Reading: The Town of Widow Finney

During the month of March (National Women’s History Month) I will be posting a blog on some of the women of Berks County. I hope I will be choosing some women that will be interesting to you and you may find them as amazing as I do. Also, I will include a Mystery Woman of the Week for you to read and test your knowledge.

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Photo: DineIndie.com

Have you ever eaten at The Speckled Hen? For the longest time, historians thought that this log cabin had been the home of Sarah Finney, better known as Widow Finney. Later it was speculated that the original Finney home was where Judy’s on Cherry is located today, while other believe it was located closer to the river. Unfortunately, there is no historical or archaeological evidence that indicates the exact location of Finney’s residence. However, we know quite a bit about Sarah Finney and the substantial impact she had on her community.

Sarah was born about 1685 in Philadelphia, to what we might call “well-to-do” parents. She married Joseph Finney and the two of them decided to make a life of their own as homesteaders near the ford in the Schuylkill River along what was called the Perkiomen Path. They had two sons, Sam and John and two daughters, Rebecca and Anne. Joseph planned a plantation with fruit trees and for two years, Joseph and Sarah and their sons and daughters worked tirelessly to clear the land, and make a home for the Finney family. Unfortunately, Joseph died in 1734 only a few years after making their homestead. Not long after that, Sam and John died also.

Making a life in the wilderness was no easy task! Sarah was left alone in the frontier, with her two daughters. Her family wanted her to come back to Philadelphia and live there with them. Whether she was stubborn or determined, I’m not sure, but she decided to stay at their homestead. She couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the land they had worked so hard to settle. Her home became a haven and rest stop for travelers, hunters, trappers and Native Americans as they walked or rode along the Perkiomen Path. Sarah always had fresh bread, soup or stew on the hearth for those who stopped in. And, oh yes, her pies were made with the fresh fruit from the orchard! Occasionally, a traveler might spend the night.

Her homestead was so well-liked that the area which today is Reading, was once known as The Town of Widow Finney! For more than ten years Sarah welcomed and chatted with Conrad Weiser, Mordecai Lincoln, Joseph Hiester and the Lenni Lenape Indians. She said she got along better with the Lenni Lenapes than she did with Thomas and Richard Penn and Thomas Lawrence! She felt that they represented land hungry businessmen! They owned the property adjacent to hers, and had mapped out a city plan and they were after her prime property. Sarah died in December of 1743 and the deed to the property went to Rebecca. Through the use of clever land agents and surveyors, the Penns were able to recover the prominent site from the widow’s heirs and build their town at the best location. And, the rest, so they say, is history!

 

Mystery Woman of the Week (Watch for the answer in my next blog)

I was the first female doctor in the US, graduating from Geneva College in 1847, even though my acceptance there was considered to be a joke!

 

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 

Welcome Women’s History Guest Blogger: Hallie Vaughn

Just in time for Women’s History Month, the Berks History Center welcomes Women’s History enthusiast, Hallie Vaughan as a guest blogger on the BHC blog. In addition to being a longtime member, volunteer and presenter at the Berks History Center, Hallie will be contributing to the Berks History Center’s blog for Women’s History Month. 

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Hallie Vaughan dressed as a “Hello Girl,” a WWI servicewoman phone operator in the BHC World War I & Berks exhibit.

My interest in Women’s History began in the 80s while I was teaching 4th grade in the Muhlenberg School District. It has probably always been part of my background, because I remember questioning, when I was a little girl, why girls were unable to participate in everything or play everything that boys were. But during my teaching career, I was looking for stories to enhance and interest students’ independent reading. Especially during what seemed like the long haul between New Years and spring break.

I heard about the movement to get women written back into history and March being National Women’s History Month. I went to the school and community libraries and took out biographies of some famous women. At first, I was unfamiliar with many of the women who I was reading about. The more I read, the more I was amazed at the accomplishments of American women, who most people, myself included, knew nothing about! I began to make copies of short stories, collect posters and make creative activities about these women to use in my classroom.

Throughout March, I would host a” Mystery Woman of the Day” contest where I posted a question each day like: “I was the first female doctor in America, graduating in 1847. Who am I?” I found a website sponsored by the National Women’s History Project, where I bought stickers, bookmarks, pencils, etc., for daily prizes. The school librarian and I worked with the students to write skits about famous American women and present the skits to the other 4th graders.

Each year teachers and other people began to give me posters or news articles or suggestions about an American woman to include in my activities. When I switched to teaching 3rd grade, I just continued with the women’s history events in March. Even now that I’ve been retired over 10 years, the 3rd grade teachers at the Muhlenberg Elementary Center still invite me to present a program to their current students.

After retiring, I began presenting programs to community groups, retirees, schools and basically, anyone who has an interest in women’s history! About a year or two after I retired in 2004, Sally Reading, invited me to begin teaching women’s history courses for Alvernia’s Seniors College. This is something I love doing and has become part of my fall activities. I have taught Women of the Revolution, Women of the Civil War, Suffering’ Suffragists, Berks County Women, Pennsylvania Women, Who Knew It was Women Who Could Make That Happen (Inventors), Explorers, Women of the Military, Ministry and Athletics, and more!

The amazing thing to me is how much I learn by teaching these classes. Another important piece of my background is the DAR-Daughters of the American Revolution. This group traces its ancestry back to someone who fought in or participated in the Revolutionary War.

In the 90s I had the opportunity to travel to Windsor, CT, where my Revolutionary War ancestor lived and fought with the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen. My mother was also involved in DAR and she’s the one who got me interested in this great organization. I have served as Historian, Chaplain, Vice-Regent and Regent of our Berks County Chapter. Eleven years ago we started an event called the Famous Ladies’ Tea to fund our DAR Good Citizens Scholarship. This event is still going strong and I have portrayed a different American woman each of the years.

I want to thank the Berks History Center for inviting me to present the Second Saturday program on March 10, 2018 about America’s First Soldiers – The Hello Girls, and write a blog about some awesome American women, from near and far. I look forward to your responses!

Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer: A Berks County Musician

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Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer (1900-1986) was a Berks County woman of many talents. Many may not know her by name, but her legacy carries inspiration far beyond what anyone would expect from a small town music teacher. Julia Nagel Shanaman started the Shanaman Studio of Music in Reading, Pa around 1924 after receiving her teacher’s diploma. In 1927 she received her diploma in music theory and in 1929 she received her Piano Soloist Diploma. She later attended the Philadelphia Music Academy, receiving her Artist Diploma in 1935, in addition to gracefully achieving her Bachelors in Music in 1937 just after her marriage to Jasper Elmer in 1936.

Music Theory Diploma 1927

Despite adopting a new surname, Julia kept moving above and beyond in the music world. She was a skilled pianist and music teacher. She received her Graduate Certificate in Piano from Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia in 1951, and served with them for the next five years. Afterwards she served the Combs College of Music for the next ten years.  Elmer became involved with the Community School of Music and the Arts in Reading as a piano and theory instructor in 1966, overlapping with her time serviced to the Music Club of Reading as their president for two consecutive terms. In addition to all of her glowing achievements, Julia was elected to the American College Musicians Hall of Fame in 1968.

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Her legacy as a profound musical educator and instrumentalist was honored with the establishment of the Julia N. Shanaman Elmer Piano Scholarship in 1987 by the Music Club of Reading, just after her passing. She was a marvelous teacher, musician and friend who had an unsurpassable enthusiasm for her craft. Her legacy lives on through her only son, Cedric Nagel Elmer, whose donation of concert recordings, programs and photographs to the Berks History Center has made all of this information and acknowledgement possible for the late and great Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer.

Researched & Written by Mackenzie Tansey

The Women’s Club of Reading

 

Since its inception in 1896, the Women’s Club of Reading has given to the community in multiple ways. In their early days, they helped organize the Humane Society and created the first public playgrounds within Reading. During the First World War, members participated in the Red Cross, helped with surgical dressings, and even raised money for tobacco for the soldiers.  The club opened its doors to the public in 2004 as the WCR Center for the Arts, both in an effort to save their historic building and to present unique performances and exhibitions for the community.

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Shown here are a few of the club’s artifacts within our collection including: a stamp with the WCR seal, a program from March 1930, and the “Official Song of Berks County Federation of Women’s Clubs and Allied Organizations.” The cartoon depicted is from the March 22, 1930 issue of the Reading Eagle and illustrates the Reading traffic issue that the WCR describes as “literally terrible.”

Researched & Written by Erin Benz

Can History Go A Day Without A Woman?

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Can you really imagine A Day Without A Woman? Historically speaking, women have always been essential to our nation’s security and economic well-being. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the Coast Guard formed a Women’s Reserve, better known as SPAR. Created to relieve men of office work so that they could go overseas to fight, most of the jobs were clerical in nature.

Mildred Hiller Snyder, a Kutztown graduate and teacher at Reading Schools, served our country in SPAR as a Specialist, Petty Officer of the First Class. From 1944 to 1946, she worked in collaboration with the FBI in processing fingerprints at her office in Philadelphia. These artifacts, articles of Snyder’s time in the military, are now on display in Berks History Center’s Museum for Women’s History Month.

Snyder’s contributions are just one local example of how our national history has been shaped by women. Yesterday’s International Women’s Day Strike is another. Today women continue to make their mark, as they always have, in the books of American history.  How do your daily activities contribute to history-in-the-making?

Women’s History Exhibit Items Curated & Researched by Erin Benz

A Stitch in Time: St. Luke’s Signature Quilt from the Museum Textile Collection

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The Berks History Center’s textile collection includes a signature quilt, which was presented to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Reading in 1885.   In addition to their aesthetic appeal, such quilts are of interest to scholars because they contain signatures, in embroidery or ink, of a particular community’s members.  Signature quilts became popular in the 1800s and were typically used in fundraisers – featuring the names of those who contributed – or as gifts of friendship and appreciation to an individual.  The St. Luke’s signature quilt contains dozens of signatures and serves as a veritable membership roster of the congregation at that time.

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Local traditions like the signature quilt are embodied in many of our artifacts. They help us understand the past and preserve the identities of Berks County’s diverse communities over time. Do you have a long-standing family or community tradition?  How do you preserve your family’s history?

Susanna Cox

So, a couple years ago, not too long after I arrived in Berks County, I was asked to review a new book on Susanna Cox.  While I had only been in Berks County, probably a year, I had heard all the stories and after reading the book, went to the primary resources, most of which were in the HJL (none of the Collection Names or resources at this facility were properly cited, they actually were not referenced at all…a BIG pet peeve of mine) and knew a good deal about the history.  One does not need to grow up with an area’s history to make an informed decision.  Being an outsider, apparently did not make me a trustworthy source when it came to this review and the author’s took offense.  What interested me most about the book was the discussion on the evolution of criminal investigation, forensic pathology and criminal prosecution and not the Susanna Cox story, which was the same story told to me by researchers, volunteers and Louis Richards, Susanna’s first biographer.  Unfortunately for Susanna, everything mentioned in the book was either too new or came later and was of no help to her case, nor do I think it would have made a difference in the outcome.

Regardless, the Susanna Cox case has followed me over the past 3 years, and not that I find it overtly fascinating, we just keep finding references to it in little ways.  The following was found by accident.  My assistant Lisa brought a book to my attention, while she was getting ready to relabel and re-shelve it because it had just been re-inventoried.  This Genealogy is full of little “histories” that I hope to blog more about, but for now…here is a new version of the Susanna Cox History. (spellings and grammar are kept to how the original author wrote it…or I tried to.  Grammar was not important in 1886)

1776-1876 Centennial Book of Reminiscences, Traditions, Recollections, Habits, Manners, and Customs, and of what I Know of the Older TImes.  Written Expressly for the Van Reed Family.  J Van Reed, 1876.

pp.118-122 “What I know of Olden Times  Execution of Susanna Cox

Of what I know, and heard tell of Hanging.  The first case I recollect of, and of which I shall give a condensed account was Susanna Cox.  A girl of 17 years of age who resided for 5 years in the family of Jacob Gehr, a farmer in Oley Township was delivered in the spring of the year 1809 of an illegitimate child, the body of which was found by Mr. Gehr wrapped in an old coat, and concealed in a hole under a closet in a room over the washhouse.  A corners inquest examined the body, and found the under jaw broken, and a piece of twisted tow stuffed in its throat.  The jury had made out that the child was born alive, which the girl however denied, she was tried before Judge Spayed, and convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be HungShe subsequently made a full confession of her guilt.  Her execution took place on the 10 of June the same year 1809.  Never (I am told) such a numerous collection of People took place before.  Every body, it seamed symphacited [sympathized] with the unfortunate girl, and all with one accord, declared that Mr. Gehr should be hung, beside her, for reason to be presumed.

[I should note here that in the Broadsides and the two known histories on Susanna Cox, mentioned a “Mr. M” as the father of Susanna’s child and everyone assumed that Mr. M was a Mertz.  However, in random discussions when reading the latest history, I thought, like most people might today, the only person she would have had constant contact with would be Mr. Gehr.  J. Van Reed is the first account to accuse Susanna’s employer/Master as the child’s father.  I wonder how right he could be?  It is still listed as a Berks Mystery today!]

The Hanging was as aforesaid numerously attended. The taverns where all crowded the preceeding eavning, and all night wagons loaded with people from the country were passing through the streets, some comeing upwards of 70 Miles, (Executions then were yet Public) to see this unfortunate girl terminating her Earthly existance.  The Execution took place on what then was called Gallows-Hill.  from a calculation made by the space taken up by the spectators the number of people present must have been 25,000.  A little after 11 o’clock the mornful prosession moved from the Prisson (which then stood at the NE Corner of Washington and Sixth Streed Reading).  The unfortunate girl with a firm step and a smile on her countenance walked steight up to the awful place of Execution on the Commens at the foot of the hill supported and comforted by two Ministers of the Gospel.  After a small and appropriate Prayer for the wrong she had done had been delivered by her, she then ascended the scoffold and after the death – Warrant had been read to her.  She again most ernestly supplicated for Mercy, and for forgiveness of Sin and transgressions &c and biding a last farewell to all around her in a pitiful and solmen manner after which the cart on which she stood was drawn from under her.  She was lunched into eternity without a struggle.  The greatest decency was ubheld during the whole awful scene, and tears of symphathy were seen flowing very freely from the almost numberless croud of spectators.  It was indeed a day of SORROW from an eye witness. (yet living but guile an old man) to the above execution.  I have repeatitly obtained the following perticulars, the Girl

Susanna Cox

as a good looking girl; with black eyes and hair and red cheeks. She appeared to have manifested a wonderful degree of resignation, in regard of her fate.  On the eavening before the Execution she was visited in Prison by an old lady to whome she showed the Shroud that had been made for her.  The poor girl said “This is too long for me I can’t walk well in it tomorrow.  I beleave I will put a tuck in it.”  Dressed in her garment of death, She walked up Penn Street from the Jail to the hill, behind the cart which contained her coffin and was supported on each side by a clergyman.  The day was very hot and the sun in full meredian, in passing a Pump which stood on Penn Street below Seventh on the site no No 635.  She asked for a drink of water to drink the Sheriff stopped the cart, and brought her a pint measure of fresh water, which she drank.  The Gallows Erected on the side of the Hill at the head of Penn Street which consisted principally of two upright and cross pieces, in the middle of which the rope was tied.  Susanna mounted the cart and when the rope had been adjusted and the cap drawn over her eyes the cart was drivin from under her, and she was Suspended for some 10 minutes.  She contracted her Shoulders and gave signs of life.  The Hangman seeing this, took hold of her feet, and gave her body a jerk, one of her slippers comeing off fell to the ground which created one continuous moan through the croud at the limited time her body was taken down and a couble of physiscians bled her freely and jabbed her all over to restore life if possible but it was found that her neck had been broken by the Hangmans jerk.  The entire concourse of the spectators where effected to tears by the heart = ending specticle Indignation was loudly expressed against the Hangman, Who was a German, and a stranger in the place.  Who was hired by Sheriff Marks to perform the duty of hanging.  Towards Eavning this JACK KELCH came down (Gallowhill now Fifth) Street from the jail and was observed some Bully of the Town who was standing on the S.E corner of Sixth and Penn Street who went across the street to where Jamesons Cloathing Store now is and procured a Cow – Skin caught the hangman and flayed him so desperately that the blood ran down his legs.  Twenty silver 1/2 dollars the blood-money he had obtained for hes serveses as poor Susanna’s Executioner, dropped out of his pocket, which when he had picked up, he made off down Sixth Street as fast as he could, crased [crossed] over the Lancaster Ferry and was never heard off again in this neighborhood.  The body of Poor Susanna was givin to her friends and buried in the vicinity of Hampdon.

Follow-up.  The Susanna Cox story is (or was) taught to every child in school and is reenacted three times a day at the Kutztown Folk Festival.  Her’s is a story that Berks County wants remembered.  Some facts, they choose to forget.  For instance, the rope, made for the hanging, was too short.  So, while everyone remembers that Susanna was standing on the cart that carried her coffin, they forget that she was actually standing on top of her coffin in the cart, so they could get the rope to reach her neck.  Susanna was buried on a farm belonging to her brother-in-law, somewhere around the vicinity of Albright College.  She was in an unmarked grave, because her sister did not want her body disturbed.  It is believed that road crews working in the Hampden Heights area a few years ago, came across an unmarked grave and found the body of a female.  It was removed to a site unknown.  Everyone speculated that it was Susanna.  Susanna Cox goes done in Pennsylvania History as being the last woman hung publicly in the Commonwealth.  Not something I would like to be known for.  Some historians say she didn’t do it, others say she did.  Was Mr. Gehr the father or Mr. Mertz?  And who is Mr. Mertz?  For better or worse, the story of Susanna Cox sparks interest in her story and almost compels you to seek out more information.

I will share more from J Van Reed’s diary a little later.  It is one of the better “finds” found in the library.  I will also try and gather some information on him as well.

Written by former BHC Archivist, Kim Brown.