History Mystery


Submitted 8 months ago
Created by
Jane Booth

Newbury Village. Photo attributed to Elizabeth Hunter Corliss

When I first took a look at Frederick P. Wells 1902 book, History of Newbury 1704-1902, I thought to myself, what a boring dry read this will be.  There were photos of stodgy old buggers in stuffy suits and genealogical records, oh yawn.  Last winter on a gloomy gray day I approached Well's book -- this time with an open mind-- and wandered with great pleasure into the history that made up my town.

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Included within the pages of Mr. Wells' book are images of architecture and landscapes.  Eight photographs were given credit to Corliss.  No other credits appear under other photographs.   Wondering who Corliss might be I did an internet search and found an article Bradford's historian, Larry Coffin, had written on historic photographers of the Upper Valley.  He mentioned a woman named Elizabeth Hunter Corliss.  Looking through Mr. Well's book I found the Hunter family (genealogical records not so boring now!) and Elizabeth's name and her profession noted as photographer.

I am a photographer by profession.  My left shoulder droops lower than my right from years of carrying a heavy bag containing cameras, lenses, and film.  My equipment pales in comparison when I think of what Elizabeth Hunter Corliss would have used to make photographs -- a cumbersome large format wood folding camera, a sturdy wood tripod to hold the camera, and a bag or box to hold negative carriers and heavy coated glass plates.  I wondered how she got about -- did she travel on foot, on horseback, or by horse and buggy?  Did she photograph alone or did someone accompany her.  

Chapel Street, Newbury Village, before the 1913 fire. Photo attributed to Elizabeth Hunter Corliss.

Many of the images I have seen of Elizabeth's appear to be taken in the colder months -- gloves would have been awkward to wear when she was manipulating camera, tripod, and large glass plates on snowy winter days.  Her feet must have become ice blocks as she stood waiting for her exposures to take hold.  I applaud her efforts scrambling uphill burdened with equipment, wearing ankle-length skirts and petticoats, all to capture a bird's eye view.

Elizabeth's Scottish grandfather, Archibald Hunter, arrived in America around 1820.  His wife died crossing the Atlantic and left Archibald to care for three young children -- Eliza, Thomas and William.  The family settled in Newbury on the east side of Jefferson Hill.  I discovered their homestead marked on an 1858 map of Newbury.  

Archibald's son, William, a blacksmith and mill owner at East Topsham, married Susannah Chamberlain of Topsham.  Elizabeth, their seventh child of eight, was born in 1855.  She married Alfred Corliss, a carpenter and painter of Newbury, in September of 1886.  Where, I wonder, are Alfred's paintings of Newbury?  What happened to all of Elizabeth's photographs?

I made further searches on the internet and delved into old texts and maps but only came across a few clues regarding Elizabeth and none about Alfred.

One search brought me to an ebay page where a seller had sold a cabinet card, a group portrait of school children on the front of the card, the reverse side of the card advertised the maker of the image -- "Corliss, photographer, Newbury, VT".   

Cabinet card. Photo by Corliss.

Reverse of cabinet card with Corliss credit.

I believe, although I've lost track, the same ebay seller also had offered a colorfully printed paper fan, the reverse side advertised "Corliss, photographer, East Corinth, VT."  The fan was printed in South Ryegate by firm named Renfrew. 

One recent Saturday I spent a few hours searching the archives at the Newbury Historical Society.   A mixed box of glass plates, in need of attention, were brought home with permission.  I purchased archival envelopes for the glass negatives and before I housed each plate in a new home, I placed them on a lightbox and photographed them creating digital negatives I can later turn into positive prints.  The negatives ranged in size from 4x5 inches to 6.5x8.5 inches.  

Within the collection were 14 identically sized plates, 6x7 inches, each one overexposed.  As I unwrapped the plates from a protective covering of tissue paper I held them up to the light and began to recognize images credited to Corliss in Wells' History of Newbury.  I believe the 14 plates were created by Elizabeth Hunter Corliss.

What ever happened to Elizabeth? She was still alive at the time the Wells' history was published.  I can find no date or place of death.  I can find no other photographs although there may be others hidden in the archives at the Newbury Historical Society.  Elizabeth and Alfred had a child named Roy born in 1889.  I have found no record of Roy.  

Does the story end here?  I hope not, I would love to see and know more.  

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