Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
The Romance of Old Philadelphia
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo




IT is a characteristic of many of those who are themselves struggling with trying conditions to be thoughtful of the needs of others. Those who give most liberally, according to their means, are not as a rule the rich, nor even those who have an average amount of property, but those who, knowing what poverty is, are able to sympathize with others in want.

So it proved in colonial days. The very fact that life was a struggle with untoward conditions opened the purse strings of more fortunate citizens to supply wants of their neighbors. They did not take so much time to ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” that they delayed help until it was too late.

In the records of the eighteenth century there are many hints of this widespread spirit of charity. There was much private giving and there was also public provision for caring for the unfortunate.

Not long after Braddock’s defeat William Plumstead sent a letter to the Overseer of the Poor calling attention to the fact that “there is several wife’s and widdows I understand in town whose husbands are wounded or killed in the late defeat, they are destitute of all necessarys and many unable to support themselves & children.” An appropriation to relieve the distress thus brought to the attention of the authorities was soon made, probably at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin.

Stephen Girard, one of the most generous men in the city, was a leader in organized charitable work of many kinds. One of his favorite charities was naturally, the “Society Formed for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Masters of Ships, Their Widows and Children.” The organization began its long and helpful history on July 4,1765, and is still at work. Its object was stated in the following terms:

“Charity not only desires the happiness of mankind, rejoices at their prosperity, grieves at their adversity, but, being an active virtue, it prompts the mind to form with prudence and execute with vigor that plan that bids fairest for a happy attainment of the most generous and benevolent ends. To relieve our fellow-creatures in distress, and promote their welfare, is a most beneficent work, but few even of the most distinguished abilities can act in this respect beyond the limits of a narrow sphere. Numerous wants are neither readily nor easily supplied; hence, individuals, unequal of themselves apart to the noble task, combine together in societies, gain strength by their adherence, and stretch the hand of charity to a more extended distance.”

Naturally some of those who depended on the aid given by others provided diversion for exasperated agents of beneficence. It is not likely that any modern relief worker can find a plea that for unadulterated “gall” goes ahead of the complaint of a pauper which led to the writing of the following letter to the Overseers of the Poor:

“Mary Marriot alledging to us That altho she is very thankful that herself and Daughter are so well provided with all the Necessarys of Life, and in so plentiful a manner, Yet, as they were both brought up in a delicate way, begs leave to Assure us, that the Provisions of the Almshouse are generally too gross for their nice Stomachs, and especially at Breakfast, and Supper Times; neither is the care taken to provide any thing pretty for them, to sup, in the Afternoons; they therefore beg the favour of us to desire you to take this Important Affair into your serious consideration and if you find the Case fairly Represented, you may allow them Tea, Coffee, Chocolate or any thing else that you verily believe will be more agreeable to their palates.”

The plea of another poverty-stricken individual was somewhat different, but the reader is apt to have even less patience with his arguments in favor of a sort of relief that would be of doubtful value not only to himself but to others. In a petition “To the Worshipful Mayor, Recorder, and Aldermen of the City of Philadelphia,” William DeWees “respectfully sheweth”:

“That your Petitioner is by Trade a Shoemaker, and that his Eyesight is so much impair’d that he is incapable of Maintaining his Family by following that occupation. That your petitioner hath taken the Premises No. 7 Grey’s Alley between Second and Front Street which he now keeps as a Boarding house, but finding the emolument arising therefrom insufficient to defray the expense of his Family He is desirous of obtaining a License to keep the same as a Tavern by which means he hopes to obtain a sufficient livelihood.”

One has much more sympathy with the eighteen women who made their mark, and the one woman who signed her name, at the close of a much later petition to the city authorities that read:

“Rendered helpless by the infirmities of age — enfeebled by sickness or oppressed by the Cares of Widowhood — have for some years past, endeavoured to gain a livelihood for themselves and their children, by vending in the market places fruit, nuts, and other small articles, more in demand for the tables of the rich, than for those in the middle walk of life.

“Your petitioners were not led to this mode of life from choice, but, being incapable of hard labour, they have pursued it rather than increase the burthen with which private and publick charity are already so severely tasked, by casting themselves and their families on the public for support . . .

“It would not become your petitioners to direct the manner in which your benevolent intention toward them might be accomplished; but they beg leave to suggest a practical mode of alleviating their distress, with the least possible infraction of the present system, that some particular and distinct stands, in or near the market house, should by ordinance be assigned to them, for which they should individually pay a reasonable rent; that from those stands all should be excluded, except your petitioners & those who like them labor under the infirmities of age or sickness, or are reduced by misfortune and have families depending on them.”

Evidently some one had complained of the needy women because they were obstructing the market by their appeals to the public to buy their wares.

It is interesting to read that similar pressure was brought to bear on a prosperous citizen in 1703. The records of the Grand Jury for that year show that Alderman John Jones was presented for “encoachment on Mulberry Street, by setting a great Reed or hay Stack in the said Street for these two years last past & making a close fence about ye same.”

During the same year a number of citizens asked the General Assembly to take action against neighbors who were just as thoughtless as the proprietor of the haystack. They were “Desirous to Clear Drain & Make other Improvements on Meadow Ground and Marshes in the Neck (between Delaware and Skoolkill below Philadelphia),” and they were bothered by straying swine. “Therefore your Petitioners do humbly Desire That a Law be Made either to Prohibit Swine to Run at large in the said Neck Or Else to Oblige the Owners of them to Ring and Yoke them Under such Penalties as you in Your Wisdom shall see meet.”

To see that laws were obeyed by night as well as by day it was the duty at this time for Philadelphia’s one night watchman to go through the town ringing a bell, crying out the time of night and the state of the weather, and, in case he noted a fire or any disaster, to inform the constable. In 1704 the single watchman to one constable became ten, and every citizen was made liable to serve his term on watch or to furnish a substitute. The first paid night watchmen were not provided until 1758.

The watchmen on their routes always paid particular attention to the market houses, in which disorderly persons were wont to gather. Those who lived in the neighborhood of the markets frequently had bitter cause for complaint by reason of the presence of these disturbers of the peace.

But there was no thought of doing away with the market houses that furnished lodging places for these night prowlers. For the markets were too important a factor in Philadelphia’s life and comfort. They dated from the beginning of the city.

One of the earliest references to these useful institutions is in the Regulations adopted for the markets in 1693. This curious document read:

“That The place ffor ye Markett be in ye High Street where ye Second street Crosses it and in no other place —

“That ye Markett be kept There Two days in ye week weekly viz Wednesday and Saterday . . .

“That all sorts of Provision brought to this towne to sale, viz fflesh, ffish, tame fowl Eggs butter Cheese herbs, ffruits roots &c: shall be sold in ye aforesaid Markett place, and in Case any of the aforesd Provisions should Come to the Towne of Philadelphia on other days that are not Markett days yett that they be sold in ye Market under the Same Circumstances regulation and forfitures as upon ye Days on wch the Markett is appoynted: . . .

“That ye Markett begin and be open’d at ye ringing of the bell, which shall be Rung ffrom the ffirst day of ye 2d Month Apll to ye ffirst day of 7ber between the Hours of Six and seven and ffrom ye ffirst day of 7ber to ye ffirst day of Apll between ye Hours of Eight and Nine, and in Case any of the aforesd provision or any sort of Marketting be sold, fflesh Excepted before ye Ringing of ye bell unless it be for his Excellcey Goverr in Cheife, or Lt Goverr ye same shall be forfited one halfe to ye poor ye other to ye Clark of the Markett . . .

“That no hucksters or persons to sell againe shall buy or Cheapen any of the afore Mentioned provision until it hath been two hours in ye Markett after the ringing of The bell . . .

“That ye Clark of ye Markett shall and may Receive for all Cattle Kil’d ffor ye Markett Six pence per head — for Every sheepe, Calfe or lamb two pence  head for Every hogg or Shoat brought to ye Markett or Cutt out for saile there Three pence, and that nothing shall be paid ffor what ye Country people bring to Towne ready Kil’d.

“That ye Clark of ye Markett shal and may receive for sealing of weights and measures one penny for Each both great and small.”

The Sealer of Measures was an important officer. An early notice concerning him was published so that no one could have an excuse for ignorance of the facts:

“PUBLICK NOTICE is hereby given, That Benjamin Morgan at the Still and Blue Ball in King-Street, Philadelphia, is by the Mayor and Council of the said City, appointed sole keeper of the Standard for Corn Measure, and Sizer and Sealer of Measures, to whom all who want Measures ready Sealed, or have Measures to be rectify’d, may repair, and be well served, he only being duly authorized and qualify’d for that office.”

In 1786 Dr. Benjamin Rush said that a friend told him how in 1723 “people went to Market with cut silver, those who had it not procured provisions by taking the country people to two Stalls in the Market & giving their goods for them, which goods were charg’d to the Accts & paid for once or twice a year.”

William Black in 1744 told of something that attracted him far more than cut silver or charge accounts. He “had no small Satisfaction in seeing the pretty Creatures, the young ladies, traversing the place from Stall to Stall where they cou’d make the best Market, some with their maid behind them with a Basket to carry home the Purchase, Others that were designed to buy but trifles, as a little fresh Butter, a Dish of Green Peas, or the like, had Good Nature and Humility enough to be their own Porters.”

(From the portrait by Thomas Sully in Independence Hall)
(From the painting by Thomas Duche)
(1) A WEDDING GOWN, (2) A GOWN OF 1760,
(Original in Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park)

David Fisher, an English visitor in 1755, was much more practical in his observations. After a careful inspection of the market he wrote:

“There seems to be a good supply of most kinds of Provisions and a vast concourse of People, Buyers as well as sellers. Meat in the Shambles (some at least) of each sort, very good and might well vie with the best in the Leadenhall Market; Fish and Poultry, the market don’t seem over well supplied with, tho’ in the cool weather a fine sort of large Sea Pearch of about six pounds, called the Sheeps’ Head, from its teeth resembling those of a sheep . . . Butter is quite plenty and very good at about 8d. a pound; vegetables plenty enough tho’ not so many good or handsome Gardens about Philadelphia as one might expect, and with all my enquiry I could not find a Plant deserving the name of Cauliflower.”

So much complaint was made that traffic interfered with the market houses — which stretched along the middle of the street for some blocks, with breaks at the cross streets — that in July, 1768, the Council “agreed that chains be made and put up across Market Street and Second Street, about sixty feet from the intersection of the streets, so as to prevent carts and other carriages passing thro’ the market on Market days, to be taken down at nine o’clock in the morning in Summer and ten in Winter.”

In early days the markets were supplemented by two fairs each year. The charter of 1701 provided that these fairs should be opened with all due solemnity. The form of the Proclamation adopted ran as follows:

“O Yes and Silence is Commanded while the Fair proclaiming upon Pain of Imprisonment.

“A. B. Esq., Mayor of the city of Philadelphia, doth hereby, in the King’s Name strictly charge and command all persons trading and negotiating with this Fair to keep the King’s peace.

“And that no person or persons whatsoever presume to set up any Booth or Stall for the vending of Strong Liquors within this Fair.

“And that no Person or Persons presume to bear or carry any unlawful Weapon to the Terrour or Annoyance of his Majesty’s subjects, or to gallop or strain Horses within the Built parts of this City.

“And if any person shall receive Hurt or Injury from Another let him repair to the Mayor, here present, and his wrongs shall be redressed.

“This Fair to continue Three Days and no longer. God save the King.”

These semi-annual fairs continued until the Revolution.

The people who attended the fairs and markets did not have to purchase many of the things that to-day one feels must be bought; they were independent enough to make many articles for themselves. For one thing the housewives did their own spinning and weaving. And they were much at home in dyeing the products of their own looms. Witness the interesting letter from Mrs. Moore to Susanna Wright, dated in 1771:

“I took the opportunity of sending. some samples of the little success that has attended my attempts in the manufacturing way and particularly in the art of dyeing . . . a pr of silk garters rais’d, dyed and wove in our own House, of which I request thy acceptance . . . I must also desire Sammy Wright to accept of a pair of Worsted of my own spining . . . .

“Since my last I have been trying my Hand at Shades for working with, and have sent thee a sample, but cannot promise that they will stand, they have all had several rincings in warm water, the scarlet (if I may so call it) and the Purple are both dyed with Brazilletto Salt Tartar and Allum, a very small matter of pot Ash dissolved in a cup of Water changed the scarlet when dip’d in it to a Purple — some of the same colour wash’d with hard soap turn’d to a pretty Crimson — the yellow is dyed with Barberry root, I never heard of its being made use of for this purpose, but as I was planting a Root of it last Summer I observed it to be of a very bright pritty Yellow, upon which I boil’d some of it with a little Allum, and was much pleased with the colour it produced, I have sent thee a few of these Chips, also a small Phial of my blue dye — two or three drops in a Wine Glass of Water will be sufficient for dyeing a small skein of silk of a light colour — it may be rinced out in a few minutes, but if its wanted dark, must stay in a qr of an hour, I am not sure that this will stand any more than the rest, and shall now give thee the History of it — thee must know the Ladies make use of Something of this kind to dye their old White Ribbons, shades, Set that are soil’d — it is brought from N. York and sold in some of our Shops here at a great price, I had seen some of it, & had a very great inclination to know of what it was made, (‘tis pritty lucky for me that I have a Doctors shop so handy) I try’d almost everything I could think of — at last hit upon some Spt Salt or Vitriol I’m not sure which and mix’d it very well with Prussian blue finely powder’d, this I found to have exactly ye appearance of that I bought and seems to answer the purpose quite as well, it must be carefully used, as a single drop without Water will eat a hole in Silk or Linnen, but does not seem to rot the silk in the least when mix’d with Water, after the silk is dyed with this if dip’d in the yellow it turns to a beautiful Green.”

The housewives of colonial days were proud to carry their home-dyed homespun to the fairs and markets, which were popular meeting places for friends who did not have other opportunity to see one another frequently.

Perhaps the markets were all the more popular because for a long time they were supported by voluntary subscriptions. Later, however, the tax budget included items for their maintenance.

Almost everything was done by voluntary subscription in those early days. The pumps from which water was supplied to the citizens were erected by private enterprise. A law of 1713 authorized one who dug a well and placed a pump to charge the neighbors who made use of it. In 1715 an annual rent of one shilling for pumps was levied by the city on the pump holders. Not until 1756 were the pumps placed in the hands of a warden. He had power to sink new wells and to buy up private pumps.

This public ownership was a step in the direction of community fire protection. Fire had always been a problem in Philadelphia. As early as 1701 chimney fires became so frequent that an order was provided for fining anyone who allowed his chimney to catch on fire. It was ordered also that every householder should keep a swab, at least twelve feet long, and four leather buckets, which should always be ready for use in case of fire. No one was allowed to smoke tobacco in the streets by day or by night.

(Note the typical wooden pump)
(From an engraving by Birch)

In 1718 the first fire engine was bought for £50. In 1730 three engines, two hundred leather buckets, twenty ladders, and twenty-five hooks with axes, were secured. One of these engines was made in Philadelphia but the others came from London.

The first volunteer fire company was organized in 1736, largely through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin. Each member agreed to furnish, at his own expense, six leather buckets and two stout linen bags. Each bag was to be marked with his own name as well as the name of the company. These he was to take to every fire, for use in holding property in danger of destruction.

The Fellowship Fire Company followed in 1738, the Hand in Hand in 1742, the Heart in Hand in 1743, and the Friendship Fire Company in 1747. Then the rivalry between the companies which became one of the features of Philadelphia’s life, was on in earnest.

For many years the care of the streets was as voluntary as the fire service. Many of the inhabitants of 1718 paved the streets at their own charges, “from ye Kennel to the middle of the streets before their respective tenements with pebblestones.” But there were of course many who refused to do their part, so an ordinance was passed compelling all property owners to pave in front of the lots owned by them or have it done at their expense. They were likewise obliged to sweep the sidewalk in front of the property every Friday. There was a penalty for throwing rubbish or ashes into the streets. A public scavenger was appointed to collect the rubbish and ashes once a week.

When Peter Kalm wrote of the city in 1748 he said of the streets:

“Some of them are paved, other not, and it seems less necessary, since the ground is sandy, and therefore absorbs the wet. But in most of the streets is a pavement of flags, a fathom or more broad, laid before the houses and posts put on the outside three or four fathoms asunder.”

Benjamin Franklin did not like to think of this inadequate paving, much of it being confined to a narrow space before the doors. In his autobiography he wrote:

“Our city, though laid out with a beautiful regularity, the streets large, straight and crossing each other at right angles, had the disgrace of suffering those streets to remain long unpaved, and in wet weather the wheels of heavy carriages plowed them into a quagmire, so that it was difficult to cross them; and in dry weather the dust was offensive.”

When Franklin made up his mind that something was to be done it was not long until the thing was done or at least begun. So it was with street paving. As he himself wrote:

“I had lived near what was called the Jersey market, and saw with pain the inhabitants wading in mud while purchasing their provisions. A strip of ground down the middle of that market was at length paved with brick, so that, being once in the market, they had firm footing; but they were often over shoes in dirt to get there. By talking and writing on the subject I was at length instrumental in getting the street paved with stone between the market and the foot pavement that was on the side next to their houses.”

But progress was not rapid. By the close of the Revolution not many streets were paved. In 1783 a petition went to the Board of Street Commissioners from property owners on “Lombard Street, between third and fourth streets,” who urged that they had “chearfully paid their proportion of the street taxes, in full confidence, however, that as soon as the situation of our public affairs would admit, they should be relieved in the premises.” They reminded the commissioners that “every other of the east and west Streets except two, have been paved westward, as far at least as fifth street,” and that “these two Streets referred to have scarcely any houses erected between third and fourth Streets.” They argued that because “Street is become a public outlet to the lower ferries over Schuylkill, and from them into the city,” the street should be paved.

In 1785 “a number of citizens who have taken up lots on Race Street above Fifth Street” urged that the said street, for want of pavement, “became almost impassable in Wet Weather, and especially in the winter season, to the great Inconvenience of the Citizens residing on said Street, and frequenting the same.” A later plea was for “the opening and repairing of Sassafras Street, commonly called Race Street, and if possible Vine Street also, from the paved parts of the city towards Schuylkill until these streets shall intersect the Road from Vine Street to the Bridge” at the upper ferry.

As late as 1802 conditions on Vine Street continued unfavorable. In January of that year a petition called attention to the fact “that Vine Street from First to Second Streets hath for this long time past waited a new regulation and paving. That owing to the Gutter or Water Course being in the Middle and other causes, that part of said Street especially in Winter is rendered dangerous for Carriage passing and repassing.” It was argued that “it is the Street of the Public as well as the Street of the Inhabitants of that part of said Street that Vine Street should be so regulated and paved it being the Avenue or High Road from the Country to the City, no Street being more used by Carts and Carriages.”

One of the unanswerable arguments in favor of street paving and cleaning was the prevalence of epidemics in the city, beginning with the small pox of 1736 and continuing to the many yellow fever scourges, the worst of which were in 1793 and 1798.

The story of the early smallpox scare was told vividly by Margaret Freame in a letter to John Penn, dated December 10, 1786. She wrote:

“The Smal-pox has and doth rage Very much in this Citty, Numbers of Persons Dying of it. at last Seeing it Prove so fatal in the Common way, that by a computation one dy’d in four, and not one in fifty by inoculation, Mr. Till concluded to have his wife and his 2 children, Mr. Taylor his little Boy, and divers others that has succeeded very well. Poor Tom had it full, but is now, I thank God Bravely recover’d, they are all turn’d, and most shell’d off. he begins to call for a Cook instead of a Doctor . . . Too many in this Citty are under the same Affliction; the Church bell is not suffer’d to ring but once for six [deaths] and it has wrung twice a day sometimes. I hope the Cold Weather will Put a Stop to this Contagion.”

Samuel Breck told in his Recollections of the yellow fever of 1797 which “obliged all the citizens who could remove to seek safety in the country.” His father took his family to Bristol. Mr. Breck himself was in the city early in September. “My business took me down to the Swedes’ Church and up Front Street to Walnut Street Wharf, where I had my country house,” he wrote. “Every thing looked gloomy, and fifty-five deaths were reported on the 9th. In the afternoon when I was about retiring to the country, I passed by the lodging of the Vicomte de Noailles, who had fled from the Revolutionists of France. He . . . asked me What I was doing in town. ‘Fly,’ said he, ‘as soon as you can, for pestilence is all around you.’

A writer of the day told of the yellow fever as it impressed him:

“In the beginning of August 1793 it pleased the wise Disposer of human events, to visit Philadelphia with a disease, which in many of its symptoms so resembled the Plague, that the Physicians were at a loss for a name, less alarming, to the afflicted citizens . . . It was a time of deep trial, and caused great searching of heart, none knowing what instant the contagion would reach them. Our friends and neighbors were hourly carried to their silent habitations, and dismay so seized the people that there were but very few, who had sufficient resolution to attend their nearest relations, either during their illness, or to their graves. Persons of the first distinction were without attendance except a black man who led the hearse, there were none to see that they were decently committed to the earth, and those who possessed the means to procure every comfort, suffered for want of a glass of water. There was a serious desertion of parents from children, children from parents, husbands from wives, and wives from husbands, thousands fled into the country for safety.”

The epidemic was made memorable by the heroic conduct of Stephen Girard. When the city was all but deserted and little attention was given to the care of the sick, he was appointed one of a committee to devise means of relief. One of the chief difficulties was that the Bush Hill Hospital was without adequate superintendence. Two men, of whom Stephen Girard was one, offered their services.

Philadelphians, who had been reserved in their treatment of the Frenchman, were amazed. “Before him stood probable death in its most repulsive form,” says Arey, in his biography of Girard. “Certain and heavy losses were to be entailed in the highest of his private interests; the most loathsome and the most menial duties were to be performed in person; and the possible reward of all this was a nameless grave upon the height of Bush Hill.” Soon after the beginning of his work Girard wrote to a friend in France, “The mortality is so great and the fever so general that it is no longer possible to find nurses for the sick or men to bury the dead.”

In three months one sixth of the twenty-five thousand inhabitants died.

There were returns of the disease in 1794, 1795, 1796, and 1797. In 1798 there were nearly as many deaths as in 1793. One of the dramatic incidents of 1798 occurred when the fever broke out in the Walnut Street Prison, where several hundred prisoners were confined. The jailer resigned, as well as several deputy jailers. One who has told of what followed says. “While the fever raged within the prison walls, some of the more desperate of its inmates planned an insurrection, in order to escape from confinement and the much dreaded pestilence. There was a meeting in the yard during the physician’s visit when some convicts escaped from their cells. The volunteer jailer conquered by force of arms after two rebels were mortally wounded. One of them said to the jailer: ‘It is well for you that you conquered us, for if successful, we intended to plunder and burn the city.”

Many theories were advised for the periodical appearance of the yellow fever in Philadelphia. Some contended that it was brought by immigrant vessels. As early as 1754 physicians were appointed to investigate the ships as they arrived, but they were not always successful in preventing the landing of those who brought contagion.

During the earlier years of the eighteenth century the heavily laden slavers brought disease and death with them.

Slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780, but slavers continued to be fitted out in the port. Accordingly, a petition was presented to the General Assembly asking that “such addition be made to the Said law as shall efficiently put a stop to the Slave Trade being carried on directly or indirectly in the Commonwealth, and to assure other purposes of benevolence and justice to an oppressed part of the human species.”

Opposition to the coming of the slaves to Philadelphia and the fitting out of slavers in the port was based, not on the desire to protect from disease, but on the higher desire to prevent wrong.

Pennsylvania was a leader in the antislavery agitation. The first formal protest against slavery was made in this colony, as well as the first organized agitation against it, the first and greatest of the abolition societies was formed here, and the first law to bring slavery to an end was written into the statutes of the colony.

Fourteen years before the passage of the law, in 1766, a legal document was filed in which freedom was given to a slave who had long been the property of one of the leading men in the colony. This early deed of manumission read as follows:

KNOW ALL MEN by these presents that we Mary and Sarah Norris joint administratrices of the Estate of Isaac Norris late of Fairhill in the county of Philadelphia Esqr deceased, have granted and agreed that a certain Negro man named Samuel late the property of their dear Parent the before mention’d Isaac Norris, upon Conditions shall be free, these therefore Witnesseth that for and in Consideration of his faithfull Services to his late honoured Master they do jointly agree that he the said Samuel shall from and after the thirteenth day of July next be free and discharg’d from his Servitude and shall have a bill of Manumission for that purpose in due form of Law. Provided Nevertheless that in the meanwhile the said Samuel doth faithfully and honestly serve them the said Mary and Sarah Norris on the same Conditions and in the same manner he has hitherto done otherwise this Obligation to be void and of no effect.”

Another method of setting a slave free was adopted by Charles Brockden in 1752, who had deeded his wife’s slave, Beulah, to the Moravian Church. Of her purchase he told thus:

“The cause of which purchase of her was not with any intention of worldly gain by continuing her in slavery all the days of her life, but partly for the service of my dear wife Susannah, who is since deceased, and partly in mercy to prevent others from buying her for filthy lucre’s sake.”

A custom that at times, for a season at least, brought almost as many hardships to the voluntary victims as the institution of slavery was the system of the sale of redemptioners. An agreement between Captain Osborne and his passengers, now in possession of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, tells how those redemptioners began a sort of slavery:

“We whose Names are hereunto annexed do hereby acknowledge that we have agreed with Capt. Peter Osborne, Commander of the good Ship called the Pennsylvania Packett to Pay him for our Passage from London to Philadelphia in North America Fourteen Days after our safe arrival at the said place, (the said Capt. Osborne finding us in sufficient meat and drink during the said passage) at and after the rate of eight pounds eight shillings Sterling per Head — & in case of nonperformance of the said payment by any of us, that then the said Captain, Peter Osborne or the Owners of the said ship shall have full Power to dispose of us for the said money, or any of us that shall not make good the said Payment within the said fourteen Days above limited Witness our Hands in London the 16th day of February in the year of our Lord 1773.”

But the days of the redemptioner, like the days of the slave, were finally ended, and the way was open for every citizen of Philadelphia to enjoy life and liberty.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.