Behind each picture is a story, and Caroleann’s three portraits are no different. Photo identification techniques can tell you when a person sat for a picture, but it’s the historical and genealogical research that fills in the details of their lives. In this case, Carolanne knows the birth dates of Laura, James and their four children, Flora (b. 1874), Alvah (b. 1879), Wyatt James (b. 1881) and Addie (1883). The family folklore and her research reveal a tragic tale you’d never guess by looking at their lovely pictures.
First, let’s identify the baby in this crayon portrait. I’d estimate this child is around 2 years old. The child is wearing a dress, but the outfit and short hair confirm the sex and dates. During the 1880s, little boys wore “masculine” dresses like this one, featuring less trim than by girls’ dresses. Wide lace collars were in vogue, too. The short hair could be due the toddler’s age or because his mother cut it short to mimic men’s styles.
Notice the ball in his right hand. It’s either a photographer’s trick to help him sit still, or a treasured possession.
The artist or photographer who enhanced the image with charcoal did a good job around the face but didn’t accurately draw the hands and feet. Since the artistic style is similar to that of his parent’s pictures, the work was probably done by the same studio.
Therefore, if this portrait depicts Alvah, it was created around 1881, and if it’s his brother, it dates from about 1883. Either identification is possible.
There is also an emotional story to this image. Around 1910, Wyatt moved to California with a friend to “hook up electricity.” The next year, his mother received a telegram that “Wyatt J Weed accidentally killed eighty dollars in bank wire instructions.”
In a second missive from Wyatt’s friend, his mother learned he died when he “took hold of a drop light in a dark cellar” and that the embalmer wanted seventy-five dollars for a metal-lined box and casket. The friend offered to arrange transportation home. His sister Addie remembered it cost $172 to bring Wyatt back to Maine and that the loss of her son changed Laura forever. Carolanne thinks that’s why the grief-stricken mother would’ve kept this portrait of Wyatt, rather than another son, but the clothing clues suggest it could be either boy.
A picture is sometimes just an icon for the greater tale of your family. Take time to research the life of each person to fit their photograph into their life story. Carolanne has.