Stories Behind the Portraits: Judge Ephraim Allison

George Caleb Bingham, Judge Ephraim Ball Allison, 1872
Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches
Private Collection

Bingham scholar E. Maurice Bloch listed the portraits of Mrs. Ephraim Allison (Ruth McCarty), 1872 (A383) and Tom Edward Allison, 1872, (A384) in his definitive work, George Caleb Bingham Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonne, (University of Missouri Press, 1986).  As I worked with lists and images of Bingham portraits, I wondered, wouldn’t Bingham have painted Mr. Ephraim Allison as well?  The thought passed, barely noticed.

Years later, I received a message from a descendant of the Allisons.  He owned a portrait his ancestor, Judge Ephraim Allison, which had passed down through his family.  He had seen a copy of the Bloch Catalogue Raisonne and the images of Mrs. Ephraim Allison and son Tom.  He had not been aware of those two paintings. Was George Caleb Bingham also the artist of his family heirloom?

I was scheduled to speak in the coming months not far from the man’s home at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, Missouri, during the Bingham Bicentennial in 2011.  The Center made arrangements for the Judge’s portrait to be transported there.  The portraits, Mrs. Ephraim Allison (Ruth McCarty) and Thomas Edward Allison were now part of the McClain Collection in Independence, Missouri. Ken McClain gave his permission to lend those two portraits to the Center.  During my presentation, the owner of Judge Allison spoke about his grandfather with reverence. We then unveiled the three portraits.

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. William Sappington (Mary Mildred Breathitt), 1844 (148)
George Caleb Bingham Allison Family Portraits.
Judge Ephraim Ball Allison (1835-1905), Mrs. Ephraim Allison (Ruth McCarty) (1844-1930), Thomas Edward Allison (1871-1872),1872

Even the original, unique frames of the portraits of Ephraim and his wife were identical. Cross-hatching on a dark background instead of more familiar gold-leaf rosettes.

Judge Ephraim Allison and Ruth McCarty Allison

The portrait of the judge has not undergone scientific examination.  The long straight beard fits the style of the early 1870s, the same time that George Caleb Bingham painted the portraits of Ruth and Tom Allison. A number of Bingham connoisseurs have examined it and agreed to its  authenticity.

To see the family portraits re-united was an inexpressible thrill.  My thanks to both owners and to the Midwest Genealogy for their generosity in reuniting the three paintings. View the reunion and the presentation, George Caleb Bingham, an Art Detective, and Genealogy.

A Biography of Judge Ephraim Ball Allison (1835-1905)

George Caleb Bingham, William Breathitt Sappington, 1844 (147)
George Caleb Bingham, Judge Ephraim Ball Allison, 1872
Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches
Private Collection

The life of  Ephraim Allison is, like all individual’s stories, unique. At the same time, the biography of Judge Allison[1] is not unlike hundreds, if not thousands, of life stories of Missourians born into families with southern roots,  who lived through the Civil War, and whose lives changed because of the conflict.  George Caleb Bingham preserved the faces of these people on canvas. Although he scoffed at the idea of imparting the soul of a subject to canvas, a feat, he declared “rather transcends the limits” of an artist’s powers, Bingham acknowledged that an artist’s “clear perception and practiced eye” enabled him to paint an expression that revealed a person’s “thoughts, emotions, and to some extent, mental and moral character.”[2]

Ephraim Ball Allison was born in Saline County, Missouri on November 7, 1835. He moved to Henry County, Missouri, in 1852. At the beginning of the Civil War, he joined hundreds of Henry County secessionists enlisting with the Missouri State Guard commanded by Major General Sterling Price. He was a soldier in Captain Owen’s Company, one of several formed in Henry County, and is believed to have been sworn into service in the Quarles and Huntingdale area north of Clinton. The unit disbanded in December 1861 and Allison enlisted in Company I, 16th Missouri Infantry Regiment and served in the Confederate Army as an officer until the close of the war in 1865.

After the war, Allison moved to Madison County, Texas. In 1867, after learning that the atmosphere in Henry County in regard to those who fought for the Confederacy was a bit more congenial than in 1865, he returned to Clinton. On 28 May 1868, he married Ruth McCarty, who was born in 1844 in Arrow Rock, Saline County, Missouri, the hometown of George Caleb Bingham. In 1855, Bingham painted portraits of her parents, Edward Cresap and Mary E. (Brown) McCarty. Ruth bore five children in the ten years between 1869 and 1879: Charles (1869 – 1927), Tom Edward (1871 – 1872), Mary Lydia (Mrs. Monk Evans) (1873 – 1925), Anna Mills (Mrs. A. A. Elsner) (1877 – 1938), and Nellie (Mrs. Joseph C. Wyatt) (1879 – 1959). In the fall of 1872, when Tom Edward died at less than two years of age, George Caleb Bingham commemorated the life of the curly-haired boy in a portrait. Bingham also painted his mother, still in mourning black. A red drape connects mother and child.

Captain Allison earned a successful living in the grocery and dry goods business. From 1868 to the spring of 1870, he was in the grocery business. At that time, he then he went into the dry goods business with T. Draffen. After one month, Draffen died and Allison conducted the business alone for some six months when the firm became Allison & Piper, existing until the spring of 1878 when Piper retired from the firm. Captain Allison operated one of the largest stores on the square in Clinton in the first two to three decades after the war.

Allison and his wife constructed a palatial brick mansion on a large tract of land with a fence around it which stood until the early 1960s. Allison accumulated a great deal of money, but was swept into speculating on real estate in Kansas City when that town was rapidly expanding. Land prices were inflated and when property values collapsed, he experienced extreme financial disaster. He and his spouse, in financial hardship, sold the mansion to A.W. Vanderford. Mrs. Allison later built a home just to the east of her former family home, later selling it to a son-in-law, Monk Evans. A prominent Democrat, Captain Allison was encouraged by fellow Veterans and friends to seek public office and did so. Elected Henry County Treasurer, this gentleman was later elected Presiding Judge on the Henry County Court which is now the Henry County Commission. Based on his war time record, business background and highly regarded service in county offices, Captain Allison then entered state employment in various posts of supervisory responsibility within the Missouri State Penitentiary located in Jefferson City. In 1905, he supervised the Commissary Department.

Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City, Missouri, c. 1900

On 24 November 1905, four convicts in the State Penitentiary were performing assigned tasks in the main prison courtyard. At a prearranged signal they rushed the main gated entrance. A report on the event later stated that the convicts drew pistols with one wielding a bottle of nitroglycerine. Where they had obtained the weapons and explosive apparently could not be discovered despite an understandably intensive investigation following the tragic incident. The convicts entered Deputy Warden R.E. See’s office and shot him as he was seated in his chair. They also shot dead Gate Guard John Clay before he could bring his weapon to bear. Captain Allison’s office was nearby. Hearing the gunshots, he rushed from his office to assist Clay. As soon as he stepped out the door, a convict shot him in the chest. Captain Allison fell to the floor unconscious. He died of his wounds shortly after. What was described as a dramatic running fight through the streets of Jefferson City ended with the capture of all four of the convicts, two of whom were shot and wounded. Several years later, three were hanged in the Missouri State Penitentiary jail yard.

Funeral services for Captain Allison, 70, were held in late November, 1905, at the First Baptist Church in Clinton. Ruth Allison and four children survived him.


Footnotes:
  1. Adapted from a biography of Judge Ephraim Ball Allison by Dan Miles, publisher and owner of The Clinton Daily Democrat, Clinton, Missouri, emailed to the author 23 March 2011. Used with permission. Specific genealogical information added whenever possible.[]
  2. George Caleb Bingham, “Art, the Ideal of Art, the Utility of Art,” Lecture at University of Missouri,  written by the artist but given by his friend James Sidney Rollins, on March 1, 1879, in Lynn Wolf Gentzler, editor, Roger E. Robinson, compiler, “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham, (The State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc., 2011), 504.[]

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits.