Photo Detective: Unraveling the Past

Photo Detective: Unraveling the Past

This week, while I continue to work on some challenging submissions from readers, I thought I'd tell you about a picture puzzle of my own. I'm always on the lookout for unusual photographs or those that fall into the specific categories I collect. But sometimes a photo that doesn't fit...

This week, while I continue to work on some challenging submissions from readers, I thought I’d tell you about a picture puzzle of my own. I’m always on the lookout for unusual photographs or those that fall into the specific categories I collect. But sometimes a photo that doesn’t fit those criteria has such appeal that I can’t leave it behind. That was the case with this image of an elderly man in his home. Both the man’s age and the information on the back of the image intrigued me. I had a feeling that I could identify this picture.

The photographer’s imprint, “Photographic studio of M. Chandler, Marshfield, Mass., 1879,” provides several clues. By checking A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839-1900 by Chris Steele and Ronald Polito (Picton Press, $89.50), I learned that the photographer Martin Chandler was in business from 1853 to 1896. You can find information about the photographers of your family pictures by consulting similar published directories. Or try searching for them online at www.findingphotographers.com or consulting city directories for business listings.

In 1879, Marshfield was still a small town, so there couldn’t have been many residents as old as this man that year (I guessed he was at least 90). Working with that assumption, my colleague David Lambert of the New England Historic Genealogical Society checked Vital Records of Marshfield, Massachusetts to the Year 1850 compiled by Robert M. Sherman and Ruth Wilder Sherman (Society of Mayflower Descendants). Why check a book that claims to end 29 years before the date of the picture? Well, many vital-record compilations actually include additional information. A quick scan of the listings provided a possible candidate&#151″Samuel Curtis, died 21 August 1879, aged 100, 22 days.”

The final piece of the identification fell into place with his obituary in the Boston Daily Advertiser, on Aug. 25, 1879. (Always check the obituary listings for at least a week after a death date because it often took a few days for the notice to appear.) Here’s what the notice said:

A Centenarian’s Death
Mr. Samuel Curtis died at Marshfield on Thursday, the 21st instant, at the age of one hundred years and three weeks. On the day which rounded out his full hundred years all his living descendants gathered at his house and there was a joyous celebration. He was then in his usual health, and the morning after rose at five o’clock to give the parting word to guests who stayed with him over night. A week before his death he suffered a slight paralytic shock, such as he had experienced before, but this time his advanced years made him too weak to rally. He was born in the house in which he died, and had lived quietly as a farmer all his life.

I had expected to find some information about Curtis, but the last sentence in the notice was a surprise: “On his last birthday he had his photograph taken twice, once alone and once in a group.” The photograph shown here likely is the individual portrait taken at that time. In only a few steps, this man went from unknown to identified. Now I’m looking for the group portrait to complete the set. I’ll let you know if I locate it.

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