Sixty-five-year-old Mark Grubb died this date, September 18th, 1849, of an undiagnosed illness that caused diarrhea to the extent that the dehydration was fatal. Mr. Grubb had not been employed since before at least 1847, according to the Philadelphia African American Census of that year. His death certificate above states that he was employed as a porter at the time of his death which was unlikely given his illness. City directories and the 1838 Philadelphia African American Census have Mr. Grubb employed as a coachman and laborer at different times. (1)
Poverty is as deadly as any disease. In 1849 Philadelphia, the majority of African American men and women had no resources other than their own labor. If illness prevented you from working, you did not get paid. There were no sick days and indeed no vacation time. If the breadwinner is sick then hard times just got harder and I believe that is what happened to the eight other members of the Grubb household. According to the 1847 Census, the family consisted of two males and seven females. Three were under fifteen years old; four were under fifty years old, and two were over fifty years old. One was employed as a cook and two made mats from rags collected from trash piles. Two of the girls were “in service” domestics.
St. Mary’s Alley was a narrow dead-end path that ended in a small courtyard surrounded by rotting tenements. Two years before Mr. Grubbs’ death the family lived on St. Mary’s Street (aka Mary St. – see map above). St. Mary’s Street was a two-block-long stretch of brothels, bars (legal and illegal), gaming houses, and hotels that allowed whites and Blacks to comingle. The street was home to constant violence, arson, and disease, and without clean water or sanitation. Black families lived in one room without heat in the winter or fresh air in the summer.
After the death of Mr. Grubb, the family is not listed in any census or city directory. They likely moved out of the city. This may have been a direct result of what occurred on the night of October 9th, three weeks after Mr. Grubb passed away. In addition to what we have mentioned about what St. Mary’s Street had to offer its Black citizens, they were being hunted by the “Monamensing Killers.” These young Irish thugs’ sole mission was to kill and assault African Americans and the whites who associated with them. Their target on that Fall night was the California Hotel at the corner of 6th and St. Mary’s Street. It was said that the reason for the attack was that the owner, a Black man, had a white wife. Others thought that it might be that the owner was not buying liquor from the people who were represented by the Killers.
Twenty-four-year-old James Williams was on St. Mary’s Street the night of October 9th. When he was thirteen years old, he stole his enslaver’s horse on a plantation in Elkton, Maryland, and rode to freedom. In his autobiography, he remembers that night as an epic battle between whites and Blacks. Mr. Williams joined a group of African Americans called the “Stringers” that were engaging the white mob. The mob outnumbered the Blacks who also had fewer guns. Mr. Williams received a gunshot wound to his right thigh and a hard knock on his head. Several Black men were killed and dozens were seriously injured. The California Hotel was burnt to the ground before military troops intervened. The remaining members of the Grubb family had every reason to seek a safer and healthier residence. (2)
According to the 1847 Census, one member of the Grubb family belonged to a beneficial society, likely at Bethel Church, that allowed Mark Grubb to be buried, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.
(1) Dr. Smith forgot to add a date to his note. Other Philadelphia Board of Health documents were used to determine the date.
(2) Life and adventures of James Williams, a fugitive slave, with a full description of the Underground Railroad, P. 14-15. Available at hathitrust.org.