“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.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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