Gray, lanky, and serene-faced, Joe Sweeney is now 80 years old. The former Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy grew up in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. His father was a prominent physician at Pennsylvania General Hospital, his mother a nurse. His mother, born into a well-to-do North Carolina family, converted to her husband’s Roman Catholic faith, not just out of love, but out of a remarkable thing she saw during the 1918 flu epidemic.
“There were lines of people people on 34th Street trying to get into the hospital,” Joe said. “The people who died at the hospital were buried across the street, where the Civic Center was. The seminarians from St. Charles dug the graves. Mom and Dad had horrible experiences, but she was inspired by what she saw.”
Young Joe came up through Philadelphia’s parochial school system, living in a big Victorian house at 38th and Spring Garden and attending St. Agatha’s Parish. Yet he never got the chance to row in high school: his father died when he was only ten years old. Even though his father was a highly-paid physician, the Sweeneys did not have enough in savings to maintain their previous lifestyle. “My mom put the older boys through parochial school,” he said, “but she couldn’t afford to keep everyone at home.” To earn extra money, Joe would run errands for the local Pennsylvania Railroad employees. During the 1940s, the PRR was in slow decline, but it was still one of the biggest employers in Philadelphia. Thousands of brakeman, signalmen, locomotive engineers, and repairmen worked long and hard shifts at the Powelton yards adjacent to 30th Street Station, “In the afternoons, the clerks would give you an address to a train man to let him known when and where to report,” Joe remembered. “The PRR would give you a quarter to deliver the slip to the man at his home.”
Running errands for the railroad also gave young Joe his first taste of alcohol. As the dusk approached, he would stop by the houses on Brandywine Street, just north of Powelton Village, where the wives of the railroad workers were making dinner. “The mother would give you a metal pot, and you’d go to the nearest bar, where there would be a blackboard with the names of the guys.”
The bartender would fill up the pot with beer, and then give Joe a shotglass full of beer.
“That was his pay to you,” Joe remembered. “I remember being so small that I had to reach up to the bar to get that little shotglass full of beer. It was the culture. Teach you how to drink.” Yet despite the heavy drinking, the clergy made sure that their flock would turn off the spigot in time for Sunday communion. Monsignor Mellon of St. Agatha’s would stride into Deemer’s bar, fully dressed in his robes, and announce, “Alright men, It’s Sunday!” And everyone would scatter and the bar would close.
When he turned 17, Joe left home and enlisted in the Navy. He came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s and enrolled at Lasalle University. It was there that he discovered rowing, which would turn into a lifelong passion. It was also on Boathouse Row that he discovered the so-called “Irish Mafia,” headed by the legendary Kelly clan.
To be continued…
Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground, Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital, To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return, To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss, An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
Nowadays, it is the Saturday farmers’ market draws crowds to verdant Clark Park, the heart of West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill neighborhood. Yet only a few short steps from the stands displaying pink heirloom tomatoes and canned Amish chowchow is a large chunk of rock pulled from the Gettysburg battlefield.
It is the only reminder of what stood here a century-and-a-half ago: America’s largest Civil War military hospital. During the worst years of fighting, over 5,000 wounded soliders lived here, many suffering from debilitating, horrendous injuries.
According to the late historian Shelby Foote, the reason for the high casualties during the Civil War was that the cutting-edge weapons of industrial warfare were far ahead of the generals’ Napoleonic tactics. Massed infantry charges met with very accurate, withering fire from the newfangled rifled musket and heavy artillery. When using a rifled musket when paired with the conical Minie ball, a soldier could kill an enemy at half-a-mile. After a major battle, the statistics printed in Northern and Southern newspapers were so vast as to be almost minded numbing. At the 1862 Battle of Antietam, for example, an estimated 87,000 Union soldiers under the leadership of Philadelphia-born General George B. McClellan faced off against 37,000 Confederates under the command of General Robert E. Lee. September 17, 1862 remains the bloodiest day in American military history: 3,600 men killed, 17,000 wounded, and 1,800 captured or missing on the banks of a creek in rural Maryland.
The Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 10 months after Antietam, ended with a decisive Union victory, but there were over 50,000 casualties on both sides over three hot July days. At the same time, General U.S. Grant captured the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, opening up the Mississippi River to Union naval traffic and cutting the Confederacy in two. Yet many Northerners did not herald General U.S. Grant as a hero. First Lady Mary Lincoln derided him as “Butcher Grant.” In response, President Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Where did these thousands of “wounded” men go? Some recovered from relatively minor injuries, and then donned their uniforms again to fight another day. But then there were the amputees, whose shattered legs and arms were sawn off in makeshift battlefield hospitals. In the days before sterilization, Army surgeons would reuse the same blood-soaked saws again and again. For the poor patient, the only anesthesia was a slug of whiskey. Infection ran rampant. And then there were men whose faces had been gruesomely disfigured. They were missing eyes, ears, even parts of their jaws. Many of them ended up addicted to the opium-based drugs that doctors freely distributed to them to alleviate their intense physical and psychological pain.
Philadelphia in the mid-19th century was arguably the preeminent American medical city. The University of Pennsylvania, still located at 8th and Chestnut, was more famous for its medical school and teaching hospital than its undergraduate programs. Due to its relatively close proximity to the killing fields of Virginia, not to mention its large and well-trained medical community, Philadelphia was a logical place for a new hospital for convalescing veterans. In 1862, Surgeon-General William Alexander Hammond appointed Philadelphia physician Isaac Israel Hayes to construct a new Army hospital on 15 acres in then-rural West Philadelphia. The setting was woodsy and pastoral, and Washington’s Army brass hoped that the clean country air of the Philadelphia suburbs would not only hasten the soldiers’ recovery, but also uplift their spirits.
Hayes was a natural choice. Not only was he an esteemed physician, but a brilliant planner. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1853, the young Quaker signed on as ship’s surgeon in one of many expeditions in search of lost British explorer Sir John Franklin, and on a later Arctic expedition allegedly became the first European to tread the shores of Ellesmere Island. The logistics of planning a 4,500-bed hospital from scratch, and in a hurry, dwarfed even those of planning a multi-year Arctic expedition, but Hayes was not deterred. He put pen to paper and laid out a temporary city of canvas tents and wood structures on the site. It was later calculated that that at its peak, Satterlee consumed 800,000 pounds of bread, 16,000 pounds of butter and 334,000 quarts of milk per year, all of which had to be brought in by horse-and-wagon on muddy, rutted Baltimore Pike.
For Hayes, who had just returned from the Arctic, being thrown into the bloody cauldron of the Civil War was a rude awakening, as he had been away from America for so much of his adult life. His years of sailing through fields of icebergs in search of Franklin and the Northwest Passage were as if “set down in a dream.”
To augment the ranks of professional physicians, Hayes partnered with the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity, who would live in an adjacent convent. Twenty or so nuns would change the bed sheets, empty the chamber pots, dress festering wounds, and most importantly, offer emotional solace to those lonely men in agony, far from home and loved ones. According to biographer Douglas W. Wamsley, Dr. Hayes instructed the medical staff to do whatever it took to avoid amputations, thus keeping the soldiers’ bodies whole. Given the lack of sterilization, this policy might have actually prevented deaths from infection.
“There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it’s eyes and awake, but woke it with a start – keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.” -John B. Thayer III, 1940
John B. “Jack” Thayer III seemed to have everything a successful Philadelphian could want. He was the son of the second vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and educated at the Haverford School and the University of Pennsylvania. He was married to Lois Buchanan Cassatt, granddaughter of Pennsy’s president Alexander Cassatt, the mastermind of New York’s Penn Station. After graduating from college in 1916, Thayer served his country with distinction in World War I, and then worked in a series of investment jobs until he became partner in the investment firm of Yarnall & Company. In addition to serving his alma mater as its financial vice president, he also belonged to numerous clubs and societies.
Dr. Thomas Sovereign Gates, president of the University, called him a “loyal and trusted servant.”
Yet even as America celebrated victory over the Axis in that joyous summer of 1945, a dark cloud seemed to be enveloping the 50-year-old banker. His beloved mother Marian had died the previous April. His 22-year-old son Edward had been shot down over the Pacific a year before that.
And then there was the ever-present ghost of his father John B. Thayer Jr., whose legacy as railroad executive and sportsman was memorialized on a plaque in Penn’s Houston Hall.
Jack Thayer had spent the past three decades searching for peace. And he found none.
On September 19, 1945, Thayer drove from his elegant home in Grays Lane in Haverford to the intersection of 48th and Parkside Avenue, parked his car, took out several wrapped blades, and slit his wrists. Then his throat.
His body was not discovered for another forty hours.
John B. “Jack” Thayer III left behind a book he had printed privately a few years earlier and inscribed to his friends and family.
On the early morning of April 15, 1912, 17-year-old Jack Thayer and his friend Milton Long found themselves stranded on the sloping decks of the RMS Titanic. Two hours after the ship’s collision with the iceberg, the Titanic was down by the bow and listing heavily to port. There had been no general alarm or sirens.
The Titanic’s giant engines had stopped shortly after 11:40pm. “The sudden quiet was startling and disturbing,” Thayer recalled. “Like the subdued quiet in a sleeping car, at a stop, after a continuous run.”
Then came the roar of escaping steam from the ship’s 29 boilers, and an occassional white rocket bursting in the night sky.
The two young men found themselves blocked from entering the lifeboats: “No more boys,” barked Second Officer Charles Lightoller. In the distance, they saw flickering oil lamps coming from the 18 lifeboats that had made it off the ship. Jack’s mother Marian was in one of them. The freezing cold Atlantic rose ever closer to the boat deck. Lights from submerged portholes glowed green for a while in the black water before shorting out. Atop the officers’ quarters, a group of men struggled to free two collapsible liferafts lashed to the deck. There was no hope of hooking them onto the davits and lowering them properly: they would have be floated off as the ship went down.
“Mr. Moon-Man, Turn off the Light,” a popular song from Jack Thayer’s childhood that was almost certainly part of theTitanic band’s repertoire. From the 1979 film SOS Titanic.
A few minutes after 2:05am, first class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, who had helped women and children into the lifeboats for the past hour, was surprised to see a “mass of humanity” come up from below, “several lines deep converging on the Boat Deck facing us and completely blocking our passage to the stern. There were women in the crowd as well as men and these seemed to be steerage passengers who had just come up from the decks below. Even among these people there was no hysterical cry, no evidence of panic. Oh the agony of it.”
First and second class passengers had access to lifeboats from their deck spaces. But not steerage — they had been kept below until now. Except for those lucky enough to find their way through a maze of barriers and corridors to the boat deck level.
Gracie also noticed John B. Thayer Jr. chatting on deck with his fellow Philadelphia millionaire George D. Widener, whose wife Eleanor had also left in a boat. Only a few hours earlier, the Widener and Thayer families had hosted a celebratory dinner in Titanic’s captain Edward J. Smith honor in the ship’s 120-seat a la carte restaurant on B-deck. Gracie remembered that the elder Thayer looked “pale and determined.”
Jack Thayer lost his father in the milling crowd, which after realizing all the boats were gone, began to surge with panic.
At around 2:10am, the liner’s bow took a rapid plunge downward, as seawater burst through cargo hatches, doors, and windows.
“It was like standing under a steel railway bridge while an express train passes overhead,” he recalled of being stuck on the sinking ship, “mingled with the noise of a pressed steel factory and wholesale breakage of china.
Milton Long got ready to slide down the side of the ship by using one of the dangling lifeboat ropes. “You are coming, boy, aren’t you?” Long said.
“Go ahead, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Thayer responded above the din.
Long slid down the rope. Thayer jumped. “I never saw him again.”
Thrashing around in freezing water, Thayer could see the ship in full profile as it sank deeper into the Atlantic.
“The ship seemed to be surrounded with a glare,” he recalled, “and stood out of the night as though she were on fire…. The water was over the base of the first funnel. The mass of people on board were surging back, always back toward the floating stern. The rumble and roar continued, with even louder distinct wrenchings and tearings of boilers and engines from their beds.”
The Titanic’s electric lights flickered out, came on again with red glow, and then went out for the last time.
Then he saw something even more terrifying: the ship breaking in half. “Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split, well forward to midship, and bow or buckle upwards,” he recalled. “The second funnel, large enough for two automobiles to pass through abreast, seemed to be lifted off, emitting a cloud of sparks It looked as if it would fall on top of me. It missed me by only twenty or thirty feet. The suction of it drew me down and down struggling and swimming, practically spent.”
The water began to numb his limbs, and he looked desperately for something that could support him. Everything was too small: deck chairs, crates, broken pieces of paneling. He then banged his head on something big. It was one of the two collapsible lifeboats, overturned, with about a dozen men scrambling to stay balanced on its wood-planked bottom. With his last bit of strength, he swam for the boat and hauled himself on top.
He couldn’t just lie there. To keep the boat from sinking, the men had to stand up, leaning to the right and left at the command of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the same man who had said no more boys were allowed to board lifeboats. Also onboard was Colonel Archibald Gracie. As cold and frightened as he was, Jack did not turn his eyes away from the spectacle. “We could see groups of the almost 1,500 people still aboard,” he wrote later, “clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great after part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a 65- or 70-degree angle.”
When the water closed over the Titanic’s stern–at 2:20am, April 15, 1912–Thayer heard a noise that rang in his ears for the rest of his life.
The sound of hundreds of people struggling in the icy water reminded him eerily of the sound of singing locusts on a summer night at the Thayer family estate on the Main Line. “The partially filled lifeboats standing by, only a few hundred yards away, never came back,” he wrote angrily. “Why on earth they did not come back is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries?”
Among those voices that cried out in rage and desperation in that mid-Atlantic night were those belonging to his father John Borland Thayer Jr., as well as his friend Milton Long. Over the next thirty minutes, the cries gradually grew fainter and fainter, until there was only the sound of water lapping against the sides of the collapsible boat.
At around 6:30am, the first pink light of dawn shone across the flat calm ocean. Icebergs glittered all around. One of the partially-filled lifeboats drew up alongside the overturned collapsible. One by one, the men who had survived those awful few hours atop the boat scrambled aboard. Most of the 20 or so of his boatmates were crew members. Thayer, the pampered scion of one of Philadelphia’s richest families, realized how little those distinctions mattered atop Collapsible B. “They surely were a grimy, wiry, dishevelled, hard-looking lot,” he wrote of the men who had shoveled coal into the steamship’s boilers, seven decks below the paneled salons and suites of first class. “Under the surface they were brave human beings, with generous and charitable hearts.”
With the dawn came another sight: the smoking funnel of the small Cunard liner RMS Carpathia, whose master Arthur Rostron had steamed full-speed through the icefield after his wireless operator had picked up Titanic’s radio distress call. She came a few hours too late to save everyone from the Titanic, but soon enough to pick up the 705 people who had made it into lifeboats.
“Even through my numbness I began to realize that I was saved,” Thayer wrote in his book, “that I would live.”
Archibald Gracie, Titanic: A Survivor’s Story (Stroud, UK, 2011), p.30.
“John B. Thayer 3d Found Dead in Car,” The New York Times, September 22, 1945.
This past January, I spent an hour speaking with Ron Donatucci, a native South Philadelphian and long-time Register of Wills. He has been a fixture at City Hall for the past three thirty-five years. Before that, he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a Democratic ward leader, and a lawyer in private practice. He also serves on the Board of Directors of City Trusts, and Temple University’s Board of Trustees, the board of Girard College, and Wills Eye Hospital.He was childhood friends with the attorney Frank DeSimone, who I interviewed for a previous piece for PhillyHistory.
When asked what he felt was the most formative experience of his childhood, he replied that it was his three years at Central High School in the mid-1960s.
For Ron Donatucci, asking, “What class were you in?” is his version of the classic Philadelphia question, “Where are you from?”
He grew up in the Girard Estates section of South Philadelphia, a comfortable enclave of 1920s Tudor and Spanish revival homes within the boundaries of St. Monica’s Parish. With a few, mainly Jewish exceptions, the Girard Estates neighborhood was Italian-American and devoutly Catholic, mostly second and third generation Americans who had become doctors, lawyers, and small business owners. Donatucci’s father, an old school “Roosevelt Democrat” and local ward leader, ran a successful plumbling supply business.
After attending the local parish school at 18th and Ritner, Donatucci went to Bishop Neumann High School for a year. He then tested into Central’s 224th class, and joined about 15 other neighborhood kids who got on the Broad Street subway each morning to the Logan campus.
Donatucci remembered going up to his English teacher, Dr. Logan, saying, “I’m new here. How many books do we need to read.”
“One book a week,” Logan responded.
Outside of the guidance counselor’s office, Donatucci saw a boy sitting on the floor looking bereft.
“I screwed up,” he muttered sadly. “I got a 1590.”
“You screwed up?” Donatucci replied with amazement over his fellow student’s almost perfect SAT score.
The Central High School of the 1960s took Philadelphia’s smartest boys out of their neighborhood and parish schools and threw them together in a rigorous, competitive environment.
“All of the sudden, I was in a high school that was predominately Jewish.” Donatucci remembered. “These were the students that wanted to pursue an education that was free, and the type of competition was scary.” Among the future stars in Donatucci’s 224th class was Raymond Joseph Teller of the magician duo Penn and Teller. In 1964, the school newspapers reported that Central’s 224th class boasted more National Merit Semi-Finalists than any other school in the country. At Neumann, he said that he would study about two hours a day after class let out. At Central, he upped his study time to six.
The all-boys experience was a critical part of the Central experience. “We weren’t distracted,” he claimed. So was meeting people of different ethnicities. At lunchtime, people tended to separate into their neighborhood ethnic groups: African-Americans, Jews, Italians, and Ukrainians. “The guys from South Philly would sit at the same table,” he said. Yet the cultural exchange continued with swapping lunches. “I would give them pepper and egg sandwiches,” he said. “The Jewish kids would bring in blintzes. The Ukranians brought in perogis.”
He often found himself at the homes of his Jewish friends for the High Holidays. When describing Jewish and Italian culture, he said, “They are so similar.” He joked that his Jewish name was “Ronny Dumberg.”
Donatucci graduated from Temple University in 1970, and aside from a stint in Baltimore for law school, has remained in Philadelphia ever since. His two sons did not follow him to Central: they went to St. Joseph’s Preparatory instead, which remains an all-boys school, unlike his now-coed alma mater. Yet he still remains on the Central board of managers. “I’ve met guys in Central who are my friends today,” he said. “It’s such a great feeling when you’re talking to someone and you ask, ‘What class are you in?'”
Although born a Roman Catholic, Drexel migrated to the Episcopal church and helped fund the construction of the Church of the Savior at 38th and Ludlow, today’s Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. To honor his patronage, a stained glass window was installed in his honor. He purchased and developed vacant land with homes as the streetcar lines spread ever westward.
Finally, he built up his father’s bank to be one of the leading investment firms in the nation. In London, he worked closely with older leading financiers, most notably the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts, to replace the standard 5-20 call bonds with 4 per cents. He also made successful deals with the Philadelphia & Reading and New York Central railroads. Among Drexel’s proteges was a brilliant but temperamental young man from Connectict named John Pierpont Morgan, who would go on to found the firm Drexel, Morgan & Company in New York, the ancestor of today’s J.P. Morgan Chase. J.P. Morgan himself did not share Drexel’s retiring, gentle demeanor: one observer said that Morgan’s eyes were like the headlights of an onrushing train.
Drexel himself didn’t take the street car to work, even after electrification allowed it to reach the-then dizzying speed of 15 miles per hour. Nor did he take a coach. Rather, he walked to his office at 16th and Walnut Street every day, almost always with his good friend, the Philadelphia Public Ledger publisher George William Childs. “Year in and year out,” noted historian Robert Morris Skaler, “they walked the same round, making themselves well-known personalities in their day.”
In 1891, shortly before his death, he bequeathed $2 million of his fortune (equivalent to over $40 million today) to establish the Drexel Institute of Technology. Located in a terra cotta-encrusted structure at 32nd and Chestnut Street, the Institute’s goal was provide affordable and practical education to the children of families of modest means. It may have been Drexel’s retort to the Gilded Age elitism at his longtime neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania.
Anthony Drexel died on June 30, 1893 while on a European vacation, aged 66. When asked to comment on the death of his friend, George William Childs could barely stop from choking up: “It is a great shock and a great blow to me and us all. We were so far from expecting anything of this kind. I would rather it have been myself that had died–much better I had died than Mr. Drexel.”
Although Anthony had built two other houses on “the Drexel Block” for his son George William Childs Drexel and daughter Frances Katherine Drexel Paul, his descendants rapidly abandoned West Philadelphia for Rittenhouse Square, the Main Line, and Chestnut Hill.
The Drexel mansion itself is long gone, replaced by Penn dormitories. The Wharton School, which has trained generations of Drexel and later Morgan bankers, is located just across 38th Street. Drexel University, his greatest and most long-lasting legacy, continues to thrive north of Market Street.
“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.
Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930 (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp.39, 70, 74, 77.
Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.13.
Anthony J. Drexel was one of the wizards of late 19th century finance. He also had big shoes to fill. His Austrian-born father Francis Martin Drexel emigrated to America at the dawn of the 19th century to seek his fortune as a portrait painter. The elder Drexel found that he was more skilled at bond trading than portraiture–although talented, he was no Thomas Eakins. Like many immigrant fathers, Francis put his three sons (Francis Jr., Joseph, and Anthony) to work at the family business, running errands and sweeping floors in their office at 2nd and Chestnut. He also went on more than his share of adventures: at the age of 13, he guarded a gold shipment as it traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia to New Orleans. In this pre-Federal Reserve era, paper money was untrustworthy. Gold was king.
Although Anthony (born in 1826) would eventually inherit one of the nation’s great banking fortunes, the lack of a formal education plagued him all of his life. Despite his wealth, he felt awkward in Philadelphia society, and preferred the privacy and love of family life. Although he and his wife Ellen lived there briefly, he had little interest in the gaiety of the Rittenhouse Square set. The titans of Wall Street didn’t know him that well, either. As The New York Times wrote of him: “For a man of such financial importance, Mr. Drexel did not have a wide personal acquaintance here in this city.”
Soon after this father’s death in 1863, Anthony Drexel purchased a large plot of land centered at the intersection of 39th and Walnut streets, far out in West Philadelphia. He then commissioned an unknown architect (possibly Samuel Sloan, designer of nearby Woodland Terrace) to design a sprawling Italianate villa, where he, his wife Ellen, and their nine children could live away from the noise and dirt of Center City. He was also generous to his extended family, frequently looking after his niece Katharine Drexel, whose father Francis Jr. raised his children as strict Roman Catholics. His brother Anthony however crossed the Reformation aisle, raising his family as Episcopalians. As an adult, Katharine renounced her privileged upbringing altogether and became a nun, donating her time and vast inheritance to Native American and African-American civil rights causes.
The A.J. Drexel compound in West Philadelphia took up the entire 3900 block of Walnut Street, and was separated from the street by a hedges and a high iron fence. Not that there was much traffic in those days: the horse-drawn street car ran as far west as 41st and Chestnut. West of 42nd Street, the city melted away into a pastoral landscape of rolling fields and babbling creeks.
Drexel has a few other high-profile neighbors, namely the Clarks–who lived at Chestnutwold, 42nd and Locust–and the Pottses–who lived in a Ruskinian Gothic pile at 3905 Spruce Street. To the east and north were several less idyllic neighbors, most notably the Blockley Almshouse, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women.
The area was pretty but not exactly fashionable. Promoters wrote of West Philadelphia that “the ground in general is elevated, and remarkably healthy; the streets are wide, and many of them bordered with rows of handsome shade trees.” For their part, the denizens of Rittenhouse Square claimed that residents of West Philadelphia spoke with a distinctly unpleasant accent. Drexel didn’t particularly care. Nonetheless, he spent much the next three decades of his life investing in and improving the blocks around his home, especially after the University of Pennsylvania’s move to the site of the Blockley Almshouse in 1873.
To be continued…
“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.
The present day Penn Alexander School was once the site of one of West Philadelphia’s great estates: Chestnutwold, built by Clarence H. Clark.
In its time, Clark’s banking concern was one of the most powerful in the nation. And like many businesses in Philadelphia, it was a family affair. Clarence Clark was the son of banker Enoch White Clark, founder of the firm. Enoch Clark was a New England transplant to Philadelphia, a native of Providence, Rhode Island who had made his first fortune underwriting and distributing government securities. In the absence of a national bank–the Second Bank of the United States imploded in 1836 after the machinations of President Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle– opportunists like Clark stepped in to fill the gap. The senior Clark was similar to the Austrian immigrant and former portrait painter Francis Martin Drexel, in that he established an American investment house on par with the mighty banks of Europe, such as Rothschild & Company and Baring Brothers. Clark, like Drexel, also put Philadelphia on the map as a center of American finance.
The house of E.W. Clark & Company thrived in the mid-19th century, establishing branches in other American cities. After Enoch Clark’s death in 1854 due to complications from nicotine poisoning (heavy smoking was a stress relief for financiers then as now), his son Clarence took the reins of E.W. Clark & Company and expanded its financial activities into railroads and real estate. He also was one of the principal backers of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Naturally, he established the Centennial National Bank (in a handsome Frank Furness designed building) near the railroad station at 30th and Market Street, where millions of fairgoers arrived over the course of several months. According to a January 22, 1876 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the bank’s purpose was to be the “financial agent of the board at the [Centennial] Exhibition, receiving and accounting for daily receipts, changing foreign moneys into current funds, etc.” In this era before ATMs and electronic bank transfers, it was the perfect place for tourists to deposit their cash during their stay in the Quaker City. The building survives as the Paul Peck Student Center at Drexel University.
Like his fellow second generation banking heir Anthony Drexel, Clark eschewed Rittenhouse Square for pastoral but not especially fashionable West Philadelphia. And like Drexel, Clark decided to shape the area around his house by investing in it. He purchased tracts of empty farmland, filling with middle and upper-middle class row houses as the trolley lines expanded westward from Center City. These developments included the distinctive “professors’ row” on St. Mark’s Square and the flamboyant set of Queen Anne houses on the 4200 block of Spruce.
In the 1860s, Clarence Clark built his dream house, Chestnutwold, on a walled lot bounded by 42nd, 43rd, Locust, and Spruce streets. The main house, a 34 room brownstone Italianate palace, cost a staggering $300,000, or between $5-7 million in today’s money. Its interior boasted six foot high mahogany paneling in its principal rooms, stained glass windows, and hand-painted Japanese wall paper that was perhaps inspired by what Clark saw at the Japanese Bazaar at the 1876 Centennial. A stained glass window in the 125 foot long library bore a quote by Goethe: “Like a star that maketh not haste, that taketh not rest; be each one fulfilling his God-given hest.”
An inveterate collector, Clark imported the estate’s iron gates from France, and planted a rare Chinese ginkgo biloba tree on the grounds. As an added bonus, Clark opened a portion of his estate to the public for strolling…and admiration. To provide additional green space for his neighbors, Clark donated the land formerly occupied by the Civil War era Satterlee Hospital to the City of Philadelphia as a public park, as well as a bronze statue of author Charles Dickens. A representation of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop sat by his knee.
Chestnutwold proved as fleeting as it was magnificent. Clarence Clark died in 1906, leaving the huge house vacant. Although his son Clarence Clark Jr. built a fine house at 4200 Spruce just outside the gates of the compound in the early 1880s, the Clark heirs decamped from West Philadelphia to the more fashionable suburbs of Germantown and Chestnut Hill. Ten years later, wreckers tore the Chestnutwold mansion down. The grounds, however, remained intact. The neo-Gothic structures of the Philadelphia Divinity School, designed by Zantzinger, Borie and Medary, rose on the site in the mid-1920s. After the divinity school closed in the 1970s, the old Clark estate sat mostly vacant until the completion of the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School in 2001. The school thrives to this day, educating a diverse group of children from the neighborhood Clarence Clark developed a over a century ago.
Of the original Chestnutwold, only the pair of French iron gates at the northeast corner of the four square block lot remain today. It is unknown if the original ginkgo tree survives on the grounds of the Penn Alexander School, but this species of tree is now ubiquitous on Philadelphia’s streets, as are its stinky fruits.
The Virginian was a tremendous success, selling 1.5 million copies during Wister’s lifetime, and became a template for countless Western novels and movies to follow.
Despite his newfound fame, Wister found subsequent literary success elusive. Like most authors, he did not want to become a one-hit wonder. Once he was back in Philadelphia–a city that he personally despised but never left–he probably let his insecurities and melancholia get the better of him.
Especially when grappling with the ghosts of his Butler ancestors.
His next book, Lady Baltimore of 1906, was an novel about South Carolina, the family seat of Wister’s Butler ancestors. Named after a type of cake featured in the book, Lady Baltimore was Wister’s attempt at social history, but many critics found that the narrative descended into social snobbery. Unlike The Virginian, there was comparatively little adventure and action. While the unnamed Wyoming cowboy was stoic and chivalric in his quest to win the hand of school teacher Molly Wood, the protagonist in Lady Baltimore –a Yankee named Augustus–was a comparatively insipid character on a rather different mission: to find royal lineage in his family, at the request of his imperious Aunt Carola back in New York. Along the way, Augustus was smitten by Eliza La Heu of Kings Port (a stand-in for Charleston). A member of the plantation gentry, the effervescently beautiful Eliza had been reduced to working at a store, but her aristocratic manners (and empty bank account) stood in stark contrast to Gilded Age nouveau riche New Yorkers, exemplified by the character Hortense Rieppe (the consummate vulgarian in Wister’s plot).
Yet it was Wister’s treatment of race in Lady Baltimore that shocked many readers of the day, even in the pre-Civil Rights era. In Wister’s plot, the ultimate insult was that the South Carolinian John Mayrant, described by a contemporary reviewer from The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator as a “fine type of a thoroughbred, high-minded, proud southern young fellow,” has to work under an African-American boss at the customs house. Mayrant and his relatives are unable to bear this insult to their dignity, and as a result, the reviewer continues, Mayrant must resign from his post, “without raising a scene, if he is true to his instincts as a southerner and a gentleman.”
President Theodore Roosevelt read Lady Baltimore and was reluctant to criticize his friend in public. As a progressive at home and an imperialist abroad, Roosevelt had Social Darwinist views of his own, quite common among men of his class. The early 1900s was also a nadir in American race relations. The Republicans were still the party of Lincoln and hence of most African-Americans, but in the years since Union troops withdrew from the former Confederacy in 1877, Southern politicians did everything in their power to disenfranchise black voters and restore the plantation system in all but name. After reading his friend’s latest literary effort, the president privately wrote Wister to express admiration for his portrayal of Southern womanhood (after all, Roosevelt’s mother was the Southern belle Martha “Mitty” Bulloch, who refused to let her husband Theodore Roosevelt Sr. fight in the Union Army) and also to scold him for the novel’s descriptions of Northerners (“swine devils”) and African-Americans (“some of the laziest and dirtiest monkeys where we live”).
One chapter in particular, “The Girl Behind the Counter II,” must have irked the publicity-conscious president. In it, Eliza La Heu rants to Augustus about how the President of the United States (unnamed, but Theodore Roosevelt in 1906) had invited a black man (in real life, Booker T. Washington) to the White House for a formal dinner. The actual dinner, which took place in October 1901, was controversial among both blacks and whites at the time. One white Southern newspaper editor vented that it was, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Senator Ben Tillman of Lady Baltimore’s South Carolina used even more violent language upon hearing of the dinner, threatening the deaths of a thousand blacks in the South…so that they would “learn their place again.”
At the same time, many African-Americans activists felt that Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, was an accommodationist stooge. Harvard graduate William Monroe Trotter, who in a decade would famously confront another president (Woodrow Wilson) about his re-segregation of the US civil service, wrote of Washington: “a hypocrite who supports social segregation between blacks and whites while he himself dines at the White House.”
The matter became a sore subject for President Roosevelt, who never spoke of the dinner publicly afterward. Yet he declared that, “I’ll not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner, even if it costs me every political friend I’ve got.”
Now, five years later, Owen Wister had brought up the whole affair again– from the Southern point-of-view–in a dialogue between Augustus and Eliza La Heu:
‘If you mean that a gentleman cannot invite any respectable member of any race he pleases to dine privately in his house–‘
‘His house,’ she was glowing now with it. ‘I think he is—I think he is–to have one of them–and even if he likes it, not to remember–I cannot speak about him!’ she wound up; ‘I should say unbecoming things.’ She had walked out, during these words, form behind the counter, and as she stood there in the middle of the long room you might have thought she was about to lead a cavalry charge. Then, admirably, she put it all under, and spoke on with perfect self-control. ‘Why, can’t somebody explain to him? If I knew him, I would go to him myself, and I would say, ‘Mr. President, we need not discuss our different tastes as to dinner company. Nor need we discuss how much you benefit the colored race by an act which makes every member of it immediately think that he is fit to dine with any kind in the world. But you are staying in a house which is partly our house, ours, the South’s, for we, too, pay taxes, you know. And since you also know our deep feeling– you may even call it a prejudice, if it so pleases you–do you not think that, so long as you are residing in that house, you should not gratuitously shock our deep feeling?’ She swept a magnificent low curtsy at the air.
All a besotted Augustus could do was gush admiringly: “By Jove, Miss La Heu, you put it so that it’s rather hard to answer!”
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtnOG7LPwjA&w=640&h=360] Booker T. Washington meets President Roosevelt. PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”
Small wonder that the sitting President of the United States took the time to write a 5,000 word letter of “advice” to Wister regarding this book.
For the Butler-Wister clan, it was a historical irony indeed. Wister’s own grandmother Fanny Kemble–who had fearlessly excoriated the slave system half a century earlier in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839–would probably have been horrified to read Lady Baltimore. To her, no one could have been more of a “swine-devil” than her slaveholding, libertine husband Pierce Butler II, who lived high on the hog from the unpaid labor of others.
Lady Baltimore sold well, but no where close to the blockbuster figures of The Virginian. Owen Wister himself was never able to muster up the strength to write another major book. He continued to churn out minor works and articles, often in the paneled cocoon of the Philadelphia Club’s library. Among them was Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919.
Yet as the 1900s progressed, Theodore Roosevelt grew more progressive and outspoken–lobbying for women’s suffrage and a graduated income tax in his 1912 Bull Moose party presidential run–while his friend Wister– who lived off family money and the royalties from The Virginian–grew ever more gloomy and conservative. One historian speculates that Roosevelt’s criticism of Lady Baltimore, however private, deflated the perpetually insecure Wister’s fragile ego. He toiled away at the manuscript of a novel about Philadelphia that he called Romney, but was never able to finish it.
Perhaps because it was about a subject Owen Wister loved to loathe: his native city.
The city is a shame. They’re proud of it, yet take no care of it. . . . The bad gas, the bad water, the nasty street-cars that tinkle torpidly through streets paved with big cobble-stones all seem to them quite right. . . . Their school buildings are filthy. I heard a teacher who spoke ungrammatically and pronounced like a gutter-snipe teaching the children English. . . . Isn’t it strange that such nice people should tolerate such a nasty state of things?
Before he died in 1938, Wister severed his family’s last ties with the Old South by selling the final remnants of his ancestor Senator Pierce Butler’s Georgia land–for a paltry $25,000.
Pierce Butler II did not reform his ways after his wife left him. Rather, he drank, gambled, and philandered his way through his remaining $700,000 fortune. To pay his debts, he sold nearly 500 slaves at auction in 1859. According to one observer:
On the faces of all [the slaves] was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned . . . some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, . . . their bodies rocking to and fro with a restless motion that was never stilled.
Although the largest sale of human beings in the nation’s history netted Pierce Butler a handsome $300,000 (about $6 million today), he died forgotten and broke after the Civil War.
Fanny Kemble–who reclaimed her maiden name–ultimately got her revenge by publishing Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 in 1864, which became a literary sensation among supporters of the Union cause, especially in her native England. In it, the former master thespian spared nothing in her descriptions of slavery’s horrors, and what exactly the North was up against. Simply reading a Southern newspaper left nothing to the imagination as far as the realities of slavery were concerned, she claimed. In response to an unnamed apologist for slavery, she wrote:
The Southern newspapers, with their advertisements of negro sales and personal descriptions of fugitive slaves, supply details of misery that it would be difficult for the imagination to exceed. Scorn, derision, insult, menace–the handcuff, the lash–the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives–the wearing trudging in droves along the common highways, the labor of the body, the despair of the mind, the sickness of heart–thees are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather than the exception, in the slaves experience. And this system exists here in this country of yours, which boasts itself the asylum of the oppressed, the home of freedom, the one place in the world where all men may find enfranchisement from all the thraldoms of mind, soul, or body–the land elect of liberty.
Such words would have driven her grandfather-in-law, the original Pierce Butler, to apoplexy. They also rattled the many upper-class Philadelphians who held Southern sympathies. The hard truth was that out of all the Western powers in 1864, republican America was the very last to outlaw slavery. England had done so in 1833, France in 1848, and imperial Russia (that most autocratic of regimes) in 1862.
It took a Civil War and 700,000 Union and Confederate lives to rid America of its original sin.
Senator Pierce Butler’s house on Washington Square was torn down in 1859–the year of his grandson’s bankruptcy– but descendants of Pierce Butler remained Philadelphians after the Civil War. One of the Butler family’s Philadelphia mansions survives to this day as the Philadelphia Club, although its builder Thomas Butler (the disinherited son of Pierce I) died before its completion. The club completed the shell of the hulking structure–which bore a strong resemblance to the Washington Square house–and took up residence in 1850.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Butlers in Philadelphia was left by Fanny’s grandson Owen Wister, who used his own gift with words to portray that most romanticized of American agricultural workers: the Western cowboy in The Virginian.
It’s most famous line: “When you call me that, smile.”
Although outlawed after the Revolution, slavery continued to be a critical part of the Pennsylvania economy virtually up to the Civil War. In an era before joint stock corporations, businesses were family affairs. A successful merchant or landowner would pass along his enterprises directly to his descendants, not to trained professional executives. Many prominent Philadelphia families had significant assets in Southern states: plantations that produced lucrative crops such as wheat, indigo, cotton, and tobacco.
One Philadelphia clan fought hard to maintain their way of life–even while perched north of the Mason-Dixon Line–was the Butler family. Pierce Butler, an immigrant from County Carlow, Ireland (albeit the son of a baronet), was one of South Carolina’s largest landowners and slaveholders. Scarred by the destruction of much of his property (real estate and human) during the Revolutionary War, Butler was determined to rebuild and maintain his family wealth at all costs. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Butler represented South Carolina in Philadelphia, and the man behind the drafting of the infamous “three-fifths clause,” which gave Southern states disproportionate representation in Congress while leveraging their non-voting, enslaved populations.
With almost unlimited resources at his disposal, Butler chose to build a northern “summer house” in the nation’s new capital, a rather odd choice considering that Philadelphia’s summers were just as unbearable than those in South Carolina, and as borne out in 1793, just as disease-ridden. Although his daughter Sarah was living there, the move was almost certainly political: Butler probably wanted to keep a close eye on Congress and fight any measures that would threaten his economic holdings and those of his peers. To announce his arrival in Philadelphia society, he build a large, freestanding house at 801-807 Chestnut Street Built in the highest Federal style, it much a monument to the power of Southern money as it was a statement of Butler’s refined taste. Even after the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, Butler continued to spend much of his free time in Philadelphia.
Pierce Butler died in 1822, with an estate that included 1,000 slaves and 10,000 acres of agricultural land. In his will, he disinherited his son Thomas, and instead bequeathed his multi-million dollar fortune to his two grandsons Pierce and John, on condition that they change their last name from Mease to Butler.
No doubt infuriated at this rejection by the imperious and eccentric Butler patriarch, Thomas Butler planned a grand city house at the corner of 13th and Walnut Street to rival his father’s palace to the east, but he died before it was completed.
Like many young men who never had to truly work for a living, Pierce II was simultaneously a charmer and a ne’er-do-well. He successfully wooed the acclaimed British actress Fanny Kemble during her American tour. She proved to have more brains and feistiness than her high-living and empty-headed husband anticipated. For Pierce II, having a good time (and looking good while doing it) was his raison d’être.
This attitude drove Fanny nuts. “You can form no idea, none, none, of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing,” she wrote a friend about her life at Butler Place, her husband’s country estate (near the present site of LaSalle University).
In 1838, Pierce Butler II took his wife to South Carolina to see the source of the family’s wealth, and the “culture” in which he grew up.
Kemble was appalled not just at the treatment of the slaves, but also her husband’s utterly callous attitude towards such brutality. What shocked her the most was how the overseer Roswell King Jr. fathered so many children with the enslaved women under his supervision. For Butler, however, this was the natural order of things. She returned to Philadelphia a committed abolitionist. Within a decade, Fanny and Pierce were divorced. She took custody of their two children and raised them herself.
Part II to follow
Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.
Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.