Death Reigns Supreme: From the LOC Photo Collection

Justice Pierce Butler Funeral (web sized)11/06/09 The web galleries of the Library of Congress are a treasure trove of fascinating images and one of my favorite places to look for historic photographs when I’m wearing my photo editor hat.

Here’s an image I stumbled on while researching images for a story on the U.S. Supreme Court. Pallbearers are carrying the remains of Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler down the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C. almost exactly 70 years ago on November 17, 1939. What a fascinating image on so many levels! Look at how the people are dressed. The surviving justices are all carrying top hats and wearing morning coats. There’s a boy wearing knickers by the center doorway.

Such a sharp glimpse into the past compels me to ask: who was this man?  Wikipedia has him “notable for being the first justice from Minnesota, and for being a Democrat appointed by a Republican.” He was born in a log cabin. His appointment was controversial  – it was opposed by The Nation, The New Republic and the Klu Klux Klan. Once on the bench, he voted against many of FDR’s New Deal laws and was the only justice who dissented from the famous Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion holding that the forced sterilization of an allegedly “feeble-minded” woman was constitutional.

Back to the photograph – the horizon is askew as if the photographer jumped in front of the scene for an instant to capture the image quickly. The notes attached to the image indicate that it was shot on a glass negative so the photographer must have been lugging a huge 4×5 camera.  The picture has both an immediacy – the front pallbearers are in mid-step – and a “frozen in time” feel to it. It was taken 70 years ago, but the facade and steps of the cathedral look the same today.

The notes also indicate that the photo is from the Harris & Ewing Collection . . .

“The Harris & Ewing Collection of photographic negatives includes glass and film negatives taken by Harris & Ewing, Inc., which photographed people, events, and architecture, particularly in Washington, D.C., during the period 1905-1945. Harris & Ewing, Inc., gave its collection of negatives to the library in 1955.

Available online are a growing proportion of the glass negatives – a subset of the approximately 50,000 news photographs and 20,000 studio portraits of notable people in the collection.”

Justice Pierce Butler Funeral (web sized)

TITLE:  Services for late Justice Butler. Washington, D.C., Nov. 17. The body of the late Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler being carried from St. Matthew’s Cathedral here today following a high mass of requiem. Members of the Supreme Court are shown in the photograph

CALL NUMBER: LC-H22-D- 7828[P&P]

REPRODUCTION NUMBERLC-DIG-hec-27677 (digital file from original negative)

MEDIUM:  1 negative : glass ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller
CREATED/PUBLISHED:  [19]39 November 17.
CREATOR: Harris & Ewing, photographer.
NOTES: Title from unverified caption data received with the Harris & Ewing Collection.
Gift; Harris & Ewing, Inc. 1955.
General information about the Harris & Ewing Collection is available at
REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

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