The War of 1812 Riot

In the Spring of 1812, relations between the United States and Great Britain were heating up.  The Napoleonic Wars had disrupted shipping, and the British routinely impressed American sailors into service for the Royal Navy, while the British were suspicious of American ambitions in Canada (to give a quick and simplified review).  So, spirits were running high by the time President Madison called on Congress to declare war in June of 1812, and all over the country, troops were raised for the war.

In Norristown, the growing unrest was covered thoroughly in the Herald.  We have only a few issues from March 1812 on microfilm at the Historical Society, and they are full of the evil machinations of the British, specifically an attempt to lure the New England states away from union in the case of war.  The British agent, John Henry had second thoughts when the British government refused to pay him what he wanted.  So, he sold his orders from the British to the US government for $50,000.  The papers turned out to be valueless and Federalist papers (like the Herald) attacked the government.

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The Herald also covered British press gangs who did not recognize the US citizenship of foreign born Americans.

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The Federalists were generally against war with Britain.  The paper at the time was under the ownership of Charles Sower, the son of David Sower who founded the paper.  After the commencement of the war, Sower published something in the paper that provoked a violent reaction, but the stories on just what he published are in dispute.

According to a letter by Charles Sower’s nephew, Charles G. Sower the article was “when read in calmer times quite inoffensive, but it was violently distorted and misrepresented in a distant part of the county.”  That letter was written in 1866, and does not quote from the article at all.  He goes on to say, “A party was formed who came to Norristown in the night or early morning (I believe) broke into the office and did some little damage.   Thereupon some of Charles’s friends persuaded him to sell out believing his life was in danger.”

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An old exhibit at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania gives a more detailed version.  It states that Sower published a letter in the Herald, making fun of a newly formed militia company in Philadelphia, particularly targeting its Irish-American members. It was the officers of that regiment who incited a mob, which, according to the exhibit catalog, caused a great deal of damage.  They also threatened Sower’s life.

Of course, not having the issue of the newspaper in question, we are left with uncertainty.  We do know that soon after Charles Sower sold the paper and moved to Uniontown, Maryland where he began another Federalist newspaper.  Charles Sower died there in 1820 at the age of 31.

I. H. Brendlinger’s Dry Goods Store

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I. H. Brendlinger’s Dry Goods store stood at 80-82 Main Street in Norristown.  The business began in 1870 when Irwin H. Brendlinger bought out Neiman Brothers.  This building was erected in 1876.  Moses Augé, in his Lives of the Eminent Dead, described Brendlinger’s as the “most capacious store of the kind in Norristown and doubtless does the largest business, employing about sixteen store assistants.”

Some of those assistants can be seen here:

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Now, you may be asking yourself, what are dry goods?  Well, they’re textiles, as you can see from this other interior photograph.

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Brendlinger’s sold fabric, lace, rugs, gloves, blankets, and oil cloth.  According to the book Norristown by Michael A. Bono and Jack Coll, when Irwin H. Brendlinger died in 1898, the store was taken over by Jay F. Brendlinger who continued to run the store into the 20th century.

Presidential signature

Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County had the honor of receiving a document signed by President Ulysses S. Grant.  The document was donated by Christopher Geers in honor of E. L. Geers of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Here it is:

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And here’s a close-up of the presidential signature:

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If you’d like to check it’s authenticity, you’ll find another example of Grant’s signature on his Wikipedia page.

The document appoints Robert Iredell Deputy Postmaster of Norristown for a four year term.  Iredell was a prominent Norristonian.  He was the publisher of the Norristown Free Press, later the Free Press and Herald (after Iredell purchased the Norristown Herald in 1837).  Iredell was active in politics and attended the Whig Party’s national convention in 1848.  There he met Abraham Lincoln for the first time.  According to his biography in Biographical Annals of Montgomery County  by Ellwood Roberts, he met Lincoln several times, and it was he who first appointed Iredell postmaster.  He served as postmaster for 22 years and was, according Roberts, “courteous, obliging, and attentive to the interests of the public.”  Iredell died at the age of 95 in 1904.

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It’s always exciting to add something presidential to our collection, but even more exciting when it also concerns a prominent citizen.

All the Single Ladies

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One June day in 1948, Miss Marion Richards of Norristown walked through the Tyson Shirt Company handing out bouquets of roses and daisies to all the “Old Maids” in the factory.  It began as a friendly joke among friends and an excuse go out.  Eventually, “Old Maid’s Day” drew national attention.  As Miss Richards told the Times-Herald a year later, “There is a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day.  Why can’t we have an Old Maid’s Day.”  She pointed out that unmarried women often were the ones who cared for elderly parents or other family members and that they made many professional contributions to society.  It was not a lonely hearts club, but a day to celebrate the freedom of being a single woman.

Word about Old Maid’s Day quickly spread, and June 4th was set as it’s date.  In the years that followed Marion’s initial idea, the celebration became a dinner for unmarried women age 30 and up at Helen’s Restaurant in Norristown.  Richards received hundreds of letters and two marriage proposals (she declined).

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In 1956, the women involved with Old Maid’s Day organized on behalf of single ladies throughout the country. The federal government was considering allowing widows to collect their survivor benefits at age 62.  Old Maids from across the country wrote to their representatives calling for benefits to begin at 62 for single women.  They said that they were not asking for a handout, pointing out that they had earned the benefits themselves.  As they put it, “62 for us, too!”

Some suggested Richards start a day for bachelors.  Her reply was that they should take of themselves.  In fact, a club for bachelors had existed in Norristown in the late nineteenth century.  A 1949 article by “Norris” (Edward Hocker) describes a club called “Bachelors in Clover” which started in 1885 and held monthly meetings in ice cream parlors.  Membership was limited to 12 and a fellow had to leave when he married.  It was a silly group that often lampooned popular speakers at its regular meetings and its annual banquet, though it did send food to Russia during a famine in the late nineteenth century.  The club only lasted about ten years.

Marion Richards continued to celebrate Old Maid’s Day until her death in 1963.  The holiday can still be found on internet sites about obscure holidays.  Have you ever celebrated Old Maid’s Day?  Did you know its Montgomery County connection?

I found it at the Historical Society!

We have a guest blogger today, our board member and regular Thursday volunteer Ed Ziegler.  He shares a story of something he found at the Historical Society.

In the beginning of the year the Society was deaccessioning some of its books. They had culled duplicates and books not related to the County.  I came in on Thursday, my usual volunteer day. Going through the offices I saw a little leather-bound book with no cover sitting on a desk with no other books around. Being curious, I looked at the title page. I was a Heidelburg Catechism from the mid 1800’s. The owner’s signature was in ink on the page. To my shock and delight, the signature was that of my Great Grandmother, Amanda Weisel! In pen it had her address, Warrington Township, where she grew up. It also had, in pencil, her married name, Amanda Reiff and her new home address, Skippack.

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So this book, which belonged to her as a girl and which she kept her whole life (she was born in 1855), serendipitously came into my family’s possession. While the book is in very poor condition, it is the signature which is invaluable to us.

Have you ever found something amazing at the Historical Society?  Perhaps you solved a family mystery or discovered an interesting piece of local history.  Write it up and send it in to our “I found it at the Archives!” contest.  The winner will have his or her story published in our next newsletter and win a box of locally made chocolate pretzels!  The deadline is June 30th.

Memorial Day at Montgomery Cemetery

Each spring, Susan and I have the honor of designing an exhibit in honor of Memorial Day.  Though the exhibit is on display for only a few hours during our Memorial Day program at Montgomery Cemetery, we take a lot of time to choose artifacts and papers to display.  This year at Saturday’s program you’ll be able to see one of our most exciting acquisitions of the past year, John Jacob Scholl’s diaries.  Plus, we’ll have a display of some of our county’s men and women who have served our country. I’ve included some of their pictures here.  We hope this display of regular people who answered the call will encourage visitors to share stories of their own family heroes.

    Anthony Stucynski Art Schlagel Franklin Francis Diamond

 Elizabeth Gwynn George J. Wilson U. B. Brown, Sgt

Top row: Anthony Stucynski, Art Schlagel, Franklin Francis Diamond; bottom row: Elizabeth Gwynn, George J. Wilson, U. B. Brown

I hope you’ll join us this Saturday at Montgomery Cemetery for our program honoring the veterans buried in the cemetery.  We’ll walk to the graves of several prominent people in the cemetery, lay wreaths, and learn about their lives.

The event begins at 11am at the gatehouse, located at 1 Hartranft Ave., West Norriton, PA.

A Haunting in Upper Frederick

Board member and volunteer Ed Ziegler arrived at headquarters this morning with an old newspaper clipping from the Times – Herald.  This 1972 article recounted an old legend that might be America’s first real ghost story.  Digging around I found other accounts of the story, one in our own Bulletin of October, 1955.  The pictures in this post come from that article.

It happened in Upper Frederick, around the area now known as Obelisk.  In 1738, nine year-old Susanna Reimer began to see a man, first sitting on a tree stump then standing with other farm hands.  When she pointed the man out to her sister, 17 year-old Elizabeth, her sister said she couldn’t see the man.  Susanna came to believe the man she was seeing was a ghost.

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When the girls told their farmer, Frederick Reimer, about the ghost, he believed them.  Reimer and others believed the ghost was that of a farmhand named “Miller” who had died a few years previously.

The next time Susanna saw the ghost she spoke to him with her sister’s prompting.  The man said that he had died leaving a debt unpaid.  According to the Times – Herald article, he owed a woman named “Steinman” 30 gulden.  Another source, Charles J. Adams III’s Montgomery County Ghost Stories gives the amount as 50 gulden and adds that the ghost said that his widow could not pay the debt.  So the girls promised that they would pay the debt, and the ghost became excited and said that he would go home.  Susanna asked where home was, and the ghost led the girls to a burial lot on the Zeiber farm and jumping into the ground.

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Zeiber Burying-Ground, Upper Frederick

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The Miller grave, Zieber Burying-Ground

Frederick Reimer did try to find the woman named “Steinman” and discovered that a passenger list for an English ship named “Hope” had the names Hans and Katherine Steinman and several families named Miller.  Reimer tracked down passengers on the ship who told him that Miller and Katherine Steinman argued over money Steinman claimed to have lent to Miller, but Miller denied receiving.

At some point, Miller’s widow came forward and claimed that her husband had asked to borrow money, but Mrs. Steinman refused.  Although the story was printed in a book by German printer Christopher Saur and reprinted in a magazine in Germany, no Steinmans ever came forward to claim the money.  Reimer apparently gave up trying to pay the debt.

Many years later, in 1757, Frederick Reimer froze to death on Christmas Eve.  Many in the community wondered if this wasn’t the ghost’s revenge for not keeping the promise to repay the debt.

Sources:

Lafferty, James. “When It Comes to Real Spirit, County May Have Had U.S. First.” Times-Herald [Norristown] Oct. 1972: n. pag. Print.

Adams, Charles J., III. Montgomery County Ghost Stories.  (Reading: Exeter House Books, 2000) 6-12.

Berky, Andrew S.  “America’s First Ghost?” Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County Pennsylvania 10 (1955) 5-11