In last week’s class we discussed the popular 1865 photograph of condemned prisoner Lewis Payne (oddly someone made a greeting card version), which was featured in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Photography is fascinating because of its ability to transcend time and space. That a photograph can capture a single moment in time gives the observer the illusion of immediacy and intimacy with the subject. This sense is especially strong in prison photography, when the subject is captive and therefore at his or her most vulnerable.
Speaking of Victorian-era prison photography, allow me to introduce you to my great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Harper. He’s the one on the left with the beer belly and the death-glare in the picture above. Actually, I shouldn’t joke about the beer belly, because Bishop Thomas Harper definitely never consumed a drop of alcohol in his life. In fact, Bishop Thomas Harper was a devout Mormon pioneer who left Wales in 1851 and traveled by ship and covered wagon to Salt Lake City, Utah. He founded a township, which he creatively named Harper, and, according to his religion, took three wives, fathered eleven children, and became a successful farmer. How does a nice hard-working guy like that end up in prison, you ask?
Meanwhile, Utah began its bid for statehood in the 1860s. The politicians in Washington thought polygamy was weird, and wouldn’t allow Utah to become a state until it complied with the Edmunds Act, which outlawed polygamy. In the mid-1880s, American marshals and deputies began to round up prominent polygamists to make examples of them. Bishop Thomas Harper was one of those unlucky few, and spent several months in the Sugar House Penitentiary in 1888. In this picture he is posing with VIP Bishop Cannon (the guy in the middle with the flowers) and several other prisoners. Eventually, in 1890, the Mormon Prophet had a very convenient revelation from God and decided that polygamy was wrong. Utah became a state shortly after, in 1896, and polygamy is still outlawed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to this day.
Before you ask: no, I’m not a Mormon. And yes, I am descendant from Thomas’s first wife (as you can imagine, this is a huge honor). I’m not sure in exactly what context this picture was taken, except that Cannon wrote later that he had to stand outside for several hours and that he caught cold as a result. It may have originally been intended to serve as identification of the prisoners. Interestingly, that identification function has taken on a new form in the modern era, as the descendants of these men love to create intricate family genealogies (a Mormon specialty), and even celebrate the fact that their ancestors were imprisoned in Sugar House (which is now a park). Also interestingly, my grandfather once glared at me in the exact same way once when I left my toys all over the living room floor. A wonderful example of photography’s ability to transcend time.