Two-year-old Mary Lavinia* Singer died this date, July 14th, in 1849 of “Tabes” (Tuberculosis) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The research materials available pose a mystery – who were Mary’s parents? In the 1847 African American Census, the Singer family headed by Theodore Singer contained him and three others. There were two females and two males; two under 5 years and two under 50 years. Only one was not a native of Pennsylvania. We don’t know Mary’s exact birth date so she may or may not be included in this survey.
Theodore was a waiter making a reported $12 a month and his spouse worked as a laundress, likely earning $1-$2 a week depending upon demand. The family lived in desperate poverty with the whole family living in a 10 ft. by 10 ft. room with no running water. They paid $3 a month in rent or an equivalent to approximately $75 in today’s cash. This room was located at 322 Cedar Street above 7th Street. Cedar is now called South Street.
Mother and children
Name Age Place of Birth Occupation
Theodore Singer 45 PA Waiter
Rebecca Singer 27 NJ Unknown
John Singer 17 NJ Barber
James Singer 5 PA N/A
Eliza J. Singer 2 PA N/A
Lavina Thomas 48 NC Unknown
(Source: 1850 Federal Census)
Ms. Thomas died on January 2, 1854, of kidney disease and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground, likely with or next to Mary Lavina Thomas. Her age was reported to be 56 years old.
Tuberculosis accounted for less than one percent of deaths in children two years old and under. The majority of childhood deaths during the first year of life accounted for 47% of all childhood deaths during this era. Convulsions were the major cause of death in the first year of life and Cholera was the most prevalent in the second year of life. (A Biohistory of 19th Century Afro-Americans, Lesley M. Rankin-Hill, p. 77-78.)
*The correct spelling is likely “Lavina.”
North American, 7 July 1842
Ten-year-old Alexander Samons died this date, July 4th, in 1842 of accidental drowning while bathing in the Schuylkill River. On the night on July 1st, a violent storm hit the Delaware Valley causing the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers to overflow their banks flooding hundreds of homes in Philadelphia. The newspapers reported, “torrents of rain” from a storm that was the “severest” to occur in the area for many years – this by way of explaining what may have caused the boy to be swept away from the Grays Ferry Wharf by a swirling, powerful current.
“Schuylkill River at Gray’s Ferry”, by P. Clark, (1835)
Above is a painting of the wharf from which Alexander may have been diving before he went under. There are others in the background to the left. The painting was done 6 or 7 years prior to his death in 1842.
It is not possible with any certainty to identify Alexander’s parents. The spelling of the last name by the coroner is probably incorrect. The name was “Sammons” and was an old African American family name in Philadelphia. There are several people with that name buried at Bethel Burying Ground.
It looks like the boy’s body was pulled from the water by boatmen the same day he drowned and was brought to the Pine Street Wharf upstream from Grays Ferry where the City Coroner examined the body. If you look closely at the death certificate the ink looks like it has been smeared by water droplets.
It is unlikely that Alexander was buried on the 4th of July. Black Philadelphia citizens would head out early morning on the 4th to do any food shopping so as to avoid the roving drunk violent white gangs who believed it was their patriotic duty to try and kill any Black man, woman or child they saw on the streets just going about their business. Churches, meeting halls, and homes were looted and burned. A funeral procession of Black citizens would surely have been attacked in Southwark where Bethel Burying Ground was located.