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March, 2010


Photographing Spirits

spirit photo

Woman with Daisies and Spirit, ca. 1875. By an unidentified Photographer. Copyright © 2000 The American Photography Museum, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

IMAGINE IT’S THE YEAR 1864, and you are living in the United States during a bloody, brutal civil war. You feel helpless in the face of all this death. Remember, it’s the middle of the 19th century. That’s before the discovery of penicillin. Before doctors realized that they needed to wash their hands. So death would have been a frequent visitor in your home, anyway. The war just increased the number of the deceased.

So how did you deal with all this psychological anguish? All this loss? Well, some people pointed a camera at it.

During the 1860s, some photographers claimed that they could photograph the spirits of the dead. Photographing the dead was just another in a long list of 19th century options for ghostly communication. Folks who believed that one could make contact with dead and gone loved ones were members of the Spiritualist Movement.

Spiritualism was a religious ideology popular from the mid-19th through the beginning of the 20th century. Its followers believed not only that people lived on after death, but could be contacted with the help of “mediums:” people who were unusually sensitive to communication with the spirit world.

To our jaded modern eyes, these photos look like simple double exposures or a bad photoshop cut and paste job. But photography was still a fairly newborn technology in the middle of the 1800s, kind of like what 3-d computer animation is to us. Many people were completely, utterly convinced that it was real.

What did these spirits look like? Well, sometimes they looked like semi-transparent versions of a dead and gone loved one, who appeared, oddly enough, in the same exact position as in some other photograph of them taken when they were alive. At other times, they seemed to be figures draped in ghostly sheets, also semi-transparent. Occasionally, a spirit would appear who wasn’t related to you at all; instead, it would be an image of a Native American (sort of a spirit “guide”) or simply some eerie looking lights and vapors. They didn’t always appear right away, either. It would often take several sittings (and several payments) to convince those spirits to manifest themselves. You can’t force a spirit to do anything that it doesn’t want to do.

At the beginning of my entry, I posted a photo of a woman from 1875 sitting across from a figure clad in appropriately creepy drapery. The sitter looks like she is in mourning, which is not a surprise.

And below, a photo of a man with what looks like a painting of a woman gesturing to him. And a later example, said to have been taken during a séance. Can you even imagine looking at that and thinking that those were real ghosts? It’s not even a realistic painting. It goes to show you the lengths that people will go to suspend their disbelief when faced with the death of a loved one.

Spirit Photo

Portrait of a man with a spirit form, 1872-75. By F.M. Parkes & Mr. Reeves. © 2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

Seance spirits

Spirit photograph by John K. Hallowell. S.W. Fallis, photographer. 1901. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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Victorian Scraps and Locks

Jennie Lovell's scrapbook.

IN 1864, FUN & GAMES meant something very different from what it does today. Young people were pretty isolated, in that there was no wireless or bandwith connection that hooked you up to a world much bigger than what you saw out your front door. If our seventeen-year-old heroine, Jennie Lovell, wanted to do more than pray and pine for her fiancé and knit socks for the war effort, there wasn’t a lot to divert her.

She did, however, have her scrapbook—which is also the anchor of our story. And Jennie was not alone. Scrapbooking was a popular diversion in her era, and it was useful, too, providing a means of collecting and archiving photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, calling cards and dance cards. Sometimes poetic or philosophical quotations and intimate gifts from friends might make it into the scrapbook. For a time, even locks of hair were used, for sentimental value. The hair might be woven into anything from a picture border to a bracelet.

And now that we’ve arrived on the rather unnerving subject of human hair for use in art and jewelry, here’s bit more on that:

“Appealing to the tendency among Victorian women to incorporate the importance of friends and family into their work, hair served as a tangible remembrance of someone. Often, close companions exchanged hair as tokens of friendship. Hair was also sometimes taken after a person’s death as a means of honor and remembrance.”

—Helen Louise Allen Textile Museum

From Lisa’s personal collection: a Victorian mourning brooch with woven hair.

From Lisa’s personal collection: an antique mourning hair necklace or watch fob.

Personal reactions to hair art aside, Victorian-era scrapbooks remain a fascinating time capsule, and a step into any paper/stationary store today is evidence that scrapbooking continues to delight new generations of archivists.

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Ghosts in the White House

Carte de visite of "Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln," by William Mumler, 1870-75. ©2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

“Spiritualism, the accompaniment of long and wasting wars, was rampant in the capital in the third winter of conflict. People sat hand in hand around tables in the dark, to hear bells rung and drums thumped and banjos twanged.”

Reveille in Washington 1860-1865 by Margaret Leech

CAN YOU IMAGINE our First Lady of the United States hostessing a White House event that was held specifically for the purpose of communing with spirits? Pretty farfetched, right? But that is exactly what an inconsolable Mary Todd Lincoln did after her twelve-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862.

Mrs. Lincoln, who had been fascinated by and in contact with Spiritualists during Lincoln’s tenure in Chicago, now used her power as first Lady to enlist the help of several famous mediums, including a young woman named Nettie Colburn, for whom Mrs. Lincoln went so far as to secure a job in the Department of the Interior so that Colburn could relocate permanently to Washington, D.C.

According to Colburn’s autobiography, Was Abraham Lincoln A Spiritualist? Lincoln himself was present at a number of her own séances, and the medium recalled an early meeting with the President where:

“…laying his hand upon my head, [he] uttered these words in a manner that I shall never forget: “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here to-night. It is more important than perhaps any one present can understand. I must leave you all now; but I hope I shall see you again. He shook me kindly by the hand, bowed to the rest of the company, and was gone. We remained an hour longer, talking with Mrs. Lincoln and her friends, and then returned to Georgetown, Such was my first interview with Abraham Lincoln, and the memory of it is as clear and vivid as the evening on which it occurred.”

At home and abroad, however, Lincoln was criticized for his purported interest in Spiritualism, mediums, and séances, as it fostered rumors that he was using the occult to attempt to foretell the outcome of political and war-related events.

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Soldiers & Sailors

US Civil War Soldiers

Carte de visite photos of Steward Beach, ca. 1861, (left) and Will W. Wallace, ca. 1865. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I WILL NOW REVEAL what a complete and utter geek I am when it comes to nit-picky historical details. I wanted our Pritchett boys, Will and Quinn, to run off and become soldiers in the Civil War during the early months of 1864. Here’s my wish list for the perfect Picture the Dead Union regiment:

  1. It had to be Massachusetts-based, with recruitment out of Boston.
  2. It had to have additional recruits join up in 1864.
  3. Its soldiers had to have fought in battles that might cause them to be captured and become prisoners of war.
  4. When these soldiers were captured, there had to be the possibility that they would be incarcerated at the prison camp in Andersonville.

Lo and behold, I found it: the 28th Massachusetts Infantry. It was also known as the “Irish Brigade,” but not all of its members were of Irish origin. There were many soldiers who came from a variety of backgrounds, including Canadian and other non-US citizens, especially from the pool of newer recruits mustered in during the later years of the war: for instance during February and May of 1864. Perfect.

There is an excellent website maintained by the 28th Massachusetts Reanactment Unit, here, with more information than any history nerd could possibly need, including regimental history, rosters of all the soldiers in every company, accounts of battles and casualties, and transcripts of original soldiers’ letters home. I found tons of valuable information there.

I then hightailed it over to the National Park Service’s Soldier and Sailors System. This is amazing. It’s a database containing basic information about servicemen who served in both the Union and Conferate armies of the US Civil War. There’s a database of soldiers who were imprisoned at either Fort McHenry (Confederate soldiers) or Andersonville (Union soldiers). So if you look up, say, soldiers from Massachusetts regiments who were at Andersonville, you come up with this lovely, massive list of names. 2687 names, to be exact. And if you are me, then you page through all these names until you find someone like John Buckley.

Civil War soldier

Not John Buckley, but William H. Rockwell, Pvt., between 1861 and 1865. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

John Buckley was a private with the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, Company A. He was captured on May 5, 1864 in the Wilderness, in Virginia. He was in prison at Andersonville and survived.

William Brabson was also a private, in the 28th Company B. He was also held at Andersonville and survived. He was captured in Po River, Virginia on May 10, 1864.

John Hart, a private in Company G, was not so lucky. He was captured in Cold Harbor, Virginia on June 1st, 1864 and buried in the National Cemetery.

So back I run to the 28th Massachusetts site, where I look up company G and there’s Private John Hart:

Hart, John. Private. Schoharie, N.Y., 22, laborer;
enl. and must. 3/18/1864; captured 6/1/1864 near Cold Harbor, Va.;
died of disease a prisoner of war, 7/18/1864 at Andersonville, Ga.

and here’s John Buckley:

Buckley, John. Private. Boston, 26, farmer;
enl. and must. 4/16/1864; taken prisoner 5/5/1864 at Wilderness, Va.,
sent to Andersonville, Ga., 6/8/1864. No further record.

and William Babson, who is here called William Brabson:

Brabson, William. Private. Boston, 18, watchmaker; enl.
10/25/1861, must. 12/13/1861; re-enlisted 1/1/1864;
made prisoner 5/10/1864 at Po River, Va.; exchanged 12/1/1864;
prom. Corpl. 5/26/1865; must. out 6/30/1865.

This kind of stuff gives me chills. I particularly loved seeing the professions of the individual soldiers: blacksmith, tinsmith, butcher, teamster, printer, seaman, spinner, compositor, (I think that’s a typesetter) clerk and actor. It’s unvbelievable to me that we know so many details about something that happened so long ago.

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