A Tale of Two Sisters

Sometimes it takes a few decades for something to come full circle.

Back in the 1970s, I lived and worked in Connecticut. New England is a wonderful place to go antiquing and browse flea markets. It was at just such a market that I happened to spot an old photograph, leaning against something on the ground, not very visible, not looking very valuable. It was quite dark and had a black frame, so the overall look was very dark indeed.

The image was of an old woman stooping over and placing some plant material in a big basket. The setting appeared to be some woods. The back held an inscription:


For years I wondered about the image. Was it truly a woman considered by the community to be a witch? after all, Deerfield was a hotbed during the heydays of witchcraft madness. Or was it just a model posing at one? Who were the Ray sisters? And who were Frances and Mary Allen?

Recently on a whim I decided to do some internet poking around to see what I could find. Instantly I turned up information about the Allen sisters, Frances and Mary, to whom my photo was attributed. How exciting! It’s so easy to play detective when you have the internet at your fingertips.

I read all about Frances and Mary, and their life and work in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts. I found an article from the New York Times that talked about them and their work, and a collection of Allen sisters photos in the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield.

These two talented, entrepreneurial women became quite successful in this medium at the turn of the twentieth century. They had been teachers, but began to suffer from hearing loss, and found interest, skill and financial security in photography. They received many awards for their photographs at various salons and exhibits, and their work was published in many periodicals. They made a good living from their art.

Here is an excellent website about The Allen sisters, with many of their images. http://www.cliohistory.org/exhibits/allen/

I quote from Suzanne Flynt on the website:

“In 1896, Frances and Mary Allen participated in the first American photography salon, the Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition, sponsored by the Camera Club of the Capital Bicycle Club. Nine of their photographs appeared in this juried exhibition held at The Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.; two received awards. The artistic photographs section, Class A, included 177 photographs; five were by the Allens. . . The second section, Class B, was devoted to photographs with excellent technical merits, and included 168 photographs. Frances and Mary were represented by four.”

In addition, Flynt writes, “the Smithsonian Institution “purchased fifty of the 345 photographs in the 1896 Washington Salon for their newly formed Division of Photographic History. Two Allen sisters’ photographs, Spring and Sybil, were acquired for $11.00 and $6.00 respectively.”

They caught the eye of Frances Benjamin Johnston, a noted photographer of the day, who was also the White House photographer for the Cleveland and McKinley administrations. She became a supporter and mentor for the two sisters.

I was riveted to the words and images on the Clio website, and searched for my image there. I did not find it, but found some similar images and knew I had the real thing.

I decided to contact the Memorial Hall Museum curator, Suzanne Flynt, to see whether the museum might like to have my piece in their collection. I had enjoyed the photo for decades and decided I could part with it. I emailed photos of the image to her, and she confirmed that the museum does not have this exact image. Good news! “The woman in the photograph is Miss Caroline Ray, who provided flowers to the Deerfield Church every Sunday,” noted Suzanne. Wow, another mystery solved!

The outcome: Suzanne would be pleased to have it, and I am pleased to donate it! Giving it to the museum seems like the right thing to do, to have it as part of the Allen sisters collection. I think Frances and Mary would be pleased.


The Witch of Old Deerfield will be home at last.

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Joan E. Miller

I live in the amazing Pacific Northwest. I'm a writer, photographer, birder, nature lover. I'm also a gardener, of food, flowers and shrubs.

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