Talking Pictures: Haunting Photos of the Dead

Ransom Riggs

Growing up, I collected pictures of people I didn't know. I lived in South Florida, the land of junk stores, garage sales and big-tent flea markets, and if I didn’t try hard to avoid these places I would invariably be dragged to at least one a month, where amidst endless dusty aisles of sock monkeys and needlepoint portraits I found boxes of yellowing snapshots, discarded by old folks who had died or children who hadn’t seen fit to save them. It was in one such box that I found a photo of a teenage girl who I thought looked a bit like a friend of mine. It came sealed in a little cardboard frame. There was something about it that I really liked, so I bought it and stood it on a bookshelf in my room. This is it:

Eventually I needed the shelf space for books, so I decided to put the girl's picture, along with a few other old snapshots I'd collected, into an album. To fit the girl's picture in the album, I had to take it out of its frame. When I did, I found this written on the back:

That's when I realized that for the better part of a year, a dead person had been staring down at me from a shelf above my bed. In the back of my mind, I suppose I'd known she was dead all along -- it was an old picture, after all -- but the fact that she had probably died soon after the photo was taken disturbed me profoundly. She was no longer anonymous. Now she had a name: Dorothy. And suddenly I found myself grieving, in a small, quiet way, for a forgotten person, my own age, whose own family had probably not thought of her in decades. Smiling and doomed, Dorothy haunted me for some time.

Like Dorothy, all the photos in this week's column are of, or about, the dead. While most aren't terribly graphic, I'd advise sensitive readers to move on -- or check out last week's column, Love and Marriage, instead. I'm posting these with minimal commentary; they're powerful enough on their own.

Roy + Polly Adams
Butcher at local market

They were traveling by auto up the east coast of Florida at night. Had a flat tire and pulled onto the shoulder to change it. They were hit by another auto from behind and Polly’s leg was crushed. Later amputated but gangrene had set in and she could not be saved.

Mama + Grace -- 1953
Where Daddy was killed

Honey this is my mother's grave and I just wanted you to see it ok
love Ruth

Boy pushed off the bridge over Schuylkill + drowned. I buried him. His mother is nearly distracted. She lives at 1306 Ellsworth Street. Her name is Mrs. Mowatt.

Jack Mord from the Thanatos Archive found the photo above, and also dug up an excerpt about it from the book Violent Death in the City:

The same jury finally managed to ignore a bill for murder brought against ten year old Frank Dougherty, perhaps because he was rushed before them in convulsions, a reaction to confinement without bail in Moyamensing Prison. He was accused of having pushed another ten year old, Nelson Mowatt, off the banks of the Schuylkill nearly a year earlier, on August 23, 1899. At that time an inquest had cleared him, partly because Mowatt's mother testified that the incident was accidental. The woman had since changed her mind and come to believe that Frank had killed her son out of rivalry for the affections of her employer, Henry Magilton, a kindly old gentleman who was wont to shower the boys with mandolins and bicycles.

This is not exactly a picture you would want to show to everyone but had one made for each of you, as I thought you’d like to have it as it is the last one we ever had made together. I’ll always be grateful for that 2 weeks alone at Desert Hot Springs as it seemed to mean so much to him. He seemed perfectly content and happy.

Around our anniversary (awful) 1951

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