“Mirrors With Memories”: Why Did Victorians Take Pictures of Dead People?

Emil, Mary, and Anna Keller, 1894 murder-suicide, via the Thanatos Archive
Emil, Mary, and Anna Keller, 1894 murder-suicide, via the Thanatos Archive

“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.” That very early photographers’ slogan—introduced not long after Louis Daguerre announced his daguerreotype process in 1839—may seem ominous, but it reflects the reality of Victorian life. In an age before antibiotics, when infant mortality soared and the Civil War raged, death was a constant presence in the United States. And one prominent part of the process of memorializing the dead was taking a postmortem photo.

Postmortem photography evolved out of posthumous portraiture, a mode of painting in which wealthy Europeans (and eventually Americans) memorialized dead family members by depicting them alongside a slew of symbols, colors, and gestures associated with death. While the people—usually children—in these images might look reasonably healthy, the presence of a dead bird, a cut cord, drooping flowers, or a three-fingered grip (a reference to the holy trinity) often signaled that the subject was deceased. These types of images, popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, served as cherished reminders of loved ones long gone.

By the 1840s, however, the production of memorial images started moving from the artist’s studio to the photography studio—and democratized in the process. No longer were the wealthy the only ones who could afford images of loved ones, in life or death. Photography studios spread throughout the country in the 1850s, and postmortem photography reached its height a few decades later. And whereas paintings might have cost large sums, and daguerreotypes were often luxuries, the ambrotypes and tintypes that followed sometimes went for just a few cents.

For the Victorians, the postmortem photo was just one aspect of an elaborate mourning ritual that often involved covering the house and body in as much black crepe as one could afford, as well as more intimate acts like washing the corpse, watching over it, and accompanying it to the gravesite. Early photos were sometimes referred to as “mirrors with memories,” and the Victorians saw photographing the dead as one way of preserving the memory of a family member. Photos of the dead were kept as keepsakes, displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, worn inside lockets, or even carried as pocket mirrors.

Photographing the dead, however, was a tricky business, and required careful manipulation of the body, props, and equipment, either at the photographer’s studio or at the home of the deceased. Though the majority of postmortem images depict the dead laid out in a bed or coffin, dead children were not infrequently placed in a mother’s lap to keep them upright (echoing the Victorian fashion for “hidden mother” portraits, in which a parent or assistant was draped in fabric as a backdrop with varying degrees of success). Adults were also most frequently shown in coffins, but occasionally photographed in chairs, sometimes holding a book or other props. After the photo session, photographers manipulated the negative, too—to make the dead person’s stare look less blank, or sometimes to paint pupils over closed eyelids.

Some sense of the difficulties of postmortem photography can be gleaned from remarks by leading daguerrotype photographer Albert Southworth printed in an 1873 edition of the Philadelphia Photographer: “If a person has died, and the friends are afraid that there will be a liquid ejected from the mouth, you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under the operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than a single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe out the mouth and wash off the face, and handle them just as well as if they were well persons.”

Today, a lot of myths about postmortem photos circulate on the internet and among the general public. One of the biggest falsehoods, says Mike Zohn, co-owner of New York’s Obscura Oddities and Antiques and a long-time postmortem photography collector and dealer, is that the world’s photo albums are filled with lively looking photos of dead people.

The Victorians “had no issue showing dead people as being dead,” Zohn tells mental_floss. “They did not try to make them look alive, that is a modern myth.” He cautions that Pinterest and other websites are full of images of living people who have been labeled as dead, sometimes with elaborate (but incorrect) explanations of the types of tools that have been used to keep them propped up. “The Victorians also did not use strings, wires, armatures, or anything else to pose the dead,” Zohn adds. “They weren’t meat puppets that were strung up and treated like meat. They were respectful and treated the dead with dignity."

Part of the problem, writes noted postmortem photography collector and scholar Stanley Burns in Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, American & European Traditions, is that the dead of the 19th century often looked better than the dead of today. We tend to prolong life with measures that weren’t available for the Victorians, but the epidemics of the 19th century killed quickly. “Except for children who died from dehydration or from viruses that left conspicuous skin rashes, or adults who succumbed to cancer or extreme old age,” Burns writes, “the dead would often appear to be quite healthy.”

Zohn particularly cautions against the idea that Victorians used posing stands to create upright post-mortems. "The posing stand is similar in design and strength to a modern day microphone stand," he says. "There is no way it could possibly hold up the weight of a dead body. If you see a photo with a person and a stand behind them, it’s a guarantee that the person is alive.”

Jack Mord, who runs the postmortem-focused Thanatos Archive, agrees about the posing stands. “People see the base of these stands in photos and assume it’s there to stand a dead person up … but that was never, ever the case,” Mord says. “Basically, if you see the base of a posing stand in a photo, that’s an immediate sign that the person in the photo was alive, not dead.”

Both Zohn and Mord also point out that many people have a misperception about how expensive photography was during the 19th century. Zohn says, “You could easily get a tintype taken for less than five cents—in some cases as low as one or two cents. It was well within the reach of almost all but the very poor, yet some falsely believe it was so expensive that they could only afford to have one image taken and it would have been a post mortem.” While that might have been true when the photography was first introduced—and it’s true that postmortems might have been the only photo ever made of an infant—it wasn’t a general rule.

Some books on postmortem photography mention checking the hands for signs the subject is dead, noting that swelling or discoloration can be a sign of death. But Zohn says it’s easy to misread this clue: “I’ve seen many images of clearly dead people with light-colored hands as well as clearly live people with dark hands. It’s usually caused by lighting and exposure, but could also be something such as suntanned hands that will appear darker.” A better clue, Zohn says, is the symbolism—flowers, folded hands, closed eyes. An adult lying stretched out on a bed with his or her shoes off can be a sign of a postmortem, since shoes can be hard to put on a corpse. And of course, if someone’s lying in a coffin, there’s a good chance they’re dead.

Postmortem photography more or less ended as a common practice by the 1930s in the United States, as social mores shifted away from prolonged public mourning, death became medicalized, and infant mortality rates improved. But “postmortems never truly ever ended,” Zohn says. Today, several companies specialize in taking photos of stillborn infants or newborns, and the practice of postmortem photography continues as a regular event in other parts of the world.

Today, most Americans have decided that our final image is the one we least want remembered. It’s easy for us to shut death out of our minds, and we don’t necessarily want reminders in our homes. But for the Victorians, death wasn’t weird—it was ordinary and ever-present. Burns writes that postmortems “were taken with the same lack of self-consciousness with which today’s photographer might document a party or a prom.”

Haral & Ferol Tromley, who died at home in Fremont Township, Michigan, of acute nephritis and edema of the lungs, October 1900.

Cabinet photo, circa 1905.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, circa 1848. Sabin W. Colton, photographer.

Silver print, ca. 1920s. On the back is written "Mrs. Conant after death."

Sixth-plate daguerreotype, circa 1845.

Sixth-plate daguerreotype, circa 1848.

"May Snyder, mother of Estell Snyder", circa 1898. Notice the photographer's reflection in the mirror.
Cabinet card; location unknown.

All photos via the Thanatos Archive, used with permission. Identifying information provided where known.

7 Ships That Disappeared Without a Trace

iStock/stock_colors
iStock/stock_colors

There’s something ghoulishly fascinating about a mysterious disappearance, and our vast oceans offer seemingly endless space in which to vanish. The true fate of many of these ships will never be known, but speculation suggests that storms, piracy, mutiny, accidental bombing, and even the attack of a giant squid could be responsible for their vanishings. Below are seven ships that have disappeared without leaving a trace.

1. The Patriot // The disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston (1783–1813) was the daughter of American politician and third vice president of the United States Aaron Burr. Theodosia had a privileged upbringing and a good education, and in 1801 she married wealthy landowner Joseph Alston, who went on to become governor of South Carolina. Sadly, in 1812, Theodosia lost her only son to a fever and she became sick with grief. Desperate for a change of scene, on New Year’s Eve 1812 she boarded the schooner Patriot in South Carolina to visit her father in New York. It is known that the ship left dock and sailed north, but what happened after that is a mystery. It never arrived in New York, and no trace of the ship or crew was ever found. A number of theories and legends have sprung up around the fate of Theodosia—some claim the ship was attacked by pirates and that she was forced to walk the plank, while others suggest that the Patriot got caught up in the War of 1812 and was sunk accidentally by an enemy ship. Perhaps most fanciful of all is the story put forward by a Karankawa Indian chief, who claimed that he rescued a woman who had washed up on shore after a shipwreck, and that before she died she gifted him her locket—with the name Theodosia inscribed upon it. Whatever the story, it is likely that after more than 200 years we shall never know the real fate of the Patriot and Theodosia Burr Alston.

2. The Merchant Royal // One of the richest shipwrecks never found

The Merchant Royal was tasked with taking treasures from the New World to Spain under the command of one Captain John Limbrey. In 1641 the ship was loaded with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver and a huge amount of precious jewels. As the ship entered the English waters, the weather turned bad, but unfortunately the pumps on board the ship broke and it began to take on water. Its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, with whom it had been sailing in tandem, came to the rescue of the captain and crew but were unable to take any of the cargo. The ship disappeared beneath the waves, somewhere off the coast of Land’s End.

Of course, with such valuable cargo, countless people have attempted to find the wreck, which has become known as the “Eldorado of the seas.” In 2007, it was thought that Odyssey Marine Exploration may have found the wreck after it salvaged 500,000 pieces of gold and silver from a site off the southwestern tip of Great Britain. This was later identified as treasure from a Spanish vessel—meaning that the unimagined riches of the Merchant Royal still await discovery.

3. USS Cyclops // Victim of the Bermuda Triangle?

The USS Cyclops was a huge steel-hulled fuel ship, tasked with carrying coal and other useful supplies for the U.S. Navy in the 1910s. On her final journey, the Cyclops set sail from Rio de Janeiro, with a full load of 10,800 tons of manganese ore and over 300 people on board. On March 4, 1918 the ship was spotted for the last time as it left Barbados and sailed into what we now sometimes call the Bermuda Triangle. The ship seemingly disappeared without a trace, and the case has been seen as especially mysterious since no distress call was made and no bad weather was reported in the region. Theories began to surface (some more imaginative than others) that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, attacked by a giant squid or octopus, or been victim of a violent mutiny. A huge search for the Cyclops was launched with a number of boats and planes scouring the area for debris or survivors, but nothing of the enormous ship was ever seen again.

4. The Witchcraft // The “unsinkable” luxury yacht

On December 22, 1967, experienced yachtsman Dan Burack and his friend, Father Patrick Horgan, set sail in the 23-foot luxury yacht Witchcraft to see the holiday lights off the coast of Miami. Unfortunately after just one mile the pair experienced difficulty when it seemed as if the yacht had hit something. Burack calmly called the Miami Coast Guard to report the trouble and request assistance. The official who took the call later commented that Burack seemed unconcerned—perhaps because the yacht was fitted with a special flotation device that was supposed to make the vessel unsinkable. The Coast Guard arrived at the scene just 19 minutes after the call, and were surprised to find no trace of the large yacht, no debris, and no sign of Burack or Horgan. Over the next six days, hundreds of square miles of ocean were searched, but nothing was ever found, and the Witchcraft has been chalked up as another vessel mysteriously lost to the Bermuda Triangle.

5. Andrea Gail // Lost in the “perfect storm”

The Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long-liner boat that fished in the North Atlantic for swordfish. In September 1991 the ship, along with several other fishing vessels, set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts for the last fishing session of the season. By October, the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew was out off the coast of Newfoundland when the confluence of terrible weather fronts conspired to create what has been dubbed “the perfect storm.” The massively powerful winds were whipping waves as high as 100 feet, and any ship caught in their path faced being sucked into the wave and flipped over repeatedly. The devastating storm battered the coast of New England and Canada, and after the worst of it had passed and the Andrea Gail had failed to return to port, a number of rescue missions set out to find the ship—but nothing was ever found. The story of the storm and the imagined fate of the Andrea Gail and her crew was later told in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, as well as a Hollywood movie of the same name.

6. The USS Porpoise // Caught in a typhoon

USS Porpoise was a brig involved in 19th century exploration and surveying missions, taking part in a voyage in 1838 that confirmed the existence of Antarctica and later circumnavigating the globe. In 1854 the ship set sail from Hong Kong carrying 69 men in order to carry out a survey of the South Sea Islands. Somewhere between China and Taiwan, the ship sailed into dense fog and was separated from its partner ship, the USS Vincennes, and never seen again. Many ships searched for the ill-fated brig for over a year, but no sign was ever found, and it's thought to have been wrecked in a typhoon with all hands lost.

7. HMS Sappho // Presumed Wrecked Off Australian Coast

Over the course of a 20-year career, the British Navy ship HMS Sappho worked to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa, intercepting a number of ships loaded with slaves and freeing hundreds of people. In 1857, after wrongly chasing down and boarding an American ship—an event that caused something of a diplomatic crisis between America and Great Britain—the ship was ordered to set sail to Australia. The Sappho reached Cape Town without incident, and from there headed toward the Bass Strait, where it was last spotted by a passing brig on February 18, 1878. Bad weather was reported in the area, and it has been assumed that high winds caused the ship to founder and sink. No sign of the 147 crewmembers was ever found, but rumors abounded that the captain, Fairfax Moresby, had somehow escaped the wreck and made it to an island off Australia, where he was said to have lost his mind.

Bonus: Baychimo // Arctic ghost ship

The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
Mysterious Disappearances, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The SS Baychimo started life as a German trading vessel before being given to Great Britain after World War I as part of reparations. The Baychimo came under the ownership of the Hudson Bay Company, and made many voyages across the Atlantic from Scotland to Canada to trade with local Inuit tribes. In 1931, while journeying to Vancouver with a cargo of furs, the Baychimo fell victim to an early winter, as ice floes surrounded the ship and locked it in an icy embrace. The crew escaped the stricken vessel and fled across the ice floes to safety, but some returned a few days later to try to rescue the ship and its valuable cargo.

After over a month of braving the treacherous weather in a flimsy camp, a huge blizzard hit and the remaining crew lost sight of the ship. Once the storm had cleared, the watching crew were surprised to find the Baychimo had disappeared. They assumed it had sunk without trace. A week later the ship was spotted by an Inuit hunter and the crew raced back on board to gather as much of the cargo as possible. The captain decided the ship was too badly damaged to be seaworthy and so abandoned it, thinking it would soon break apart. How wrong he was. Over the years, the Baychimo was sighted a number of times, sometimes caught fast in ice, other times floating ghost-like through the Arctic waters. The last confirmed sighting was in 1969—an astonishing 37 years after it had been abandoned to its fate.

This list was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

The Time the Soviets Gave the U.S. a Hidden Spy Device—And It Took Seven Years to Discover It

A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
Daderot, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0

In the summer of 1945, at the tail end of World War II, a group of Russian schoolchildren arrived at the residence of the United States ambassador in Moscow—and they came bearing a gift. The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization 1, a kind of Soviet version of the Boy Scouts, presented a large carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States to U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, calling it a gesture of friendship to their wartime allies, the United States.

Harriman hung the wooden plaque in his study at the Spaso House, which served as his residence. But what he didn't know was that the plaque contained a cutting-edge listening device, used by the Soviets to eavesdrop on his conversations whenever they wanted. The plaque hung undetected in the ambassador’s study until 1952—a staggering seven years. It would come to be known colloquially as "The Thing."

The Walls Have Ears

A black-and-white photo of Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The device was the brainchild of the Russian inventor Léon Theremin. In the U.S., Theremin is best known for his eponymous musical instrument, the theremin, which he invented while working for the Soviet military in 1920. But almost two decades after creating the instrument, Theremin found himself in a Siberian gulag. Once in the prison system, he was conscripted to create high-tech radio listening devices in a secret laboratory.

With his second-greatest creation, The Thing, Theremin nearly upstaged himself. Unbeknownst to casual viewers, the wooden Great Seal of the United States he created was like a sandwich cookie, with a tiny capacitive membrane connected to a small quarter-wavelength antenna—which together acted as a microphone—standing in for the cream filling. Theremin's hidden bug wasn't connected to a battery or power supply; the device only worked when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter. This signal came via a van parked nearby that could broadcast a strong radio signal, activating the Thing and allowing the Soviets to eavesdrop, via a radio receiver, on unwittingly broadcasted conversations from within the Spaso House study.

Suspicious Voices

Exterior of Spaso House, residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
Exterior of Spaso House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
U.S. Embassy Moscow, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It was the British who first noticed something was amiss. In 1951, a British radio operator was monitoring Soviet air force radio traffic, in their own bit of espionage, when he recognized the voice of the British Air Attaché. It's not exactly clear what happened next, but the following year, an American listening to military radio traffic picked up a conversation featuring American-accented voices that clearly seemed to come from the Spaso House. A few bug-searching sweeps of the embassy, coordinated with the move-in of incoming U.S. ambassador George F. Kennan in May 1952, turned up nothing. But on September 12, 1952, with suspicions still raised, the State Department's security technicians Joseph "the Rug Merchant" Bezjian and John Ford conducted another search for good measure, knowing that the Soviets sometimes removed bugs and later replanted them.

At Bezjian's directive, Kennan sat at his desk and dictated an important-sounding message to his secretary while Bezjian searched the room with his radio instruments. When he switched on his receiver, he picked up a signal almost immediately. Something was broadcasting Kennan's voice from down in the study, and it was something very close by. Minutes later, the team found just what they were looking for—hanging right on the wall.

That night, Bezjian slept with the device under his pillow so that it couldn't be stolen back by the Soviets. It was shipped to Washington, D.C., the next day to be studied.

Kennan published his memoirs of the period in 1967. In the book, he wrote chillingly about the moment he realized that the Soviets had a microphone in his own private study: "It is difficult to make plausible the weirdness of the atmosphere in that room, while this strange scene was in progress … At this particular moment, one was acutely conscious of the unseen presence in the room of a third person: our attentive monitor. It seemed that one could almost hear his breathing. All were aware that a strange and sinister drama was in progress."

Turnabout Is Fair Play

The U.S. didn't initially confront the Soviets about their discovery, and the device was kept secret from the media for several years. But the word got out in 1960: On May 1 of that year, the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane and then called a meeting with the United Nations Security Council, calling the U.S.'s espionage an act of aggression. The Thing was subsequently trotted out to prove that spying went both ways between the countries—and had for years.

By then, however, the device was well-known to British and American espionage agencies. After examining the bug's technology, the Brits were able to improve upon it and develop a listening device codenamed SATYR, which was utilized by the British, American, Canadian, and Australian militaries throughout the '50s.

It's not entirely certain where the Thing is located today. It was handed over to the FBI for analysis soon after its discovery, and at some point its membrane was damaged and had to be replaced. It was then sent to the National Security Agency, but it's not clear what happened after that. (The NSA likes their secrets.) However, there's a very faithful copy on display at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, along with a detailed exhibit showing exactly how Theremin and his lab built the device.

Unlike the original, handling the replica is encouraged; visitors can open up the wooden cabinet to view the recreated microphone and the resonant cavity inside. It's a way to engage with a particularly bizarre chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations—a time when even though the nations pretended to be friends, it was wise to beware schoolchildren bearing gifts.

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