There were a number of things that struck a chord with me during our visit at the Museum of Mourning Photography, so many that it is difficult to chose what to write about. Like Evan, I was taken in by the many photos of mothers cradling their deceased children, their eyes fixed on the camera, the secrets of what thoughts occurred in their heads during the minutes required to take the photo now buried as deep as the dead children in their arms.
I was overwhelmed by a photo in one of the Sleeping Beauty books of a young woman seated, eyes open, book in her lap as though she has just been reading, and scrawled along the side of the photo is written "Mother not ready to let go of only daughter--photo taken after dead 9 days." According to the notes in the back of the book she had been put on ice so her mourning mother could delay burial.
Then there was this photo:
This is the Parsons family of Houston, Missouri. They were murdered by Jodie (or Joda, or Jody, depending on which source you are researching) Hamilton on October 12, 1906. It is not clear how exactly they died--or rather, there are several different versions of how they died. First Jodie shot Barney (or Carney) Parsons when he confronted him and his family on a road as they were departing Houston, Missouri. Mr. Parsons had sold his share of crops/land to Hamilton as the family planned to leave town, but apparently there was bad blood and the deal did not run smooth. Parsons and Hamilton did not like each other at all, and Parsons haggled the price until he was satisfied; clearly Hamilton was not. So after the family packed up their things and got on the road out of town, Hamilton decided to follow them and confront Parsons again. It did not go well; Jodie shot Barney Parsons, then beat him with the butt of his rifle until the patriarch of the family was dead. This is were it gets a little murky...he then beat Mrs. Parsons to death with the rifle in some accounts, in others with a pole ax. I've also read that Mrs. Parsons was pregnant. In other accounts, she was not. In some accounts he also beat the children to death, in others he slit their throats with their toy knives. He then loaded the bodies into the wagon and drove them over to Piney Creek where he threw them into the water. Not long afterward fisherman found the bodies after they had traveled some downstream. The bodies were pulled from the water, and the photo above was taken of the whole family. Unlike most mourning photos we have seen, this has details that speak to the violent deaths these people endured. Just as the dehydrated, skeletal children tell of the horrors of cholera, the Parsons family tell a tale of murder.
In this way, this photo represents for me a hybrid of sorts. It is part mourning photo, part evidence without being at the scene of the crime. They are part sleeping, part bloodied. They look at peace, but the marks upon their relaxed faces reveal that they did not know peace in death. No doubt this photo was used to provoke anger and sympathy in that small, midwestern community.
Jodie, Joda, Jody Hamilton eventually confessed to the murders, but tried to claim insanity due to a kick in the head he received from a mule as a child. The law didn't buy it. He was hanged on December 21, 1906. He was hanged twice; apparently the first attempt was unsuccessful, so they had to bring him back up on the gallows, retie the noose and try again. One the second try, he died. He was twenty years old.
The murders were featured in the New York Times. You can read the original article, published on October 15, 1906, here.
On a side note, not at all related to mourning photography but still the dead, there is another old NY Times article I found from August 2, 1902 about a gravedigger's strike that happened in Chicago. Funeral processions already in progress were turned away from the cemetery gates as a result of the strike. You can read the article here.