Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Conjuring, Fortune Telling, and Witchcraft, in 19th Century Philadelphia

Stereotypically, when one thinks of Philadelphia during the 19th century, an image comes to mind of a sophisticated urban area, filled with scientific, educational & cultural institutions, legacies derived in part from the preceding century, when such enlightened events as the signing of the 'Declaration of Independence' and the 'Constitutional Convention' transpired, a city which at at one time served as the capital of our nation, a metropolis blessed with famed citizens like Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush.

However, there was another Philadelphia as well: a 'darker,' more sinister side, where superstition played a role in the lives of many of its residents, long after the Revolutionary War.

In March of 1827, Richard Barker was found in a dying condition, "on the pavement" in Shippen Street. He had for some days been residing among "a certain class" of people, one of whom "had the reputation of being acquainted with the black art--a conjurer..."

Lucinda Barker, the purported widow of Richard, visited the city in the summer of 1830, in an attempt to discover her husband's fate, and told the 'Court of Oyer & Terminer' of her incessant prayers aimed towards this discovery, that a "figure" had appeared to her, "dressed in a white shroud" and pleaded, " 'Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda, pursue my murderers, you will learn who they are from the police of New York and Philadelphia.' I answered quickly and repeated it, 'I will, I will, while I have strength and life,' and then it vanished."

Two sisters, Maggie Butler and Mrs. Ida Rehr in 1885, while running a produce stand at the Farmer's Market on 12th & Market Streets, "cowhided" or whipped an innocent man named Simon Harris, whom they believed had been "pilfering" baskets of fruits and vegetables from their stall. Having "consulted a fortune teller last week" they had been "told that the culprit was a blonde young man," thus they began to attack the passer-by who fit the fortune teller's description. Luckily, Harris failed to press charges against the two ladies, even though the man's face "showed several crimson streaks" which he received from the whip.

Prior to this event, Elizabeth White, described as "a mulatto woman," residing in 1859 between Sixth and Seventh Streets, in the city's Fifth Ward, was said by newspaper accounts to be "a Doctress and Astrologist by profession," who was stabbed by her husband "rapidly three or four times in the breast, and also cut her knee, and then fled, leaving his victim bleeding."

But perhaps the most sensational case, occurred in 1852, with newspaper headings entitled, "Superstition in Philadelphia," and "Witchcraft--Evidence of an Enlightened Age," when Mary Ann Clinton & Susan Spearing, residents of Southwark Ward, were formally charged at the 'Court of Quarter Sessions,' with "conspiring to cheat and defraud George F. Elliott, by means of fortune telling and conjuration," in order to extort money. The 'Commonwealth of Pennsylvania' alleged that the two women were giving Mrs. Elliott, "a bottle containing some portions of Mr. Elliott's clothing, and telling her that as the clothing decayed, so Mr. Elliott would moulder away, until he would finally die by virtue of the spell..."

It appeared that Mrs. Elliott suspected her husband was guilty of infidelity, a belief which "had so strong an effect upon her as to make her wish for his death." Thus, she had enlisted the services of Clinton & Spearing, who also encouraged the jealous wife, as an "ordeal of witchcraft," to "take her husband's clothes, tear them to pieces, fill the bottle with them, then boil the contents nine times, and this would give him such extreme pain as to cause his death."

To carry out the above 'spell,' Mrs. Elliott willingly had payed the two 'conjurers,' their required fee.

Not to be outdone, Mrs. Carmela Rubino to the north, in New York City, as late as 1910, charged Giovanni Leonardo & Leonora Buffano $276.00, for certain "black powders and blue ribbons," in order to drive away "devils." Mrs. Rubino's "demon dispellers" caused her to spend 50 days in jail, after she was convicted of "practicing medicine illegally," and was forced also to pay a fine of $500.00 for her "exorbitant fees for worthless concoctions."

The above accounts reveal that such incredulity was not limited to Colonial America, but existed well into the Modern era, and for that matter, has not entirely disappeared even in the 21st century. These accounts, their documentation and other similar events, can all be examined as part of the collections here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Curse of the Bonsall Family of Pennsylvania?

One of the earliest Colonial families in the Philadelphia area was the Bonsall family, deriving from Richard Bonsall & his wife Mary, who immigrated from Derbyshire, England (ca. 1683) to what is now Upper Darby. Many of their descendants became prominent citizens in Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia counties.

By the early 19th century, many of the Bonsalls had migrated to other parts of the country, where they also gained prominence. One such individual was the lawyer, Sermon Bonsall, Esquire, a native of Philadelphia who had migrated south, first to Columbia, South Carolina, then onto the small town of Raymond, in Hinds County, Mississippi, where he became one of its most leading residents.

The Delaware County (PA) Republican, for September 10th, 1841, printed the sudden demise of Sermon Bonsall, which had occurred on August 17th, when he "was accidentally killed by a fall from his mule..." Naturally, many individuals have lost their lives while riding, but the above newspaper added the following:

What is a strange coincidence, the residence of the deceased was struck by lightning on the same day that he expired, and as nearly as can be ascertained, it was about the same moment in which he died!

The manner of the lightning was singular and unusual. The sun was shining, nor were there any indications of an approaching thunder storm, when, at a moment totally unexpected, there was a most appalling discharge of electricity, accompanied by an instantaneous peal of thunder.

The fluid descended in two columns...entering through the wall, utterly destroying the clock & strewing the floor with the fragments...
The Raymond (Mississippi) Times, for August 20, 1841, confirmed that Sermon Bonsall was indeed, "thrown by his mule and his injury, which was internal, was incurable. Mr. Bonsall was forty years of age on the 27th of January last. He was a native of Philadelphia."

To add 'insult to injury,' if you will, a relative, Benjamin C. Bonsall, a son of Benjamin Bonsall & Elizabeth Hibberd, born in 1805, "was killed by lightning" on May 3, 1828 in Pennsylvania, while Enoch Bonsall, of Upper Darby, was murdered by four men on May 22nd, 1824. The robbers first "bound him to a chair," then ransacked his home, returned and "stabbed him in the abdomen," wounds which brought about his death the next morning. (See, Gilbert Cope & Henry G. Ashmead, ed's, Historic Homes & Institutions & Genealogical & Personal Memoirs of Chester & Delaware Counties, Pennsylvania, Vol.II., NY: The Lewis Publishing Co; 1904: 28-29).

Years later, local newspapers in the Philadelphia area, for October 11th, 1905, would also carry the tragic deaths of Miss Josephine Bonsall, age 40, and her nephew, Wallace Bonsall, age 13, who were struck by a train as they attempted to drive their carriage over the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, at the Bonsall Avenue crossing in Fernwood (where else could it have occurred!) Both were immediately killed by the oncoming engine.

Strange bizarre deaths & coincidences have in the past filled volumes. The above is just a few examples from one Philadelphia family, which had a 'streak of bad luck' over time.