Eleven-year-old John Holly died on August 3rd in 1848 from drowning and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. John was fishing with friends on the West Philadelphia Canal, near the north side of the Market Street Bridge, when he fell into the Schuylkill River and drown, according to the City Coroner. His body was recovered almost immediately.
North American, 5 August 1848
The red pin indicates the approximate location of the Holly residence on Pearl Street above 12th Street. The red arrow shows the location where young John was fishing when he drowned.
John Holly’s parents were Ann and Aaron Holly. Ms. Holly was forty-one-year-old at the time of her son’s death and Mr. Holly was forty-seven. She was born in Delaware and he was born in Pennsylvania. They had a daughter Harriet, who was thirteen-years-old at the time of her brother’s death and who was also born in Pennsylvania, according to the 1850 U.S. Census.
Aaron Holly was employed as a laborer earning $4 a week while Ann Holly toiled as a washwoman, reportedly making $2 a week. Earning that much for a washwoman usually meant that she had steady clients. Their apartment at #17 Pearl Street in the Spring Garden District contained three rooms. The rent was expensive at $5 a month and they may have rented out a room to help with the cost. The entire family attended church services, according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census.
“Market Street Bridge” Date: approximately 1850-1930. Source: The New York Library Digital Collection.
John Holly was one of nineteen Philadelphia boys to die by drowning in the summer of 1848.
The eleven-year-old died on a clear August day where the temperature rose to 80° by mid-day. His parents buried him, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.
Eighty-year-old Sylvia Benson died this date, August 2nd, in 1841 of Breast Cancer and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. A widow, Ms. Benson was characterized as a “gentlewoman” in the 1840 Philadelphia City Directory. The 1837 Philadelphia African American Census reports her occupation as a washwoman. The Census listed another woman living with Ms. Benson who also worked as a washwoman. Both were not natives of Pennsylvania.
Ms. Benson stated in the Census that she was formerly enslaved and her husband “bought” her freedom for $200. I don’t have the words.
The red arrow indicates the location of Ms. Benson’s home at #96 Gaskill Street. The red pin illustrates the location and the proximity of Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard Streets. Ms. Benson reported to the 1837 census taker that she and her roommate both worshiped at Bethel Church. The women paid $4.15 a month in rent which is a considerable amount. Ms. Benson reported $155 of personal property which equates to approximately $4,475 in modern currency.
Gaskill Street was a narrow crowded street that was home to hundreds of Black men, women, and children of all ages. It was a thoroughfare of poverty, disease, and the working poor. To alleviate some of the child care burdens, the Infant School Society of Philadelphia established a daycare and a school for one hundred Black infants and children of Gaskill Street. Ms. Benson was a daily witness to this hustle and bustle on her busy street.
“Laundress,” New York Library Digital Collection.
Washing clothes and bedding required incredible physical strength and perseverance as captured in Dr. James McCune Smith’s prose. The Black New York City physician contributed the following (in part) to Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
Sylvia Benson was born in approximately 1761 and likely in the Delaware or Maryland colonies. Over the 19th century, Philadelphia was the journey’s end for a significant number of recently liberated Black women and men. Sadly, I could not find any information on her spouse or possible children.
Sylvia Benson died on a day where the temperature rose to 82° by midday. The day started out clear but turned cloudy by early evening. She was buried, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.
Thirty-one-year-old Jane Potter died this date, July 15th, in 1849 of Cholera and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. She was born in Maryland and came to reside in Philadelphia in 1826 when she was eight-years-old. At the time of her death, she was married and labored as a domestic worker. There is no additional personal information on Ms. Potter nor her spouse.
In 1849, Ms. Potter lived on Lombard Street which was the center of the Black population in the city. Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard was its keystone. In addition to the activities around the church, during the week Ms. Potter would have seen and heard the dozens of young children being brought by their parents to the Lombard Street Infant School. Two Black teachers provided daycare and teaching for two-to-five-year-old Black children. The school was financed by the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
Ms. Potter may have been one of the mourners at the funeral of Bishop Morris Brown on May 20th in 1849. He was the second Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the protege of Bishop Richard Allen. It was a Sunday afternoon when the coffin was carried on a bier by ministers wearing flowing white scarfs. After them came others with scrolls, representing the six conferences over which Bishop Brown presided. Hundreds of mourners came next and after them came the daughters of the conference, one hundred and seventy in number, each being “uniformly clad in the deepest mourning. ” (1)
Ms. Potter may have been very sick by this point and realized her time on earth was limited. As the coffin passed her by, thoughts might have been of her last days. Ms. Potter’s death certificate was signed by Black physician J. J. Gould Bias. For more information on the Bias family, please click on the link below. (2)
New York Library Digital Collection
Ms. Potter died on a relatively cool day in July where the temperature rose to only 76° by midday, accompanied by a slight breeze out of the north. She was buried by her family, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.
Twenty-eight-year-old Hannah Douglass died this date, July 9th, in 1842 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. There is little additional information on Ms. Douglass besides what is on her death certificate. She was a married woman and a native of Philadelphia who labored as a washwoman.
“Laundress,” The NY Public Library Digital Collection
Hannah Douglass worked at a job that taxed her body and spirit. Water had to be drawn and carried from the nearest hydrant, firewood had to be obtained, fires had to be started and heavy bundles of clothes had to be picked up and returned to her customers after the clothes and sheets were hung up, dried and folded. All in the wilting heat and freezing cold, while taking care of children, shopping for and preparing the family’s meals, and, on occassion, while pregnant. It was an undertaking for only the strong and strong-willed. And, for all this, she might earn between $0.50 and $1.00 a week!
The red arrow illustrates the location of #3 Little Pine Street. The yellow circle indicates the location and proximity of Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Hannah Douglass lived with her family in a room at #3 Little Pine Street. The 1847 Philadelphia African American Census shows that they would have paid $3 – $4 a month. In modern currency that would be $93.81 – $125.08. After Ms. Douglass’s death, I am unable to find any information on Mr. Douglass or children if they had any. Three weeks after she died, a massive city-wide anti-Black riot occurred, where African Americans were killed, homes and churches destroyed. Many Black families fled the city and never returned. Mr. Douglass may have been in that group.
Philadelphia Free Library Digital Collection
According to the Philadelphia Board of Heath record, Ms. Douglass was one of the 1,991 Philadelphians to succumb to the Tuberculosis bacteria during the period of 1841 and 1842. There would be no vaccine for the disease until the early 1900s. The above advertisement from the 1800s shows the desperate extent to which victims would go for a cure. “Sea-Weed Tonic” was not the answer.
Hannah Douglass died on a rainy and windy day in July and was buried by her family, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.
Addison Street (formerly Little Pine Street) in 1938. (Philadelphia Library)
One-year-old Charles Elias died this date, July 6th, in 1844 of Cholera and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. His mother Elizabeth was young, at nineteen-years-old, while his father James was twenty-four-years-old. James worked as a waiter and Elizabeth labored as a laundress, according to the Philadelphia African American Census of 1847 and the U.S. Census of 1850. Mr. Elias was born in Delaware and Ms. Elias in Philadelphia. It appears that Baby Charles was their only child at that time. However, Elizabeth Elias would have two daughters by the 1850 Census. Sarah Ann was born in 1847 and Mary in 1848.
Quince Street in 1915 (Temple University Archives)
Quince Street was a narrow street near Rittenhouse Square, toward the western end of center city Philadelphia. It was little more than a cart path that would often be blocked by piles of garbage, ash, and animal waste. In the winter, snow and ice would make it impassable. The existence of several stables and carpenter workshops on the street made buildings vulnerable to frequent fires. In 1847, this small thoroughfare was crammed with forty-three Black families totaling one-hundred and thirteen members that worked as laborers and domestics. The poor living conditions led to the deadly diseases of Tuberculosis, Cholera, and Pneumonia.
The burning of St. Agnes Catholic Church by Nativists
On the day that one-year-old Charles Elias died the city erupted into a hellish battlefield. For the second time in a month, thousands of Nativists, white Protestants, invaded the Southward District, looking to destroy Catholic churches and the Irish men and women who worshipped in them. The death and destruction continued for days, until the military intervened. Black families fled the city or hid in their homes with the memories of the race riots of 1839 and 1842 still fresh in their minds.
Mother and Child (New York Library Digital Collection: 1939.)
With measureless grief, the young couple watched their baby quickly deteriorate and suffer constant diarrhea, vomiting and, then, the convulsions. They were unable to do anything as their infant slipped into a coma and died. They buried their son on a hot day in July at Bethel Burying Ground.*
*Little Charles Elias is the tenth documented individual as of July 6, 2020 to have resided on Quince Street and interred at Bethel Burying Ground.
Twelve-year-old Lucretia* Blake died this date, June 19th, in 1851 of “Natural Causes”** and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Her mother, Ellen Blake, was forty-four-years-old at the time of her daughter’s death. Ms. Blake was employed as a laundress. Her spouse, John Blake, was forty-five and was a coachman earning $16 a month, according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. Ms. Blake may have been able to earn $.50 to $1.00 a week.
Lucretia was the oldest child of Ellen and John Blake. At the time of her death, they were also the parents of nine-year-old Mary, five-year-old George, and two-year-old John, according to the 1850 U.S. Census. Everyone in the family was born in Pennsylvania except Mr. Blake who was born in Delaware.
The Blake family lived in a couple of rooms at 29 Barclay Street for which they paid $3.12 a month, according to the 1847 Census. The above map illustrates the proximity of the Blakes’ home (red arrow) to Bethel A.M.E. Church (red circle).
Sixteen months before Lucretia died, her family was in the center of a racist maelstrom. In October of 1849, the Sixth and Lombard Streets area saw thousands of rampaging white racists killing, assaulting, and burning the churches, businesses, and homes of Black families. Did the ten-year-old Lucretia hide with her family at home praying that the mob would leave them alone? Did she help comfort her siblings? Did the family hurry to Bethel Church for protection? The screaming and the smell of the fires would have been terrifying.
Twelve-year-old Lucretia Blake died on a warm June day in 1851. She was buried, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.
*The coroner misspelled Lucretia’s name on the death certificate. The correct spelling appears in the 1850 U.S. Census.
**Death from ‘natural causes’ might include a heart attack, stroke, illness, or infection. By contrast, death caused by active intervention is known as ‘unnatural death,’ such as in the case of murder or suicide. It is likely that Lucretia collapsed in public.
Fifteen-year-old Bingham Baker died this date, June 17th, in 1824 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Also buried there was Mr. Adam Baker who died the year before. He lived at the same address as Bingham and was likely the grandfather. The older man would have been approximately fifty-four-years-old at the time of Bingham’s birth.
In 1816, seven years before Adam’s death, an Adam Baker lost a year old daughter. All three are buried at Bethel Burying Ground. It appears that there was probably an Adam, Sr. and an Adam, Jr.
Below is the summary of the 1820 Federal Census for the Adam Baker family.
The red arrow above indicates the residence of the Baker family at 28 Barron Street. The red circle illustrates the location of the city’s largest open-air market. Young Bingham would have been very familiar with the two city block long shed that was bustling with Black and white city residents looking to buy meats, vegetables, fruits, sweets, and dry good. There would have been an almost constant din from the large horse-drawn freight wagons coming from the surrounding counties who were bringing their farm goods to market and the loud calls of the vendors announcing their wares. Stepping outside his front door, Bingham might have been able to see the tall masts of the sailing ships at the Delaware River wharves.
The Black teenager also saw the rapid increase in racist violence during the last several years of his life. “The streets of Philadelphia became dangerous by night and unsafe by day.” With the increase in assaults also came a wildly disproportionate increase in Blacks being imprisoned. In addition, fugitive slave kidnappers roamed the city streets seizing Black men and women who even slightly resembled the description of the newly liberated person. (1)
A prominent white Philadelphia journalist and editor wrote in 1824, “We hope that blacks will disappear from the streets of Philadelphia. They are a pernicious and irreclaimable race, whose insolence and ignorance seem to be increased by the means which have been taken to befriend them.” (2)
It appears that the racist was possibly reacting to an action in 1824 by 150 armed Black men and women who attacked the Arch Street Jail after a Black man was arrested for being a runaway from enslavement. (3)
“Negro Boys Playing Marbles,” New York Public Library Digital Collection
Fifteen-year-old Bingham Baker died of Tuberculosis on a warm day in June and was buried by his family at Bethel Burying Ground.
(1) The Negro in Pennsylvania by Edward R. Turner, p. 155.
(2) Philadelphia in 1824/The Portfolio by Joseph Dennie (aka Oliver Oldschool), p. 458. Available at Haiti Trust.
(3) American Daily Advertiser, September 7 & 8, 1824.
Thirty-nine-year-old Catherine Lawson died this date, June 10th, in 1848 of Bronchitis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. According to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census, she struggled to make a living picking and cutting rags for 12 to 18 cents a day.* Her husband, James Lawson age thirty-eight, worked on the wharves along the Delaware River. They had two children under the age of fifteen. It’s documented that Mr. Lawson was born in Maryland. There is no such documentation for Ms. Lawson.
The red arrow indicates the approximate location of the Lawsons’ residence. The red circle illustrates the location and the proximity of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Lawson family of four lived in a 10’x10′ room in the 600 block of Small Street for which they paid 50 cents a week. It appears that they lived in one of the few tenements on the street that was mostly occupied with shacks, sheds, and cellar dwellers. The Lawsons may have lived in the tenement that was mentioned in the summary of the 1847 Census that contained fifteen families of forty-two men, women, and children living in “miserable rooms.” They were all “raggers and boners.” The majority were not born in Pennsylvania which indicates they likely were formerly enslaved.
Ms. Catherine Lawson died on a rainy day in early June where the temperature rose to 73 degrees late in the afternoon. She was buried, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.
*The 1847 Census tells us that Ms. Lawson was part of the “carpet rags” business. The first group of these women would scavage trash dumps for any clothing that was thrown out. The parts of the garment that could be salvaged were cut out, washed, and sold. Larger quantities of these rags would be sold by the pound to sweatshops where the second group of women would take the fabric and braid it to make rugs like the one in the below photograph.
Fifty-three-year-old Frances Paul died this date, May 26th, in 1853 of Typhoid Fever and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground on the 27th. The 1847 Philadelphia African American Census reports her occupation as cook. In 1847, she lived with her husband and five other females – one of which was a child and the remaining women were over 14 years of age. One of the females was reported as Lydia Paul, age 24 and born in Pennsylvania. She likely was a daughter of Thomas and Frances Paul. Thomas Paul was sixty-seven years old and was employed as a laborer in 1847.
The other people living at 245 South 7th Street were occupied as dressmakers and a laundress. Mr. Paul was born enslaved as were two other residents. Two gained their freedom by manumission and the third by “limit.”* I don’t believe Ms. Frances Paul was one of those born into enslavement since her birthplace was New Jersey. It is possible, but unlikely.
The census sheet from 1850 shows the three Paul family members (in the red box) residing with six others who are likely boarders.
The red pin indicates the approximate location of the Paul family residence between Washington Square and Pennsylvania Hospital.
Frances Paul’s community on south 7th Street in 1847 was a crowded neighborhood. Approximately two hundred Black men and women on two blocks along south 7th Street were employed as seamen, waiters, milliners, laundresses, barbers and coachmen. Ms. Paul was stricken with Thyroid Fever from drinking polluted water. It is likely that the local hand pumps brought up water contaminated with human waste leaked from overflowing cesspools. The disease also would have affected the entire neighborhood.
The individuals inflicted with the disease would suffer for weeks or months before they died or survived the infection. In 1852 through 1853 two-hundred eighty-eight Philadelphians died of Tyhpoid Fever. Another nine-hundred twenty-two died of Dysentery, a symptom of Typhoid Fever.
Ms. Frances Paul succumbed to her disease on a clear day in late May of 1853. Her loving family buried her at Bethel Burying Ground.
*By the use of the term ‘limit’ I take it to mean that the years of enslavement were limited to a number of years set down in the will or a legal declaration of the enslaver.
Thirty-eight-year-old John Lemmond died this date, May 25th, in 1848, due to the effects of alcoholism, and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. He lived with his spouse, who is unnamed, and two children between the ages of five and fifteen years, according to the 1837 Philadelphia African American Census. The adults, who formerly were enslaved, were not native to Pennsylvania. However, the children were born in the state. They attended the Adelphia School and the Sixth & Lombard School.
Mr. Lemmond worked as a porter and his spouse was a day worker “when she can get it,” according to the census taker. The family did receive public aid in the form of firewood for their stove.
Liberty Court was an “African American enclave.” It was a small courtyard community of “band-box” houses squeezed in behind the larger residences that faced Ridge Avenue. “Liberty Court had been erected over a portion of the property along Tenth Street, previously owned by the First African Baptist Church (FABC), between 1810 and 1822.”
This “enclave” was home to poor working-class Black families who were paying $0.75-$1.00 a week for one room. The Lemmonds were paying $0.87 a week for one room. Looking at the results of the 1847 Census, there were 18 families in Liberty Court with a total of 86 family members. The vast majority of the adult males worked as porters while the women were employed in their usual jobs of domestic work and laundress. Many families received public assistance in the form of firewood in the winter. In addition, there was a higher than normal percentage of formerly enslaved men and women. Interestingly, I could not find any of the Liberty Court residents recorded in the 1850 U.S. Census.
Alcoholism or Intemperance, as it was called, was seen by Black religious and civic leaders of the time as a sign of moral weakness. It was labeled as the root cause of disease, poverty, crime, and violence. It even was seen as the main reason the white race saw Blacks as an inferior race. James Forten, an African American businessman and civil rights leader, said that sobriety would “stop the mouths of the enemies of freedom.”** The American Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction stand in stark contrast to this philosophy.
Mr. John Lemmond died on a day in May where the ” . . . weather was oppressively warm, the thermometer standing at 92 degrees at noon. In the afternoon, a refreshing shower of rain passed over the city, causing quite an agreeable change.”***
Mr. Lemmond was born into slavery on a southern plantation, a victim of the whip and shackle. His family buried him, with dignity, at the Bethel Burying Ground.
*John L. Cotter, et al., “The Buried Past: An Archeological History of Philadelphia,” p. 301-303.
**Julie Winch, “A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten,” p. 329.