A Civil War Substitute


A couple of weeks ago, I opened a box that has been sitting on a shelf in the lower stacks for some time.  Benjamin Franklin Hancock was the father of General Winfield Scott Hancock and a lawyer in Norristown.  The box contained a few of the elder Hancock’s personal papers and a lot of papers from his law practice.

One set of documents that I thought was particularly interesting were those of Benjamin E. Chain, another Norristown lawyer. First I found his discharge paper from the 34th Regiment of the Pennsylvania militia.


It’s an interesting document because he seems to have only been in service for about three months.  His discharge probably has something to do with this next document.



As the above indicates, the Enrollment Act of 1863 (also known as the Draft Act) allowed men to hire a substitute to serve in their place.  The going rate was about $300, though it could be more. That was out of the reach of most laborers, but Chain was a lawyer who had been practicing for over a decade.

I was curious to learn a little more about the substitute, an Irish immigrant named Thomas McDevitt.  I found him on a muster roll though Ancestry.


McDevitt served in the 81st Pennsylvania, and he survived the war living until 1912.  Benjamin E. Chain died in 1893 at the age of 69.

While I knew that men could hire substitutes to avoid the draft during the Civil War, I didn’t know they could hire a substitute after they had already been enlisted.  Perhaps some of our Civil War buffs  (I know you’re out there) can tell us more about it.

The Phrenology of Rev. Samuel Aaron


An illustration from Rev. Aaron’s booklet

In the nineteenth century, many believed that an individual’s character was reflected in the shape of his or her brain.  By examining the shape of the skull, a person’s whole personality could be understood.  Known “phrenology,” this idea has been debunked today, but back then it was serious science.

The Historical Society of Montgomery County has a few examples of phrenology exams, including one of Rev. Samuel Aaron, a well known minister and educator in mid-nineteenth-century Norristown.


The report was made in 1838.  It’s a printed booklet, in which the phrenologist, W. B. Elliot recorded numbers corresponding to the size (or “development”) of each segment of Rev. Aaron’s head. Elliott was a prominent phrenologist who ran the Phrenological Institute and Museum in Philadelphia, which was founded by the O. S. Fowler who wrote the booklet.


Here are two sample pages from the booklet.  The handwritten numbers on the side correspond to the size of that segment of Aaron’s skull – the larger the number, the larger the section (seven is the highest).  At the bottom of one page, Elliot wrote, “Never see larger benevolence.”

Overall the report says Aaron is idealist, loving, hopeful, and not acquisitive.  How did that play out in his life?

As I said, Aaron was well known in Norristown.  In fact, he was so well known and respected that a collection of his sermons and correspondence was published in Norristown in 1890, twenty-five years after his death.  He was minister of the Baptist Church and famous for his sermons and speeches.  He was an abolitionist and involved in the local Underground Railroad.  One student reported that the reverend once handed all his money over to a runaway slave heading North.  He spoke out so strongly against liquor that two taverns keepers once attacked him with horsewhips.

in 1844 he left ministry and founded Treemount Seminary, a boarding and day school for boys, which would educate many of Norristown’s prominent young men.

Unfortunately, his benevolence was not coupled with financial savvy.  The Panic of 1857 hit Norristown hard.  Aaron had borrowed heavily to open Treemount, and his creditors took over the school in 1857 when he could no longer pay the interest on all the loans.  The reverend and his family left Norristown in 1859 when he returned to ministry at a Baptist Church in Mount Holly, NJ.  He died there in April of 1865, hours after hearing of Lee’s surrender.

He never recovered financially, and “Norris” (or Edward Hocker) wrote in the Times-Herald that his four daughters were left in penury.  In 1888, neighbors discovered that two had died of starvation and the remaining two were seriously ill.  The help of the two neighbors managed to save the remaining sisters.

Phrenology is certainly a pseudoscience, but in this case, it seems to have hit the mark

Armistice Day


Way back in the upper part of the closed stacks is an interesting collection of newspapers.  They were donated by Mrs. Wilfred S. Rambo in 1969, but our accession records don’t indicate who originally collected the papers.  They all come from Europe and all concern the armistice and peace conference that ended World War I.



I would guess that these newspapers were collected by a service man or woman serving with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.  Now, if you’re reading a history blog you probably already know that the fighting in World War I ended at 11 am on November 11, 1918.  This was followed by a peace conference in Paris that lasted several months, and was attended by President Woodrow Wilson.


November 11th was made a holiday, originally called “Armistice Day.”  It became Veteran’s Day in 1954, and it honors all men and women who have served in our nation’s military.  Let’s all thank them this Veteran’s Day.

A Montgomery County Inventor and Explorer


Yesterday morning, before we opened to the public, I opened a box from our archive to describe the contents.  I never know what I’m going to find when I do this, and this box was quite a surprise.

It contained papers concerning the Wetherill family, a family which began a white lead business in Philadelphia in 1762, later expanding into paints.  The bulk of the collection, however, concerned a member of the family who did not go into the paint business.  Henry Emerson Wetherill went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and he did practice as a doctor, but he he seems to have spent much of his time thinking up new inventions.

Some were directly related to his profession, such as this Oxy-Hemoglobin Scale:


Or the cleverly spelled “cizr-curjon” (I’m assuming the second “c” is also soft):


Or the “ventilated and comfortable” Perimetric I-shade:


Other inventions were for office use, such as his pocket typewriter, the Typen:


But his greatest invention, in my opinion at least, was the Trombone Flute, which he initially named the “Syrynxopanphone.”  Here’s a blueprint of it:


It doesn’t have keys, but a sliding handle, like a trombone or slide whistle.  Dr. Wetherill himself seems to have been particularly proud of this invention, which he called “a labor of love” and was photographed with it.


If you’re not convinced the world needs a trombone flute, here’s a poem or song he wrote promoting it.


In his later years, Wetherill lived as a recluse in the family home in Audubon, Fatland, and legends seem to have grown around him. One obituary claims that he served in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Boer War, but those events all happened at more or less the same time and in very different parts of the world.  The same obituary also has him as a member of the Greeley and Peary Arctic expeditions.  However, Dr. Wetherill was only 10 years old in 1881 when Admiral A. W. Greeley explored the north.  Edward Hocker, aka “Norris,” in the Times-Herald, has Wetherill only on one of Peary’s early expeditions (not the one that might have reached the North Pole).

Dr. Wetherill donated the pamphlets and blueprints to the Historical Society himself, but, unfortunately, he did not give us any examples of his inventions.  As far as I can tell, none of them ever went into mass production.  So we may never hear the sweet sound of the trombone flute.

San Francisco, 1906

Among the collections in the Historical Society of Montgomery County, are the four boxes which comprise the Frank and Flora Zissa Papers.


Frank Zissa came to the United States from Germany with his family in 1889 at the age of 10.  The family settled in Stowe and his father worked in the Pottstown area iron industry.  In 1898, Frank enlisted with the military to fight in the Spanish-American War.  When that was over, he joined the Marine Corps.  He stayed in the Marines until 1919 and then was a reservist for another ten years.  During that time, he traveled all over the world to Japan, the Philippines, Mexico during the Zapatista Revolution, Haiti and Santo Domingo.


During that whole time, he was corresponding with Flora Huetter. Their letters begin  in 1906.  Frank had been corresponding with Flora’s father Robert Huetter, and he sent along a note for 21 year old Flora along with a set of postcards from the place he was stationed – Goat Island, San Francisco.

Flora responded first, describing herself and mentioning that they had once met a long time before.  She closes with this:


Frank, at 27, was also nervous about writing.  He added this postscript to his first letter, written in March of 1906.


Of course, if you know your history, you know where this going.  At 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, a very strong earthquake struck San Francisco, killing over 3000 people and nearly destroying the city. Frank’s next letter kindly reassured Flora that he was all right. Here is the two page letter in it’s entirety (you can click on the images to make them bigger).

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Frank also made the local news when he reported in a letter to his mother (Mary Zissa), that the Marines had been called out to prevent rioting by destroying San Francisco’s liquor supply.


Frank gave Flora more details in his letter of May 6.  it’s a long letter, but here’s the first page, in which he compares the few remaining brick walls and chimneys to gravestones.


Later in the letter, he adds this:


Frank and Flora married in 1915 and they had three children, including Robert Zissa who generously donated his parents’ correspondence to the Historical Society in 1991.

Are you smarter than a 10th grader?

On Monday, I took advantage of the Historical Society being closed for Columbus Day, to spread out in the reading room and process some nineteenth-century notebooks.  Most were from students, but I discovered one that belonged to a teacher.


The book was donated by Mary Hipple Vanderslice, herself a teacher, in 1953.  An accompanying letter explains that the notebook contains the tests given to tenth graders by the Montgomery County Superintendent of Schools.  The students of each township were tested together at a central site.  The notebooks belonged to Rachel A. Yerger of Linfield.


We’ll get to the questions in a minute, but first I wanted to find out more about Rachel A. Yerger.  The family file and our good old card catalog turned up nothing, so I tried HSMC’s newest resource – Ancestry.  Rachel appeared in the 1900 census, living with her father, sisters, and brother, and working as a teacher at the age of 25.  You can click on the image to enlarge it.


The notebook is divided into subjects, with different questions for different townships.  Rachel seems to have administered tests in Limerick, Upper Merion, and Upper Providence.  The questions are written in pencil, which can make them difficult to read, but here’s a page of physiology questions:


And here’s arithmetic and history:



So, how did you do?