It’s an often-used phrase, but what does it really mean. On the surface it’s about studying the clues in the picture. People, places, and things are key to our understanding of a picture, but that’s not the whole story. It takes more than pictorial evidence to fit a picture into family context.
Truths and Mysteries
I’ve owned this image of my great grandfather Harry for decades. He’s my family history man of mystery. Over the years I’ve discovered some truths about him, but it hasn’t been easy.
What’s the first thing you want to know about this picture? I bet it’s the story behind its condition. Getting broken into five pieces wasn’t an accident. It was a deliberate act. Someone later glued the picture to a heavy piece of card stock. But who did it and when? An encounter at a family funeral gave me a few clues.
Outside the Frame
The clues outside of the frame of a picture can pop up in all sorts of ways. They might be in a document that you’ve read and studied, but then a second glance reveals a bit you’d overlooked.
An artifact in the family might be a souvenir from a wedding trip or a daytime excursion to a resort. The place and details can suddenly make the pieces of your family history fall into place.
Or it could be a story told by a family member. I’m the oldest daughter of a son who married late. This is important. It means that my cousins are older and have memories of family that passed before I was born.
Harry was my paternal grandmother, Eliza’s, father. According to my mother, Nana loved her father and despised her mother. My Mom was an in-law, but she listened well. Every family has a storyteller, one who takes in all the information and passes it on to the next generation. That’s my Mom. She holds the key to family history both hers and my Dad’s.
Who’s the keeper of the stories in your family?
Researching the Past
When I was nine, I began researching my family history. My Nana was still alive then. I sat with her and asked her about her family. She deflected each question with a “they aren’t very interesting.” She only wanted to tell me what she knew about her husband’s family. As I’ve discovered, her family story wasn’t for young children.
I didn’t realize that this photo of her father existed. It was only after she died that I saw it. My parent’s told me that he was my great grandfather, but my Nana had kept her secrets well. That’s all they knew too.
Adding up the Clues
In this picture a man wears a wide lapeled jacket and a striped tie. He’s the epitome of a man in 1889-1892. All he lacks is the mustache that men favored in that period. By studying the family history, I learned that he married in 1889. This could be a wedding portrait.
This is where most people stop looking. There is now a date and a name for the image. It’s where I ask, “What else?” A photo is only one part of a person’s life. It captures a moment but not a lifetime.
He was still my man of mystery. I couldn’t find the rest of his story. I was stuck and couldn’t break free until a cousin told me about the man.
What Else? Funeral Facts
My uncle had died. I know now that he was the spitting image of the young Harry. Perhaps that’s why Harry’s story came to mind. My uncle reminded this cousin of her grandfather. That’s right. Grandfather. Harry was my great-grandfather.
My grandmother, Eliza, was the oldest of seven. One of her sisters married and had children later than the rest of her siblings. The woman who held the secret was my father’s first cousin. A woman I’d never met before.
According to Jeannette, Harry suffered an accident as a child. Harry had a disability. One that isn’t visible in a picture. He’d stood too close to a steamboat whistle and it affected his hearing. She related that he was mostly deaf.
“What else?” I asked leaning forward in my seat.
“He was a very difficult person to get along with. He had two sisters but he never saw them.”
“What!?” I didn’t know about the sisters.
Those tidbits changed my research and my understanding of this man. I dug around and found his sisters living with their husband’s blocks from their brother. To live so close and yet not talk, seemed a tragedy. Family stories are part fact mixed with fiction added in retelling. It appears that part of the story was true.
Outside the frame means many things. In this instance, it was family lore that filled in some missing information. I can’t prove his deafness but I do know that the family lived on the waterfront so it’s possible.
A New Discovery
When you research a picture or a document, you’re never done. In writing this post, I realized I’d overlooked a piece of family history. I knew that Harry died on December 8, 1910. While examining a census, I gasped. He not only left his wife with six children, he died leaving an expectant wife. His youngest son would never know his father.
This picture is the only one of him that exists. Did his wife break it after he died? Did it happen after an argument? I’m likely to never know the answer to the most curious part of the picture mystery.
What stories hide outside the frame of your family photos. Let’s discover them together. I love finding family history in photo mysteries.