self portrait 1

Helen Alice Tanner Brodt (April 21, 1838 – March 10, 1908) was an artist of some note, and the namesake of Lake Helen in Lassen Volcanic National Park. She's said to be the first white woman to climb the Mt. Lassen peak, and following the climb, expedition leader Major Pierson B. Reading named the lake for her. She also taught art in the Oakland schools; her husband was educator Aurelius W. ("A.W.") Brodt. 1

Art career

pastels; Mt. Shasta through the trees by Helen Tanner Brodt
from UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

Tanner Brodt attended the National Academy of Design in New York City. After moving to Oakland, in 1867, she became the first art instructor of noted artist Arthur F. Mathews. 1 Mathews was the brother of architect Walter J. Mathews.

While she produced some landscapes, Tanner Brodt was best known for painting portraits. Several of her paintings and drawings are owned by the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library. The Oakland Museum of California also has some of her art supplies, a watercolor tray and a box of pastels. 3

One of Tanner Brodt's better-known portraits was of abolitionist John Brown, which was painted in 1864 (apparently based on a well-known daguerreotype), under the supervision of Mrs. Brown. 5 The painting was given to Storer College at Harper's Ferry in 1931. 5 After closing, the buildings of Storer College were conveyed to Harper's Ferry National Historical Park, but not the contents, so the location is unknown. 15 Another source says it's in the collection of the Smithsonian. 6 (See also John Brown, Bearded Patriarch which says there was both an oil painting and a painting on a ceramic or metal plate.)

Known portraits include:

Her portrait of the "Jersey Lily", Lillie Langtree, is said to have hung in Judge Roy Bean's courthouse saloon, The Jersey Lilly. 7


Helen Tanner was born in Elmira, New York, in 1838 to Joshua and Sarah Tanner. After attending the National Academy of Design in New York City, she married A.W. Brodt in 1861, and they moved west to Red Bluff, California, in 1863. In August 1864, they were camping near Mt. Lassen when Major Reading's party spotted the smoke of their campfire. He invited them to join their climbing expedition, and on August 28, 1864, she became the first white woman to summit Mt. Lassen. 1,2

Helen and A.W. had four children: daughter Ethel Brodt (Wilson) (1865 – 1947), son Paul W. Brodt (1868 – 1946), daughter Wyntie Bogardus Brodt (1875 – 1963), and son Shirley M. Brodt (1876 – 1899). Ethel and Paul were born in Tehama County; Wyntie and Shirley were born in Oakland.

Death, Burial and Legacy

Virginia Perry Wilson (granddaughter) and Ethel Brodt Wilson (daughter) at 1933 plaque dedication 14

Tanner Brodt died in Berkeley in 1909. After a funeral at the First Christian Church of Berkeley, her remains were interred at "The Hights". 4 The Brodt's son Shirley was also interred there following his death in 1899.

About 25 years after her death, there was an exhibit of Tanner Brodt's work at Lassen NP. Her daughter Ethel had a plaque erected in 1933 to commemorate the climb and the naming of the lake. 13

Shirley's Death

The Brodt's youngest son, Shirley, died in 1899 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He was 23 years old, and working for his father at the Ralston Health Food Company.

On November 19, 1899, Shirley fell from the roof of the family house, breaking his neck or back. A neighbor, W.H. Weilbye was passing by at the time and saw Shirley's body in midair. Death was not instantaneous and a doctor was summoned, but Shirley died within an hour.

The San Francisco Chronicle had the headline "Plunged Madly To His Death" with the subhead "Circumstances indicate that it was a deliberate suicide", noting "Members of the family refuse to express an opinion as to whether the fall was due to accident or intent but some circumstances point strongly to suicide." The article described Shirley as "morose and rather eccentric." 8

The Sacramento Record-Union went with "Broke His Neck" and "An Oakland Man Throws Himself From a Roof." The article said Shirley was "Stricken with grief over the waning of his mental faculties." 9

The Oakland Tribune had "Shirley Brodt Takes His Life" and "Dived From a Third Story Window and Broke His Neck." His father noted that he had been behaving strangely for a month. The article posits that "Young Brodt was evidently out his mind," and said W.H. Weilbye described "the awful jump as closely resembling a high dive made by a good swimmer." 10

Despite these colorful descriptions and headlines suggesting it was suicide, the next day the coroner ruled the fall was accidental. 11

A funeral was held at the family home, and Shirley's remains were interred at "The Hights", Joaquin Miller's estate where Joaquin Miller Park is now. Miller was good friends with the Brodt family, and suggested the location. 12

Links and References

  1. Helen Tanner Brodt
  2. A Woman Pioneer on Lassen's Peak Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine November 1924
  3. watercolors A65.173.38.1, pastels A65.173.38.2 Gift of Virginia Perry Wilson (granddaughter), Oakland Museum of California
  4. Aged Artist Buried Among Many Flowers Oakland Tribune March 12, 1908
  5. Not in Napa Library Sacramento Bee January 28, 1933
  6. Sarah Brown, Artist and Abolitionist Saratoga Historical Foundation
  7. Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: The Women of Wilson’s Inn Napa Valley Register March 24, 2019
  8. Plunged Madly To His Death San Francisco Chronicle November 20, 1899
  9. Broke His Neck Sacramento Record-Union November 20, 1899
  10. Shirley Brodt Takes His Life Oakland Tribune November 20, 1899
  11. Shirley Brodt's Death Accidental Oakland Tribune November 21, 1899
  12. Buried On The Heights San Francisco Call November 24, 1899
  13. Plaque Planned for Peak Hiker Sacramento Bee July 27, 1933
  14. Lake Helen Plaque Donor at Dedication 1933 photo by Arthur Holmes
  15. 2021 email exchange with Harper's Ferry National Historical Park museum curator