Happy Thanksgiving!


This picture comes from a collection of photographs from The Review, a now defunct newspaper based in Roxborough.  The photo is labeled as being at the Valley Forge Military Academy. Other than that, I  have no explanation for it.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Historical Society of Montgomery!


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.