Fourteen-year-old Mary Louisa Custis died on December 19th, 1841 of Tuberculosis (Phthisis) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. She was born in Virginia and brought to Philadelphia when she was three years old in 1830. We don’t have any more information on her and, depending on when she became ill, she may have worked as a domestic or in the home. Tragically, Mary Louisa was not the first child or the last child her parents would lose to illnesses. From existing records, at least four other children of Sarah and Lewis Custis passed away. (1)
Sarah Custis was forty years old when her daughter Mary Louisa died. Mr. Custis was forty-two years old. Both were born in Virginia, according to the 1850 U.S. Census. The family did not participate in either the 1838 or the 1847 Philadelphia African American Censuses. The males in the family never reported their names, addresses, or occupations to the numerous city directories over the decades. This may indicate that the Custis family was formerly enslaved and had been passengers on the liberating Underground Railroad.
The 1850 Census also reported two other family members. George Custis was thirty years old, born in Virginia, and employed as a coachman and William Custis was twenty years old, born in Virginia, and also employed as a coachman. The family patriarch, Lewis Custis, was employed as a shoemaker. There were no children recorded.
According to several physicians that authored the children’s death certificates, the family lived in the area of 11th and Washington Avenue in the Moyamensing District. It is farther south than most Black residents living below South Street. The location is a mile from Bethel AME Church, a half mile from the Bethel Burying Ground, and very near what is now known as the famous Italian Market.
Mary Louisa died on a “piercing cold” day in late December that saw a winter storm of “rain, sleet, hail, snow, and high winds.” She was buried, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground with her sibling. Sadly, there would be more to come.
(1) Below are the other Custis children:
Lewis Custis: died August 19,1839 at 3 weeks old of Hydrocephalus. He is also buried at Bethel Burying Ground.
John Custis: died December 14, 1842, at 8 months old of Small Pox. burial unknown. He died at the Alms House but was not buried on their grounds. He likely was buried at Bethel Burying Ground and the paperwork no longer exists.
John Custis: died July 16, 1843, at 9 months old of Convulsions. He is also buried at Bethel Burying Ground.
Unnamed male: stillborn January 19,1849; buried at Union (Colored) Cemetery. “Son of Sarah Custis.”