Twenty-three-year-old Cornelia Fletcher died this date, April 29th, in 1848 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The 1847 Philadelphia African American Census reports Ms. Fletcher was the head of a household that included three other Black women. In addition, the Census states that Ms. Fletcher was the owner of 8 1/2 Barley Alley. The house was valued at $750 or $23,250 in 2019 currency. Her monthly mortgage payment was $4 or $124 in 2009 currency.
The 1848 Philadelphia City Directory shows an Elizabeth Fletcher residing at the same address as Cornelia Fletcher. Both are employed as seamstress/dressmaker. Elizabeth could be Cornelia’s mother or sister. The two other women living in the home are working as domestics and their names are not recorded. The 1847 Census reports that only three of the women were born in Pennsylvania. All of them could read and write and they regularly attended religious services.
Barley Alley was considered to be a cartway being only 6’10” wide. In this small thoroughfare, there were 56 other Black families in addition to Ms. Fletcher’s with a total of 245 individuals, according to the 1847 Census. These individuals were employed in 25 different occupations.
It is shocking to contemplate that, during Cornelia Fletcher’s short life, she was witness and victim of five race riots in Philadelphia. A sixth riot occurred the year after she died. Black business and civil rights leader Robert Purvis wrote in 1842 that the white mob violence destroyed a great deal of what the Black community built and created a constant “Hell on Earth” for Black Philadelphians. Despite this, the four women at 8 1/2 Barley Alley fought back to preserve their right of self-determination.
Cornelia Fletcher was buried at Bethel Burying Ground on a clear warm April day with the winds coming out of the South.
The red square indicates the boundaries of Bethel Burying Ground that lies within Weccacoe Park (blue lines).
The article below appeared in the April 24, 1892 edition of the Times, a Philadelphia newspaper.
Weccacoe Park a few years ago was the old burial ground of Bethel AME Church. In the early 19th century, Richard Allen established it so that Black people could be buried with the same respect as white people. However, in succeeding years, the rains beat down, the water washed the bones of the dead out of their graves, and the Board of Health was forced, out of regard for the health of Southwark, to interpose. It has been over twenty-five years now since any burials have taken place in Bethel, and after the Board of Health issued its mandate the ground was neglected and went to ruin.
Two-year-old Margaret Jane Smart died this date, April 20th, in 1851 of “Convulsions”* and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Her parents were Mary Smart and her late husband Charles, according to the 1850 U.S. Census. Ms. Smart was 38 or 39 years old at the time of her daughter’s death. Mr. Smart died 18 to 19 months before Margaret Jane’s death. His death certificate is below. He died of Cholera at 35 years old in September of 1849. Employed as a laborer, he had lived in Philadelphia for fifteen years at the time of his death. He likely was born in Delaware, as was his spouse, according to the 1850 U.S. Census.
Two-year-old Mary Jane died on Mary’s Alley. A narrow, dark plague spot, where it isn’t surprising to find the dead, but it is a surprise to find the living. Ms. Smart lived with her children in a room or part of a room for which she would pay $0.25 to $0.75 a week in rent. The 1847 Philadelphia African American Census reports that, for several years, there was sickness in the family for which they received medical attention at the local public clinic.
Mary Jane Smart is one of the 919 babies two-years-old and younger who have been identified from surviving records as having been buried at Bethel Burying Ground.
Mary Jane Smart was buried at Bethel Burying Ground on a rainy, overcast day where the temperature reached 56 degrees in the afternoon. I was unable to find any further mention of Ms. Smart in available records.
Seventy-year-old Rachel Williams died this date, April 16th, in 1824 and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Her death certificate was written by Peter Mifflin, a Black man, who worked as a carpenter and lived around the corner from Ms. Williams. He stated the cause of death as Typhus Fever. However a Board of Health official changed the cause to Debility. (See below)
Debility is not a cause of death. The decline in Ms. Williams’ health was secondary to an undiagnosed illness.
Ms. Williams lived at 158 Lombard Street. According to the 1824 Philadelphia City Directory, this was the business address of a druggist Jacob Bigonet, a white man. Ms. Williams could have been a live-in domestic and may have also worked in the store. As the map below illustrates, she resided a half a block from Bethel A.M.E. Church and across Lombard Street from Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church. This area was the epicenter of the Philadelphia Black community at this time. W.E.B. DuBois later labeled it the “Negro Quarter.”
The red pin indicates the location of Ms. Williams residence while the red arrow indicates the location of Bethel Church.
The above is a 1910 photo of the block of Lombard Street in which Ms. Williams resided. The wooden frame building she lived in had long since been replaced by a brick structure.
Ms. Williams is not mentioned in any censuses or city directories, so we don’t know where she was born in 1754. No matter, it is highly likely she was born to enslaved parents. In 1780, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act which established as free those children born to slave mothers after that date. They had to serve lengthy periods of indentured servitude until age 28 before becoming fully free as adults. Emancipation proceeded and, by 1810, there were fewer than 1,000 slaves in the Commonwealth. None appeared in records after 1847.
The stillborn son of Sarah and Abraham Field* was delivered this date, April 11th, in 1842 and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Ms. Field took in wash and ironing, while Mr. Field earned a relatively good take-home pay of $8 a week as a waiter. They lived on Christian Street between 8th and 9th Street in the Moyamensing District of the county. They paid a hefty $6.60 a month for rent, according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. Both attended church services and belonged to a beneficial society.
Above is a circa 1920 photo of the same Christian Street block where Mr. Field lived and had his small grocery store in 1865. By the time of the photograph, the neighborhood was mostly Italian immigrants.
Abraham Field died at the age of fifty on May 9th in 1869 and was buried at Lebanon Cemetery. His obituary below is from the Christian Recorder, May 22, 1869. Mr. Field was active in local civil rights efforts and was a steward and Sunday School teacher at Bethel A.M.E. Church. Later in life, he opened a small grocery store.
“This inestimable brother breathed his last at the sunset of Sunday, May 9th. Born in Delaware nearly half a century ago, and early losing his parents, he made his way to Philadelphia. When quite a young man, he joined the A.M.E. Church, and for thirty years he maintained a character that the best of us might envy. As a man of thought he stood head and shoulders above the majority of his generation. He was one of those rare men who used the ears and eyes, and mind (but seldom his tongue) that God gave him. From our hearts we say peace to his ashes.”
Two years later in August of 1844, the Field family would lose a one-year-old daughter to Cholera. She was buried with her brother at Bethel Burying Ground.
*The family’s last name has also appeared spelled “Fields.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Joseph Edwards died this date, April 8th, in 1849 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The 1847 Philadelphia African American Census reports that two years before his death Mr. Edwards was too ill to work. The Census also shows that Ms. Edwards* was employed as a nurse and another member of the residence was employed as a domestic earning $1.50 a week. The Edwards and the unidentified woman lived in a room at #8 Madison Court for which they paid $3.50 a month.
Madison’s Court was a slum within a slum. This dead-end alley branched off St. Mary’s Street which had a wide reputation of being the worst-of-the-worst living environment in the city of Philadelphia. The sun never shone in the ill-ventilated rooms of these tenements. This made it a perfect haven for deadly respiratory diseases, such as Tuberculosis, that killed Mr. Edward.
Eleven Black families totaling forty-five men, women and children lived on small Madison’s Court, according to the 1847 Census. No one would choose to live here. Historically, this neighborhood was one step away from the House of Refuge and its adjoining potter’s field. And yet, Mr. Edwards’ family made sure that he had a dignified burial at a respectable cemetery.
*There are a number of individuals with the last name “Edwards” buried at Bethel Burying Ground. There is some evidence that points to the possibility of Harriet Edwards being Joseph Edwards’ spouse. She died at 40 years old of a lung infection on February 22, 1851, and likely was buried next to her husband.
Fifty-year-old Sarah Westwood died this date, April 5th in 1853, of Apoplexy (stroke) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Ms. Westwood, a widow, was born in Accomack County, Virginia and was the daughter of Irvin and Betty Midad. They very likely had been enslaved. According to the 1852 and 1853 city directories, Ms. Westwood was occupied as a wash woman.
Ms. Westwood lived in a room at #6 Osborn’s Court for which she would have paid approximately $2 a month. She likely earned between $.75 to $1.25 a week doing laundry. Osborn’s Court was a two block long narrow thoroughfare near 8th and Walnut Streets.
The red pin in the map above shows the location of Osborn’s Court located near both Pennsylvania Hospital, founded in 1751, and Washington Square. Osborn’s Court is now named Darien Street.
1912 photo of Darien Street, formerly Osborn’s Court.
Ms. Westwood was 50 years old when she died. This was seven years more than the average age (42.3 years) of the adult* females buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The average age for males buried there was 42.9 years.
Ms. Westwood was buried on a day that started out rainy but turned fair by 9 am. The temperature rose to 50 degrees.
*All females 16 years of age and older.