Thursday, October 25, 2012

Photo Sleuthing

So, I get this big box of unsorted photographs that belonged to my father-in-law. Who knows where he got them. Photographs from different sources ended up in the same box--cabinet cards, tin types, cartes de visite, slides, glass negatives. But the minute you start separating them you are potentially discarding the clues that could tell you who these people are. It turns out that many of them are actually connected.

Here's an example. I find a number of photographs with the last name Henderson on them.  The Census provides me with basic clues, but some of the siblings have already left home and married by 1900. I can't find anything in the 1880 Census, but there are some useful newspaper articles. At the turn of the century and even into the 1940s, local newspapers would often let you know that Mr. and Mrs. So and So were hosting her sister Mrs. Everett Squires and the name of the town she was from. This it what brings it all together.

The writing on the back of this photograph, taken in Stamford, New York, tells us that this is Mary Henderson when she was 18 years old. The 1910 Census shows that she was born in 1881 and lived in Neversink, Sullivan County, New York with her husband, George Muhlig (more on them in a future post.)

Mary Jane Henderson

Then there's a photo labeled Hannah Thompson. I would have missed the connection, despite the resemblance, if I hadn't found a newspaper article that identified them as sisters. She was born Hanna Henderson in 1877 and the 1910 Census shows her living in Middletown, New York with her Husband, Andrew Thompson. Just in case I had any doubts about her last name, the Census shows that her aunt, Nancy Henderson, lived with them.

Hannah Thompson
10/31/13: I just found a photo of the aunt, Nancy Henderson, so I'm adding that. I'm sure she was a lot friendlier than she appears.

There's a photo labeled Will Nesbitt and family, with a woman looking very similar to these two. Sure enough, she turns out to be Anna Eliza Henderson, born in 1868. The 1910 Census shows her living with her husband, William Nesbitt and their 5-year-old son, George Earl.

Will Nesbitt and family
There's another photo with the name Elizabeth Squires written on the back. I would have missed the connection here if it hadn't been for the newspaper article that referred to one of the sisters as Mrs. Everett Squires. Elizabeth Henderson was born in 1885 and is show in the 1900 Census living in Middletown, New York with her parents and brothers James and John.

Elizabeth Squires

This photo is labeled John Henderson, Grandma's brother.  John was born in 1887.

John Henderson
And then there are the photo postcards with Jay Johnson written on the back of them. This must be James, born in 1883.

There are probably other photographs in this box that are related to these in ways I will never know. But at least I know to keep these together. More on the Nesbitts and the Muhligs coming soon.


  1. Great detective work - it's so satisfying to make connections.

  2. Heaven - a bag of photos to investigate! Yes, I try and keep photos that 'arrive together' together, as sometimes it's only later that one becomes aware of any connections. I have a (single) photo from the US of Muhligs (I think the u may have had an umlaut), maybe they'll turn out to be related to yours :)

  3. I think your investigative work here is why I am so interested in old photographs. The old adage that they tell a thousand stories is so true. I love investigating what I can in old photographs. Of course, the writing on the back also helps, too! Well done.

  4. There's nothing like making that "aha!" connection; pulling things together to make a whole...and I'm now an official follower, Christine; just as you're about to take a break. But at least something will pop up in my dashboard when you come back...

  5. You seem to have missed your vocation, you'd have made a great detective.

  6. Very interesting. You have to be careful when studying women in history due to the name changes.

    1. Yes, Nicholas, you are so right. Although a few women stayed unmarried, it was more likely that they would marry early. And often, even newspapers will refer to a couple by the man's name only, i.e. Mr. And Mrs. William Nesbitt, so it's very hard to keep track of them. It's also easy to confuse someone who was born Mary Henderson with someone who married and became Mary Henderson, so ideally you would want multiple confirmations of the last names. Sometimes you can get this from the Census, particularly if one of the wife's parents is living with the couple.

  7. My father wasn't the connection-oriented detective that Christine is, he was just fascinated by stuff- he didn't really understand why people wanted to get rid of all these interesting old things, so he bought them at an auction or picked them off the curb, and brought them home. He had to put them somewhere then, and it was wherever there was room- a bit in the basement, some in the attic, these things in the garage, and oh, this looks nice so I'll hang it in the living room- it is understandable how what may have been connected was scattered. An innocent looking dresser might be more akin to an archeological dig when you opened the drawers, with layer upon layer of finds tucked in there over the years.

  8. My husbands family are Hendersons..interesting photos you have. I did not recognize any of the names:(

  9. That chair Elizabeth and Aunt Nancy are sitting in doesn't look friendly :)



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