No. 522
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 11, 2021

Society Unveiled.

February 3, 2014
...
...

LOOK OUT FOR "SOAPY" SMITHSt. Louis DispatchSeptember 23, 1897(Click image to enlarge) e reported himself in good health and money."   New information showing that Soapy Smith did go to St. Louis to check up on his ailing wife, Mary, after leaving Skagway.  Below is the transcription of the article from the St. Louis Dispatch, September 23, 1897. LOOK OUT FOR “SOAPY” SMITH ― The Smooth Man
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/11/2021

`
A few weeks ago, Ephemeral New York put together a post about the former Czech neighborhood once centered around 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues on the Upper East Side. The post generated many comments, with readers either reminiscing about a vanished enclave they remember well or wishing Manhattan still had pockets of ethnic […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 5/9/2021

When digital cameras and cell phone cameras became available to all, many visitors at the house on Second Street were surprised to see what appears to be the face of a man with beard which appeared over the wash kettle in the cellar on the chimney wall. Many think what appears bears an uncanny resemblance to Andrew J. Borden. What do you think?
More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/10/2021
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 […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/13/2020
8-year-old Alice Sterling disappeared from the steps in front of her father’s Boston barbershop the afternoon of April 10, 1895. The three-day search for Alice ended at a shallow grave in the floor of a nearby barn. Angus Gilbert, a friend of the Sterling family especially fond of little Alice, lived in a room above the barn. Gilbert was charged with her
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 5/8/2021

Margery WrenUnder normal circumstances, one would expect that anyone who knew they were about to die as the result of a brutal attack would spend every bit of their remaining strength towards bring their murderer to justice.  However, the following case proved to be very far from normal.  An old woman’s murder, which, at first, seemed fairly simple and straightforward, soon took a puzzling turn
More...
Strange Company - 5/10/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
More...
Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
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.