Monday, February 11, 2013

J. P. Ball and Son

In honor of Black History Month, today's post features a father-son team of photographers and their bold and unique statement of equality. Warning! The photos after the jump are shocking. I'd rate this post PG-13 for violence.

James Presley Ball was a professional photographer who came from Cincinnati to Montana in 1887 with his son, J.P. Ball, Jr. They set up a studio in Helena. They were talented and influential African Americans who left an interesting legacy. The younger Ball was the first editor of the Colored Citizen, a short-lived newspaper dedicated to capturing black endorsement of Helena as the state capital.
James Presley Ball. Photo from Calabash by Esther Hall Mumford
As photographers, the Balls documented events and people. They left portraits of prosperous Chinese, blacks, and European immigrants. They also took some curious photos. One bizarre three-photo sequence documents the tragedy of African American William Biggerstaff. The first portrait shows Biggerstaff as a prominent, well dressed gentleman in a suit and vest, posing confidently.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives

After Ball took this impressive photo, Biggerstaff was involved in an altercation and killed a popular local prize fighter. Biggerstaff was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang in Lewis and Clark County in April 1896. The second photograph shows a hooded Biggerstaff hanging from the scaffold, flanked by Sheriff Henry Jurgens and the Right Reverend Victor Day, moments after the execution. Biggerstaff  is wearing the same coat and vest he wore in his elegant portrait.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives

And finally, the third photograph shows Biggerstaff in his coffin, looking strangely peaceful despite his violent death, still wearing the same suit and vest.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives

While it might seem these photos illustrate biased justice, the Balls likely had an entirely different message. Biggerstaff freely admitted his guilt and had a fair and impartial trial like any other citizen. This underscores the point that black Montanans deserved the same justice as whites. To prove this point, the Balls also left a record of the execution of a white man, confirming equal justice, at least in these two cases.

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