In 2018, the Oshawa Museum will be publishing a book focusing on the amazing collection of Henry family letters that were donated to the archives in 2013. One of the more prolific letter writers was Ebenezer Henry. Who was Ebenezer Henry?
Ebenzer Elijah Henry, or E.E., was the youngest of five boys born to Thomas and Betsey Henry. Sadly for the young family Betsey died on November 12, 1829 when Ebenezer was just one year old.
The death of Betsey left Thomas alone to care for five young boys aged 9 to 1. While a sister of Thomas’s came to help the family in their time of grief, Thomas knew that the boys would need a mother. Through series of letters, Thomas began courting a young woman from Port Hope, Lurenda Abbey. They were married on November 2, 1830 and Lurenda moved to Port Oshawa becoming mother to five young boys.
By all accounts, Ebenezer had a fairly typical childhood of the time period. Lurenda took to her new role as mother and raised the five boys as if they were her own. The family grew to include ten more children. They had a farm and a fruit orchard on which the boys would have been expected to work. Thomas and Betsey built a frame home where they started their family. Sometime around 1840, Thomas and Lurenda had the stone house that stands today, constructed for the family.
Along with his siblings, Eben’s education most likely began at the small log cabin school located in School Section #2 Cedardale. The school was located approximately 2.5 kilometres from the family home. It is unclear if Ebenezer attended high school. We know that Ebenezer attended Starkey Seminary, located in Eddytown, New York. In a letter written to his father, Ebenezer recounts returning to the Seminary and once again seeing his teacher, Professor Edward Chadwick. Prof. Chadwick became head of the Seminary in 1847, and Ebenezer attended the school sometime between 1847 and 1851.
It appears that during his time in New York State, Ebenezer met Harriet E. Mills. Harriet was living wither mother and step father and is listed as a student in the 1850 US federal census. While it is not yet clear if Harriet was a student at the Seminary, as it was approximately 23 kilimotres from the family home, it is clear that this is when Ebenezer met Harriet. Sometime between 1850 and 1852, the couple wed and moved back to East Whitby Township and settled in a frame house located close to his father’s home.
In around 1857, the couple left East Whitby Township and headed east to Port Hope, the hometown of his step-mother Lurenda. Once there, Ebenezer opened a photography studio. He not only created ambrotype photographs for his patrons, he could also produce copies of daguerreotypes, engravings, painted portraits and other such art work. The studio moved several times during his time in Port Hope, but it did appear to be a successful business venture.
In 1866, Ebenezer and Harriet moved from Port Hope to Leavenworth, Kansas where he once again opened a very successful photography studio. Even with the distance between them, Ebenezer maintained relationships with his family in Canada. The letters sent by Ebenezer to his father offer us a unique opportunity to learn more personal details about the family and provide glimpses into family dynamics. While Ebenezer would return to Canada to visit family, he made Leavenworth this home until his death February 7, 1915.
As the research for the upcoming publication continues, it has been pleasure to learn more the Henry family on a more personal level.
E.E. was the last of five sons born to Thomas and his first wife Betsey. His childhood was spent along the shore of Lake Ontario where the family lived and cared for their farm and orchard. As E.E. reached his late teens, he attended Starkey Seminary in New York State, and it was here that E.E. met his future wife Harriet. They married, lived briefly in a home close to Henry House before moving to Port Hope where E.E. opened his first photography studio. Photography appears to have been E.E.’s passion and one he took with him when he and Harriet moved to Leavenworth, Kansas. It is here that he began, unbeknownst to him, a photography collection that would document the growth of Kansas and showcase the people who called Leavenworth home.
We have been fortunate to create a partnership with the Leavenworth County Historical Society. This partnership will help both sites to better understand the life and impact of E.E. Henry. The following article showcases the hard work by their Historical Society to bring this collection home and to make use of it to learn more about their history.
Museums around the world often count a historically significant photographic collection among their holdings. While sometimes taken for granted by the general population, as common place as they may seem, these collections offer an instantaneous window into history, many times without the need of accompanying commentary. Such artifacts will maintain their importance overtime and henceforth gain wider acclaim, appreciation, and recognition in their own particular time and place in history. It is not every day that a collection is uncovered that spans 100 years of a single town’s history, specifically from the early days of its founding and from work carried out by its pioneer photographers. What is even more significant is the that these images depict life in a western town, from which the United States border advanced. Before Kansas became a state, the western most border of the United States was the Missouri River and the infant town of Leavenworth became the First City of Kansas.
In 1998 the Leavenworth County Historical Society in Kansas acquired such a collection in the form of thousands of photographic negatives—glass plates, nitrates and safety film—representing the first century of Leavenworth history, from the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now known as “The Autry National Center”) in Los Angeles, California. That same year, nearly 4,000 negatives were acquired from David R. Phillips, photographer-collector of Chicago, Illinois, who had purchased the original collection from the Miss Everhard Photography Studio in Leavenworth upon her retirement in 1968, when her efforts to sell it locally were unsuccessful. Over Labor weekend, four tons of glass plate negatives were removed from Miss Everhard’s Leavenworth studio, loaded into a U-Haul van and transported to Chicago, Illinois. Comprised mostly of portraits, the collection represents the elite and founding fathers of Leavenworth, Kansas, the first city of Kansas and gateway to the West. In addition to the cross-section of the people of Leavenworth County, from the wealthy businessmen and society wives, to coal miners, Ft. Leavenworth soldiers, store clerks, and children, there are also photos of Leavenworth homes, the Old Soldiers’ Home, St. Mary College, storefronts, parades, and government buildings.
Miss Mary Everhard, for whom the collection is named, had purchased the studio of early Leavenworth photographer, Harrison Putney in 1922. This studio had been established in 1866 by E.E. Henry, for whom many of the older and later notable residents posed. Henry and step-son, Harrison Putney had produced thousands of photographic images over the years which Putney left with the studio. In 1940, another photography studio closed in Leavenworth, the city’s oldest, which had been opened by Richard Stevenson in 1858 and continued by his son, Harrison. Their negatives were left behind in the vacated studio so Miss Everhard added those to the Henry/Putney collection. While Phillips eventually sold portions of the collection to the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and other museums, he recognized the value, as did Miss Everhard and her predecessors, in not only preserving but sharing an amazing photographic record of a most historically significant town. Images made from these negatives are beyond compare. A debt of gratitude is owed Mr. Phillips for saving this wonderful collection of early Kansas history, for when Miss Everhard approached a Leavenworth banker in hopes of using it as her retirement fund, the banker laughed and suggested it was of no value and ought to be thrown into the muddy Missouri River!
In the summer of 2015, the LCHS launched a major campaign to bring back to Leavenworth the balance of the collection still held by Mr. Phillips. It consisted, in part, of the oldest studio portraits and a very rare collection of wet-plate stereonegatives. Mr. Phillips was finally convinced that these negatives needed to be back in Leavenworth. For nearly 50 years he had preserved and promoted the collection with exhibits, published articles, and books. This final piece of the original collection of Leavenworth history is considered the centerpiece of the entire collection and a national treasure. Several trips were made to Chicago to transport negatives back to Kansas as funds allowed. The museum also purchased from Mr. Phillips a 24” Epson printer to be able to make over-sized prints from the negatives for sale as a means of support for the museum.
Besides a general plea to the museum’s membership, town leaders were called upon to make generous donations. A dinner theatre fundraiser and kick-off breakfast were held early in the campaign. Grants were written to secure funding for exhibits of a selection of prints made by Mr. Phillips, news articles were written and a series of presentations were made locally explaining what a glass negative was and what effect the ownership of the collection would make on the museum and Leavenworth. Grants were also written to foundations, with little luck, and the campaign stalled.
The deadline to raise the necessary funds was set for December 31, 2016 and as it fast approached, the funds needed to acquire the collection were significantly short. In the fall of 2016, it was discovered that a Kansas City, Kansas resident had ancestral ties to Leavenworth—Mr. Henry Wollman Bloch. Now in his 90s, Mr. Bloch had founded successful and nationally recognized H & R Block, a tax preparation company and the H & R Block Foundation for his philanthropic work. Mr. Bloch’s ancestor was the Jonas Wollman family, early settlers in Leavenworth, owning and operating a clothing store in the early business district. The family later relocated to Kansas City and then New York City, where they became quite wealthy. Remembering his roots, Mr. Bloch sent a personal check to the museum right before Christmas (Hanukkah for him), to make up the shortfall, thereby officially ending the campaign and securing the balance of the collection.
Now the museum seeks to begin Phase II of the campaign—to raise the necessary funds to design, build, and maintain an annex, where this and other collections can be archivally stored and studied as we seek to become a research center for early Kansas history. The annex will be a carriage house style building, reminiscent of one that once stood on the property. Handicap facilities and accessibility, as well as parking, will also be included. An extension of the Victorian herb and heirloom gardens is also planned to incorporate the original Planters House Hotel steps from which Abraham Lincoln stood on his first and only visit to Kansas and Leavenworth in 1859.
When I think about the collection here at the Community Museum, I think about quite a few pieces off the top of my head. The clothing that was worn, the bedding that was made and even the pictures that were taken. The item that always holds my attention, however, would have to be the Spirit Photograph that was sent to Thomas Henry by his son Ebenezer Henry.
Photography changes and evolves all the time, and it was no different back in the 1800s. Wet plating was one of the first ways to produce pictures in the 1850s and continued for nearly a decade before it was replaced by a process that involved silver-plated copper, mercury vapor and many other steps as well as different types of plating. Near the 1880s, when the spirit photograph currently owned by the museum was created, this had been largely replaced by the use of gelatin dry plates.
The fact that these pictures were taken on these plates is key to knowing where many spirit photographs originated and how many of them were created. These plates had to be cleaned between each use so the previous picture would be removed from them before they could be used again. The improper cleaning of these plates could easily result in a figure, or ‘spirit’ appearing in the photograph that is taken with the plate. This, however, is just one of the ways that a ‘spirit’ could appear in photographs of that time.
The photograph available at the museum shows a fairly obvious man sitting behind two other figures within the image. By the position of the man he seems as if he would be sitting behind the two and higher up, or perhaps even floating in the air. He is somewhat transparent and it looks as though his torso below the top of his chest fades out of sight and does not exist afterward. Because this picture was taken by Ebenezer himself, he seems excited and highly interested in how these come to be and shares this with his father in hopes that he will share his passion.
Thomas, however, does not share his enthusiasm for the picture and tells his son quite plainly what he believes. He sees the picture as something of the Devil and that it is connected to ‘falling away from God, and disbelieving his word.’ He continues on and mentions several different sections of the Bible which speak against the idea of spirits (or ‘familiars’ as they are called) and what has happened to those who have put faith in such things. When he receives pamphlets containing more information, again sent by his son in regards to the photograph, he proceeds to take them apart and ‘disprove’ them by citing more scripture.
Personally, I have always had an interest in these sort of items. Ones linked to the paranormal have always caught my attention and something like this is absolutely no exception. It may even be more interesting to me because of the time period in which it was taken. Spirit Photographs were being heavily disproven in this time frame and to see someone who has taken one without knowing how or what could have caused it, and their genuine reaction of interest and intrigue, is refreshing to see.
It’s the history behind this item, the story that comes from it, and the general idea of it being such a novelty to someone when the use of Spirit Photography had been around for some time, since the 1860s according to several sources. Still, this picture was a first for Ebenezer, and possibly a last considering the reaction he received from his father.
All of this, coupled with the idea of the paranormal as well as the quality of the image itself, helps cement this item as being my favorite in the collection.
While reading letters written by the family and friends of Thomas Henry, I have frequently come across discussions of death. This preoccupation with death is not surprising, given the fact that many of Thomas’ family and friends were devoted Christians. Therefore, they would have been concerned with living good lives and being prepared for death so that they could go to heaven. Also, mortality rates were higher in Thomas’ day, and people usually died in their homes, not a hospital.
I have found the most interesting discussions of death in the letters from Thomas’ sons. For instance, one son George uses metaphors to talk about death. The following is an excerpt of a letter from George to his mother Lurenda. It was written shortly after Thomas died. George writes:
We are all upon the great train…[moving] rapidly on to the great Depot of death stepping off one by one. We follow our loved ones so far and no further, when we give one long anxious lingering look but we see them no more, there is no return train or passenger to report.
George’s comments reveal an anxiety about death. He sees life as a journey moving too quickly towards an inevitable end. He is also unnerved by the fact that no one really knows what life after death is like.
Thomas’ son Ebenezer writes about death very differently. For him, death sometimes seems to be the solution to his problems. He believes that life after death will lead to better relationships with his family. For instance, he writes to his father, “Believe me to be your Prodigal Son till we meet on the other shore then all misunderstandings will be…[righted] and I shall be properly understood.” In the same letter, he mentions that death will allow him to be reunited with his mother and her love. This last statement sums up Ebenezer’s feelings on the subject: “I would love to exchange this cold hearted world for the flowers that are waiting for us to gather in those bright fields that we have never trod.
There is one more mention of death in the letters that I find particularly interesting. This occurs in a letter from Thomas’ son Albert to Lurenda. What strikes me is Albert’s very frank discussion with his mother about her impending death. While on a trip to London, he writes, “If I don’t find you in your accustomed place when I return, I shall be very sorry that I came away.” He then goes on to say, “I certainly hope to be with you when you close your eyes for the last time. This as you well know cannot be far away.” I am sure that Albert had good intentions when he wrote this last sentence, but I find it slightly disturbing that he is reminding his mother that she is going to die soon.
Thomas’ sons discuss death very differently. Probably most of us do not share Ebenezer’s desire to move on from this life. More likely, the vast majority of us are like George, still struggling with the mystery of our fate.
Well, another Friday has come and it’s hard to believe that I have just finished my fourth week as an intern at the Oshawa Community Museum. I am at the museum until early August, completing my final semester in the Museum Management and Curatorship program offered by Fleming College.
One of the focuses for my internship is to research the recently acquired collection of letters and documents related to Thomas Henry for a publication that will be written over the next year or so. This project has allowed me to pursue my interest in research associated with museum and archival collections, but has also served as an enlightening introduction to the Henry family, who I knew nothing about before I came to the museum.
Many of the letters in this collection are from Thomas’ son Ebenezer Elijah (often written as E. E.) Henry. Ebenezer was the fifth and last child of Thomas and his first wife Elizabeth Davis. I have found the exchanges between Thomas and Ebenezer to be the most intriguing ones in the collection. Ebenezer’s letters reveal an interesting relationship between himself and his father that is reflective of many familial relationships today.
The problems between Ebenezer and his father seem to revolve around Ebenezer’s interest in spiritualism, his father’s disagreement with this religious trend, and their misunderstandings of each other’s intentions. However, Ebenezer’s letters reveal the existence of deeper issues beyond those religious differences.
In a letter from September 1, 1878, Ebenezer writes to his father, “I have always thought that if there was a prodigal son you certainly looked on me as the one in your family.” His father had apparently written that he was the favourite of the family. Ebenezer begins an emotional response arguing that he has been treated unfairly. In particular, he complains that he (unlike his brothers) has never been given any property by his father, and he notes, “I have had to paddle my own canoe for myself.” It is likely that all of us can relate on some level to Ebenezer’s feelings of envy and unworthiness.
Based on the letters, it is clear that Ebenezer feels that he has been a great disappointment to his father, and his deep desire for his father’s approval and love is apparent. At one point, he is so desperate to prove his worth that he describes all of the attributes that make him a good person. He defensively writes to his father, “I am a Temperate man in all things. I have always tried to shun low bad company I don’t use tobacco I don’t swear nor use bad language. I try to avoid Evil I love the company of the good and I love to help the poor.”
After reading such passages, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Ebenezer. It is these passages that humanize him and make his experiences relatable to our everyday life. I think this is why his letters to his father are among my favourites in the collection.
Unfortunately, the letters in this collection only offer a small glimpse into the lives of the Henry family. Many questions I have about the relationship between Thomas and Ebenezer, as well as the relationship between Ebenezer and his siblings, must remain unanswered – at least until another collection is discovered.