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 S 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.
ARRIVAL IN WASHINGTON
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 the National Park Service and other 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.
MARRIAGE TO SIGRID GUSTAFSON
In maturity, Thompson was married at least three times. (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.)
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.
MARRIAGE TO NANCY ELIZABETH LITTLE
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 had begun 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 some other place. 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 reportedly 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.
MARRIAGE TO BLANCHE EDWARDS LOVE
On December 15, 1915, newspapers reported Thompson’s marriage to Mrs Blanche E. Love of New York City. Five years older than Thompson, Blanche (or Blanch) Edwards Love was a widow with two grown children. Her first husband, Albert A. Love, a native of Ireland, had died prior to 1900. She was left in comfortable circumstances, however, because she was noted in the society pages of the newspaper as active in clubs and “the women’s cause.” Her daughter, Edythe Eleanor Love (1878-1949), became the wife of William Grotz (1877-1956); they are buried in Valleau Cemetery in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Blanche Thompson sometimes appears in her husband’s photography. She accompanied him on trips. Yet by 1940 she appears to have been living with her daughter and son-in-law in New Jersey, and to have taken up her old name Blanche E Love.
RETURN TO NORTH CAROLINA
Ezra, meanwhile, continued living alone in the District of Columbia, at 1210 Euclid Avenue, NW. 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 on April 20, 1951. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.
All photographs by or from E. B. Thompson.
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