Sixty-two-year-old Hannah Claxton* died this date, October 29th, in 1848 of a uterine hemorrhage and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. She was a widow who lived with her son Nathaniel Claxton at #22 Ball Alley. She was employed as a “pastry cook” earning $6 a week. Nathaniel worked as a painter, according to the 1846 Philadelphia African American Census and 1847 Philadelphia City Directory. The 1837 Philadelphia African American Census states that Ms. Claxton’s deceased husband was occupied as a painter and glazier. His name was also Nathaniel.
Eighty-seven years before Ms. Claxton’s death, Ball Alley was a center of entertainment for well-to-do white men of the colonial city. According to historian and author Michael Schreiber, “the long narrow alley” was surrounded by taverns where locals gathered for “ball games, drink, and gambling. On at least one occasion, even the president of the United States, John Adams, was entertained in Ball Alley. . . the long narrow Ball Alley would lend itself perfectly to forms of bowling – such as nine pins and skittles.” Groups could rent the whole alley for celebrations, dinners, and political meetings. The large sails of ships would span “the alley to give shelter to the dinner tables below.”**
Fast forward to the 19th century and the environment that the Claxton family lived in was very different. Schreiber comments that the alley now was known for its rowdiness, brothels, and alehouses with a very different clientele than its 18th-century cousins. A census taker for the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census commented that the buildings on Ball Alley were “very old tenements” and housed the “most destitute persons in this vicinity.”
Ms. Claxton was a successful businesswoman earning $6 a week when the vast majority of African American men who labored for a living were lucky to be making $4-$5 a week, according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. It is likely that Ms. Claxton’s living only a short distance from the Washington Market (see map) added greatly to her success. The Washington Market was a two block long covered shed with stalls. The structure contained designated stalls for everything from fresh produce, meats, and seafood to household items such as brooms and soaps. In the Washington Market, the stalls for “bread and cakes” were located at the far western end where Ms. Claxton probably could be seen daily hawking her fresh baked goods.
In July of 1844, the entire structure was burned to the ground by anti-immigrant nativist rioters on their way to attempt to destroy St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church where Irish immigrants worshipped. After the smoke cleared, the market was rebuilt and the routine of daily life returned to the 19th-century bazaar.
*Other spellings of the name include “Clacton” and “Claixton.”
** For further reading on Ball Street go to Mr. Michael Schreiber’s essay at https://southwarkhistory.org/2014/05/the-black-bear-tavern-and-ball-alley/.