Jonathan Hoppe

Home » 2015 » February

Monthly Archives: February 2015

(Partially) Reconstructing the Lost Death Records of the Chester County Home

On June 23rd, 1973, Hurricane Agnes roared through central Pennsylvania, causing inundating a huge swath of the Commonwealt causing widespread flooding and killing 50 people. In Harrisburg, 13 feet of water poured over the banks of the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, filling basements and spoiling millions of dollars of property.

In one of those basements sat the records of the old Embreeville State Hospital and its Predecessor, the Chester County Home and Insane Asylum. The home was founded in 1800, its first charge, the famed Indian Hannah, last of the Lenni Lenape in Chester County, being admitted in 1802. Through the years thousands of people were cared for there, and many hundreds died and were buried in its potters field. That the records were destroyed is most unfortunate; the graves in that cemetery are unmarked, or marked only with one of 201 numbered stones. Finding who was buried there would be a monumental task.

Some names could be found through newspaper clippings. One clipping from the October 18, 1875 issue of the Daily Local News shows that “Henry Miller, an old man of 70 years or more, well known in North Coventry and East Coventry as “the stone picker,” disappeared mysteriously on the 26th of July last, and his friends could not hear anything of him…Recently, however, some person wrote to the Steward of the Chester County Poor House, and made inquiries about him, and received a reply that Miller had been there some time, but that he had left only a few days ago—to be carried to the resting place in the grave. Poor old man–the “old sexton” has gather him in, and he will pick stones on the highways and by-ways no more.”

Others would be more difficult. Fortunately the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has partnered with Ancestry.com to digitize its death certificates through 1963. By narrowing the search to Embreeville or West Bradford Township, where the County Home was located, as the place of death, I managed to find nearly 200 names of those buried there. Vile murderers such as Ricardo Forte share the ground with veterans, the homeless, and those poor unfortunate souls locked away fro mental disorders and epilepsy.

The death certificate of Blas Gonzales, and immigrant Mexican laborer who died at the County Home in 1932. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The death certificate of Blas Gonzales, and immigrant Mexican laborer who died at the County Home in 1932. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
Original data: Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately this only covers a portion (1906 – ca. 1940) of the Home’s history, and does not include those who died elsewhere in the county. But this is a good start, and perhaps one day an alternate source of information will be found.

What’s in a Commode?

One day you walk into the Kennett Square ReStore and lay your eyes on this:

Cabinet 3/4 view.

Confronted with glory.

What do you do? In my case, I bought it immediately. But why, you might ask? Because the instant I laid eyes on it I knew I had something special. As it turns out, this is a pine lift-top commode. Its name of course has been adopted by our modern times to refer to a different fixture, but the function is the same. The top lifts to store a wash basin and pitcher, the little drawer is for towels, and the bottom is for your, er, chamber pot. Golly gee willickers!

Opening the lid revealed it was detailed with milk paint, a not uncommon method for the early 1800s.

Inside milk

Opening the lid reveals the original milk paint.

And the detail work was something to marvel at: dovetailed joints, a fine finish, and square cut nails? Everything pointed to it being something very special indeed.

Drawer-out.

Dovetailed.

Old burl knobs.

Old burl knobs.

All I had were indicators that the thing dated to the early 1800s, but when it spontaneously deconstructed itself carrying it inside, I made a startling discovery: the hinges were stamped:

Hinges

Hinges spill their secrets.

As it turns out these hinges were made by the T&C Clark & Co., of Birmingham, England based on a patent from around 1840. But though the hinges were made abroad, the cabinet was not. The “TARIFF” stamp dates the box to sometime between 1846 and 1861. The Walker Tariff went into effect in 1846, stimulating through reduced duties the importation of iron from Britain, which drove prices for iron down substantially. The Tariff of 1857 further reduced rates, but the Panic of 1857 led to the adoption of the heavily protectionist Morrill Tariff in 1861. Neat! Almost makes