Mid-Century Conshohocken

Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County received two postcards of Conshohocken from William D. Ramsey.  The first shows a bustling Fayette Street with stores, bars, and angled parking.


The other shows The First National Bank of Conshohocken.  I was curious to know whether or not the building was still standing and a quick search turned up this article by HSMC member (and Conshohocken expert) Jack Coll.  You can read the article for yourself here.  Jack writes that the bank was founded by Alan Wood, Jr. and others in 1872.  The building in the picture is the one that was built in 1924.  The bank merged with the Philadelphia National Bank in 1956 and moved to another building.  This building was demolished in the 1970’s.


This week, I’ve been going through a box of legal papers: wills, leases, contracts, etc., belonging to many different people.  I came across an interesting folder this morning with two papers relating to the Dager family.

The first was an inventory of the estate of Jacob Dager, a farmer from Whitemarsh.  The inventory shows that he was a prosperous farmer when he died in 1809.  Here are his livestock and some of his farm implements:


And here are some of his household goods:


Inventories are always interesting, and they can tell us so much about a person’s life, but the next document was even more interesting.

This long document is what we today call a “prenuptial agreement.”  Margaret Dager, Jacob’s widow, was preparing to marry Henry Scheetz, also of Whitemarsh.  The print is small, but if you click on the image, you can see it larger.


The very long indenture (it covers three and one half large sheets of paper) provides for Henry Scheetz to collect the rents and proceeds from the property for one year after Margaret’s death (should she predecease him).

one year

The document goes on to say a lot more, and a man named Caspar Schlatter of Upper Dublin comes into it somehow, but the legalese was too much for this archivist.  I guess a pre-nup in the early nineteenth century could be as complicated as the ones signed by modern movie stars.

A New County?

Working through a box of correspondence, I found what appears to be the draft of a letter to the Chester County Historical Society. The letter is unsigned, but it was probably written by George F. P. Wanger, the Treasurer of the Pennsylvania Association of Fire Insurance Agents and long time member of the Historical Society of Montgomery County.

As the undated letter explains, Wanger was sending the Chester County Historical Society two reproductions of maps showing the location of a proposed county, called variously St.Clair County or Madison County, which would be made up of parts of Chester, Berks, and Montgomery Counties.

GFPW letter

Wanger goes on to give the statistics of the county in 1848.


The seat of the new county would have been Pottstown, and the idea was particularly popular there.  As Wanger writes in his letter, a bill to create the county came up in the legislature more than ten times in the 18th and 19th centuries.  An article from the Pottstown News (April 28, 1896) mentions Wanger’s search for more about the movement for a new county in the journals of the state legislature.  He found that in 1798, a group in the legislature proposed a county called St. Clair with borders reaching to East Vincent and East Nantmeal in Chester County, Union and Hereford townships in Berks County, and Limerick and Marlborough in Montgomery County.

The movement for St. Clair or Madison County waxed and waned through the early 19th century, reaching a fever pitch in 1852.  In Bean’s History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, I found a brief biography of a Pottstown merchant named John C. Smith who ran for state senator in that year.  He had for sometime advocated for the creation of Madison County, and the senate election became a referendum on the new county.  Bean writes, “after a most exciting struggle, in which politics was almost lost of and the friends and enemies of “Madison County” were arraigned against each other in the contest, Mr. Smith was defeated by thirty-two votes.”  If not for those thirty-two votes, Montgomery County might have very different borders.

John Smith

According to Bean, Madison County failed “through the purely selfish and political motives among the peoples of the opposing county towns.”  Wanger’s letter says that the movement for the new county didn’t really die until Pennsylvania adopted the 1874 constitution.

While digging though the collection for more on the story, I found out that there was another movement to produce a new county out of part of Montgomery County.  Edward Hocker wrote about an article about it for the Times-Herald (December 3, 1925).  This county would have been called “Penn County” and was to be made up of Northwest Philadelphia and the townships of Moreland, Abington, Cheltenham, Springfield, and Lower Merion. This plan dates to 1836, and doesn’t seem to have gained the traction the St. Clair/Madison County plan did.  When Philadelphia consolidated in 1854, the Penn County idea was revived, but this time by the people of Frankford and would have included Bristol Township in Bucks County.

Busy Bees

For those of you who know Norristown, this item should look familiar.  It’s a bee skep, and it’s featured in the municipal seal.

Bee skep in the collection of HSMC

Bee skep in the collection of HSMC

Beekeeping shows up in many cultures, from Egyptians using wax and honey in mummification processes to Mayan apiaries in the 16th century.  Even before domesticating bees, people around the globe collected honey for eons, from Asia to Africa, India to Australia.

Close-up of woven straw

Close-up of woven straw

A bee skep is essentially an upturned basket used to house bees and eventually collect honey and wax.  This style, made of straw, was used from the Medieval era through the mid-19th century, when new techniques were developed.  They can also be made from wicker coated with mud or manure.  The skep has one hole for the bees to pass through and it sits on a mat or platform to keep the bottom closed off until necessary.  The bees produce a comb inside the skep just like they would naturally in a tree.

The bees line the interior with propolis, a resin mixture used to seal the hive and prevent fungal and bacterial growth.  If you look closely at this image, you can see the slightly darker material, especially between the layers.

Interior showing propolis

Interior showing propolis

With a skep, a beekeeper had to many times destroy the colony of bees to extract the comb, by either placing the skep over smoking coals or by pressing the skep, bees and all.  Some alternatives were used, like forcing the bees to move from one skep to another, but once wooden hives with removable frames were introduced, the bee skep slowly faded from use.

Bees provide not only honey, which has antiseptic and preservative properties along with being a sweet treat, but they also produce beeswax.  In early colonial America, bees were imported in the mid-17th century.  By the end of the century, most every family would have had at least one skep.  These colonists used wax not only for making candles, but also to waterproof leather and bind wounds, and honey to cure their meat.

Norristown banner, showing bee skep symbol

Norristown banner, showing bee skep symbol

So the question remains, why does Norristown use the bee skep as its municipal seal?  It’s an indication of industry…a busy bee!  It’s paired with the Latin phrase, “Fervet Opus” meaning “Boiling with work.”  Norristown is the county seat, and in its early days was full of canals, railroads, and mills as a manufacturing center in the county, as busy as the inner workings of a bee skep. Through the years it became a hub for retail with department stores and other draws, with trolleys and passenger rail bringing people to the downtown businesses.

Wooden nickel used for advertising at the 1962 Norristown Sesquicentennial

Wooden nickel used for advertising at the 1962 Norristown Sesquicentennial

Norristown isn’t the only one to use this symbolism.  The Mormons also uses the bee skep, and through them it has become one of the state symbols of Utah.  The Masons, too, use the image, to signify industry and cooperation.

Odd Fellows' apron of Norris Lodge owned by Theodore Bean

Odd Fellows’ apron of Norris Lodge owned by Theodore Bean

Anti-slavery petitions

Like many Quakers, the Corsons of Plymouth Meeting were active in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, and at least one member of the family was involved with the American Anti-Slavery Society.


In 1834, the newly formed American Anti-Slavery Society urged it’s members to petition Congress on various issues relating to slavery and its abolition.  This morning I found two such petitions in the Corson Family Papers.

This first one is to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  You can get a better look at it by clicking on the image.


And this one is to end the domestic interstate slave trade.


If you compare the two petitions, you’ll notice that they have the same names in almost the same order.  It’s likely they were circulated at the same time.

Now, since they’re here in Montgomery County and not the National Archives, it seems likely that these petitions did not make it to Congress.  I looked through some more of the collection to find an answer.  I started with Dr. Hiram Corson’s diaries, which are extensive.  Unfortunately, he did not keep his diaries during the 1830’s and early 1840’s, when the petitions were most common.  So I took a quick look through Alan Corson’s papers and found some correspondence with Jacob Fry, Jr., the congressman for Pennsylvania’s 5th district from 1835 to 1839.

Here’s a letter presenting this or a similar petition to the congressman:


So, I checked out the Honorable Mr. Fry.  The internet came up with very little, but when I turned to our old card catalog, I found a brief biography of Fry in Lives of the Eminent Dead and Biographical Notices of Prominent Living Citizens of Montgomery County, PA by Moses Augé.  It turns out that Fry was a Democrat.

Petitions sent in by the various anti-slavery groups caused much controversy in Washington.  Congressman (and former president) John Quincy Adams championed the petitions, bringing them to the floor of the House.  The Democrats managed to stifle the small but growing abolition movement by voting to table all petitions (meaning they could not be debated).  Known as the “Gag” Rule, it remained in place until 1844.  According to Augé, Fry supported the Gag Rule, “doubtless from convictions of duty” to President Van Buren.

So, it’s likely these petitions never got anywhere, at least in the short run.

The Coughlin Kidnapping

A few weeks ago, HSMC member James Brazel was in the headquarters doing some research in our microfilm collection, when he came across one of Montgomery County’s most notorious crimes: the kidnapping of baby Blakely Coughlin from his family’s home in Plymouth Township.

first report

With a quick Google search, I found a summary of the case in a 1997 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Thirteen month old Blakely was kidnapped from his nursery at 2 am on June 2, 1920. The kidnapper was an Italian immigrant named Augustus Pasquale (spelled Pascal in the early reports) who got the idea one night when he saw the family through their window while he was walking to the train.  Pasquale took a ladder from a nearby house, climbed through the window and took the baby from his crib.  He buttoned the baby up in his coat as he went from the house, and after a little while he discovered that he had smothered the child.  He then went to the Schuylkill, tied the small body to a piece of iron, and put both in the river.


Then he sent several demands for ransom to the Coughlin family signing them, “The Crank.”  Though the family was not very wealthy, the boy’s father, George H. Coughlin, managed to raise $12000.  He left the money at a trolley station in Swedeland.  When the baby was not returned the state police, under Lynn Adams, stepped in.  It was by agreeing to pay another $10000 ransom, that the police managed to trap Pasquale.  This time, Coughlin was instructed to throw the money from an Atlantic City bound train when he saw a white flag waving along the tracks.  Adams had lined the tracks with state police, and when Pasquale appeared to retrieve the bag, he was arrested.  He later confessed and plead guilty to second degree murder, kidnapping, and extortion.  Since Blakely Coughlin’s body was never recovered, first degree murder charges could not be brought, and Pasquale escaped the death penalty.arrest

And that’s certainly an interesting story.  But I wanted to know more, so I went to our microfilms of the Times-Herald to follow the case in “real time.”  Day after day through the month of June and into July, the Times-Herald covered the story.  Theories about the case abounded in the early days, with the newspaper reporters asserting that the kidnappers must be a man and a woman based on some footprints.  The county commissioners offered a reward for the return of the baby.


Various suspects were brought in, questioned, and released. There were at least a half dozen sightings of babies, in Pittsburgh, New York, and as far away as Arkansas.  The Herald blamed police for not doing enough and conducted it’s own investigation.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Pasquale repeatedly applied for parole, citing his age and poor health.  He also changed his story, often in ways that matched the early reports.  He claimed to have had accomplices, one a former servant of the family.  Later he said he kidnapped the baby with a woman who was desperate for her own baby.  Other times he claimed to be completely innocent.

In 1957, Pasquale, nearly blind and suffering from cancer, was released, but he soon violated his parole by leaving the state.  He said he had gone in search of the other people involved in the kidnapping.  After he was arrested, but before he confessed, Pasquale had also claimed to have accomplices.


Reading through the day to day details of the case, helps me to experience the events, the way someone in 1920 experienced them.  All the details and the false leads because part of the story, too.  The sweetest and saddest parts, of course, were the quotes from Blakely’s parents.  His father was asked to describe him in the very first article: “He was a husky boy of thirteen months.  He had blue eyes and a fat round face and light hair.”

“To the Scholars at Willow Street School…”

This morning in our collection, I found a very fragile letter from 1868.  It was written by Dr. John Francis Bourns the founder of the National Homestead for Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors to the children attending Willow Street School in Norristown.  According to the letter, the children raised $114.87 for the Gettysburg orphanage which housed the orphans of men killed in the Civil War.  In the letter, Bourns tells the children that other fairs have been held to support the orphanage, but none had been so successful.


The first page of the letter

I couldn’t find anything else in the collection from the Willow Street School, but a search through the scrapbooks turned up an article by Edward Hocker (or “Norris”) about forgotten schools of Norristown.  He had come across a reference to the school in the Herald describing the very fair referred to in the letter.  The article appeared on October 8, 1868 and described the room at the school as being “tastefully decorated.”  The children were selling items that they had made themselves.  There was also a collection of pictures included a series of the monuments of Greece by T. A. Low, though the writer in the Herald declared the image created by the school’s principal Miss Emma P. Garrigus called “Departed Spirits” to be the best of the exhibit.

However, Hocker knew nothing else about the school.  He writes that there’s never been a public school in Norristown with that name, so it must have a small, private academy.  He turned to another local historian, Charles Major, who found that the school was in a brick building on the southeast corner of Willow and Spruce Streets.


The final page of the four page letter.

In our card catalog, I found a card referencing the application for a charter for the Willow Street School Association.  The document was filed on April 9, 1868.  The card was created in 1954 and says that the document is in private hands.

So that’s all I could find about the Willow Street School.  The National Homestead in Gettysburg was much easier to research. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Dr. Bourns saw a photograph of three children hanging on the wall in a tavern.  The photograph had been found by the tavern keeper’s daughter on the battlefield.  Dr. Bourns undertook to discover the original owner, and sent out a description of the photograph.  Eventually, a woman in upstate New York recognized the photograph to the newspapers.  Dr. Bourns eventually delivered the photograph to Philinda Humison personally.  The search for the family in the photograph led Dr. Bourns to establish the National Homestead orphanage in 1866 (the Humiston’s would live there for three years).


The picture of the Humison children.

Unfortunately, the orphanage later came under the control of a woman named Rosa Carmichael who abused the children by locking them in the basement among other things, and it was shut down in 1877.  The building now houses the National the Soldier’s Museum.