Ancient headstones can never be replaced. They may be the only historical documents remaining from that time and place. Many headstones are so worn as to be completely unreadable — or so they appear to the unaided eye! The “Magic Mirror” technique throws the writing into sharp relief. The words quite literally jump out at you!
The Magic Mirror is a “green” technique. It does not risk any harm to the headstone. All we do is shine sun light across the face of the inscription!
These two photographs are of the same headstone! Can you see how the writing appears and disappears? This headstone looked exactly the same to the naked eye. We needed the Magic Mirror to read the inscription.
The Blue italics text are the photo descriptions. You can skip over the text to continue reading this Magic Mirror Cemetery Photography tutorial. Click on any of the photographs to see it full size.
Left, Mary F. Herring: One of two photos of the same headstone, showing the “magic mirror” effect. In each photo, the highlighted inscription is visible and the other inscription is not. It is the same effect with the naked eye — we had to use the mirror to make out the writing at all.
Right, Gideon F. Herring: Carefully compare this photo to the “Mary F. Herring” photo of the same headstone, to see the dramatic difference the “magic mirror” makes in readability. We use the mirror to shine sunlight ACROSS the face of the headstone, causing shadows in the barely-visible inscriptions.
“Both on same headstone one above the other, Mary F., Born Aug 15 1848, died Aug 28, 1852. Gideon F., Born Dec. 19, 1852, died July 10, 1854. Children of G.H. and H.A. Herring. Brother and sister. Mary F. Herring was a daughter of George Washington Herring and Hester Ann Kemp, granddaughter of John Herring and Lucy Carver, and, Walter Kemp and Jerusha Key. She was my great grandAunt.”
The Kingdom of Callaway
Please excuse me if I get too chatty in this little tutorial! I will take you along with me, to look over my shoulder, as I show Magic Mirror examples. I hope you enjoy the trip.
Wayne Johnson of the Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society arranged for us to visit numerous cemeteries on private land, and personally conducted us around the county. We soon realized that the War Between The States is always relevant to any history within Callaway County.
If you studied U.S. History, you will recall that The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to become a State of the Union in 1821. Missouri was a slave state, and specifically kept the balance between Slave states and Free states. Years later, during the War Between The States (i.e., The Civil War), Missouri remained a Union state — it was never part of the southern Confederacy. However, the Southern-leaning residents of Callaway County refused to choose a side. Instead, they declared their independence and became a small kingdom.
Flag of the Kingdom of Callaway: Flag of the Kingdom of Callaway County, flown during the headstone dedication ceremony in Hillcrest Cemetery, Fulton, Callaway County, Missouri. During the War Between the States, the State of Missouri did not secede from the Union. However, Callaway County seceded on its own. It never returned, and considers itself the sovereign Kingdom of Callaway County.
Eliza S. Herring Carrington: Eliza S. Carrington, born Eliza S. Herring, was born 1862, and died 1941. This photo looks like it is from the mid-1930s in Fulton, Callaway County, Missouri. She and Nathan Carrington had 11 children. The original photo is in the possession of her great granddaughter.
She and her husband, with several of their children, rest in Burdett Cemetery in Callaway County Missouri.
Transcribing the Headstone: Wayne Johnson, to the left kneeling, taught me the “magic mirror” technique for bringing out the writing on eroded headstones. You can see the back side of his mirror, with a frame attached. He sets it up as an easel so that he can photograph the headstone without assistance.
“Wayne Johnson, Callaway Co. cemetery expert and Rex Carrington, transcribing engraving on stone.”
Showing Original Headstone: Front view of the magic mirror. Wayne Johnson pointing out what is left of the original headstone for Nathan Carrington.
This is the final resting place of “Eliza S. Herring Carrington,” whose portrait is above.
In the third photo above, Wayne Johnson is kneeling, holding his Magic Mirror. He constructed a hinged “A frame” or easel for it out of plastic pipes. That way he can position it to stand on its own while he photographs the headstone. In the fourth photo above, you can see the Magic Mirror from the front.
Making The Magic Mirror
My own Magic Mirror is far less elaborate — just a 12″ by 12″ square mirror tile left over from creating a mirror wall in the house. Wayne can shine sunlight on the entire headstone at once, whereas I usually require several photos to bring out the entire inscription.
My Cemetery Kit: Here is part of my cemetery kit. Left side, tick spray. Center, bottom to top, 12″ ruler for scale, the magic mirror, dowsing rods, soil probe, surveyor flags, trowels, carrying crate. Right side, green tape, pure corn starch with pad, contact-me note, baggies for note.
I make up small notes with my contact information, saying basically that if you are related to this person I would like to hear from you, place the note in the small plastic bag, and tape it to the back or base of the headstone.
The Magic Mirror: This is the “magic mirror” I use for bringing out headstone engravings.
I made it from a 12″ x 12″ wall tile — the kind you glue to the wall to make a mirrored wall. I backed it with cardboard from a box, and edged it with duct tape. It has traveled well and seen use with thousands of headstone photos.
Headstone photo showing “magic mirror” in use: It is shining sunlight transversally across the writing, that is, directly across the face of the headstone. You can see how the main writing jumps right out. Compare to the birth and death year barely visible just below the highlighted portion — that writing is the SAME visibility as the highlighted writing.
I found many headstones with the writing completely unreadable, where the mirror by itself brings out the engraving.
“Joseph Day, 1886 — 1904 Joseph Day, son of Truman “Bud” Day and Clara Mae Polacek. He was born in Callaway Co. Missouri in January 1886. He was a grandson of Truman Day and Eliza Clendennen. He was my first cousin 3 times removed.”
To create my Magic Mirror, I cut out the cardboard from the side of a box, making it slightly larger than the size of the mirror. I edged the whole thing with green duct tape. I figured that green duct tape would look slightly less tacky than gray duct tape. The Magic Mirror size has turned out to be quite handy. It travels well, not being too bulky, and I carry it under my arm as I walk the cemeteries. It has lasted through many thousands of headstone photos.
The mirror itself is a wall tile from the local Home Improvement store. It is stiff, not flexible, which means I can hold it with one hand without it bending out of shape.
The third photo above shows how to use the Magic Mirror. Click on the image for a full view so you can see exactly what I mean. We are shining the sunlight across the inscription. The incised writing then appears as shadows, bringing the text into bold relief. The sun is to the left, the mirror is to the right. You can see the reflected sunlight hitting the side of the headstone, and shining across the face.
The trick is to move the mirror so it is practically behind the headstone, so that the sunlight just barely shines across the face. All texture in the stone then appears as shadows. In fact, in full view, you can see some sort of vertical design to the left and right of the writing. No way would you even suspect that without the Magic Mirror!
In the photo, “Joseph Day 1886–1904″ and “Truman Day” are visible. Truman’s birth and death year are far more difficult to make out. Yet they are exactly as visible as the highlighted text. The Magic Mirror is the entire difference!
Note the powder puff in a dish, at the center right of the “Cemetery Tool Kit” photo above. I filled the dish with pure corn starch (and keep a box of corn starch available for refills).
I no longer use corn starch. Opinions vary as to whether it is harmful or not. We don’t want to risk any harm to the headstones! Using ONLY the Magic Mirror and sunlight, you can’t go wrong! Anything touching a headstone can cause irreparable damage.
Appleton A. Holt: The powder-swipe technique with a repaired headstone. The headstone has been re-set in concrete, with the repair preserving the original inscription. In the background you can see a well-preserved headstone dating to 1840. When they are that well preserved, it often means that the headstone had fallen over and was underground — the ground covering saved it from destruction due to acid rain.
“Appleton A. Holt, born Jan. 27, 1855 died May 4, 1878. Appleton A. Holt was a son of William Price Holt and Mary Polly Blythe. He was a grandson of Abner Holt Sr. and Elizabeth Brooks. He was my 2nd cousin 4 times removed.”
Mary F. White Gray: Use this technique VERY carefully, lest you cause additional damage to headstones that can NEVER be replaced. I rub off moss using my bare hand (never anything more abrasive, or more protective such as a glove).
For this photo we did a swipe with a powder puff dipped in pure corn starch. It brought out the otherwise-invisible writing. The corn starch should wash off with the next rainfall.
“Mary F. Gray, 1843 — 1928. Mary Francis White was the wife of Robert H. Gray.”
John Herring and Lucy Carver: What’s left of the John Herring headstone. No trace of his wife’s headstone, but the arrangements of the burials in this abandoned cemetery, plus courthouse research, indicate she is beside him. The photo “Pitcher General Store” is from a few yards down the road, and the model is a descendant of this couple. The pure-corn-starch swipe technique was used to help bring out the “John Herring” visible at the top of the middle section.
A portrait of their grand-daughter Eliza S. Herring Carrington is above. Eliza’s parents rest in this abandoned family cemetery, beside John and Lucy.
“John Herring, born 1798 in Albemarle County Virginia, died September 14, 1864 in Callaway County Mo. Everyone buried in this, John Herring’s family cemetery is either his child or grandchild or spouse of either. On Dec. 3, 1818 in Albemarle Co., Virginia he married Lucy Carver. Lucy Carver Herring is also buried here, but we could find no trace of her stone. She was born Apr. 16, 1796 in Albemarle Co., Virginia and died Mar. 20, 1873 in Callaway Co., Missouri. She was a daughter of Jarrell Carver and Nancy Beck. John and Lucy Carver Herring were my great great great grandparents.”
Pitcher General Store: The Pitcher General Store is all that’s left of the town of Pitcher, Callaway County Missouri. The model is a descendant of the people who came from Virginia and settled the area in the 1830s.
Use this technique VERY carefully, lest you cause additional damage to headstones that can NEVER be replaced. I rub off moss with my bare hand — never anything more abrasive, or more protective such as a glove. For these photos we did a swipe with the powder puff dipped in pure corn starch. It brought out the otherwise-invisible writing. The corn starch should wash off with the next rainfall.
In the left-hand photo, the headstone has been re-set in concrete, with the repair preserving the original description. In the background you can see a well-preserved headstone dating to 1840. When they are that well preserved, it often means the headstone had fallen over and was underground — the ground covering saved it from destruction due to acid rain.
In the second photo, the Magic Mirror would have worked as well — if the sun had been out! I force the flash to be used for all headstone photos; they generally come out more legible that way regardless of sunlight conditions. I take most photos from a sharp angle to help bring the writing into relief, and avoid the flash reflection.
The third photo is what is left of the John Herring (1798–1864) headstone. You can make out the name “John Herring” in curved writing at the top of the center section. We found no trace of his wife Lucy’s headstone, but the arrangement of the burial depressions in this abandoned cemetery, plus courthouse records research, indicate she is beside him.
The fourth photo is Pitcher General Store, a few yards down the road from the John and Lucy Herring cemetery, and the model is a descendant of this couple. Eliza S. (Herring) Carrington, whose portrait is above, is their grand-daughter. Eliza’s parents rest beside John and Lucy.
For this trip we were lucky enough to have a professional archaeologist with us! The photos below are from the same John and Lucy Herring abandoned cemetery (officially “Herring #2 Cemetery” of Callaway County, Missouri, USA).
William H. Herring: Example of a partially-excavated headstone. It’s pretty clear from the photo that the part under ground is better preserved.
“William H. Son of J.P. & A.J. Herring, died Apr. 6, 1851, 9 months. William H. Herring, son of John P. Herring and Amanda Jane Knight. He was a grandson of John Herring and Lucy Carver, and, William L. Knight and Eliza Hornbuckle. He was my 1st cousin 3 times removed. This headstone was sunken into the ground, we dug out around it in May 2007 and most of the headstone was then readable.”
Marked Burial: While surveying this abandoned family cemetery, we used survey markers to note what we found. This natural stone marker has no writing. Slave burials in family cemeteries were often marked this way. However, most burials in this county prior to about 1840 were with natural stone markers — no inscriptions.
Abandoned Cemetery: This is the general condition of the abandoned Herring family cemetery, officially known as “Herring #2 Cemetery” in Callaway County, Missouri, USA. Lots of underbrush, ticks, and potentially copperhead snakes.
You can see a headstone and base to the right. To the lower left is a natural stone (uninscribed) marker. There is another one to the upper left of the photo. The “magic mirror” was an amazing help in bringing out the eroded inscriptions.
The first photo is of a partially-excavated headstone. You can see the severe weathering on the upper part of the headstone, whereas the lower portion is quite well preserved. This grandchild of John and Lucy Herring died as a 9-month-old infant. We used the flat trowel shown in the Cemetery Tool Kit, and our bare fingers, to excavate. The flat trowel allowed us to dig down without risking scratching the headstone itself.
When headstones are knocked over and buried underground, they are nearly always laying with the writing face up. Thus if you are probing the ground looking for headstones, be very careful that your probe does not indelibly scratch the headstone on contact!
The second photo is of a natural stone marker. While examining the cemetery, we placed survey markers to note what we had found. This natural stone marker has no writing. Slave burials in family cemeteries were often marked this way. However, most burials in this county prior to about 1840 were with natural stone markers — no inscriptions.
The third photo shows the general condition of the John and Lucy Herring cemetery. There was lots of underbrush, ticks, and potentially copperhead snakes! You can see a headstone and base to the right. To the lower left is a natural stone (uninscribed) marker. There is another natural stone marker to the upper left of the photo.
Let’s continue our walk around Callaway County. Here we have supporting evidence, sadness, and a touch of humor with people’s names.
Wiley G. Tatum: Another example of the “magic mirror” in use. The reflected sunlight acts to highlight the part of the headstone of interest, and brings out worn-off inscriptions by throwing them into deep relief.
Do you see the “G.” as Wiley’s middle initial? This helped strengthen the evidence for a family mystery. We made a special trip to this cemetery to see whether it was a “C” or “G.” It is a “G,” which lent strength to our suspicion that he is in fact son of Gravett Tatum.
“W.G. Tatum, Born Jan 18, 1810, Died Apr 3, 1872, Aged 62 yr, 2 mo, 15 ds. This is Wiley G. Tatum, son of Gravett Tatum, born in Virginia. He married Amy Chaney on Dec 17, 1831 in Charlotte Virginia.”
Hallowed Ground: This is the Fletcher-Hill cemetery in Callaway County, Missouri, USA. It is an abandoned family cemetery, on private property, visited with the owner’s permission. Livestock are allowed to roam freely through the cemetery area, knocking down and crushing the remaining headstones.
Noah Flood Was A Baptist: Yes, the Reverend Noah Flood was a Baptist. How cool is that? At least, I have seen records of his performing numerous weddings, and he is buried with his family at Richland Baptist Church Cemetery in Callaway County, Missouri, USA.
“To the memory of Rev. Noah Flood, born Jun. 14, 1809 died Aug. 11, 1873. Jane L. Flood, born Dec. 2, 1817 died Feb. 3, 1899. Noah Flood was the son of Joshua Flood. On Jun 20, 1838 he married Levisa Jane Ayres. She was a daughter of Walter Ayres and Agnes Maxey, and was my 3rd cousin 4 times removed.”
By Hook And By Crook: The Carrington Baptist Church cemetery in Callaway County, Missouri, USA, has both Hook family and Crook family burials. I can’t help but speculate that there is an unwed mother in there somewhere, by Hook or by Crook.
“Hook, Thomas B. At Rest June 8, 1853 — June 21, 1930. Husband of Kate Dunham. Thomas B. Hook was a son of William Henry Hook and Madaline M. Turner.”
The four photos above represent Ming Cemetery; Fletcher-Hill Cemetery; Richland Baptist Church Cemetery; Carrington Baptist Church Cemetery; all of Callaway County, Missouri, USA.
In the first photo, do you see the “G.” as Wiley Tatum’s middle initial? This helped strengthen the evidence for a family mystery. We made a special trip to the cemetery, on behalf of someone else, to see whether it was a “C” or “G.” It is a “G,” which lent strength to our theory that he is in fact son of Gravett Tatum. Ironically enough, a patch of moss is trying to make that “C” look like a “G.” I carefully traced it with my finger at the time, to make absolutely sure it was a “G!”
The second photo is Fletcher-Hill Cemetery. It is an abandoned family cemetery on private property. Wayne Johnson obtained permission for our visit. The land owner allows livestock to roam freely through the cemetery area, knocking down and crushing the remaining headstones.
When I see an obelisk in the Midwestern USA, it almost always indicates a burial in the 1880s. The Reverend Noah Flood died in 1873, which doesn’t quite fit with my observation — anomalies like that can provide clues for investigation! In fact, though, we were already familiar with his name because he appeared in countless marriage records, and because his wife is a blood relative.
The name “Noah Flood,” of course, jumps right out at you as being humorous. That Noah Flood was a preacher, is priceless. But there is more! Noah Flood is buried on the highest ground in that cemetery. How cool is that! It took me another year to realize the final piece of humor… by looking at the cemetery name, I realized that Noah Flood was a Baptist.
The fourth photo is a bit of unfair speculation. The Carrington cemetery contains both Hook family burials, and Crook family burials. I can’t help but speculate that there is an unwed mother in there, by Hook or by Crook.
All photos in this article are by Edward W. Barnard, and courtesy of Albemarle to Callaway: The Herring Family Journey. Copyright Edward W. Barnard 2008–2012, All Rights Reserved.