Living in an historical town like Wilmington, NC, means having people and organizations dedicated to the preservation of its structures, people, stories, artifacts, and the like, so future generations understand how to move forward in the footsteps of the past. Since its foundation in 1955, the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society (LCFHS) has been making it easier to trace our history by preserving archives and documents of the Cape Fear for educational and literary purposes.
Housed in the Latimer House Museum—a Victorian Italianate upper-class merchant’s home at 126 S. Third Street in the Wilmington Historic District—the society maintains the museum’s upkeep. Its space is a haven for historical research on southeastern NC’s place among Victorian life, the Civil War and beyond. Annually, LCFHS holds events, lectures, programs, and exhibits to help keep their mission alive. For October, they’re hosting a unique take on death and funerary practices of the Victorian Era in “Victorian Mourning.” We interviewed LCFHS manager Travis Gilbert for all of the gloomy details…
encore (e): Tell us about Victorian Mourning and why LCFHS decided to continue its tradition at Latimer House.
Travis Gilbert (TG): The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society continues the tradition of decorating the historic 1852 Latimer House Museum in mourning during October because it is an engaging, fun way to educate our community about Victorian mourning practices. Our mission is to disseminate knowledge of the Lower Cape Fear Region’s rich historical significance, and since mourning etiquette was an important part of the cultural fabric of the Victorian Era, the Halloween programming adeptly serves our mission.
Additionally, the morbid and quirky nature of the programming entices a younger audience to visit the Latimer House. Our organization’s traditional audience is older and we must be able to attract younger audiences to ensure our organization’s continued success.
e: What are some of Victorian practices offered during the exhibition that folks will find interesting to learn?
TG: First, Victorian funeral services were most often held in a family’s home, typically in the formal drawing room or parlors. Thus, a reproduction Victorian coffin is on display in the Latimer House drawing room.
Secondly, all the mirrors in the Latimer House are covered in black cloth to prevent the departed’s soul from becoming trapped inside the home. On display will be pieces of hair jewelry. Since human hair never disintegrates, it was a tangible connection to the deceased that was treasured by Victorians. Our largest piece of hair ephemera is a hair wreath, nearly 6 inches in diameter, from the Wilmington-based Bonitz family of the late 19th and early 20th century.
e: Tell us about the deaths of the Latimer family that are part of the exhibition, per the four invitations you’ll have on display.
TG: In 16 years, Elizabeth Savage Latimer gave birth to nine children, but only four boys survived to adulthood. Elizabeth Savage Latimer’s first child was a stillborn girl, the only child who was not given a name and is without a tombstone in the family plot at Oakdale Cemetery. The other four children all died before the age of four and were named Robert, Elizabeth, Walter, and Anna.
Their deaths are recorded in the Latimer family Bible that will be on display. In addition, the invitations to the children’s funerals will be on display, alongside the original deed to the family plot in Oakdale.
When Elizabeth Savage Latimer’s children died, she was expected to dress in mourning for at least 18 months. We will have on display Mrs. Latimer’s mourning dress that is also a maternity dress. Yes, she was bearing one child while mourning the loss of another. In addition to the dress, we will have on display various mourning gloves, veils, hats, and jewelry.
Zebulon Latimer was a slaveowner, and we have documented evidence of at least one funeral for an enslaved woman name “Jane” who died in 1860. Jane was first interred in an undisclosed cemetery, but later reinterred into the segregated Pine Forest Cemetery that sits beside Oakdale on North 16th Street. We will have on display three receipts documenting the funeral and internment costs for Jane.
e: Funerary customs were clearly different as opposed to 21st century ones; what else will we see?
TG: The chief difference between funerary customs in the 19th century as opposed to the 21st century is how funeral services were held in the family’s home, typically in the formal parlors, as opposed to a funeral parlor. That is where the name “funeral parlor” originates. Individual or multiple individuals in shifts would stay awake 24/7 to observe the body. This was to prevent an individual who was not truly deceased, in a coma for example, from being buried alive. This is were the term “wake” originates.
At the wake, funeral biscuits were served to the guests, which were simple, bland cookies wrapped in paper with a Biblical verse or funeral requiem printed onto the packaging, similar to a fortune cookie.
The biggest difference between Victorian funeral practices and our 21st century customs is the idea of a material heaven. In today’s diverse society, there are many ideas or notions about the afterlife. In Victorian America, there was a near universal belief in a material heaven, or that the afterlife would be exactly like earth, with streets, houses, trees, and humans.
For example, if an individual died during their childhood, they would remain a child forever, looking exactly like their earthly image, in heaven. Thus, before the growth of embalming during the Civil War, it was extremely important for individuals to get a good “last look” at the deceased so they could find them in heaven.
After the invention of photography in the late 1830s, post-mortem photography helped further this custom. Families would pose with the dead bodies of recently deceased so they could capture their likeness for posterity.
e: How did the historical society get its hands on the artifacts being used?
TG: The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society’s headquarters, the Latimer House, never left the Latimer family. Three generations of Latimers lived in the home until it was deeded to the newly-established historical society in 1963 by a grandchild of Zebulon and Elizabeth Latimer. Thus, most of the furnishings, clothes, and documents were left in the home when the historical society acquired the site.
Other artifacts, documents, and ephemera were donated through the years by members of the historical society or willed following the death of supporters.
e: Is the Latimer House “haunted,” if you will? If so, can you tell us a little about its purported backstory?
TG: There are several ghost stories about the Latimer House. First, our original butler’s pantry table is where the children who died were washed and dressed in preparation of the funeral services. The table remains today in the English half basement, and individuals have recorded instances of it moving, shaking, and acting as a conduit for spirits.
Additionally, volunteers over the years have reported books flying off the library shelves and glasses going missing. This may be the work of Empie Latimer, a grandchild of Zebulon and Elizabeth Latimer who wore glasses and was quite studious.
Lastly, an artist by the name of Elisabeth Augusta Chant rented a bedroom at the Latimer House during the early 20th century. Elisabeth believed she was clairvoyant and could speak to deceased historical figures. Tradition says she hosted table-tapping parties and other gatherings that sought to communicate with the dead while renting at the Latimer House.
e: What other events do you guys hold throughout the year per fundraising efforts? What will monies from Victorian Mourning go toward for your organization?
TG: The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society’s largest fundraiser is the Old Wilmington by Candlelight Tour. The tour is in its 43rd year and will be held Saturday, December 2, 4 p.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday, December 3, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Ten private homes and three houses of worship will be on tour this year. Tickets are $40 online or $38 using your VIC card at local Harris Teeter stores beginning November 8.
All proceeds from the Victorian Wake, Candlelight Tour, and other fundraisers further the mission of the historical society and the organization’s continued maintenance of the Latimer House Museum. Maintaining the Latimer House is important because it serves as a cultural icon of downtown Wilmington, a representative of our community to guests from around the world, and houses the LCFHS archives collections, which helps genealogists, researchers, and individuals seeking to apply for a Historic Wilmington Foundation plaque on their home.