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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Just How Old Are You, Mr. Freer?

Provided by Herbert Freer Low, 1991.
Founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, Charles Lang Freer has always been a man of mystery. Recently I was writing a simple "Happy Birthday" post for him, only to find out through the almighty Google search that scholars and institutions have conflicted feelings on what year Freer was actually born.  I was shocked to find out that an important figure in the art museum world would have such ambiguity regarding something as seemingly concrete (and important) as a birth year.  Startled, I was unable to finish his Birthday post without delving into the mystery...

I started with looking through the genealogical and biographical files that had been compiled by previous curators and archivists of the Freer Gallery of Art.  In the files resided a thick folder dated 1991-1992 that shows back-and-forth correspondence among the heavy weight scholars of the American Art world, the Freer Gallery staff, and related New York and Detroit historical societies.  At that time, the Archives was trying to ascertain Freer's birth year for the publication of Freer: Legacy of Art and the Freer Gallery's reopening to the public.  It appears that after a yearlong effort of fact-finding, the scholars and archivists of the Freer Gallery of Art decided 1854.  (From what I gather, we are the only art entity to take a stand on when his birth year occurred).  For a brief moment I thought my journey was over, mystery solved, my predecessors had done the work for me - until I glanced down the list of evidence.  My inner historian cringed when I realized how weakly the few documents they could locate pointed to 1854, with similar evidence pointing towards 1856. 

Luckily, today I can access most of the government documents online, making the research quick and snappy, as opposed to the snail mail my 1991 colleagues had to contend with.  So let me present you the facts and evidence as I know them, and let me also add the disclaimer: I am not a scholar of American Art, merely someone who loves history's mysteries.

For 1854, the evidence we have are as follows:

Tombstone (above), located in the Wiltwyck Cemetery, created in 1922 (3 years after Freer's death) by Watson Freer the same year he, himself, passed.  The note that comes from Mr. Herbert Freer Low (who provided the picture) warns in his 1991 letter to our former archivist, "I hasten to add that Ruth P. Heidgerd, who compiled The Freer Family genealogy, published in 1968, recently told me that she has known of gravestones that have borne errors."

The Freer Family Bible, located in the vault of the Huguenot Historical Society, New Paltz, New York.  In a 1978 letter, the society writes to our former American Art curator, "Charles Lang Freer was born 2/25/1854, and died 9/25/1919."  Unfortunately the F|S Archives does not have a copy of the bible on file; nor do I have any knowledge of how the bible was added to and maintained.  However, it is important to note that at this time Kingston County (Freer's birth place) was not creating official county records, like birth certificates, and in this instance a family bible that recorded and maintained births as they happened, can be just as credible as a birth certificate.

Census Record from 1860, listing Charles [Chas] Freer as age 6.  (I will spare you from the really bad copy image I have).

Passport Application, located in the Passport Division of the US Archives, passport no. 276 and signed by Freer when he was in Paris, November 22, 1894.  I am currently waiting on a copy of the passport application.  In lieu of an image I was provided this statement from the document: "I solemnly swear that I was born at Kingston in the State of New York on or about the 25th day of February 1854, that my father is a native citizen of the United States; that I am domiciled in the United States, my permanent residence being Detroit in the State of Michigan..."   *Added to evidence.

Letter to Dr. George Draper, February 11th, 1918; where Freer states that he will be turning 64.  Located in the Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.  It is important to note that Dr. George Draper is the same doctor that signs Freer's death certificate stating 1854 as Freer's Birthday.  Is this letter the only evidence that Dr. Draper had of Freer's birth year?

1856 Evidence:

Census Record from 1900, listing Charles Lang Freer, Head of House, born February 1856.
As located using HeritageQuest Online, access provided by my Arlington County Library card! *Added to evidence.

Passport Application filed in 1899 (5 years after previous one in Paris listing 1854), provided by the National Archives via *Added to evidence.

Letter to close friend Thomas Jerome in 1906, congratulating his friend on his Birthday and stating he will soon pass his half century mark.  Located in the Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.

There are numerous obituaries, including the New York Times that state Freer's birth year as 1856.  And Freer's assistant in many things for the last years of his life, Katherine Rhoades states in letters and in her 1923 type publication, that Freer's birth year was 1856.  (The 1923 type publication can be located in the Freer|Sackler Library).


Conclusiveness in addition to when his birth year was is up for argument!  In speaking with several of the Charles Lang Freer experts I can tell you that they all favor 1854.  Which is not surprising as they and their peers had a hand in deciding the 1854 vs 1856 fate back in 1992.  I think they lend historical credence to the early 1860 census and Freer Family Bible, as is historical research practice.  Conversely, 1991 evidence suggests the my former archivist peers preferred the 1856 date as more recent federal documents, and the writings of a woman who knew him better than the rest (at least in later life), all claimed 1856.  It is interesting to note that in 1957, the Freer Gallery also validated 1856 when it held a 100th Birthday celebration with "An Appreciation of Charles Lang Freer."

And my own conclusion?  I find the evidence on both sides to be compelling, and inconclusive.  But more importantly, I think we need to answer: why the confusion?  Why would Freer provide two different years in both federal documentation and personal notes to friends?  Is it simply a matter of vanity, where it's customary to shave two years off your age when you reach mid-life?  (Would you really go as far as submitting false testimony on federal documents?)  The bulk of the 1856 evidence does occur between 1899-1906 when Freer would have (roughly) been 43-50.  I think if you're going to go with that theory you should also note that 1899-1906 was a very transformative time in Freer's life.  He succeeded in consolidating his railroad car building companies, he retired from stressful business work and started traveling the world, he bought a villa in Capri (mid-life crisis anyone?), and the Smithsonian formally accepts his gift to the nation.

I think another possibility is that given the historical context of the years he grew up in, and that we know he came from a poor, large family; it may be possible he just didn't know his real birth year, or had reason to doubt it mid-life.  Either reason is thought-provoking, but I don't think quite fills in the whole puzzle.  I am also certain there are probably 100 more plausible reasons as to why Freer would use both birth years.

The only concrete knowledge that comes out of my amateur investigation is that there is one more layer of mystery surrounding Charles Lang Freer.  Perhaps in the future I can write to you the accounts of why Freer never married, why he decided not to leave Detroit with his art treasures, and why he kept his Peacock Room purchase a mystery.  Nothing confirming or condemning, but as you see here, there is a lot that can be read between the lines.

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives

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