Gruesome toddler deaths and that wacky church

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Thu, November 25th, 2010

The controversial Kansas church that has been picketing soldier funerals has an unusual new target, children. “God Hates Oklahoma,” reads a press release posted on the Westboro Baptist Church’s website.

In the late 1800s, an infant’s death often meant it was time for a family portrait. The past few months have seen a seemingly high number of grisly infant deaths, although such family photos are no longer the norm.

“The Lord curses them by killing Oklahoma’s children and casting them into hell. Thank God for more dead children in Oklahoma.” The cruel and disagreeable message came after an incident last week involving the church. Members had just finished protesting a military funeral in McAlester, Oklahoma and returned to their van to find that their tires had been slashed. Shortly afterward the church released a statement indicating they would now target children’s funerals too, beginning with the funeral of an eight year-old that died last week in an accident at the Love County Fairgrounds. Next will be the funeral of a girl who died in a car crash outside Tulsa, Oklahoma.


It is unclear exactly why the small church has focused on children, but their attention to the topic makes light of the issue that in the past several months there have been a seemingly large number of ghastly child deaths.

On a blazing hot August day in the east Texas town of Huntington fire fighters and EMS were called to a parking lot. In an overheated car they found 3-month-old Isabella Marie Stanaland, strapped into a child safety seat, dead. Her father had forgotten to drop her off at daycare and left her in the car alone for nearly seven hours, the temperature outside was more than 100̊ F. Initial investigations indicate that she died from prolonged exposure to extreme heat.

The story is similar to one that occurred on a September Sunday in Tampa, Florida; 3-year-old Rubensa Shakinah ‘Hally’ Rozin was left in a hot van while her family attended church services. Apparently, Hally’s second cousin had brought two other cousins inside the church but had forgotten about Hally. She was only left alone in the van for about 90 minutes but was pronounced dead at Tampa General Hospital.

In the wee hours of the morning on October 19th police were called to an apartment complex on the west side of Detroit, a father had dialed 911 to report that his infant children had drowned in the bathtub. The 15-month-old girl and 13-month-old boy share different mothers but the same father, Steven Nicholson, a 27 year-old bricklayer who was recently laid off. He was always mean to the children, one neighbor reported, “He would push them by the head and say ‘Let’s go.’” Nicholson is presently awaiting trial. Just days later in Detroit another grim infant death occurred, 8-month-old George Anthony Raymondo Wilburn Jr. was thrown violently to the ground by a young woman. The impact fractured the baby’s skull in two places and broke his ribs; he died the next day after being taken off life support.


Whether or not there is a true trend of gruesome baby deaths, what is clear is that the ones listed are harrowing events that families are trying their best to move on from. This seems natural, but just 100 years ago there existed a practice that served to make an infant’s death live on forever, post mortem photography.

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 enhanced the popularity of portraiture; prior to this few people could afford the commission of a painted portrait or photography session. The cheaper and quicker method gave the middle class a means for memorializing dead loved ones, but a portrait was still something that was only done on special occasions. In fact it was often not until a young member of the family died that a portrait was commissioned. The body was beautified with makeup then dressed in fine clothes and made to look alive. The dead child was then placed beside living family members and the photo was snapped. Dead children were also photographed while sitting on a couch or in a crib, posed with their favorite toy or even while being cradled in their parent’s arms. Eyes were propped open and other times pupils were painted onto the photographic print itself. Sometimes a rosy tint was added to the cheeks. The practice died out in the late 19th century as snapshot photography became more popular but the curious photos live on, in cyberspace.

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