When A Loved One Died In Victorian Times, People Took the Creepiest Family Portraits

While the fabric of society is of a new yarn and technological advances have changed our world forever, at least one thing remains a constant: the ubiquity of the photograph as a means of documentation. As of 2019, it’s reported that Facebook users alone share 350 million images to the social media platform per day. Now, that’s 250 billion uploaded pictures in the past 15 years. Yet few people would likely consider taking a leaf out of the Victorians’ book and posing for these creepy family portraits.

What’s so strange about the images, you ask? Well, they’re actually part of the 1800s and early 1900s phenomenon known as post-mortem photography. That’s right: each picture features a deceased person, almost always alongside at least one mourner. And, weirdly, it’s not always a straight pose next to a coffin containing the deceased, which most of us could cope with.

Yet post-mortem photography was viewed at the time as an acceptable – and normal – part of grieving. And these incredible, if somewhat incomprehensible, images were also captured at a time when photography was still a young medium. But the idea of possessing the likeness of a late loved one was not conceived with the advent of photography.

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It seems, then, that the desire to have some tangible way of remembering those who have passed is an all-too-human experience. For in the pre-photographic era, such memorials took the form of after-death painted canvases – keepsakes increasingly commissioned by wealthier Americans at the beginning of the 19th century.

Indeed, artist William Sidney Mount was the artist behind a couple of the better known post-mortem paintings. One of these was Mount’s 1837 depiction of Jedidiah Williamson – a young boy who’d died after being hit by a cart. And Mount probably didn’t realize how lucky he was, considering he was paid a healthy wage before the arrival of photography.

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Yes, according to My Daily Art Display, Mount received the sum of $15 – or around $400 in today’s money – for Williamson’s portrait. And the resulting painting sensitively depicts its deceased subject as if he were still full of life. My Daily Art Display also claims that the Williamson family would likely have been thrilled.

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However, Mount reportedly asked mourners for at least twice the usual price for his regular work. Why, you ask? Well, because he was – understandably – uncomfortable with these kinds of paintings. So this high price tag made it unlikely that lower income families would’ve been able to afford such portraits.

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But the newly found photographic method, known as daguerreotype, was to create an entirely new medium through which people could memorialize the deceased. Yes, Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre revealed his groundbreaking process to the world on August 19, 1839. And it wasn’t long before prospective professional photographers began taking advantage of the novel invention.

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Simply put, the daguerreotype was the foremost photographic process that allowed the general public to take and receive pictures. Yet the way in which the daguerreotype captured images was by no means straightforward – or cheap. You see, the photographs were not printed on paper, for one thing, and they were extremely delicate.

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But even so, daguerreotype studios opened up in American urban centers in no time at all. In fact, more than 70 such establishments cropped up in New York City before the midpoint of the 19th century. And the development’s most widespread usage was for the simple portrait. As we’ll find out, however, the method of capturing an image by daguerreotype was, initially, rather protracted.

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For you see, there wasn’t a negative involved; instead, the picture was imprinted straight onto a smooth, highly shined copper plate. And, to add to that, it meant that each image was a one-off. Also, the process of producing the primitive snap could demand up to a quarter of an hour of everybody’s time.

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In spite of this, when the kinks were worked out, photographers could successfully capture their subjects’ likeness in under 60 seconds. And the small portrait produced was ideal for a keepsake by which to remember a family member. Furthermore, it was quicker and more economical than a painting.So what did people think of the new technology right at the beginning?

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Well, the excitement that surrounded the medium is perfectly illustrated by a letter written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1843. Yes, the English poet wrote that the daguerreotype represented “the very sanctification of portraits.” What’s more, she “would rather have such a memorial of one [she] dearly loved, than the noblest artist’s work ever produced.”

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Meanwhile, in 1849, T. S. Arthur wrote about how a grieving elderly woman fainted after seeing a daguerreotype of her late daughter. For this was the only picture of the lady’s offspring to have been taken – a state of affairs almost unimaginable today. And in an 1862 correspondence, U.S. poet Emily Dickinson also recognized this wish to hold on to a dead relative’s likeness.

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That’s correct, for she wrote, “I had no portrait, now… It often alarms father. He says death might occur, and he has moulds of all the rest, but has no mould of me.” Therefore, a picture could act as not just a representation of the person, but also a commemoration of them.

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In this light, it’s somewhat easier to comprehend the desire to own a photograph of a dead relative. And in the case of children, where parents weren’t likely to own many photos of them anyway – that is particularly understandable. Yes, a mourning parent may indeed have wished to gaze upon any image of their dearly departed, even if it meant it being captured post-mortem.

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Moving on, the daguerreotype remained popular until the mid 1800s – when it, too, was supplanted by quicker, more economical processes. First came the ambrotype, which enjoyed a decade of popularity after its 1854 patenting. And one of the differences between the ambrotype and the daguerreotype was the former’s plate.

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You see, the image captured during the ambrotype process was actually printed on a glass plate, rather than metal. And the way the production of the image worked differed from the daguerreotype method too. So these two factors combined seemingly made ambrotype photography a cheaper method of portraiture than the daguerreotype.

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Then there came the tintype – available throughout the rest of the 19th century. This new photography replaced early forms of the art due, in large part, to its economical and efficient means of delivery. In fact, a tintype could be taken and then given to a customer within a quarter of an hour.

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Now, the images were printed on metal – usually iron – but not tin, as the name would suggest – and the process became in demand during the mid-to-late 1800s. So, as we’ve seen, each new development meant that photography became increasingly available to all classes at all times.

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Still, the idea of placing oneself in a post-mortem portrait seems somewhat less understandable. For this new practice was, after all, an evolution of the concept of the after-death painting, and one that focused as much on the grieving living as the peaceful dead.

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Yet the phenomenon occurred in line with what author Karen Halttunen called a more maudlin society, with its “cult of mourning.” As Halttunen claims in her 1982 book, Confidence Men and Painted Women, “In the nineteenth century, the dead vied with those who mourned them for iconographic attention, and often lost the contest.” So what does this mean?

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Well, it all stems from the fact that the Victorians were seemingly forever surrounded by death. You see, the Victorian era is defined as the time that Queen Victoria sat on the throne in the United Kingdom. That is, from 1837 to 1901 – or the majority of the 19th century.

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And the 1800s saw a series of deadly diseases spread throughout the entire country. Take cholera, for instance. According to The Gazette, cholera was responsible for the deaths of 14,000 Londoners in the years 1848 and 1849 alone. But that’s not even the worst of it.

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In fact, BBC America has insisted that cholera caused the deaths of “tens of millions of people” as it spread throughout the century and the entire planet. Yet cholera was far from the only disease to affect Victorian society. Nor was it the only one to have a lasting impact.

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For instance, Tuberculosis was rife throughout America and Europe during this period. Known as consumption, the disease worked on its victims slowly, eventually leaving them little more than shadows of their former selves. Yet the Victorians actually romanticized the spread of tuberculosis – and its symptoms even inspired fashion.

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Yes, the Smithsonian says that Victorian women used make-up to emphasize pale skin, rosy cheeks and blood-red lips – essentially tuberculosis symptoms. Plus, the magazine states, mid-19th century corsets greatly shrank female waistlines, possibly to give the impression of frailty. And it wasn’t just fashion that took inspiration from the disease.

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Consider, if you will, some of the most famous fictional works of the era. For example,in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, prostitute Fantine is slowly worn down by consumption – which represents the failures of society. Similarly, the operas La Traviata and La Bohème offer an almost romantic look at the deadly condition.

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So it’s clear that the Victorian era was one seemingly afflicted with death and disease at almost every turn. Yet it arguably wasn’t until 1861 that those left alive and mourning began to – as Halttunen claimed – vie with the dead “for iconographic attention.” In that year, you see, the Queen herself suffered a devastating loss.

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Indeed, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had been married for over two decades when the prince likely succumbed to typhoid. Now, he was 42 years old at the time and still considered relatively young. But the impact of his death on the Queen was so bad that the monarch spent the rest of her life in a state of mourning.

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Furthermore, the Queen seemingly took mourning to unusual levels, too. For one thing, her royal highness donned only black clothes from that point onwards. Also, she made fewer and fewer appearances in public, often seemingly preferring to keep her own company instead. It was partly for these reasons that the Queen is known as the “widow of Windsor.”

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But the monarch’s apparently odd behavior didn’t end there. According to Royal Central, the Queen insisted that her deceased husband’s quarters were tended to in much the same way as if he were still alive. Apparently, this even involved staff taking hot water up to the room in the mornings.

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Although the BBC claimed that the Queen made mourning “fashionable,” this prolonged state of grieving actually worked against the monarch. In fact, it created some resentment towards the crown and even encouraged admiration for the growing Republican movement in Britain. For instance, radical MPs called for the Queen to be removed from the throne.

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So the idea of finding a way to remember your lost loved one is certainly not an unusual or uncommon idea. And at a time when even the British Queen could be seen dwelling unhealthily upon her own grief, non-royals appearing in pictures alongside their dearly departeds is maybe to be expected.

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But that’s not to say that post-mortem photography went away altogether. Actually, it’s claimed that the practice continued into the 20th century – and it even made something of a resurgence after the turn of the new millennium.

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For example, in 2008 London’s Wellcome Collection museum exhibited Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta’s Life Before Death series. And this was a display featuring photos of several individuals prior to and following their deaths. In fact, British newspaper The Guardian called it “a challenging and poignant study.”

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However, the same words have not been used to describe these Victorian-era family portraits with the dead. Instead, they’ve been labeled “creepy,” “bizarre,” “freaky,” “unsettling” and “strange” – among other things. But maybe it’s because, culturally, we’ve gotten used to post-mortem pictures being kept in one place, and one place alone.

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Yes, the most obvious practice of post-mortem photography these days occurs during police work. For police investigators often request photographs to be taken of a corpse and its surrounding environment. This might not be the only time that a person’s remains are photographed, either.

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During a coroner’s post-mortem examination more images can be ordered of specific areas of the body to aid the investigation. Yet it’s highly unlikely that a coroner or a police detective would insert themselves into these pictures.

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So viewed in context, and especially considering the heartbreaking loss of those family members portrayed – perhaps these pictures can be considered touching and thought-provoking. On the other hand, they could just be a little on the strange side.

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