Jaime Lee Moyer: Midnight Secrets and Lies
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How will it be, lady, when there is none left to remember you even as long as this?

I should post a warning here, so I will.

Warning:This post is picture heavy, and deals with the Victorian era’s way of coping with death and loss, touches on the relationship between slaves and their owners, and some people may find these photos difficult to view.

Stars know I find them deeply disturbing and incredibly sad. Onward in any case.

A WAR FOR PHILADELPHIA takes place in 1865, in a south that never fell, in a United States that never existed. But even though the history is different, and a king rules from Philadelphia, I made the decision that things like clothing, furniture, and the basic trappings of life would be the same.

Different time period means looking at a different set of photographs to get the details right. Mixed with the photos of women in high necked dresses and full skirts, or men in waistcoats and top hats, were lessons about grief and the complex emotions generated when dealing with the death of those you love.

The Victorians were better friends with death than we are today, even if “friend” isn’t precisely the right word. While they didn’t embrace the experience of loss, they couldn’t shy away from it either, or pretend death only visited others.

The infant mortality rate in the 19th and early 20th century was appalling, which is saying a lot given current US statistics. Women really and truly risked an agonizing death from child-bed fever, or bleeding to death, each time they had a baby. Vaccines and antibiotics didn’t exist. Children died of measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, and even ear infections. Diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera could sweep away entire families.

Not publicly acknowledging the depth of emotion and not dwelling on loss would be a totally understandable reaction, especially given how often death was an unwelcome visitor. But the Victorians didn’t shun the impact death had on their lives. Instead, they went in front of the camera to record their grief, and remember.

Posing with the photograph of another person signified that you were in mourning for them. All those thousands of photographs of civil war soldiers, both Union and Confederate, were taken so that their wives, mothers, children, and family would have something to remember them by if the worst happened.

And when the worst did happen, and the person you loved never came home, Victorians took more photos to document the loss. I keep trying to understand the psychology of this. Who were these photos for?

Sometime in the 1860s “mourning brooches” and pendents containing photos of dead soldiers came into fashion. The woman in this photograph is wearing a mourning brooch as well as holding a photo of the dead soldier. There are thousands of these photos too, most of them showing women with their outward emotions in check. I suspect that posing for these photos signifies that the attachment was deeper and the emotion stronger, than the calm faces let on.

The most difficult to understand Victorian practice, and the most macabre, was postmortem photography.

Postmortem photography seems so strange–so wrong–to the modern eye, but it was extremely common in the 19th century. From what I’ve seen and read, taking photographs of deceased relatives approached the level of ritual. Photographs were taken of deceased husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and saddest of all, children.

One site I visited called these children and infants “ghost babies”.


I can’t imagine holding my dead child and posing for a photographer. There is so much grief in this woman’s face, so much sadness and devastation. Don’t ever believe anything you hear, or read, about people in the past not mourning their children because death was common. It’s a lie.

There are a thousand possible stories behind this photograph from the 1850s, and a million questions raised by a black woman holding a tiny white baby. This woman must have been important in this child’s short life. That the photo exists at all is a testament to the tie between the two of them.

And the picture is a comment on the twisted relationship between slaves and their owners. I can’t help wondering if the woman cradling the dead infant on her lap was a nursemaid, a nanny–or the child’s mother.

It could go either way.

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2 Comments

  1. --E
    Posted March 21, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I can think of so many potential stories for that last image. If the father is dead or away, and the biological mother died before or concurrently with the child, and the only people left to perform the ritual of the photograph were non-relatives, and someone made the decision that the nanny was the closest person. (But didn’t photograph her face because she wasn’t the bio mom.)

    That’s like the simplest explanation I can come up with, but oh so many more are possible. I’m intrigued that the woman’s hand is clenched in a fist. Is she angry at the child’s death? At being required to sit for this portrait? Is that the only expression of grief she’s allowed?

    Are there any diaries or letters where people talk about such photos? A kind of “I sat for the death photo of little Jimmy today…” where context might give hints to why these pics were taken?

    • stillnotbored
      Posted March 21, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      I haven’t found any diaries like that. If they were written, they were written by the white parents or relatives. Slaves weren’t allowed to read or write.

      Part of why I wondered if the woman in the photo could be the baby’s mother is another research path I’ve gone down. Slavery was sick and twisted, I knew that, but all the kinks were a surprise.

      Slave owners raped their female slaves on a regular basis. The results of this depravity–pregnancy and babies–was predictable. Most of these children became slaves in their father’s household, or were sold as slaves to other masters.

      Due to the wonders of genetics, many of those children looked as “white” as the men who fathered them. When the Union Army began to free slaves during the Civil War, abolitionists used photos of those white looking children in a publicity campaign to gain support for the war among Northerners.
      I have pictures of those children on my Pinterest boards. Their skin and hair wasn’t any different than my children.

      That’s a whole post on it’s own. :) But it’s also why the idea the baby could be her child surfaced.

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