Sunday, June 21, 2020

Picturing What Might Have Been

During family history research, do you ever look back and wonder what might have been?

Such was the case for me, recently, when I was investigating a mysterious death.

In December 1846, my fifth great-grandfather, Thomas Kirk, was "accidentally killed." At least that's according to the 1879 obituary of his second wife, Anna.

Anna (Bailey) Gilliland Kirk obituary, published Newark, Ohio

The obituary, which mistakenly indicated Thomas died in 1847, is the only known source regarding Thomas's accidental death. It's a tantalizing clue left to hang on the air of history. No further details or evidence have surfaced to explain the circumstances.

Recently, I began trawling through digitized copies of the Ohio State Journal, which was, "Ohio's paper of record for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, delivering up-to-date news on a variety of topics to readers in central Ohio and beyond." 

The hope was that I could find mention of Thomas Kirk's accidental and perhaps newsworthy death. Sadly, my search has come up empty-handed. However, I did discover an interesting advertisement for an early form of photography - daguerreotypes - which left me wondering about what might have been.

Published in a December 1846 issue just five days after Thomas Kirk died, the advertisement announced the opening of a daguerreotype studio in Columbus - less than 40 miles west of Licking County (where Thomas lived).

Invented in 1839 by a Frenchman named Louis Daguerre, the daguerreotype was the earliest form of photography. With a studio set up in Columbus by late 1846, the technology appeared to have arrived in Thomas' area just days too late to capture his likeness.

Curiously, the newspaper ad offered to bring the camera equipment to the home: "Portraits of sick or deceased persons taken at their residence, if required." A macabre but not uncommon practice in the early days of photography.
Ohio State Journal December 8, 1846

Prior to discovering this ad, I mistakenly thought the art of photography was too new to have made it to Ohio by the mid-1840's. I thought it was a pricey novelty perhaps making appearances in eastern seaboard cities like New York or Philadelphia. Yet here it was in my ancestor's own backyard. 

Today, on father's day, I'm picturing in my mind's eye what my distant paternal line ancestor may have looked like had he posed for his picture.

Did any of your ancestors sit for daguerreotypes? Do you know what year they date to? 


  1. How frustrating that you can't learn how Thomas died. I assume there's no death certificate or it didn't say his cause of death since I know how thorough you are.

    Taking a picture of a dead person---how gruesome!

    1. Unfortunately Ohio didn't keep death records until the early 20th century. And any information that may have been revealed in his probate file was destroyed when the county courthouse burned in the 1870's. Newspapers are kind of my only hope, I think.