Several years ago, a neighbor of mine presented me with a most unusual gift, the June 2, 1829 edition of The American Sentinel newspaper, published in Philadelphia by Jacob Frick and Company.
The American Sentinel was a weekly newspaper, and was only around for twenty years (1820-1840). My neighbor had the newspaper in a cardboard plastic container but generally it was in good condition. Newspapers have a poor shelf life. There are newspapers from the 1960s, for instance, that seem to disintegrate the moment you touch them, but The Sentinel was different. When I went home and took the newspaper out of its wrapping it did not crumble to pieces. The pages didn’t tear when I held it or turned the paper sideways.
Another thing about reading old newspapers: There is sometimes a pungent odor that seems to rise from the newsprint. The Sentinel has this in spades, and for a moment or two I thought I might be breathing in a dusty invisible something left over from the city’s yellow fever epidemic.
The Book of Mormon was copyrighted in 1829; the year that Eastern State Penitentiary opened, and the first year of the Philadelphia Flower Show. The cornerstone of the U.S. Mint at Chestnut and Juniper Streets was also laid in 1829.
Although I’ve had The American Sentinel for a while, I just recently took it out of its plastic wrapper and gave it a good read. That’s when the odor rose up from the yellowed pages like a magic powder from the 19th Century.
Looking over the newspaper, several stories caught my attention.
There’s a story about how a young man named Robert Chambers, “was suffocated on Saturday afternoon by foul air, while digging a well to drain an old privy near the corner of Fifth and Powell Streets.” The article states that “an older man who was in the well with him, was taken out with difficulty, and carried to the Hospital.”
The capitalization of the word “hospital” is interesting because in this case the word doesn’t specify which hospital the older man was carried to. The word used alone is never capitalized but in 1829 when there were few hospitals around, there was a mystique attached to the word. Pennsylvania Hospital, for instance, was founded in 1751 by that master of genius and duplicity, Benjamin Franklin, whereas in the 1790s there was a quarantine hospital at Fort Mifflin, and then a much larger quarantine hospital near Tinicum Island in Essington, Pennsylvania (near the present day Philadelphia International Airport), called Lazaretto, after Saint Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. Both quarantine hospitals were built to help thwart the yellow fever epidemic in the city.
The anonymous writer of the privy story goes into editorial mode when he elaborates on the tragedy: “Many accidents of this kind have occurred lately in the city. Could they not be guarded against in future, by sinking the new wells at a greater distance from the old ones, and by frequently letting down a lighted candle to test the purity of the air.”
Below this story is another item:
“On Saturday last a man in Queen Street committed suicide by cutting his throat. The exciting cause is said to have been his having made a bad swap with a horse.” The word ‘exciting’ here seems odd and misplaced. There’s nothing exciting about a throat slashing unless ‘terrorist’ is your middle name.
Like other newspapers of the period, The Sentinel also published installments of novels-in-progress, poetry, and war memories. There are also advertisements for schooners (if you needed to sail to New York or Virginia), and announcements regarding running for public office.
How simple it was in 1829 to announce your candidacy for public office. It was simply a matter of taking out advertising space in the local newspaper. It was unnecessary to receive the blessing of party bosses or have a million dollars at your disposal. Where did this true democracy go? One Sentinel announcement reads: “Gentlemen—Encouraged by my friends, I respectfully offer myself as a candidate for the office of County Commissioner at the ensuing election. Edward Penington.”
And from one Daniel Miller in Northern Liberties, we learn that he has declared himself a candidate for Sheriff.
“In support of the application now made,” Miller states, “I will only state that during the revolutionary struggle I was most actively engaged in the acquirement of our national independence. Should I be so fortunate as to obtain the office I solicit, I pledge myself that no exertions shall be spared on my part to discharge its duties with justice and impartially.”
In June of 1829 at the Walnut Street Theatre, two shows were being offered, Cavaliers and Roundheads and the farce, The Irishman in London, with gallery seats going for twelve and a half cents, box seats at 50 cents and the pit at a quarter. The top dollar seats were the orchestra seats at 75 cents a pop.
Searching the Web for information on Irishman in London at first yielded a lurid contemporary newspaper headline: 13-Year old Boy Pleads Guilty to Murder of Irishman in London. This case involved the stabbing death of 53-year-old John Barry of North London who got into an argument with a number of teenaged males in front of his apartment building as he was trying to enter the building with his girlfriend. This obviously is not what I wanted although I was struck by a sentence in the news report that the identity of the 13-year-old was being protected because of his tender age. (Protection, my foot; when you willfully murder somebody you are no longer a ‘corruptible’ minor but another type of creature altogether).
References to the Walnut Street Theatre farce came up only after the news of the North London murder. I learned that the official title of the farce was really The Irishman in London, Or the Happy African; A Farce by William Macready, published in 1818.
Over at the Arch Street Theatre, I read that there was a lecture by a Miss Wright (no first name?) on Existing Evils, with seats selling for twelve and one half cents. What existing evils: Slavery, intemperance? The reader is left guessing.
In a published directive from the Mayor’s office, dated May 1829, Mayor B. W. Richards reminds city residents of an action enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania regarding the paving and curbing of streets and alleys in the City of Philadelphia. Exceptions were private alleys intended for the sole use of the owners even though there was a continual passage of carts on these private alleys. It appears that both the state and city had had it with unkempt dirt roads.
I checked up on Mayor B.W. Richards and found that he was elected mayor in 1829 although according to the official List of Mayors for the City of Philadelphia in 1829 the city also had another mayor, William Milnor. Milnor’s name, however, disappears in 1830 when Richards’ name appears again. Richards is mayor until 1831. But why were there two mayors in 1829?
The Help Wanted ads are anything but politically correct, reminding me somewhat of Help Wanted ads I read when I first started looking for jobs in my mid-teens. Employers, if they are honest, must harbor secret images of the kind of employee they’d like to have working for them, but publishing these “requirements” are in many cases illegal, often for good reason.
Help Wanted ads, for instance, used to be divided into gender categories. Secretarial jobs were always female; mechanic’s jobs and theatre ushers always male. The end of gender labeling in Help Wanted has sometimes led to employers going through the motions of interviewing people they know they’re not going to hire, just to satisfy the requirements of the law.
Help Wanted ads in The Sentinel leave no room for ambiguity. One ad, for instance, states in no uncertain terms that A man is needed to attend as porter. Apply to 270 North Second Street. A coloured man would be preferred.
Other employers state that they are on the lookout for apprentice coppersmith journeymen, but that they must be “sober minded.”
It helps not to drink on the job.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” “Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” will be published later this year.