Friday, November 25, 2016

FamilyPhotoFriday: The Mystery Love Note

On the surface, today's photo, a tintype probably from the early 1860s, is pretty ordinary, and a bit rough in condition, with the enamel starting to flake from the underline iron base and the front half of the case missing. My brother and his wife, proprietors of one of the top antique malls in Fresno (Vonrad Vintage, in case you're in the area), have sponsored the Archive over the years by providing some unique photos that they come across. So when this cased tintype (and an ambrotype, but that's for a different post) showed up in the mail yesterday, I was delighted.

One of the first things I noticed, though, was that the brass matte and bezel was a bit loose in the fabric-lined wooden case. I became curious and carefully pulled it out, revealing a hidden message written by the man in the photo! And then I became obsessed.

On the back of the tintype itself, he had written his name, John Kehr. On the folded edges of the brass bezel he had scribed, with a pencil, again his name, then on another edge, "to my Cathrine" (or possibly "Catharine" or "Catherine"). But what I found most remarkable was that on the yellow paper that lines the inside of the wooden case shell, John Kehr wrote a note to his beloved. The pencil is very light, and John's handwriting wasn't the best, but I've been able to decifer off of the message save two words:
Any [t---y--? boys?] can
never never tell
how much I love
you and home.
Farewell, oh no
it may not be
my [fires? farm? firm?]

The first thing I did was to send the above natural light image of the note on a trip through Photoshop to optimize the contrast between the faded pencil marks and the yellow paper.

The second word of the first line is the hardest, as the paper is stained and the pencil, here, is the lightest. To the naked eye, the first letter looks like a "t", and third or fourth letter has a tail, and is probably a "y". I'm at a loss to find a word that fits the pattern and still makes sense in the message. However, if the t's cross-stroke is just a random mark, another possibility (since in other places, John didn't loop his t's) is that this is a "b", and suddenly "boys" is a possibility.

The last word is also a head scratcher when it comes to fitting the message's context, and I'm open to suggestions!

Sometimes, making an image into a negative can help things look clearer:

So...about the date. Tintypes became popular in the late 1850s and early 1860s for several reasons. Unlike the fragile and expensive daguerreotypes and ambrotypes which they replaced, tintypes were cheap and relatively easy to make, and were fairly durable. Soldiers heading off to fight in the Civil War lined up in droves at local studios to have their photo made, to leave behind with loved ones as a keepsake. Because the earlier types of photos always came in cases, that's the form people expected photos to take when tintypes first came on the scene. However, tintypes were so cheap to make that the cases actually cost more than the photos, so very quickly the fancy cases gave way to paper sleeves...or just hte plain piece of metal. And that suggests John's photo was taken early in the tintype age. Since he was leaving and saying farewell, it's not a stretch to conclude that this was from the 1861-1864 timeframe and this photo, and the love note it contained, were given to Catherine as he left to go fight.

The next step in my quest was to see if I could figure out who John and Catherine were, and where they were from. has quite a few entries (57) for the name "John Kehr", clearly its more common a name than I first thought. If John was around 18-20 at the time, and say the photo was taken in 1862, that puts his date of birth in the early to mid-1840s, and that narrows the list to eight possibilities (of course, that's graves that have been documented and's entirely possible that he's not in that database). Two were priests (and thus presumably not married), two had no spouse listed, and three had spouses other than Catherine.

The eighth one was married to a Catharine. He was John M. Kehr, born June 10, 1839 in Ohio, and married Catharine Hartman. They had a daughter in 1862 and then Catharine died giving birth to a son on March 19, 1863. In 1865, John remarried to a woman named Barbra.

I also tried the opposite approach, and searched for Cathrine/Catherine/Catharine Kehr. Besides the one above, a Catherine showed up also having married a John, but he doesn't have a record in the database. She was born in Ohio on October 14, 1843 in Ohio.

If anyone reading this has a John and Catherine as ancestors, I'd like to hear from you!

Because of its condition, this is one tintype that most serious collectors would likely pass over. And yet to me, as a somewhat romantic historian, its value lies not in the outward appearance, but in the touching message that one soldier going off to war, and quite possibly his death, left for his dear Catherine.

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