Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 113

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 113


This is the grave of Matthew Brady.

Probably born in 1822 in New York (there is a bit of conflicting testimony about both facts, with some believing he was born in Ireland), the young Brady studied locally to become an artist. But in 1839, he met Samuel F.B. Morse, who had brought daguerreotype technology back from France. Brady began working on this and became an American leader on the developing art of photography. He soon started teaching photography classes in New York. Opening his own studio in New York in 1844, Brady became the day’s leading photographer of the wealthy and powerful, a sort of Gilbert Stuart for the early photographic age. If a president or a business leader or a general wanted their photograph taken, it was Brady they went to. Brady photographed every president or ex-president at some point between John Quincy Adams and William McKinley except for William Henry Harrison. This includes the photograph of Lincoln used for the $5 bill and the very late life images of Adams and Andrew Jackson.

When the Civil War began, Brady wanted to travel with the Army to photograph it. Having friends among the powerful, he got the support of Winfield Scott and Lincoln agreed, with one stipulation. Brady would have to fund it himself. This would eventually prove his undoing. Brady’s mobile studio produced thousands of amazing images. Among those images he and his team of 17 assistants photographed was the dead at Antietam, which brought the horrors of the war home to American readers for the first time and helped define the conflict as the war went on. He created over 10,000 plates during the war. They were expensive. He spent over $100,000 and went into debt to do it. He did this on faith that the government would buy them at the war’s conclusion. That was a mistaken belief. He had to sell his studio and declare bankruptcy. Congress did finally grant him $25,000 in 1875 but that was not nearly enough to clear his name. Brady died in 1896 in the charity ward of a hospital after, by now blind, he was struck by a streetcar. The remaining veterans of the 7th New York Infantry paid for his burial out of appreciation for the work he had done to commemorate them and other Union soldiers.

Matthew Brady is buried at Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

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  • BiloSagdiyev

    He would have bought health insurance, but there was too much regulation of interstate commerce. Also, doctors didn’t know shit.

  • Mack

    I can’t help but notice the misspelling of his name on the headstone. Is that very common?

    • Thom

      Looks like the version with one “t” is correct in his case.

  • Rand Careaga

    It was many years ago that I ran across the anecdote (how many years ago? It was on a printed page, children), so I can neither cite its provenance nor vouch for its veracity, but the story is told that during one ferocious phase of a battle, Brady went into “Oh, man, I got a real bad feeling about this” mode, and expressed to his companion, an English journalist, his fear that they would not survive the day. The canny correspondent assured him that they would, and backed up his optimism with a friendly wager, which Brady accepted, that they would both be alive on the morrow. It was of course a sucker’s bet, since had the Englishman lost, either he would be too dead to pay up, or Brady would be too dead to collect. So the photographer was out, say, a five-dollar gold piece, which makes me doubly sad to learn that he died in penury.

  • reattmore

    Brady was more the owner of a photography business than a photographer. His “assistants” did all the picture-taking.

    • Bloix

      In his teens Brady contracted an eye infection that was never properly cured. It left him with weak eyes that could not tolerate bright light. By the 1850s – when he was already famous – he wore blue-tinted glasses and had stopped operating the camera himself due to his poor eyesight, which continued to deteriorate. This was well-known – his need to rely on others to take pictures was routinely mentioned in articles about him and his studio. He didn’t pass off the work of others as his own.

      He did pose the subjects, decide on the proper exposure, and instruct the operator in the camera settings. And he continued to do darkroom work himself. For the Civil War pictures, he had 17 mobile darkrooms and skilled photographers, following the army, working for him. It would have been impossible for him to have been everywhere they went. He conceived the project, organized it, funded it out of his own pocket, and selected the images to be printed, and committed years to it with no financial return – and the loss of the money he could have made if he’d stuck to studio portraits of celebrities – because he believed that it was important work. The only help he got from Lincoln was that the photographers were given passes that gave them access to camps and battlefields.

      But his eyesight continued to deteriorate. By the end of the Civil War he was not only broke, he was practically blind, to the point that he was not able to resume his pre-war career as a studio photographer. Having created one of the greatest photographic archives ever made, of the most momentous event in our history, he was allowed to die in a charity ward.

  • RBHolb

    I have to ask: Does anyone know why he never got a picture of William Henry Harrison?

    • Because he died so soon in office?

      • Brady didn’t open his studio until 1844. Harrison died in 1841. He photographed Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, and Tyler after they left the White House.

        • RBHolb

          Got it. Thanks.

  • Lee

    Eric can you please create a link like you have for your ‘ this day in Labour History’ posts for your visits a grave posts so that I can go back and read them all
    They’re awesome and I really believe a Web link to them all would get a lot of traffic and would be shared by people to their history nut friends helping attract new visitors to the site

    (yes I’m sorry to admit I work in digital marketing, I can’t stop my brain from working out ways to attract new traffic and site optimisation :) forgive me)

  • MichaelDrew

    Sucks that they misspelled his name on his own darn gravestone.

  • Mike Schilling

    He couldn’t have died in 1896, as he was the prosecutor in the Monkey Trial in 1925.

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