Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Easter card arrived today from my dear daughter-in-law Sarah and my loving grand daughter Gracie!  Such thoughtful, wonderful women!  And after all each have been through to still think of their father-in-law and grandpa.  I am truly blessed.

She is the daughter of one of Manhattan's great early merchants, our Sarah is.  In my earliest days of living down state, Charles S. Benson was as much a benefactor to Phebe and I and our little family as he was to become a very close friend and mercantile colleague.  Mr. Benson had begun what would be a long, well established and succesfull career as a grocer and dry goods provider at very much the same time we arrived and I began working in the jewelry and watch repair business.  As I've already indicated, there was many a time when I had little or no money in my possesion.  It was Mr. Benson who extended his helping hand to make certain there was at the very least, food on our table.

Over time, our two family's grew to become quite close and, much like that of my Mattie and John Faris, love blossomed between Ben and Mr. Benson's beautiful daughter Sarah.  On a warm June afternoon in 1860, the two were married.  As a wedding gift and as a sign of my approval for how far he had come in my firm, I announced to one and all that the establishment of J. Gurney would hence be known as J. Gurney & Son.  I don't think anyone who attended the lovely ceremony that day had any thought as to how both marriage and firm would unravel.

Since my bringing him on board three years prior, Ben had proved himself admirably.  He was, to a fault, an eager student and an industrious employee.  Initially, I know it hurt his sense of pride when I insisted he come on in the most menial of capacities.  However, I believed he had put this perceived slight behind him quickly enough and embraced the opportunity to learn and grow which is precisely what did happen.

With my instruction in the science and art of the business along with those of such great photographers as my friend Fredricks, the Pearsall brothers and others in my employ, Ben became an accomplished operator in his own right.  To his credit, he was one of the principals in the enlargement of the carte de visite to that of his very own "Imperial" size portraits which enjoyed a brief run of popularity before cabinet cards came along.

While his photographic skills were certainly accomplished, what Ben began to enjoy the most and what would ultimately cause so much heartbreak to all was the notoriety and the unlimited access to all the city had to offer.  His appetite for both began innocently enough and while concerned, I did indulge him.  He was a young man, newly married and well on his way to a level of success that may some day eclipse my own, I argued with myself.  I must let him make his own decisions.  Still, my concern was never entirely abated.  Even in this seemingly happy time.

Jeremiah Gurney and Ben Gurney carte de visite ca. 1862
Courtesy of Armand De Gregoris

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Contrary to the spurious accusations of my colleagues in the days leading up to the events of April 24th 1865 and directly thereafter, I must defend myself and say I did not dislike Mr. Lincoln.  Indeed, I found him to be an entirely sympathetic and thoughtful man placed in dreadful circumstances.

Year after year, the blood of our countrymen spilled out upon American soil and our president grew weary and old beyond his years and in front of our eyes, if photographic evidence could be testimony to this fact.  As if this was not burden enough, he would bury three of his very own dear children before they could reach manhood.  Contending with the first lady and her madness was still another reason.  All must have weighed heavily on his soul.

I have, like many, heard tales of Mrs. Lincoln and her inconsolation at the loss of one family member after another after another and then obscenely, her husband.  The horrors she has been subjected to in her own right.  I have heard tales of her and Mr. Lincoln's attempts to make contact with their little boys by way of seance, mediums.  I know well of their feelings of not wanting to let go.  Of wanting to believe in something, some means of reaching out once more to my dear Phebe, long in her eternal rest.

Of willing myself to believe in a way of crossing over to the departed.

Ten years had passed and there still was not a morning I did not wake to thoughts of my Phebe.  That long ago winter of '59 and the wicked outbreak of cholera ran throughout Manhattan and the neighboring city of Brooklyn.  In little time, it found it's all consuming way across the threshold of our door on Henry street and after a valiant struggle to persevere, Phebe died in my arms.  I wanted to die with her, having spent days holding her close, praying that the fever would jump across and infect me and leaving her to live.

It was not to be.

January 29th, 1859 New-York Daily Tribune

Days, weeks passed and I was not myself.  All attempts to relieve me of my deep feeling of loss met with little comfort nor respite.  Finally, I resolved to seek solace in attending to my children who had lost even more than myself, the love and devotion of their mother, all too soon taken from them.  While, it was effective, I never stopped loving her and hoping to find some way to make contact with her prior to our everlasting reunion in the great hereafter.

I must admit, like Mrs. Lincoln, my own grief bore upon me my own form of madness lo those so many years on.  Which made it more incredible that, in the spring of 1869, I became embroiled in the trial of Mr. William H. Mumler, a man who purported himself to be a spirit photographer.

Mr. Mumler had been in operation for several years by that time.  His ability to conjure up the spirit of one's departed and invoke them to appear in the sitter's portrait was in great demand.  In fact, Mrs. Lincoln herself was said to have anonymously (so as not to alter the aunthenticity of the outcome) sat for likeness taken by Mumler and, there resting his hand upon her shoulder, was Mr. Lincoln himself smiling benignly down on her.

Enter, the great showman and humbug propagator himself, Mr. Phineas T. Barnum!  Ever desirous of the public's attention, Mr. Barnum and his own various sideshow vagaries were promoted and displayed with the greatest effort towards causing the loudest clamour.  He was a man truly larger than life.  Paradoxically, it was Barnum who contributed to the city's legal charges of deception brought against Mumler.

I wanted to believe, dear reader.  In fact, I entered into the courtroom that day inclined to say as much.  To tell the jury thusly.  That I had seen my loving Phebe's visage once more.  That she stood hovering over my shoulder much like Mr. Lincoln had for his Mary Todd.  While waiting to testify, I looked across the room at Mr. Barnum, his confidence overwhelming.  I wondered how he would hold up if someone so dear to him was to be taken from him.  By chance his eyes met mine and after a moment, I believe I saw something in his countenance change almost imperceptibly.

Maybe he saw the longing that shone in my own eyes even after all those many years.  For at that moment, I saw something similar in his.

April 22nd, 1869 New-York Daily Tribune

Monday, April 8, 2013

"Oh, someone really should run a bullet through that...that vulgar ape!"

Startled from my desk, I rushed to the operating room and there under the skylight stood Maggie Mitchell.  Sunbeams falling upon a mess of red curls, she was dressed in a tattered costume for her celebrated stage role of Fanchon, Miss Mitchell was as fiery and opinionated a woman as I have ever met.  Ben, peering out from behind the camera offered her an encouraging smile until, seeing my countenance of dissatisfaction, disappeared under the operators hood.  I turned my attention on her.

"Miss Mitchell, it is always a pleasure when you grace us with one of your sittings but could you kindly refrain from using such strong language, madam.  We have a long standing policy towards the use of any form of profanity here at our studio."

She thought for a moment and it was then her expression softened and that famous smile that all of American manhood found so appealing and unable to resist settled itself shyly on her beautiful face.  Tenderly remorseful, she apologised.  "Oh Mr. Gurney, I am sorry.  It's just that..."  And as quickly as it was extinguished, the fire in her eyes returned.

Seeking to reason with her I enquired into who could cause her so much grief.  Surely the man was an admirer of hers and thus within her abilities of persuasion?

She looked at me, seething.  "Lincoln." The word emanated through clenched teeth.

There was a time, dear reader, when our martyred and dear president was not as popular as he is today.  In fact, in 1863, the year of this particular visit by Miss Mitchell to my studio, he was very much despised and Miss Mitchell was among the many who felt similarly.

"Miss Mitchell, while my religious upbringing has taught me the futility of war..."  She interrupted me.  "Mr. Gurney, he wants to destroy the south!  To free the slaves!  What little we have left of morality and honor will..." raising her arm and swinging it down emphatically "...come crashing down like Rome!"

For those of you unfortunate to have never seen Maggie Mitchell perform, let me point out, she was magnificent.  As splendid a stage actress as there ever was.  Her timing was flawless and she could add improvisation to any scene asked of her.  Like most men, I found her charming.  Like few, I grew weary at her many moods and often never could tell if she was affecting or sincere.

Attempting to assuage her I reminded her "But Miss Mitchell, our president is a great admirer of yours!  He has said it thus, himself!"  "Surely,..."  I am interrupted once more.

Arms crossed, turning up her nose she admits to me "Mr. Gurney, I could care not a fiddle for his attention!"  "He's a tyrannical lout!"  "A...a...a buffoon!"

Shaking, I turned and closed the door to the operating room.

"Madam!"  "May I remind you..."

Peering at me, she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper "and I am not the only person who thinks he should be done thru."  Her thoughts get the better of her and, as though she's become the only person in the room, her eyes trail off, settling upon the golden sunbeams filtering in through the skylight.

Speaking to herself alone now she smiles and whispers the name.  "Wilkes."

Maggie Mitchell carte de visite, J. Gurney & Son
New York Public Library Photography Collection

Thursday, April 4, 2013

May 1865 Humphrey's Journal of the Daguerreotype & Photographic Arts

The most powerful man in the country during those monstrous days in April, 1865, stared across his desk at me.  His black eyes unwavering and dead.  "Sir, I know all about this assertion of yours, 'historical documentation'.  These photographs..." he looked down at them spread across his desk before continuing and refocusing his attention on me "for you, this is merely a matter of trade."

My heart sank and the dull sound of each beat erupted into that of a clanging bell inside my head.  From my peripherary I saw Ben's movement in his chair, a nervous resettling.  Blessedly, he found the presence of mind to hold his tongue.

There was a saying back then.  A warning to all who lived during the time when habeas corpus was suspended.  It was; Stanton's men come for you in the night.  Simply uttering his name in conversation brought a quiet pause of contemplation and fear.  Edwin Stanton was not simply the Secretary of War, he decided one's liberty if not their longevity.  Edwin Stanton never trifled and he was not a man to trifle with.

Edwin M. Stanton Carte de Visite
author's collection