On December 2, 1889 a special meeting was called for of the Mother Bethel Corporation where President D.W. Parvis stated the City of Philadelphia has “ordained” that the Bethel Burying Ground be used for a city park. In addition, it is necessary for the Corporation to vote to empower the trustees to sell the plot for $10,000* and the money is to be directed to be used for the improvement of the 6th and Lombard Streets properties. The Corporation voted unanimously 20-0 in favor of the sale. There is no mention of removing the remains of the 5,000+ individuals buried on Queen Street in the official record. (Minutes of the Bethel Trustees)
The trustees of Bethel Church had a cemetery that was no longer bringing in revenue for its upkeep. There were continuous complaints to the Board of Health about human remains being uncovered after a heavy rain. Add to that the burden of a newly constructed church with large mortgage payments and the cold hard fact that the Church’s treasury was overdrawn according to Church records. Also, there were several Church owned income properties at 6th and Lombard Streets that were in immediate need of renovation. At the same time, there was a vigorous campaign by the city to establish “pocket parks” in the poorer neighborhoods to occupy the children’s time and hopefully reduce delinquency and crime. The burial ground property was one of the first lots identified by the city council to be transformed into a green space. According to one source, it was the only open space in the ward. The offer of $10,000* for the lot must have seemed like it was God sent to the trustees. “Ordained” indeed!
By all accounts, the condition of the graveyard in 1889 was a rubbish strewn, “hard clay” lot that was used as a trash dump and a space for neighborhood children to play. It was common knowledge that it was an old cemetery with the bodies washing up and all the tombstone rubble near the surface. However, the lot remained untouched for the next ten years and 1t wasn’t until June of 1899 that the city council approved the appropriation of $10,000 for the improvement of the property and to repave Queen Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets. A contractor was hired to ready “Weccacoe Square” for “promenaders.” It was reported that the property is the site of “an abandoned burial ground for colored people.” (see Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 June 1889 and 20 August 1890)
( *In 2014 that $10,000 would be valued at approximately $240,000.)
I certify that the child of Isaiah Moore living in Middle Alley was still born Philadelphia Dec 28th, 1821.
Middle Alley was not quite as infamous in 1821 as it was in the following 80 years. It was known during the Moore’s family residence as a place of dilapidated tenements inhabited for the most part by the Black working poor. But quickly the alley would become the local center for Black prostitution (“The Cage of Black Angels”), gambling and the illegal speakeasy. Middle Alley went on to earn its place on the notorious list of such places as St. Mary’s, Baker, Hurst and Alaska Streets.
I have not been able to locate any census or directory information on the Moores, however, their neighbors were dressmakers, coachmen, porters, trunk makers, and chimney sweeps. Yellow Fever or Typhus had ravaged the city in 1820 and it looked like 1821 was also going to be deadly.
A young physician who treated the victims of the disease in Middle Alley documented the march of the disease as he treated cases in the Dispensary and the infirmary at the Alms House. He accidently documents the cause of the disease without knowing it. He is appalled by the conditions of the streets in this section of town. The dirt, unpaved, streets have no gutters so rain and wastewater settle in pools and puddles in the roads. The paved streets are little better because garbage and animal waste block the gutters and the water runs into basements. These cellars become fetid pools (“foul pig-stye”) and consequently a perfect laboratory for breeding the female mosquitoes carrying the Yellow Fever virus. For this physician’s account of the Middle Alley epidemic please go to Google Books and enter the search term “An account of an Epidemic Fever, which prevailed among the Negroes of Philadelphia, in the year 1821.”
Three-year-old Caroline Alexander died this date, December 20th, in 1821 and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. She lived with her family on Burd’s Alley* (now Alder Street) near 10th and Spruce Street. Her cause of death was Scarlatina or as we know it in modern times as Scarlet Fever. It is a disease that would often prove fatal until the invention of antibiotics. Without the drug, the bacteria would invade the kidneys and the heart with painful and devastating results. The victim of the disease was highly contagious. It would spread quickly and often kill scores in the same neighborhood.
Alder Street is located between 10th and 11th Streets and Locust and Spruce Streets. This view is looking south with Spruce Street visible in the far distance. (Photo/T. Buckalew)
* Often mistakenly transcribed as “Birds Alley.”
The Reverend John L. Armstrong died this day, December 14th, in 1851 of Erysipelas and is buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Rev. Armstrong was a traveling African Methodist Episcopal preacher, originally from Maryland, who had been in Philadelphia for only 10 months. He was married and resided in the 800 block of what is now Kater Street in the Southwark section of the city.
The 800 block of Kater street that was known as Emeline Street in 1851.
Erysipelas is not a diagnosis. It is a symptom. It represents an inflammation and blistering of some part of the skin that accompanies certain diseases such as Typhoid.
Contemporary view of where the Stansbury residence would have stood in what is now the 200 block of Bainbridge Street in the Southwark neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Three day old Edward Stansbury died this date, December 13th, in 1810 of “convulsive fits.” The Stansburys lived in the 200 block of George Street, now Bainbridge St. Tragically, Solomon Stansbury and his spouse (name unknown) lost another child, David, on July 12, 1812. He was eight months old. The cause of death was Cholera. Both children are buried at Bethel Burying Ground.
Betsy Conover, 30 years of age, died from exposure to freezing temperatures on December 12, 1814, and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Her cause of death was determined by a Coroner’s jury on December 14th.
The temperature in Philadelphia never reached above freezing in December of 1814. Two days before Ms. Conover froze to death a storm of snow and sleet hit the city and lasted for three weeks. The Delaware and Schuylkill rivers froze over and jammed with ice. (A Meteorological Account of the Weather in Philadelphia, from 1/1/1790 to 1/1/1847 by Charles Price. Available at GoogleBooks online)
I have not been able to locate any historical records on the Conovers. Many of the desperately poor, in fair weather, would sleep in fields, lumber yards and sheds. However, once winter arrived their choice of shelter was very limited or non-existent. One of the options was to rent a space overnight in a cellar that was pitch black, damp, cold and disease ridden. A viable option if you had the pennies to pay for it. There are numerous reports over the decades of 50+ individuals stacked like cord wood in these wretched desolate pens. (See – Statistical Inquiry into the Condition of the People of Colour of the City and Districts of Philadelphia at http://www.swarthmore.edu/Library/friends/paac1847/censusreport.html.
Another option for the homeless was to try to gain admission to the city’s almshouse/workhouse during the Winter and then “jump the fence” in the early Spring. For whatever reason Ms. Conover was not able to do this before she froze to death. For further reading on this subject see – Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America, edited by Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell.
Contemporary view from what would have been the Hutchins’ family’s front steps at #4 Little Pine Street now Addison. The home would have been where the small parking lot is on the right.
Sarah Hutchins died on this date, December 9th, in 1852 due to “convulsions” and was buried at the Bethel Burying Ground. The family of infant Sarah lived only yards away from the Bethel A.M.E. Church. Sarah parents, James H. (born abt. 1821) and Alice (born abt. 1825) Hutchins were representative of the poor working class of the 7th Ward. He was a waiter (sometimes a laborer) and she was a washerwoman according to the 1847 African American Census. James earned $10 a month while paying $4.50 for their #4 Little Pine Street (now Addison) apartment. Sarah was the Hutchins 5th child that lived beyond birth.* The other Hutchins children were Isabella, Sarah F., Catharine and Mary E. according to the 1850 U.S. Federal Census.
*James and Alice lost a 3 week old daughter to convulsions on October 17, 1851 and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground on the 25th of October. Convulsions were only a symptom of some other illness, such as, epilepsy, small pox, measles, teething, etc.