Lewis Hine caption: Shorpy Higginbotham, a “greaser” on the tipple at Bessie Mine, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars. Location: Bessie Mine, Alabama, December 1910.
I first saw photos of Shorpy Higginbotham on Shorpy.com, a marvelous website devoted to old photographs, including some by Lewis Hine. They are also posted on the Library of Congress website. The heartbreaking pictures, and the boy’s colorful name captured me immediately. I dropped everything and started a search.
It took me only a few minutes of looking through the 1910 US Census to discover that Shorpy’s real name was Henry Sharp Higginbotham. A few minutes later, I found his name in a Higginbotham family website posted on RootsWeb.com. This is what I learned:
He was born November 23, 1896, in Jefferson County, Alabama, probably in or near Birmingham. His parents were Phelix (or Felix) Milton Higginbotham and Mary Jane (Nancy) Graham. He had six brothers and three sisters. Felix died in 1917, Mary Jane died in 1946, and one of Henry’s brothers, Jack, died in 1920. Henry married Flora Quinton on November 19, 1927, but he died, two months later, on January 25, 1928. There was no further information about him.
Lewis Hine caption: Shorpy Higginbotham, a “greaser” on the tipple at Bessie Mine, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars. Location: Bessie Mine, Alabama.
The next day, in the 1930 US Census, I found that Flora had a son, William, born in 1928, but after Henry had died. By the end of the day, I had located him, now 78 years old and living in Alabama. I called him. He was not willing to talk much, but he did tell me that he had no knowledge of the Lewis Hine photos of his father, but that he did have one other photo of him. When I asked him if he knew how his father died, he said, “mining accident.” At that point, he courteously asked to end the conversation, and that he wasn’t interested in seeing the Hine photos.
Within a week, I had obtained Henry’s death certificate, which stated that he had died from injuries caused by being hit by a falling rock. According to a list of Alabama Coal Mine fatalities, Henry’s brother Jack also died in a mining accident. Flora married again in 1937, this time to Lester Rivers. She died in 1980.
I also located the daughter of one of Henry’s sisters, who told me that Henry was always called Sharp. She knew about Sharp’s mining accident. I asked her if she knew how Sharp’s father died, and she said, “I heard it was the mumps.” She was unwilling to talk anymore after that. She was polite, but just not interested.
Lewis Hine caption: A greaser in a Coal Mine. Location: Bessie Mine, Alabama.
Henry Sharp Higginbotham’s son married, and his wife died in 1993. In her obituary, no children were listed among the survivors, so it appears that his son was Shorpy’s only direct descendant.
For some reason, there are two stones for Henry in the same cemetery. The second one has the incorrect year of birth and the incorrect year of death. Henry was born in 1896 and died in 1928. Thanks to John Morse for supplying the second photo and some information about the area. According to Mr. Morse, Navoo is spelled Nauvoo, and is located in Walker County, Alabama. The Bessie Mine was in Jefferson County.
Higginbotham family website
History of Sloss Furnaces, where Henry worked
Shorpy: the 100-Year-Old Photo Blog