by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This Sunday’s Beyond the Grave program of special tours discusses how attitudes in the United States regarding death and remembrance changed significantly during the Homestead’s interpretive time period of the 1840s through the 1920s.
One dramatic element of these changes was the use of the new technology of photography to document recently deceased loved ones, something very alien and foreign to our modern sensibilities, but a way for people in the nineteenth century to remember their loved ones.
The Homestead has several examples of post-mortem photographs in its artifact collection. The photo highlighted here, however, is from a loan by Thomas E. Temple, whose great-grandparents, John H. Temple and Anita Davoust, owned the Homestead from 1888 to 1899. John was one of eleven children born to Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, with three of the children dying as toddlers.
Given the prevalency of infant and child mortality at the time, having three of eleven children pass away before adulthood was not necessarily unusual or unexpected, especially when there were outbreaks of diseases, whether it was smallpox, scarlet fever, diptheria, measles, influenza or others.
The Temple children who died young included two boys both named David Harrison (who was the uncle of their grandfather, William Workman. David Harrison left much of his substantial wealth in Clifton, England to William’s father, which provided the means for William to migrate to America). The first David was born in 1853 and died three years later, the same year John Temple (whose middle name was also Harrison) was born. In 1858, the second David Harrison was born and he died the following year at the age of 15 months.
Then, in 1863, the second of three daughters in the family, Agnes, was born. She passed away two years later and it may be because of her that younger brother Walter and his wife, Laura Gonzalez, named their surviving daughter Agnes, when she born in 1907. Walter and Laura did lose a daughter, Alvina, shortly after her birth the prior year.
The causes of death for the three Temple siblings are not known, with no surviving public records that would have recorded such information known to exist and a newspaper listing for the death of the second David Harrison not stating the cause.
As for the photograph, it is a daguerreotype, which was more commonly used in photography in the 1850s, but could have been used up until the mid-1860s, when little Agnes passed on. The original, which has a hand-tooled leather wrapped wooden case with a plush purple lining, is in very poor condition with fading and discoloration from exposure to water or some other liquid.
What it shows is a child, wearing a white gown with wide sleeves and a headdress with a floral band on it. He or she rests on a white pillow on what appears to be a covered table or bier, though it is impossible to tell given both the condition of the image and the focus of the view.
The main question is whether we can tell from appearances whether this was 2-year old Agnes, the 3-year old elder David Harrison or the younger David, who was 15 months when he died. To this observer, it appears more likely that this was the younger David, but appearances can be deceiving!
In any case, the taking of a photograph of a deceased loved one, especially a very young child such as this, is a particularly compelling and telling example of how people in the mid-nineteenth century memorialized the dead through the medium of photography.
Generally, people were photographed very infrequently, so post-mortem images would be understandably more common given that rarity. In the case of the Temple children, living in the frontier town of Los Angeles, where photographers were few and far between before the 1870s, such a photo was likely the only time an image could be had.
By the 20th century, improved healthcare and a dramatic decline in infant and child mortality meant that post-mortem photography became far less common. In addition, the availability of the personal camera and the advent of the snapshot from the 1890s onward meant that photos became far more common and the post-mortem image was rendered obsolete.
To learn more about mourning practices and other elements of American attitudes towards death, click here for the flyer for the Beyond the Grave tours.