Tuesday, March 29

The Mystery Photograph

I’m with Liz—I’m just not in the mood to talk about writing and her blog yesterday reminded me of something interesting I thought I’d share with you guys. This will connect, I promise.

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with my cousin, Kay, and as it always does, our conversation turned to genealogy and family history—that happens to us a lot because Kay is genealogist and I’m a huge history buff. We got around to “the wedding photo,” which we both have saved on our phones because this photo is a huge mystery in our family. See? There’s the connection—marriage in Liz’s post; wedding in mine. I told you it would work.

Back to the photo . . .

In 1982, when my Great-Aunt Alice died, the few personal belongings she had in the nursing home came to me. Among them were a couple of pieces of costume jewelry, a photo album and some larger loose photos, her art portfolio from when she was drawing in the 1940s and 50s, and her father’s collection of writings. Her father was a writer and a sports reporter in Chicago during the post-Civil War days through the late 1800s. The story of her father and mother I’ll save for another blog, but I’ll tease you with this: His writings included several semi-pornographic poems circa 1877. Yup, there’s really nothing new under the sun, is there?

When we had our first Cousins Reunion, I dug out the photos from Aunt Alice and brought them with me. They were a treasure trove of family history, except that many of them were unlabeled. Unless someone recognized the folks in the pictures, we had no idea who we were seeing. After looking at dozens of old pictures, dating back as far the 1860s, I began to understand how some family pictures end up in antiques stores. When you’re cleaning out your grandmother’s house of fifty or sixty years of clutter, and there are no names to attach to photos, perhaps it is easier to just abandon them. Thankfully, we didn’t do that.

One of the unlabeled, rather tattered pictures became known as the “mystery photo” and all the cousins took a turn examining it, comparing it to known pictures of ancestors, and peering at it endlessly with the magnifying glass. The photo has five young women, dressed in what appears to be wedding garb–long lacy dresses, headpieces with veils–a photo expert dated it somewhere between 1900 and 1920. We’ve been back and forth a hundred times with who we think these women might have been. So here’s what we know for sure, one is my Great-Aunt Alice (upper right). We verified Alice with a known photo of her taken at roughly the same time where she’s wearing the same necklace she has on in the group shot.

We have no clue who the others in the photo are or what the event is–we’ve considered that it might be a wedding since they’re all dressed in fancy clothes and carrying flowers. But whose wedding? Which young woman is the bride? The one sitting on the settee on the right seems to have a fancier dress and her flowers look more like a bouquet and not a basket like the others–is she the bride?  If so, why isn’t she front and center? The ancestor she looks most like is Kay’s grandmother, Emma, but she got married in someone’s house. This appears to be a really extravagant affair with four bridesmaids in pretty snazzy dresses. Honestly, no one in our family could’ve afforded a big fancy wedding. Besides Kay’s sister swears the woman is not Emma and gave us several good reasons why not, so there you go.

Last week, I tried a new tack—I laid the photo on my dining room table and set several photos of ancestors who could possibly be in the wedding photo around it. All the photos were from about the same era as the wedding picture. Then I showed the display to my friend Dee and asked her, “Are any of these women in that wedding photo?” She gave it serious consideration, used a magnifying glass to examine all the photos, and finally handed me the verifying picture we had of Great-Aunt Alice. “This one,” she announced. “She’s right there. But none of the others are in the picture.”

So . . . there we have it. Apparently, my Great-Aunt Alice was in the wedding of some well-to-do friend or relative. This theory does work because when she was about the age she appears to be in the photo, she did spend a year with her Uncle Billy and Aunt Agnes, who were pretty wealthy. That would explain the fancy dresses, Alice being in the picture, and Alice having the picture among her things. How I wish I'd seen the picture before she died, because now I really want to know whose wedding this was . . .


  1. Oh, I love that Aunt Alice had a life no one knew anything about. She had exciting friendships, probably belonged to a book club and maybe wrote romances under an assumed name!This is the best thing about unidentified photographs--that you can give them whatever identity you like!

    1. Aunt Alice is indeed a story that's been writing itself in my head for years--I may finally have to let her out. And yes, that is the best thing about unidentified photos--at least to a storyteller!

  2. Nan, is it possible this is not a wedding photo? It could be a cotillion or a presentation of young women into society. Nothing like a little family mystery. Hope you find your answers.

    1. Good point, Carolyn. We've considered other events like a confirmation or some other fancy affair. Cotillion or presentation doesn't seem likely given the rather diminished circumstances in our family. However, there is the time that Great-Aunt Alice spent in Denver with Uncle Billy and Aunt Agnes...good thoughts! Glad you came by!!

  3. I grew up sandwiched between my maternal grandparents and my great, great aunt Marge-who I was named for. Aunt Marge's husband died before I was born and she was in her sixties. She never dated or remarried because Uncle Ray was the love of her life. So, imagine my surprise when my grandmother told me one day that Aunt Marge had been married previously. LOL Even though Aunt Marge outlasted my grandmother, she never discussed her first short-lived marriage. The details went with her to the grave. But, sometimes I wonder...

  4. Sounds like you solved the mystery!
    I have a ton of pictures from all sides of the family that aren't labeled, and none of us have any idea who those people are. In this digital age, I'm guessing we'll leave behind very few printed photographs for our descendants to ponder. Kinda sad, really.