Photo-sleuthing – The Turnbull album


This photo-sleuth story first appeared on the Society’s Facebook page in May 2018. Usually I only publish after the mystery has been solved and can demonstrate how the sleuthing is done. In this instance, one of our followers, Dave Forrest, did some successful sleuthing of his own and came up with the solution.

This photo is from the family album of Isabella Turnbull. We know her name because it appears on the image of a headstone in the album. Isabella was still alive at the time that the photo of the grave was taken but it commemorated the death of her 25 year old daughter, May Turnbull (1895-1920). From the album contents, it was possible to surmise that Isabella was married and had at least two children. She loved dogs and probably lived with her family somewhere along the Clyde Estuary. And that was it. We didn’t know her maiden name, when and where she married or when she died.

There was no record, either, of a May Turnbull born in 1895. None of the 15 records of a Mr Turnbull marrying an Isabella between 1889 and 1895 related to any of the parishes along the Clyde Estuary. The album also contains two photos of the headstone of James McCallum, formerly of the 16th H.L.I. who died in 1921 aged 29, and who was buried in the Glasgow Western Necropolis. His death certificate was easily found but gave no hint of a connection. (Later research suggested he was the son of a neighbour in Scotstoun). The album is full of lovely family photos, but at the time of publication on Facebook I still didn’t know who Isabella Turnbull was.

Isabella and her dogs

A few days later, I was able to announce that, courtesy of photo-sleuther, Dave Forrest, the mystery of Isabella Turnbull was solved! It turned out that Isabella, born in 1853, had married a bootlace manufacturer, David Little, in 1882. They had two children but the marriage did not last. Isabella moved her parents into the family home, but her mother’s drinking habits and the resultant disturbances in the household drove David to move out. She refused to go with him, and later an anonymous letter alerted her husband to the fact that Isabella was living with a stock-broker’s clerk, Archibald Thomson with whom she had had a child, May Thomson. The divorce was finalised in 1897.

Around 1910, May was diagnosed with tuberculosis. A Dr Trudeau had opened a state-of-the-art sanitorium at Saranac Lake in New York State, and that year Isabella left for New York to make arrangements for her daughter’s admission. She was joined later by her son, John. In 1911, May arrived at the sanitorium . She lived there until she was twenty five but ultimately succumbed to the terrible disease. May was buried in Pine Ridge Cemetery, and Isabella had a headstone erected in Scotland to commemorate her daughter and with a space left on it for her own date of death.

May Turnbull

Isabella did not return to Scotland. Her other child, John, had died in 1917 in a dockyard accident in Brooklyn, leaving a widow and three sons under the age of fourteen. By 1930 Isabella was living in as a servant at the house of the Parker family. She died at Saranac Lake on 15 March 1951 aged 91. And all this came from one photo in an otherwise anonymous album! 

May’s headstone

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