Our new address



Next week, we should start posting articles again at our new address:


The blog will now be right on our Historical Society of Montgomery County website, under the “Learn” tab.  We’ll still be sharing new posts on Facebook.  We’re working on a way to continue via email for our email subscribers, and we’ll let you know when we’ve figured it out.

See you next week!

Life, Trial and Confession of Thomas Curley

A phone call earlier this week from a researcher reminded me of one of the more sordid episodes in county history.

On May 18, 1875, Mary Ann Whitby was beaten to death.  A farm hand on her brother-in-law’s farm in Upper Providence named Thomas Curley later confessed to the crime.


Curley was about eighteen when he murdered Mary Ann “Mollie” Whitby.  He had lived in an orphanage from the age of seven to the age of nine due to his mother’s inability to care for him.  He left the orphanage at nine at his own request and wandered from farm to farm in eastern Pennsylvania.  His employers never seemed very happy with his work.

The day of the murder, Curley was alone on the farm with Whitby, as his employer, Samuel Weikel had traveled with his wife and child to Norristown for the day (somewhat ironically, Weikel had been called for jury duty).  Curley ate the dinner Whitby prepared for him around noon, then went back out into fields until 5 o’clock when he returned to the house.  He then ran to a neighboring farm to tell them that he had found Miss Whitby badly beaten.  He also claimed that while he had been eating his dinner, a tramp came to the door asking for money and Whitby sent him away saying, “you can not get what I have not about me.”

At first, the local people who gathered at the news of the murder did not suspect Curley.  A man they thought might be the tramp was even detained in Norristown, but Curley said he was not the man.


The Courthouse as it appeared in 1870

Curley was tried at the Montgomery County Courthouse.  He claimed he was innocent, but a neighbor testified that Curley had changed his hat when he went home for dinner.  We have the transcript of his trial in our collection, and the prosecutor spent a lot of time on the hat and boots witnesses had seen Curley wearing in the morning.  Several people noticed blood stains on both.  Two doctors testified that Whitby’s wounds had been caused by an ax, and Weikel’s ax with a dark red stain on it was produced in the courtroom.

Curley’s lawyers brought to the stand other poeple who had seen a tramp that day in Upper Providence and two witnesses who found a bloody shirt by the side of the road in Chester County.

But, the jury didn’t buy the tramp story and Curley was convicted.  His lawyers tired to get the conviction thrown out by claiming several jury members had been reading accounts of the trial in the newspaper.  This attempt failed.  On March 11, 1876, Curley was condemned to death.


According to the pamphlet about his crime, Curley faced his execution stoically.  His attorneys encouraged him to confess in the hopes that it would lead the judge to mitigate his sentence.

I did strike that girl…I took and got a porter bottle and (smiling) filled it three times from this wine cask, and drank it.  I felt kind o’ queer.  I then went to dinner, I saw that Mollie [Mary Ann Whitby] watched me a little, I guess I must to have felt it a little.  I eat [sic] my dinner and went back to the barn.  I told Mollie, I was going back to Hoyer’s to plant corn.  I went into the entry and up the stops and drank some more wine.  I then saw a new grubbing hoe handled standing on the sill, in the entry near the winecask, I took it up and went to the house in the out kitchen and the door was open.  Mollie was in, I said, Mollie I am going to strike you.  She said, no you won’t, Thomas, and I up and struck her over the head with the grubbing hoe handle.  She fell and never spoke a word.

When asked why he had done it, he said he didn’t know and repeated, “I felt quite queer.”

The confession worked on the jurors who signed a petition to commute his sentence, but the Board of Pardons decided not to stop the execution.  He was hanged at Montgomery County Prison on September 10, 1877.

There’s an interesting footnote to Curley’s execution.  We have in our collection a letter from N. A. Pennypacker to Samuel F. Jarrett, Esq., asking for admittance to the hanging.  The letter is very faded (I tried to touch it up to make it more readable).  He writes, “Mine, I assure you is not a morbid curiosity to witness the death of a human being, but being deeply interested in my profession I desire to see death in all its phases.”  It’s possible that this letter is from Nathan A. Pennypacker, who was a doctor in Chester County during this time.  We don’t know if he got in to see the hanging.



The Olive Branch

If you know Montgomery County, then you probably know the Times-Herald or the Pottstown Mercury, but do you know The Olive Branch?



The Olive Branch was a weekly newspaper published in Norristown and Doylestown from 1842 until 1859.  The Historical Society of Montgomery County has three years of The Olive Branch, 1850-1852.  The paper did not affiliate with a political party, but supported several contemporaneous political movements, including the very new women’s rights movement.


It can’t be denied that The Olive Branch was a preachy newspaper.  Here is another article on women’s rights that holds women to a  high standard of “innocence and purity” while declaring those who fail to meet this standard “unfit to live in civilized society.”


In the decade leading up to the American Civil War, the paper was also anti-slavery.  Here is a little bit of a letter to the editor attacking the Fugitive Slave Act:


And this one is an attack on the use of tobacco that has a familiar ring to it:


But the real focus of the newspaper was the temperance movement, the crusade that would culminate with complete prohibition on alcohol in the 1920’s.


The paper didn’t only announce and report of meetings of various temperance groups, it also published many temperance poems and even serialized novels that illustrated the dangers of “demon rum.”


The temperance articles in the paper focus on  liquor and drunkenness, not a complete ban on all alcohol.


Our three years of The Olive Branch have been digitized by Villanova University’s Falvey Library, and you can see them online as part of their digital library.  Take a look at a few issues, and don’t skip the advertisements.



Pool of Seduction

I bet that title got your attention.

If you’ve ever been in our research room at the Historical Society’s headquarters, you’ve seen that we have a lot of books.  However, the books on our open shelves are only part of our collection.  We have school books, rare religious texts, histories of local schools and businesses, but my favorite part of the collection are the novels written by locals.

Way back when we started this blog, I told you about Charles Heber Clark, a best-selling author and rival of Mark Twain, who lived in Conshohocken.  Today I have the books of Howard R. Watt, a Norristown native who took up writing (or at least publishing his writing) in his retirement.


Howard R. Watt’s author photo

Watt was born and raised in Norristown.  He attended Norristown High School and William Penn Charter School before entering Princeton.  After graduating in 1917, he returned to Norristown and eventually took over the family business, Watt Woolen Mill.

He retired in 1949, and it seems, took up writing as a hobby.  His first book, The King’s Pardon, was published in Great Britain in 1958.  It’s the story of the young Marquis de Tourville and the poor but beautiful Andrienne de Savoie.  The Evening Chronicle in Manchester said it was “altogether a clever and delightfully told story.”

The front cover of Alert All Ships from Amazon.com

He followed up his first book with Alert All Ships, also published in Britain.  It continues the story of the Marquis’ son, René, a physician in revolutionary Philadelphia.  The same year, Alert All Ships came out (1962), his first book was released as a paperback in the US.  The title was changed from The King’s Pardon to the much racier Pool of Seduction.


The books did not become bestsellers (though they’re not all that bad).  Howard R. Watt died in 1967 after breaking his hip in a fall at his 50th college reunion.  His obituary doesn’t mention his books at all, but I’m sure he was proud of them.  The three books in our collection were all donated by Watt himself, and he inscribed the first one to the Historical Society.


Emeline Hooven


Many of the people who come into the research library stop to admire the chandelier that hangs over the tables.  This chandelier came from the Hooven house which stood at 28 East Airy Street in Norristown.  The house was torn down in the 1930’s for the Norristown Post Office, and the family donated the chandelier to the historical society.


The Hooven House

Several members of the Hooven family grew to prominence in Norristown.  James Ekron Hooven and his son Alexander Henry Hooven ran the Norristown Iron Works, which was located on the Schuylkill River.  It consisted of a rolling-mill, a blast furnace, and pipe-mill.

Alexander’s daughter, Emeline Henry Hooven did not go into the family business.  After schooling at Miss Caroline Whipple’s school, Norristown High School, and St. Mary’s Hall in Burlington, N.J., she began working in the law office of John Faber Miller.  She later became the second woman in Montgomery to pass the Bar.


Hooven practiced law in her own office on DeKalb Street.  I’d love to tell you more about her practice or an interesting case she was involved in.  Unfortunately, her long obituary in the Norristown Times-Herald of March 16, 1937, makes little mention of her long career, but focuses more on her ancestors and her membership in various societies (including the Historical Society in Montgomery County).


Emelin Henry Hooven in the Norristown city directory under “Lawyers”

The obituary does mention another accomplishment of Hooven’s however:

“In 1920, she was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, to represent the Ninth District of Pennsylvania, consisting of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.  This was an unique honor — the first time a woman hdd been selected to receive this distinction.”

Pigeon racing

Yesterday, I was looking through our postcard collection for a patron, when I came across five postcards of pigeons.


A couple of cards have writing on the back explaining that the pigeons are racing pigeons, and it turns out, pigeon racing was a popular pastime in Montgomery County.



According to pigeon racing enthusiasts, the hobby has been around for centuries, but it really became popular in the mid-nineteenth century in Belgium.  You’re probably aware of pigeons’ homing abilities, and that comes into play with pigeon racing.  The pigeons are brought to a single starting point and released.  They then fly to their home lofts.  Officials carefully measure the distance between the starting point and home loft i, and the birds are timed to determine the winner.

Montgomery county has a long history with pigeons.  The county was once home to tens of thousands of passenger pigeons, leading to the name “Pigeontown” for what is now Blue Bell.


Several clubs for homing pigeons and racing pigeons existed throughout the county (and a few still do in Norristown, Gilbertsville, and, fittingly, Blue Bell).  In 1892, Charles F. Hoser of East Norriton bought a periodical called The Homing Exchange.  According Hoser’s obituary in the Times-Herald (June 13, 1953), the magazine had a circulation of only 600 when he purchased it.  Hoser changed the name to American Racing Pigeon News, and it became one of the leading international journals on pigeon racing.


The pigeons in the photographs were all bred by Lin Hendricks of Norristown.  According to his obituary (Times-Herald, October 11, 1940), Hendricks first learned pigeon breeding in the army during World War I.  His loft was named “The Danger Loft.”


The races can be anywhere from 100 to 1000 kilometers.  Over such a long distance, it is not uncommon for birds to get injured or killed during the race.  Birds of prey, the weather, and running into cell phone towers or power lines are common threats.  For that reason, animal rights groups have objected to pigeon racing.