Post morten photography

Post Mortem Photography – A Tradition of the Victorian Era

The tradition of post mortem photography began around the 1880s as a way to creating a lasting memento of a deceased loved one. As photography was still a relatively new technology, it was very expensive, and sometimes the person remembered in death only appears in this one photograph.

Painfully, many subjects of post mortem photography are children. The subjects are frequently propped up by a device to make them appear life-like, are held in the arms of their parents, or are in chairs or beds with toys or other comfort objects.

Credit: Facebook, POST Mortem Photographie

  Credit: Facebook, POST Mortem Photographie

Post mortem photography, Montreal circa 1880

Montreal, Circa 1880. Image via Pbase by Gregory Sullivan.

Today, on Halloween, these pictures are floating all over Facebook as a nod to our creepy Victorian ancestors. I find these images, especially those of young children and babies, heartbreaking. I cannot imagine the pain of these parents made to sit very still for the photographic process, holding their dead baby to create one final, lasting image.

Post mortem photography

Image via Tumblr

Have you come across these images in your own research? Do you find them creepy, or an incredibly painful image full of love and loss?

Take a look for yourself at some of the following websites:

17 Haunting Post-Mortem Photographs From The 1800s: This Victorian-era mourning tradition is fascinating. Warning: Pictures of dead people ahead.

These 21 Victoria Era Post-Mortem Photographs Are Unsettling. How Was This a Thing?

People In The 1800s Did THIS With Dead Bodies

If you are searching for post mortem photography images, many have curated on Pbase, by Gregory Sullivan, and as part of the Thanatos Archives.

Featured Image Credit: Facebook via Buzzfeed.


Freedmans Village, researching African American Genealogy

African American Genealogy – Finding Your Roots

Editor’s Note: The following piece from our archives by the late Carolyn L. Barkley contains excellent resources and tips for researching African American Genealogy.

Over thirty years have passed since Alex Haley’s Roots captured the imagination of the nation and helped fuel an explosion of interest in genealogical research. During the intervening years, thousands of individuals have begun the journey to discover their past. As they have added to their knowledge, the genealogy “industry” has added exponentially to the richness of the resources available and to the technology that makes possible convenient access to those resources. The media has recognized the widespread interest in genealogy in general, but African American genealogy in particular. Shows such as the PBS series “History Detectives” have showcased the opportunities to learn more about our ancestors and their experiences. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, hosted a series of television programs showcasing genealogical research, and especially the use of genetics in genealogy, in uncovering the roots of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock. His new book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past (Crown, 2009) documents this research while profiling celebrities like May Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones. Given the continually increasing wealth of resources available to researchers as well as the frequency with which new information is brought to our attention through the media,, now is an extraordinary time to begin researching African American roots.

The African American research process begins like any other:

  •  Gather together your family’s documents, letters, photographs and memories. Organize them using standard genealogical practices and forms. Books such as Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007) and George Morgan’s How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy (McGraw/Hill Osborne, 2004) will assist in this process.
  • As you organize your family archive, begin to verify the information in original sources such as births records, marriage licenses, death certificates, wills, deeds and military records. Books such as Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s County Courthouse Book (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., Spring 2009) and Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (CR Publications, 2004) will help you determine where specific records are located. You will also want to check online resources such as Family Search, provided by the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints to gain additional clues.

After verifying information gathered from your family and documenting the names, dates and geographical locations you’ve discovered, your next step is to research individuals in each census beginning with the 1930 federal census and moving backward in time, generation by generation. Continue reading…

Whaleback (Ledge) Lighthouse, Kittery, Maine, USA, about 1950.

Lighthouse and Life-Saving Service Records

Editor’s note: This formerly archived post by the late Carolyn L. Barkley explains the historic background of the United States lighthouse system, and how the interrelated management of the lighthouses and life-saving stations is crucial to utilizing records to find your relatives. If your ancestor was a lighthouse keeper or a member of a life-saving station crew, these records are essential to your research. If you have an ancestor who may have been lost at sea, or who may have been a sea captain whose vessel foundered on the rocks in a gale, records exist which may contain detailed specifics of their experiences or the circumstances of their deaths.

The United States Lighthouse Establishment

In 1789 the ninth act passed by the new United States Congress required that the twelve lighthouses, under individual state control during the colonial period, be ceded to the new federal government. The United States Lighthouse Establishment was created to oversee “aids to navigation” and was placed under the aegis of the Treasury Department.

At first, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, reviewed contracts and appointed keepers, but in 1792 he turned over that responsibility to the Commissioner of the Revenue, where it remained until Albert Gallatin, a close confidant of Thomas Jefferson, became the fourth Secretary of the Treasury in 1801. Following Gallatin’s two terms in office, the responsibility for the Lighthouse Establishment reverted to the Commissioner of the Revenue until 1820, when Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, assumed the responsibility. Local-level administration fell to the various collectors of customs.

By 1822 there were seventy lighthouses. Succeeding years saw a quantum leap to 256 lighthouses by 1842, in addition to thirty light vessels. Throughout the mid-1800s, the Army Corps of Engineers played an increasing role in choosing sites for lighthouses as well as in their design and construction. The quality of service deteriorated, however, to such an extent that by 1851 Congress was forced to investigate conditions at the nation’s many navigational aid facilities. This work resulted in the establishment of a United States Lighthouse Board that operated between 1852 and 1910.  By 1896 lighthouse keepers had become civil service employees and by 1910, there were 11,713 aids to navigation (lighthouses, light ships, buoys, etc.) throughout the country. During that year, Congress abolished the cumbersome Board and authorized the establishment of the Bureau of Lighthouses under the Department of Commerce. The Bureau remained in existence until 1939, when its responsibilities were transferred to the United States Coast Guard. Continue reading…

Holland Land Company map of Western New York.

Holland Land Company Records: Land Research in Western New York State

Editor’s note: The following post from our archives, written by author Karen E. Livsey, provides insight into the information contained in her two volume work, Western New York Land Transactions: Extracted from the Archives of the Holland Land Company. Ms. Livsey is the Library/Archivist at the Fenton History Center in Jamestown (Chautauqua Co.), New York, and she serves as the Ellicott (N.Y.) Town Historian. She has previously appeared as a member of the Genealogical Publishing Company booth staff at national genealogical conferences.

It has been over 200 years since Joseph Ellicott completed a two and one-half year survey of the Holland Land Company’s holdings and the main land office opened in Batavia, New York. My two-volume Western New York Land Transactions: Extracted from the Archives of the Holland Land Company (Volume 1 and Volume 2) provides detailed information that can solve land research problems in western New York State. An understanding of these records and their contents, however, is a must for their successful use.

Individual settlers accounted for the majority of the sales of land in western New York State by the Holland Land Company during its thirty-plus years of operation. In the 1790s, the Dutch banking houses that created the Holland Land Company had purchased large tracts of land from Robert Morris totaling 3.3 million acres. Today that land is all of Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, and Cattaraugus counties, most of Orleans, Genesee, and Wyoming Counties, and the western part of Allegany County. Many of the early settlers coming into that area of New York State were from New England and eastern and central New York, in addition to some from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They were followed by immigrants from Europe. Continue reading…

Orphan Train flyer

Suffer the Little Children – Orphan Trains in America

In this post from the archives by the late Carolyn Barkley, the history and role of America’s orphan trains in a children’s diaspora is discussed. If you are having trouble tracing a child in your family history during the time period of 1853-1930, looking into the orphan trains may help you in your search.

It is dark and the wind whips up the few leaves that have found their way into the gutter. A figure, hunched against the night’s cold, appears in the dim light of the street lamp. She cautiously, and almost furtively, lays her carefully wrapped burden on the doorstep, gives it a lingering caress and then disappears back into the shadows. A few streets away, a small, grubby child begs for food on the corner, perhaps assessing each pedestrian as a possible candidate for pick-pocketing. Sound melodramatic? Surely. But scenes such as these were enacted on the streets of New York during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

Immigration had brought many hopefuls to America’s shores. It is estimated that in the approximately twenty years between 1841 and 1860, over four million immigrants arrived; by the turn of the century, over one million were landing each year. This influx of newcomers, often poor and with no immediate prospects in their new country, caused many problems. Housing was limited; jobs were often unavailable to immigrants; food was scarce; and diseases were common-place. The support that might have been provided by members of extended families in the “old country” was not available in the new. Laws regulating – and ultimately restricting – immigration would not be enacted until 1917, although there was a Chinese Exclusion Act as early as the 1880s. The result was the abandonment of children on the doorsteps of private homes, churches, and other institutions that might provide them with shelter and care, and a growing number of homeless childrens eeking out a poor subsistence on the streets.

In New York City, two agencies began to address the issue. Continue reading…