What’s the Message in the Picture?

The original is missing a corner and was bent at one point, but otherwise it is a great picture. At some point, probably in the 1890s, the family of Irish immigrants Samuel and Annie (Murphy) Neill posed for a picture in front of their home near Stillwell in Hancock County, Illinois.

Annie (Murphy) Neill is sitting in the picture. In her fifties at the time, her health never recovered after, according to family lore, she was bitten by a snake. The rest of the family is standing tall in what were no doubt their best clothes. The house looks well-maintained and the family’s three horses and buggy are pictured as well.

And so I thought about the picture. It was not taken for me, but I wondered:

was there someone for whom it was taken?

If the Neill family sent Christmas cards, which I highly doubt, the picture likely was not enclosed in it. But was there someone to whom a copy was sent? Samuel had one brother in the United States, but his other known siblings were living in and around Newtown Limavady in County Derry, Ireland. Annie was also an Irish native, but nothing about her family is known.

Did they sent the picture to some kinfolk as a way of letting them know that, despite Annie’s illness, they were doing pretty well? They had a small farm that they may have said was owned “without a paper.” The phrase did not refer to the deed but to the fact that there was no mortgage on the property–it was owned free and clear. Was the picture a way to let their kinfolk know how they were doing without writing a lengthy letter? Of course, I’ll never know.

It’s possible that somewhere in Ireland, in an attic or tucked in an old Bible is a copy of this picture–sent “back home” to let the folks know they were doing okay.


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