Origins of the Unfamiliar Camera Shudder

The truth?  Well, no one ever seemed to want to know the truth.  Just the same, the truth was his great-great grandpa was the culprit.  Having never met him, of course, he only had heard stories.  The man’s name was Pete.  In fact, he was named after his great-great grandpa.  Apparently this Pete was quite the guy.  Loved by everyone; despised by no one.

Herein begins the tale.

Thinning, fine white hair revealed Pete’s old age.  A welcoming smile betrayed his young heart.  And a never satisfied quest for practical jokes kept him busy even after he was too brittle to work on the family farm.

They say great-great grandpa Pete really was a jokester.  He was always catching everyone off-guard, and even though his victims always eventually got over it, his pranks were usually very inappropriate.  The legends account for this by telling of his ridiculously strong character.  While inappropriate, his making-fun was meticulously timed and delivered.  One could only imagine, then, how well-planned Pete’s crowning gag must have been.

It was a large family reunion.  Not just cousins, but second cousins, third cousins, and fourth cousins thrice removed were invited and made their appearance.  With a guest list that large, quite a few dignitaries and very wealthy people were in attendance.  Great-great grandpa Pete would have been banking on this.

On the guest list, a fairly distant relation was former president Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife “lemonade” Lucy, known (without justification) for her role in the temperance movement.  To Pete, they were Uncle Rutherford and Aunt Lucy.

It was a warm sunny day in June.  June 25, 1889, to be exact.  Pete had known the president and his wife for some time.  Rutherford and Lucy were just a bit too–let’s say proper–for practical jokes.  Just the same, Pete had seen in Rutherford’s eyes something of a sparkle each time he witnessed one of Pete’s masterpieces.

Now, as everyone knows, former Presidents are not to be trifled with.  Despite not occupying the position anymore, they are still well-connected to all the right people.  Pete would have known this too.  Apparently he didn’t care.  He had chosen his course, and on that fateful day nothing was going to stop him.

As the first of Pete’s family trickled in, he encouraged the required small talk by talking about his new camera.  This camera, he said, was not unlike other cameras of the day, except in one feature.  His camera had a timed shutter.  He really wanted this affair to be a family only event, and so he didn’t want to hire a professional photographer.  He also began spreading that he wanted the first picture taken that day to be a photograph of everyone there.

As the trickle of guests became a raging rapid, so did the story of Pete’s camera.  Soon everyone was anxiously awaiting picture time.  All in attendance naturally assumed Pete would be the one to press the button then run to his spot in the 4.75 seconds before the shutter opened.

One can only imagine the surprise, then, when ol’ Pete announced to a gathering of 250 of his family members that he was going to give the honor to his “favorite Aunt-who-was-also-a-first-lady” Lucy Hayes.  Not being one to regularly indulge in the frivolities and vices of life, the story has it that Lucy succumbed just this once and accepted.  They say Pete had a curious twinkle in his eye as he was explaining the task to her.

Straightening up as he finished, he calmly took his place among those about to be photographed.

Trembling with nervous excitement Lucy began to sense the crowd’s growing impatience.  She knew she must get it right the first time.  She knew that if Pete had to come back and help her one more time, the most distant relatives–already drunk she noticed–would just leave the formation.

The pressure became unbearable and as she pressed the button and began to walk briskly back to her spot, a loud report was heard and as she shuddered in fright, she looked to Pete for reassurance that she didn’t make a mistake.  In an instant, Pete tossed her a bottle of whiskey which she caught out of instinct.  Turning, she realized she was front and center, looking guilty and holding the substance that she had fought her entire adult life to ban as the shutter opened.  A moment later, we’re told that everyone else fell over laughing as they realized Pete had struck again.  Everyone but Uncle Rutherford.  He was holding his dear beloved who appeared to have fainted.  Within the hour she was pronounced dead.

Pete had finally done it.  He had finally picked on the wrong person, at the wrong time.  By the end of the day, despite former-President Hayes’ insistence that the incident be kept a family matter, word had spread.  Naturally, like all stories, the listener heard what they wanted to hear.  Couple this with Rutherford demanding Pete hand over the single piece of evidence that proved it was all about Lucy’s obnoxious stance on liquor, and the story really scrambled to build a foundation.  In the end, the story that spread throughout the country was that Lucy died because she used an unfamiliar camera to take the picture at the family reunion.

While you may never have heard of great-great grandpa Pete, or Lucy Hayes, you surely have experienced the result of this rumor.  Even to this day, when relatives handle camera’s unfamiliar to them, they do so with great trepidation.  They cannot shake the fear that something terrible may happen as they take the picture.  Little do they know that it wasn’t the use of an unfamiliar camera that killed Lucy, but irrational shame.

At least that’s what I tell myself to explain why we’re so afraid of other people’s cameras at family functions.  Can you explain it?



  1. Kate

    Is this for your class? Did Lucy Hayes actually take a photo while holding a bottle of whiskey? If so, this is a great background story explaining how it happened. If you completely made it up, good story anyway. Your writing is improving.


    • A Mugwump

      Hey there certainly-not-my-sister. What do you think?

      Thanks for the compliment. If true, it’s wholly unnecessary. But I’ll take it.

      Oh, and instead of ‘good anyway’, I think you mean ‘even better.’


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