Behind the Lens: The Real Story of Victorian Postmortem Photography and the Stand-Alone Corpse

Hey there, history buffs and photography enthusiasts! Today, we’re diving into a fascinating and somewhat morbid topic: Victorian postmortem photography. We’ve all seen those eerie, haunting images of deceased loved ones captured during a time when death was all too present in everyday life. But did you know a myth surrounding these photographs needs to be debunked? So, grab your favorite detective hat, and let’s separate fact from fiction in Victorian postmortem photography. We’ll also take a closer look at some photos of deceased people and how they are incorrectly interpreted as corpses., giving you a clearer understanding of the truth behind Victorian postmortem photography.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Victorian postmortem photos did exist. Death was an omnipresent part of life in the Victorian era, and it was common for families to want a final photograph of their departed loved ones as a memento. However, contrary to popular belief, these photographs were never taken with the deceased in a standing position using a posing stand. Taking a life-like standing postmortem photo was virtually impossible, especially using a posing perspective.

Why was it so impossible? Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. Posing stands were not designed to support a person’s weight. Even a child’s corpse would be too heavy for these stands, which were created to help people keep still during long shutter exposures that could last up to a minute.
  2. A corpse in rigor mortis couldn’t be posed. Rigor mortis, the stiffening of the body after death, would make it impossible to position a body in a standing position without looking unnatural.
  3. A corpse not in rigor mortis would be limp and heavy. Without the stiffness of rigor mortis, a body would be unable to support its weight on its feet, even with the help of a stand. The deceased would also be unable to hold up their head and arms, resulting in an unnatural appearance.

So, how were Victorian postmortem photos taken? The answer is simple: they were always captured in a reclining position. The deceased would either be leaning back seated or lying flat. In some cases, you may find photographs of children sitting in a parent’s lap, but they were never photographed standing or sitting up straight on their own.

The myth of the stand-alone corpse has persisted, in part, due to misidentified photographs. Some people may have mistaken images of living subjects, who needed the support of a posing stand to remain still during long exposure times, for postmortem photographs. This confusion has likely contributed to the myth’s endurance.

Now that we’ve debunked the myth of the stand-alone corpse, we can appreciate Victorian postmortem photography for what it was: a touching and poignant way for families to remember their lost loved ones during a time when death was a constant reality. So the next time you come across one of these haunting images, you’ll know the truth behind the photographic techniques of the time.

#1 Girl Holding Money

Girl Holding Money

This little girl look anxious about having her photo taken but she is not deceased. She is even holding some money in her left hand. It was probably given to her to calm and distract her during the photo session. You can also see a large motion blur on her left foot. She was definitely alive.

#2 Mysterious Woman

Mysterious Woman

Some say this is the corpse of a famous clairvoyant. However, it is a sculpture by Christine Elfman made of plaster and paper mâché. The dress is made of torn pieces of paper with the story of her family. Zoom and you can see the words. Not a postmortem.

#3 Well Dressed Boy

Well Dressed Boy

This is another one that mystifies us. We see nothing that suggests this boy was dead. He's alert, holding his head up, and looking at the camera.

#4 Not Victorian, But Quite A Story

Not Victorian, But Quite A Story

This couple was not Victorian, and they were not dead. Someone made up a big story about the woman being dead two days, and the man , being in denial, and having a photo made. It is actually a photo booth photo that has been tinted.

#5 The Bride

The Bride

This bride is stiffly posed but she was alive, with her groom standing next to her. Her dried flowers do not mean death. They were an accepted embellishment, especially in the hot summer months when it was hard to keep flowers fresh.

#6 Artistic Photo

Artistic Photo

This photo of two women is an artistic portrait. It is called, " The Kiss of Peace" - 1869, by Julia Margaret Cameron, talented early woman photographer. They were both alive.

#7 Baby With Mother

Baby With Mother

The baby is sleeping. The writing on the back of the photo says, "Taken September 12th, 1854. The child was 28 days old."

#8 Flash Misfire

Flash Misfire

People say the dark color of the girl's arms and the dark circles under her eyes are the evidence that this is a postmortem photo when actually the darkness is from a misfire of the flash.

#9 Squirming Children

Squirming Children

No one in this photo is dead, but it does illustrate why it is important to keep children still for long shutter exposures. There were only two children in this photo.

#10 Innsmouth Woman

Innsmouth Woman

This is not a dead person, and it is not a person at all. It is a fictional depiction of a character from The Shadow over Innsmouth, a horror novella by H. P. Lovecraft, written in November–December 1931.

#11 Day Dreaming

Day Dreaming

This is a romanticized photo of a day dreaming young woman. She was very much alive. Flowers do not mean death.

#12 War Pageant Photo

War Pageant Photo

This photo was staged to show the tragedy of war. No one in it was dead. This was a bit too elaborate to be a real postmortem photo.

#13 Framed Twins

Framed Twins

The stands behind these two assure us that they were alive. They do look a bit startled, probably from the flash.

#14 Girl With Look Alike Doll

Girl With Look Alike Doll

Standing,with her hands folded, this little girl was alive, and showing off her look alike doll. Folded hands do not always mean death in photos.

#15 A Christmas Dream

A Christmas Dream

This is not a death photo, it is a pageant photo called, "A Christmas Dream". The children are pretending to sleep and dream, the boy is even smiling. Note the Christmas tree in the upper right portion of the photo.

#16 A Portrait of a Young Woman

A Portrait of a Young Woman

So many people pin this with a long caption saying this was a postmortem taken right after death. It is no such thing. Its title is "A portrait of a young woman" by Fritz W. Guerin, c. 1902.

#17 Young Man Gripping Table

Young Man Gripping Table

Standing tall, with his right hand gripping a table and his left elbow leaning on a chair, we know he must be alive.

#18 Sleeping Baby

Sleeping Baby

The info with the original photo says: "Here we present an historic image of Adams family portrait, with man, woman, and baby girl. It was taken in 1846. The image shows Adams, Henry Joseph. Adams, Abigail Ridley Gibson. Kingsbury, Anna Gibson Adams, 1845-1884." Nothing was mentioned about death, nobody looks like they are in mourning and the child looks healthy. Everyone with closed eyes is not dead!

#19 Seated Woman With Umbrella

Seated Woman With Umbrella

Just because her image has been embellished, it does not mean she was dead. She is sitting tall and hanging on to an umbrella.

#20 Mother and Child

Mother and Child

Some say the child is hugging her deceased mother, but you can see her mother's hand is blurred on her back from motion. The woman is also holding herself upright. She was alive.

#21 Boy With Flowers

Boy With Flowers

It looks like someone is behind the curtain holding his head, but he standing alone and is alive.

#22 Damaged Photo of Baby

Damaged Photo of Baby

This photo is damaged and has some foxing but the baby is sitting up and holding up its own head. We see no reason to think this baby is deceased.

#23 Three Young Men

Three Young Men

How could these young men look any more alive? It's hard to believe that the middle one is labeled as deceased on some Pinterest boards.

#24 Handicapped Girl

Handicapped Girl

This young woman was alive. She has two attendants, one is cloaked because she does not want to be in the photo. Here is another photo of her in a wheelchair.

#25 Eerie Eyes

Eerie Eyes

Yes, their eyes do look weird but they were alive. They are very blond with light blue eyes that do not register well with the old camera and flash used for this picture.

#26 Boy With Cane

Boy With Cane

He's standing alone and sitting astride a cane like a hobby horse. This pose helped the lively little boy hold still. He was not deceased.

#27 Prince Albert Victor of Wales

Prince Albert Victor of Wales

This child has been identified as Prince Albert Victor of Wales, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. He died at age 28 in 1892.

#28 Four Sisters

Four Sisters

Some think the girl on the left is deceased. For some reason when children are lined up like this people always seem to think that the little one is dead! However, she is standing so we know she is alive.

#29 Spirit Photo

Spirit Photo

Do you see the spirit image in the upper right hand corner of this photo? This is a staged photo of a live man who is supposedly in a trance to bring the spirit to him. Spirit photos were popularized as soon as photographers were able to fake them by printing double negatives.

#30 Girl on Chair

Girl on Chair

This little girl was alive. Her face was a little washed out due to uneven flash coverage but you can clearly see her hanging on to the chair with her left hand.

#31 Girl With Purse

Girl With Purse

The posing stand behind her means she was alive and trying to hold still for the camera.

#32 Baby in Mourning

Baby in Mourning

Because this baby has a dark ribbon affixed to its back, many people are saying he/she was dead. In fact, dark ribbons were often pinned to babies and small children if a relative of theirs died. In this photo it looks as if the mother was also in mourning.

#33 Unhappy Girl With Doll

Unhappy Girl With Doll

This girl looks pretty unhappy about her photo but she was not deceased. Photographers would often pose their subjects with stiff hand poses, because the stiff pose was easier to hold.

#34 Two Girls and a Swing

Two Girls and a Swing

Both of these little ladies were alive and well. Victorians seldom smiled in photos, they thought it was undignified.

#35 Girls With Their Toys

Girls With Their Toys

This photo of two girls and their toys features two live girls and their precious toys. Nothing here suggests either one is deceased.

#36 Identical Twins

Identical Twins

These beautiful twins were alive, holding up their heads and looking straight at the camera.

#37 Courting Couple

Courting Couple

Many people have identified this lady as being dead simply because she has closed eyes. The facts that she is holding up her own head and sitting upright demonstrate that those people are wrong.

#38 Breast Feeding Mother

Breast Feeding Mother

Some think this is a mother holding a deceased infant, but if you look closely you can see that the mother is breastfeeding. The older child probably just wants her mother's attention.

#39 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

Although this photo is often labeled as a photo of a dead man, it is not. It is a photo of the famous author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Caroll) who wrote "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." And, he was alive when it was taken.

#40 Seated Girl With Doll

Seated Girl With Doll

I have no idea why this one is being mislabeled "deceased". It makes no sense at all.

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Written by Andrew Thompson

Andrew Thompson is an archaeologist and historian who specializes in the study of war and conflict. He writes about the brutal history of warfare, including the World Wars and other significant conflicts. Through his work, he aims to deepen our understanding of the human cost of conflict and inspire us to work towards a more peaceful future.

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