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Collecting Dead Cowboys

Updated on July 24, 2013

Collecting and Colorizing Dead Gunfighter Photos - A Fascinating look at Postmortem Photography

Since I live in Arizona, I am fascinated by the Old West and especially, the gunfights that occurred here.

Just in time for Halloween, let's travel back in time and take a look at a fascinating subject; collecting Old West Postmortem photos. Postmortem can be defined as "after death."

When you say, the "Old West," it also encompasses what the Eastern United States deemed as "West" during the middle to late 1800's. Other than Arizona, that could include Missouri, Utah, New Mexico, California, Texas, the Dakotas and other states.

Some people have a fascination with death and some collect it. In other words, people collect postmortem photography. Some of the collectors focus on the niche of Old West dead. Most of the photos available are not of the "good guys," they tend to be focused on the train robbers and the general misfit rebels of history.

I have found many of the photos in research and since they are black and white, they appear very cold and scary. Yes, photos of the dead are scary but instead of keeping them that way, i have livened them up a little by adding color.

Please take a walk with me through history and this collection of Old West postmortem photography.

Flickr Commons

The Dalton Gang - Coffeyville, Kansas - October 5, 1892

Dalton Gang
Dalton Gang
Ghostly Gravestones
Ghostly Gravestones

Postmortem Photography - Photos of the Dead

Also known as Mourning Photography

As a child, I remember gazing through my Grandparents' photo albums.

In several of the photos, I noticed that there were ancestral family members, in open caskets. At an early age, I didn't think much about it but as I got older, it seemed creepy to me.

The act of taking photos of the dead goes back to early days of photography. Photos were taken of recently deceased relatives as a means of remembrance and for mourning purposes. These photos were kept as a last look or last photo of a loved one.

In the early days of photography, photos of the dead were taken during after military battles as a way to remember the carnage, but when a relative died, they were posed as if they were still alive and not in caskets.

When you see old photographs, there are many clues to know if it is a postmortem photo. Some of these include seeing stands that are holding up the dead or seeing glimpses of a hidden person behind them, holding the body.

In the earlier photos such as in daguerreotypes, ambrotypes or tintypes, the exposure time was long so If you saw a child in these photos without movement (blurriness), many times, these were postmortem subjects. Children could not hold still for these long exposures and their movement would cause blurriness.

Other than Civil War and other military battles, there were also photos of the dead taken to memorialize an event. Some of these were of famous or infamous people.

The subject matter of this website are the postmortem photos of infamous gunfighters. It is an interesting subject to many and these photos are part of the historical record.

I hope you enjoy this subject matter as I think it is an interesting look at days gone by.

Google Commons

The History of Postmortem Photography in America

Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America
Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America

It may not seem natural to take photos of your deceased loved ones today, but it certainly was no issue in the past.

This is an interesting historical perspective of death, no matter how we view it today.


What are your thoughts about Postmortem Photography?

How do you feel about snapshots of the dead?

See results

Another Shot of the Dalton Gang

Another shot of the Dalton Gang
Another shot of the Dalton Gang

How to add Color to any Black and White Photo using Photoshop - It is just like coloring in a coloring book!

It is easy to add washes of color to any black and white photograph.

Use the easy steps below and in no time, you will have a black and white photo with color highlights.

  • Open your black and white photo using Photoshop.
  • Mouse the cursor over the "Image" tab at the top of the screen.
  • Select the "Mode" selection and a window will open to the right.
  • Click on "RGB Color."
  • Go to the bottom of the left hand menu and select "foreground color." This is done by clicking the top of the 2 overlapping squares. This technique will not work if you select the background square.
  • A "color picker" window will open. Select the color that you want to wash onto your black and white photo and then click "OK."
  • Move to the top of the left hand menu and either select "brush" or "color replacement tool." Adjust the size of your brush in the top menu to the item you are coloring. The color replacement tool works good most of the time but I find that it is not a true representation of the color you have selected. To use the "brush" tool, after you have selected it, use the "opacity" slide in the top and bring it down to about the 20-30% range. You may need to experiment.
  • Paint into your photo as you would color in a coloring book. It is that easy! Save and share!

Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral - Tombstone, Arizona - October, 1881

McLaury & Clanton Gang
McLaury & Clanton Gang

Gunfighter Fast Fact - Gunfights were never Planned!

Despite popular belief, gunfights were never planned and happened spontaneously.

There was no such thing as calling someone out into the street or meeting at high noon.

Most of the time, gunfights occurred as a result of too much liquor or as they called it back then, "bottled courage."

Jesse James after being shot by Bob Ford - Saint Joseph, Missouri - April 3, 1882

Jesse James
Jesse James

Gunfighter Fast Fact - Most Gunfighters were terrible Marksmen

Even though you may have heard that gunfighters were quick and accurate, most aimed low on a target so when the gun kicked, it would raise up and hit the opponent in the chest.

Old West gunfighter Bat Masterson said it best; "If you want to hit a man in the chest, aim for his groin."


Gunfighter Fast Fact - Gunfights did not take place at 75 Paces

Gunfights did not occur after being back to back and pacing off 75 feet.

Gunfights occurred at very close range and were so erratic, bystanders would often get wounded or killed.

There wasn't just one shot either, the gunmen frequently emptied all of the shots in their chambers before the dust settled. Yes, there was dust and most did not even know what happened or who won until several minutes later.

Illustration of Billy the Kid being shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett - Fort Sumner, New Mexico - July 14, 1881 - No photos of Billy the Kid in postmortem exist

Death of Billy the Kid
Death of Billy the Kid

Alice Cooper's "I Love the Dead" - A little morbid but many do love the dead, especially collectors of postmortem photography!

Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper - This classic album includes "I Love the Dead."

Billion Dollar Babies
Billion Dollar Babies

I remember listening to this album with friends in the 1970's.

I have seen Alice many times in concert. His music is not always the best for children, but he does bring a lot of people out at Halloween.


Gunfighter Fast Fact - Gunfighters were not Brave

If you watch the movies, gunfights usually occurred in the streets while the opponents were face to face.

This was not the case for most. Many of the fights occured with opponents hiding or scampering for cover.

Two US 7th Calvary Troopers Killed by Wild Bill Hickok - Hays City, Kansas - July 17, 1870

2 Troopers killed by Wild Bill Hickok
2 Troopers killed by Wild Bill Hickok

Gunfighter Fast Fact - I need a Hammer, please pass the Pistol

Finding a historical gun today is finding a gun that is well used.

Most gunfighters kept guns but also used them as other tools when needed. Thus, if you find an authentic gun today, it "ain't" gonna be in good shape, cowboy!

Dead Gunfighter
Dead Gunfighter

Watch out! Some may still be Alive! - Please leave some comments!

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      troy lee waldridge 

      2 years ago

      great job colorizing. Since im a kentucky boy id love to see some eastern photos such as the hatfields and mccoys


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