Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Dickerman (1823-1830)

Sam Montgomery ’22 and Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021)

Edwards [Thomas Edwards?], Portrait of Franklin Dickerman with lock of hair, ca. 1830. Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Stewart Swift Research Center, 1979.331.

This sensitive portrait of a young boy was found in the Stewart Swift Research Center of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History. The child looks away from the viewer, to his left; his shirt is unbuttoned to expose the swelling of his neck. The curls of his hair are sensitively rendered in crayon, and the portrait is accompanied by a lock of light brown hair, sewn to the page in a loop encircling the inscription “14 months.” An identifying label bordered in black has been affixed to the page: “Franklin Dickerman/ Son of B.&Z. Dickerman./ Died Dec. 1830 Aged 7 years.” Although the paper has been marred by water staining at some point in its history, it is nonetheless a poignant portrayal of a child whose loss must have been keenly felt.

For many years, it was a mystery how this picture and its tenderly-saved lock of hair came to the Sheldon Museum. Research conducted over the course of this class revealed a family connection of love and loss.

As the inscription notes, Franklin Dickerman was the young son of “B.&Z. Dickerman.” Research revealed this couple to be Benjamin Franklin Dickerman and Zibia Bryant Dickerman, whose family is outlined in the book Families of Dickerman Ancestry.

George Sherwood Dickerman, Families of Dickerman Ancestry
Descendants of Thomas Dickerman, an Early Settler of Dorchester, Massachusetts
(Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1897), page 71.

If the Dickermans were based in Bridgewater, MA and moved West (to Missouri and Texas), how did the portrait end up in Vermont? As the Dickerman genealogy notes, Zibia was related to William Cullen Bryant– which reminded us of another Middlebury-area resident related to the famous poet and author: Charity Bryant.

Bryant Family Tree from Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-sex Marriage in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), page vii.

Indeed, combing through the Bryant-Drake papers at the Stewart-Swift Research center yielded a heart-rending letter from Zibia Bryant Dickerman to her aunt, Charity Bryant, in the spring and early summer of 1830:

…we [are] all in good health except Franklin. He has a swelling on the side of his neck over since a year ago last March. Physicians call it the Scrofula or Kings Evil we have tried various medicines & consulted several skilful men but the disease at present baffles medical skill. It is very large & hard & I very much fear we shall be called upon to part with him [illegible] my dear Aunt I beg you & Miss D to unite your prayers to the throne of Divine mercy that God would bless the means used for his recovery for without his help vain is the help of man. [Illegible] if we are called upon to part with him that he would give us a heart to say thy will be done. [25 May 1830]

[25 July 1830] …[We] had advice to send Franklin to the Hospital in Boston to have the tumor cut out of his neck we carried him there the eleventh of June & he had it cut out the 15th [rewriting- could be 14 or 16]. they were an hour & a quarter taking it out a very dangerous operation but he bore it with astonishing fortitude it was composed of bunches of a solid grisly substance of all sizes from the size of a shot to that of a goose egg there was some of the tumor left in his neck which was so interwoven with the main arteries & with the organs of speech and hearing that it could not be taken out without spoiling one side of the child I have been putting off about finishing my letter in hope of having him at home but Mr D has seen the Dr today & he says it is doing just as he wishes it to & there is a prospect that what is left behind will run itself away Mr D thinks what part of the tumor was taken off weighed as much as three pounds. He is very contented & is fleshier than I ever knew him before. …

O my dear Aunt so grateful ought I to be to the Giver of all good for his mercy & his forbearance when I was sinning with a high hand & outstreched [sic] arm that he pitied me & called after me no doubt in answer to prayers that have been said for me. O I have proved him to be a prayer hearing & a prayer answering God. Franklin is a child of prayer twice now he has been rescued from the jaws of death. I must believe in answer to prayer. O my dear Aunt I beg you & miss D to unite your petitions to that God who giveth liberally & upbraideth not that I may never bring a stain upon his cause but that he would give me a heart to be grateful for his many mercies

It is likely that this picture– and its lock of hair– were once filed among the Sylvia Drake & Charity Bryant papers but had been separated over the years. Charity Bryant must have affixed the black-bordered card after young Franklin Dickerman’s death, as part of a ritual of mourning. (For further discussion of hairwork and memory related to Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, see our entry on their double silhouette.)

Karen Sánchez-Eppler aptly describes why representations of dead or ill children are widely utilized in nineteenth-century America. In her essay “Then We Clutch Hardest: On the Death of a Child and the Replication of an Image,” she notes, “The loss of a child must be one of the most intimate of griefs, a fundamentally familial loss that makes little apparent rent in the social fabric. And yet the constant reiteration of this figure from Mary Morgan, Eva St. Clare, and Beth March to the myriad of nineteenth-century child elegies suggests that the death of a child serves a public function as well, enacting a loss that the culture needs to evoke and repeat. The repetitive portrayals of a dead or dying child work to articulate anxieties over the commodification of affect in an increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and impersonal America” (64). By creating illustrations like the one above, family members were able to express their grief and mourning with an image that would represent their child in the household. With that being said, it is interesting that the illustrations are not only created for the families themselves. The portrayals of the dead were also utilized to address the idea of an “impersonal” America that was becoming omnipresent.

The portrait is signed “Edwards from Life,” possibly indicating the Boston-based artist Thomas Edwards. The portrait might have been created as a medical illustration when the Dickermans went to Boston for treatment, making it part of the vast array of imagery representing children suffering from disease or injury that were produced for medical research and education.The inclusion of the lock of hair transforms it into an intimate object, one that evokes love and grief, beyond its representation of Franklin’s tumor.

Records indicate that Franklin was buried in Brockton, Massachusetts’s Melrose Cemetery (Vital Records 5, 322), likely near his grandfather, Mannassah Dickerman (1753-1818). Young Franklin’s gravestone would have been left behind when his parents moved out west, but drawings on paper– and hairwork– proved portable, allowing others to take Franklin’s memory far away. While we might think of monuments in stone and marble as more durable and lasting than pictures or locks of hair, the markers surrounding the graves of Mannassah Dickerman and wife Thirza Bryant Dickerman (1774-1844) are now weatherbeaten and have been rendered illegible, worn down by the passing years and obscured by the growth of lichen. The delicate portrait, now at the Stewart Swift Research Center in Middlebury, Vermont, helps us to remember or imagine Franklin Dickerman’s life.

Gravestone of Mannasseh & Thirza Dickerman, Old Cemetery Section 2, Melrose Cemetery, Brockton, MA. Photograph by Ann Mici, Summer 2021.
Graves in “Old Cemetery Section 2,” Melrose Cemetery, Brockton, MA. Photograph by Ann Mici, Summer 2021.
Detail, hairwork and charm in form of a book
Detail, Hairwork chain with charm in the form of a book, n.d. Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, VT. Gift of Mrs. Frances A. Waite, 1968, 68.20.b.

Cite this essay: Sam Montgomery and Ellery Foutch, “Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Dickerman (1823-1830)” in Perspectives on Hairwork, ed. Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021): https://elleryfoutch.middcreate.net/hairwork/franklin-dickerman-1823-1830/ [date accessed]

We are grateful to Eva Garcelon-Hart for locating and scanning archival documents for our research, and to Ann Mici for traveling to Melrose Cemetery to search for Franklin’s grave and photograph the site for us!

Further Reading

Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-sex Marriage in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Z. Dickerman to Charity Bryant, 25 May and 25 July 1830. Box 3, folder 18- Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake Papers, Stewart Swift Research Center, Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, VT.

Karen Sánchez-Eppler, “Then We Clutch Hardest: On the Death of a Child and the Replication of an Image,” in Sentimental Men, edited by Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 64-86.

George Sherwood Dickerman, Families of Dickerman Ancestry: Descendants of Thomas Dickerman, an Early Settler of Dorchester, Massachusetts. Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1897.

Vital Records of Brockton Massachusetts to the Year 1850. Boston: New England Genealogical Society, 1911. link

Scrofula is an infection usually caused by the same bacteria usually associated with tuberculosis; it often involves swelling of the lymph nodes and the neck. Sometimes called the “king’s evil,” as in Zibia’s note to her aunt, some believed the disease could be cured by the touch of a member of the royal family, a notion that persisted into the 18th century. See Stefan Grzybowski and Edward A Allen, “History and Importance of Scrofula,” The Lancet 346 (1995): 1472-1474. The pages of nineteenth-century medical journals are filled with writings about scrofula and hopes for its cure; for one example near the time of Franklin Dickerman’s surgery, see “Dr. Henning on Scrofula,” The Lancet 14, no. 365 (28 Aug. 1830): 877-878.

Further genealogical information about the Dickermans and their ancestors:

Abraham Shaw and his family lived in Dedham, MA for many years; a genealogical website alludes to his family’s history.