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WISE AND OTHERWISE
SUPERSTITION IN 1716 — THE LIFE OF A WOMAN WHO MINDS HER OWN BUSINESS — BETWEEN NOSE AND CHIN — ”NOT JOHN, BUT THE DEMIJOHN” — TIME TO BURY WEST PHILADELPHIA — “MISS KITTY CUT-A-DASH” — ODE TO A MARKET STREET GUTTER.
AN incident that shows how far away are the early days of Philadelphia was related in the Journal of Rev. Andreas Sandel on January 12, 1716. It is evident that he really believed the things of which he told, and that he was ready to encourage the ignorant husband and wife in a delusion that savored of the Middle Ages. The story should be read as he told it:
“A dreadful thing happened in Philadelphia, to the wife of a butcher, who had quarreled with her husband. He asked her to make their bed, but she refused. Continuing to refuse, he told her he would turn her out of the house, but she told him if he did so, she would break every window pane, and invoked the Devil to come for her if she did not do it. The husband led her out of the house, she became highly excited, broke some of the panes, and through the kitchen made her way up to the attic, with a candle, and laid down on the bed greatly disturbed on account of her promise. Then she heard somebody coming up the stairs, but saw no one — this was repeated for half an hour. Becoming more and more agitated, fearing her awful invocation was about to be realized, she went down to her husband, telling him of her anguish and asking him to aid her. Laying down on a bench near the hearth she perceived a dark human face, making horrid grimaces with mouth wide open and the teeth gnashing. Then she became thoroughly terrified, and asked her husband to read to her Psalm XXI, which he did, and the face disappeared. Soon afterwards she perceived at the window, one of which she had broken panes, that some one was standing there with both arms extended through the window, by which her fright was made greater. Then the figure approached and passed her. Her husband then clasped his arms around her, when the fumes of brimstone became so strong they could not remain in doors.
“At one o’clock she sent for the minister, who also came and prayed with her the next day. Many persons visited her, but she had to hold her hands over her knees to keep from trembling.”
Writers of journals in colonial days usually showed more sense than Mr. Sandel, though often they were quite bombastic in their effusions, as when Sarah Eve, in 1773, wrote:
“Will fortune never cease to persecute us? but why complain! for at the worst what is poverty! it is living more according to nature — luxury is not nature but art — does not poverty always bring dependence? No, a person that is poor could they divest themselves of opinions is more independent than one that is not so, as the one limits his wants and expectations to his circumstances, the other knows no bounds therefore is more dependent in many senses of the word — ‘happy is the man that expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.’ Poverty without pride is nothing, but with it is the very deuce! But surely there must be something more dreadful in it than I can see, when a former acquaintance and one that pretended a friendship for another, such as Nancy T— did . . . will always run from you as though poverty were really infectious. The lady I mentioned will cut down an alley or walk herself into a perspiration rather than acknowledge she has ever seen you before, or if it so happen she cannot help speaking to you, it is done in so slight a manner and with so much confusion, that, were it not for this plague ‘Pride’ I should enjoy it above all things. However, I have the satisfaction to feel myself in many respects as much superior to her as she is to me in point of fortune yet for years, I may say, we were almost inseparable, there was scarce a wish or thought that one of us had, that was not as ardently desired by the other; if we were eight and forty hours apart, it was looked upon as an age, two or three messages and as many letters passed between us in that time. And will it be credited, when I say, that without one word of difference we have not been ten minutes together or at each other’s house in two years and upwards.”
Once again the fair journalist moralized when she wrote, on the fifth anniversary of her father’s departure to Jamaica, a departure made necessary by business reverses:
“Happy mortals are we, that we cannot dive into futurity! if we could how pleasure would be anticipated until it become tasteless, and the knowledge of distant evil make us utterly insensible to the joys of present good.”
Elizabeth Drinker also was fond of moralizing. A favorite subject was the habit of keeping a journal. In 1799 she wrote:
“With respect to keeping a Diary — when I began this year I intended this book for memorandums, nor is it anything else. ye habit of scribbling something every night led me on — as what I write answers no other purpose than to help ye memory. I have seen Diaries of different complections — some were amusing, others instructive, and others replete with what might much better be left alone.
“My simple Diary comes under none of those descriptions. The first I never aimed at, for ye second I am not qualified, ye third may I ever avoid. Tho’ I have had opportunities and incitements, sometimes, to say severe things, and perhaps with strict justice, yet I was never prone to speak my mind, much less to write or record anything that might at a future day give pain to any one. The children, or ye children’s children of the present day, may be quite innocent of their parents’ duplicity: how wrong it is to put on record anything to wound ye feelings of innocent persons, to gratify present resentment. I have seen frequent instances of people, in the course of time, change their opinions of men and things — and sometimes be astonished by pique or prejudice; yet perhaps, tho’ convinced that they have been wrong, unwilling to tear or spoil what they have wrote, and leave it to do future mischief.”
In verse the author of the diary once expressed her hatred of gossip:
Several times she meditated on the passage of time and the loss of opportunities. On these occasions she dropped into rhyme, a thing she did not find it difficult to do. On August 31, 1794, she penned the feeling lines:
And on January 31, 1795, she said:
Mrs. Drinker needed a little of the sense of humor possessed by Jacob Longstreth who, so the story is told, one day met in his counting house Joseph Crukshank, a Quaker friend, Edward Sheepshank, and Maltby John Littleboy. The thought of this collection of incongruous names was too much for the business man, and he began to laugh and to ring the changes on them until the staid Quaker was out of patience.
How Mr. Longstreth would have enjoyed talking with Judge Richard Peters, of Belmont, of whom the wittiest men Philadelphia ever produced. Some of Samuel Breck tells in his Memoirs, certainly one of the Judge’s sallies have become famous.
Mr. Breck says that Judge Peters was once at supper in Philadelphia in company with Judge Bushrod Washington, who presided over the United States Circuit Court, in which Judge Peters sat as a Junior Judge. The host repeatedly urged Judge Peters to eat some duck, but he constantly refused. At length, being again pressed, he said, “Give the duck to my brother Washington, for he is the mouthpiece of the Court.”
Another story told of Judge Peters has to do with his sharp nose and chin. As he grew old these approached each other. A friend observed to him that his chin and nose would soon be at loggerheads. “Very likely,” was the reply; “hard words often pass between them.”
Judge Peters was once Speaker of the House of Assembly. One of the members in crossing the room tripped on the carpet and fell flat. The House burst into laughter; but the Judge, with the utmost gravity, cried, “Order, order, gentlemen; do you not see that a member is on the floor?”
The genial Judge was seated one day at the fish club [The State in Schuylkill]. At his side was General Wharton, the President of the Club. When the wine gave out, the General called, “We want more wine; please to call John.” But the wit of the Philadelphia bar put in, instantly, “If you want more wine, you had better call for the demijohn.”
Another opportunity came soon after “a gentleman by the name of Vaux” was stopped by two footpads near Philadelphia. He had no money with him, so he was allowed to pass. Three days after, the Judge’s son, in company with another wayfarer, was stopped by the same highwaymen and robbed of a gold watch and forty dollars. When the Judge heard of this, he exclaimed, “Oh, I know too well the luck of my family to suppose it would be with one of its members as it was the other day — Vox et praeterea nihil”
Mr. Breck told also of a day when a very fat and a very slim man stood at the entrance of a bar into which the Judge wished to pass. He stopped for a moment that they might make way, but, perceiving that they were not planning to move, and being urged by the master of the house to come in, he pushed between them, exclaiming, “Here I go, then, through thick and thin.”
One more story of this wit of Belmont. Some time after he laid out the town of Mantua (West Philadelphia) the project languished. Suddenly some improvement in the neighborhood renewed his hope. One of his acquaintances remarked that he had better now complete the laying out of the town. “Yes, yes,” replied the Judge; “it is high time indeed to lay it out, for it has been dead these two years.”
Another Philadelphia worthy who flourished during Judge Peters’ younger days, was Edward Shippen. He, too, had a spark of humor. Once for his grandson, Allen Burd, he wrote lines in Latin which were translated thus:
Francis Hopkinson, too, was ready to drop into rhyme on occasion. Once, in imitation of E. Penseroso, he contributed to The American Magazine a poem dedicated to Dr. William Smith, first Provost of the University of Pennsylvania. The closing lines referred to Dr. Smith’s house at Falls of Schuylkill, which is still standing:
In 1782 Dr. Smith was made the excuse of lines by some poetaster whose name is not known to fame. A proposition had been made to Dr. Smith in the Committee Room of the General Assembly, to add a rider to the bill for restoring the charter and property of the College of Philadelphia. To this proposition he made reply. The following extempore lines referred to the reply:
Alexander Wilson, also, loved the Schuylkill. His residence at Gray’s Ferry, where he taught school, gave him opportunity for many walks along the banks of the fair stream. In 1804 he told of some of his thoughts in “The Rural Walk.” Four stanzas of the poem may be quoted:
The references in these lines were of course, to Christ Church, the Schuylkill, Dr. Benjamin Say’s house at Gray’s Ferry, and Gray’s Garden.
Other local touches were given in “The Philadelphiad,” an odd collection of all sorts of verses, published in 1784. In this volume rhyme seemed more important than either meter or sense, as is evident from this extract:
A gem from the miscellany in the second volume of The Philadelphiad, is “Miss Kitty Cut-a-Dash, or the Arch Street Flirt”:
There was far more of humor and certainly as much poetry in the parody which The Portfolio printed with the title, “Ode to a Market Street Gutter”:
That ability to enjoy such doggerel, at proper times, is never a hindrance to serious thought and earnest expression was proved by the experiences of early Philadelphians, whose minds stood just as much in need of a vacation as do the minds of thoughtful men and women of the present day.