No. 582
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
November 26, 2022

Society Unveiled.

February 3, 2014
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Strange Company - 11/25/2022
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Thanksgiving in early 20th century New York City wasn’t just celebrated in private homes and expensive hotel restaurants. Institutions of all kinds across Gotham also honored the holiday with their own commemorative dinners. Hospitals, facilities for the poor, sick, and aged, and even city prisons served up a special Thanksgiving meal—usually along with speeches by […]
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Ephemeral New York - 11/21/2022
Wishing you a happy and bountiful Thanksgiving Day! Lizzie is thankful for turkey and all the trimmings – and no mutton broth in sight!
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 11/22/2022
On this date in 2002, Pakistani Mir Aimal Kansi, Kasi, or Qazi was executed by lethal injection in Virginia, U.S.A. “Real angry with the policy of the U.S. government in the Middle East, particularly toward the Palestinian people,”* Qazi on January 25, 1993 revenged himself on Central Intelligence Agency commuters queued for a left turn […]
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Executed Today - 11/14/2022
Mary Barrows, of Kittery Maine, told the coroner that her husband, Thomas, had committed suicide. The coroner was faced with two immediate mysteries; if Thomas Barrows had committed suicide, why did he wound himself five times before firing the shot to the head that killed him? And how had he shot himself six times with the five-barrel revolver found near the body? Mary Barrows and her son-in-law
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Murder By Gaslight - 11/19/2022
Shell and Pea Game on the Trail"Sketched from life by M. W. Newberry"San Francisco ChronicleApril 10, 1898(Click image to enlarge)    UNKO MEN AND THEIR TRICKS      A wonderfully detailed description of the modus operandi of Soapy Smith's three shell and pea manipulators along the Chilkoot and White Pass trails. Witnessed and reported by Joseph D. Barry, and published in the San Francisco
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 11/21/2022
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
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.