, a couple of years later, Ryder received an unexpected visit from the same blacksmith in a “crazed manner," begging him to hurry and get “his machine [his camera] in his wagon and go with him straight at once.” On the way in the jostling wagon, the horses galloping at breakneck speed, the enormous man broke down in tears and sobbed to Ryder that “his little boy has drowned in the mill race and I must hurry and take his likeness.” It was as if the only way the frantic father could “save” his son was to capture his image before time and death took the little boy from him forever.
PHOTOS: (1) Living siblings are often photographed with a deceased brother or sister, in part to have a full family portrait of the children, and to depict the lost child as “living.” In this photograph, the youngest child has passed away and has been propped up. (Contrary to many internet myths, postmortem photography did not usually prop deceased up into standing positions. This would have been too difficult, especially for adults. However, sometimes small children could be positioned upright. (2) It was common, especially for post-mortem photography of children, to arrange the child in a lifelike pose with favorite dolls, stuffed animals, toys, or siblings, as if providing companions for the child in death and sentimentalizing the child’s life. (3 & 4) Closed eyes of the dead were sometimes painted in to appear open and give the impression of a living subject. But the effect could be ghastly or artful, depending on the talent and expertise of the artist. (5) Various posing techniques were used in posthumous photography to elicit a nostalgic feeling. Here an elegant mirror adorned with roses in the foreground reflects not only the deceased, but the furnishings of her room in the background to give a more intimate feel. Silver print, circa 1920. On the back is written: “Mrs. Conant after death.” Thanatos Archive. (6) This late 1800s photograph shows parents posing with their deceased daughter, whose eyes were left open to look more lifelike. Exposure times were long in early photography and live subjects had to remain still for up to a minute and a half so the image would not be blurred. Photographer/date unknown. (7) Live siblings were often photographed with their dead brother or sister, each holding their favorite dolls, toys or pets to soften the sadness of such a scene. Dead children were often posed on a sofa, bed or coffin in a reclining position as in a peaceful “last sleep.” (8) Victorians sometimes photographed their loved ones with their most cherished possessions or pets. Here a deceased man is photographed with his two dogs. (9) Children were often asked to pose with their dead siblings, holding their hands, hugging them, or holding them around the shoulders. Here twin girls dressed in matching plaid dresses and their hair curled in ringlets pose. The girl on the right, alive, rests her head on her dead sister’s shoulder. (10) Child mortality on the frontier was high. Here a pioneer mother is heartbreakingly photographed with her daughter before burial. (11) Emil, Maria and baby Anna Keller, post-mortem photograph of a murder-suicide in 1894. (The mother, who had been suspected of suffering a mental illness, shot her husband in the heart while he was kissing her, then shot her baby in the chest and herself in the temple. The mortician arranged the wife so that her head rested upon her husband, hiding her right temple wound. Thanatos Archive. (12) A post-mortem photograph of a murdered family in 1906 near Success, Missouri. Carrie L. Parsons, his wife and three children were murdered by Joseph Hamilton and thrown into the river. Hamilton was hung for his crime. Burns Archive. (13) BEWARE: There are many examples of post-mortem photographs that are hoaxes on the web! This image is often passed off as a post-mortem photograph. But, in fact, it is an image of an obviously once-beautiful victim inflicted with Lupus and Corneal Leukoma in 1895. The photograph was taken by Alexandre Lacassagne, MD. Burns Archive.
You may be interested in these related posts:
-Death on the Trail
"Death Photography" originally posted November 16, 2019 on Facebook
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