Monday, July 18, 2011

'John Brown's Body,' 1859: Philadelphia's Medical Schools Rebellion Against Its Presence in the City.

As most people realize, the execution of the famous abolitionist, John Brown, on December 2nd, 1859, by the state of Virginia for 'treason, and for conspiring and advising with slaves and other rebels, and murder in the first degree," prompted a wave of anti-Southern feeling within the Northern states, where he was perceived as a 'martyr for freedom,' although some Northernors believed Brown to have been quite insane at the time.

It is also well-known that once the various Southern States began to secede from the Union, hundreds of medical students attending various Philadelphia colleges, went South to enlist within the Confederate armed forces. However, many are unaware that prior to the outbreak of the Civil War itself in 1861; in December of 1859, hundreds of Southern-born medical students left Philadelphia for their native South land, specifically because of John Brown as well.

Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, a native Virginian, was a graduate of the Winchester, Virginia Medical College in 1855 where he also taught anatomy. He later came to Philadelphia to teach surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as at Jefferson Medical College.  He and another native of Virginia, Dr. Francis E. Luckett, were offended by Brown's famous raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), on October 16th, 1859, and more acutely upset, once they discovered that 'John Brown's body,' was first to be embalmed in Philadelphia, then transported by rail, through Philadelphia in early December, on its way to his final resting place in North Elba, New York.

Prior to the commencement of the Civil War, Philadelphia in December of 1859 was filled with both abolitionists and pro-slavery factions, and numerous medical students native to Virginia and elsewhere were residing in the 'City of Brotherly Love' at the time of John Brown's raid, execution, and transportation to New York. Mayor Alexander Henry, aware of the above friction and threats from both sides to plan demonstrations, wisely "made a fake casket, covered with flowers and flags which was carefully lifted from the coach and the train and sped onward in its destination..." In reality the train carrying Brown's body never actually stopped in Philadelphia, and thus violence was averted by a "sham coffin." (see, "The John Brown Excitement....Arrival Here of the Body. A Sham Coffin," in, Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, December 4th, 1859; Philadelphia Germantown Telegraph, January 4th, 1860).

However, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire "organized a movement" which encouraged over three hundred medical students attending the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Medical College, to leave Philadelphia by rail en masse, on December 21st, 1859, in direct opposition to 'John Brown.' They first marched from Jefferson to the 'Musical Fund Hall' while giving the 'Rebel yell.'  Their passage by train out of the city, was paid by the Medical College of Virginia, an amount of almost $4,000 dollars, where many officially enrolled as students, while others continued on further South to medical colleges located in Charleston, Nashville, and New Orleans (see, "Another Civil War Story," The Pennsylvania Gazette, July/August, 2011, p.8).

Dr. McGuire left Philadelphia as well and returned to his native city of Winchester, in Frederick County, Virginia. Once war began, he would join the Confederate Army as a private, but soon became the Medical Director for the Army of the Shenandoah, serving with the famed Confederate officer, Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson. It was McGuire who amputated 'Stonewall' Jackson's wounded left arm in May of 1863, as well as General Richard S. Ewell's left leg above the knee. After Jackson's death, McGuire would continue to serve as Medical Director of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Truly the Civil War and our nation's response to the events preceding its outbreak and culmination are fascinating to study. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has original 'John Brown' materials as well as many sources relative to the above incidents. Thus, there are many primary sources by which one can learn about pre-Civil War activities within Philadelphia, during this 150th Commemoration or Anniversary of our nation's worst and most intriguing disaster.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Executions in Revolutionary War Philadelphia

This appeared in July's HSP email publication, History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania.
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Fear, anger, and revenge were no strangers to the early residents of Philadelphia County during the Revolutionary War. Many had suffered during the British occupation, losing property, homes, and family members to both sides of the conflict.  In Philadelphia and the surrounding area, emotions ran high and compassion was at a minimum when the British Army retreated.

As the British departed from Philadelphia in June 1778 and American forces reclaimed the city, a number of trials of suspected British supporters commenced, some even resulted in executions of the accused.  Loyalists had been tried, convicted, and hanged for actively recruiting Americans into the British Army, including James Iliff and John Mee of Morristown, New Jersey on December 2, 1777.  Abijah (or Abisha) Wright and William Thurlow had also been hanged in 1778 in Whitpain Township (now Montgomery County) from the limb of a large walnut and white oak tree respectively, for the burglary and attempted murder of Squire Andrew Knox, a Patriot.

Perhaps the most famous yet tragic execution of an alleged
John Roberts' house in Lower Merion Township
John Roberts' house still stands in Lower Merion Township

Loyalist was that of Quaker millwright John Roberts III.  A wealthy man who owned 700 acres of land stretching from Pennsylvania into Maryland, Roberts was the grandson of a 17th century Welsh immigrant and lived with his wife and twelve children at a home on the corner of Old Gulph Road and Dodds Lane in Lower Merion Township (right). He was accused by some of his less prosperous neighbors of being a Loyalist in support of the British cause.  One account charged that Roberts had mixed glass in the flour ground at his mill to give to American troops, although it was never confirmed.  

On August 10, 1778, Roberts was arrested along with Abraham Carlisle, another local man accused of being a Loyalist, even though he had aided imprisoned American soldiers. Hundreds of prominent loyal citizens, including three of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, signed petitions (like the one below) attesting to Roberts' good character and calling for a pardon to be issued.   
Letter to the Sheriff of Philadelphia from James Young, in defense of John Roberts, July 27, 1778
Letter to the sheriff of Philadelphia from James Young, in defense of John Roberts, July 27, 1778
Elizabeth Drinker diary entry, Nov. 4, 1778
Elizabeth Drinker diary entry, Nov. 4, 1778

However, less than three months later, John Roberts was executed for treason by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  His supporters believed he had been used as a scapegoat and his execution as a warning to other Loyalists.  Others advocated that his trial was an initiative started by some of his greedy neighbors in order to claim his valuable property.  One Quaker woman, Elizabeth Drinker, remarked in her diary (pictured right) on November 4, 1778: "they have actually put to Death; Hang'd on the Commons, John Robarts and Am. awful Solemn day it has been...the poor afflicted widows, are wonderfully upheld and supported, under their very great trial-they have many simpathzing Friends."

Although Roberts was declared a traitor and his property confiscated, a portion of the family property was returned to his widow in 1792, who was also granted a small pension for her care.  Abraham Carlisle, though his attorneys attempted to prove that his indictment was "vague and uncertain," was hanged without a reprieve.

To learn more about John Roberts, look for David W. Maxey's Treason on Trial in Revolutionary Pennsylvania: The Case of John Roberts, Miller to be published through the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.  A Philadelphia lawyer and history enthusiast, Maxey served on the Board of Councilors of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  
In response to last month's installment of History Hits about the crash of the Hindenburg, HSP member Jane Krumrine generously donated a framed photograph of the airship in flames.  The photograph was taken by her father, Charles S. Krumrine, at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937. 
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