To continue in the spirit of Halloween, and since I mentioned it a couple posts ago when I was telling you about lurid Lisbon, I thought I would discuss the cheerful topic of Victorian postmortem photography with you this week.
As we all know, death rates were pretty high in the 19th century, and the average Victorian family was far more inured to the fragility of life than we are today. Sadly, infant mortality was a big problem.
Surprisingly (for 21st century folks who mince around the issue), the Victorians dealt with the reality of death pretty head on. They collected various forms of memento mori to celebrate and remember their dead… and some Victorians employed photographers to photograph the corpses of their loved ones… sometimes as they appeared in life.
Take this picture for example:
This is a picture of two sisters. One is dead and one is alive. But which is which?!?!?! Folks say that the standing girl is actually deceased. She’s being held up by a stand–and look at the discolouration of her hands!!!!!! Creeeeeepy, huh?!?!!?
I’m glad I decided to re-examine this topic because with a little research, I have discovered that I HAVE BEEN LIVING A LIE for the past few years since my ‘Victorian Death’ course. BOTH THESE GIRLS ARE ALIVE!!!! As are all of the standing subjects of supposed death photography floating around/coursing through the veins of the despicable internet.
Interest in postmortem pics really flared up around the time I was reading my masters, and apparently, a whole slew of photographs of the living were misidentified as death photography to sate the modern masses. And we studied them in class!
The truth is, whilst Victorian postmortem photography is definitely a thing, the prevalence of these photographs has been blown way out of proportion and the nature of the pictures has been skewed. Mostly, there is a prevailing misconception that dead bodies were capable of being held upright in stands or frames to achieve eerie life-like standing poses. And sometimes their eyes were painted on to look open and real.
The truth is that these stands were actually used to hold LIVING bodies still (to help get a non-blurry image with the slow shutter speeds) and would not be capable of holding up limp and lifeless bodies. Nor would a body be able to to be posed in rigor mortis. I mean, this makes total sense and seems really obvious when you think about it. Duh. The notion ludicrous. Really. When you think about it. THINK ABOUT IT!
There is some scholarly work out there (not much!) debunking the myths surrounding these photographs, but I think the funniest thing is the presence of this entire website devoted to setting the record straight. These curators are on a noble crusade to correct the lies propagated by Buzzfeed and the like. Tangentially, this is my favourite part from their Q&A section:
Q: What do they mean by “Victorian” anyway? Does that just mean old times?
A: No [you idiot] Victorians were the people who lived during the reign of Queen Victoria of England. It was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 20 June 1837 until her death, on 22 January 1901. As far as postmortem photos go, sometimes people tend to bend these dates a bit. And yes, people who lived during this time in America were also called “Victorians”.
(Okay, the brackets above might be my own addition to this direct quote. But UGH. The combining of all historical periods into the category of ‘olden times’ makes my blood boil and my skin crawl. Old times indeed!)
Anyway, their crusade is necessary. The more I search, the more appalled I am about all the click-bait misinformation on this subject (at the top of all searches!)! I think it’s both insulting to living subjects in the photos and to Victorian culture in general. Even sources like the BBC have supported death photography lies! They reported that the girl on the far left is dead in this photo below… but really she’s just having a bad day and closed her eyes!
Authentic Victorian postmortem photography features sitting or recumbent bodies often in the guise of sleep–closed eyes, peaceful. And infants are especially common subjects. This is so so so sad and might seem grotesque, but you have to look at it from the perspective of a Victorian parent. If their child died super young, they likely would not yet have any photographs of the baby. A postmortem photograph–in a peaceful, light-soaked environment–would provide parents with a lasting positive memory. The photographs would be printed on small cards one could hold in the palm of their hand as a form of intimate and tangible contact with the subject.
I think the notion is really more poignant than macabre. I also think that Victorians had a much healthier relationship with death than we do.
Evidently, these days people on eBay are able to charge more money for Victorian photographs if the subjects are supposedly dead… so, of course, they are scamming the unsuspecting public who has readily bought into the myth of the standing and life-like death photograph.
Interestingly (to me), these modern hoaxes remind me of what happened with Spirit Photography back in olden times–just kidding, back in the 19th century. Photography was obviously a revolutionary invention when it came on the scene in 1839. Unlike paintings or other artistic representations, for Victorians, photographs expressed reality, truth, and facts. So when amateur photographer William Mumbler accidentally developed this double exposure (below) in the 1860s, people were immediately like, ‘That is 100% the ghost of your dead cousin.’
Mumbler was like, ‘Sure, whatever you say!’–and thus the booming business of Spirit Photography was born. Mumbler was eventually discredited and died penniless (people started to recognise living members of the community in his fake photos–whoops!), but his scam lived on throughout the 19th century.
It’s funny (sad) to think how little, as humans, we have actually changed in the intervening 100 years or so. We still look at things, like these supposed postmortem photographs, and see what we want to believe is the truth. And then mock Victorians for being ‘weird’ and ‘morbid’!
You’re weird and morbid, mate!
Ahem, anyway, until next time: KEEP IT REAL, KIDS.
xWG // @dazeandweekes // @weekes
Sources of truth: