The Clock-Weight Murder, continued

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Monroe Gresh’s grave in Saint Luke’s Lutheran Cemetery. Picture from findagrave.com.

Last week, I put a lot of pressure on myself to find out what happened to Henry Moyer and Henry Sassaman who were indicted for killing Monroe Gresh.  If you missed last week’s article, you can find it here.

Moyer and Sassman were originally brought before the court in March, 1878. The grand jury indicted them for murder, manslaughter, assault and battery with intent to kill, and other minor charges. The trial was then continued to the June session of the court.

In June, the Herald ran a long article about trial the trial in June. By then, the prosecutors had dropped the murder charge.  On the second day of the trial, they dropped the manslaughter charge against both men, too.  Moyer plead guilty and Sassaman not guilty.  Both men then testified.

Moyer admitted to hitting Monroe Gresh with the clock-weight and described Gresh as “pugnacious.” Sassaman gave the same testimony, and both men brought witnesses that gave them excellent characters.

In the end, Moyer received one year and three months in jail, while Sassaman (who had kicked Gresh after he was down) received one year, with credit for time served.

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The courthouse as it appeared in 1878.

The Clock-Weight Murder

Today, in going through the folders and identifying their contents, I found an interesting letter written to Joseph Fornance II.   The writer, Henry S. Dotterer, included a small news item with his letter.

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Dotterer goes on to say that Henry Sassaman was his mother’s half-brother, and he wished that Fornance was in Norristown (he was in St. Louis) to provide representation for his half-uncle, who he says was not a “bad man.”

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The brief news item piqued my curiosity and I managed to find two more articles on the murder in the Herald and Free Press, which tell a little more about the incident.  Apparently, four young men were gathered at Pennypacker’s Saddle Shop in New Hanover Square.  Jonathan Y. Hauck got into an argument with Henry Sassaman.  Hauck said, “He talked as if he could lick me and I let him know he could not.”  Pennypacker then ordered the men out of his store, and they went out to fight.  Moyer and Gresh followed a few minutes later.  When Gresh tried to re-enter the shop, Moyer stopped him and an argument ensued (one witness said that the men had had a quarrel three or four years earlier).  Then Moyer, according to witnesses, picked up the clock weight and threw it at Gresh.  One witness claimed Sassaman kicked Gresh twice with the heel of his boot.  A physician examined him and did not believe the wound fatal, but Gresh died ten days later.

When I told volunteer and board member Ed Ziegler about the case, he reminded me of the collection of county indictments we have. It took some searching, be we found a file containing the original indictment of Moyer and Sassaman.

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What happened to Moyer and Sassaman?  I hope to find out for next week’s blog.

The Republican Invincibles

In the nineteenth century, it was common for political groups to organize marching clubs.  Men would parade in military style uniforms with capes and helmets and carry flaming torches.  In Montgomery County, probably no such group was as large and well known as the Republican Invincibles.  Founded in 1880, the club was primarily interested in presidential and gubernatorial elections.  In between, it was mainly a social club of the kind of which nineteenth-century Americans couldn’t get enough.  It’s annual dinner was required the largest hall in Norristown.

We have two remnants of the Republican Invincibles in our collection.  This is a ribbon that would have been worn by a member at an event like the annual dinner.

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The ribbon below is from the first year of the Invincibles, 1880.  It has photographs of the Republican candidates, James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.

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Garfield detail

 Until the election of 1880, Montgomery County had been solidly Democratic.  Fans of Montgomery County history will know that the Democratic candidate in 1880 was our own Winfield Scott Hancock.  Despite a highly respected career in the Civil War and a very close popular vote, Hancock lost his home county by one vote.  Perhaps the Republican Invincibles played a role.

“A rank secessionist”

On October 2, 1862, a group of men sat down to write a letter.  The Civil War had been raging for over a year, and then men were writing to report the presence of a traitor.

The letter was addressed to Algernon Jenkins, Esquire, the director of the Springhouse and Sumneytown Turnpike.  Jenkins was also a member of Gwynedd Friends Meeting and the father of Howard M. Jenkins, author of Historical Collections Relating to Gwynedd.  You can click on the letter to make it larger.

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While the anonymous letter writers do not name the traitor who works for the turnpike, they do not mince words, calling him a “rank secessionist” and a “black traitor.”

This letter comes from one of the more extensive collections at the Historical Society, the Charles F. Jenkins Collection.

Free Black Men

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A couple of weeks ago we looked at a will and inventory of Belinda, a free black woman of Montgomery County.  This week we have a deed from 1803 transferring property from John Davis and his wife Jane to James Black and George Chester, two free black men.

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Purchased in May of 1803 for $126, the property consisted of nine acres and two perches (a unit of 16 1/2 feet by 16 1/2 feet) in Providence Township.  The deed describes the property as beginning by the Schuylkill, so it was probably in what is today Upper Providence.  The deed does not contain the men’s signatures.  The deed was written on parchment and was too long to fit all at once even on our oversize scanner.

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Like Belinda’s will, this deed gives a small glimpse of African-Americans in early Montgomery County history. It’s possible that there are more records of James Black and George Chester waiting to be found in our collection.

Norristown’s Lost Museum

Did you know Norristown once had a natural history museum?

In 1915, Howard Severn Regar, partner in the manufacturing firm H.K. Regar & Sons, purchased the collection of William H. Werner, a naturalist from Pennsylvania.  Werner had displayed his collection on the Atlantic City boardwalk for many years, and Regar purchased the collection from his son.

Regar was born in Philadelphia, but the family settled in Norristown.  He graduated from A. D. Eisenhower High School in 1907 (he later composed the school song, “The Blue and the White”).  His father’s firm, of which he eventually became a partner, was a hosiery manufacturing firm.  He also was active in politics, serving on the Town Council as the representative of the Eight Ward.  He was, of course, a member of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, as well as a Mason, and a member of several naturalist societies.

The Regar Museum of Natural History was a two story building at DeKalb and Fornance streets.  The collection consisted of American birds, some of which were extinct by the time the museum opened in 1915, including the passenger pigeon, whooping crane, and the Carolina parakeet.  In addition to the mounted birds, the museum displayed the nests and eggs in order to recreate the bird’s environment.  The Audubon Society of Norristown also used the museum as its meeting place.

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In 1918, Mr. Regar delivered an address to the Historical Society about the importance of museums in civic life and urging other collectors in Norristown to follow his example and provide access to their collections for the betterment of their fellow citizens.

“Norristown is growing and some day will rank as one of the great cities of Pennsylvania.  In that day our children’s children mourn the loss if we allow these collection to become scattered.  We must keep them here; provide a suitable building for their exhibition, and make that our contribution to posterity.”

HSMC Sketches, 1918

Regar took his collection out of Norristown when he moved to Alabama in 1929.  He donated the collection to the city of Anniston, Alabama, where is remains in the Anniston Natural History Museum.  You can see a little of the collection here .  The Historical Society has in its collection a 1943 letter from Regar to S. Cameron Corson, in which he writes,

“I have always been sorry that Norristown lost the interesting and valuable collections which it once had.  You may remember I gave a paper at one of the Historical Society meetings called attention to the fine collections in that were in Norristown and urged that a place be provided so that they could be left to the town….I could not however work up any real interest…. As for me I am more than satisfied at the way my gift [to Anniston, Alabama] turned out…for I am very proud of the institution bearing my name in Anniston.”

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He died in Eufaula, Alabama in 1968.

Bilinda – a Free Black Woman

In honor of African-American history month, we have a will and inventory for a woman named Bilinda, of Moreland Township.  At the beginning of the will, she describes herself as a “free Black woman.”  Unfortunately, we only a photocopy of the will, originally written in 1813.  The location of the originals is unknown.

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The photocopies are difficult to read, but Bilinda lists her daughters Hannah and Mary as heirs, leaving them all her clothing.  The rest of her estate is divided in thirds, one part going to each of the daughters and one part to a son whose name appears to be “Cuffe.”

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Bilinda passed away about 3 years after writing the will in 1816.  Her inventory tells us a little more about her life.

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Bilinda (recorded here as “Blinda”) left a significant estate of over $1200, much of that was from the estate of her son Thomas.  Looking over the list of her possessions, we see she owned a spinning wheel and several bags and chests of linen. Perhaps she did piecework or took in sewing.

It would be wonderful to know more about Bilinda and her family, for example, the neither the will not the inventory give her last name. Was she born free?  Does she have descendants still living in the county?  In a way, this document helps reveal how little we know about the experience of African-Americans in early Montgomery County.