The Michael McDowell Death Collection is comprised of 76 boxes, and spans the years 1616 – 2005. The collection was assembled by McDowell based on his interest in the subject matter, and includes correspondence, photographs (including photographic prints, daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, and stereographs), memorial cards, jewelry, hairwork, scrapbooks, ledgers, newsclippings, and artifacts. In most cases the items in this collection were purchased by McDowell, or were given to him by friends and colleagues.
The collection is organized into nine series: correspondence, bills, and other documents; photographs and prints; memorial cards; jewelry and hairwork; materials relating to the funeral industry; documentation of psychic and spiritualist activities; scrapbooks and ledgers; newsclippings; and a variety of artifacts and oversize materials.
The Correspondence, Bills, and Other Documents series consists of three boxes and one oversize folder, and includes the majority of the paper documents in the collection. Included here are a variety of items, but the series contains numerous invoices, mostly for funeral-related services. Some older invoices can be found that document digging graves or constructing coffins. There are also a number of letters of condolence, written mostly to family members, as well as letters that notify the recipient of the death of a friend or family member. These letters document the deaths of individual people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and often describe the process in detail. These letters were obtained by McDowell for their artifactual value, and do not relate to him or his family.
Also present in great number in this series are postcards, which depict images of executions, mass burials and burial sites, funeral processions, mummified bodies, and other death-related imagery. Although these postcards were collected by McDowell for the images they presented, some include postmarks and contain messages written on the back. These messages are not typically of great significance, although in some cases they do indicate that the sender of the postcard was present at the event depicted. Additional items represented in this series include a death certificate, cemetery deeds, an undertaker’s license, funeral tickets and invitations, and a stay of execution document.
The Photographs and Prints series contains the majority of the photographic materials in the collection, and includes many formats. The first box in this series (Box 5) contains a portion of loose photographs, consisting of various funeral scenes and dissection scenes, as well as numerous 1970s-1980s-era photos from Curley Fikes, a Jasper, Alabama-based photographer who also worked as the Walker County (Alabama) coroner sometime in the 1970s. The “Curley” photos are in both color and black-and-white, and were primarily taken for police use. Events depicted by Curley mostly include automobile and train accidents, as well as murder and suicide scenes, and are often very graphic images.
Following box 5, the next ten boxes contain photographs arranged topically using McDowell’s original descriptive scheme (“Accident scenes,” “Atrocities,” etc.). Boxes 14-16 contains stereograph cards, which have an internal arrangement similar to the rest of McDowell’s descriptive terms. Of note here is the section focused on “Dead babies and children,” which is the largest, and shows an extensive array of 19th-century post-mortem photography examples. This section of photographs includes numerous carte-de-visite photographs and cabinet cards, as well as silver gelatin prints.
Next are the cased photographs, in boxes 17-20, consisting of daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes. These cased photos also portray post-mortem subjects, both adults and children.
Lastly, the oversize folders 21-22 include prints on paper and silk, chromolithographs, and large photographic prints. These materials portray funeral and mourning scenes, as well as other memento mori-style imagery.
The next series, Memorial and Funeral Cards, includes boxes 23 through 27, and contains individual memorial cards, announcements, and invitations to funerals dating from the 1830s up until c. 1990. These bulk of these cards date between 1870 and 1930, and come from either the United States, Great Britain, or France.
The Jewelry and Hairwork series includes four boxes, and contains numerous examples of mourning brooches, pins, and ribbons. These items of jewelry are typically black, and are fashioned from materials such as wood, metal, and glass. The hairwork in this series includes actual hair wreaths along with smaller unwoven clippings. Most, but not all of the hair samples found in this series were likely taken post-mortem.
Materials relating to the Funeral Industry are contained in three boxes, the most extensive of which contains headstone design samples in the 1960s-1970s. These samples are presented in a catalog-type format, with manufacturer specifications usually included. In addition to these samples, box 33 also includes a small number of burial gown advertisements from the Decatur Coffin Company, of Decatur, Illinois from the 1940s. These advertisements are illustrations of women wearing funeral gowns, and also include manufacturer information.
This series also includes pamphlets and advertisements from coroners and funeral homes, mostly from the 1960s. A small collection of matchbooks advertising these services can also be found here. Of particular note in box 34 is the traveling salesman’s kit of tombstone designs, c. 1935, which is a small wooden case with a handle. This case contains various small reproductions of grave markers that would have been used to assist customers in choosing a type of monument. This box also contains flags and placards to be used on cars in funeral processions, as well as a package of white gloves from the “National Casket Company.”
The Psychics and Spiritualism series, which includes boxes 35 through 43, contains a comparatively extensive group of materials on the First Spiritualist Church. This organization first formed in 1875 in Volusia County, Florida, about 25 miles southwest of Daytona Beach. The materials found here are from later in the organization’s existence, range from 1901 to 1957, and include the group’s constitution and bylaws, as well as numerous photographs.
Also included in this series are a number of spirit photographs. Although many of those found here do not include attribution information, a number of them are identified as the work of Edward Wyllie and William Mumler. Also included here are spirit photos of the spiritualist Georgiana Houghton, which depict her with spirits and bear annotations. These have been arranged at the end of box 40, with additional Houghton items in box 36. Other spirit photographs are arranged in albums, some of which include annotations. Box 42 contains spirit photos as stereographs, as well as a selection of stereographs from the Lake Pleasant spiritualist campground in Montague, Massachusetts. Box 39 contains photographs of Camp Chesterfield, in Indiana, as well as other unidentified spirit camps.
The next series contains Scrapbooks and Ledgers, and spans six boxes. There are several items of note in this series, starting with boxes 45 and 46, which contain the business records of Joseph P. Crosby, Funeral Undertaker and Director, who was based in Roxbury, Massachusetts. These ledgers include extensive information about each burial conducted by the business, including costs of various services, cause of death, and demographic information. Some ledgers have been annotated by McDowell, and indicate areas of study that interested him. Both ledgers in box 45 are the same, as one is a handwritten copy of the other.
Also of note in this series is “The Account of the Number of Persons that have Died in the Year 1744, Medfield,” which is an account of deaths in Medfield, Massachusetts dating back to 1744. The ledger is handwritten and includes many names, including that of Hannah Adams, writer and historian of religions, who was born in Medfield. Another notable item in this series is the scrapbook on the death and funeral of Sarah Cobb Rucker, which includes numerous photos, telegrams and letters of condolence from friends and family members. Rucker was the wife of Tinsley W. Rucker and daughter of Gen. Howell Cobb.
The Newsclippings series is limited to just a single half-size box, and includes a wide variety of clippings that include advertisements for funeral-related services, obituaries, and topical articles related to mortality. Also included here are a number of loose items and clippings from Free Lunch, a literary magazine.
The largest series in extent is Artifacts and Oversize Materials, which includes 25 boxes of items that take on a variety of formats. Materials found in this series may share a topical similarity to items found in earlier sections of the collection, but have been stored separately due to their odd size or extensive need of conservation work. This series includes a sizeable collection of coffin plates that range in date from 1851-1937, as well as numerous framed memorial designs and collages. Some items of particular note in this series are a framed and hand-colored Kaddish calendar, a brass grave marker from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and a framed memorial panel (painted paper on wood) dedicated to a large family, including death dates, all c. 1706-1727. Also of interest is a Spanish oil painting of a child, post-mortem, acquired from a shop in Kensington High Street, London in 1978, and probably done some time in the late 1500s or early 1600s.