Thirty-five-year-old Elizabeth Birmingham died this date, August 18th, in 1843 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. It appears that her four-month-old son, James died the previous day of Cholera.
The documented family history of Ms. Birmingham and her family is thin. Samuel Birmingham is the only Black man with that last name listed in the 1838 Philadelphia African American Census and the 1839 and 1840 city directories. In addition, a seven-year-old boy, Samuel Birmingham, tragically, died a few months after his mother and brother, in October of 1838, and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. His cause of death was a ruptured blood vessel. He was likely Elizabeth and Samuel, Sr.’s son.
After 1840 Samuel Birmingham disappears from the censuses and city directories. Previously, it was reported that he was employed as a shoemaker and resided in Raspberry Alley. In 1840 he had a workshop in the cellar of 301 N. 2nd Street.
Ms. Birmingham was one of 1,517 Philadelphians to die of Tuberculosis (Consumption) between 1842 and 1843, according to Philadelphia Board of Health records. Baby James and his mother both died on days that were “partly clear and warm and pleasant.”(1) It would have been the custom to open Samuel. Jr.’s grave and inter mother and sons together at Bethel Burying Ground.
Forty-three-year-old Festus Frame died of Tuberculosis on August 12th, 1847, and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. He is first listed in the 1837 Philadelphia City Directory as ‘Festus France.’ Over the next ten years, he and his family used ‘France’ and ‘Frame’ fairly interchangeably. The problem may have been with the transcribers or that the family was hoping to throw fugitive slave catchers off their trail. According to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census, where he appears listed as ‘Mr. Frame,’ he and his spouse were previously enslaved. They did not report to the census taker how they were liberated.
Two mysteries cloud the telling of the family’s story. In the 1838 Philadelphia African American Census, it is reported that Mr. Frame and his spouse owned $700 in personal property or approximately $22,845 in modern currency. They owned their home so that may account for the personal property amount. Mr. Frame worked as a laborer and his spouse was self-employed as a washwoman.
After Mr. Frame’s death, the family address, #10 Acorn Alley, is listed under the name of ‘Sarah Frame’ in the 1850 City Directory. Sarah is listed as the head of the family. Her age is reported to be fifty-five years old and she was born in Delaware, according to the 1850 U.S. Census. This would have been an age difference of eight or nine years between Sarah and Festus.
Acorn Alley was a narrow thoroughfare, just west of 8th Street. In 1847 it held at least twenty-one Black families with a total of eighty-seven children, women, and men. The women were employed as laundresses and domestics, while their children attended the 6th and Lombard Infant School or the private schools of Diana Smith or Roger Georges. The men were employed as coachmen, seamen, carpenters, waiters, and oyster house-workers. There was one minister, Rev. John Boggs, who was the Frames’ next-door neighbor at #9 Acorn Alley. (1) He was a key member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and an important figure in the Philadelphia African-American community. No doubt he was close to the Frame family as they were Bethel congregants, according to the 1838 Census.
Mr. Frame was one of 1,841 to die of Tuberculosis between 1847 and 1848, according to the Philadelphia Board of Health records. He died on a clear warm day in August that saw the temperature rise to eighty-five degrees by late afternoon. He was buried, with dignity, by his family and friends at Bethel Burying Ground.
(1) Until 1854 the street numbers were consecutive. After 1854 odd number houses were on the north side of the street and even numbered houses were on the south side.
Sixty-four-year-old Amy Purnell died this date, August 2nd, in 1848 from Cholera and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. According to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census, Ms. Purnell lived with a man whom I presume to be her spouse, a “daughter who is completely blind” and under fifteen years of age, and a female child “under five years old.” They lived in a 12’x12′ room in a squalid building on St. Mary’s Street for which they paid $.50 a week. The street was chaos twenty-four hours a day with the usual brawl between residents every Sunday night that ended with one or more participants going to the hospital. (1)
By 1847, the city and districts of Philadelphia had become a filthy, disease-ridden pit. Its streets, courts, and alleys were filled with human and animal waste, garbage, and overflowing cesspools. Its yards and cellars were quagmires. Unfortunately, St. Mary’s Street, Ms. Purnell’s home, was one of the worst. These conditions set the stage for the disease that took Ms. Purnell’s life. Cholera is a bacteria that is spread by ingesting water or food contaminated by the excrement of an infected person. Death occurs after days or weeks of uncontrollable diarrhea that leads to organ failure. The water system for the poor was often contaminated by human waste. Food would be handled with dirty hands and washed in filthy water. The poor did not have a choice or a chance.
Philadelphia Board of Health records between 1848 and 1849 show that 1,681 Philadelphians died from Cholera. During that same time period, 847 died from “Diarrhea” as the cause of death.
Ms. Purnell died on a clear day in early August when the temperature rose to a high of eighty degrees by mid-day. She was buried, with dignity, by family and friends at Bethel Burying Ground.
(1) Sun, 9 June 1846, p.2.
(2) Both images are from the United Kingdom Science website