No. 562
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
June 30, 2022

Society Unveiled.

February 3, 2014
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Via Newspapers.comThis peculiar--and very sad--story appeared in the “Washington Post,” November 10, 1909:Somerville, N.J. Nov 9. While Arthur Everton, self-styled professor and traveling hypnotist sobbed in his cell, three calm medical men witnessed a weird performance in the morgue of the Somerset Hospital late this afternoon.  There William E. Davenport, secretary to the mayor of Newark and a
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Strange Company - 6/29/2022
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'SOAPY' SMITH AND TWO COLLEAGUESObject ID 2017.6.350Courtesy of Salvation Army Museum of the West(Click image to enlarge) New photograph of "Soapy" Smith?NOT EVEN CLOSE.      A B & W photograph, said to be of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, and two colleagues. Soapy is in the middle, marked with an "X." The photo was taken in Alaska,
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 4/11/2022
The photo, by Berenice Abbott, invites mystery. “Hacker Book Store, Bleecker Street, New York” is the title, dated 1945. Who is the pensive man at the door—and where on Bleecker Street is this? The answer to the latter question is 381 Bleecker Street, near Perry Street in the West Village. As for the pensive man, […]
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Ephemeral New York - 6/27/2022
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
Mrs. Cordelia BotkinOn Tuesday, August 9, 1898, Mrs. Ida Deane held a dinner party for friends and family in Dover, Delaware. After dinner, they all retired to the front porch and passed around a box of chocolates provided by Ida’s sister, Mrs. Mary Dunning. Shortly after retiring, Mrs. Deane complained of feeling sick to the stomach. After the usual household remedies proved ineffective, the
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Murder By Gaslight - 6/25/2022
Mark your calendar for the 130th Anniversary of the Borden Murders. Hub 17’s Tea & Murder podcast will feature a special “Zooming with Lizzie” evening on Sunday, July 31, at 7 p.m. when our faithful viewers will be able to sign on and chat in real time about the case which continues to fascinate us, STILL! Leading up to the live ZOOM, Kimbra and I will be posting a weekly poll for our readers to take, featuring pressing questions which haunt students of the famous case. We will be going over the results of the polls and opening the forum to All Things Lizzie with our viewers! The ZOOM link will be posted on the Lizbeth Group and Warps & Wefts Facebook pages before the 31st as well as on this site. Join us for a great evening! To take the weekly polls, visit https://www.facebook.com/lizziebordenwarpsandwefts
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 6/25/2022
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
The Southern Pacific Railway Disaster. | A Memphis Badger Game.

Society Unveiled.

nine naughty girlsWheeling, West Virginia, 1882, Nine naughty society girls disrobe for the nation's latest craze, nude photography. [more]

The National Night Stick has previously reported on a group of a society girls who scandalized Boston by posing naked for a local photographer. A little further digging revealed that this was not an isolated incident, but just the most notorious case of what was, in the 1880s, a national trend. Said one reporter in 1888, “The latest fad, or rather ‘craze’ (for nothing in the long list of fashion’s freaks has ever shown such a total and meaningless disregard of the social proprieties), is photographing ‘in the nude.’”

Usually the pictures remained a secret between the girls and their close friends, but when the secret was uncovered it always raised a scandal. In 1882 a group of nine society girls of Wheeling, West Virginia, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, who “…mourned that the greater part of their beauties must be concealed from the gaze of their friends” visited a photographer to remedy the situation. They did not pose totally naked; they brought with them three yards of gauze and their nudity “was beautifully dimmed but not hidden by the netting.” When the session was over each girl left with a small package of cartes de visite, displaying their charms.

They discretely handed out the cards to their friends but the situation did not remain discrete for long. Wheeling was scandalized. As would later happen in Boston, the girls were unrepentant and the blame was laid on the photographer.

In 1888 anti-vice crusader, Anthony Comstock seized a large number of “glaringly and shockingly improper pictures” from an amateur photographer in Brooklyn named Brown. The subjects of many of these pictures were “young ladies of previously unimpeached respectability, moving in Brooklyn’s best society.” Brown told contradictory stories on how he obtained them.

This time the girls denied everything saying the pictures must have been altered, putting their heads on other bodies. This trick had been tried unsuccessfully in London when a photographer was arrested for putting the head of actress Mary Anderson on an obscene body. Photography expert T. C. Roche said that without a collar or necklace to hide the splice line, the sham would be easily detectable. “[not] any trick invented will enable a rascal to make an indecent picture of a girl without her complicity.”

At the same time as the nude photography fad, Anthony Comstock’s war on vice had become so invasive that a photographer in San Francisco was arrested for having a nude picture of his baby boy. Photographers did not put their names on nude photographs and most would not admit to taking them. All who were interviewed, though, claimed that women were constantly asking to be photographed in some degree of nudity.

Mrs. Cleveland

Those who did admit it told quite a story. One New York photographer in 1888 estimated that 8000 nudes had been taken in the previous eighteen months, “Of these one-half have been girls and women who belong to what is called respectable society; the other half have belonged to the legion of the lost.” The Wheeling photographer said this about his high society subjects, “…you couldn’t have an idea of how beautiful they are till they’re stripped. Very ordinary society ladies have surprised me when they’ve stood before me in a state of nudity by the unsuspected beauties they possess.”

If any of these high society nude photographs have survived into the twenty-first century we will probably never know. Without clothing it is hard to tell who is in society and who is in the “legion of the lost.”

 

 


 Sources:

  • "Nine Naked Beauties." The National Police Gazette 25 Nov 1882: 3.
  • "The Gay Girls of Wheeling." The National Police Gazette 2 Dec 1882.
  • David Wechsler. "Photographic Tricks." Patriot 12 Nov 1888: 3.
  • "Vain Young Women." Kansas City Star 4 Jun 1888.
  • "Girls in Scant Attire." Denver Rocky Mountain News 29 Apr 1888: 4.
  • William E. S. Fales. "The Vanity of Vanities." Patriot 20 Jul 1888.
  • "The War on the Nude." Evening Star 16 Jul 1884.