This entry, originally written in 2013, was greatly expanded and corrected in 2021, thanks to the research of Mary Frances of Springfield. See “Contributor” note at end.
Update: There is an update to this entry. See New Dennis Williams portrait: A detective story.
Dennis Williams (1851-89), born an enslaved person in Mississippi, became an acclaimed artist in 1870s and 1880s Springfield.
Williams was completely self-taught, partly because many teachers refused to accept an African-American as a student.
Williams eventually set up a studio on the Springfield square, advertising himself as “the old reliable crayon artist.” He won commissions to do portraits of many prominent residents of Springfield and Illinois, among them U.S. Sen. John Logan and Abraham Lincoln’s adviser and friend David Davis.
“Mr. Williams is a ‘born artist,’” an Illinois State Register reporter wrote in September 1882, “and is not only very successful in catching the features and the most perfect expression of his subjects, but he blends the ‘lights and shades’ so harmoniously as to give exquisite tone to his work.”
Williams was born on Christmas Day 1851 in Mississippi to Margaret McGuiness, who was from Kentucky, and Dennis Williams, whose last name also may have been Crawford. Dennis Williams Crawford may have been a slave owner, since his son Dennis was listed as “mulatto” when arrested on the train journey that led to his death and since Dennis Williams apparently dropped the name Crawford. Williams is listed as an only child in 1870 and 1880 census records.
The family was enslaved until the end of the Civil War, when Margaret McGuiness married John Isaac Kelsey, who was from Missouri. (What happened to Dennis Williams Crawford is unknown.)
The Kelseys moved to Springfield and first appear in the 1865 city directory, where John Kelsey is listed as a plasterer. John Kelsey died of tuberculosis in 1881 and Margaret in 1883 of an unknown chronic illness. They are both buried without grave markers in Oak Ridge Cemetery. Dennis Williams inherited their house at 1109 E. Carpenter St. and lived there for the rest of his life.
The 1881 History of Sangamon County, Illinois outlines Williams’ early passion for art and his struggle to make a living at it. The History devotes more than a full page to Williams’ life to that point, an indication of his prominence in Springfield (the profile, however, also includes some basic errors, including the date and place of Williams’ birth).
Williams became interested in art as a schoolboy, the profile says:
“When first given a primer, Dennis felt happy, the pictures of dogs, cats and other animals at once arrested his attention, and these small, if not rude pictures, first turned his attention to the life of an artist.”
As a young man, Williams earned money shining shoes, but spent his spare time trying to draw. His first crayon sketch in 1870 was good enough that it was put on display at Simmons’ bookstore on the Springfield square. However, according to the History profile,
Shortly after this he abandoned the idea of becoming an artist, there being so much to discourage him. He was a poor, ignorant colored boy, one compelled to earn his living by the low occupation of a boot-black. The people among whom he lived, with a few honorable exceptions, sneered at his pretensions. The idea of a “little ——” (SangamonLink expurgation – ed.) becoming an artist – it was preposterous! But the artistic aspiration was in him; … he again took up his pencil. …
He secured a room in the rear end of a building on the southeast corner of the square, and when released from his daily labor of blacking boots, he would repair to it, and as best he could copy some rude picture he picked up, or the cheap lithographs sold in the book stores.
To this day he has never witnessed another sketch a portrait, nor has he received instructions from another in drawing. He is self taught and self made in every sense of the word.
In 1883, when Williams was 32, he married Olivia D. Bowers, a teacher from Cairo. Eventually they had two daughters, Ethel and Clara, both of whom died in infancy in 1887 and 1889, respectively. They are buried without grave markers in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Williams began his artistic career by entering his works in the Sangamon County Fair and the Illinois State Fair. From 1874 to 1882, he won a multitude of first and second premiums in crayon, pastel, pencil, oil, and India ink categories. First premium paid $2 and second premium paid $1. Reporters covered Williams extensively and referred to him as an intelligent, popular, worthy, perseverant, and energetic genius. They marveled at the quality and amount of his work and often listed his portrait subjects.
Williams acquired his first studio above Salter’s Grocery Store on the square in 1872. During the next seven years he stayed on the square, moving above Officer & Peabody’s Clothing Store, A. E. Hall’s Clothing Store, and Roberts & Co. By 1879, Williams had settled above Smith & Luer’s Shoe Store adjacent to Lincoln’s former law office and would stay there the rest of his life.
During his career, Williams exhibited on the square at Hart’s Bookstore, Simmons’ Art Gallery, Ryan’s Drug Store, and Barclay’s Furniture as well as the Revere House hotel, the House of Representatives in the State Capitol, and at the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans.
Williams became an integral part of business life on the square; once, he boldly detained a jewelry store robber near his studio. He advertised regularly in newspapers and city directories and encouraged people to buy portraits as gifts for birthdays and holidays.
Legislative sessions were particularly busy and lucrative times. Williams scheduled sittings at his studio or encouraged people to stop by and leave calling cards, to which he would reply with follow-up letters. He charged $10 for bust portraits and $14 for full-length portraits, although he was willing to barter. Final works were shipped to out-of-towners with a guarantee; if they weren’t satisfied, they could return the drawings with free shipping.
Williams created portraits of lawyers, politicians, judges, war veterans, doctors, businessmen, wives, and the deceased from around the country. Among those he drew were: Robert Ingersoll, lawyer, politician, orator; Asa Matthews, speaker of the Illinois House; David Davis, U.S. Supreme Court justice and friend of Abraham Lincoln; John Logan, Union Army general and U.S. senator; Langley Whitley, doctor at the Wabash Railroad Employees Hospital in Springfield; Frank Reisch of Springfield’s Reisch Brewing Co; Mrs. George Gale, wife of a vocalist for the Haverly Minstrels; and Frank Saner, a Springfield child who drowned in the Sangamon River
In 1884, Williams reproduced and copyrighted Alexander Gardner’s 1861 photograph of Abraham Lincoln with his secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay. Williams sold the photo around the country.
Williams was versatile in artistic medium and subject. In the 1874 Springfield city directory, he advertised crayon, pastel, and pencil depictions of nature, farms, residences, and animals. In a later newspaper business ad, he said he specialized in portraits of animals and the deceased. Although he was always creating portraits of people, they became a more prominent part of his work later in his career. One-hundred of these portraits are documented in newspapers, although only three signed and dated works by Williams – of David Davis, Asa Matthews and an unknown man – are known to exist.
All three of those portraits are in large, ornate, gilded frames that measure between 38 inches to 47 inches high and 33 inches to 41 inches wide. Signature and date were placed above a shoulder or on the chest. Busts were in vignette or Stralovignette style, which he invented and was using by 1877. Other portraits were full-length, with subjects sitting on a balustrade or in a chair with one arm on a pedestal. Backgrounds included flowers in a vase, clouds, sunlight, and landscapes.
Williams preferred to do live sittings, but was willing to work from photographs, especially if the subject was deceased. He spoke out against artists’ use of solar enlarged photographs, a popular technique at the time. He thought it was a deceptive way for artists to make money.
Sittings took less than one hour and could include individuals or groups of people such as siblings or parents with their children. C. C. Howorth, who owned a local framing business, provided gilded frames.
According to the Springfield newspapers, Williams was involved in religious, political, business, racial, fraternal, and environmental organizations from 1876 to 1888. In 1876, he was secretary of the Hayes and Wheeler Club, which petitioned St. Paul’s church in Springfield to create a new parish for African-Americans in honor of Abraham Lincoln.
Four years later, he was secretary for an African-American voters group that met at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. That same year he was also a subscriber for improvements at Fair Park, home of the Illinois State Fair, and secretary for a group that started the Young Republicans Club. Also in 1880, Williams began his ongoing involvement in Emancipation Day celebrations in Springfield. He served as secretary and held various committee appointments to plan the elaborate events.
In 1882, Williams donated 25 cents for a new piano at Temperance Hall, although the extent of his involvement in the temperance movement is not known. Several years later, he was part of the Blaine and Logan Club, a Republican political group. During the same period, he became secretary of the First Ward Republicans and was on their committee to select delegates to the city convention. This may have been a precursor to his involvement as secretary of the Springfield Central Republican Club.
Williams even participated in Arbor Day of 1888 by planting a buttonwood tree in his front yard in memory of his daughter Ethel. It is not known when Williams joined the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Lincoln Monument Lodge 1824 in Springfield, but in 1886 he was a member and held office.
Illness and death
Williams may have begun a lifelong struggle with malaria at age 14, when his family fled the South. According to the 1881 History, the entire family was “all taken sick with the fever” when they reached Haine’s Bluff, Mississippi.
In 1887, the Illinois State Register published an interview in which Williams stated he was “nearly worked down and needed rest.” The reporter suggested a month-long vacation, to which Williams replied, “Well, you know how it is to leave your business, particularly if you have a little boom.” Eight months later, in June of 1888, a newspaper reported Williams was confined at home by an attack of malarial fever. He was back in the studio three weeks later. In August, he was overcome with heat and confined at home again; the newspaper reported his recovery was doubtful. Nevertheless, he was back in his studio by October.
Finally, in December 1889, Williams decided to see if his health would improve in a different climate. He took the reporter’s advice and began what would become a fatal trip to San Francisco.
Williams most likely rode an Illinois Central Railroad train from Springfield to New Orleans. He then boarded the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio train destined for San Francisco on the afternoon of Dec. 10. After leaving New Orleans, the conductor sent a telegram to El Paso, Texas stating that a man on board was acting strangely and someone on the train was put in charge of him.
The train made 19 stops in Louisiana and 116 stops in Texas over the next two days. At 5:15 pm on Thursday, Dec. 12, the train arrived in El Paso. When Williams got off, two detectives from the Morris Agency searched him. They found a round-trip train ticket, $100, an Odd Fellows card and pin, and a bottle of whiskey. According to the El Paso Daily Herald, Williams acted “cunningly,” saying he was King Kalākaua of Hawaii or the Virgin Islands-born boxer Peter Jackson. He then hit the officers several times, the newspaper reported.
Williams was taken to the El Paso County Jail. Two weeks after he was taken into custody, Springfield newspapers began reporting on what was happening to him in El Paso. Olivia Williams received a telegram that said Williams had “gone crazy” and needed to be accompanied back to Cairo. However, the El Paso Daily Herald then reported, Williams’ condition deteriorated, and he died in jail Dec. 30. El Paso’s Star Stables prepared and shipped Williams’ body back to Cairo via train.
The El Paso newspaper reported Williams died of consumption (tuberculosis). However, no death certificate or interment record can be found, and the jail register did not indicate the cause of death. Williams’ apparent behavior on the train also is difficult to explain.
There is no evidence in the historical data to suggest Williams was a violent man or that he suffered from tuberculosis, mental illness, or alcohol. However, he was a victim of malaria, which was still prevalent in the United States, including Illinois, in the 1880s. The death rate In Illinois for malaria in 1890 was 19 per 100,000 persons.
It is also possible that Williams died from complications of being treated for malaria. C.W. Gill’s Drug Store, which was below Williams’ doctor’s office, sold “Electric Bitters,” a malaria treatment. Such patent medicines often did make patients feel better temporarily because they contained alcohol with morphine, opium, or cocaine. However, they didn’t cure the illness and sometimes caused addiction.
Of course, Williams could have been the victim of racial neglect and violence – Texas was the third-highest state in the U.S. in number of lynchings, and most of the victims were African-American.
Williams is buried in Cairo City Cemetery in Villa Ridge, Illinois.
Researchers may never know how Dennis Williams died, but we know how he lived. Escaping poverty and racism in the South, he built a new life in Springfield, home of Abraham Lincoln, his emancipator. Williams chose a studio next to Lincoln’s law office with a view of the state capital Lincoln helped bring to Springfield.
As an artist, he created portraits of some of the men Lincoln knew. As a businessman, he reproduced and distributed a beloved picture of Lincoln and his secretaries. As a community member, Williams organized celebrations to commemorate the end of slavery, supported Lincoln’s Republican party, and tried to establish a new church in his honor.
As a person, Williams used his artistic talents in bold and creative ways, not to become wealthy and powerful, but to make a difference and contribute to society. He maintained his enterprising, perspicacious, and heroic nature despite personal tragedies and may have even died because of his racial views.
Contributor: Mary Frances is a college instructor, artist, and independent historian. She recently created a documentary film chronicling the life of Eva Carroll Monroe, who founded the Lincoln Colored Home in Springfield. Frances has lived in Springfield for 33 years and is interested in documenting untold African-American stories.