This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Child Violinist from Raleigh

21 January 2012

What turns an ordinary photo into a great photograph? The age or location of the photo often determines how uncommon it is. The subject or the occupation that is depicted has a major influence on its rarity. And a name and date will always add value. But I think it is the story, the narrative of what we see in the image, that can really transform a photograph. Some photos, like the Missouri violinist last week, invite a fictional story. But others, like this cabinet card of a little girl with her violin, offer a true story.

A typical photograph of this era might have a child holding a cherished doll, but this young girl confidently holds a violin under her chin, the bow placed correctly on the strings. It is a challenging pose for the photographer, as we can see the special stand behind her feet to keep her still. The violin takes many years of disciplined practice to acquire the necessary musical skills, so it was often started at an early age. Today the violin is associated with small children because of the teaching methods of Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898-1998) who, just after WWII, developed a music program of violin instruction in Japan that is now used around the world. It uses violins reduced to ½ and ¼ sizes to aid little fingers, but this girl holds a full size instrument.

The age of this photo, which dates to mid-1890s, is not at all uncommon, but the place, Raleigh, North Carolina, certainly is. Even during this post-Civil War era, photographs from Southern states are much less common than those from Northern or Mid-Western states. As an example, during this week on eBay, a search of "North Carolina, cabinet" in the antique photograph sales produced 14 listings. A search for "South Carolina, cabinet" showed only 23 items. But Michigan had 474 listings, Pennsylvania 664, Ohio 902, and New York 1,160. The photographer is Benjamin S. Mattocks, who was born 1855 in North Carolina.  But he seems to have left Raleigh sometime before the turn of the century, as his name is listed in the 1897 City Directory for Houston, Texas, along with 13 other photographers. 

But this interesting trivia
is not the story, which actually begins on the photo's back.  There, written in pencil, is the girl's name Fanny Hines Johnson, and her age 6 yrs - 5 mos old in 1894.

Such a simple addition to a photo and yet how rewarding. The name and date are the key to the archives and gives the photo a name for its principal character.

But Fanny or Fannie turns out to be a very poplar name in the 19th century. And as I discovered, there certainly were a lot of Johnson families that liked the name. So the writer who gave the middle name Hines, gets special thanks, as this usefully narrowed the search even more.

1900 US Census for Raleigh, NC
Her father, (found at the bottom of the previous census page) was Charles E. Johnson, a cotton broker in 1900. He and his wife Margaret (or possibly Mary) along with Fannie, age 12,  and Mary and Charles, her older sister and brother, lived on 120 Hillsboro Street, now spelled Hillsborough St in Raleigh. Their house, though now gone, was only one block from the NC State Capital and the Confederate War Memorial monument. Undoubtedly Charles must have been a prosperous businessman to have the resources to photograph his daughter displaying her musical talent. According to the 1900 census records, there was a George Mears, occupation: Music Teacher who lived very close. Perhaps he was Fannie's violin teacher.

View Larger Map

By the next census in 1910, Charles E. Johnson has become a bank president. Fannie, now 22, is still at home. Perhaps she continued to play violin in a church orchestra or a local society chamber group. But one imagines that at this age, a young woman has more on her mind than music.

Unfortunately, this is when most stories unravel. The thread of a woman's name changes with marriage and unless there is an official notice recorded, the trail will go cold. The name Fannie was just as popular with Williams and Smiths. Where will she be in 1920? At first there was nothing, but then I found her. And at the same address.

1919 NC Death Certificate for Fannie Hines (Johnson) Harriss

Fannie was now Mrs. Fannie Hines Harriss, house-wife, and 93 years ago this week, on January 15, 1919 at the age of 31, she died of pneumonia arising from influenza, a victim of the terrible pandemic that flashed across the globe during the final months of the Great War of 1914-18. The erroneously named Spanish Flu , claimed far more lives than the war, with estimates between 50 and 100 million deaths worldwide. In Raleigh, Fannie was one of thousands across the state of North Carolina who died.

A report in 1919 from the North Carolina State Board of Health, stated that 13,703 citizens died of influenza between October 1918 and March 1919. Physicians, and medical facilities all across the nation were overwhelmed. Cities in North Carolina closed theaters and schools, and prohibited public meetings and events. But to no avail, as thousand of seemingly healthy people were suddenly struck down by this deadly virus, which could bring death within days, and sometimes hours. Mortality rates of those afflicted with this virulent influenza reached 20% compared to 0.1% with ordinary flu, and the highest rate of deaths were among young adults like Fannie.

At the time this disease was little understood, and it was only after the determined and  heroic effort of many scientists and doctors that a vaccine was created that could stall the advance of this epidemic. I highly recommend a book entitled The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, which describes the epic history of this plague which killed so many people.

Fannie had moved to Wilmington, NC with her husband Meares Harriss, a real estate broker. They had two children, and as far as I know, they survived along with her mother and father.

All of the people in my photograph collection have died of course, many many years ago. Most remain anonymous and only a few photos provide some clues to discover their lives behind the image. While it is surprisingly easy to find the beginning and middle stories to these people, as births, families, and locations are so carefully recorded every 10 years for the census, the death records are extremely difficult to find. So it is very rare for an amateur historian like myself to get a complete timeline for a person in a 100 year old photograph. This picture of a pretty little girl with her violin, born on Christmas Day in 1887, who tragically perished in one of the great plagues of world history is hardly a complete picture of the person, but it shows us a rare arc of time that makes her image all the more precious.

For more photos and stories of other little girls, click the link to Sepia Saturday


Bob Scotney said...

I am amazed at the detective work you have done here to bring us the story of Fannie.
It must have taken you ages to track all the details. Thanks for a fascinating post.

Rob From Amersfoort said...

Very interesting, nice detective work indeed! I didn't know so many people died during the not-to-be-called-Spanish flu pandemic.

Postcardy said...

That was great detective work. It was sad to read that she died so young, but that wasn't unusual during that epidemic.

Wendy said...

Add me to the list of fans of your work. As much as I've enjoyed your fictional accounts of people in your photo collection, I still prefer the factual ones. This story is wonderful. Fannie's life was short and rather ordinary, I suppose, but today she's the center of attention.

Howard said...

A sad story Mike, but a great photograph.

Christine H. said...

Can you hear my applause from across the country? Maybe not, but this post deserves a standing ovation.

Alan Burnett said...

Mike : you really are the acknowledged expert on this type of approach. You can take a photograph and extract so much information, so much fascination out of it. As I have said so often before: a real joy to read.

Jo said...

What a fascinating story, Mike. I enjoy detailed research, and reading about yours. How sad that Fannie died so young. Jo

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Mike, you are the best at this kind of detective work. This is an amazing post, and I appreciate the info about the flu epidemic also.

Keep up the great work!

Kathy M.

Little Nell said...

A wonderfully absorbing post Mike - one of your best. I can only echo the sentiments above. This is a sad story; that pandemic keeps rearing its ugly head in Sepia Saturday posts. I’m so glad we all got to know Fannie though.

Kristin said...

That was such a well written post of Fanny's life. Bravo!

Bruno Laliberté said...

I remember my grandma speaking of that pandemic. A dreadful time. She said some people were buried alive... True or false?

One never knows his/her destiny.
Lovely picture, despite the sad ending.


Johnson Harriss, Jr. said...

What a thrill to find this picture. It is of my grandmother, Fanny Hines Johnson Harriss—daughter of Charles E. Johnson and Mary Ellis Wilson Johnson, granddaughter of NC Gov. James Iredell, Jr., and great-granddaughter of US Supreme Court Justice James Iredell, last of the original justices appointed by George Washington. She did continue playing the violin up until her death. She had gone to Raleigh to nurse her aunt (who probably had the “Spanish flu” as well) when she herself was stricken and died very quickly, as Mike has indicated. My father was under two years old when she died; his brother, under four. We have her 1913 wedding photo and another one of her playing the violin as an adult; we had nothing prior to her wedding photo. So thanks, Mike, for posting the picture (and thanks to the WWW for letting us see it!). Wow!

Anonymous said...

Mike Brubaker said...

@Anonymous - Thanks for the YouTube video link. It is of a young violinist - Julia Fischer, 8 years old, playing the Beriot Violin concerto in 1992. A very striking resemblance to Fanny.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP