Reapers’ Portraits: October 1871


“He is going to Wisconsin.”

Victor Aldrich greeted me with this sentence when I entered his shop on September 30th. He showed me a photograph of a young man, and Victor’s hand trembled as he held the photo. Victor smelled faintly of whiskey, and I could find no fault with him for it.

There was a baker’s dozen of reaper portraits on the wall, and there were the ledger entries to accompany them. Victor knew there was no way to stop the reapers, no way to slow death. Yet it bothered him nonetheless.

“Tell me what he said exactly,” I invited.

Victor did so.

Several days prior, the young man had entered the studio and requested his portrait in the fashion by which Victor was all too familiar. When he finished, Victor asked the young man where he was headed.

“I am going to Wisconsin,” the young man replied. “Look for news of me on the eighth of October, though you may hear of my brother in Chicago first. We will be working close to one another.”

“What news might it be?” Victor asked.

The young man smiled broadly and answered, “Wisconsin. October. Remember them.”

Victor found this reaper to be far more disturbing than any of the others. He closed his studio on October 9th, and he and I went to the Cross Train Station early in the morning to see what the papers in Boston had to say and to learn if anything was sent over the wires.

Chicago was burning, but that was where the reaper’s brother was.

A short time later, we learned of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The death toll was well over a thousand, perhaps much more.

Victor had his first heart attack that day, and surprisingly – or perhaps not – he survived.

After all, his son wasn’t old enough to run the studio yet.

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Nicholas Efstathiou

Husband, father, and writer.

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