Lecture Review – Joseph Grabas: Land Deeds and the Illumination of History

What genealogist wouldn’t want to know how contemporaries viewed his/her ancestors? Even better, what family researcher wouldn’t crave a source that described his forebears as either a “lunatic” or a “spinster”? How about a primary document in which a forefather bequeathed to a relative: “a good stout rope to hang his Irish wife”? These historical sleuths owe Joseph Grabas some serious gratitude. As part of the New Jersey History Speaks Lecture Series, presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown and hosted by the Moorestown Library on March 15, 2017, Mr. Grabas revealed a veritable “Holy Grail” of source material for such scholars.

It seemed fitting that such an unusual nature of information would come from an atypical type of historian. Mr. Grabas described himself as, “your premier forensic title expert.” Based on his extensive background in the subject, his self-designation seemed rather modest. For the last forty years he’s researched property records in the Garden State. He served as the president of the New Jersey Land Title Association. In addition, he founded the Grabas Institute for Continuing Education and instructs realtors, lawyers and insurance professionals on the nuances of land records. Somehow he found time to write Owning New Jersey: Historic Tales of War, Property Disputes and the Pursuit of Happiness which The History Press published in 2014, as well.

Mr. Grabas explained that historically American society placed more importance on land ownership than home ownership. His book opened with a witty observation from Mark Twain that explained why: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.” In fact, possession of land held such prominence that statutes require many records regarding it to be retained forever.

Historians and genealogists should rejoice. Mr. Gabas explained that a county surrogate’s documents are “land records.” A diverse array of sources qualifies as such. They include, but are not limited to: financing statements, deeds, mortgages, leases, inventories, liens and even manumission records. This source provides researchers the data needed to trace a chain of title, which details the ownership history for tracts of land. It allows investigators to determine how owners obtained the real estate in the form of deed recitals. Some documents also provide witty anecdotes for those exploring family histories. For example, a deed he displayed referred to a man named Zaccheus Dunn as a “lunatic” in five separate places. With this wealth of information among so called “land records,” it’s surprising, as Mr. Grabas commented, that genealogists tend not to consult them.

Many professional researchers tend to focus on theory when explaining their craft. Mr. Grabas got into the practical aspect of his work. Using how he would investigate when a particular building was erected as an example, he showed the group his process. In the eighteenth century insurance companies began using Sanborn Maps to evaluate the insurability of properties. The speaker used a series of these documents to confirm the old Masonic Hall on Main Street in Moorestown’s date of construction. The edifice’s cornerstone read 1914. The Sanborn Maps from the years prior to and after that date were consistent with the keystone.

Mr. Grabas described his goal to “educate and entertain” the audience upon beginning his lecture. He did indeed. (Forgive the pun.) With all the unusual things uncovered from the documents he discussed, I’ve decided to try something original. I’m adding a clause to my will instructing my executor to shred all my land records upon my death. Let future historians, genealogists and title researchers wrap their minds around what that means.


Lecture Review – “New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness” by Michael DiCamilo

The preeminent of all American ideological conflicts found a fertile battle ground in the Garden State. The debate over a Hamiltonian approach to big government versus the Jeffersonian preference for more localized administration ended in favor of the latter. It resulted in New Jersey spawning 566 municipalities: even more than California. Just what caused this northern state to adopt the political philosophy of the gentleman planter from Virginia?

Historian Michael DiCamilo set out to elucidate this phenomenon as part of the History Speaks series on January 18, 2017. The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund, the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library sponsored the event which the latter hosted. Professor DiCamilo teaches American History at LaSalle. He’s also on the Historical Society of Moorestown’s board of trustees where currently serves as Vice President.

Mr. DiCamilo utilized the work of former Garden State politician Alan Karcher’s 1989 work New Jersey’s Municipal Madness illustrate this phenomena. The former Assembly Speaker explored the reasons why myriad towns and boroughs incorporated in the state. He discovered five key reasons: street fights, railroad towns, school district boroughs, dry versus wet towns, and exclusive enclaves. Mr. DiCamilo took the audience through each one.

The portion on “street fights” intrigued me the most. With the advent of the automobile road maintenance became a major political issue. Residents of a community elected “road superintendents” to represent their interests at the municipal level. They argued to secure the most funding for their streets. When these officials couldn’t acquire the municipal money they wanted, they’d return to their constituents with an interesting proposition. They’d encourage the “street” to form its own town. Of course, these road superintendents would play prominent roles in the new polis; even serving as their mayors.

I found this outcome rather interesting. A road superintendent would fail in his duties to his constituency. The populace would proceed to elect them to govern the new town; a much more complex challenge than fundraising. In essence, these officials would receive a promotion from the same people they disappointed. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “Politics has a logic of its own.”

I also enjoyed Mr. DiCamilo’s discussion of the conflicts leading to dry and wet towns. He described how the “camp meeting movement” inspired people to exit the cities in favor of country life. These new communities would serve as places of worship where residents could avoid the excesses of modern life. A number of these municipalities such as Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach and Avon-by-the-Sea developed along the coast. More locally, the towns of Bellmawr and Delanco began as part of this phenomenon.

The disparity between pro and anti-prohibition forces masked more nefarious motives, as well. One of the rationales for the “camp meeting movement” germinated from a desire to control rowdy youths and immigrants. Latent and, at times, overt racism even led to the development of some municipalities.

While the pursuit of a moral life free of vice caused many communities to form, the rejection of these principles inspired others. Centre Township prohibited playing golf on Sundays. It also rigorously enforced prohibition. Some individuals rejected these mores to such a degree they decided to form their own town. Thus, Tavistock incorporated in 1921.

In a fitting move, Mr. DiCamilo made his discussion of local history hyperlocal. Founded in 1688, Chester Township experienced numerous splits before the name disappeared from South Jersey in 1945. Cinnaminson left in 1860. Delran broke off from the latter in 1885. Riverside separated from Delran in the same year. Riverton left Cinnaminson in 1893 then Palmyra did the same a year later. In 1922 Moorestown parted from Chester Township. The remaining community changed its name to Maple Shade in 1945. Interestingly, with the exceptions of Moorestown and Riverside (which incorporated over street fights) all the others were “railroad towns.”

Mr. DiCamilo focused his talk on the political aspects of the subject; which he delivered exceptionally well. Throughout the lecture he presented balanced analyses of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions. With respect to the latter he explained as one positive: the smaller the community, the easier for citizens to become part of government. While correct, not everyone has an interest in being an active member of the political process. In addition many individuals who live in the same area share the same political views. I’d encourage another historian to follow-up on this lecture with a discussion of the social implications of so many municipalities.

Mr. Camilo presented a solid case that the Jeffersonian vision of government entrenched itself in the Garden State. While no new municipalities have incorporated in New Jersey since 1957, to his knowledge, only Princeton Township and Princeton Boro chose to consolidate over the last two decades.

The monument on Mr. Jefferson’s grave describes him as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. Had the third President lived long enough, he just may have added: “instrumental inspiration for the municipal system of government in New Jersey” to his legacy.

Lecture Review “Shipwrecks off NJ Coast” by Dan Lieb of NJHDA

It seemed fitting that Dan Lieb’s lecture on “Shipwrecks off NJ Coast” occurred on a dreary and stormy night. With a coastline of 126 miles, 7,200 shipwreck accounts have been recorded in New Jersey. This equates to a little over 7% of the nation’s maritime incidents. The expression “wreck” constitutes a rather broad category in itself. “Wreck reports” throughout the state’s history described everything from the nautical versions of “fender benders” to ships sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Exploration of the latter became a popular diving pursuit after the Pinta sank in 1963.

The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund along with the cooperative effort between the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library hosted this event on November 16th. It took place at the Moorestown Library.

Mr. Leib serves as the President of the NJ Historical Divers Association. The group studies wreckage off the Jersey coast and identifies from what ships it originated. They also “map” wrecks so one can see the location and layout of the remaining sections of sunken ships. The organization incorporated in 1995. On April 1, 2006 it opened a museum which it plans on expanding within the next two years.

Mr. Lieb recovered his first artifact during a 1977 dive. He located a large bronze valve that he wittily referred to as “plumbing” at the site of the Rusland and Adonis wreckage sites. This atypical location includes two ships that went down in the same place. They didn’t collide, however. The former ship wrecked in 1877 on the wreckage of the latter; the Adonis having sunk 18 years previous.

While two ships sinking in the same area doesn’t occur often, it’s not improbable. The Millville and the John H. Winstead sank approximately 1000 feet away from each other. These wrecks occurred during the same storm in December of 1927.

New Jersey’s seas don’t experience the same volume of hurricanes as North Carolina or Texas. They still encounter deadly storms. Weather has caused myriad disasters throughout the state’s history. In 1854 both the Powhattan and the New Era wrecked because of storms. These two incidents caused a combined loss of over 500 lives. 1846 saw a host of weather related catastrophes. The John Minturn and nine other vessels wrecked due to bad meteorological conditions.

Mr. Lieb discussed the most unusual find he’s encountered. While exploring off the Long Branch coast, divers discovered locomotives on the sea bed. Historians do not yet know how these trains arrived at their watery resting place.

Aside from the interesting facts regarding actual ship wrecks, the speaker added a bit of miscellany to enhance the discussion. He explained that at times organizations will intentionally sink boats. They do this in order to create habitats for sea life. Muscles and other underwater denizens thrive in these artificial additions to their environment.

Following the advent of lighthouses, over 40 life-saving stations operated along the New Jersey coastline. People who worked in these buildings performed a rather unique service. During bad weather, such as hurricanes, they would be tasked with walking from one station to the next and back again while looking out at the sea for shipwrecks. These brave souls would carry two tools. They held a lantern so they could see through the heavy rain. They also carried a flare in order to signal those on a stranded ship that help would soon arrive. The person would then return to the station and get assistance. In essence, sea rescue would entail tying a line to the shore and the other to the boat. Using whatever in vogue device preferred at the time, rescuers would ferry passengers from the ship to the shore amid dangerous seas and heavy gales.

In several pictures of wrecks Mr. Gelb displayed, a row of large black boxes appeared across ships’ exteriors. He explained that from a distance these painted figures would be mistaken for cannon holes. They deterred pirates from attacking. Fear of these sea marauders caused the dark squares to appear on ships until the early years of the twentieth century.

On land we know New Jersey as the Garden State. Beneath the waves the sea also takes on a verdant hue. Mr. Gelb animated the “emerald world” he encounters off the coast. Now other states can really feel “green.” Not only does New Jersey have a rich history on land, we’ve got one to inspire jealousy under our coastal waters as well.

Victor Talking Machine Company: South Jersey’s Motown

Our friends in Cleveland, the home of “the heart of rock and roll”, owe the South Jersey area a great debt of gratitude. It turns out that without Camden, New Jersey’s contribution to the music industry that pulse would’ve flat lined a long time ago. According to Victor Talking Machine Company CEO, Graham Alexander, former Moorestown, New Jersey resident Eldridge Johnson and his business partner Emile Berliner gave birth to the modern record industry when they founded the company he now runs. Mr. Alexander referred to these two pioneers as the “Lennon and McCartney of the music industry” in a speech he delivered to the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 7th.

Camden native Mr. Alexander is well suited to his role as a music industry executive. With his black sport jacket, gray company logo shirt and boots, he looks the part. His bushy black hair and vocal inflections bring to mind Sir Paul McCartney. That’s not surprising. He played Sir Paul in a Broadway production of Rain prior to becoming an entrepreneur. Physical appearances aside, his intense passion for what he does truly makes Mr. Alexander fit the multiple roles he plays as a business owner, historian and performer.

Mr. Alexander acquired the Victor name during a brand auction he attended while living in New York City. Since he hailed from the South Jersey area he wanted to return. When the opportunity to purchase a piece of its rich musical legacy and bring it back with him presented itself, he did so. In addition to the Victor Talking Machine Company, he also acquired the rights to the Victrola, His Master’s Voice and Camden Records (Little Richard’s original label) brands.

The promotional film for Mr. Alexander’s song “Games” opens with an aerial view from an antique clip of one of the old Camden Victor buildings. The voice over describes “a treasure house of music” where one “gets to see a record made.” Then a sound engineer cues an orchestra. A black and white clip of the ensemble morphs into Mr. Alexander’s 2015 band playing a soulful ballad. This is an excellent metaphor of how he is developing both the old and the new at the Victor Talking Machine Company.

It’s not entirely fair to call Camden “South Jersey’s Motown”. The Victor Talking Machine Company’s talent roster would’ve made Berry Gordy envious. Imagine having the likes of Enrico Caruso, Billie Holliday and Big Bill Broonzy among the label’s artists. Now add to that list Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Include Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, two of the most influential Jazz guitarists who ever lived. Woody Guthrie along with blues legend Lead Belly both recorded their first albums for Victor. (This is only a partial list of the company’s artists, by the way.) Most people don’t realize that these monumental talents recorded in Camden because as Mr. Alexander wittily observed, Victor “got rid of their good musicians before they really got good.”

Music aficionados like me salivate at the thought of listening to the master recordings of these sessions; especially for the great blues men who influenced the British Invasion. (It’s just a shame it took English musicians to introduce Americans to our music.) Unfortunately, many of Victor’s master recordings were lost in the 1960s. Due to an expansion of Camden’s docks an estimated 300,000 ended up at the bottom of the Delaware River. Thanks to the aid of RCA’s European affiliates* and donations from relatives of former Victor employees, the company is recovering some of these “lost” recordings. (* RCA purchased Victor in 1929.)

During his speech Mr. Alexander passed around a visual aid of a metal master recording. Record companies used these silver colored discs the size of a modern record until 1948. The manufacturer would press them into vinyl to make a record. During its prime Victor produced approximately 800,000 vinyl records a day. Mr. Alexander archly explained that it took “Mr. Edison’s company” a month to a month-and-a-half to produce that many.

The highlight of the evening came when Mr. Alexander played an unreleased recording from the Victor archives. It featured my favorite classical composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” unaccompanied on the piano. When it concluded, he told the Historical Society of Moorestown that we were the first people outside the company to hear it. Ironically, Rachmaninoff didn’t like the recording. That’s why Victor never released it. “Still, you don’t hear music like that anymore,” Mr. Alexander observed. (For those who are unfamiliar with the artist: imagine a Russian born Keith Emerson; only a much better piano player.)

The Victor Talking Machine Company is currently headquartered at The Vault ™ in Berlin, NJ. Its brochure describes it as “a unique entertainment and educational experience venue.” In addition to housing early recordings of diverse artists ranging from Jimmy Rogers to Duke Ellington, it also contains historic recordings of Presidential speeches, military battles as well as antique comedy performances.

Thanks to the innovations of its visionary founder, Eldridge Johnson, the company has quite a legacy. Under his leadership Victor revolutionized the music industry. It shared the original record patent with Columbia. Johnson understood that records would become the home entertainment industry. He possessed the acumen to recognize Victor wasn’t selling records: they were selling “works of art”, in Mr. Alexander’s words. Hence the addition of liner notes, album art and artist stories to the package.

So what’s next for Victor? Mr. Alexander said that they’re “not putting the company’s legacy behind glass.” His goal is to, “Make a viable company for today without trampling over its history.” Because of that history, it’s wrong to call Victor South Jersey’s Motown. It would be more appropriate to call Motown Michigan’s Victor. Eat your heart of rock and roll out, Cleveland!

Lecture Review – Dr. Richard Veit: “Stranger Stop and Cast and Eye: 400 Years of New Jersey Cemetery Evolution and Gravestone Design”

Dr. Richard Veit is an atypical historian. While most would discourage societies from “burying the past”, he wants them to do a lot of it. The professor is an anthropologist with a unique field of expertise. Dr. Veit studies the history of cemetery evolution and gravestone design. He unearthed this topic at the Historical Society of Moorestown on January 28, 2016.

This lecture was part of the Historical Society’s New Jersey History Speaks Speaker Series. While many history talks take place in lecture halls or library conference rooms, this one occurred in the living room of an historic home. I enjoyed the cozy environment at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. As I arrived early the Society’s President, Lenny Wagner, provided guests with a brief history of the home, itself. In a sense, the organization treated me to two informative discussions in one evening. (Full Disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Historical Society of Moorestown since 2006.)

Dr. Veit is currently Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. His knowledge of New Jersey cemeteries and gravestones proved these aren’t ceremonial positions. He entertained the group with an enlightening disquisition on the subject. It may seem strange to use a word such as entertained to describe an historical lecture on a topic so close to death, but that’s the right one. The professor presented material that could have been dry and dreary, in a witty and affable fashion.

The breadth of the lecture impressed me. Aside from elucidating 400 years of history, Dr. Veit’s comments covered the entire state. He explained that different parts of New Jersey had gravestone designs endemic to their areas. Of interest to residents of South Jersey he discussed the “Philadelphia influence” during the Colonial Era. This entailed the importing of marble from Pennsylvania for tombstones. In northern parts of the state, slate imported from New England became vogue.

I knew that grave markers benefited genealogists. My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany’s showed me which unit he served in during the First World War. Dr. Veit displayed phots of some that contained much more detail that that. He jokingly referred to a few of them as a “resume”. Irish markers tended to describe where the deceased grew up in Ireland, when they arrived in the United States, when they married, how many children they had, etc. That would be a monumental source of information for anyone researching his/ her family history.

I learned something I never would’ve imagined. Tombstones served as early sources of advertising. Carvers would inscribe their names on the markers they chiseled. This may seem disturbing to modern sensibilities, but with the absence of photography and mass marketing, people did what they could to ensue name recognition.

In the midst of all these entertaining facts, the professor slyly snuck in some serious historical lessons. He explained how graveyards are a reflection of their historical times. During the Colonial Era, few markers contained crosses. People living in that time viewed them as a “Catholic” influence. While ubiquitous today, some 250 years ago crosses only appeared on some French graves.

The part of the talk that amused me the most concerned the mausoleums. They became very fashionable resting places for captains of industry around the dawn of the 20th Century; predominantly in urban areas. Dr. Veit displayed pictures of one he visited. He described it as having room for the deceased “and about thirty of his closest friends.” As the professor visited during the Holiday Season, the tomb contained multiple Christmas Trees and wreaths inside. To my eyes the ambiance and marble floors made it appear more like a mall than a burial place.

Dr. Veit began his remarks by calling cemeteries, “great sources of information.” Just how much information one can discover there amazed me. The amount of information the speaker possessed impressed me even more. I enjoyed the professor’s engaging jocularity and erudition. I’d welcome the opportunity to see him again. I just hope that time comes before he’s studying my tombstone.

Lenape Libertarianism

Peace. Tolerance. Autonomy. If asked who established these concepts on the North American continent, I’m sure many would respond the Founding Fathers. Those more familiar with the history of the Delaware Valley would say the Quakers. While great guesses, historical ‘myth buster’ Dr. Jean R. Soderlund of Lehigh University asserts that the Lenape Indians established these ‘American’ values prior to the other groups’ respective arrivals. She elucidated her ideas at the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 9th.

The parallels between Lenape society and modern day libertarian thought amazed me. The Lenape opposed the concept of a central government. They lived in small autonomous villages. A ‘sachem’ led each town. These villages would ally only for purposes of war and diplomacy. I interpret this act as forming a de-facto central government for the purpose of foreign affairs.

Freedom served as the core value of their society. They permitted their children to ‘run free’, in Dr. Soderlund’s words. Women had a much higher status in society than their European counterparts. They even had the authority to divorce if they so choose. These socially liberal ideas didn’t exist among newcomers to the region.

The Lenape supported free trade. Corn, beans and squash served as their major agricultural products. They would exchange these items with Europeans in return for cloth.

While establishing a reputation for welcoming others into their society, they resorted to force when necessary. Dr. Soderlund used the Swanendael Massacre of 1631 as an example. The tragedy germinated from a communication gap between the Lenape and the Dutch. The latter asked the former to turn over a sachem. He’d defaced a sign defining the area as Dutch territory. The Lenape killed the chief and provided his head. The Dutch had a much more benign punishment in mind, but the language barrier complicated their request. The sachem’s family executed 32 members of the Dutch settlement as retribution.

Dr. Soderlund asserted that the Lenape resorted to violence to encourage the settlers to go elsewhere. They recognized European encroachment in the region. This act sent a message. In 1687 the Lenape wouldn’t allow cartographer Thomas Holme access to their lands to complete his map, either.

The Walking Purchase of 1737 concluded the professor’s lecture. An unscrupulous negotiator inveigled a large tract of land in Eastern Pennsylvania from the Lenape. Their distrust of government and the settlers turned out well-founded.

Dr. Soderlund delivered a well-researched presentation on Lenape life. I’m still amazed by their libertarian value system. The professor discredited various myths surrounding Native American life. Unfortunately no historian can include the narrative of them getting cheated out of their land among them.

Burlington County (New Jersey) Murders and Executions 1832 – 1906

A love of violence plagues American society. Our kids watch rough sports like Football and Hockey. Then they play video games that make the Wild West look like something out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. Thinking about this made me long for the idyllic days where we didn’t have these vicious past times. I longed for a time in our recent past when parents and children could pack up a picnic basket. Together they could go on a family outing and watch the county hang somebody. This past mischief night at the Moorestown Library, local historian Marissa Bozarth allowed me to relive this halcyon era. She delivered a lecture on Burlington County (New Jersey) murders and executions that took place between 1832 and 1906.

Who would’ve thought people executed by the county could be so remarkable? On March 23, 1860 Philip Lynch met the hangman’s noose for the murder of George Coulter. Mr. Lynch’s behavior upon hearing the jury’s verdict was, well, not good. Following the pronouncement, he told the judge, prosecutor and sheriff that he would return from the grave to haunt them. (No evidence suggests that he ever did.)

While reassuring that Mr. Lynch believed in life after death, history would recall his reputation better had he followed the example of freed slave Eliza Freeman. In 1832, she earned the ignominious distinction of being the first person executed by Burlington County. When she murdered her husband, she showed no remorse. Her last words, however, displayed a much more respectable demeanor. She warned those who attended her execution against the dangers of alcohol. (Remember that. You’ll be reading about it again.) Then she prayed for her prison caretakers, all of the 3,000 – 5,000 people who attended her hanging as well as for her fellow African-Americans. Incidentally, the number of spectators fell well short of the 10,000 who watched Wesley Warner’s execution on 9/6/1894.

As only first degree murderers faced execution, Mr. Warner argued he committed second degree murder. Why did he murder Lizzie Peak? In essence, he claimed he didn’t kill her: his drunkenness did. The prosecutor convinced the jury that he “got drunk on purpose.” In an unusual occurrence for the 1890s, Warner appealed his sentence six times. They didn’t help. Fortunately, this didn’t drive him to drink.

Without comparison, I found Joel Clough the most intriguing person to meet the hangman’s noose in Burlington County. As difficult as this will be for readers to believe, he attended Ms. Freeman’s execution. Apparently, it impressed him so much that he decided to make the transition from audience member to participant. Following a tumultuous relationship with Mary Hamilton and an even harsher one with the bottle, Clough decided to permanently end his dealings with Ms. Hamilton on April 5, 1833. He returned a dagger she gave him as a gift by plunging it into her chest eight times. Following his arrest, he became the first person to ever escape from Mount Holly Prison. Cough didn’t excel at getting away from things. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide at one point, too.

During his trial, Clough tried to prove “temporary insanity” at the time of the murder. He even brought in experts on mental illness; something very unusual in the 1830s. In addition, he blamed his upbringing for leading him to kill. The jury didn’t agree. The county executed him on 7/26/33. For reasons that mystify me, he personally put on the hood and placed the rope around his neck.

The American spirit of innovation applied to some of these executions. Instead of having a door drop, the county used a 364 pound weight attached to a rope and cross beam on Philip Lynch. In 1907 the State of New Jersey took over the role of executing prisoners. In 1906, the county knew this would be its last time and decided to make it memorable. Deputies tied Rufus Johnson and George Small back-to-back and hanged them for the murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allinson.

In his play, Justice, John Galsworthy had a prison guard utter the prescient observation: “If it wasn’t for women and alcohol, this place would be empty.” The same observation could be made for many of the executions that took place in Burlington County between 1832 and 1906. The fascination with violence stood out more, though. The number of people who attended these executions in person boggles the mind. With that in mind, the voyeuristic violence in our society makes our era seem like the idyllic one.

Local History/ Ancestry – Still History

Vainly, I’ve thought I had the best family history of anyone I’ve ever met. In the course of my studies I’ve discovered I’m related to both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. (We Stephanys have a long tradition of hedging our bets.) Thanks to the outstanding program hosted by the Historical Society of Moorestown this past October 9th, I had the pleasure of meeting someone with an even more profound lineage. Local resident Samuel Still III regaled the group with tales of his extraordinary ancestors.

Did I mention these individuals were extraordinary? His 4X Great Grandmother Charity (Sidney) Still had 18 children. That’s a pretty impressive feat during any era. It’s even more phenomenal that she did this during the 19th century and survived. She also spent the early part of her life as a slave in Maryland. On two separate occasions she managed to escape. The lady lived a full life.

Samuel then detailed the life of Dr. James Still. At the age of either three or four he witnessed a doctor giving inoculations. The young James resolved to become a physician. During the course of his life he received only three months of formal education. This short coming would’ve deterred a less driven person from pursuing a career in medicine. James didn’t let it prevent him from achieving his dream.

James apprenticed with another doctor and studied herbal medicine from the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Following years of hard work, he realized his goal of becoming Dr. Still. While this feat served as a monumental achievement in itself, he went on to discover a remedy that cured skin cancer. In addition, the doctor became very successful at treating dyspepsia and scrofula. (The latter is an inflammation of the lymph nodes on the neck.)

Before readers assume that his three months of formal education the greatest schooling anyone ever received, much of Dr. Still’s success emanated from his work ethic. He labored seven days a week and even delivered his prescriptions directly to patients. In his autobiography he preached the virtues of forbearance and debt avoidance. At the age of 70, Dr. Still was the third largest landowner in Medford, New Jersey. He lived most of his life debt free. These would be tremendous accomplishments for any resident of the Garden State today. It’s even more extraordinary for the son of former slaves to do so in the 19th century.

Samuel could’ve stopped his presentation there and still delivered an outstanding tale. Instead he impressed his audience even further. Another of charity’s sons, William Still, became known as “The Father of the Undergound Railroad.” Among his myriad accomplishments he laid out the organization’s overall network. Samuel said, “Harriet Tubman didn’t make a move without telling him.” William debriefed, if you will, escaped and slaves who passed through Philadelphia. He compiled their stories into the seminal chronicle on the subject. He published it in 1872 as The Undergound Railroad. For those interested, the book is still available today.

Samuel went still further in his lecture. He related the story of a slave who stopped by William’s office after purchasing his own freedom. William wrote down the man’s story of how his mother escaped from slavery in Maryland. Before she left she told him to meet her in the New Jersey Pine Barrens when he became free. At this point William recognized the gentleman as his long-lost brother Peter.

Peter made the other two Still brothers seem like under achievers by comparison. For forty years of his life he endured slavery. After purchasing his own freedom for $500, his former owner made him a proposition. He would sell Peter the wife and children he left behind in Alabama for the princely sum of $5,000. In 2014 dollars this would equate to roughly $143,000. It took Peter several years, but he managed to raise the necessary funds and liberated his family.

Samuel certainly has a rich family heritage of which to be proud. While I enjoyed hearing his story the number of younger people who attended this meeting impressed me even more. In fact, Samuel brought along his son to help carry on the tradition of sharing the Still story. At the conclusion of his lecture, Samuel told the students in the audience that he wasn’t simply speaking about his genealogy; his talk described our history. The more all of us get to know about one another the more we can understand our similarities and common bonds.

I studied history in high school, college and grad school. Following that I did a wealth of genealogical research for my family. In all that time, I could never come up with a solid answer when people asked me what purpose history really served. After listening to Samuel Still’s comments to the next generation of historians, I finally have one.

Digging Moorestown

Everyone who’s ever been there “digs” Moorestown, but Dr. Ilene Grossman-Bailey does it literally. At the April 10, 2014 Meeting of the Historical Society of Moorestown, Dr. Grossman-Bailey, who currently serves as the Senior Archaeologist at Richard Grubb & Associates, Inc., shared the details of her 2011 – 2012 archaeological excavation of the area around Oldershaw Avenue. She enlightened the group about the finer details about the craft of archaeological surveying. For the Society’s benefit she emphasized the digs at the Madeira I and II sites; both of which took place in our own back yard, literally.

Dr. Grossman-Bailey commenced her remarks with a brief tutorial on archaeology. She defined the field as “the study of past cultures through material remains.” Three items that they investigate are sites of past human activities, artifacts and features. She defined a feature as an artifact that’s located in the ground. Some examples would include building foundations and outhouses. She explained that many interesting items have been extracted from the latter. (Apparently, ancient societies had their share of politicians and musicians, as well.) The criticality of understanding the context of different artifacts came up during the course of her lecture.

For the benefit of us amateurs, Dr. Grossman-Bailey explicated the nomenclature for archaeological projects. She used the Madiera I Site, number 28BU740, as an example. The “28” means the dig took place in New Jersey. The “BU” indicates the county, in this case, Burlington. The last three characters mean that this is the 740th registered site in the state. To date the New Jersey State Museum has registered over 6,000 of them.

We’ve all heard the tales of Indian sounds coming from the bottom of Stokes Hill on dark nights. Now we’ve got the proof these hunter-gatherers spent time in our present day neighborhood. Dr. Grossman-Bailey displayed some of the artifacts recovered. They included hammer stones, which ancient people used for making stone tools. In addition the team found two ceramic pieces. They dated one at 2000 years old. The other was a relative newcomer at only 500 years. Some of these objects showed signs of being heated in a fire. This proved that early inhabitants of the area used them for cooking.

The objects she spent the most time discussing were the small pipe fragments. Some of the ones she unearthed had the appearance of wood grain. They tend to be popular finds at archaeological digs. Interestingly, historians can’t agree on why ancients used them. Some speculate the pipes served as musical instruments. Others hypothesize archaic societies used them as part of a ritual. There are even some researchers who suspect the pipes might have been even been used for smoking. (Imagine that.)

Someone at the HSM Meeting asked Dr. Grossman-Bailey if anyone knew what the ancients smoked. Regrettably, the current testing method (called FTIR) hasn’t been able to identify the substances. This explained why the artifacts she brought to the meeting hadn’t been cleaned.  With the way that technology advances, the hope is that future scientist will have more advanced testing systems to determine the contents of the pipes.

In terms of actual excavation methods, Dr. Grossman-Bailey explained that archaeologists will perform a Phase I Survey which she defined as a general search over a wide area. From there a Phase II Survey will focus on a precise range where the team discovers artifacts. Afterwards, data recovery, or a Phase III Survey will commence. At the Mariera I and II sites in Moorestown, they recovered 500 artifacts. In terms of digging a team will go two to three feet down. Should they discover artifacts or features, they’ll excavate another foot.

Dr. Grossman-Bailey is the latest in a distinguished line of people interested in Moorestown’s ancient past. She discussed how local resident Dorothy Middleton collected and displayed archaeological finds from the surrounding area. She spent fifty years digging into our history and displayed the items from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. According to Dr. O. Kirk Spurr, Ms. Middleton “compiled the fourth largest collection of its type in North America” at her Thunderbird Museum. (This is from the advertisement for his book Dorothy’s Dream: Dorothy Middleton and Her Indian Artifact Museum. For those interested, it’s for sale on the American Society for Amateur Archaeology’s web site.)  Unfortunately, her collection was sold off following her passing.  

Dr. Grossman-Bailey dug up a lot of interesting pieces of Moorestown’s past. She shared them with the society both literally and figuratively. Interestingly, she suspects that her team didn’t excavate the entire site. Who knows? Some lucky Moorestown residents may soon discover the archaeological find of this century in his or her back yard. We can all dig that.



Famous Historical Figure Visits Moorestown

The wife of one of the Founding Fathers visited the Historical Society of Moorestown on October 19, 2006. Deborah Read Franklin shared with the group stories about her life in pre-Revolutionary American society. Of course, her lecture would not have been complete without some remarks about her famous husband, the beloved Founding Father, Benjamin. Mrs. Franklin illuminated a side of Philadelphia’s most famous citizen that the history books have kept in the dark all these years.

With a pining look in her eyes, Mrs. Franklin described her first encounter with the man who would become her husband. She first met Benjamin on the very day of his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love. He was a young man of just 17 at the time. He looked rather disheveled as he made his way down High Street (now Market Street). He had just completed a long, arduous journey from Boston by way of New York and looking worst for wear. “It was love at first sight,” she said smiling.

“Young Ben was carrying three large loaves of bread under his arms,” Deborah said. When she asked why young Benjamin explained that he offered a baker a few coins for “biscuits”, as his often did in Boston. The proud baker became indignant. “We only sell fine bread here!”

“Well then give me this much worth of bread!” Benjamin retorted as he thrust the coins in the man’s direction. Young Ben didn’t know that the Philadelphia economy differed from that of Boston. He didn’t want to come across as provincial so when the baker handed him the three large loaves so he gladly accepted them.

The next time that Deborah saw Ben, she asked him what he did with all the bread. It certainly would have gone bad before he had time to eat it. (Mr. Franklin didn’t add his legendary girth until he was much older.) “I saw a woman and her young child who had been ship mates of mine. They were hungry so I gave the bread to them.”

Deborah also solemnly related the story of how devastated Benjamin felt when his mother-in-law passed away. She tragically fell into an open fire pit during a fit of apoplexy. This loss affected Ben greatly. It consumed him. He couldn’t accept that he had founded the city’s first fire company, but was powerless to save someone so close to him from its dangers. But the horrible tragedy inspired Ben to “make things better.” He invented the Franklin Stove which no doubt saved countless lives from the ravages of fire. Although Ben couldn’t save his mother-in-law, his invention no-doubt saved an incalculable number of other lives. Mrs. Franklin said that prior to the invention of Mr. Franklin’s stove, the second leading cause of death among women in Colonial America was infection caused by burns.

Deborah concluded her narrative by saying that Ben was such a successful businessman that he retired at the age of 42. At the time he happily told his wife: “Now, Debbie we can do all those things we never had time for.” Very shortly afterwards, the American Revolution entered into its incipient stages. Ben heeded the call of the new nation and travelled to England to fight against “taxation without representation.” Mrs. Franklin didn’t see her husband for the final ten years of her life. Sadly, she didn’t survive long enough to witness the independence of the United States that her husband worked to hard to achieve. She passed away in 1774.

Historian and actress JoAnn Tufo brought the character of Deborah Read Franklin to life. During the question period, an audience member asked Ms. Tufo if she believed Ben Franklin truly loved his wife. After all, his legendary reputation among the ladies of France persists to this day. Ms. Tufo replied that Benjamin was a widower long before he went to Paris. In keeping with the theme of revealing elements of Franklin’s character not captured by the history books, she said that Ben also happened to be a songwriter. One of his works still extant is a tune he penned about Debbie. “What greater sign of love is there than when a man writes a drinking song about his wife?” She asked.