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Lyons Den Books

The Poison Place: A Novel

(Aladdin Books, 1999. ISBN: 0-689-82678-8)
Jacket illustration copyright ©1997 by Alex Leon. Jacket design by Michael Nelson.

It's a stormy night in 1827 when Moses Williams, Charles Willson Peale's former slave, relates his startling account of life within the walls of Peale's museum. His voice resounding through the empty halls and corridors, Moses leads us through his adolescent friendship and rivalry with Raphaelle, Peale's son; his frustration at Peale's unfulfilled promises of freedom; and his nagging suspicion that Peale may have had a hand in his own son's death.

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silhouette of Moses WilliamsSilhouette of Moses Williams attributed to Raphaelle Peale. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Charles Willson Peale was one of America's first scientists and portrait painters. Moses Williams cut silhouettes in Peale’s Museum over 200 years ago. Now we remember him as one of the earliest African-American artists in the United States.

Silhouettes, also called profiles, were popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Photography had not been invented and portrait painting was expensive. For many people, profiles were the only affordable way to have their picture taken.

Right-click with your mouse, choose Print, and print the silhouette of Moses Williams. Imagine what his thoughts as Raphaelle traced his silhouette.  Was he thinking of his secret about the poison?  Or wondering if Peale would ever set him free? Maybe Moses was thinking about Peale's new cook, Maria.  Write Moses Williams's thoughts underneath the picture.



yardstick, chair, lamp, tape, pencil, embroidery or manicure scissors, glue, a square of white paper and a square of black paper

Place a straight-backed chair in an empty corner of a darkened room. Place the chair so that it faces one wall.
Lightly tape a piece of white paper to the other wall.
Ask a friend to sit in the chair with the side of her face next to the paper.
Brace her head by resting one end of the yardstick against her forehead and the other end against the wall. This will keep her head still while you trace the silhouette.

Shine the lamp on your friend's face so that it casts a shadow on the paper. Use the pencil to trace around the shadow made by her face, hair, and neck.

Remove the paper from the wall. Use embroidery scissors to carefully punch a small hole in the center of the traced silhouette. From within the traced lines, cut out the rest of the silhouette. A margin of white paper should remain around the edges.

Write the date and your friend's name on the bottom margin. As the artist, you should sign your name, too. Lightly glue the hollow-cut silhouette to black paper.


Click to see Raphaelle Peale's "Bowl of Peaches"

Click to see Raphaelle Peale's "Still Life with Strawberries and Nuts"

Click to see Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Raphaelle Peale as described in The Poison Place on p. 144.