Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
This week we received two items that had me nostalgic for … February. They were handbills for local theaters. Remember theater? Remember going out and doing things?
The first handbill is from about 1931, when the Norris Theater was less than a year old and showed both live vaudeville acts and movies. Both shows illustrate trends in American entertainment in the early 1930’s. The first is hillbilly music, a phrase coined in the 1920’s for what we now might call bluegrass, folk, or Americana. Groups like the Blue Ridge Ramblers toured the country on the vaudeville circuit and recorded 78rpm records. They played traditional songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Golden Slippers.” Radio shows also featured groups like this, as the advertisement points out at the bottom, “You’ve heard these Hill-Billies on the air – now see and hear them in person.”
The show is combined with the movie, Svengali, starring Hollywood megastar John Barrymore. Svengali was a horror movie about a singing teacher who hypnotizes a tone deaf milkmaid (people’s idea of “scary” has changed). Horror was a popular genre in the early sound days of film. Universal Studio’s monster movies are probably the best remembered examples. Svengali was released in May of 1931.
The other handbill is from 10 years later and features Norristown’s three theaters: the Norris, the Grand, and the Garrick. The three theaters were all owned by the same family so they advertised together. The Norris still seems to be the premier theater, showing the biggest movies, in this case A Yank in the RAF with Tyrone Power and Nothing but the Truth with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The other two theaters show “B” movies, like The Smiling Ghost, an example of the horror comedies popular in the 1940’s.
Hopefully we’ll all be back in theaters someday soon whether it’s for a movie or clog dancers or whatever “Spark Plug – the 16 year old boy wonder” is. If you’re curious to hear what the Ramblers sounded like, you can hear some of their songs here.
With schools closed this spring, many students missed out on their annual science fair. Montgomery County started holding fairs in 1958, one year after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Sponsored by the Montgomery County Science Teachers’ Association, the annual fair includes middle and high schoolers competing for prizes.
We have a few programs from science fairs in the early 1960’s (1962-1965). They show students examining diverse issues in science: biology, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The biggest winners received scholarships to local colleges. In these early years, boys and girls were judged separately.
My favorite thing about these programs is the seal for the science fair. It shows what is a perhaps an artificial satellite in the upper left, a Tesla coil on the bottom, and perhaps a moon settlement in the middle.
The Montgomery County Science Teachers’ Association still sponsors an annual fair, now called the Montgomery County Science Research Competition.
This piece is reposted from April 2014.
Currently at the Historical Society, I’m cataloging our collection of several hundred family histories in order to provide better access to our members and patrons. In the course of the project, I noticed something interesting. About twenty family histories were written by the same man, J. Montgomery Seaver.
Seaver’s photograph appears at the beginning of each book, along with a few pictures of illustrious members of the family. These photographs are followed by “The Battle Hymn of the [family name].” The lyrics to each one is a little different.
The main part of the book consists of lists of prominent people with the family name and genealogies that usually link the family to King Edward I of England or William the Conqueror.
In 1930, Seaver was charged with fraud by the Post Office Department. Apparently, he picked 49 common last names (the “best” families, as he called them) and sent post cards to everyone in the phone book with those names. The hardcover, cloth bound books cost $10.00 apiece. Seaver was convicted of fraud, but the judge was lenient. He suggested that if Seaver put his skills and determination to honest work, he could be very successful.
Seavers books are still cited by researchers, but here at HSMC, we’ve decided to put a disclaimer in the books about the suspected fraud.
It looks like Seaver was out to make money, but other frauds are caused by family legends or the hope to inherit a fortune. A famous legend concerns Anneka Jans, an early settler in New Amsterdam rumored to be of royal descent. This article from our archive tells of a family in Lansdale that claimed to be her descendants.
Many people claimed descent from Anneka Jans and sued in the hope of claiming part of a Manhattan real estate fortune. The real Anneka Jans did own about 62 acres of modern Manhattan, but she was not the granddaughter of a Dutch king (the Netherlands didn’t technically have kings in the 17th Century). She was from what is today Norway. A good account of the legend and facts can be found here.
Have you come across any hoaxes or frauds? Have you discovered any family legends that turned out to be false?
Although this prosthesis looks ‘steampunk,’ it dates to around the Civil War. Its owner, Joseph Detweiler Hagey, enlisted as a private in July of 1862 with Company I of the 138th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Captain Augustus G. Feather of Norristown. He fought in a long list of battles and skirmishes, such as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. At the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864, Hagey was wounded in the leg. The injury required his leg to be amputated below the knee.
After he was discharged in June of 1865, he returned to Hatfield and worked as a bootmaker. He became dissatisfied with his government-issued prosthesis, so he decided to make something new and different. His hand-crafted prosthesis is made of wood covered in leather, with metal springs. The foot is made of two separate pieces of wood shaped like a human foot and held together with leather, so that the toe can bend. The bottom of the foot is covered in leather to make for more cushioned walking. The ankle is movable due to the metal springs which attach it to the metal calf. Leather straps act like a garter to hold the prosthetic leg in place around the knee. This fascinating piece of technology is in the collection of the Historical Society.
Since I can't get into our headquarters to write any new blogs, I thought I would share some highlights from the past 6.5 years. This is a very early one from November, 2013.
In 1875, Blasius Pistorius, a German priest on a visit to his brother in Norristown, was arrested for the murder of Isaac Jaquette. The trial caused great excitement in the county and was prominently featured in local newspapers. The Historical Society of Montgomery County holds the complete transcripts of Pistorius’s two trials. His trial was the first in the county to use a court stenographer.
The dispute between the two men involved Jaquette allowing his cattle to graze on Pistorius’s brother’s land (John Pistorius was also tried for murder, but he was not present at the time of the shooting and so was acquitted). On July 24, 1875, when a boy working for Jaquette, Henry Muloch, allowed the cattle to cross over to the Pistorius farm, Blasius Pistorius came out with a pistol and threatened to shoot the cattle if they were not removed. Muloch ran for Jaquette, who picked up two stones and threatened Pistorius with them. The two men exchanged some more threats before Jaquette lunged for the pistol. The pistol fired, killing Jacquette.
Pistorius’s lawyers argued that their client acted in self-defense and that Jaquette chose to undertake the risk of the gun firing when he attempted to take it from Pistorius. Nevertheless, the priest was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Since he was a subject of the German Empire, the German consulate stepped in, and his sentenced was change to life imprisonment. Pistorius died in Eastern State Penitentiary in 1888.
This morning I came across two photographs of a rally for the Fourth Liberty Loan in Norristown. Described in the Times-Herald as a “monster demonstration,” the parade was to encourage people to buy bonds to help pay for World War I.
The Fourth Liberty Loan officially got underway on September 28, 1918. The parade took place on the 27th. The large parade included local companies, like Alan Wood Steel, scouts, the Red Cross, veterans, fire companies, marching bands, and even some cowboys from Betzwood Studios.
The man speaking in this picture is Judge William F. Solly, who spoke as a last minute replacement for Henry I. Fox, a local attorney who was ill.
The United States entered World War I in April of 1917, but it was a year before American troops began traveling to Europe. Propaganda showed the dire possibilities of the war. This small poster is from our collection:
Liberty Bonds could be purchased in multiple denominations. The government was authorized to issue them through the Second Liberty Load Act of 1917. That act is still the basis for the issue of treasury bonds today. Initially, Americans were slow to buy the bonds, perhaps because it was not a common thing in American life to loan the government money. By the time of the Fourth Liberty Loan, however sales were good. This small notebook from a women’s committee in Lower Gwynedd records the sales.
The Fourth Liberty Loan would mature in 1938. They were to pay 4.25%, but the government defaulted on the Fourth Liberty Loan, making it the only federal bonds to default. When issued, the bond stated that it would be paid according to the “present value of gold” but in 1933, the US abandoned the gold standard. So the government refused to pay the full value of the bonds.
Lee Templeton car dealership in Norristown
I started on a new shelf in the stacks this morning and discovered 42 photographs of buildings from all over the south-eastern side of Montgomery County. The large format black and white photographs are mounted on cardboard. With the cardboard backing, most measure 18 by 24 inches.
The cardboard backing is signed by the photographer, Ellis O. Hinsey. A few have a date, 1959. I suspect that they’re all from that year or year before. They might have been mounted on cardboard for an exhibit.
All of the photographs are of buildings and several are of churches and parochial schools.
St. Gertrude's Parochial School, West Conshohocken
Epiphany of Our Lord (now Holy Rosary), Plymouth
Mother of Divine Providence (now Mother Teresa), King of Prussia
There are also a few businesses.
Two shops in downtown Norristown
Hale Fire Pump Company, Conshohocken
Ellis O. Hinsey was born in 1902 in Akron, Pa. For his day job, he was an English professor, first at Temple and then at the Pennsylvania Military College, now Widener University. He lived in Wyncote, and according to his obituary in the Glenside News, he was a freelance portrait photographer of 20 years. He died at 58 from complications of lung cancer.
We recently acquired this wanted poster from board member Charles Kelly. I can’t be sure because I still haven’t opened every box in our stacks, but so far, it seems this is our first wanted poster.
Wendell Bowers was a kid with a troubled past. Born in Ambler in 1918, his mother died when he was 14 months old. Although his father was still alive, and he testified at his sentencing to having an aunt in the area, Bowers was sent to live with an unrelated family. He described himself as a child who always got what he wanted. When told “no” he would cry until he got it. He also stole toys and bicycles.
He attended school until the 5th grade. When his foster mother died, he moved back in with his father and stepmother. His misbehavior escalated. He frequently ran away, getting as far as Virginia and Michigan on different occasions. When he once skipped school, his father beat him. Twelve-year-old Bowers then stabbed himself with a knife, leaving the knife in until his father removed it.
He was in and out of reformatories through his teenage years, and it was in the reformatory that he learned housebreaking.
On December 13, 1937, Bowers broke into the Dreshertown home of Mrs. Wilma V. Carpenter, a 38-year-old widow who owned a beauty salon in Germantown. The house was empty when he entered at 4 p.m. He testified that he searched for money but found none. He did find Carpenter’s .38 caliber revolver and drank some of her liquor and read her magazines. A little while later, Carpenter came home with her employee, 22-year-old Mary Griffin. He demanded money from the two women who handed it over. He then decided to tie them up.
He hit Mary Griffin on the head with the gun to knock her out, then told Carpenter to tie her up. While doing this, Carpenter reached for the gun. They struggled and Bowers knocked Carpenter to the floor. As she rose, he shot her twice, killing her.
After, Carpenter assaulted or attempted to assault Mary Griffin. The Times-Herald of February 8, 1938, quoted extensively from Bowers’ testimony, but glosses over the assault, and I will, too. Bowers said that he then dressed Griffin’s wounded head and left the house through the window. He made his way to the train station and bought a ticket to Pittsburgh.
A few days later, Mary Griffin identified Wendell Bowers from her bed at Chestnut Hill Hospital, and a nationwide manhunt began. The local police sent latent fingerprints from the Carpenter home to the FBI, who identified them as Bowers’.
On December 20th, Bowers was picked up in Louisville, KY, for vagrancy and housebreaking. He was using an alias, but his fingerprints identified him as the killer.
Bowers was sent back to Montgomery County to face his trial. Judge Harold Knight was to preside, but Bower surprised everyone by pleading guilty. Judge Knight described Bowers in his diary as a “pasty faced youth.” The court went straight into the sentencing phase. Knight wrote, “The three judges then heard the evidence of one of the most cruel, brutal and unnecessary crimes I have ever heard.”
Bowers testified for some time about his early life and the murder. Knight described Bowers as being “without emotion.” The county’s three president judges went over the evidence on the evening on February 8. On the morning of the 9th, they sentenced Bowers to death. Knight wrote, “He took it calmly and apparently was not as nervous as the judges.”
The Times-Herald of February 9, 1938 reported that he took the sentence calmly, although it also reported that Bowers did not expect to be executed. He returned to cell number 2 at the county jail, lit a pipe and read a magazine. Wendell Bowers was executed by the electric chair on June 13, 1938.
Recently, the Historical Society of Montgomery County received a very interesting donation: 6 ledgers from O’Brien Funeral Home in Bridgeport. The ledgers show a little of the evolution of funeral rites.
The earliest ledger begins in 1899. We see the cost of the hearse, the burial permit, and the cost of the service. Occasionally, we also see the cause the death, as in this entry.
As we move into the 20th century, the funeral business becomes more regulated, and the ledgers become forms filled in for each deceased person. They list place of birth, parents’ names, and cause of death, among other things (though not all the fields are always filled in). For our genealogy interested patrons, these records could be very valuable.
The other half of the form shows the costs of the funeral. You can see that there were many more options, including pall bearers, tent rentals, “aeroplane service,” and telegram charges.
This listing includes “advertising.” That might include placing a funeral notice, or it might mean the invitations that were common for funerals in the past.
I researched funeral customsin our library to find out more. Edward Hocker (as “Norris”) wrote two articles on funerals in Montgomery County. In the past, funerals were famous for their feasting and heavy drinking. Needless to say, they were also well attended. He reports on a Pottstown woman who had, by 1909, attended 3,094 funerals. She was 80 years old and had kept a record of each funeral.
He also wrote of the funeral hostlers, usually teenage boys who watched the horses of those attending the service. They were never paid or tipped for their work but were well-fed, and I guess it beat farm chores.
Last week, as I continued working through the oversize shelves at the back of the archives, I came across this interesting photo of Norristown High School’s summer class of 1917. As you can see, many of the students are holding items.
Several are holding straw hats, such as this fellow.
This young lady, Rachel Bean, is making a statement.
Only a few of the people in the photo have been identified. This student, holding a Union Jack, is Mabel Blew, whose nickname was “Greenie” according to the June, 1917 issue of Spice. The flag could be a show of support for United States’ new allies in World War I.
Some of the items I don’t understand. For example, I can’t tell what this student is holding.
Two women have signs that say “Free Lunch.” There might be a joke that I’m not getting. Does anyone know what it means?
While we have other graduation photos in our collection, none feature the objects and signs that this one does. Does anyone remember this as a tradition?
The photo also reminded me of a curious thing about Norristown High School. Each year in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were two classes per year at the school, a summer class and a winter class. This situation lasted until 1932. The winter class began school in January and graduated at the end of January 4 years later. The winter class of 1932 seems to have been the last of its kind, but there’s no mention of it in their yearbook or in the 1933 yearbook. The change seems to coincide with the move to the new A. D. Eisenhower building.
But why the two classes? I haven’t been able to find out. I could speculate that it had to do with students, usually boys, who missed much of the year for agricultural work. As farming retreated from the Norristown area, it would make sense that the two classes would no longer be necessary.
Finally, in looking around for information on the summer class of 1917, I looked at the commencement issue of Spice. At this time, Spice wasn’t a yearbook, but a monthly magazine produced by students. A reflection by a student notes that the summer class of 1917 started out with 111 students. By graduation, that had reduced to 66. That’s a pretty high attrition rate. No doubt many students had to start working or were unable to keep up their grades.