Editor’s note: Death as a part of life is a theme previously covered by the Chronicle in the form of a column by Jo Mathis: “Letting Go: Many ways to say good-bye to a loved one after death.” And the topic surfaced tangentially at a recent forum for candidates in the Democratic primary for the state House, when they were asked to comment on a state law requiring death certificates to be signed by a funeral director. In her regular local history column for The Ann Arbor Chronicle, Laura Bien takes a look at the role photography played over 100 years ago in documenting the deaths of children.
It was an era without personal cameras, much less digital memory cards storing thousands of shots. The 19th- and early 20th-century family photo albums in the Ypsilanti Archives often contain only one expensive formal studio portrait of each individual family member, or a single economical group portrait.
Child mortality was high. When a child or other family member died, families would on occasion arrange to have a photograph taken before burial. Sometimes it was the first and last photograph they would ever possess of their loved one.
The fifty-odd family photo albums in the Ypsilanti Archives contain about a dozen examples of these poignant memento mori.
Theodore W. Babbitt was born to 37-year-old Judge John Willard Babbitt and his wife, 26-year-old antique collector Florence Smalley Babbitt on June 7, 1874. The couple already had two daughters, 4-year-old Elonora and nearly 2-year-old Alice. The Babbitts lived in a large home on South Huron street. Florence had seven children, of whom four survived. Theodore died when he was less than a year old.
Theodore Babbitt’s one-sentence obituary appeared in the April 17, 1875 Ypsilanti Commercial. “DIED: On the 13th inst. [instant, meaning in the same month], Theodore W., only son of J. Willard and Florence Babbitt, aged 10 months.”
Theodore was buried in Highland Cemetery in the Babbitt family plot. His badly eroded gravestone bears a sleeping lamb on top, a symbol denoting the death of a child.
The Babbitts were friends with one of the oldest families in town, the Pecks. Seven months before her death, Florence Babbitt found she shared a connection with one of the Peck children. On March 20, 1929, Florence Babbitt wrote a letter to Dwight Peck. “I used to hold you on my lap when you were a baby but I did not know our birthdays came on the same day,” she began, going on to reminisce. In addition to a March 20 birthday, they shared another commonality. Like Florence, Dwight and his wife had lost a child.
Ina May Peck died of pneumonia on the last day of 1902 after falling sick on Christmas. She was 6 years old. The family, who lived at 117 Forest Avenue, printed memorial cards to distribute to friends.
In contrast to the usual gold-on-black card, Ina’s shows gold lettering on a cream background. The card’s date of death is one day earlier than that on her death certificate; perhaps Ina passed away during the night, as the rest of the city prepared to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Ina’s memorial photograph is a photo-montage of a portrait combined with a memorial floral display. Spelled out on one row of white flowers is the legend, “ASLEEP.”
Portraying the dead as sleeping in memorial photographs was common, according to San Jose State University art and design professor Brian Taylor, a history of photography expert. “[There are] many, many images of dead people appearing asleep – so many that there is an entire genre of’ ‘sleeping baby’ pictures,” he wrote in a personal email.
He added, “[T]here were many post mortem photographs made of deceased people, most certainly beautiful little children who died too soon, and there were plenty of professional studios that specialized in that exact genre or subject matter. ‘Secure the shadow before it fades, let nature imitate what nature made.’ This is a rough quote of one post mortem photo studio’s sign.”
An example of this genre from the Ypsilanti Archives is one unlabeled photo from the Aray family album. The photo appears to have been taken at home. The child’s sunken eyes, limp hands, and unusual posture indicate that this is not a conventional portrait. It may be that, as with a few memorial photographs, the child was still alive but deathly ill and the family wished to capture a living likeness before the inevitable.
Another probable example of this genre is a photo of V. Mabel Crittenden, infant daughter of Newton and Emily Crittenden. The ten-month-old child died on Aug. 21, 1869.
Sometimes deceased children were posed as if sitting. A photograph of Maggie Shiers may be such an example. Born in 1879, Maggie was the daughter of Methodist preacher Daniel Shiers and his wife Ida. She was the second of the couple’s children to die young; Maggie’s brother Charles, born in 1874, had died in 1877. Maggie passed away in 1882 just over age 2. Two years later, her brother Harold was born. He died the same year. Ida ultimately had six children, three of whom survived.
In the Aray album, a second probable example of posed memorial photography appears. It is a portrait of Ina Estelle Aray, born March 13, 1873 to Eglon and Alice Aray, descendants of one of Washtenaw County’s first settlers. A hint in this photo is the photographer’s retouching of the baby’s eyes.
In some memorial photographs, pupils were painted on closed eyes for a more lifelike appearance. In others, retouching achieved the same purpose. Retouched eyes are not an infallible sign of a memorial photograph. In a long-exposure photograph, motion of the eyes could result in blurred and indistinct eyes that were occasionally retouched.
Ina Estelle Aray died in June of 1874, just over a year old. The family was spending the summer in St. John’s, Michigan, just north of Lansing. A month after Ina’s death, Eglon and Alice wrote a joint letter home to their relatives. Alice’s portion, with her spelling and punctuation preserved, serves as the last comment on the onetime prevalence of memorial photography.
Dear mother and sister,
I was very glad to get your good letter I know our little one is safe from all sin and sorrow in this world but oh Mother how we miss her she was so sweet the house was full of people the day of the funeral and evry one says she was the most perfect and sweetest [baby] they ever saw she looked just as if she was sleeping and it is a long long sleep if I can live so that I can take her in my arms again I am going to try Mother and sister how I do want to see you and talk with you once more
I wish Eglon and I could come home and Eva is so lonely without little Ina she used to tend her so much she would draw the [wagon] and get her to sleep every day and take her hand and lead her out to see the chickens and now she don’t want to play for she has no little sister to play with – oh Mother we don’t know how much we love our children till they are taken from us give my love to everybody.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
Last column’s Mystery Artifact proved to be no mystery for cmadler, Dave, and Alice Ralph, the latter of whom noted, “The mystery object is no mystery in southern Maryland or tidewater areas. It is a plate for serving oysters, of course.” Of course!
This week’s artifact is a recent Ypsilanti Museum acquisition currently in storage until someone figures out what the heck to do w…er, excuse me, I mean until an appropriate display showcase is arranged. A bit over a foot wide, it consists of a platform supported on three legs. Take your best guess and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.