Stories Behind the Portraits: Ruth McCarty (Mrs. Ephraim Allison)

J Huston Tavern, Arrow Rock, Missiouri

Ruth McCarty was born on April 7, 1844, in Saline County,Missouri.  At the age of 24, 0n 28 May 1868, she married Captain Ephraim Allison, 32, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War.  They honeymooned at the J. Huston Tavern in Arrow Rock and settled in Clinton, Missouri.

Their first son, Charles, was born about 1869 and then a second, Thomas Edward, on May 8, 1871.  A year later, on 13 May 13, 1872, Mary gave birth to a stillborn third son. Four months later, Tom died.

When George Caleb Bingham traveled through Clinton in the fall of 1872, the Allison family was griefstruck. Ephraim Allison, a successful dry goods merchant, commissioned Bingham to paint a portrait of his wife and a somewhat larger picture of the boy he had so recently lost. I thought it a bit odd, that Ephraim did not request a portrait, a companion piece to that of his wife, but no such portrait was recorded.

The full-face portrait of Mrs. Allison demonstrates Bingham’s mature work: finely wrought and highly polished.  Tom Allison, sitting in an anatomically awkward pose, looks strangely mature for a 16-month old child, but with an expression on his face that could be expected to comfort his family.The artist stretched a red drape behind both child and mother binding them together, visually, and symbolically.

Ruth Allison bore three more children, all daughters, between 1873 and 1879.  The Allisons prospered in the dry goods business and Ephraim built “a palatial brick residence on the corner of Second and Jefferson streets.”  But later financial reversals forced the family to sell the home. Ephraim became a prison guard in the penetentiary in  Jefferson City, Missouri. He was shot in the head during an attempted prison break in 1905 and died.

Ruth lived 25 years as a widow. On April 1, 1930, she died of pneumonia in a Carthage, Missouri, hospital at the age of 88.  A writer for The Clinton Eye wrote: “She had a rare sweetness and charm. A keen interest in life, to the last. She was ever helpful to her friends … her life was sunshine and shadow – it seemed more shadow than sunshine…, but…she gave the world a smile.”

In 2011, a descendant of the Allison family brought to my attention the portrait that should always have been recorded: Judge Ephraim Allison.  I unveiled it at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, Missouri, on March 2011. You can see the unveiling on this video at 44:00. For several months the family of portraits was reunited.(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2012 All Rights Reserved


Bloch, E. Maurice  “A383. Mrs. Ephraim Allison (Ruth McCarty), 1841-1930, Ca. 1872,” The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1986), 233.

Miles, Dan, publisher and owner of The Clinton Daily Democrat, Clinton, Missouri, emailed to the author 23 March 2011. Used with permission. 

United States Census Bureau, 10th Census of theUnited States, 1880, ; Household of Eaphraim Allison,Clinton, Henry County, Missouri, Roll: T9_689,18 Jun 1880, page 18, lines 40-47.

United States Census Bureau, 12th Census of theUnited States, 1900, Household of Eaphehar Allison,Clinton,Henry,Missouri,18 June 1900; Roll: T623 858; Page: 19A, lines 22-27.