E. B. Thompson: His Wives and Times

E B Thompson at River Farm (Courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

E.B. Thompson with unidentified boy, in front of an outbuilding on the grounds of George Washington’s birthplace.  From the Historic Photographs Collection of the National Park Service.

For months now, I’ve been piecing together the biography of E. B. Thompson, an important early 20th-century photographer who spent the bulk of his career in Washington, DC.  This post is a bare recitation of his vital facts, offered in the hope that anyone who knows more about Thompson or his family will contact me.


Ezra Bowen Thompson was born in North Carolina in 1865, as the Civil War brought defeat to the Confederacy.  His parents, Alfred Simeon Thompson and Anna Christophers, were both of Raleigh: he was a young dry-goods merchant, she the daughter of the city clerk.  Ezra was their eldest child.  The 1870 census found them with a daughter as well, living in a household that included their former slave, Charity Bobbett, and her 8 children.  Alfred Thompson died the following year.

His widow remarried around 1875, combining her household, minus the Bobbetts, with that of widower Nathan Pope Holleman, a Civil War veteran a decade older than she.  Anna and her children took the Holleman name, and by 1880 she was caring for 5 children: stepson Nathan A Holleman (17), her son E.B. (14), her 11-year-old daughter Daisy, and two children she had with Holleman: William H and Frank C, ages 4 and 1, respectively.  Her husband told the census enumerator that year that his occupation was that of carpenter, though wounds he sustained while fighting for the Confederacy had cost him the use of his right arm.

The U.S. Capitol at night (Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

The U.S. Capitol at night, from the E. B. Thompson Collection at the DC Public Library


Ezra left home and headed for the national capital in the early 1890s, where he assumed the surname Thompson and eked out a living as a painter for several years.  Sometime after 1900, however, he found work with the government as a photographer, an opportunity that founded his entire career.  He worked for various branches of the Interior Department, photographing the new national parks on major expeditions.  After 1911, he made his living by running a photographic supply store where he also sold his photographs as a retailer.  Known professionally as E. B. Thompson, his full name and origins became hard to discover.


In maturity, Thompson was married at least three times.  His first wife was 30-year-old Sigrid Gustafson, whom he married in the District of Columbia on October 13, 1904.  She was a gifted photographer known for her skill at altering photographs–retouching and splicing them to enhance their appeal.  Did the Thompsons’ union produce a child?  It’s hard to say.  Sigrid died unexpectedly in December, 1905, while visiting her family in Jönköping, Sweden.  Presumably she was buried abroad.


By 1910, Thompson had remarried.  His second wife was Nancy Elizabeth Little, the daughter of R. A. Little and Lavantia Irvin Little.  She was born in February 1871 in Wethersfield, Illinois.  She was one of many children, whose forebears were known as early settlers of nearby Kewanee.  By the time she married Thompson, however, Nancy, who sometimes went by Elizabeth, was a divorcée.

Her first husband was Delno Ernest Kercher (1869-1935), whom she married in Illinois on 26 September 1893.  A graduate of Grinnell College, he was 24 years of age.  He subsequently became a doctor, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1895.  The 1900 census finds Elizabeth and Delno Kercher living in Philadelphia with two boarders in the city’s 26th ward.  Delno had begun practicing as an ob-gyn, a profession he continued in until his death.  By 1910, Kercher reported his marital status as divorced, and his father David was living with him.  The two are buried together at Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, PA.  David Kercher’s 1919 obituary noted that he had lived with his son for fifteen years (since 1904).

Nancy Elizabeth Little and Ezra Bowen Thompson were married sometime between 1905 and 1910, whether in Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, or somewhere else.  At the time of the 1910 census, they are living as a couple in the capital, Ezra 44 years of age, Elizabeth 35.  Her mother Lavantia, age 77, is with them, too.  Was Elizabeth in ill health?  She made her will in August 1910, and on the 18th of February, 1911, she, too, died.  Thirty-six years of age, she was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Elizabeth’s will was probated and its provisions reported in the Washington Herald.  Elizabeth left just one dollar to each of her sisters and limited bequests to her mother and other siblings.  The remainder of her estate she placed in trust to provide for her husband Ezra until he died or remarried.  She directed that all her books, papers, and family portraits be returned to the family home in Kewanee.


On December 15, 1915, newspapers reported Thompson’s marriage to Blanche Love in New York City.  Thirty-four years old, she was at least fourteen years younger than her new husband, who on their marriage license shaved a good five years off his age.  She was born circa 1878 in Stafford, Virginia, the daughter of Ella M Coakley and Civil War veteran Charles H. Love.  Blanche was one of a large family of children.  At the time she married, Blanche was a resident of Washington, DC; and many members of her immediate family lived in or near the District for many decades.  It is not known whether Blanche and EB had any children, but if they did, they might still be living.

Mrs E. B. (Blanche) Thompson with unidentified children at Mount Vernon (Courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

Blanche Thompson with unidentified children at an outbuilding on the grounds of Mount Vernon.  From the National Photographs Collection of the National Park Service.

Blanche Thompson sometimes appears in her husband’s photography.  She accompanied him on trips.  But she is not buried with him, and I have yet to discover anything about her later life.


After his marriage to Blanche, Ezra continued living in the District of Columbia, at 1210 Euclid Avenue, NW, her former home.  In the mid-1940s, he fell ill, decided to sell his photographic collection and retire.  The District of Columbia Public Library bought some 2,000 glass-plate negatives from him for $1,000; today they form the backbone of the library’s collection of Washingtoniana.  In the mid-1970s, the National Park Service acquired Thompson’s photographs of the national parks, recognizing the historical value of his life-work.

In the final years of his life, E. B. Thompson returned to North Carolina, where he died, in Burnsville, on April 20, 1951.  He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.

All photographs by or from E. B. Thompson.
Click on a picture to go to the source.

Please contact me if you wish to cite my work,
or if you have information about E. B. Thompson to share.

Author’s note (7/15):  My post originally misidentified E. B. Thompson’s third wife.
She was not Blanche Edwards Love of New York City; she was not a widow with two children; and she was not older than EB.
If there was such a couple, they are not the subjects of this piece.
Many thanks to Denise Goff for establishing Blanche Love’s true identity.

Also, I originally wrote that “Since the 1900 census record for the Holleman family in North Carolina records the presence of a nine-year-old grandson, Ezra F Hollowman, it’s possible that E.B. had married and fathered a child before leaving home.”  Now that I have learned much more about Thompson and the Holleman family, I am certain that that’s not the case.  SB

The Burial of the Unknown Soldier

Arrival of the remains of the unknown, November 1921 (Courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

In 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice ended World War One.

Some 1.2 million American troops were massed on the western front, in France.  In the last two months, they had aggressively and successfully battled German troops for control of the Argonne Forest.  This massive, culminating Allied assault, which compelled Germany to seek a negotiated peace, left some 26,000 Americans dead and another 95,000 wounded.  Their commanders knew an armistice was imminent, yet nearly 11,000 Americans were lost on the war’s final day.

Cruel as the costs of the battle were, American casualties in ‘the Great War’ (1914-1918) paled beside those of Europe.  France’s casualties alone totaled over 6.1 million, representing 73 percent of its mobilized force.  Of these, over a half-million were listed as prisoners or missing.  Britain’s casualties were more than 3.1 million, while Russia, which had mobilized 12 million men during the war (an astonishing number), saw 4.9 million wounded, 1.7 million killed.

Comprehending the magnitude of these losses and the nature and extent of the war’s damage was a social and philosophical struggle that would last for years.  The nations’ profound grief found expression in many forms.  Land and culture would long continue to bear the scars.

The war left soldiers without any recollection of their identity; it left psyches shattered from shell-shock, nerves damaged by gas.  Faces and limbs mutilated.  Corpses far too incorporeal to identify.  The war truly annihilated many combatants, depriving families the consolation of reclaiming their loved one’s remains.

In response, several nations moved to enact the symbolic burial of an unknown soldier in a ceremonial Tomb.  By interring a single anonymous warrior, they sought to honor and immortalize all who were lost and nameless.  The Tombs offered national recognition to numberless soldiers and their families, whose losses and sacrifices History had otherwise rubbed out.

Workers constructing the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington House.

In 1920, France and England were the first to bring such plans to fruition.  They interred their ‘unknowns’ in tombs at the Arc de Triomphe and Westminster Abbey.  The United States followed suit in 1921, bringing the remains of an unknown American soldier back from France for ceremonial reburial at Arlington Cemetery.  Workers labored for months, building the Tomb and a new Memorial Amphitheater too.

The ceremony was scheduled for November 11, which Congress declared should henceforth be known not as Armistice, but as Veterans, Day.  The coffin of an unknown American who died in the war’s last battle was randomly chosen from among four specially exhumed from the American cemetery at Meuse-Argonne.

The coffin of the unknown soldier aboard the USS Olympia (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Transported across the Atlantic in the U.S.S. Olympia, the body arrived at the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9.  General Pershing and other top brass received the body in an  elaborate disembarkation ceremony. The day was rainy.  The coffin lay on an upper deck under a tent of flags.

Lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia)

The body was taken to the Capitol, where, with the honors usually reserved for deceased presidents, it lay in state in the Rotunda, under a military guard.  President Harding (at right) and others (General Pershing, at left) came to pay their respects.  The bier was heaped with funeral wreaths, with more arriving every minute from all over the country.

Burial procession of the unknown, November 1921 (Courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

On Veterans Day, crowds clogged the streets, leaned from windows, and climbed rooftops, to witness the funeral cortege as it rolled by.  Six black horses pulled the caisson, at the head of a long procession that included President Harding, former President Woodrow Wilson, and ranks of the military.

President Wilson en route to the burial of the Unknown Soldier (Courtesy Library of Congress)

President Wilson rode in a carriage, even though he was an auto enthusiast and horse-drawn conveyances were by then an anachronism.

The Unknown Soldier's funeral cortege (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Crossing the Potomac into Virginia, the procession finally neared the grave.

Cameramen atop the Memorial Amphitheater (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Crowded atop the colonnade of the new amphitheater, cameramen documented the vistas, the participants, the pageantry, the scene.

President Warren G Harding beside the remains of the unknown soldier, Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, November 11, 1921 (Courtesy of the library of Congress via Wikipedia)

On a dais banked with flowers and festooned with funerary garlands, President Harding stood by the casket of the Unknown Soldier and addressed the crowd.

The Unknown Soldier being laid to rest (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Finally, the unknown soldier was laid to rest, while, beyond the crush of attentive mourners, a peaceful countryside stretched.

Some of the day’s events were even captured on film.

Hand-colored photographs are from the E.B. Thompson Collection,
courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr.

Film clip courtesy of historycomestolife.
All other photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Faked Repatriation of US Military Remains Today, the Daily Mail (UK).

A Glimpse of Another Christmas

Washington DC market scene by E. B. Thompson (Courtesy DC Library via the Commons on Flickr)

E.B. Thompson was a successful photographer active in Washington DC in the early decades of the 20th century.  Thompson, who was probably born around the time of the Civil War, gained prominence around the same time as Theodore Roosevelt; indeed, the Rough Rider may have been Thompson’s chief patron.  Readers may recall reading this post about Thompson’s 1899 photograph of the coffins of American war dead awaiting burial at Arlington Cemetery.

Besides documenting the political scene, Thompson created and preserved many other pictures—photographs and stereographsof everyday life in the District and other subjects of local and personal appeal.  Among them was this picture of a turn-of-the-century open-air market, taken around Christmastime, as you can see.

Evidence internal to the photograph (such as the clothing and shutter speed) suggests it was taken no earlier than 1905.  Prints of the original image were then colorized for sale.  The color does a lot to draw us back into that earlier time.

Image: from this source.

War Dead

The remains of American soldiers awaiting internment at Arlington National Cemetery (Photograph by E.B. Thompson, courtesy DC Public Library via Flickr Commons)

On April 6, 1899, Washington DC photographer E. B. Thompson rode out to the cemetery at Arlington, where the remains of several hundred officers and soldiers were about to be buried.  The men had died in the late war with Spain, a brief affair that both began and ended the previous year, bringing the US control of Spain’s former island possessions—Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—and the independence of Cuba.

The coffins represented a fraction of the 3,000 Americans who died, felled not so much by their adversaries as by tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

Now, belatedly, they were to be buried.  The coffins lay suspended over long trenches dug in a new section of the cemetery.  Many of the remains were unidentified, so coffins of the known dead were carefully positioned at the ends of the rows that would be most visible during the ceremony.  Thompson positioned himself near the presidential viewing stand and took this picture.  It is an image as raw as the landscape itself, the kind of grim tribute to the fallen that we hardly ever see.  It was colorized later.

A crowd of some 15,000 people, along with President McKinley and other dignitaries, gathered for the funeral rites.  A newspaper in New Brunswick, Canada, carried a full account of the proceedings.   The work of burying the coffins began after the crowd dissipated, a tough, tedious job that took several days.

Image: E.B. Thompson photograph, “Interment at Arlington National Cemetery,” 1899.
Courtesy DC Public Library Commons, from this source.