In my ongoing quest to find examples of interesting niche markets, I give you Ira Sumner, a Northfield, Minnesota photographer who lived in the 1800s. Sumner possessed a peculiar talent: taking portraits of dead men.
And September 7, 1876, was Sumner’s lucky day. That’s when an eight-man gang of outlaws were foiled in their attempt to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota.
The robbers included legendary criminals Jesse James, Frank James, and the three Younger brothers: Cole, Jim, and Bob. Two members of the gang — Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell — were killed during the raid. The others escaped.
The day after the robbery attempt, the shirtless bodies of Miller and Chadwell were hauled up to Sumner’s second-story studio in downtown Northfield. The 31-year-old Sumner, a native of Coral, Illinois, propped up the dead men in sitting positions and made at least five exposures.
The Miller photo is remarkable. Author Mark Lee Gardner describes it well:
Clell Miller’s eyes were frozen in a look of surprise. A dark ribbon of dried blood flowed down from a jagged hole in Miller upper chest and he had large welts on his forehead where Elias Stacy had peppered him with a shotgun.
Chadwell’s photo isn’t as expressive as Miller’s. Gardner writes:
Chadwell seemed to glare, his narrow eyes fixed in a look of defiance. He had a small hole above his heart…and the dried blood ran in a straight line to his waistband.
(The Sumner photos are easy to find; just do an online search of the gang-member’s name.)
Sumner — knowing that public interest in the Northfield raid was enormous — made postcards from the exposures. But Sumner couldn’t have imagined the demand: he sold more than 50,000 in the two months following the raid. If Sumner sold the postcards at 5 cents apiece, he grossed at least $50,000 in today’s dollars.
Two weeks later a third member of the gang (Charlie Pitts) was killed and the Younger brothers were wounded and captured. Word of Sumner’s success must have traveled quickly because a photographer in Mankato, Minnesota made exposures of:
• Pitts (shirtless with eyes open), who was killed by a bullet to his chest
• Cole Younger, who was wounded by a bullet that lodged behind his right eye
• Bob Younger, who was unscathed; and
• Jim Younger, who took a bullet to the mouth but survived
The Youngers’ sister Henrietta came to Faribault, Minnesota, when her brothers were awaiting trial. Sumner sensed a new opportunity. He believed a portrait of the outlaws’ teenage sister would be another moneymaker. He offered Henrietta $500 if she would sit before his camera (roughly $10,000 in today’s dollars), but she turned him down.
Sumner died in 1918 and is buried in Northfield’s Oaklawn Cemetery. But his work lives on.
In 2007 a Colorado man named Benjamin Nystuen donated 12 of Sumner’s glass-plate negatives to the Northfield Historical Society. The negatives are considered priceless.
Nystuen received the negatives in 1985 from his father, Elmer Nystuen, who operated the Phillips 66 gas station in Northfield between 1928 and 1948. Elmer got them from Stuart Sumner. He was the son of Ira Sumner. Stuart Sumner gave the negatives to Nystuen’s father, a friend, either to repay a debt or for safekeeping.
1. Minnesota Historical Society Directory of Photographers
2. “Shot All to Hell,” by Mark Lee Gardner, 2013
3. Find A Grave, Ira Emerrill Sumner
4. “Alumnus donates James-Younger Gang images to Northfield,” by Nancy Ashmore, May 30, 2007