Years of sleuthing by Washington-area writer Joy M. Kiser have uncovered a uniquely American tragedy while resurrecting some of the most beautiful pictures of birds’ nests ever produced in this country.
The story started with a broken heart.
Genevieve Jones grew up in Circleville, Ohio, around the time of the Civil War. She often accompanied her father, a country doctor and amateur naturalist, on his rounds, and became fascinated with birdlife. Gennie was schooled at home and easily mastered subjects from calculus to Greek and French. Tall and perhaps intellectually intimidating, she had few suitors, but when she was about 30, a somewhat older man began courting her. He was brilliant—a musician and literary critic.
He also had a drinking problem, which didn’t sit well with Gennie’s parents. Her mother was quite active in the American Temperance Society. Although the couple wanted to marry, her father eventually forbade it. Gennie was apparently shattered.
While visiting relatives in Philadelphia, she chanced to attend an exhibition featuring a copy of John James Audubon’s hand-painted engravings from his massive “Birds of America” collection. Seeing them reignited a long-held desire to complete the task he had started: He’d drawn the birds, but not the nests.
She had spoken of wanting to fill that gap, but her family had balked because of the enormous cost of producing such a book. After her broken engagement, her father, perhaps feeling guilty because he’d blocked the marriage, relented. Her brother offered to gather nests and eggs. Friends offered to help with the drawing and hand-tinting.
Her father sold subscriptions to the works that Gennie completed. Among those who signed up were Rutherford B. Hayes, the former president, and Theodore Roosevelt, then a student. Soon, Gennie and her helpers were circulating lithographs of such quality and precision that some top American ornithologists took notice.
In 1879, shortly after the project was launched, Gennie died of typhoid fever. She was 32. Her one-time suitor committed suicide with morphine.
Astonishingly, family and friends committed to the staggering labor to complete the project. About 90 copies of the lithographs, printed on the best paper, were eventually produced. Most of them have vanished.
One set, however, chanced to be on display in 1995, when Kiser showed up for her first day of work at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. She was transfixed. Over the next 15 years, she scoured libraries, worked with a Smithsonian Institution curator and interviewed Jones family members.
Her labor of love has now been published as a book, “America’s Other Audubon” (Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pages, $45). The book reproduces all of the remarkable lithographs produced by Genevieve Jones and her friends and family.
Kiser moved to the Washington area to work as a librarian at the National Endowment for the Arts and is now a writer/editor at a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. She will talk about her work and her book at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday May 9, at the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, 10th St. and Constitution Ave NW, ground floor. Kiser will sign books afterward.