Twenty-eight-year-old Robert Swails died on the 31st of March in 1849 of Tuberculosis (consumption) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. He is not recorded in any local or federal census and is in only one city directory listing in 1848 as a self-employed barber. His profession in 1849 was very different than it is today.
In addition to cutting hair, the 19th-century barber was also a dentist and surgeon. They were the neighborhood emergency room where broken bones were set, wounds were stitched and bandaged, boils lanced, and painful teeth pulled. The skill it took to be a barber was something that a Black man could have learned while enslaved. The young enslaved Black man would have been apprenticed to a white barber and, after a while, would return to the plantation to service the master and fellow bondsmen. It is unknown if Mr. Swails fell into this category.
The red arrow on the map above shows the approximate location of Mr. Swails’s home and business on Market Street above 13th Street in center city Philadelphia. It was a busy business neighborhood, located just across from the large Pennsylvania Freight Depot with hundreds of Black men working day and night as porters and mechanics. South Penn Square, half a block away, was the crossroads to the city and the future home of Philadelphia City Hall. Mr. Swails’s success may have been his demise. His work required very close contact with his clients and that may have been the source of the Tuberculosis that killed him.
Mr. Swails died on a warm day in March where the temperature reached a balmy seventy-three degrees. According to Philadelphia Board of Health records, he was one of twenty-five Philadelphians to succumb to tuberculosis that week. He was buried at Bethel Burying Ground, with dignity, likely by family and friends.
It is said that a person dies twice. Once when the body dies and the second time when the person’s name is said for the last time. Please say his name.