The above document is a report by the Coroner of Rensselaer County of New York State that states twenty-three-year-old William Roberts drowned while bathing.* His body was transported to his father Aaron Roberts in Philadelphia. Rensselaer County is in the northeast part of New York and borders Massachusetts and Vermont. The county seat is Troy, NY. Young William went missing on July 30, 1848, and his body was recovered on August 1st when it was viewed by the coroner. William Roberts was buried at Bethel Burying Ground.
Young 19th Century African American man
I could not locate any biographical information on William. However, Federal and local censuses reveal that his parents were Aaron and Rachel Roberts; both 50 years of age at the date of their son’s death. Aaron worked as a porter and Rachel as a laundress. Also in the home was a daughter Rebecca (18 y/o) and Matilda Miller (53 y/o). All members of the Roberts family were born in New Jersey and Ms. Miller in Maryland. The 1850 Federal Census reports all family members as being “mulatto.”
The family lived in a single room on Willing’s Street, a small thoroughfare that ran between Chestnut and Walnut Streets and 3rd and 4th Streets near the banks of the Delaware River. The rent was extremely low at $2.50 a week which indicates a very poor subsistence. Aaron reported in the 1847 African American Census that he earned $6 a week; approximately $150 in today’s currency. Rachel may have brought in a couple dollars more a week if she had the work.
Willing’s Street (May 1856)
Willing’s Street has an interesting place in Philadelphia history. Starting in 1745, it was renowned as “Mansion Row” and was the home of wealthy merchants in the city. By the time the Roberts family moved there, the structures had been turned into boarding houses. Tucked in between the early marble and mahogany mansions was a small brick building that in 1770 began to house the Free African School. The school was founded by Anthony Benezet, a white French immigrant, and Quaker educator. He was an early fervent abolitionist and founder of one of the world’s first anti-slavery organization. The school was only open for six years but broke many barriers in the education of Black Philadelphians. In its short span, it served approximately 250 African American children. Its graduates included Samuel E. Cornish who was to become an African Methodist Episcopal minister and civil rights leader and James Forten, a successful manufacturer and a tireless leader in the anti-slavery and equal rights movement in Philadelphia and nationally. Free School teachers included the remarkable Sarah Dougherty and Sarah Mapps Douglas who went on to teach and mentor the young Black women at the Institute for Colored Youths.
I have no way of knowing this but in the above photo of Willing’s Street, there is a one-story brick building. Could this have been the building that housed the Free School?
*I could not find any newspaper reports on William’s death.
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.