Grief Encounter

There are a few items from the Stofer family scrapbook that I doubted I would ever find a use for here, including a severely damaged group photograph that simply baffled me at first.  Every now and then I would open the file and frown at it for a while, wondering what all those gloomy folks were up to, before zipping it back inside a folder to marinate a bit longer.  

Last weekend, having pored over half a dozen Stofer family photographs in the interim, I was surprised to realize that I suddenly had a pretty good idea of who every last person in the photo was.  In fact, it's the same group of suspects that we’ve seen gathered in front of Jacob Stofer’s house on other occasions, both somber and festive, although this time the faces are at least a quarter of a century younger than those we’re used to seeing.  Much more than merely youthful versions of themselves, these are denizens of a bygone age, the Victorian era of the late 19th century.

Two subjects standing on the right side of the porch immediately caught my eye, a lovely young woman dressed in black, clutching a handkerchief, and a man beside her who seems to be at a complete loss about what to do with his hands.  Looking as if he’s impersonating what Mr. Carson, the butler on Downtown Abbey, called a “hobbity-hoy,” the man must be aware that his arms are much too long for that suit-coat he apparently hasn’t tried on in the last few years, but doesn’t have the presence of mind to tuck them behind his back, as the man at far left edge of the group has done.  For some reason, the woman at his side with the handkerchief glares at the photographer as if furious about the intrusion.

The young woman in the picture bears an uncanny resemblance to the only (and admittedly rather fuzzy) photo I’ve seen of Adaline (Lovewell) Smith, probably taken around the time of her wedding to Thomas C. Smith in 1889.  Adaline also wore her hair very short with a curl on top, but it was a popular style in that day, and the startling resemblance may exist chiefly because a devoted younger sister mimicked Adaline's hairdo.  The couple so ill at ease here almost have to be Ben and Mary (Lovewell) Stofer, who had wed just two years earlier.

The date of the gathering is a fairly simple matter to compute because the grandchildren arranged between Jacob and Nancy Stofer are Mary and Arizona White’s boys George and Harry, who turned 11 and 9 years old in 1900.  If the year is, as I would guess, 1898, then the photograph above is a heart-wrenching record of Stofer family mourners assembled on Jacob's front porch after the funeral service for Ben and Mary’s daughter Mabel,* who died Oct. 14, 1898, only two weeks after her birth.  The picture also could have been taken a year later, at the funeral for the couple’s second child, Jessie Lloyd, who died Oct. 17, 1899, at the age of three months.  It could go either way.

The only bright side to this sad gathering is that we’re afforded a rare glimpse of many of these people in the prime of life.  Ben Stofer is shown here at 22.  His grieving wife Mary has just turned 18.  We now know that a 31-year-old Rose (Stopher) Septer resembled young Eleanor Roosevelt, and when she was 20 Jacob Stofer’s youngest daughter Emma possessed an earthy Mediterranean beauty.  We also know that Jake Jr. had the best mustache in the family, and Arizona White would have enjoyed a monumental career as a tough-guy character actor in Hollywood.  I can see him polishing the glassware behind the bar in any Western ever made.

There were rules of etiquette regarding mourning, how long it was supposed to last and what apparel was mandated.  Guidelines were imported to America from Victorian England, but adjusted for the realities of middle-class life on the America prairie.  In England a widow was supposed to honor her late husband by moping about in drab apparel for two years, a non-starter when the widow had hungry young children to feed and a farm sitting idle.  A dead child might be mourned publicly for a year.  Fortunately, after Jessie Lloyd Stofer died late in 1899, Mary and Ben persevered.  Ethyle was the first of the couple’s three children to be born in a new century, two girls and a boy who would thrive, grow to adulthood, and provide grandchildren, at least one of whom I met.

By the way, in the photograph above, Harry White probably wasn’t interrupted while getting a haircut or eating a lobster.  One of those Victorian rules concerning mourning specified that younger children should wear white instead of black.  It may have been seen as an ironclad rule in the Stofer household, or at least a tradition that the man of the house liked to see observed.  That could also explain why Emma Granstedt, the youngest of Jacob G. Stofer’s children, stood out in the crowd of mourners at her father’s funeral (see “Standing Out from the Crowd").  Emma was at least 43 at the time.  Apparently the Stofer Rule came with no age limit.   

* The name on her headstone is rendered as “Mable Stoffer"

Photograph courtesy of Ashley Gresham  

© Dale Switzer 2023