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

“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.

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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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History
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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holidays
23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 11.27.46 AM.png

Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 12.47.23 PM.png

Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.13.18 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.15.15 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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