Something about this young woman speaks to people.
Seated on a rusted cot and huddled in a heavy coat, the pretty brunette appears to have the weight of the world on her thin shoulders as she rests in a tent pitched next to the American River.
What is she thinking? Why is she there? How can she cope?
Most of all when he gazed at her image, Joe Manning wanted to know: Who is she?
A historian and author, Manning for nine years searched for the identity of the woman known only as “Ruby.” Famed photographer Dorothea Lange immortalized her image as “Migrant Daughter,” a 1936 photograph exhibited repeatedly in retrospectives of Lange’s Depression-era work.
But Manning wanted to discover who the real Ruby was, then attach her full name and life story to that evocative photo.
“You look at Ruby’s face and wonder,” Manning said. “What happened to her?”
Manning, who lives in Florence, Mass., figured that Ruby may have stayed in the Sacramento area after her encounter with Lange, so he focused his search in Northern California. The Sacramento Bee featured Manning’s quest for Ruby in a 2008 article.
Eventually, he felt, somebody would recognize her. Meanwhile, he had plenty of other photos to focus his efforts.
In all, Manning has identified about 400 formerly unknown subjects of images captured by documentary photographers 80 to 100 years ago. After discovering names, he tries to get in touch with descendants and writes a biography for each subject, putting into context their lives after these historic photos were taken. He shares his stories on his website, MorningsOnMapleStreet.com.
“Originally, I was motivated mostly by curiosity,” he said. “The biggest part, the most rewarding part, is being able to bring something to these people (the relatives of the photo subjects) who didn’t even know (the photo) existed.”
Manning, who turns 76 on Sunday, started his historical detective work 12 years ago. A retired social worker and longtime freelance writer, he first found his passion project in a collection of gritty photos taken in the early 1900s of child laborers.
“I was inspired by a little girl photographed by Lewis Hine, who specialized in child laborers,” Manning recalled. “She worked in a cotton mill in Vermont. I really wanted to know what happened to this real girl. I thought it would be fun to try and find out.
“Within two weeks, I found her grandchildren,” Manning recalled. “Then, her whole story unfolded – family photos, memories, her grave.”
Manning decided he had to find more. In the Library of Congress archives, he saw hundreds of prospects. As a retiree, he had the time to make inquiries. He started making connections. (Now, many of Manning’s stories accompany those photos in the LOC collection.)
“As a historian, I’m interested in people,” Manning explained. “These are real people with real lives. They had family and people who knew them. They each had a unique American story. I wanted to learn those stories.”
Using census records, newspaper obituaries and internet directories, Manning meticulously tracked down names and survivors, crafting life stories for these formerly unknown waifs.
“When you find out their stories, it’s like they’re brought back to life,” Manning said. “That’s the whole purpose; to put names and stories with those faces.”
Manning gradually expanded his search to include migrants featured in the work of Lange and other Depression-era photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration. It was a matter of timing and material.
“The Library of Congress has about 5,200 child laborer photos, but 100,000 FSA photos,” he said. “It’s becoming harder to find people who actually knew those children; they lived 100 years ago. Meanwhile, there are still survivors of the Depression, whose parents or grandparents may be in those (FSA) photos. They directly knew those people. They still care.”
That’s how Manning became familiar with Ruby. According to Lange’s notes, the young woman was the tuberculosis-infected daughter of a Tennessee coal miner.
Nine years after Manning first combed Sacramento for Ruby, Tori Masucci Cummins took up the search. Digital editor at Sactown Magazine, Cummins was working on a story about an Oakland exhibit of Lange photos and ran across Manning’s quest for Ruby, whose photo was featured in the show.
“She was so young and pretty,” Cummins said. “There was something about this poor girl. It was just personal curiosity. Ruby stood out. She lived so close to where I live and work. I got in touch with Joe and I ended up finding her.”
With luck and some internet time, Cummins managed to put a full name to the teen’s face: Ruby Nell (Garland) Shepard.
“I searched the (Sacramento) 1940 census records, looking for a Ruby,” she said. “I figured she had to have been born between 1916 and 1920 and was originally from Tennessee. According to Lange’s notes (on the photo), she was from a large family. I found a clue that led to another clue that eventually led to Ruby.”
Then, Manning did the rest. As he discovered, Ruby was 19 and living in a migrant camp with her parents and siblings on the American River when Lange took her photo in November 1936. By that time, she had already married, lost an infant son and had been abandoned by her husband.
Ruby eventually remarried. Richard Piersall, her second husband, owned an auto body shop in Sebastopol. Ruby and Richard Piersall moved to Placerville, where Ruby died of breast cancer in 1970 – three days before her 54th birthday. Manning found her grave in Placerville and surviving family in the Sacramento area, with the help of Ancestry.com and other sites.
“She was wonderful and fun-loving and sang a lot,” Donna Paxton, Ruby’s niece, told Manning. “She taught me to cook and sew. She was a sweet and caring person. All of my cousins adored her.”
“I think it’s awesome,” Cummins said of Manning’s project. “It’s somewhat controversial; some of these photos were meant to be just as they were, (anonymous) people going through such major hardship.
“But these are stories that need to be told,” she added. “This is history. A lot of these families have no idea that a famous photographer took these photos of their relatives. They finally learn these stories and connect all the dots. It’s wonderful he’s able to do that.”
Now, Manning is looking for more descendants of Depression-era migrants as well as the survivors of child laborers long forgotten. He has no shortage of potential subjects.
“I don’t have any expectations about what I find out,” Manning said. “I sure don’t do this for money. I find the process really rewarding. These are history stories waiting 80 or 100 years to be told.”
Putting names to faces
Historian and author Joe Manning continues his search for the identities of anonymous people photographed by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange and others for the Farm Security Administration as well as early 1900s child laborers photographed by Lewis Hine.
To read his stories and see more photos, visit his website, www.morningsonmaplestreet.com.