Forty-year-old Jacob “Jesse” Howard died on January 29, 1840, of Tuberculosis (Consumption) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. As you can see in the above documents the attending physician was told by the family the deceased’s name was “Jesse.” While the manager of the cemetery was informed that his Christian name was “Jacob.”
Mr. Howard and his unnamed spouse lived in a dead-end alley full of collapsing rotting buildings, often visited by the city’s medical coroner who witnessed the effects of body and soul-crushing poverty. Shirker’s Alley was frequently mentioned in the local newspapers as a hellhole of alcoholism, violence, and the deadly airborne diseases of overcrowding and no sanitation. For the privilege of living in a room, not much more than a closet, they paid $1 a week. They owned only a paltry $20 in personal property, according to the 1838 Philadelphia African American Census, while the average Black family-owned $138 in cash and property such as a stove or furniture.
In the map above, the black circle indicates the location of Shirker’s Alley, just west of the intersection of 5th and Shippen Streets in the Moyamensing District of the County of Philadelphia. Only a short distance away is Bethel A.M.E. Church, illustrated by the orange arrow.
Like many Black Philadelphians, the Howards were not born in Pennsylvania. The city had become a haven for the formerly enslaved from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Those following the North Star, geographically and symbolically, found a home in Philadelphia. However, oppression and racism did not cease at the border. Black men and women were relegated to work in an apartheid system with lower wages than their white neighbors. Mr. Howard was employed as a laborer while Ms. Howard was employed at “various jobs,” according to the 1838 Census.
There are no mentions of Mr. Howard in the city directories or censuses. Given their financial situation and where they were forced to live, it is likely that they were not in Philadelphia very long before his death. It appears that the burial costs may have been paid by one of the eighty Black beneficial (charity) societies in the city. One or more of the societies may also have provided assistance to the new widow. There is a complete list of the organizations in the endnotes. The entire summary of the 1838 Philadelphia African American Census can be viewed at – https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=loc.ark:/13960/t6ww7g80h&view=1up&seq=7.
Mr. Howard died in late January 1840. It was a cold day but the first day above freezing in a long time. Both the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers were frozen ice. (The National Gazette, 30 Jan 1840, p. 2.)
Mr. Howard was buried, with dignity, by his spouse and friends at Bethel Burying Ground.