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Janette Weller and Fontinella Fitch
From the vantage point of simply stereography, one might never know the fame of Janette Weller, whose name is more widely recognized than that of her first husband, F. G. Weller. An early pupil and close friend of Mary Baker Eddy, Janette is revered as a pioneer of the First Church of Christ, Scientist. In her collected papers and the literature, however, there is scant mention of her marriage to F. G., photography, or family life in Littleton.1 Her early life appears to be bifurcated from the more than four decades that follow in Christian Science. Two Janettes in different spheres emerge, and though I hope that they may be rejoined, I can speak only for the history of stereography. As stereo first and foremost renders depth to views, perhaps a bridge may be found there.
Born in Lyman, New Hampshire, on July 4, 1840 to Samuel Umphrey Gibson and Mercy Gates Hoskins, Janette was only three when her parents divorced, and she was sent to live with Margaret Eastman, her paternal aunt. There is no further mention of her parents, and she characterized her childhood as unhappy. She received two semesters of education after which she taught for eight terms in the Littleton Public Schools, followed by work as a tailor and seamstress in that town.2 During her marriage to F. G. Weller, she modeled for a number of his stereoviews, and, as discussed in the previous chapter, her sartorial, literary and artistic skills were likely helpful to his industry. It is also very possible that her sister, Emile Gibson, modeled for several views. In the Janette Weller correspondence, there are references to Emile as the proprietor, along with her second husband, R. D. Rounsevel, of the White Mountain House near Fabyans, where Mary Baker Eddy vacationed in 1888.3
After F. G.’s death, Janette sold Weller’s stock to G. H. Aldrich, and she and her daughter, Fontie, lived as boarders until 1882.4 In that year, Janette married Fred Robinson, a druggist in Littleton. Perhaps it was her long-term suffering from tuberculosis, from which F. G. died, that brought Janette and Fred together. It did not keep them together, however. She claimed to have been completely healed not by pharmaceutical skill but by reading Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health, after which she dedicated her life to Christian Science and traveled widely as a practitioner. 5 This did not sit well with Fred Robinson, who in March 1890 filed for divorce based on Janette’s religious beliefs.6 At the trial, the counsel for Fred Robinson held Christian Science to ridicule as a means, Janette believed, for her husband to avoid paying alimony.7 A few months later, she and other Christian Scientists in Littleton were publicly mocked in a July 4th parade.8 These painful memories could certainly have given impetus to close off that part of her life.
On June 13, 1890, shortly after the Robinson v. Robinson trial, Fontinella (Fontie) Aldeth Weller, the daughter of Franklin G. and Janette Weller, married Henry Warren Fitch. The newlyweds were Christian Scientists, and they quickly left Littleton for Spokane, Washington, where Henry was a clerk, and soon a manager, of the Washington National Bank. Janette joined them later in the year and practiced in that city, but their family life was sadly curtailed. Fontie and her infant daughter died in 1892 of an illness contracted post-partum. A newspaper report states that a doctor was in attendance.9 After Fontie’s death, Janette sold her house in Littleton, moved to Boston and continued her schedule with little time for reflection. In stereographs, however, we may reflect as long as we wish upon the forever young matron who appears in many views, such as “Helping Mama” #334 of 1871 (above) or the delicately hand-colored “National Thanksgiving” # 379 of 1873.
As did many in the nineteenth century, F. G. Weller conceived of character traits through allegorical form, which we can see in Janette’s pose as the goddess of Liberty, kneeling to give thanks for the nation, not yet one hundred years old. Sword and shield lie near her on floor, casting a note of uncertainty upon the scene--is she grateful or supplicating? The pose and upturned face suggests the latter. Two years later in 1875, F. G. copyrighted a companion view, to which he affixed the preceding record number, #378. As discussed in the prior chapter, Fontie poses as “Columbia,” another personification of the nation and a popular symbol for the US Centennial. Fontie, like Janette, appears somber. Unlike the exaggeration found in cartoon renderings of these personifications, a real mother and daughter pair manifest patriotic sentiment with elegant dignity, appearing restrained, even muted with their beautiful features and simple, flowing robes. In 1873, the year of “National Thanksgiving,” a severe depression hit the US and Europe, continuing through the Centennial of 1876. Prayer was undoubtedly the response of many to this economic crisis, and the expressions of supplication and solemnity from Janette and Fontie mirror the situation. Prayer was also the means through which Janette, later, would practice healing as a Christian Scientist. The two Janettes meet in “National Thanksgiving.” Weller’s allegorical conceit uncannily prefigures the religious leader Janette would become, dedicating her life to the health of others.
After 41 years as a pupil, then leader in the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Janette Weller died in 1925 in Boston, at age 85. She rests in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Legend: MBE--The Mary Baker Eddy Library and Research Center, Boston.
© Melody Davis, 2019