There are documented cases of identical twins developing a private language, a rare phenomenon called idioglossia or cryptophasia. The Folsom twins—Bernadette and Henrietta—developed a coded language of their own, graphic, unspoken, but equally impenetrable.
Bernie and Etta, as we knew them, worked at their family business—the Hemphill-Folsom Mortuary—for more than fifty years, where they reduced the complex lives of clients to an abstract overlay of signs and symbols on 5-by-7 note cards. There’s an exhibit of their work at the Public Library this week, more art than biography and unreadable since the sisters died in the 1970s.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Maya glyphs have been readable since the 1980s.
Though the Etruscan language succumbed to Latin and hasn’t been spoken in nineteen hundred years, it too can now be read.
Even the Mycenaeans’ “Linear B” has begun to yield the secrets of their crop reports and tax rolls. Perhaps the international cadre of scholars who deciphered these and other mysterious scripts should turn their considerable talents to the private language of Agincourt’s Folsom twins, Bernadette and Henrietta. But first a little backstory.
THE HEMPHILL-FOLSOM MORTUARY
Moses Hemphill’s name hasn’t been heard in these parts since the Spanish American War. Hemphill came to Agincourt shortly after 1870 in the dual role of casket-builder and mortician (a frequent pairing in the nineteenth century) and served as the community’s undertaker until 1898 when he became a client for his own services.
A few years earlier, Moses’ daughter Clara had married Jeremiah Folsom and the business hyphenated as the Hemphill-Folsom Mortuary (though the family no longer own a majority interest). It still operates at 20 N.E. Agincourt Avenue, a community institution used by many of my own extended family. Clara and Jeremiah Folsom lost their only son to typhus, but the twin girls Bernadette and Henrietta carried on until their deaths in the 1970s.
Bernie and Etta handled most public aspects of business—client relations, working with clergy, arranging the service, writing the obituary—and apparently had little interest in the darker side of embalming, the slabbing and stabbing stuff in the back room. Who can blame them. Instead, they were inerrantly empathic, especially as chroniclers of their clients’ lives. And that’s what is on display at the Agincourt Public Library this week.
Charles Demuth and Jasper Johns explored the discipline of ordering systems like A-through-Z and 0-through-9 as Art. But Etta and Bernie anticipated their abstractions by at least a decade—though the purity of Art was hardly their intention. As the gentle public face of their not indelicate business, the sisters gathered biographical information on our local citizens, often long before a visit from the Grim Reaper. Like any good newspaper, they anticipated their clients before they became clients.
On stiff sheets of card stock, five-by-seven inches, they used rubber stamps and colored inks now faded with age, dulled and smudged and worn with constant fingering, to summarize our lives. Layered like vermeil in a grid of shifting squares, B & E recorded work and play, service and family, in a graphic language all their own. Without a word, we believe (since the good sisters left no intructions to decipher their code) they concentrated a single life in thirty-five square inches. On the reverse, of course, they did record names and dates and places: birth and marriage and the orderly arrival of children—the stuff of databases. But it is the beauty of their code that draws us in, not its information.
Even when we know the identity of someone represented in those subtly tranparent numbers and letters, the cards defy all but the most rudimentary decoding. Place it next to the published obituary notice and we understand a fraction of what they recorded but only they could read. It’s apropos that the Folsom sisters were born into the Arts & Crafts era, for their cards echo the intentions of Elbert Hubbard and Gustav Stickley: to create an Art that is Life.
Samples from the Hemphill-Folson Archives are on display this month at the Fennimore County Library.