Little Mary Sullivan
What it is:
Carte de visite (CDV) measuring 2.5 x 4.25 inches.
What I know about it:
Photographer is A. S. Corey of Clinton, Missouri. Written on the back is Mary Sullivan / Nov 22 – 1874 / D. Dec. 3 – 1875.
Fellow blogger Scott over at DCPhotoArtist posted a comment earlier that got me thinking again about post-mortem photographs. Those would be memorial photos taken of dead people, a practice much more common a century ago or more. I have already posted the only two photos I have in my collection that I believe are post-mortem photos. But every once in a while I wonder about this one. Call me crazy, but something about it makes me keep questioning it. I haven’t posted it because I wasn’t sure, but I figured, what the heck, I’ll just put it out there and let other people decide for themselves. It’s an interesting photo regardless. I usually assume she is alive here because her face seems rather expressive. So how, you may reasonably ask, could this be a photo of a dead person when her eyes are open? Well, propping the eyes open was one thing that was occasionally done to make the subjects look more as they did in life, as was retouching the photo by painting eyes on the finished photo (as well as sitting the body up, tinting the cheeks, etc.). Normally, a post-mortem photo just looks like a photo of a corpse, which it is, but sometimes they are well enough done that it’s easy to be fooled at first glance. And it seems to me there’s a certain collapsed, propped-up quality to her body, which makes me suspicious. Another thing that makes me wonder is this photo, one of the first photos I posted, which I assume is a companion piece, probably a brother to our Mary here. Same photographer, same last name, similar birthdates, and same handwriting on the back. One of the pleasures of doing this blog is learning as I go, and since posting this earlier photo of Artie, I have learned that a hidden adult holding a squirming child still for a photo was a not-uncommon practice for getting a photo taken, particularly when things like head clamps were unavailable or impractical. (Fellow blogger Chelsea assembled a wonderful bunch of images of shrouded adults over on her blog.) While it’s possible that Mary’s photo has been retouched, particularly given the artistic framing, it looks like she’s not being held like the rambunctious Artie was. Was she simply a more sweet, docile child who could be counted on to hold still for the camera, or was she, you know, dead? Finally, there’s the dates. She apparently died at age one year, eleven days. I know I’m terrible at guessing ages, but this photo doesn’t seem far off the mark. I’m still inclined to think that they managed to get a photo of her while she was alive (perhaps making this the only photo of her in existence), but I’d love to hear what others think.