Seventy-three-year-old Philip Nelson died this date, May 31st, in 1850 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. He lived with his wife and several adult children on south 8th Street between Catharine and Queen Streets in the Southwark section of the city. The Nelson family residence was one room where four adults lived. The rent was $7.50 a month and was four blocks away from BBG.
In the 1847 African American Census, Mr. Nelson reported his occupation as “Gentlemen’s Nurse.” It is unknown if he was employed at the time of his death. His obituary in the June 3, 1850, edition of the Public Ledger stated that he bore his illness “towards the last with Christian patience and resignation.”
Interestingly, the obituary also stated that Mr. Nelson was a member of the Dr. Henry Claggett family of Leesburg, Virginia, a white man and enslaver according to Federal Census records. Mr. Nelson, his spouse, and children were all born in Virginia.
Forty-five-year-old Mary Polk died this date, May 25th, in 1850 of a “congestive brain” and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The term “congestive brain” can mean several things, but is most commonly a catch-all phrase for a stroke. According to 1850 Federal Census and the 1847 African American Census, Ms. Polk was married and mother of a daughter Caroline (18) and two sons Richard (13) and William (16) who was appreciating as a barber. She lived with her family in a shanty/shack in the backyard of 11 Prune Street which would currently equate to 411 Locust Street just east of Washington Square. Her residence is marked with a red X on the 1840 map below.
Mary Polk worked as a washwoman earning approximately $1.40 a week while her husband earned $1.50 a week as a laborer, according to the 1847 African American Census. This family was living on approximately 35% of what the average Black working poor were earning. They were paying $3.00 a month for what W.E.B. DuBois termed a “backyard tenement.” A dilapidated one-room shed/shack without heat, sewer or water. For more on this type of housing and environment see DuBois’ “The Philadelphia Negro,” especially pages 307-09 and 293-95.
The Polks belonged to a beneficial society where they saved money probably toward burial expenses. The family worshiped at Bethel Church (now Mother Bethel AME).
Twenty-four-year-old Mary Jane Laws died this date, May 21st, in 1848 of an intestinal disorder (Gastritis) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Ms. Laws lived across the street from Mother Bethel Church on the corner of Little Pine St. (now Addison) and 6th Street.
The Laws’ residence would have been situated where the white car is pictured. Ms. Laws is one of a dozen of the Laws family (that we know of) that are buried at the Bethel Burying Ground. Stephen Laws was an original trustee of Mother Bethel who died in 1814 and was also buried at the Bethel Burying Ground.
Two-year-old Jeremiah Carpenter died this day, May 14th, in 1843 because of a convulsion and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The cause of the convulsion is not reported. His family lived at 92 Bedford street which is currently known as Kater Street. It runs between 6th & 7th between South and Bainbridge Streets. In 1843, Bainbridge was named Shippen Street. The baby’s father was William Carpenter and worked as a laborer according to the City Directory. I did not locate any information on the baby’s mother or siblings.
Bedford St. (now Kater) as it looks today. The Carpenter’s residence would have been on the right side of the street.
It is interesting to consider the possible experiences of the Carpenter family during the white supremacy violence of August 1-3, 1842. Unfortunately, their home was in the middle of some of the worst mob violence. The attack on Mother Bethel Church and the burning of Pennsylvania Hall are well known. Lesser acknowledge is the attacks on The Moyamensing Temperance Hall on Bedford Street near 8th Street only two blocks from the Carpenter residence. This new brick building, dedicated February 23, 1842, was the pride of the African American community. Alcoholism was devastating the community and this building and the organizing effort behind it was assisting in curbing the disease. This building became an instant threat to the vast Irish saloon business of Moyamensing, Southwark and the 7th Ward of Philadelphia. During the riot, there were two failed attempts to burn it down. What the mob failed to do the white city bureaucrats were more than happy to accomplish. A special grand jury ordered the building to be torn down because it was a “nuisance” and was in the interest of “public safety” simply because it existed. This occurred not two full blocks from the Carpenter’s home.
For further reading on this and the “race riots of the 19th century in Philadelphia see Noel Ignatiev’s “How the Irish Became White,” page 138.