By Leo Rohr
On this day in 1862, Confederate Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby was killed near Harrisonburg, Virginia during “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Not long after his death, a postmortem photograph was taken of Ashby. That photograph is now in the Museum’s collection.
While the practice may seem morbid to us today, postmortem photography was actually quite common during the Victorian Era. An article from ABC News in Australia explains that the then-recent invention of photography combined with the high mortality rate of the era, especially among infants, led to the practice gaining popularity.
“University of South Australia photography lecturer Mark Kimber said the practice started in the Victorian era with the people who invented photography.
‘Between 1839 and 1860, in the United States alone, 30 million daguerreotypes were made,’ he said.
‘They were the iPhone of the day … everyone had to have one.’
At first, most people tended to have just one or two photos due largely to the expense of the technology at the time.
It also did not matter much to the Victorians if the human subject matter was dead or alive.
Mr Kimber explained that was because death was a much more familiar companion of daily life than in modern times.
‘Death was very much of the world. [It was] around everyone at that time,’ he said.”
You can see other examples of postmortem photography from the Museum’s collection in our online database. To learn more about Turner Ashby and the ways people memorialized the dead, watch the following video.
p.s. If you think that postmortem photography is “interesting” to say the least, you might be interested in another Turner Ashby-related memento from the Civil War.