Sunday, July 27, 2008

This Is Lydia and She Is Dead.

The trunk was probably my great grandmother’s. It was obvious to me that the contents were the collections of Ida Conrad Longwell and her mother. The small picture caught my eye. It was alone in the trunk, not in an envelope, not with other pictures, just loose among the albums and papers. It is card size, about what we’d call ‘business card’ size today. I didn’t recognize the handwriting on the back as any that I’d seen before so this person must have been of an undiscovered generation before my great grandmother’s. I knew ‘Lamb’ was a family name.

But who was Lydia?

The line back from me to the Lamb family goes like this: Me, my dad Kenneth Brandes, his mother Floy Longwell Brandes, her mother, Ida Conrad Longwell, her mother Judith Lamb Conrad. That was as far as I’d taken my research at the time.

But who was Lydia?

During the years that followed the discovery of Lydia’s picture in about 1984, she stayed in my mind. Actually, I told people that she “haunted me”. Perhaps it was her challenge for me to continue to try to discover more about her and how she was related to me…or not. I took the picture out from time to time to just look at it. And, she continued to haunt me.

Before the photo technology that we have today where most of us use digital cameras, in order to get a good copy of a photograph you had to have a negative made and a print or prints from that. I know that most of you who read this will remember those times but it is necessary to say this as it is part of the story.

During the 1980’s I had a lot of negatives made from my old photographs. At that time we lived in Altus, the small town in southwestern Oklahoma just down the road from Frederick where my Dad was born. There was only one photographer in town that made negatives from old photographs, an elderly man who worked from his home. I usually took him a few pictures at a time to make copies as it was an expensive thing for me to be spending money on while we were trying to raise four kids. One particular trip to see him, I took Lydia along, kind of as a whim thinking I might be glad to have a negative of her at some point.

While discussing the order (you can see the old man's shaky writing: “2-3x5” on the back) I mentioned to Mr. “X” (darn if I can think of his name!) that Lydia had haunted me for years. His response was…”Well, she’s dead!”. “Of course she’s dead.” I said, “It says so on the back of the picture!”. I said this while laughing, thinking I might soon become hysterical. “No, no” he said, “She was dead when they took her picture!!”.

Oh, my!

At that point in my research experience I did not know that people even considered taking pictures of dead people although since then I've taken many myself. I found that it was a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It may have been the only photograph ever taken of a person. (There are lots of websites on the subject. Just search “postmortem photography” and you'll find more than you wanted to know).

“She was dead when they took her picture!!” No, wonder Lydia haunted me!

But, who was Lydia? It took me another ten years to find the answer.


RabidGenealogist said...

I was looking at the photo, and it doesn't appear that her pupils were "blown" -- completely wide open. Not sure if that means she was still alive or not, or if someone recorded her exact age at the time the photograph was taken. I love the photo! She looks so knowing and peaceful1

Suzy said...

I guess I did leave the impression that I thought the man was right when he said she was dead when they took her picture. I agree that her pupils don't look right and other details in the picture cause questions as to the date that it was taken.
My purpose in telling the story was to record the discovery of Lydia's picture and how it inspired me to search further to find out who she was. Certainly more research was required to learn more about the date of the picture and more about Lydia herself.
I'll post about that in the future.