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Riley's Image Comes Home


Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley (Oct. 7, 1849 to July 22, 1916) is best known for his characters such as Little Orphant Annie and for writing in a country dialect. He became a bestselling author in 1883 with his first book of poems The Old Swimmin’ Hole.

Karen Celestino-Horseman of Indianapolis donated a rare collection of James Whitcomb Riley images to IHS last year. The 20 glass plate negatives, two nitrate negatives and three photographs show Riley during the last years of his life and scenes of his funeral. The photographer was Lester C. Nagley (1889 to 1967), a noted Indianapolis photographer and watercolorist.

“I bought the negatives because I am a collector of old images, especially those involving Indianapolis and Indiana,” Ms. Celestino-Horseman says. “When I realized one of the negatives was the iconic shot of Riley, in front of his home and surrounded by children, I knew I had to bring the slides back to Indiana.” Nagley also recorded Riley’s funeral in 1916 where thousands viewed his body in the Capitol rotunda and his burial at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Ms. Celestino-Horseman says it was during her online research that she discovered that these were the original negatives of the Nagley photos owned by IHS. “At that point, I decided that the negatives needed to be placed in the safe hands of the historical society,” she says. “James Whitcomb Riley belongs to the people of Indiana and so do these negatives.”

The negatives are what are commonly known as wet collodion glass plates with silver suspended in an emulsion. Due to exposure, the silver is starting to oxidize; and because of humidity, the fragile emulsion layer of each piece is starting to peel from the surface of the glass. Under magnification and using tiny brushes, IHS conservators will infuse the space between each flap of emulsion and the face of the glass with heated gelatin. Once stabilized, a digital copy of each plate will be made accessible through the searchable online IHS Digital Collections.