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 }

The Harry Sisters - part 1

18 January 2020

Once upon a time
there were three sisters
who lived in Pennsylvania.
Each was a nimble violinist
and a beauty too.

The three girls liked to entertain people
with music and literature,
playing their violins,
singing songs,
and reciting long poems and stories
sometimes in foreign languages.

Everyone marveled
at how smart the three sisters were.
It made their parents proud.

Their father was a singing master
who taught them everything about music.
Their mother was a skilled seamstress
who made wonderful embroidered frocks

for them to wear when performing.

Everywhere the clever sisters went,
they impressed people
with their many talents
and charming music.

Their photos could almost be illustrations
from a children's book of fairy tales.

They were the Harry Sisters
and they lived in
Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

From oldest to youngest
their names were:

Emma Viola Harry,
Angella E. Harry,
Lydia Celestia Harry.

And once upon an earlier time
before they were born,
their father
helped save the Union
for President Lincoln.

This photograph of the three Harry sisters posed with their violins is one of the gems in my collection. The photographer's imprint is difficult to see on the green card mount, but it is the same name as on the later buff card, J. N. Choate, Carlisle, PA. His full name was John Nicolas Choate (1848–1902) and he became a noted photographer of the students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. From the school's founding in 1879 until his death in 1902, Choate produced thousands of photos of Native American children who were sent to this now controversial boarding school run by the Federal government. Over its nearly 40 years of operation until closing in 1918, the Carlisle Indian School accepted over 10,000 boys and girls from 140 tribes around the Unites States, yet only 158 student graduated. Many of those Indian school student photos Choate duplicated by the hundreds for promotional use by the school.

In just the same way, Choate's photos of the Harry sisters were printed in multiples to sell as souvenirs at their performances. This artfully arranged cabinet photo probably dates from about 1883-84. On the back are their three names written in a beautiful calligraphy.

The girls were the daughters of James Brown Harry and Emma Stuart Harry. James titled himself as Prof. J. B. Harry as he was a music teacher, specifically a "singing master", giving lessons to individual vocalists and also directing choirs. In the 1880 US Census the Harry family lived in Mount Holly Springs, PA which was then a village 6 miles south of Carlisle with about 1,200 inhabitants. James was age 51, his wife Emma, 37, and daughters Emma V., age 9, Angella E., age 6, and Lydia C., age 3. As Lydia Celestia , the youngest girl in the photo, appears about age 6 this dates the image to 1883-84.

1880 US Census Mount Holly Springs, PA

By this decade Prof. Harry had over 30 years experience working a music teacher in the central Pennsylvania region. Beginning in 1882, his name appears in newspaper reports announcing entertainments by his "educated babies." In October 1883 the Chambersburg PA weekly ran a notice saying the Harry sisters, age 11, 8, and 5 would give  readings in English, German, and Spanish and the eldest renders any piece of music handed her on sight, without the aid of musical instruments. The press, wherever they have appeared speak well of them.

Chambersburg PA Public Weekly Opinion
06 October 1883
Some of the venues where the Harry sisters exhibited their talents were "opera houses", which were actually just small town civic theaters. Generally they played in churches or schools with tickets sometimes sold as a benefit. They were not promoted like vaudeville entertainers as Prof. Harry never took out music hall type advertisements. His daughters' concerts were not like a variety act, but instead were a demonstration of their talent using violin music and literary readings.

By May 1884 the Harry sisters' local celebrity in Juniata township, about 35 miles north of Carlisle, rated a headline with their name. They played a number of fine selections from the most renouned (sic) masters and composers in a variety of keys and positions on that most difficult instrument, the violin. They will sing several charming duetts, and a variety of German and English songs. Their readings will consist of prose and poetry from the best authors in the English, German, and Spanish languages. Admission, Adults, 25 cents; Children, 15 cents. Doors open 7:15 P.M.

Juniata PA Sentinel and Republican
07 May 1884
Sometimes the older girls played a word game with Celestia, possibly with a chalk board, that challenged her to spell and translate difficult foreign words and phrases. In Pennsylvania there would be many people familiar with German, though likely in an older form. But there can't have been many Spanish speakers then living in the Carlisle area who could judge the girls' pronunciation. Nonetheless the newspapers reported that people were amazed at their maturity and intelligent erudition. The girls also gave English renditions of humorous stories and traditional poetry, likely chosen for a morally improving message. Their songs would also likely be Christian sacred music, perhaps from the Methodist tradition as that was the faith Mr. and Mrs. Harry followed.

From about 1882 to 1890, the Harry sisters performed around central Pennsylvania. Carlisle is only 20 some miles southwest of Harrisburg, the state capitol, so a rail connection allowed Prof. Harry to easily book engagements from 30 to 130 miles from their home.  Newspaper reports do not mention Philadelphia or Pittsburgh so it seems the Harry trio never traveled to any big city venues.  They were small town folk. Their ambitions did not seek theatrical celebrity. 

 * * * *

For me the delightful quality of these photos is the way they capture the bright moments of three loving sisters, making them almost like characters from a fairy tale. But just like photographs never reveal the hidden history beyond the camera, fairy tales never tell the full story of a person or a family. Any true tale about children should include the joys and sorrows of real life.

So because it happens that I have more photos of the Harry sisters to show, and more of their history to tell, I've decided to break up their story into three chapters over the next few weeks.

But before I finish this chapter
I must tell the origin story
about the heroic adventures of their father.

 * * * *

I do not have a photo from the 1880s of James Brown Harry.
But I did find a halftone newspaper copy of Prof. J. B. Harry
from 30 years later showing a old man
with almost a biblical visage.

Prof. J. B. Harry of New Castle, PA
Baltimore MD Sun
24 July 1910

James B. Harry was born on Dec. 17, 1828 in central Pennsylvania. As a young man he demonstrated a talent for teaching music, and for many years traveled around the Harrisburg, Penn. region as an itinerant singing master. In the summer 1863, he was 34 years old, single, and surprisingly not serving as a soldier in the Union Army as so many other men from his state were doing. It was the third year of the Civil War, the great war between the states over secession, and so far the Union army had not fared well in battles against the Confederates. That summer there was a new threat as for the first time, General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into the north.

Lee's objective was Harrisburg, the capitol of Pennsylvania, and then possibly Philadelphia. As his forces moved into Pennsylvania, General Meade's Army of the Potomac followed in hot pursuit. Lee planned a flanking attempt to go around Harrisburg, and on June 28th, 1863 Major General Jubal A. Early's division captured the city of York. Their next target would be to enter Lancaster County by crossing the Susquehanna River at Columbia, PA, about 30 southwest of Harrisburg. This required securing the Wrightsville Bridge. It was then the world's longest covered bridge, 28 feet wide and 5,620 feet long.

At the time James B. Harry was living near Gettysburg, PA and as the war came closer, he experienced a vision that it was God's task for him to locate Lee's army using his intimate knowledge of the area. On the night of June 27th after he learned of the Confederate advance towards York, he drove his one-horse buggy 50 miles north to Harrisburg to warn the governor. Knowing that the Confederate forces were greater than the Federal defense at the strategic Wrightsville Bridge, Harry advised the governor that it should be destroyed before the Confederates seized control. This was so ordered, and when Early's cavalry troops arrived to capture the bridge, it was set ablaze by the Federals preventing any crossing. Lee's forces turned westward and marched instead to Gettysburg, where, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, a fateful battle would change the course of the war.

Several newspaper accounts of Prof. Harry's ride to Harrisburg were published in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. These coincided with the 50th anniversary of the war, when the public began recognizing that the generation of soldiers who fought in this terrible war would soon be gone forever. As far as I could learn from the archives, Harry never served in the war. At 35 he was beyond the cutoff age for the federal draft. Most of the accounts are written in his own words and covey a strong personality with a devout Christian faith. The length of his stories suggest that he was a man who loved to talk, and show he was also very compassionate. In one long section he recounts an encounter with a free black family who were fleeing the Confederate invasion, naturally fearing capture and enslavement by the Southerners. He stops to comfort them and direct them to safety, assuring them they will be safe in Harrisburg. They thank him for his help and praise him for his respectful tone towards them.

Click this newspaper image to read Prof. Harry's story.

Carlisle PA Sentinel
23 January 1914

Prof. Harry's role in the history of America's Civil War was surely a very minor exploit among the many larger events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. As expected for a man in his 80s, the retelling of an adventure 50 years past might easily stretch the truth and misstate some of facts, but there is one interesting part of his story that rings true.

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery. He would only speak at the end of the ceremony following the two hour oration given by Hon. Edward Everett. Lincoln's brief remarks became known as the Gettysburg Address, possibly the most celebrated speech in American history.

And Prof. James B. Harry was there to hear it.

    When President Lincoln was called to Gettysburg to make the dedicatory address, Prof. Harry was there, and much to his surprise he learned that his aged mother had come from Ohio to see the great emancipator. Prof. Harry led his aged mother into the vast throng, and as there were no seats he was surprised when two soldiers came to them and informed them that President Lincoln had prepared places for them on the platform, as he had learned of Prof. Harry's bravery and devotion to the Union, and especially of his heroic midnight ride for the defense of the state capitol. When they reached the platform President Lincoln greeted them warmly. Mrs. Harry was at that time 75 years of age and had traveled the three hundred miles of her journey from Ohio alone. 
    Prof. Harry, now venerable with age, attended the semi-centennial anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg last July and there amid familiar scenes of his youth renewed the memories of the past and greeted the survivors of the great struggle for universal freedom.

In November 1863 a few photographs were taken at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery by an assistant of famed photographer Mathew Brady. Because of the way early cameras had to be arranged for outdoor photos, the photographer was a good distance from the speakers platform and the images did not seem worthy of printing at the time. But in 1952 researchers at the Library of Congress realized that one photo had enough detail when enlarged to show President Lincoln seated on the platform. Analysis of the shadows puts the time of the photo at noon, about three hours before Lincoln made his speech. I can't make out any elderly woman on the platform, but I think somewhere in the crowd is the face of the future father of the three Harry sisters.

Detail from a photograph taken on November 19, 1863
by  David Bachrach of President Lincoln at the dedication ceremonies
at the Soldiers' National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Penn,
Source: Wikipedia

In 1913, the year before the last account of Prof. Harry's ride to save Harrisburg, he attended the Gettysburg memorial anniversary and was given the honor of reading Lincoln's famous address. I suspect his daughters knew the words by heart too. Maybe even in three languages.

Carlisle PA Sentinel
03 July 1913

James Brown Harry died in Michigan at the home
of his daughter Emma Viola Harry
on September 15, 1918.
He was just three months short of his 90th birthday.

* * * *

This is the first of three chapters
about the Harry sisters.
Stay tuned
for chapter 2 next week.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more beautiful swans.


Wendy said...

Paul Revere, Jack Jouett, and James Brown Harry. If only Mr. Harry had had a poet.

La Nightingail said...

Mr. James Brown Harry was indeed a hero and fortunately we know of his heroic deed. I'm sure there were many heroes during the Civil War - as in any war - whose heroic deeds were unsung as well. Good story. I'll be looking forward to the next installments! :)

Molly of Molly's Canopy said...

Wow, what a post! So much history. I have been reading a book about the Susquehanna River called "Susquehanna: River of Dreams," in which the burning of the bridge at Columbia is described along with an illustration of the bridge on fire from Harper's Weekly of July 18, 1863. So it was fascinating to read about Dr. Harry's role in that event. Looking forward to more posts on this family -- and also wondering about the costumes the young women are wearing. Are they from Germany?

Anne Young said...

Looking forward to the next instalment

Barbara Rogers said...

Wonderful start for the series...beautiful costuming of the young musicians. What an interesting story about their father as well. Can't wait for the next chapters.


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