Photograph courtesy [NMHM/DCA] No. 007763.

Deaths as Unique as Lives

by Ana Pacheco

Santa Fe has always been a beacon for creative souls. Some of the town’s earliest photographers and artists were just as unique in the way they died as the way they lived. Here are some of their stories.

Photographers

An old portrait of a man among cactus
Ben Wittick was bitten by a rattlesnake in 1903 at Ft. Wingate, NM. Photograph courtesy [NMHM/DCA] No.039391.
Ben Wittick came through Santa Fe during the latter part of the nineteenth century. He became known for capturing the essence of Native life better than any other photographer of that time. Wittick befriended the Pueblo people along the Rio Grande and had a special kinship with the Hopi, who allowed him to photograph their religious ceremonies. At photographic studios he set up, he used backdrops and props (such as pottery, rifles and blankets) that delighted many of his Native American subjects. In 1903, just outside of Gallup at Ft. Wingate, a Hopi medicine man foretold Wittick’s demise. Shortly after that prediction, Wittick died at the fort from a rattlesnake bite.

Talcott Harmon Parkhurst came to New Mexico in 1910, as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s expedition to study the ruins at Santa Rita de los Frijoles, which is now Bandelier National Monument. The self-taught photographer was then hired by Jesse Nusbaum at the Museum of New Mexico, where he worked from 1910 to 1915. Parkhurst went on to open a series of photography studios around Santa Fe. In the late 1940s, during a rodeo photo shoot, he was gored by a bull. He never fully recovered from that injury. In 1951, Parkhurst closed his photography business and died the following year at his daughter’s home in California.

A portrait of Tyler Dingee
Tyler Dingee was struck and killed by a bolt of lightning in Estes Park, CO in 1961. Photograph courtesy Ana Pacheco.

Tyler Dingee, also a self-taught photographer, was born in 1906 in Brooklyn, New York. In 1945, he and his wife made a three-month trip to the Southwest and decided to settle in Santa Fe, where he opened a photography studio. Dingee partnered with local architects and photographed much of their early work. In 1960, his photograph of the Palace of the Governors was adopted by the U.S. Postal Service for the official stamp commemorating Santa Fe’s founding 350 years earlier. He was killed by lightning the following year while on a fishing trip with his brother in-law, artist Will Shuster, in Estes Park, Colorado. Both Dingee’s cocker spaniel and Shuster’s poodle were also victims of the bolt.

Tubercular Artists

From the late 19th century until 1940, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States. Many people suffering from the disease came to the high-desert mountains of New Mexico in search of a cure. Prior to the advent of antibiotics, the primary treatment for tuberculosis was known as climate therapy. People seemed to do better living at a high altitude, with pristine air, sunshine and low humidity. During the early part of the twentieth century, it was the tuberculars who solidified the foundation of Santa Fe as a major art center. The arid climate brought hundreds of people to Sunmount Sanitorium, located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The solitude and the breathtaking landscape awakened the creativity in many of the artists convalescing there.  The scenery, shaped by volcanic activity millions of years ago, coupled with the shifting light cast by the high desert sun, offered a kaleidoscope of iridescent hues and vistas. The terrain provided the inspiration for these artists, who also felt indebted to the people and place that gave them a second chance at life.

The scenery, shaped by volcanic activity millions of years ago, coupled with the shifting light cast by the high desert sun, offered a kaleidoscope of iridescent hues and vistas.

A group of gentlemen from Santa Fe, New Mexico
Alfred Morang, standing on the right, burned to death in his Canyon Road studio in 1958. Photograph by Robert H. Martin [NMHM/DCA] No. 041228.
Gerald Cassidy had a successful career in New York as a lithographer.  In 1890, he was stricken with pneumonia that led to tuberculosis and was given six months to live. Cassidy headed west to convalesce at a sanatorium in Albuquerque, where he recovered. In 1912 he moved to Santa Fe with his wife, journalist Ina Sizer. By 1915 the couple was living at the corner of Canyon Road and Acequia Madre Street. In a cruel twist of fate, he died tragically from the toxic fumes of turpentine and carbon monoxide emitted by a newly installed gas heater. That was in 1934, the year that natural gas heating was introduced to Santa Fe.

Alfred Morang contracted tuberculosis and moved to Santa Fe in 1937 to take advantage of the arid climate. When he recovered, he became a member of the Transcendental Painting Group, along with the artists Raymond Jonson, William Lumpkins and Emil Bisttram. Together, they began a movement that embodied the world of abstract art, and they attracted national attention. Morang perished in 1958 in a fire in his art studio on Canyon Road.

The irony is that Cassidy and Morang both believed they would die from tuberculosis. In the end, the unusual circumstances of their deaths were far more devastating.

Ana Pacheco
Contributor

Ana Pacheco is the author of eight books on New Mexico. Her family settled in Santa Fe in 1692. For more information, visit historyinsantafe.com.

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