Photo Detective: Baby Russell Robert Cole

Sometimes the smallest details can result in a breakthrough discovery. Such was the case in identifying the adorable little face of an unknown baby in our photo archive. Many times I passed over the photo of the tyke leaning on a small wooden chair. His face was distinctive. He looked, well, familiar. Who was he?

During a recent perusal of the photo library, I had an overwhelming sense that I’d seen this baby before. He had facial features similar to members of the Harry V. Cole family of Nekoosa, Wisconsin. Harry and Anna Cole were my father’s great uncle and aunt. Their daughter Gladys was an attendant in my grandparents wedding in 1925. Dad spoke often of the Hanneman family visits to the Coles in Nekoosa, especially of the rousing games of sheepshead played between my Grandpa Carl and Harry Cole. I recalled a Cole family portrait published in a book somewhere, and this baby looked like the one in the book.

RussellRobertCole
This photo from the collection of Bonnie (Treutel) Young shows a toddler of similar age to the one in the History of Wood County book.

After rummaging around, I found a PDF copy of History of Wood County, Wisconsin, a mammoth 1,000-page tome published in 1923 by H.C. Cooper Jr. & Company. There it was on Page 551, Harry and Anna Cole with four children. Wow, the baby looked so similar to the one in my scanned photograph. As I stared at the book page (which was pixelated and poor quality due to the extreme file compression of the PDF), it dawned on me that not only was it the same baby, it was the exact same photo! Except there was no wooden chair and no grass in the background.

Now why would the book publisher cut the baby from another photo and superimpose him onto the family portrait? Obviously, there was a story behind it. So I dove into my Family Tree Maker software to see what I could learn about the Coles and their children. Among the Cole progeny were a boy named Russell Robert and a slightly younger boy named Robert Russell. This was already confusing. Russell Robert was born in 1920 and died in January 1922. The book History of Wood County (Page 550) mentioned that Russell was the youngest Cole child and that he died.

BabyRussellCole_Graphic3
The hands, face and expression of the baby in the family portrait (top) are identical to the larger photograph with the baby near the chair. It is the same image. Baby Russell was superimposed on the family portrait for the history book because he had recently died.

I dug through the first few pages of the book and saw that it was published in April 1923. That was a little more than a year after Russell died, and six months before Robert was born. So the baby in the photos had to be Russell. Based on all of the evidence, it appeared the book publisher cut an outline of Russell from the photo with the chair and grass, and superimposed it on the family portrait. It is safe to assume the family sat for the portrait not long after baby Russell died.

I ran a search on Newspapers.com and found a short article on Russell’s death from the January 25, 1922 issue of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune:

YOUNG NEKOOSA LAD DIED ON SATURDAY
Russell, the two year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Cole of Nekoosa passed away Saturday after a prolonged illness of pneumonia.

Funeral services were held at the home Monday morning, Rev. C.A. O’Neil officiating. Interment was made in Forest Hill cemetery at Wisconsin Rapids. Mr. and Mrs. Cole have the sympathy of the entire community.

The following relatives from out of town attended the funeral: Mrs. M.J. Cole, Fond du Lac; Mr. and Mrs. W.A. Cole, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Treutel, Mr. and Mrs. John Adams, Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Goldammer and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Ladick of Vesper.

Another photo mystery solved. The creative book production people at the H.C. Cooper Jr. company found a fitting, and convincing, way to memorialize a young life taken too soon.

©2017 The Hanneman Archive

 

5 thoughts on “Photo Detective: Baby Russell Robert Cole”

  1. Sad, but slightly creepy I think. I have photos where (living) people were added in (usually those who’d emigrated and missed family events), but that’s the first time I’ve seen a dead child added. Though I have seen Victorian/Edwardian death portrait photos, so I guess this is just me filtering through my values and perceptions.
    Well done on the research!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It wasn’t uncommon for families to pose with a dead child, propped up to look conscious. Sometimes this was the only photographic record they would have of their child. In our case, the baby was quite alive when the photo was taken. We can only wonder if the idea of inserting his photo into the family portrait came from the Coles or the book publisher.

      Liked by 2 people

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