Monday Memories: Francis Biggart, Union Soldier
Most of the glass plate negatives in our Richard M. Bloomer collection arrive housed in paper envelopes like the one below. The original customers' names are scribbled on them in pencil, and there are usually notes about the order as well—how many prints a person wants, what sizes, in sepia or a different style, etc. When the handwriting is easy to decipher, things go pretty smoothly for me. I clean, scan, and rehouse the negative, then simply enter the information from the envelope into a database and move on to the next one.
Occasionally, though, something will gum up the process; sloppy handwriting, unfamiliar surnames, and unusual notations pop up, and they all require further research to put a name (and more importantly, the right name) to a face.
Such was the case with the "Biggart + Holmes" envelope and the folks pictured in the corresponding negative. The handwriting might not be atrocious, but if you've never heard the name Biggart before (guilty as charged), there's a good chance that Mr. Bloomer's scrawl isn't going to lead you straight to it. In addition, this marked the first time—out of nearly 400 negatives so far—that Bloomer listed more than one name on an envelope. It became necessary, then, to figure out two names instead of one, and to hopefully identify a meaningful link between them. So, I donned my proverbial researcher hat and hit the city directories, newspaper archives, and genealogy databases in the effort to bring things into resolution.
With a little digging, the name Francis Biggart (1843-1923) rose to the surface. Soon after that came his daughter, Gertrude, who married a Mr. Albert Holmes in Sandy Hill in 1899. According to census records, Francis was a widower and lived with his daughter and her husband in his later years. It therefore seems very likely that "Biggart + Holmes" is a father-daughter portrait of Francis and Gertrude; this knowledge allowed me to put the negative "to bed" with some confidence. However, I did take one extra minute to track down Francis' obituary, and that turned out to be the pièce de résistance.
So, the journey that began with sloppy handwriting on an envelope ended with the surprising revelation that we have a portrait of a Civil War veteran (and proud supporter of Abraham Lincoln) and his daughter in our collection. It's exciting to think that there are countless similarly engaging stories in the Bloomer Glass Plate Negative Collection, just waiting to be told.