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<2017 June>

by Maureen A. Taylor

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# Sunday, 30 October 2016
Death Photography: Is it For Real?
Posted by Maureen

Forget all those postmortem photography slideshows that have gone viral, like this one. Only a few of these photos that supposedly show deceased people are actual postmortem images.

Many of these supposed postmortem images show people who are very much alive and posing stiffly due to exposure times of up to 20 minutes, perhaps supported by metal braces photographers often used with subjects to help them remain still. Or a photographer may have darkened a person's blue eyes so they show up better (which does give a creepy effect).

Photographing the dead is an old tradition. Photo history author Dr. Stanley Burns divides postmortem photos into two types: "One portrays the person in death, and the other ... poses the person as if they were still alive."

Some of his collection is part of an exhibit called Securing the Shadow:Posthumous Portraiture in America, at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City through Feb. 27. It shows how to spot photographs and other art that truly memorializes the deceased.

Thank you to Dr. Stanley Burns and the American Folk Art Museum for allowing me to use two images from the exhibit.

Children were commonly photographed after death. Epidemics and the lack of modern antibiotics raised the mortality rate of infants and small children, and a postmortem photo might be the family's only picture of a child. Here, a grieving father poses with his baby. Sometimes the whole family surrounded the deceased in a last chance for a family portrait.  

c. 1860

Check women's listings in the 1900 or 1910 US census to compare the number of their children born versus the number still living. It can be shocking.

An obvious sign of death in a portrait is a body in a coffin. The body may be adorned with flowers or for a child, a favorite toy.

c. 1844

In this image from a 2008 blog post, the family gathers behind the casket at a funeral.

Some photographers did employ techniques to make a deceased person look more life-like. That included tying a person to a chair or tying their chin so that the mouth wouldn't open. Hand-coloring the image could enhance the image. 

Mourning images are more common than postmortem images. Spot  evidence of a death in your family album by watching for the following.
  • a woman wearing jewelry, such as a brooch or pendant, made with hair and featuring a photo
  • a photo featuring dead flowers or arrangements of flowers with a picture in the center.

  • A person holding a photograph of a person who has died.
  • a woman dressed in black, but this is tricky. Dark colors and even some bright ones, like orange, appear black in old photos. And our ancestors might wear other colors while mourning. Some mourners wore lavender, depending on their relationship to the deceased.

If you're not sure whether you have a postmortem photograph, look for death records, newspaper obituaries or a mention in a family document dating from the same time as the photo.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • SaveSaveSave
    men | mourning photos | negatives | postmortem | props in photos
    Sunday, 30 October 2016 19:02:16 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [1]
    # Monday, 28 December 2015
    A Year's Worth of Photos: 2015
    Posted by Maureen

    This was another amazing year of photo columns.  Thank you for sharing your family pictures and for re-posting your favorite photo detective blog posts on social media. Can't wait to see what 2016 will bring!

    Here's a month by month overview of your favorites. Please click links to see the full stories.

    Imagine moving and leaving photographs behind. It happens more often than you'd think possible. January's first post featured a portrait of a man found in a house. He's still a mystery.

    February's post on photo jewelry explained how you can read the clues both in the photos and the settings to discover when a piece of jewelry containing a picture was made and/or worn.  Sometimes pictures were replaced in jewelry settings.

    Comparing faces whether you do it using software or just using your eyes can be tricky. Family resemblances can lead to misidentified pictures. Here's what you need to know to sort out the twenty plus points in a person's face. 

    In April a Gold Rush town picture yielded clues for one family. If you had family living in Shaw's Flats, California, you might spot a relative in this group picture.

    DNA is this year's most talked about genealogical topic but inherited traits can show up in pictures too.  A six-fingered ancestor in one family collection was full of identification clues. 

    June brought clues to help you spot a blue-eyed ancestor in a picture.  Try these tips with your photos.

    It took Michael Boyce to make the right connections to solve his family photo mystery. Here's how he did it.

    One of the most challenging clues in a picture are military uniforms. There were no standardized uniforms in the nineteenth century, but August's column lays out three techniques to sort through the evidence. 

    The clues in September's graveside photo fit together to tell a story of one family's funeral, just not the one the family was expecting. Read all about it.

    Our ancestors dressed like their favorite popular icons from politicians to performers. See how this one young woman dressed like Annie Oakley and see if you can spot these clues in your own collection.

    November focused on facial hair. Imagine writing today's Presidential candidates to influence their facial hair fashions. That's exactly what one little girl did. The true story of Abraham Lincoln's beard is noteworthy.

    Nineteenth century brides didn't usually wear white. They wore nice clothes and so did their grooms which means that wedding pictures are often overlooked in family collections. In Wedding Clues: 1855 Peter Whitmer and his bride Lucy Jane McDonald dressed to the nines for their nuptials.

    1840s photos | 1850s photos | 1860s photos | 1900-1910 photos | Abraham Lincoln | Annie Oakley | beards | daguerreotype | facial resemblances | Gold Rush | group photos | jewelry | men | Military photos | mourning photos | photo jewelry | photo-research tips | wedding | women
    Monday, 28 December 2015 17:00:44 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Sunday, 04 October 2015
    Mourners in Old Graveside Photo
    Posted by Diane

    This old graveside picture is proof that family photographs are inherited differently in every family. Sometimes the pictures go to the oldest, sometimes the youngest, and sometimes they get scattered among descendants.

    The same can be true for genealogical information. Huge online genealogy databases like and can help bring all that data and those pictures back together.

    Pam Fisher got this photo from her cousin Mary Fehr. Pam's theory that it depicts the funeral of her great aunt Edna, who died in 1890, didn't agree with the circa 1919 date for the picture. In last week's post, I studied the evidence and theorized that the graveside mourners are close family members and that the deceased could be a child.

    Pam also submitted an image of her great-uncle Benjamin F. Shepardson (born 1863). She thinks he's standing in the group of mourners near the grave. I agree. Matching photographs of individuals involves looking at all the facial features and the spacing between those features. It's also about adding up the facts of their life and making sure the picture details match those facts.

    In this case, they do. Benjamin lived in the vicinity of the funeral. Here's a picture of Benjamin taken in the 1880s and a close-up of him at the funeral. This single portrait together with an image I found online (owned by a distant cousin) helped break the case.


    A quick search of turned up multiple family trees for descendants of the Shepardson family. Several siblings were still living in the circa 1919 period: Arthur (b.1860), Benjamin (b. 1863), Oliff (b. 1867), Pliny (b. 1873), Bessie (b. 1875), Otis (b. 1880) and Victor (b. 1884). Edna (1869-1890) and David (1877-1893) were deceased.

    Benjamin was a favorite uncle amongst the descendants of his siblings—so special that his memorial on Find A includes a testament to him as "Beloved Uncle Ben." He lived in Castle Rock, Cowlitz, Wash.

    I wondered if there were more Shepardsons buried in the Whittle Hubbard cemetery there. Turns out the answer is yes. There's is a family plot there as well. A photo of the cemetery appears on the site. All those evergreen trees and the rolling landscape looked familiar. Bingo! The graveside picture appears to have been taken at Whittle Hubbard.

    Suddenly there was another possibility for who's being mourned: Bejamin's mother Flora died in 1915.

    All the information about the family online might hold a clue to who's standing graveside. Now take a look at the man on the far right: He also resembles Benjamin. 

    This could be Benjamin's older brother, Arthur. Looking at public family trees for the Shepardsons on turned up another picture, this one of their sister Bessie. She could be the woman in the front of the group of mourners or the woman in back standing next to Benjamin.

    Below, I've added suggested identification to the people in the picture. This is a long way from saying exactly who's who. More information is need on where these people lived to gauge whether or not they could have attended the funeral.

    I'm playing devil's advocate with the rest of the identities, estimating how old people might be in 1915. Arthur (55), Benjamin (52), Bessie (40), David (38), Otis (35) and Victor (31). Two of the brothers are missing: Oliff and Pliny, who would've been 48 and 42 in 1915. Now it's time to try to find images of all the siblings and match them up to the folks near the grave. I'm confident that additional research can solve this mystery. 

    It appears that images of the siblings are scattered in collections owned by distant cousins. Pam's going to have fun trying to track down those images. In the process she'll be bringing the descendants of these mourners back together.

    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • 1910s photos | mourning photos
    Sunday, 04 October 2015 12:25:03 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Sunday, 27 September 2015
    Graveside Clues in an Old Photo
    Posted by Maureen

    Our family photo collections are full of pictures of happy occasions, such as weddings, parties and kids having fun.

    But sometimes the camera was used to document a sorrowful family history moment. Pam Fisher owns this graveside group portrait from the Shepardson family. She thinks it was taken in southern Washington state.

    She also sent along a second photo for comparison. It's possible her great uncle Ben stands in the back row on the right of this group photo. Next week, I'll compare the two images and see if that's possible.

    Before I do that, though, I need to study the clues in this picture. If these clues suggest the picture was taken after Ben's death, then he naturally won't be in the crowd. "When was it taken?" is the first question to answer.

    Hats are a great piece of evidence to determine a photo's time frame. Sometimes women held on to favorite hats for years. In other cases, a woman who couldn't afford to update her entire wardrobe would purchase a new hat to look more fashionable. The hats in this group date from about 1919. Each one has a brim and a rounded crown, typical details from that time frame.

    The people at the grave are likely close relatives to the deceased.  

    So who died? The size of the grave and the two people standing closest offer insights into who's buried there. It's a small grave. Standing behind the mound is a man and a woman. They don't look very old. I'm wondering if they could be parents of a child who died. They might also be siblings of the deceased.

    The expressions on their faces convey their deep sadness over the loss of this person. Behind them stands a middle-aged man. An older man with similar features to the first middle-aged man stands to the side. They could be grandparents.

    It's important to remember that this picture represents a gathering of family and friends. It's a useful family history document.  
    • Who died?  Study family history to see who dies circa 1919. The flu epidemic of 1918/1919 occurred in three waves in those years. Perhaps the deceased contracted that illness.  

    • Who's in the family group? If the man in this grouping is great-uncle Ben, this information may help to identify the couple in front of the grave.

    • Who else is at the funeral? I'd look at the family tree again to see who lived in southern Washington state circa 1919, then examine family photos for pictures of those individuals. Next step is to compare those pictures to the faces in the crowd.

    The lack of foliage in the background and the mourners' heavy coats suggest it's cold outside. These details further narrow the time period. It's winter or spring of 1918/1919.

    While this image depicts a sad moment for Pam's relatives, for their descendants the very existence of this picture is worth celebrating.

    Next week I'll try to spot great uncle Ben. 

    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • 1910s photos | men | mourning photos | women
    Sunday, 27 September 2015 16:23:16 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Tuesday, 21 April 2015
    Photo Clues in 19th-Century Funeral Cards
    Posted by Maureen

    Funeral cards are nothing new. In the 1860s, mourning cards were popular after the assassination of President Lincoln, but not to announce the death of an average person. By the 1880s, though, it was fashionable to print cards to memorialize relatives.

    This funeral card dates from 1891 and is printed on the type of cardstock also used for cabinet card photographs.  While this card features just life and death dates for Mrs. Jane Early (and a poem), it's not unusual to see cards with floral arrangements or photographs of the deceased taken while still alive.

    Dark cardstock was popular in the 1880s and doesn't necessarily declare an image to be a memorial card. White or cream card stock was also used. The presence of a death date on the item is what confirms it to be a funeral card.

    These card were handed out at funerals or sent to friends and relatives to announce a death. The use of this style and format peaked during the cabinet card era of 1880 to 1900.

    Thank you to Jim TeVogt for emailing this card!

    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • 1890s photos | Abraham Lincoln | mourning photos
    Tuesday, 21 April 2015 16:58:38 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [1]
    # Monday, 13 January 2014
    Puzzling over Black Dresses
    Posted by Maureen

    Rebecca Foster wrote to me: Most of my elder family has passed away, so I am struggling to piece together my family history. I believe this is my third-great-grandmother Mary Ann Fagan.


    Rebecca initially thought this could be her in 1860s mourning dress, but she's right to doubt her initial assessment. This is an older woman. Mary Anne had a daughter in 1881, so an 1860s date is unlikely.

    She wears a dark dress, but is it black? It's possible the photographer colored only the chair and background, not the dress, making it appear the dress is black. 

    Photographic methods of the 19th century and early 20th century made many colors look black in photos.
    This woman posed around 1900 to 1910. Wicker chairs with curled backs appear in photographs taken in the 1890s and into the first decade of the 20th century (and a bit beyond).

    The dress has full sleeves and a pleated bodice. She could be wearing mourning clothes, but before making that determination, I'd like to learn more about Mary Anne and her family. I'll email Rebecca and see what else she knows.

    The rules for black mourning dress in the 1860s were set by Queen Victoria, and included black fabric without a sheen, black crape covering the face and a total lack of color. However, the rules for mourning varied based on the relationship to the deceased, and not every woman in a black dress is in mourning. 

    Other colors also were popular to show respect for the deceased. There are additional details in Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album.

    Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album

  • 1860s photos | 1900-1910 photos | mourning photos | women
    Monday, 13 January 2014 17:52:03 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [1]
    # Monday, 05 December 2011
    Storytelling Pictures
    Posted by Maureen

    You never know what you're going to find in a family photo collection.  If you have an odd picture, please send it along. You can email it to me.

    Dario X. Musso sent me a lovely family photo:

    Seated on the right side is Nikita Radionov. Dario's grandmother is next to him. This photo of the Radionov family was taken circa 1919. 

    The curious part of Dario's family collection isn't this image, it's the series of photos taken of Nikita's funeral in 1929. He was dragged to death by a horse. 



    I've shown you two of the four images Dario submitted.  From the size of the crowds at this funeral, it appears that both family and townspeople attended this event. 

    Photos like this are an opportunity: I'd scan the faces to find other relatives. It might end up being the only known image of a particular person.
    1. Start with the front row and the pallbearers. Those individuals are likely family members or close friends.

    2. Compare the faces in the family group portrait with the individuals at the funeral. 
    If you had relatives living near the Radionov family in Russia, then you might find your family represented as well. I'll double-check the location with Dario and publish that next week. 

    Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album

  • 1910s photos | 1920s photos | group photos | mourning photos
    Monday, 05 December 2011 16:45:32 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Monday, 02 August 2010
    Your Mourning Pictures
    Posted by Maureen

    Two weeks ago I wrote about mourning traditions and clothing and asked for e pictures of women wearing mourning clothes. This week, I'm featuring the two I received as well as one from my work collection of images.

    davison headstone2 (3).jpg

    Toni Mann sent in this very interesting photo.  It's a 20th century snapshot. It blurs when I enlarge it, but I think the women in the far background are wearing clothing from the early 1900s. The woman to the left of the headstone wears late 1890s mourning clothes. Perhaps her husband is buried there. Toni thinks it was taken in the Chicago area. Anyone recognize the headstone? 

    edit1907 Hulse family reunion Greenville TX (2).jpg

    Charman Davis emailed this photo of the Hulse Family August 1907 reunion. The woman on the left lost her husband the previous month.  Everyone wears light-colored summer clothes except for the widow.


    I bought this photo several years ago. It dates from the late 1890s and depicts a woman in mourning standing by a burial. It's a new grave, based on the fresh flowers piled on it. It's intriguing that a widow would hire a photographer to take her picture in this setting.

    You'll find advice for creating, sharing and saving your family's photographs in the Family Photo Essentials CD, from the editors of Family Tree Magazine and Memory Makers magazine.

    1890s photos | 1930s photos | mourning photos
    Monday, 02 August 2010 16:25:55 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [4]
    # Monday, 19 July 2010
    Mourning Clothes
    Posted by Maureen

    Ten years ago, I analyzed a photo sent to me from a woman in New Zealand. In the New Zealand Mystery, I discussed the family information, but also described her clothing and how it indicated she was in mourning.

    Queen Victoria set the standard for both wedding attire and for mourning. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, she wore black mourning clothes for the rest of her life. In the Victorian era, men would wear a black armband when someone died, but women wore full black crape (the 19th century spelling for crepe) dresses for a year and a day. Then they wore just crape-trimmed black dresses for another 21 months. (Tortora and Eubank, Survey of Historic Costume, 348). 

    But what if your family didn't have the resources of the woman depicted above?  A wardrobe of mourning clothes probably wasn't economically feasible. Instead, clothes could be rented or borrowed for the funeral. According to the 1877 article by Henry R Hatherly, "Mourning Clothes as a Source of Infection" (Sanitary Record: A Journal of Public Health, Google Books), less-fortunate folks were spreading disease by wearing clothing worn by others—in particular, skin and parasitic diseases.

    Not just Queen Victoria's subjects followed mourning customs. This week I looked at a tintype from Dresden. The dark clothing and the large hat with long, heavy fabric at the back suggests this 1880s woman is in mourning. The style of the hat is a bit unusual. I think the browband helps keep the hat on her head.


    If you have any 19th-century photos of family wearing crape, I'd love to see them. You can e-mail them to me.

    Need help researching, preserving and displaying your family photos? Visit for how-to books and CDs.

    1850s photos | 1880s photos | mourning photos | unusual photos | women
    Monday, 19 July 2010 15:47:35 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]