Karen Ploch, Curator
Escaped Norristown State Hospital to Get Married
You have probably heard us say this many times, but we really do find some of the most interesting stories when we are looking for something else entirely! This time I was looking for Elkton marriage announcements and stumbled onto this story about another marriage.
June 5, 1930, Times Herald
Mary McClellan, a patient at Norristown State Hospital, went missing on June 2, 1930. She was found a few days later in Philadelphia with a former hospital attendant, William Hamel.
June 6, 1930, Times Herald
It turns out William helped Mary escape. After switching out of hospital clothes, Mary met William on hospital grounds where he sneaked her out using a car he had leased in Norristown. According to the Times Herald, the pair drove right through the main gates of the hospital.
June 13, 1930, Times Herald
After stopping at William's home at 229 North Eleventh Street, Philadelphia, they then drove to Camden to get married. However, since they were not residents of New Jersey, they were sent back to Pennsylvania. They had better luck in Media, Delaware County, where they were able to obtain a marriage license.
Their marriage only lasted for two days. William was arrested and taken to the county jail in Norristown. Mary was taken back to Norristown State Hospital. According to the Times Herald, authorities annulled the marriage. William ended up paying a $10 fine and spent a month in jail.
I did a little digging to try to learn more about Mary. I located a Mary McClellan in the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census. In both censuses she was listed as being a patient at Norristown State Hospital. If I have the right Mary, she was born around 1899, so she would have been about 31 years old in 1930. Neither censuses lists the reason for her being at the hospital nor do they list any of Mary's family members.
It is important to note, while older documents such as the above newspapers used phrases like "Lunatic" and "Insane" to describe patients at State Hospitals, these terms are no longer used by the health care industry. As doctors learn more about mental illnesses, less derogatory words have been used to better explain each patient's unique circumstance.
Dr. Martha Settle Putney
While going through some old newspaper clippings we came across an article about a local historian, civil rights activist, and veteran, Dr. Martha Settle Putney.
Martha Settle, Spice Yearbook 1935, HSMC Archival Collection
Martha was born in Norristown on November 9, 1916. She graduated from Howard University in 1939 and received her master's degree in history the following year. Unfortunately, Martha faced discrimination and was initially unable to find a teaching position. She ultimately became a statistical clerk with the War Manpower Commission.
Martha continued to experience discrimination while working at the War Manpower Commission, so she decided to join the Woman's Army Corps in 1943. She was assigned to basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. She became a first lieutenant and eventually commanded a unit of Black medical technicians at Gardiner General Hospital in Chicago. During her service, Martha was credited for helping to establish policies regarding equality for all members in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Newspaper clipping from Norristown Times Herald, HSMC Collection
After being discharged in 1946, Martha decided to go back to studying history. She earned her doctorate in European history in 1955 from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Putney became a history professor at Bowie State that same year. She chaired the history and geography department until 1974. Dr. Putney went on to teach at Howard University until she retired in 1983.
As a historian, Dr. Putney authored two books and several articles. One of her books, When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women's Army Corps During World War II, details her own experiences in the WAC. Dr. Putney died on December 11, 2008 at age 92 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Joe Holley, “Bowie, Howard Historian Martha Putney,” Washington Post. Monday, December 22, 2008. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/21/AR2008122102051.html
Judy Baca. "How One Woman Made a Difference: Norristown native's past chronicled in Tome Brokaw's 'Greatest Generation'". Times Herald. Monday February 22, 1999.
One of the fun parts about historical research is coming across fun or interesting stories while we are searching for something else entirely. We recently came across an interesting article in the Times Herald dated April 9, 1930.
Times Herald, April 9, 1930, HSMC Microfilm Collection
It starts with the headline "Pays Fine for Violation of Profane Law." Apparently, Magistrate Gilbert J. Farrinton, Jr. charged Irvin Erb of Norristown with using profane language and disorderly conduct. Under the law, Irvin had to pay three fines in accordance with the profane language act as well as to cover the costs with the court proceedings.
Wait, he got arrested for using profane language? Just wait, it gets better.
Times Herald, April 9, 1930, HSMC Microfilm Collection
Irvin was arrested by Deputy Constable James D. Ambrois after his mother, Mrs. Frieda Erb, reported him. She reported that he used profane language on at least six occasions and additionally used other "improper remarks." During the proceedings Irvin pleaded guilty and even admitted to using profane language at other times as well. He was fined $1.74.
This profanity law, according to the article, was enacted on April 22, 1794. I'm not sure if this exact law is still in place. However, it appears there have been instances in recent history of people getting fined for using profanity in certain situations. In 2011, the PA State Police reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union after a complaint about issuing tickets for swearing.
Another PA Governor from Montgomery County
Today, January 17, 2023, was inauguration day in Pennsylvania. This inauguration is particularly historic to us here in Montgomery County.
Governor Josh Shapiro
Governor Josh Shapiro is the eighth governor to hail from our county. The other governors were: Gov. David R. Porter (1839-1845), Gov. Francis R. Shunk (1845-1848), Gov. John F. Hartranft (1873-1879), Gov. John C. Bell (Jan. 2, 1947- Jan. 21, 1947), Gov. Samuel W. Pennypacker (1903-1907), Gov. George Earle III (1935-1939), and Gov. Milton Shapp (1971-1979). To learn more about these past governors, click on their names. We have various items in HSMC's collection that are connected to these governors. This includes items such as: photographs, portraits, a quilt, and political pins.
Portrait of Gov. Hartranft, HSMC Collection
In addition to being from Montgomery County, Governor Shapiro is also, as far as I have been able to verify, the third Jewish governor in our state. Former Governor Milton Shapp, also from Montgomery County, was the first Jewish governor in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Shapp's Election, Times Herald, November 4, 1970, HSMC microfilm collection
Lastly, today was historic for another reason too. Lt. Governor Austin Davis was sworn in as Pennsylvania's first Black lieutenant governor.
Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis
Most of us have received or mailed wedding invitations at some point in our lives. With increasing computer technology, printing invitations is relatively easy compared to the early 20th century printing process.
This is an example of a printing plate that was used to print a wedding invitation. The words were engraved in reverse into a piece of metal, typically an alloy of metals such as lead, copper, zinc, or magnesium. Ink was applied to the plate and then a piece of paper was pressed against it. The resulting printed invitation would then be legible, with the words facing the correct way. This particular invitation states:
"Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Stover keen announce the marriage of their sister Jessica Marsteller to Lin Ambros Dettra Thursday March the second nieteen hundred and sixteen."
According to the census records, Jessica and Lin lived much of their lives in Norristown. Lin started as a farmer, but by 1930 became a clerical worker at a local tire company.
Here is another example of a printing plate This one states:
"Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Pierce Ryder request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their daughter Ruth Dodson to Captain Joseph Knox Fornance on Saturday, the fifth of April at twelve o'clock at the First Presbyterian Church Norristown, Pennsylvania."
Ruth and Captain Fornance were married in 1930. Captain Fornance was a prominent soldier, lawyer, and civic leader in Norristwon. He grew up on Selma farm, which still stands today and is operated by the Norristown Preservation Society.
The Sundance Kid
While looking through family files to help a patron with their research, we uncovered a series of newspaper clippings about The Sundance Kid. If you are a fan of Western history or Western films, you have probably heard of him as well as Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, also known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. However, did you know The Sundance Kid was born in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania?
Born around 1867 in Mont Clare, Harry A. Longabaugh spent his childhood in Montgomery and Chester Counties. By 1880, the Census has him living in West Vincent Township working as a hired servant. According to the newspaper articles we found, about a year later Harry moved to Colorado with his cousin George.
1880 Census, West Vincent, Chester County, PA
Around the age of 20, Harry stole a horse when he was in Sundance, Wyoming and the local newspapers started calling him "the kid from Sundance." By 1889, he met Butch Cassidy, whose real name was Robert LeRoy Parker. Together their gang robbed banks and trains throughout the American West.
According to a diary kept by the Longabaugh family, Harry came back to Montgomery County to visit his sister Samantha (Sammanna) a few times during this period. This was no easy feat as Pinkerton Agents (a security company hired by the railroad) were constantly pursuing him and his fellow outlaws. He also reportedly visited his brother and fellow outlaw, Elwood, in San Francisco. Aside from these two siblings, the rest of the family appears to have distanced themselves from Harry as he turned to a life of crime.
By 1901, Harry and Robert were forced to flee the United States as the Pinkerton Agents pursued them. Records have them living in Cholila, Argentina at that time. By 1908, the paper trail for both men seems to disappear. In November of that year, a courier for the Aramayo, Franke, and Cia Silver Mine was robbed of the company's payroll by two masked Americans near San Vincente, Bolivia. Believing the men to be Butch and Sundance, Bolivian authorities pursued them and a shootout commenced. During a lull in the fire fight, gunshots and screams were heard from the outlaws' hiding place. Upon entering the building, the Bolivian authorities found the two men dead. One had been severely injured from Bolivian bullets, and appeared to have been shot in the head by his partner to put him out of his misery. The other then turned the gun on himself.
Proper identification was never made of these two men, but the authorities believed them to be Butch and Sundance. Several attempts to identify the location of the bodies in the San Vincente cemetery have thus far failed, causing some to speculate the men were not the two famous outlaws. Without any paper or DNA evidence, the circumstances surrounding their deaths remains a mystery.
The Dunkers' View on Voting
If you have not already heard, tomorrow is Election Day. So, it seems like a good time to share this article we found at HSMC last week.
This article was written in 1956 and discusses the Church of the Brethren, also known as the Dunkers. For the two centuries prior to 1956, many Dunkers resided in Pennsylvania, including here in Montgomery County. Much like the Quakers and Mennonites, the early Dunkers were known for practicing pacifism. For the Dunkers, that included refusing to participate in elections. Not only did they not vote, but they were also unlikely to hold a public office or participate in public legal issues. This included litigation. According to this article, members of the Church would risk censure if they filed a lawsuit. Instead of going through attorneys and court systems, they were expected to go to Church officials for an arbitration instead.
Meeting House in Lower Salford, HSMC Photo Collection
Interestingly, although participating in politics and other public systems was generally frowned upon, there does not appear to be any evidence that members were punished for doing so. There are even cases where some Dunkers served in public offices. The most notable one was Pennsylvania's own Governor Martin G. Brumbaugh! He served from 1915 to 1919, during World War I.
It was not until 1956, during their annual conference, when the Dunkers officially declared that voting and participation in public affairs should be encouraged in their congregations.
A Raid of Body Snatchers
In this blog post we will discuss an article we uncovered in an old scrapbook. Please note, this story may not be suitable for all audiences.
Harriton House, HSMC Photo Collection
The story was dated February 26, 1923. Which paper it is from is unknown, but given the topic, it was likely a local paper. The story starts with the title "A Raid of Body Snatchers". There was an incident of body snatching at the Harriton burial ground in 1838. The persons involved were attempting to take Charles Thomson, former secretary of the Continental Congress, to Laurel Hill Cemetery. According to a quick internet search, it does appear that Charles and his wife Hannah were taken by a relative and reburied at Laurel Hill around that time.
Article about Body Snatching, HSMC Scrapbook Collection
The article goes on to describe another incident of body snatching, but this time the purpose was not for reburial. A Conshohocken shoemaker named John May killed his daughter and then committed suicide around 1884. May's body was buried at what was then known as the potter's field at Sandy and Violet Streets in Norristown. This cemetery was for people who either did not have any decedents or money for burial.
Shortly after May was buried, someone dug up his body. Various organs were found around trees and fences nearby. Later, more of his remains were found along the banks of the Schuylkill River, near the Albertson Glass Works. It appeared that the culprits were looking to extract his skeleton. It turned out the culprits were two students from the Philadelphia medical college. The article claims they had influential friends and were able to get their sentences adjusted to avoid being sent to prison. The names of these students were not disclosed in the article.
Almshouse Painting, HSMC Collection
By 1890, the potter's field in Norristown was no longer an active burial site. Eventually, all of the people buried there were reburied at the Montgomery County Almshouse. This site still remains, but is only marked by a single stone monument that reads, "In Memory of the Dead". It is located on Black Rock Road in Royersford, PA.
This week we uncovered a few scrapbook articles about General William J. Bolton. What is fascinating about his story is he survived not one, but two serious injuries during the Civil War.
Scrapbook Article about Gen. Bolton, HSMC Digital Collection
In April 1861, Bolton joined the 4th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers. However, this enlistment was set for only three months. When his enlistment ended, Bolton joined the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers.
The 51st played important roles in many Civil War battles, including Antietam in 1862. When the 51st charged the bridge at Antietam, Bolton was seriously wounded. A bullet went into his cheek, broke his jawbone, knocked out several teeth, and exited out the other cheek. Amazingly, Bolton survived his wounds and was sent home to recover. He rejoined the 51st right before the Mississippi Campaign. Little did he know that he would soon be seriously wounded again at the battle of Petersburg.
When the mine exploded at Petersburg, a bullet hit Bolton in the cheek close to where the Antietam bullet had hit. However, this time the bullet did not pass through the other cheek. Instead, it went down his throat and got stuck. Bolton survived, but surgeons were unable to remove the bullet.
Petersburg Bullet Coughed up by Gen. Bolton, HSMC Collection, 1933.8653.001
When the Civil War ended, General Bolton joined the Pennsylvania National Guard. On May 20, 1881, Bolton had what was described as a "sudden fit of coughing." Much to his surprise he coughed up the bullet from Petersburg! The bullet was made into a watch fob and is now preserved at HSMC.
This item is one of the smallest objects in our collection. Do you have any guesses as to what it is?
It is a stamp holder! It opens from both sides and there is a spring in the middle, designed to push the stamps upward for easy access. There is even a three cent stamp depicting George Washington inside.
We have a few items connected to the 1876 Centennial celebration. This event occurred in Philadelphia from May to November in 1876 to celebrate the United State's 100th anniversary. The large grouping of exhibitions attracted many merchants to the area to sell souvenirs. This stamp holder was one such souvenir. It is marked "P.W. Hall," which we believe was short for Phidello W. Hall.
Pictured below is a patent for one of Hall's other postage stamp holders. Notice how the graphic depicts the spring design in Figure 3. Although HSMC's stamp holder is a different design, the spring used in ours has the same function.
P.W. Hall's Patent, US Patent Office
According to this patent, Hall's stamp holder was an improvement to older holders. Hall filed for this patent in St. Louis, Missouri on January 13, 1875. The patent was granted in March of that same year. In June 1875, Hall's stamp holder design was published in the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 7.
Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 7