Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
This week I was working on the diaries of Judge Harold G. Knight, who sat on the bench here in Montgomery County and for two decades was president of the Montgomery County courts. Knight kept diaries for most of his life. Our collection covers the years 1893 to 1962. The diaries have many enclosures, items such as programs, letters, and newspaper clippings, that have been paperclipped to the relevant dates in the diaries.
One of the enclosures I came across concerned a murder trial that Judge Knight presided over in 1930. On July 4, 1930, Antoinette McCarris shot Joseph Lee in the back with a shot gun killing him. The earliest report in the Norristown Times-Herald (July 5, 1930) described Mrs. McCarris as a “pretty brunette.” It also described her as married to Joseph Lee, but that turned out not to be the case.
Three years earlier, McCarris had left her husband in Virginia and run off with Lee, a former sailor, bringing her two children with her. They eventually settled on a small farm in Worcester, and both were 26 at the time of the killing. The police believed she murdered Lee out of jealously. Lee had shown interest in a younger woman, Bernice Doyle of Kensington. McCarris claimed the shooting was an accident that occurred when she fired off the shot gun to celebrate the 4th.
Given that several people had heard McCarris threaten to kill Lee on several occasions, the District Attorney, Frank X. Renninger, brought her up on charges of first degree murder and sought the death penalty.
The trial started on November 17th. It was Judge Knight’s first murder case. He wrote in his diary that day, “I confess it worries me considerably.” The first day was jury selection. The judge writes that one man declared he had a conscientious objection to capital punishment. “In about one case in twenty these were sincere in the other cases they were pure exhibitors of moral cowardice,” the judge writes.
The next day, two boys, Thomas Hicks, 14, and his brother James, 12, testified for the prosecution. Their father owned the farm Lee and McCarris were renting. Both boys reported that the couple had been fighting over Lee’s interest in Doyle. James claimed to have seen the shooting and demonstrated how McCarris pointed the shotgun at the kitchen door. The Commonwealth called a total of 25 witnesses before resting its case. Then Antoinette McCarris took the stand in her own defense.
“It was the most dramatic and tense hours I have ever seen in a court room,” Judge Knight wrote. He described McCarris as “young [and] frail.” He points out that she was married and a mother at only 15. “She made a deep impression on the just and I am beginning to have some doubts myself as to whether she actually intended to kill the man for whom she left her husband and family three years ago.”
According to the newspaper reports, McCarris denied both threatening to kill Lee and that the couple ever argued about Doyle. Under cross examination, however, she admitted to being jealous of the younger, blond Doyle. McCarris always stuck to her defense that the shooting was an accident. She said she loaded and cocked the gun in the house with the intention of firing it off in the yard.
The jurors, six men and six women, deliberated the case for two hours before returning to the courtroom. The Times-Herald described McCarris as being in a daze when the foreman announced the verdict “not guilty.”
Having no place to go after the trial, she returned to jail, while her lawyer, Edward F. Kane, made arrangements for her to return to Virginia to stay with relatives.
Judge Knight noted in his diary that the verdict was popular. He also wrote that she was acquitted “despite the powerful evidence produced by the Commonwealth and the inherent weakness of her own story.” He goes on, “It was just one of those cases where a pitiful and appealing woman was the defendant, accused of shooting the man she had left her home for and whom she feared had grown tired of her. The just looked upon her deed as justified and decided the case on their view of its moralities and not the law.”
Across the road from the Frederick Mennonite Church is the Bertolet Meeting House and Burying Ground. Set aside by the Frey family for family burials in 1725, the burying ground long predates the small meeting house and holds many Frey, Bertolet, and Grubb ancestors.
Heinrich, or Henry, Frey was one of the earliest German settlers in Pennsylvania. He settled in Philadelphia in 1680 where he opened a woodworking shop. According to a legend recorded in The Book of Philadelphia by Robert Shackleton, Frey and his business partner Joseph Plattenbach taught a young Lenni Lenapi man their trades, and in return, he introduced them to his father Chief Tammanend (often called Tammany – as in Tammany Hall in New York). The son was called Minsi Usquerat. Frey and Plattenbach gave gifts to the Leni Lenapi and spent the night with them. The next day, Tammanend took them to the top of a hill and offered them a 1000 acre tract of land in what is now Germantown.
Later, after 1700, Frey bought the land that is now Bertolet Burying Ground from William Penn, as part of a purchase of 650 acres. He moved there with his sons and nephew. In 1725, Henry Frey set aside part of the land for a family burial ground, and after he died in 1734, he was the first burial there.
The name Bertolet came to the area with Jean Bertolet, a French Huguenot who came to Pennsylvania in 1726. His daughter Susanna, married Henry Frey’s grandson Jacob in 1750. After Jacob died in 1770, she sent for her nephew Samuel Bertolet, who finished building the house Jacob had started. In 1777, that house served as the staff headquarters for the Continental Army.
Samuel served in the American Revolution under General Anthony Wayne hauling both supplies and wounded soldiers during the Battle of the Brandywine. He also supplied grain to the army at Valley Forge.
Samuel’s son Daniel was a brickmaker, whose brick went into many of the early buildings of Frederick Township. It was he who proposed founding a Mennonite Meeting House on the land next to the burial ground in 1846. The first meeting was held on May 23, 1847.
The meeting house was closed in 1928 when the advent of the automobile made it possible for Mennonites to travel to large meetings in surrounding communities. However, in 1950, a Mennonite group began using the building for Sunday school, and in 1966, a new building, Frederick Mennonite Church was built across the street.
In 1890, the Bertolet Burying Ground Association was incorporated to maintain the burial ground and the meeting house. The records of the association are part of the Historical Society’s archive.
Every week, we put out a little article about something in our collection, and how it tells a story from Montgomery County’s past. And then – well, generally, then nothing. Maybe a few likes on Facebook. Then another Thursday comes around, and another article goes up on the blog.
Every once in a while, we get a response. This is always a little shocking because it means someone actually read our blog. Last summer, I received two (!) responses to a blog post I wrote about a libel case against Moses Auge.
To recap, Henry L. Acker sued Auge and John L. Williams for libel after an article appeared in the newspaper, the Norristown Republican. Auge and Williams were co-editors of the paper. The article accused Acker of embezzling public money while he was postmaster. Our collection holds the original indictment, but it doesn’t tell us the verdict. There was a curious detail in the indictment, however. A document filed with the indictments, tells us that a bond of $500 was set for both Auge and Williams, as well as an addition man named Jacob Cowden, but Cowden was not mentioned in the indictment.
Earlene O’Hare sent me an email a few weeks later explaining that Cowden was a relative of Auge’s by marriage. Moses Auge married Mary Cowden, and it looks like Jacob was her nephew. It doesn’t tell us how in was involved with the libel suit.
Then I received a letter from another member, Ben Curtis, who was familiar with Jacob Cowden’s name from some family lore. It seems Jacob was involved in some dishonest real estate deals. Auge describes him in his Lives of the Eminent Dead and Biographical Notices of Prominent Living Citizens of Montgomery County, Pa.:
“He owns considerable real estate in the borough, generally investing in such properties as yield a good income. Jacob M. Cowden had but a moderate school education, but has risen in fortune by shrewd judgment and close attention to business.”
Cowden died suddenly on April 16, 1887. According to his lengthy obituary in the Herald and Free Press, “He possessed push, capital, and shrewdness.”
After Cowden’s death, however, it all fell apart. Ben sent along a newspaper clipping that says “he invested enormous amounts of money for other people, invariably taking securities in his own name and assigning them to his clients, with the injunction not the record the assignment.” He also borrowed large amounts of money using promissory notes and used that money to purchase real estate, which he transferred to his three single daughters.
This doesn’t explain his $500 bond, but it raises some intriguing questions.
This week's blog comes to us from volunteer and trustee Ed Ziegler.
During the 1888 Presidential campaign, President Grover Cleveland and his private secretary Col. Daniel Lamont, stayed in Montgomery County, to rest from campaigning, according to the National Defender newspaper. On September 22nd and 23rd, 1888. They stayed with William M. Singerly at his Whitpain Township “Record Farm”. Mr. Singerly was the publisher of the Philadelphia Record, a Democratic newspaper, and he was known for his experiments in improved farming methods. The President left the next day for Washington.
Mr Singerly’s farm house had been the Franklinville Hotel (Franklinville was the area around the intersection of DeKalb Pike and Morris Road). He closed the hotel and purchased surrounding farms, eventually owning over 500 acres in Whitpain and Gwynedd townships. He was particularly known for his herd of over 100 Holstein cattle. Mr. Singerly went on to be the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 1894.
After Singerly died suddenly in 1898 (from what doctors called “tobacco heart,” Singlery smoked 18 to 25 cigars a day), a Dr. Wilson, who used it for years as a summer home, purchased the farm. The farm was then purchased by Ralph Beaver Strassberger, publisher of the Norristown Times-Herald, who named it Normandy Farm. The house Strassberger lived in is, in part, the old Franklinville Hotel.
If you’ve ever attended the Historical Society’s Memorial Day observance at historic Montgomery Cemetery, you’re probably familiar with the Grand Army of the Republic. This national association of Union veterans of the Civil War, had hundreds of posts across the country. One local Montgomery County post, the Zook Post, purchased several plots at Montgomery Cemetery for the burial of members who couldn’t buy plots of their own.
Adorable children at the G.A.R plot
The G.A.R. wasn’t the only organization for Union veterans, however. Norristown was also home to a chapter of the Union Veteran League. This group was much smaller than the G.A.R. because it had stricter rules for admittance. In order to be a member, one had to have volunteered for three years of service before July 1, 1863 (when the draft went into effect) and served for at least two years.
This morning, I came across the roster of post 94 in Norristown. It lists 56 members, all enrolled from 1891 to 1893. The roster lists the members’ names, place of birth, residence, occupation, plus contains information on their service.
Some members were wounded or captured, and the roster notes that, too.
From the roster, it looks like this post was founded July 9, 1891.
The group was founded in Pittsburgh in 1884 and lasted until about 1939 (the Grand Army of the Republic survived until its last member died in 1956). While neither group ever expanded to include later veterans (the Veterans of Foreign Wars was founded for them in 1899 by veterans of the Spanish – American War), the G.A.R. was succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans.
Since it was a smaller group with no apparent successor, information on the organization is hard to find. This roster was ended up with member Samuel E. Nyce, who donated it to the Historical Society in 1910.
From the Ambler High School yearbook
We have in our archives a small collection of items from Ada Worthington. All of the papers concern her education, beginning with her third grade report card from Prospectville School in Horsham. It was the 1924-1925 school year.
Ada was a good student. Her fourth grade report card is also in the collection. When looking over her grades, keep in mind, this is before grade inflation, so 75 should be the average.
This invitation to her elementary school graduation indicates she was valedictorian.
After attending Ambler High School, Ada was admitted to the Abington Memorial Hospital School of Nursing. Her letter of acceptance includes a list of what to bring with her, including $22 for textbooks.
Using Ancestry, I was able to follow Ada through her life. In 1942, she married Camillus G. Schlecter in Delaware, though both listed Philadelphia addresses on their marriage license. Interestingly, Ada lists herself as about a year older than Camillus. Her birthdate on the marriage certificate is March 29, 1916, however, on a form from the school district from when the family moved from Cheltenham to Horsham (when Ada was 6 years old), her birthdate is listed as March 29, 1915. Did she shave a year off her age? Or did her parents have reason to list her as older than she was? Is it just a clerical error?
A little more searching revealed that Ada passed away in 2013. She’s buried in Ambler, with 1915 listed as her date of birth on her tombstone.
I found this interesting little booklet in an old box labeled “Business and Industry.” It’s an employee magazine for the Diamond State Fibre Co., a paper fiber manufacturer in Bridgeport.
But hang on, both of you reading this are thinking, Delaware is the Diamond State! Yes, it is. The company was based in Elsemere, Delaware.
The magazine is unnamed. The back cover advertises a contest with a $5 prize to name it. The inside is filled with information on the Christmas savings fund, humor, children’s pages, and employee updates. There are pictures of some of the equipment at the plant and this one of “The Big Five.”
The company's 12 team bowling league gets a few pages of coverage.
There is only a little bit on what the company actually made. One article explains that the company’s Condensite Celeron was used as insulation for wireless communication. The company installed its own wireless set at the Bridgeport plant. It explains “Our receiving range should be from one quarter to one third the distance around the world.”
This was 1922, and commercial radio was in its infancy. The first station had been licensed only two years earlier in Pittsburgh. The novelty of the radio is clear in the article which says, “A number of powerful radiophone experimental stations are equipped to transmit music by radio and some stations do so on a regular weekly schedule, so that hundreds of receiving stations within their radius can tune their instrument to that wave and listen in to the music.
In 1929, the company merged with the Continental Fibre Company, becoming the Continental-Diamond Fibre Company. I was unable to find when it shut down, but the Bridgeport plant was in business into the 1950’s.
Today, Montgomery County has many trails for those who wish to see their community at a pace a little slower than 70 miles per hour. There’s the Schuylkill River Trail, the Perkiomen Trail, the Audubon Loop, and the Cross County Trail. In fact, Montgomery County has a great history of walking.
In the 1950’s, an article in the Norristown Times-Herald by Edward Hocker (under his penname “Norris”) reports the founding of the Valley Forge Chapter of the National Campers and Hikers Association. He writes of walking as an antidote to modern life and says that old folks in particular encouraged people to escape the automobile.
“Those old times criticize the schools of today  because they pamper children by bringing them to school on a bus.”
A school bus from when the "old timers" were young.
In 1894, William E. Corson traveled across Montgomery County in search of forgotten cemeteries. His list of private burial grounds was eventually donated to the Historical Society, whose members then took up the project of recording them.
The most famous walker in the county’s history lived here only briefly. Edward P. Weston was a well-known pedestrian whose first long distance walk came as the result of a bet with a friend. His friend bet that Abraham Lincoln would win the presidential election of 1860, and Weston bet that he wouldn’t. Having lost the bet, Weston walked from Boston to Washington, arriving in time for the inauguration where he shook the new president’s hand (some say Lincoln offered to buy his train ticket back). Later, he walked from Portland, Maine to Chicago, and in 1909, at the age of 71, he walked from New York to San Francisco in 104 days.
Born in Rhode Island, Weston first came to Norristown in 1912 for the Industrial Day portion of the Norristown centennial celebration. His appearance was sponsored by Rambo & Regar who had named a sock after him. He returned in 1922 to lecture the police department on how to properly care for their feet. He had settled in Kingston, NY, a town on the Hudson River, when burglars broke into his home and shot him in the leg. He seems to have decided that living in the country was unsafe, and in 1924, he moved to Norristown.
In the two years he spent here, he lived at the Brandt Building at West Main St. and Barbadoes, later moving to DeKalb Street. Although he was here a short time, he left his mark. In St. Helena’s Church in Whitpain there’s a marble plaque that reads “Here at 84, I found religion. Edward Payson Weston.”
Weston moved to Brooklyn in 1925, where he died in 1929, two years after he was hit by a car, a somewhat ironic way for a great pedestrian to die.
In the very early days of this blog, I wrote about Treemount Seminary (you can check out that original post here). The school was a private boarding and day school founded in Norristown in 1857. The school existed for 43 years and educated about 5,000 students. For decades after the school closed, an active alumni association continued to keep its memory alive through annual reunions.
I revisited the Treemount Seminary papers this week while working through our school collection. This morning I found a small box, donated to the Historical Society of Montgomery County in the 1940’s that contained tintypes of students from the school.
Most of the tintypes are identified with a last name on the reverse, and most were taken by Thomas Saurman, whose shop was located at Main and Green in Norristown. According to Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Montgomery County by Henry Wilson Ruoff, Saurman himself was a graduate of Treemount.
Tintypes were a popular form of photography for the second half of the nineteenth century. They were cheaper than competing forms of photograph such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Their cheapness and their small size made them perfect for sending to family or collecting pictures of your friends.
Tintypes were also known as ferrotypes, are made through a process similar to how ambrotypes were made. They used a wet collodion process to create a direct positive image that was reversed. No negative was made, so only one image could be produced from each exposure, no copies. The main difference between the ambrotype and the tintype was the material the image appeared on. Ambrotypes used polished glass while tintypes were produced on metal.
The process of creating a tintype was invented by Hamilton L. Smith at Kenyon College in 1856. The plate was a thin piece of iron that had been lacquered black or dark brown. The image was not was sharp as an ambrotype, but their affordability made up for this shortcoming.
The rosy cheeks you see in so many of the photos was added by hand, and was typical at the time, not just for tintypes, but for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.
The paper mats you see around the images were also typical. Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes had to be kept in cases to protect the glass plates. Tintypes sometimes have cases, but the paper mat is more typical.
Henry C. Trexler's tintype
These tintypes were owned by Harry C. Trexler, a graduate of Treemount Seminary and came to the historical society through his brother Frank.
Ruoff, Henry Wilson. Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Montgomery County Pennsylvania. Biographical Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1895.
Ritzenhaler, Mary Lynn and Diane Vogt-O’Connor. Photographs: Archival Care and Management. Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 2006.
Any plans for the weekend? Maybe you’re thinking of taking in a movie. In early and mid-century Norristown, you had to be sure to see that movie on Saturday because movie theaters were closed on Sundays by law.
At the time, Sunday “blue” laws were common. Stores and businesses were closed and there was no mail delivery. Although observance of a Sunday Sabbath goes back to the early Christian Church, by the Middle Ages it had fallen out of favor. Protestants revived the idea, particularly the Puritans (although both Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected the need for laws to enforce the Sabbath.) In the United States, several groups promoted laws enforcing a day of rest sprung up in the late nineteenth century. In 1912 they succeeded in closing post offices on Sunday.
In 1947, the borough held a referendum on legalizing Sunday movies, and Ronald Heaton created a scrapbook of the newspaper ads that flew back and forth on each side.
The proposal was for movies to be allowed after 2pm on Sundays. Supporters of the measure argued that the late start time meant that the theaters would not be interfering with church services.
Opponents of Sunday movies argued that they would increase juvenile delinquency. Many nearby communities allowed Sunday movies including Conshohocken and Bridgeport (there were more movie theaters back then, kids). Supporters of the referendum argued that these communities saw no increase in juvenile crime. Some even argued that by giving kids a place to go on Sundays would reduce crime.
In addition to the competing advertising campaigns, many churches held meetings and sent letters directly to voters.
Ultimately, arguments about crime, employment, the local economy meant little to the defenders of the ban on Sunday movies. Their opposition to Sunday movies came down to the Christian observance of the Sabbath and its role in American tradition. This ad argues for the universality of dedicating the Sabbath to God.
One wonders if the people who wrote the ad knew the Rabbi was talking about Saturday.
Heaton also records earlier votes on the issue.
On election day, the proposal to allow movies on Sunday was rejected.
Once it was defeated the issue could not appear on the ballot for four years. In 1951, another referendum was held and Norristown’s four movie theaters were free to open on Sundays.