Civil War-Era Personal Tintypes Exposed: Why William Carman’s Tintype Was in His Widow’s Pension File

Today’s post is by Jackie Budell, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

This is the final of three posts about tintype images in the Civil War Pension Application Files from the Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs (Record Group 15).

Full body portrait of civil war soldier William Carman.
Photographic image from the approved pension application file of Emeline Carman, widow of Private William Carman, Company A, 115th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, WC 48977 (NAIDs 99523538 and 197025958).

Private William Carman was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863 and died of his wounds on June 9. Accepting widowhood was most certainly difficult for Emma Carman, but she never would have imagined the twenty-year struggle that lay ahead with the Pension Bureau. In the process, Emma would lose treasured keepsakes of William including his tintype likeness hidden inside a bundle of personal letters. How could she survive without him?

Legal Widowhood

Emma first sought help from the U.S. Sanitary Commission on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia where Mr. W.N. Ashman helped her complete a widow’s pension application on April 7, 1864 with the appropriate required evidence. The Commission worked “free of charge” on her behalf continuing a year later when William’s date of death was still in question by the Pension Bureau. Several pieces of correspondence between Mr. Ashman and the War Department were exchanged until the Adjutant General’s Office erroneously declared that according to company records and living comrades, he had died of his wounds on May 3. This was initially accepted as the required proof of death. 

Having no marriage certificate, Emma submitted an affidavit from neighbors who attested to her and William living together on Catherine Street in the city as “man and wife.” These neighbors testified that the pair were “esteemed among all the neighbors.” They added that William was a “respectable, active and industrious man (who) always took care of his family.” It was explained that the pair were married in Baltimore many years before, that there were no witnesses except the minister who had since died. Thanks to the neighbors’ testimony, proof of marriage was deemed satisfactory according to Pension Bureau regulations. 

Emma was first admitted to the pension roll on June 8, 1865, to receive $8.00 per month, backdated to May 3, 1863 (William’s declared date of death). As strange as it seems, many Civil War widows struggled to prove their husband-soldier’s death, but why had Emma waited nearly a year after William’ death to take the first step and apply for a pension? The answer lies in the remaining personal letter found in her pension file. It reveals a very startling turn of events that would eventually be responsible for Emma’s removal from the pension roll. 

Sometime in early November 1863, only five months after William’s death, Emma allowed a sick U.S. Navy sailor named Isaac B. Wiggins (sometimes spelled Wiggin) to board at her home on Stewart Street. According to Wiggins’ disapproved survivor’s pension file (see Navy SO 31590; NAID 90601391), he enlisted in the U.S. Navy while in Barbados of the West Indies in February 1862 serving first aboard the USS Quaker City. Later in 1863, he was taken sick and apparently left in Philadelphia where he found Emma.

Emma’s pension file contains a copy of a marriage certificate for Emma Carman and ‘Isaac B. Wiggin’ recorded by a Philadelphia alderman on November 3, 1863. The circumstances of this marriage are lost to history, and there are many contradictory statements contained in affidavits in the pension file. Emma’s initial testimony claims that there was no marriage and Wiggins only boarded with her for one or two weeks and left without paying his debt. Wiggins never denied marrying her but claimed he was drunk at the time.

Emma’s file contains proof of their relationship in the form of a personal letter written by Wiggins on November 10, 1869. He is replying to Emma’s letter in which she expressed feeling lonely since her daughter Josey’s death (at the age of 18). He explains that he’ll be leaving aboard a different ship soon and she may be able to draw his “half pay” in December if she “will take care of it.” In the meantime, he wants her to send him “a little money to buy me a glass and some post(age) stamps.” It is important to note that Wiggins addressed this letter to “Friend Emma.”

It does not appear that the nature of their relationship is matrimonial at this point, but it does appear that someone else believed so and tipped off the Pension Bureau in 1876 – some thirteen years after their marriage – when Special Agent M.E. Jenks was ordered to investigate Emma’s status as a “legal widow.” It was Jenks who visited the city alderman and secured a copy of the marriage record to prove that Emma had indeed remarried with Wiggins and therefore was no longer a ‘legal widow’ entitled to a pension.

Judging by the number of affidavits in the Special Examiner’s investigation taken from Emma’s neighbors, most of them were quick to judge Emma’s character as something less than virtuous. Several neighbors stated that she kept a “disreputable” house and that men were seen going into the house. Three neighbors defended Emma stating she was a respectable, virtuous woman of good character, but their comments were ignored by Jenks who underlined only the most slanderous comments spoken against her by the majority.  

Special Agent Jenks’ report dated May 27, 1876 built upon what he had heard from the neighborhood gossip with an added measure of contempt. Jenks’ concluded:

“After conversing with pensioner for a few minutes, I was satisfied that she was an old played out prostitute. The evidence obtained herewith will show that I was correct. The same difficulty was presented in this claim as in all claims of a like character – the difficulty of obtaining reliable evidence.” 

Jenks recommended that Emma be dropped from the pension roll and a letter was sent to her on June 22, 1876. Emma’s financial lifeline was severed. 

Was this a just decision? As Jenks points out, securing reliable evidence of a personal nature was difficult. Had he documented facts or rumors? What facts led to his disdainful assessment of her character? Not everything may be exactly as it seems, and it would take Emma the next twenty years to argue her case with the help of an attorney named J. Joseph Murphy. It was Murphy who kept digging to reveal the truth and resurrect Emma’s status as William’s legal widow despite her alleged marriage to Wiggins.

The details appear in a special examination report dated March 1,1892 conducted by Special Agent F.H. Sprague of the Pension Bureau. Sprague took an affidavit from Murphy who said he investigated Wiggins by contacting his half-brother Levi Wiggin in Salem, Massachusetts. In the process of gathering evidence for Emma’s annulment, it was revealed that Emma was actually Isaac Wiggins’ fourth wife! 

Four Women Scorned

Wiggins was first married in his home state of New Hampshire in 1849 before fleeing to Massachusetts around 1853. In the next ten years, he would marry two more women in that state before he was tried for bigamy and sent to the state penitentiary in Newburyport. He was cleared of the charge due to the “bad reputation” of the prosecution’s witness. Perhaps to celebrate (or escape angry wives), he set off on a whaling expedition that took him to Barbados where he joined the U.S. Navy, traveling back up the East Coast. While recovering from sickness in Philadelphia, he made Emma his next victim.

Wiggins abandoned Emma within two weeks and went South to join the “Rebel army.” He deserted the Confederate army just as he deserted his wives, escaping west to California. At some point after his arrival there, Isaac took the first name ‘Charles’ and was known as such for the remainder of his life. He settled into a new life after leaving military service and took a fifth wife, Olive Dean, in 1883. He was living near the racetrack and working as a shoemaker in Humboldt County, California when Murphy’s registered letters reached him seeking answers and evidence to help Emma clear her name. Murphy had collected Emma’s stack of letters (apparently including William’s tintype) and testified that the handwriting on the receipts from his registered letters to Wiggins matched the handwriting in Wiggins’ letters to Emma.     

Legally Separated

When researching 19th century pension claims, my advice is to always follow the wives! Wiggins’ two wives in Massachusetts were not identified in the file, but wife #1 was a key witness! Julia Abbott Conner of Moultonville, Carroll County, New Hampshire applied for a widow’s pension in April 1892 about one week after the death of her second ‘husband’ John B. Conner. John’s approved pension file contains Julia’s application and all the resulting special examination paperwork that illuminates her struggle for a pension: how Emma and her attorney reached out to her and Levi for help, and Wiggins’ movements and actions from coast to coast. (See SC 241605; series NAID 300019).    

Julia never denied marrying Wiggins but stated that she waited about seven years after Wiggins abandoned her and their young son before she married Conner in January 1860. She had not heard from Wiggins in all that time, and his friends and relations had assumed him dead. However, the Law Division of the Pension Bureau made decisions based solely on the facts and rejected Julia’s claim in August 1894 because “her first husband was alive at the time of the second husband’s death,” so her second marriage was considered void. Because Julia was not the ‘legal widow’ of John B. Conner, she could not claim a pension based on his service.   

Julia had fought hard to plead her case that desertion by such a “bad egg” (as he was called by relations) with multiple living wives should clear the way for her to rightfully claim the pension as Mrs. Conner. In a deposition, she mentions receiving a letter years before from a “Philadelphia woman” who also had been deserted by Wiggins. Pages upon pages of depositions in her pension case file were recorded by family members, neighbors and even Wiggins himself – each one defended her story, but none could legally help poor Julia. Wiggins said he believed that a “seven-year absence would sever their marriage.” The Law Division office asserted that desertion is merely grounds for divorce, so Julia began legal proceedings for a divorce from Wiggins. Unfortunately, it could take several years for divorce cases to be adjudicated and Julia ran out of time; she died in January 1896. Her file is stamped “abandoned.” 

Emma was waiting for a verdict in her court case for annulment at about the same time as Julia, but it had taken Emma and her attorney more than a decade to secure the evidence. We know the timeframe from two letters relating to Emma’s case that were included in Julia’s file as “Exhibit A” and “B.” Both are dated in the 1880’s.

Emma appealed directly to Levi Wiggin in this letter dated January 29, 1884: 

“Respected Sir,

I address you these few lines soliciting your influence in my behalf.

I was a widow with one child when I married your brother Isaac B. Wiggins.  He deserted me after two weeks marriage and went to California. I was drawing a pension at the time and of course my marriage forfeited my pension.

Since I married him I have found out that he has three wives living. I have made application to have my pension restored to me and it can’t be done from the information I have received. If (only) I can gain information that he had a wife living when he married me.

Hoping that you will interest yourself in my behalf and soliciting an early reply and hoping that my letter may place acceptable to you.  I am yours with respect, Mrs. Emeline Carman; No. 506 South 6th Street


Murphy, as Emma’s attorney in the case, followed up with a letter to Levi in February 1887 urging him to provide an official deposition concerning Isaac and Julia’s marriage. He, too, appealed to a sense of humanity; his four-page letter begins: 

“Dear Sir,

The Court has just appointed a Master in the above case to take testimony on the question whether Isaac B. Wiggins was married to Miss (Julia) Abbott (in Moultonville, N.H.) prior to his marriage in this city to Mrs. Emeline Carman. As Mrs. Carman is in a very destitute condition it is an act of charity as well as justice to her that a decree annulling her supposed marriage to Mr. Wiggins should be obtained as speedily as possible, so that she may be able to procure the small pension which as the widow of Mr. Carman she was receiving from the Government up to the time of her supposed marriage with Mr. Wiggins. As she is in great distress, and legally as well as morally entitled to such a decree, I feel that there is no apology from me for again troubling you on a subject which cannot be an agreeable one… Hoping for the favor of a speedy reply, I remain yours truly, J.J. Murphy, Attorney for Mrs. Carman.” 

It appears that Levi was not persuaded to speak ‘against’ his half-brother until a Special Examiner came calling for Julia’s case in January 1894. Consequently, it was twenty long painful years after Emma was dropped from the pension roll until she finally received an annulment decree from the Court of Commons Pleas #4 in Philadelphia dated April 4, 1896. 

newspaper clipping, headline
detail of newspaper clipping
Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer; Sunday, April 5, 1896. Retrieved from newspapers.com: https://www.newspapers.com/image/168092125

Emma could now apply for “restoration” to the pension roll. With the official annulment papers in hand – along with Julia Conner’s paperwork already on file at the Pension Bureau – Special Examination Division agent Ralph Jefferson deemed Emma’s claim a “meritorious one” that should be immediately admitted. He noted that the Bureau “already has evidence that Wiggins was married to Julia Conor (sic), her claim was rejected because of this fact. It is quite conclusive that when Issac married Emeline he was incapable of assuming such a contract because his lawful wife was still living. Emeline was the innocent and injured party.” Julia’s misfortune was Emma’s fortune. While Julia was rejected, it was recommended that Emma be restored to the pension roll receiving back payments since her last check twenty years earlier on March 4, 1876. 

Does this sound like the end of the story? An open and shut case? Astoundingly, the annulment alone was not enough to get her back on the pension roll permanently.

Legally Barred

In September 1896, Special Agent Jefferson made one observation about Emma that foreshadows what happened next. He described her as approximately 67 years of age and a “poor old servant working out in service” and “rather feeble minded.”

When Jefferson’s report was reviewed by the Board of Review at the Pension Bureau, a keen-eyed examiner was suspicious of two things: the first was William Carman’s declared date of death considering the personal letters included as evidence in the file; and the second, was Emma’s alleged social standing. Having reviewed the many depositions in Emma’s file alleging a less-than-virtuous character, this examiner felt the case warranted a thorough investigation to determine if Emma violated the Act of August 7, 1882. He returned the case to Jefferson writing, “If claimant’s reputation has not improved, it is quite possible that (restoration) to the rolls can only continue to date of Act.” Jefferson was once again knocking on Emma’s door in October/November 1896 to assess the nature of her personal life.    

It seems unbelievable that William’s date of death was still in question more than thirty years later. Emma’s original claim included a statement of service from the Army’s Adjutant General’s Office citing May 3, 1863 – the date he was wounded at Chancellorsville. Jefferson reported that Emma’s intellect was of a “low order,” and she had no memory for recalling dates, so he also turned to William’s personal letters in Emma’s case file, having no other source for this information. The date of William’s last letter to Emma proved he was alive at least through June 6th so Jefferson decided upon this as the approximate date of death. 

Meanwhile, the Record and Pension Division of the War Department was asked to search any official records received since Emma’s original claim to determine the exact date of death. They identified an October 1863 regimental return (a form accounting for soldiers to show strength of a unit) noting William’s death to have occurred June 9th at Falmouth, Virginia – not May 3rd. This was reported back to the Pension Bureau in December 1896. How did this affect Emma? She had to “pay back” the pension money she received in 1865 covering the five-week difference in these dates. More precisely, the $8+ was deducted from the “back pay” she would receive as a result of her restoration to the pension roll, when she was finally approved. But she had one more hurdle to overcome before she could receive any money.     

The reply from the Record and Pension Office of the War Department that accurately identified William Carman’s date of death as June 9, 1863 – the first official proof of this date added to Emma’s case file thirty-two years after she first applied for a pension.  Though Emma was not at fault for the discrepancy, she had to “pay back” the pension money originally issued to her for the five-week difference. (NAID 99523538, image128).

The final question to be determined was: had Emma violated the Act of August 7, 1882? Section 2 of this Congressional act declared that the “open and notorious adulterous cohabitation” of a pensioned widow with a man would be cause to terminate her pension.

The issue initially arose from the supplementary deposition that Jefferson took from Emma on October 27, 1896. Emma and several neighbors and acquaintances were questioned about her relationship with a man named George Snyder. Had she ever “cohabited” with Snyder?  

Here is a sample of testimony given by witnesses in October 1896; the group is a fascinating cross-section of Philadelphians from Emma’s world near the turn of the last century: 

Lizzie Fisher believed that Emeline lived with Snyder from 1885 to 1891 but could not say if they “cohabitated.” Emeline was previously the live-in housekeeper for her mother, Ann Peters, for at least eighteen years. Ann made and sold cakes and pies on Lombard Street. She stated that Snyder worked at a large crockery store on 3rd Street and was receiving a pension, but left Emeline to marry a woman with one child.

Thomas A. Devine, a lithographer, was acquainted with Emeline since he was a small boy, but they lost touch in the last twelve years. He stated that about two years before he lost sight of her, she went to live with George Snyder. She was not married to him but was his housekeeper. He added that she was known to others as his housekeeper. (Emma referred Jefferson to Mr. Devine in particular as a knowledgeable witness – he was the son of a woman she grew up with at the St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum at the corner of 7th & Spruce Streets).

Catharine Juram met Emeline ten years before; she was employed by her as a servant for about a year. She was recommended to her by Mrs. Schrader of Lombard Street whose son Gustav was a tailor. (Note that Emma’s occupation in the 1870 Federal census was listed as ‘seamstress’ making it logical that she would be known by a local tailor).Charles William Brown was a policeman who knew Emeline for four to five years. She worked “in (his) family” from 1893 to 1895 and he never had known her to remarry or cohabitate.

Elizabeth R. Coad, a “designer in embroidery,” had known Emeline about eight years. She stated: “I have interested myself in getting her places as a servant. She never married or cohabited – I am sure of that. She was hired out in service at different places, part of the time at the Girard House.” 

The Girard House Hotel where Emma was once employed at Ninth & Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia, circa 1875. During the Civil War the hotel was commandeered for use as a sewing factory for uniforms and a barracks for Union soldiers. Photo & History Credit:  Library Company of Philadelphia. Girard House.

Pauline V. Kohler was an instructor at the House of Industry where she had charge of the employees in a sewing room. Emeline worked there under Pauline’s supervision from December 12, 1894 through April 1896. 

The House of Industry circa 1870 located at 7th & Catherine Streets where Emma worked in a sewing room. Founded in 1846 by the Philadelphia Society for Employment & Instruction of the Poor, the House of Industry was a working shelter where immigrants and the homeless made shoes, clothing, rugs, baskets and brushes.  Its services to the needy included temporary shelter, food and training programs for persons seeking work designed to encourage their ultimate independence. Photo and History Credit: Free Library of Philadelphia. House of Industry at Explore PA History.

Joanna Vaughn was a boarding house keeper at 425 Spruce Street and a Civil War widow. She knew Emeline for nine years and stated that she did not marry or cohabitate since her acquaintance with her. She explained further that Emeline “has been supporting herself by working out in the wintertime. When she is out of service, she comes and lives with me.”  

The row house at 425 Spruce Street (dark blue shutters in current photo above) located in one of Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhoods just south of Independence Hall.  Built in 1850, it was Joanna Vaughn’s boarding house circa 1896 where Emma stayed when she was not “living out” in service. Interesting to note that future president of the United States James Madison Jr. and his wife, Dolley, lived two doors down at 429 Spruce Street in 1795-96 while he was a member of the House of Representatives.  The neighborhood is known as “Society Hill,” but had fallen into a state of decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Image retrieved from Google Street View; accessed August 27, 2021.

Harriett Turner was the daughter of boarding house keeper Joanna Vaughn and also employed as a housekeeper. She had known Emeline about ten years and explained that Emeline worked as a servant part time at her house, her mother’s house and at the House of Industry on 7th Street. She swore that Emeline never married nor cohabitated with any man as his wife. She confirmed, “I am sure of that and that she has been a good upright woman.”

All these witnesses seem to fully support Emma’s original testimony to Jefferson in September 1896 when she claimed her occupation to be “sewing and housekeeping” and explained that she lived “at many other places in service.” It seems reasonable that Emma was also living at George Snyder’s residence as his housekeeper, not as his wife. 

However, the testimony of these witnesses did not seem to factor into Jefferson’s final decision on the matter. He returned to question Emma again in October 1896, and what she said devastated her claim. When questioned about all the different places she had lived, Emma replied: “It’s impossible for me to say. I have lived around in service with different people but just when it was and how long it was, I cannot tell. My mind is bad, and I cannot tell.”  

Despite what Jefferson described as her “low order” intellect and feeble mindedness, he took Emma’s statements regarding “adulterous cohabitation” as fact: “(Snyder) was paralyzed. I kept house for him and washed for him …” When Jefferson then asked, “Did you not cohabit with him as a wife?” Emma replied, “Yes, I did while I lived with him. I cannot take a false oath.”   

And with that one statement, Emma sealed the outcome of her restoration claim. Jefferson recommended that she be restored to the pension roll only for the period between March 4, 1876 when she was first ‘dropped’ due to the Wiggins marriage through the passage of the Act of adulterous cohabitation on August 7, 1882. Though this back payment at a rate of $8 per month was substantial for Emma in such a destitute state, she could not count on any additional pension payments for support in her old age. She had been “legally barred” from the pension roll. 

One Last Move

Within four years, Emma’s plight appears to have precipitated her last move to an address on Church Lane. This was the location of the Home of the Aged managed by the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor. In the 1900 Federal census, a 71-year-old “Emma Carman” is enumerated there among more than three hundred “inmates.”   

detail of census form with heading
detail of form from census.
Emma Carman enumerated in the 1900 U.S. Federal Population Census. Retrieved from Ancestry.com; September 9, 2021.
Home of the Aged; Germantown, Pennsylvania.  Emma Carman was living in this institution managed by the Little Sisters of the Poor when she died in 1908. The organization supported the elderly who were “in poverty through no fault of their own but merely by force of circumstances.” Photo & History Credit: Little Sisters of the Poor Philadelphia

It was here that Emma died on July 22, 1908, of congestion of the lungs. 

Death certificate on file for Emma Carmin [sic]; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, city of Philadelphia, Bureau of Vital Statistics. Retrieved from Ancestry.com; September 9, 2021.

She was buried the same day that she died at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham Township, Philadelphia’s first suburb, 20 minutes north of Center City. Her grave is located in Section 1 which was used exclusively by the Little Sisters of the Poor.  

It’s a cruel irony that Emma’s occupation as recorded on her death certificate is “Hpr” for ‘housekeeper.” She certainly died poor due to the Pension Bureau’s assessment that she was not a housekeeper. 

It’s also a cruel irony that despite finding true love as a young woman, Emma would spend most of her adult life emotionally alone. As a Civil War widow, she suffered great heartache – we know that by reading between the lines across pages and pages of evidence in her pension file. The history surrounding William’s tintype – why it was made and how it was lost to the Pension Bureau in a bundle of letters – reminds us that great sacrifices were made on the home front as well as the battle front, and often were borne by widows for a lifetime.

William’s face may have become just a faded memory for Emma in the twenty years she struggled to regain her pension. Now through the National Archives’ efforts to digitize and catalog Civil War personal tintypes, his face will never be forgotten again.

One thought on “Civil War-Era Personal Tintypes Exposed: Why William Carman’s Tintype Was in His Widow’s Pension File

Leave a Reply to J.D. Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.