An attempted kidnapping

Right now, our intrepid volunteer and board member, Ed Zeigler, is working on rehousing part of our collection of county indictments.  This morning he found an interesting one.

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The indictment is for three men, John Dyer, Howell Rockyfellow, and Fisher Wilson (aka Wilson Fisher).  They were accused of attempting to kidnap an African-American man named Robert Waters with the intent of selling him into slavery.

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The court papers say that the men were planning on taking Waters into New Jersey to be sold as a slave.  New Jersey had passed a gradual abolition law in 1804.  That law freed children born after it was passed, but those children had to work unpaid apprenticeships for their mothers’ owners until the age of 21 for women and 25 for men.  People held as slaves in 1804 remained slaves until 1846, when a new law converted their status to “apprentice for life.”

So it would not have been legal to sell to sell a kidnapped black person in New Jersey.  It’s possible that New Jersey was just the first stop for the men, or it could be that didn’t know the details of New Jersey’s laws.  It’s also possible that if they were willing to kidnap someone they were also willing to illegally sell him.

I looked around for more information on these men.  The folder doesn’t give us a verdict.  I checked the Norristown Herald for May 7, 1816 and the case isn’t mentioned (to be fair, almost no local history is in the Herald from these times).  Ancestry was a little more helpful.  I managed to find a Howell Rockafellow who was born in New Jersey in 1792.  It’s possible he might be the right man.  I also found a record of a Robert Waters.  It’s a citizenship affidavit for American seaman.  Of course, I can’t be at all sure it’s the same man.

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As a final note, Ed pointed out that it’s interesting that the kidnapping charges were county charges.  Kidnapping did not become a federal crime until 1932 (after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping).

Bessybell

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An image of the house from a 1918 issue of The New Country Life

In 1799, John McClellan Hood came to Philadelphia from Northern Ireland.  He became a successful tea and coffee importer, married Elizabeth Forebaugh, and began a family.  Every summer to escape the regular epidemics that swept through the city, the Hood family would retire to the country.  Hood bought a large farm in Limerick, eventually building a mansion there in 1834.  The house was name “Bessybell” (you’ll also see it spelled “Bessy Bell” and “Bessie Bell”) after a hill near his native village, Newtonstewart, and was supposedly based on the mayor’s house there.

Now, John McCellan Hood’s oldest son was Washington Hood, who was the 500th graduate of West Point.  After graduating, the army assigned him to the Corps of Topographical Engineers.  Hood traveled throughout North America on assignment for the army.  In 1835, he determined the boundary between the state of Ohio and the Michigan Territory.  A few years later he was in Florida making maps for the army for the Seminole War.  He then went west to map the Oregon Territory.  His maps attracted thousands of people west.  Washington Hood died in 1840 at the age of 32 of unknown causes.  His family buried him in their private plot at Bessybell.  Many of Hood’s drawings are held at the Winterthur Library.

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Charles Gilpin, Sr.

John McClellan Hood died in 1848, and the house passed to his daughter and her husband, Sarah and Charles Gilpin, Sr., who was mayor of Philadelphia from 1850-1853.  According to Muriel E. Lichtenwalner’s book, Limerick Township: A Journey Through Time, 1699-1987, the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War.  It stayed in the Gilpin family until 1981, though no one in the family lived there after 1930’s.  Throughout the twentieth century the various tenants lived in the house, including a man who allowed his goats to roam freely.  In the 1960’s a couple named Kenneth and Virginia Kehler lived in the house, and had it wired for electricity for the first time.  During their time in the house, Bessybell made the news for a series of spooky happenings around the family burial plot.

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An image of the mausoleum from FindAGrave.com.

In 1962 the Pottstown Mercury reported, “For the past several nights strange phosphorescent lights have mysteriously flitted through the woods, clanking chains have rattled through the dark and sudden shots have shattered the midnight stillness.”  People wondered if it wasn’t the ghost of Washington Hood, who’s mausoleum had been desecrated at some point before 1940 (no one seems to know just when).  The family’s very bones were on view to any passersby.  A few days after the newspaper reported about teenagers visiting the site looking for the ghost, the state troopers got involved and soon discovered old pretzel tins that had been turned into bells hanging from trees around the burial site.  The eerie lights were phosphorescent moss on damp, decaying logs.

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An aerial view of the house.  The outbuildings are no longer standing.

Bessybell has changed hands a few times now.  The latest news I could find on it was from 2008, when the Times-Herald reported that a company in Las Vegas owned the property.  You can see a picture of the house from about 10 years ago on Flickr.

Sources:

Lichtenwalner, Muriel E., Limerick Township: A Journey Through Time, 1699-1987.  Limerick Township Historical Society, Limerick, Pa., 1987.

Pennsylvania Folklife: 1990, vol:39, no:3 pg:131 -139

Pottstown Mercury, August 27, 1962.

The Brothers of the Brush

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LaVerne F. “Red” Lane

A few months ago, we received a collection of items belonging to LaVerne F. “Red” Lane, donated by his daughter. In her letter to us, she explained that the top hat and bowtie were worn by her father during the Norristown Sesquicentennial in 1962.  She sent along a photo of him wearing them at the celebration and also mentioned that he was a member of the Brothers of the Brush.

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Hat and tie worn by Red Lane at the Norritown Sesquicentennial, May 1962

This caught my attention, and I did a little digging. I found some of Red Lane’s fellow Brothers of the Brush among our collection of photographs from the Sesquicentennial.  There were quite a few photos of dapperly dressed men with well-groomed beards and mustaches! Many are even wearing the same bowtie we now have in our collection.

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There are also some short articles from the newspaper which date to just before the Sesquicentennial, which took place in May. The Brothers of the Brush seem to have had a great following in Norristown, and they seem like a fun bunch of gentlemen.

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“Bearded Brothers Groomed”

February 1, 1962— “Bearded Brothers Groomed: Good grooming is the mark of a “Brother of the Brush,” according to the “Brothers,” pictured above who were among the visitors at the first Men’s Night held at Mary Allen’s Beauty Salon Wednesday evening.  Shown from the left are Mayor Merritt W. Bosler, Leon Nester Sr., chairman of the “Brothers of the Brush”; Jack Wilson, whose mustache is tinted by Mary Allen, president of the Montgomery County Hair dressers and Cosmetologists Association, and Norristown Councilman Claude Tyson.”

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“Burial Detail Assigned to Razor”

April 3, 1962— “Burial Detail Assigned to Razor: Above, a somber and presumably sad contingent of mourners carries a wooden replica of an old-fashioned razor to a point on the DeKalb Street bridge over the Schuylkill. They then consigned the razor to a watery resting place, symbolically proclaiming that the men of Norristown have no use for razors, or shaving, during the celebration of the Borough’s Sesquicentennial.  Shown from the left, are Francis Denner, Samuel Hertzler, William Edwards, Paul Weidomoyer, Harry Haupt, and William Santillo, pallbearers for the impressive, tongue-in-cheek burial ritual.”

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The Brothers of the Brush even got the youngsters involved, although they may have had to wait awhile for their beards and mustaches.

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“Junior Fuzzy Brushes Organized”

April 10, 1962— “Junior Fuzzy Brushes Organized: The Junior Fuzzy Brushes, fraternal ward of the Norristown Brothers of the Brush, came into official existence Monday night during an organizational meeting in the Lincoln School. The new unit, with membership open to boys aged from 4 to 18, is sponsored by the Westmar Chapter of the Brothers of the Brush.  The junior group will now assume an active and enthusiastic part in the Borough’s Sesquicentennial Celebration.”

 

Do any of our readers have memories of the Brothers of the Brush, or were you or someone you know part of the organization?  We would love to hear!

R. C. Titlow, Cabinetmaker and Undertaker

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Small chair made by RC Titlow

Earlier this year, we received a call from a woman with a chair she thought we might like for our collection. It turns out that this chair had a label on the bottom showing that it was made in Norristown, Pennsylvania, AND it had the name of the craftsman, R. C. Titlow!

 

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Label from underside of chair seat “R. C. Titlow Cabinet Maker and Undertaker Main St. Norristown, Pa”

I did some digging and came up with some more information.

 

Reuben C. Titlow announced the opening of his business in Norristown with a notice in The Norristown Register and Montgomery Democrat on May 22, 1844.  Here’s what it said:

 

“Reuben C. Titlo Respectfully informs the public that he has commenced the cabinet making business in the shop lately occupied by Jerome Walnut, in the lower end of the Borough of Norristown, where he will be happy to wait on all those who desire furniture. The newly married are especially invited to call.  His furniture is made of good materials and durable.  He endeavors to gain credit by the manufacture of good furniture and therefore does not slight his work; his desire is to furnish people with furniture in the future, and not get a job once, and by slighting it, never receive their patronage again.  His work is not made by apprentices.

Old furniture repaired in a superior manner, at short notice.

By strict attention to business, prompt execution of orders, and moderate prices, he hopes to receive a liberal share of public patronage.

He would also beg leave to inform the public that he carries on the coffin making business, and can wait on all those who may desire his services. Having a hearse, he will attend on funerals in the country.

Reuben C. Titlo.”

 

A few years later in 1847, he moved his store and advertised in The Norristown Times Herald and Free Press.  Below you can read the ad:

 

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Advertisement from the Norristown Herald and Free Press

 

It seems that the apprentice he advertised for was found in David Y. Mowday. According to Bean’s History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Mowday learned cabinet-making and undertaking from Titlow, for whom he was an apprentice and later a journeyman.  Mowday was very successful and his business lasted well after his death.  Undertaking became the main focus and Mowday Funeral Home continued well into the 20th century.

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D.Y. Mowday from Bean’s History of Montgomery County

 

Aside from information about Reuben Titlow’s business, I also found information about his life. The newspaper announced his marriage to Sarah B. Levering of Barren Hill on the 21st of November, 1844, by the Reverend Frederick R. Anspach.  He died February 12, 1858, at the age of 41.  The inventory of his estate lists quite a bit of furniture, including bureaus, chairs, and bedsteads.  There were also 16 coffins.  His wife survived him, and in the 1860 Norristown Business Directory she is listed as a widow with “Cabinet ware rooms North Side Egypt (now Main) Street above Green, house same address.”  An interesting fact is that David Y. Mowday began his business the same year Titlow died, in 1858.

 

Although I could find no images of him, you can visit Reuben C. Titlow’s grave in Historic Montgomery Cemetery! He’s buried in Lot Q-33/34 with a Masonic symbol on his headstone.  Check our website to find out more about Historic Montgomery Cemetery.

Relief from the Great Depression

In 1931, seeing the great need caused by the world wide depression, employees of Upper Merion schools organized relief for some local families.  They caught the attention of the Upper Merion Benevolent Association, which began to support their efforts to feed breakfast and lunch to school children.

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In 1932, the Upper Merion Releif Association was created, and in January of 1933, it began distributing relief to people throughout the township.  We have a small notebook in our collection listing the recipients of relief by area.

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Relief seemed to take of the form of foodstuffs and cash, but at least one person received a layette according to this note tucked inside the book.

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A newspaper article enclosed in the book shows that the organization was still around in 1935, but I couldn’t find out what happened to the group.  Perhaps as the economy improved and it was no longer needed, or it may be that the organization turned to the war effort after 1941.

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This group and all the people who supported it are great examples of the generosity of Montgomery Countians.  Do you know anything about the Upper Merion Relief Association?  Are you aware of similar groups in other parts of the county?  Please tell us about them in the comments.

Do you know this old schoolhouse?

About a month ago, we received four class pictures in the mail.  An accompanying letter explained that the donor had purchased the photos together at a flea market in Michigan.

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The image above gives an excellent view of the two story school building with a porch and cupola.

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The photographs were taken by D. F. Ziegler of Souderton, so we think they’re probably from that part of the county.

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Based on the clothing on the children, we’re guessing these photos are from 1910-1925.  The shutters on the window to the left of the door are open in some pictures and closed in others.  So, they photographs might not be from the same day.  They may even be from different years.

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If you have any idea about the school, let us know in the comments.

Joseph Amodeo

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Last week, I described the papers of Cleopatra McClellan Nelson, which were left in a grocery bag by our back door in 2013.  Mrs. Nelson’s papers weren’t the only ones in that bag.  It also contained the papers of Joseph Amodeo.  If there was a connection between Nelson and Amodeo, I wasn’t able to find it, so I don’t know how their papers wound up together.

Nevertheless, in Amodeo’s papers we can also see the interesting life of an ordinary person.

Born in Norristown in 1917, Joseph Amodeo’s parents were immigrants from Sicily.  His father owned a shoe shop at 303 East Moore Street in Norristown.  Joseph began working in the shop as a boy, eventually inheriting it after his mother’s death.

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Amodeo stayed in the shop for decades as his brothers and sisters grew up and moved away.  His papers give us little hints about them.  There is a letter from his brother Charles who was stationed in San Francisco while serving in the Signal Corps.  His brother Harry got into some trouble with the police.

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He seems to have straightened out and also served in the military during World War II.

As I often do when writing a blog post about a particular person, I did a little sleuthing on the internet.  It was helpful, but I also discovered some of the shortcomings of internet research.

I found the Amodeo family in the 1940 census.  The census taker’s handwriting isn’t great, and here’s what he wrote for Joseph’s occupation:

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Since I know something about Mr. Amodeo’s life, I know that this says “shoemaker.”  The person who transcribed this record, however, interpreted this as “stenographer.”  Always check the original.  I also found him on findagrave.com where he has a spouse listed, “Mary Maria Amodeo.”  Mr. Amodeo never married; it’s possible this is referring to his sister Mary.

Still, I can say with some confidence that Joseph did not go into the military, as his brothers did.  Among his papers was this proclamation on “aliens of enemy nationalities.”  His mother, Anna Amodeo, would have fallen under the category of “enemy alien.”

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Joseph Amodeo continued to work in his shop, a mainstay on the East End of Norristown, while the neighborhood around him changed.  I found a great article on him from the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1994.  The article makes a reference to an old stitching machine.  Perhaps it was the same machine his father Melchiorre (Menzi) Amodeo purchased in 1931.

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In the article, “Mr. Joe” seems determined to stay on E. Moore Street.  The Norristown phone book lists him there until 2003.  He died in 2004 and is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.