Death was a major part of life in mid-19th century New York. This fall season, visitors to the Merchant’s House Museum can see how death became a part of everyday life in the exhibition Death, Mourning and the Hereafter in Mid-19th Century New York. The exhibition explores the rituals of death and morning and ways New Yorkers tried to cope with their grief in the 19th-century, when the Tredwell family was living in the home. Artifacts on display include items pulled straight from the Museum’s Tredwell Collection, including mourning attire and accessories that were worn by the family for wakes and funerals that took place right in the home.

During the mid-19th century, the United States was immersed in a period of nationwide grief due to the casualties of the The Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. These events led to a surge in Spiritualism and new ways for the bereaved to try and cope with their losses. Seances became popular and loved ones with lost relatives fled to the parlors of mediums for the chance to hear from beyond the grave.

Photograph by Hal Hirshorn, Courtesy of the Merchant’s House Museum

The Merchant’s House was no stranger to death. The patriarch of the family, Seabury Tredwell, died in an upstairs bedroom and his funeral was held in the parlor. It wasn’t unusual at the time for dying and funerals to place in the home. Throughout the Merchant’s House Museum, which is still furnished with the belongings of the Tredwell family, poignant scenes have been created to illustrate the ever-present anguish of death that persisted at the time. Visitors will see Seabury Tredwell’s deathbed and a recreation of his wake and funeral in the parlor.

Belief in the after-life and the ability to communicate with those behind the veil persists to this day, and offer comfort for those who are grieving. In this exhibition, which is on view through November 4th, you can learn where these ideas sprang from and how they were first explored inside “Manhattan’s Most Haunted House.”  If you visit on a Saturday afternoon between 1:30 and 3:30 pm, you can meet the newly-widowed Eliza Tredwell (portrayed by Museum Historian Ann Haddad). Mrs. Tredwell will be glad to answer any questions about life and death in the 19th century.

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