Student Museum Musings – Carrie’s Favourite Artifact

By Carrie, Archives Assistant Student

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.

EE (Eben) Henry, 1828-1917; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
EE (Eben) Henry, 1828-1917; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

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.

A013.4.449, 'Spirit Photograph' taken by EE Henry
A013.4.449, ‘Spirit Photograph’ taken by EE Henry

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.

A013.4.37, page one of a letter from Thomas Henry to his son Eben about the spirit photograph
A013.4.37, page one of a letter from Thomas Henry to his son Eben about the spirit photograph

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.

My Favourite Artifact: The Spirit Photograph

By Emily Dafoe, Visitor Host

My favourite artifact (or in this case archives document) that is held here at the Oshawa Community Museum and Archives is a letter that was written by Thomas Henry addressed to his son, E.E.. This correspondence letter can be paired with a very interesting photograph that is also here at the museum. The photograph shows an image of a man and a woman, Dr. Taylor A.M. and Josephine Keigwin, and with a third man, Charles Grandison Taylor, that can be seen faintly in between the two. This photograph is titled a ‘Spirit Picture’ and was taken by E.E. Henry. The correspondence letter, which goes with this picture and is my favourite item at the museum, is Thomas Henry’s response to the spirit picture. In this letter Thomas, who was a very involved member of Christian church, condemns his son for taking such a picture, and goes on to lecture his son throughout the letter. The letter was written on June 10th of 1873, and of the spirit Thomas writes, “I do not dispute but what the picture has been taken. It is not of god, in my humble opinion, But of the Divil, and show very clearly to me a falling away from God, and disbelieving his word.” Within the letter Thomas then goes on to relay to his son a biblical story that he feels in pertinent to the situation.

A013.4.449, 'Spirit Photograph' taken by EE Henry
A013.4.449, ‘Spirit Photograph’ taken by EE Henry

This item stands out to me as being my favourite artifact because of the way in which Thomas is disapproving of his son. This letter in many ways shows the personality and character behind the figure of Thomas Henry. Throughout this museum Thomas Henry is in many ways an icon, and this letter allows me to get a glimpse into the person that Thomas Henry is beyond what I know from giving tours and being involved with the Oshawa Museum. This letter allows for a more realistic image of Thomas to be created, this is due to the fact that he is doing a very common thing, which is yelling and disapproving of his child. This is a way of linking Thomas with the contemporary period because as mentioned, he is doing a very common practice that is still done today. Moreover, my favourite aspect of this particular letter is Thomas Henry’s closing statement to his son, which reads, “and now I would not wonder, but what Dr. Taylor and his medium might get a picture of some of your friends if so send me one.” I feel as though this final statement in the letter is important because it shows Thomas Henry’s continued interest in his son’s life, placing him as a caring father figure, who is invested in learning about his son’s life.

A013.4.37, page one of a letter from Thomas Henry to his son Eben about the spirit photograph
A013.4.37, page one of a letter from Thomas Henry to his son Eben about the spirit photograph

I enjoy this correspondence letter because it is, as I discussed previously, very reminiscent of how parents would address and scold their children today, in particular children who have grown up and left the house. I really enjoy this letter because it acts as a way of fleshing out Thomas Henry more than he had been done previously, and is able to make Thomas appear as a more realistic person, rather than someone whose connection to modern Oshawa is left at the location alone. Through this letter, and others of a similar nature, we are able to learn and become more connected to important figures of Oshawa history, which is why this letter is my favourite item at the Oshawa Community Museum.

 

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our staff’s favourite artifacts and the stories behind the objects (or documents!).  

Want more artifact stories?  Check out IT’Story: Stories from the OCM Collection, on display now through September!

Student Museum ‘Musings’ – Emily

Hi there, it’s Emily again, and I’ve continued the transcribing of the Thomas Henry Correspondence Collection, which I mentioned in my previous post. Through the transcribing and digitizing I have looked at numerous very interesting pieces related to Thomas Henry, and the Henry Family. But there are two pieces in particular that stand out for me within this collection. One of which is a photograph taken by E.E. Henry, the son of Elder Thomas Henry. This photograph is titled a “Spirit Picture,” and contains the image of two men and one women, one of the men however is deceased, being “[b]orn again into the spirit life, July 20th, 1825.” The second piece from this collection that is very interesting is a correspondence letter, which was written by Thomas Henry, June 10th, 1873, and addressed to E.E. Henry. This letter is especially interesting because it is Thomas Henry’s response to the Spirit Picture sent to him by his son.

A013.4.449 - Spirit Photograph
A013.4.449 – Spirit Photograph

The elder Henry’s response to his son is a very interesting read after looking at the Spirit Picture, because being a Christian Minister, one could assume that Thomas Henry has very firm beliefs in regards to the spirit word. The correspondence letter sent to E.E. is strongly worded, long, and firm, scolding his son for taking part in what Thomas believes is unsavory activities. Thomas states in his letter, “I do not dispute but what the picture has been taken. It is not of god, in my humble opinion, But of the Divil[SIC], and show very clearly to me a falling away from God, and disbelieving his word.” Thomas Henry continues through his letter to argue to his son the abomination that is the Spirit Picture sent to him, and writes of the story of King Saul, Samuel, and the Medium at Endor.

Ebenezer Elijah Henry, from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
Ebenezer Elijah Henry, from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

The relationship between Thomas and E.E. Henry is very fascinating because after scolding his son through this letter, and yet Thomas ends is letter by writing, “you might have taken the old prophets picture, and now I would not wonder, but what Dr. Taylor and his medium might get a picture of some of your friends if so send me one.” In another unrelated letter from this collection E.E. writes to his father, “you well know you have left me out in the cold as it were, and I have had to paddle my own canoe for myself. You have as you say in your letter helped all the rest, but me, and now you tell me that I am the favorite. Well God knows I am glad and hope it is so.” It seems to me that parental approval was one of, if not the most important aspects of life for Victorians. And that the Spirit Picture may have been a way that E.E. was seeking that approval by showing to his father his work.

 

This collection has been fascinating to go through, and has helped me understand the Henry family, and Victorians, much more than I had before by the digitizing and transcribing of these letters and pictures.