October 18, 2017

Photo Essay: Victorian-Style Mourning, Beyond the Black Veil

From the outside, it may appear as though Mr. James Bettner, a lawyer and civil engineer from Yonkers, and his wife Catharine led a quintessential idyllic existence.

They were well-off, as was much of Riverside when they settled there in the late 1870s. By the year 1895, had the country's highest per capita income, thanks to the burgeoning orange industry.

But Mr. Bettner had come out West—as many folks had—for his health. He'd been diagnosed with a kidney ailment called Bright’s Disease, and he only survived to the age of 45, leaving Catharine a widow and single mother of two sons.

When Catharine's younger son died of tuberculosis in 1891 at the age of just 22, she'd had enough with the home on Indiana Avenue she'd shared with her deceased husband—so she deeded it to her remaining son and commissioned a new home to be built.

Since the Bettner family had profited handsomely from James co-founding the California Fruit Growers Exchange, Catharine managed to find her new home in a Victorian-style mansion on Magnolia Avenue, the City of Riverside's version of "Millionaire's Row."

To build the Queen Anne manse, Catharine tapped architect John Walls, who would earn notoriety later for his work with the Farmers and Merchants Bank (1905), the Vision Theatre (1931, then known as the Leimert Theatre), and several other movie palaces.

Now preserved and open to the public as a house museum called the Heritage House, it's a stunning showcase of what life was like for those who lived on the right side of the tracks at the turn of the last century.

But even with her fresh start, Catharine couldn't shake the shadow of death—and so it seemed appropriate to visit the Heritage House while it was draped in traditional mourning dress for Halloween.

It's the perfect time of year for the house to display all the classic elements of Victorian death, in all its somber glory.

Of course, the Victorians had a certain period-specific fascination with death, from producing death portraits... conducting seances to try to communicate with the dead... surrounding themselves with dead things that appeared to still be living, as the art of taxidermy rose in popularity during the Victorian period.

But as comfortable as the Victorians were with death in everyday life, they also respected the period of mourning enormously...

...turning down every sound...

...and dimming every light... as not to disturb those who were grieving the loss of a loved one.

Of course, particularly if you were a woman in the Victorian era, time stopped both literally and figuratively.

While it was traditional to stop a wound clock at the time of death (to commemorate the passing but also to stop the incessant chiming), having even less to do than the regular nothing that women had to occupy themselves with meant that actual time slowed to a seemingly imperceptible crawl.

Of course, the Victorian ladies had their hair jewelry and abalone shell art (some of which was incredibly painstaking to create)...

...but it's not hard to imagine them just staring up at the (14-foot) ceiling sometimes, waiting all day for night to come.

It's no wonder that Catharine had so many different lighting fixtures hanging above her—all of which are still original to the current condition of the house.

Of course, if someone were actually living at the Heritage House right now and were actually in mourning, all of the photos and portraits that hang would be turned around to face the wall.

And back in Catharine's time, that would've been taken care of by a Chinese servant, who had their own quarters and own staircase built into the house.

And when Mrs. Bettner would be ready to receive guests—as she loved to entertain and show off her fine art collection and various "Oriental" artifacts—she'd simply go town to Chinatown to staff up.

In terms of interior design, there was nothing simple about Victoriana—but every attempt was made to simplify daily life after the passing of a loved one.

Maybe it was to quiet the background noise, allowing messages from beyond to break through. Maybe it was to spot an apparition lurking in the shadows cast by a chandelier.

Mrs. Bettner lived in this house until her own death in 1928—and, because it was owned by only one other family afterwards (the McDavids), you can still feel her spirit alight in every room.

Or maybe that's a glimpse of her that you catch in one of the mirrors, which have been covered with only a gauzy, black mesh you can actually see through instead of the solid black crêpe that became a Victorian tradition in the 1860s.

Related Posts:
Trinkets and Treats at a Victorian House Museum
Halloween at the Dead Doctor's Mansion
Photo Essay: The Dorothy Bembridge Murder Mansion
Photo Essay: The Museum of Misfit Houses

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