A grim report from the Doylestown Democrat, Tuesday Morning, December 20, 1881:
A Fatal Mistake.–The Shot Intended for a Muskrat Lodges in the Head of a Man
A shocking tragedy occurred at D. L. Hamaker’s mill dam, one mile northeast of Petersburg, Lancaster county, about 7.30 o’clock Tuesday, which at last accounts bids fair to result in the death of the victim, William Gnyer. Mr. Gnyer was on a gunning expedition after muskrats, to the mill dam of Hamaker’s. He had taken a position on the old dam, at the place where an opening had been made for the water to pass through, lying low and waiting for the appearance of the muskrats. Meanwhile a party of youths, ranging in age from fourteen to eighteen years, put in an appearance for the same purpose. Gnyer was not visible to the party, owing to his recumbant position, and he likewise was ignorant of their presence. While the young man was intently watching, Gnyer elevated his head for an instant, when Graybill, one of the party, mistaking the object for a muskrat, fired a heavy charge of birdshot which entered Gnyer’s head, directly alongside the left temple. Gnyer was discovered lying insensible upon the breast of the dam with his left eye completely shot out, the ball hanging down upon his cheek, and an examination indicated that a portion of the charge of shot is lodged in the brain. The wound is a mortal one. Gnyer is a laboring man, aged between thirty-five and forty years, is married and has a wife and two children. Young Graybill, who fired the fatal shot, is aged eighteen years, and is the youngest son of Jacob Graybill.—Patriot.
I’m assuming “Patriot” refers to the paper originally reporting the news.
In the fall of 1897, prominent Solebury resident Eastburn Reeder, then an old man, was asked to recount his experience at the Solebury Friends’ school to the current generation of students. Reeder started school there in 1836, the first year it was open.
Solebury Meeting has since converted the school building into a residence for their caretakers, which just so happens to be the house I grew up in. The building was heavily altered long before I got there, but evidence of the original open floor plan can be seen in the uneven room sizes and odd layout. Other evidence of its prior use can be found in the old outhouse, where four wooden seats indicate that it was built for a well-trafficked public facility. Now used as a shed, the outhouse also once served as rabbit hutch for a previous caretaker, a serious alcoholic so poor that he had to raise rabbits for meat.
The following is his address, as recorded in the Daily Intelligencer, October 9th, 1897, which I’ve transcribed from microfilm:
In Days Gone By.
Recollections of the Solebury School from 1836 to 1846.
A Paper Read at the Closing Exercises of Solebury First Day School
by Eastburn Reader, 10th Month 3d, 1897—A Story of Two Boys.
A few weeks ago I was asked to give this First-day school my recollections of Solebury meeting of Friends of sixty and fifty years ago. Since that time these words have been continually coming to my mind—“How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood.” Whether they were suggested by the effort to turn my mind backward to the day of my youth, or whether they are to be regarded as an evidence of approaching age, I will not stop now to inquire. I have not been able to rid myself of that thought. Like the ghost of Banquo in the story of Macbeth, “it would not down ;” it would not leave me. I am asked to-day to give my recollections of Solebury school, its teachers, and the scholars attending it, from 1836 to 1846, a period of ten years, and all of it more than fifty years, and some of it more than sixty years ago.
We, (my sister and I) began going to school here in the spring of 1836. I was nearly eight years of age, and my sister a little over five. Our mother went with us the first day, and we all walked to the school house. Whether mother went with us on that day to assist in carrying our books, and dinner, or to tell the teacher who we were, or to protect us from imaginary danger along the road, I never knew. After the school opened, mother walked home, and that was the only time that I ever recollect being taken to or from school. After that we had to rough it, like the rest of the scholars, having no protection from the storms, except an umbrella, or an occasional cloak or shawl. Elizabeth Ely was the teacher that summer, and continued to teach the school for four or five summers after that time, being succeeded by Annie Martin and Sarah Murphy in summer, and by Moses E. Blackburn, Albert Pearson, Charles Murphy, and Edward A. Magill in the winters.
Solebury township had not then (1836) accepted free school law, and our tuition was paid for by our parents at the rate of three cents per day. The teachers made out the bills regularly at the end of each month, which we carried home to our parents. The school was a large one, and the house was crowded to its fullest capacity. It was so large that our teacher had to employ her sister, Sarah Ely, to assist her in hearing some of the classes. The desks were arranged around the walls of the room, the boys occupying one side of the house, and the girls the other side, while a few benches in the centre of the room were occupied by the small children, and by those who did not need desks, having neither books, slates, pens or pencils, but recited their letters etc., at the teacher’s desk. I have a list of over seventy-five names of children whom I can recall to mind as having attended that school during the period that I attended it. These companions of my youth, where are they now? How many are yet living? How many deceased? And how far and widely have they been scattered? I have undertaken the task of ascertaining these points, and although the task is far from being completed I have good reasons for believing that a majority of them are still living. Out of a list of 76 names, 32 are know to be deceased, and 44 are believed to be now living. This, I think, is a remarkable showing for health and longevity—44 out of 76 beings is over 60 per cent. living, and all of them now over 50 years, and many of them over 60 years of age. During this entire period of ten years, we were called upon but once to note the death of but a single one of our school mates, and that was a little boy between 5 and 6 years of age.
The dead, where are they? Of the 32 who are known to be deceased 12 of them have been buried in these grounds. They lived out their allotted lives in this vicinity and have been gathered in with their fathers. Of the other 20, fifteen of them lie in cemeteries in different parts of this State ; three in New Jersey, one in Ohio and one in Bombay, in far away India. The 44 living are believed to be now scattered almost, if not quite, as widely, only five or six of us left remaining within a reasonable walking distance of the school.
It is my object to ascertain the date of birth of all, the date of marriage, of those who married, and to whom married, the present whereabouts and address of those who are living ; and the date of death of those who have died, and the place where they are buried. I am aware that to accomplish this will be no easy task. It will take time, and I may find cases where it will be impossible to gain information I desire. I have already, in the very threshhold of the work, met with some very pleasant and encouraging experiences, and I have also met with some very sad and discouraging experiences. After I left Solebury school in 1846, I was away from this neighborhood most of the time for nearly three years. When I returned in the spring of 1849, and looked around for my former companions, what did I find? I found several of them married, and obeying that command which God gave to Noah in Genesis 8 : 16-17. Others had gone I knew not whether. To ascertain this as far as possible is my object, and while I am waiting for the returns to come in, I will tell the children a story of my recollections of my school boy days.
A STORY OF A BOY
I will tell a story of a boy, or rather a story of two boys. Almost every boy who goes to school, has his chum. This must be natural among boys, or so many of them would not do so. I had my chum. He was one year older than I. He was a boy very peculiar in disposition, and seemed to have the power of moulding me to his will. Everything he said or did, to my mind, was exactly right. Our desks and seats were side by side. This is not only for one term of the school, but it lasted as long as we both attended this school. To secure this end on the last day of a term of school we would each of us leave a book in our desks, in order to secure possession of them for the next term. In these books he taught me to write these lines—
“Steal not this book my honest friend,
For fear the gallows will be your end.”
These lines were signed by our respective names and were supposed to be potent against depredations. We had full faith in this, and our books were never stolen. I have said that my chum had a peculiar disposition. He was inclined to be a rover—he was going to be a sailor, to be a captain of a ship. He said I should be a farmer and have a large plantation. I was to produce articles for him to carry in his ship to other countries of the world. Every day as we studied our geography together afforded him an excellent opportunity to mature his plans. He located my plantation on the Atlantic coast somewhere between Charleston and Savannah. With a stroke of pen and ink he converted a promontory or cape to an island.
This is necessary, he said, so that he could approach my plantation from every side. I was to raise rice and cotton for him to export. To enable me to do this it would be necessary for me to have large numbers of slaves, which he would go to Africa for and capture and bring to me. I will say just here, that our teacher was his aunt, and boarded in his father’s family. She was a very strong anti-slavery woman, and often spoke to us of the sinfulness of slavery and the wrongs of the poor slaves. Whether it was to be in oppostion to the views of his aunt and teacher, that he decided to make a slave holder of me, I never knew. I was to be married, he said, and have a family, but he was to be a sea captain, and they never married or had families. His stories of adventure were so captivating that I believed everything he told me. As I was to marry and live on a plantation and have a family, I began to think about a wife early in life. Every day, instead of studying our lessons in geography, he would say to me “Let us transact business.” That is to say, he would buy up what I had produced for export, and bring back to me any product of the earth that I might desire. This gave us knowledge of geography, in a measure, but it did not give us very often much knowledge of the lesson for the day. Very frequently were the orders given to us by the teacher, “Boys, you must get this lesson over after school.” Then we would put ourselves down to work and soon master the lesson.
I recollect one day in particular as we opened our atlas, my chum told me that he had on board for me a large number of very valuable Araibian horses, fresh from the desert, that he had, with great difficulty, secured for me. He said his ship was now in sight of land, and would soon be in the harbor. He then put up both hands to his mouth to blow the trumpet announcing the arrival of his vessel. He blew louder than he know, for the noise of the blast attracted the attention of the teacher and the entire school. We were ordered to the teacher’s desk at once. Which of us had made that noise? Neither of us would tell. Then both must be punished, and that severely. The teacher had a small chestnut sprout in her desk, from which the bark had been peeled, and it had become very dry and brittle. My chum held out his hand to receive the punishment first, and after receiving a few sharp cuts, he cried out lustily, or pretended to do so, and was sent to his seat with his face deeply buried in his hands upon the top of his desk. It was my turn next, and as I did not cry, for in boy parlance, “it didn’t hurt a bit,” the teacher naturally looked to see why the punishment had not the same effect on me. Her eyes were small, black and fiery, and her expression almost convulsed me with laughter. The blows upon my hand were renewed with redoubled force. At every blow, two or three inches of the switch flew off the end, and it was speedily used up. The boy was still rebellious and defiant. The teacher was too conscientious to use a ruler, but something more must be done.
Accordingly, I was led by the shoulder over to the girls’ side of the schoolroom, where “room was made” for me on the bench between two of the oldest and largest girls in the school. I suppose they were 18 or 20 years of age. They appeared to me then as mountains of flesh, both being large and fat. I was not placed opposite to a window where I could look out, and had nothing but white wall to gaze upon. I could not even see the girl on the other side of the two between whom I was placed. I could not see over or around them, and was almost buried from sight. Had I been placed between two other girls, whom I could name, and nearer my own age, I should have liked it far better. I was compelled to remain there until school closed for the day. When the school was dismissed I was told to remain. The teacher busied herself with mending our goose quill pens, and setting the copies for the next day, until all the scholars had time to reach their homes. I wondered what was to be done with me next. The teacher told me that she had made up her mind to write a note and send it by me to my parents, telling them to keep me home from the school. I promptly told her she could send no such note home by me. Then she would send it by my sister, who would not go home without her brother. I said my sister should not take the note either. I do not know whether it was the tears of my sister, or what it was, but the teacher all at once took a sudden change. She began to talk to me. She told me what a great interest she had felt in me, and what pains she had taken, and how hard she had tried to do her duty by me. And as she talked on in this strain, her tears began to flow as rapidly as her words. This overcame me entirely. I could stand punishment, and scolding, but entreaties and tears I could not stand. I yielded, and promised obedience for the future. The note home was neither written nor sent. As I look back upon this little incident after an interval of sixty years, I can but look upon it as a victory for us both. It was a victory for the teacher, most certainly, for the boy not only promised, but gave obedience. It was a victory for the boy over himself, and it was not necessary to punish him afterward, and he continued to go to that teacher for several summers. She was a faithful, conscientious teacher, and tried hard to do her duty by us. She afterward removed form Solebury to Philadelphia, where she died many years ago, and was buried in Friends’ burial ground at Fair Hill. I intend some day to visit her grave as a deserving tribute to her memory
I cannot close this little story without telling what afterwards became of my chum. After he left school he studied medicine, and graduated with high honors. I believe he was soon appointed a ship surgeon, which was an object of his ambition. In the year 1851 he was appointed by the President of the United States Counsel to Bombay. He remained there for seven years, dying there in 1858. A short time before his death he married, and as they were making arrangements for their wedding trip home to visit his parents his wife was taken sick with some fatal disease peculiar to that country, and soon died. He was also smitten with the same disease, and died. When the news of their deaths reached this country I went to see his parents and sympathize with them in their great affliction. They told me it would be impossible for their bodies even to be brought here for burial. The distance was so great and the nature of the disease such as to render it impossible. I do not even know the name or nationality of his wife, and I may never be able to ascertain it. But I shall never forget the sorrow that was depicted upon that mother’s countenance as she told me the sad story. She had followed to the grave all the rest of her children in early life save one. This was her first-born and favorite son, and those lines of deep sorrow were never entirely obliterated from her countenance, and she lived for many years.
I hope there will be seen in this simple story a lesson for young boys and girls of this , our First-day school. That lesson is—get mementos, or keepsakes of some kind from your teachers and from your most intimate friends. You have far greater facilities to do this than we scholars had sixty years ago. Then photographs were unknown. I have not a single picture of one of my schoolmates or teachers. You can get them now at a very small cost. If you cannot get these, then get a few lines from a favorite author, written in their own handwriting, and signed by their names and date. And more than all, do not suffer yourselves to lose all knowledge of their address. Then no matter how widely the companions of your youthful days may become scattered in this wide world of ours, you will know and feel that you have the power of reaching them, and of communicating with them in a few days at most. It will be a source of great gratification to you when you grow to be old. I have here a card in my hand, a little red card, which I received from my first teacher more than sixty years ago. It was my first card, and is dated 8th mo. 7Th, 1835. I was not then seven years old, I have kept it to this day, and every year it grows more precious to my sight. The picture upon it represents Noah’s Ark riding upon the waters of the Deluge. Underneath the picture of the ark is printed the command given by God to Noah to enter the ark :
“Cometh thou and all thine houses into the ark,” Gen. 7 : 1.
Noah is represented as standing on the front of the ark, sending forth the dove to see if it could find land, the story of which is beautifully told in the following lines:
“The dove set free from Noah’s hand,
Wandered a weary space,
But could not find the solid land
Or gain a resting place.
‘Tis thus the soul that strays from God,
No comfort can obtain,
‘Till it return to its abode
And finds the Ark again.”
I do not know what then prompted my young mind to choose this card, but now its picture and its lines have to my mind a deep significance.
*Note: The chum is Dr. Edward Ely, 1827-1858, who served as consul in Bombay under President Polk. (Battle Vol.3 p.814)
Today a house sits on the southern corner of Court & East Streets, as nice and unremarkable as any other house in Doylestown. Few would guess that 177 years ago a murderer was buried here. Even fewer would guess that 157 years ago they dug him back up.
This is the story of the executed murderer Joseph Blundin and Doylestown’s forgotten burial ground.
A Crime of Passion
Joseph Blundin was a farmhand with a young family at the time of the crime. He appears on the 1830 US Census living in Bristol with his wife, both in their 20′s, and three children, all under 5 years old. The account of the crime and the public support for Blundin in its aftermath paint him as normal man driven by his circumstances to commit a horrendous act.
On the day of the crime Joseph Blundin and his victim, Aaron Cuttlehow, were working together harvesting oats on the farm of Samuel Headly near Bristol. J.H. Battle recounts the details of the crime as revealed during the trial:
The prisoner and deceased were at work on Sunday, July 27th , with other men, five or six, engaged in cradling oats. At dinner one of the hands ran out of doors with a pie, deceased and the prisoner chasing him. In their playfulness a shoe was thrown which hit the prisoner. Shortly afterward the deceased came into the house crying, and said the prisoner had hit him on the head with a stone. This disturbance was settled, and they all went to the field to cradle oats. When nearly done a quarrel arose between the prisoner and the deceased, and the prisoner was thrown down and received several blows from [the] deceased in the face. The deceased with another then helped him upon his feet, and his knees giving way under him, they assisted him up a second time. The prisoner then took his cradle and started for home. He was asked to ride twice, but refused, and said, angrily, he would walk. From fifteen minutes to half an hour later he was overtaken by the wagon, walking slowly. He was asked to get up and ride. The prisoner made no reply, but raised his cradle from his shoulder and struck at the deceased hitting the cradle of the deceased, which he raised to guard the blow; the deceased at the same time losing his cradle from his hand, which fell upon the ground. The deceased (Cuttlehow) then sprang from the wagon to make his escape, but stumbled and fell as he reached the ground. When he had crawled a few paces the prisoner came upon him with his cradle uplifted and struck the scythe through the neck of Cuttlehow. The latter cried, “Take it out, take it out!” sank on the ground and died in one or two minutes. Some one said to the prisoner: “He will die,” who replied: “Let him die.” Liquor had been used in the field, but there was no satisfactory evidence that the prisoner was intoxicated. The jury was out eleven or twelve hours, and returned a verdict of murder in the first degree.
We don’t know who started the fight, but it’s clear that the dead man had seriously beaten Blundin in the earlier scuffle, and that Blundin was emotionally distressed by the fight. Instead of escalating the conflict he attempted to walk home alone, only to be confronted again. After being pushed one last time by the other farmhands, he lashed out and killed Cuttlehow with the tool he happened to be carrying. All of this evidence portrays the crime as a temporary lapse by an otherwise decent man rather than the premeditated work of a cold-blooded killer.
After he was sentenced to die by hanging, the public rose up in support of him. While the facts of the crime were not disputed, the death sentence issued seemed harsh and unnecessary. Battle reports that even Charles E. DuBois, the Deputy Attorney-General for the Commonwealth, “was overcome with emotion in reading the indictment to the unfortunate man.” The citizens of Bucks County appealed to the government for mercy, petitioning the Governor Goerge Wolfe and both houses of the State Assembly in an attempt to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. They attempted to save Blundin through multiple avenues, begging for the Governor and legislature to take action in his case specifically as well as attempting to change the state laws regarding criminal sentencing by giving the governor the power to commute death sentences to life in prison or by abolishing the death penalty altogether.
The general thrust of their appeals can be seen in the debate that took place on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where a representative named Harrison introduced an amendment:
…in accordance with the wishes of a large number of constituents; men of the highest respectability who believed, and honestly believed what is set forth in petition to the legislature, that at the time Joseph Bliindin committed the act for which he has been sentenced to death, he was not in a sound state of mind. The unfortunate individual was born and brought up in his vicinity; he has a family consisting of a wife and several children, and a general feeling pervades that community, that he should become the object of legislative mercy. In addition to these wishes in of Joseph Blundin, a general feeling was manifested in favour of the abolishment of capital punishment in all cases…
Unfortunately, Blundin’s supporters failed in their attempts. Those opposed to the measures claimed that any action in his case was unconstitutional, either by violating the separation of powers or because such a law would affect one man instead of all people under their jurisdiction. Finally, after multiple stays of execution, Blundin was scheduled to die on Friday, August 14th, 1835 between noon and 3pm.
Blundin made one final attempt to save his own life by escaping from the Doylestown jail. Battle describes the failed escape as follows:
On a Sunday in May Blundin attempted to make his escape from the jail. He managed to cut off the rivets of his hopples, burn a hole through the floor, and, after gaining the jail yard attempted by means of a rope formed of his bedding, to scale the outer wall. The fastenings gave way when the prisoner was near the top and he fell to the ground, where he lay in a bruised and helpless condition until found in the morning by the sheriff. Such was the sympathy of the public that a rumor that the sheriff left the means of escape within reach of the prisoner and then left the building to give him an opportunity to use them, obtained general credence and no marked disapproval. The unfortunate man was carried back to his cell and on the day appointed by the governor’s last respite was executed in the yard of the jail. The prisoner was unable to stand on account of his injuries, but he met his fate with resignation and courage.
Then, by way of the gallows, Joseph Blundin found his temporary resting place in the now forgotten potter’s field.
The Doylestown Potter’s Field
In the first half of the 19th century this plot of land was the county potter’s field, a burial place of last resort for the indigent and a site to inter the unclaimed bodies of strangers and prisoners. Very little is recorded of the Doylestown potter’s field. Like the almshouse, the courthouse, and the county jail, the potter’s field probably came into being around the time that the county seat moved from Newtown to Doylestown in 1812. I could only find the potter’s field on one map, W.E. Morris’ 1850 atlas of Bucks County:
The only mention of those buried here comes from W.W.H. Davis’ History of Bucks County, Volume II:
The old “potter’s field,” where several persons were buried, including one Blundin, of Bensalem [actually Bristol], hanged for murder about 1838, at the corner of Court and East streets was sold several years ago by authority of an act of Assembly and now belongs to a private owner.
I was able to act of Assembly that Davis mentions. Passed on May 7th, 1855, the act instructs Bucks County to remove the bodies and sell the land, stating:
…it shall be the duty of the commissioners of the county of Bucks… to remove or cause to be removed to the burial ground of the Bucks county almshouse, the remains of all persons now interred in the public burial ground, situate at the corner of Court street and East street, in the borough of Doylestown, and known as Potter’s Field, and that the same shall no longer be used as a place of burial.
The almshouse opened in the spring of 1810, and the first inmate to die there was a black woman named Dinah, allegedly 115 years old. According to almshouse records (List of Paupers in the Almshouse 1810-1833, p.31, available on microfilm at the Spruance Library), Dinah died on April 20th, 1810, and the almshouse supplied her with a “cape shirt hankercheif and coffin” for her burial. While I haven’t been able to find any information about the almshouse burial ground, it preceded the Doylestown potter’s field by at least a couple years and was probably used concurrently.
At some point, the almshouse stopped using their own burial ground and began interring inmates at Doylestown Cemetery. I talked to Kat Landis, whose family oversees cemetery, and she said that the back row of the cemetery was laid out as a “Strangers Row” with inexpensive plots. According to her, this area became the burial ground for inmates from the almshouse, prisoners from the county jail, and people who died at the Doylestown hospital. This “back row” is now in the center of the cemetery near the main gate, since Hope Cemetery was added next to Doylestown Cemetery and the two were later unified. My guess is that when these cheap plots became available there was no more need for a government maintained burial ground. I have found some written evidence of this in the Almshouse and Hospital Register 1872-1889, which reports that inmate Henry Puff was buried at Doylestown Cemetary on the November 29th, 1883.
Doylestown Cemetery was founded in 1849, and probably wasn’t in operation yet when the 1850 map was made. By 1857, however, the cemetery is presented in the atlas published by Khun & Shrope. You can see that the Dolyestown Cemetery has been added to the map, but the potter’s field is gone:
Whether Joseph Blundin and the others buried in the potter’s field were actually disinterred may be up for debate. The graves in potter’s fields are usually unmarked, and the success of disinterment would depend on how systematically the graves were laid out and how well the locations were recorded. I’m sure they made their best effort to clear the land of bodies before selling it to a private owner, but after 20 years in the ground did the county remember the location of Blundin’s grave? He probably lies on the almshouse grounds, but every time I pass the old potter’s field I wonder if any graves remain.
(The house now standing on the potter’s field.)
While William Penn was parceling up Pennsylvania for the first generation of European settlers, England’s system of land use was undergoing a fundamental shift. Since medieval times English agriculture was for the most part practiced communally, employing an “open field” system in which each community had a few very large fields which were divided into smaller strips to be farmed by individual families. Likewise, livestock grazed on common pastureland and the right of common use extended to lumber harvesting, fuel gathering, pig foraging, berry picking, and any number of activities essential to the community members’ subsistence.
At the time of Pennsylvania’s settlement, much of England’s commonly held land was been seized by wealthy land owners and enclosed as private property. While the new property owners became rich, the rest of the community was forced off the land they’d been farming for centuries. The frustration of the commoners is perhaps best summed up in the famous poem:
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
Interestingly, while the traditional commons of England were increasingly threatened with enclosure, William Penn set aside a commons in what would eventually become Falls Township. According to historian (and former Spruance librarian) Terry McNealy:
The Manor, as it was eventually laid out, and the plantations of the earlier settlers, with the lines straightened in accordance with Penn’s wishes, are shown on Holme’s map of 1685. Penn, in compensation to the landowners whose boundaries were changed by the adjustments, granted a tract of 120 acres to the inhabitants of the area which was later established as Falls Township, as common land. This tract, not indicated on Holme’s map, came to be known as Falls Common, but was also known as the “Great Timber Swamp.” The Common was located in the Middle Lots between the village of Crewcorne and the spot where Falls Meetinghouse was built in 1690 forming the nucleus of the village of Fallsington. Since it was a large tract of undeveloped land, the Common formed an effective barrier between Crewcorne and Fallsington.
The early use to which the Common was put, as well as a glimpse of Penn’s efforts to keep firm control of matters in Pennsylvania from England, is revealed in a letter he wrote James Logan, his secretary in the province, on 4 January 1701-2: “There is a swamp between the Falls and the meetinghouse; I gave the Falls people, formerly, leave to cut timber in it for their own use, which they have now almost spoiled, cutting for sale, coopery, &C., which now, or in a little time, would have been worth some thousands. Phineas Pemberton knows this businees; let all be forbit to cut there any more, and learn who have been the wasters of timber, that hereafter they may help to clear the rubbish parts that will be fit for use, or give me tree for tree, when I or my order shall demand it.”
(The Middle Lots, by Terry McNealy. The Historian, Summer 1970, Vol. VI No.3, p.22-23)
Given Penn’s personal intercession to control the use of the land and its apparent short life, Falls Common may not have played a formative role in the development of early Buck County. However, it is interesting to note this relict of medieval communalism in a pattern of development primarily defined by the allotment of land to individual owners in fee simple.
A few years ago I found a reel of 16mm film on the shelf at the County Theater. It contained a silent film of miscellaneous Bucks County scenery, and wasn’t that interesting. However, enclosed with that reel I found a page of notes referring to another 16mm film shot during Doylestown’s 1938 centennial parade (marking the incorporation of the Borough in 1838). With big plans underway to mark Doylestown’s 2012 bicentennial (commemorating when Doylestown became the county seat in 1812), I decided to track down the missing reel.
As it turns out, the film was last shown over 20 years ago by Closely Watched Films, the local film group that would eventually purchase the County Theater and convert it to a non-profit art house. I was able to find the owner of the reel, who still lives in Doylestown, and he agreed to let me borrow the reel (as well as three others) on behalf of the Doylestown Historical Society. His grandfather, Oscar O. Bean, shot the film in 1938. Census records show that he was a lawyer who lived on East State Street in 1930, and would have been about 57 years old at the time of filming.
I took the reels back to the theater to inspect them. First I opened the two small reels, labelled “Firemen’s Parade” and “Bull Fighting.” Unfortunately, they were water damaged when their storage area got flooded, and the film was coated in a white mold bloom. They’re probably salvageable, but they’d need work so I put them aside. The two larger reels seemed to be in better condition. While they showed some symptoms of age, they didn’t have the strong acetic odor of films suffering from Vinegar Syndrome, the chemical chain reaction that eventually destroys acetate film. I put the first reel on the rewind table, and as a picked up the tail of the film to attach it to the take-up reel, I found this magic word, printed on the edge of the film:
The film was in color! And not just any color. Kodachrome is one of the best color processes in terms of archival stability. If stored correctly, it won’t fade or lose its color like other film stocks. And this film dates to 1938, just three years after Kodachrome was introduced. As a color film of Doylestown from this era, it’s surely one of a kind. Thanks to the Bean family, we can see the streets of 1930′s Doylestown in color.
The next step is to find funding to make a digital transfer of the film, which I hope to do through the Doylestown Historical Society. Once transferred, I’d like to somehow include it in the bicentennial events. A lot of the images are static shots, so I think it would be nice to incorporate them into a book of single frames. I’m imagining something like this book by Swiss experimental filmmaker Hannes Schüpbach, who selected images from his films and printed them accompanied by poetry:
Below are a few photos I took with my cellphone. The reel containing the centennial event is entirely in Kodachrome. The second reel is home-made documentary of the history of Doylestown, and incorporates still images, maps, and reenactments, as well as Kodachrome shots of landmarks. It doesn’t really do them justice, but it’ll give you a taste:
And last but not least, Bucks County historian and distinguished Doylestown resident W.W.H. Davis:
It’s been almost a year since I first discovered Strangers Row, the section of Solebury Friends graveyard dedicated to paupers and non-Quakers, and I finally found some written documentation of its existence. In 1906, Solebury Friends Meeting celebrated its first centennial, and a pamphlet was printed commemorating the event. Out of the many interesting pieces it contains, perhaps the most valuable is Eastburn Reeder’s account of Solebury Friends history, which he read before meeting at the centennial event. Below is an excerpted portion pertaining to the creation of the graveyard, abstracted from the Monthly Meeting minutes:
Third-month 25th, 1808… the Friends appointed to enclose the burying ground, report the service nearly performed, and a committee was appointed to consider proper directions to give the grave digger and in what manner the dead shall be interred in our grounds.
Fourth-month 26, 1808. The committee appointed to consider the proper mode for the interment of the dead in our new burying ground, and also to particularaize who shall be interred therein, report:
“We the committe [sic] to take in view what method we shall bury in, and who may be admitted in our burial grounds, are free to propose, the following: First, That the whole ground to be ocupied [sic] shall be laid out in 84 squares, each to be 8 feet by 20 feet, 8 inches, and to begin at the upper corner of Moses Eastburn’s [property] line, and each family taking their square in succession as occasion calls for it. Servants and apprentices belonging to Friend’s families may be admitted, and such as are descendants of Friends and their families within the limits of this meeting; those of other description not included.”
Ninth-month 27th, 1808. Finding some difficulties to arise from this plan for burying, Friends reconsidered it, and decided that all transient persons who may have liberty to bury in our grounds, and not properly claiming a square, ought to be interred in a row on the east side of the burying ground, beginning at the northeast corner. This is the origin of the strangers row. The grave-yard has been twice enlarged. The first time in 1830 by the purchase of 80 perches of Aaron Paxson, Jr. The second time in 1877 by the purchase of one and a half acres of Merrick Reeder, making the whole amount of land now owned by the meeting over 5 acres.
Thanks to Reeder we have the original plan for the allotment of the graveyard, and we can appreciate the sympathy of these original Friends who set aside a burying place for people who had nowhere else to turn.
Reeder’s history of Solebury Meeting also illuminates another intriguing aspect of Quaker history: the shifting opinions within the Society of Friends with regard to the recognition of the deceased with grave monuments. In keeping with the testimony of simplicity, early Friends erected plain, unmarked headstones or no stones at all. At Solebury Meeting, you’ll find these simple brown slabs of local stone in the oldest section, located in the northwest corner. Eventually initials or names were added, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 1800′s that engraving the name of the deceased with their dates of birth and death (and consequently the use of marble and other easily engraved stone) became standard practice. Viewing the list of graves at Solebury Meeting (available here), the recording of dates seems to begin in the 1860′s. I can’t help but think that the Civil War transformed the Society’s views on death and remembrance.
Below Reeder recounts the controversy over grave monuments that occurred when Friends began erecting marked headstones at Buckingham Meeting. (Note: Before Solebury Meeting was constructed in 1806, Solebury Quakers commuted to Buckingham Meeting.)
Monuments. The committee appointed to unite with a committee of Buckingham Monthly meeting on the subject of monuments in our grave-yards, made the following report in writing: “The committees appointed by Buckingham and Solebury Monthly meetings to unite in considering the subject of monuments of deceased persons agree to report, that they are of opinion that all fixtures to graves with inscriptions thereon in order distinguish one grave from another, is contrary to the direction of the discipline; and as a great variety of such have been placed in our grave-yard at Buckingham, some of them by members of Solebury, we believe it would be proper for the monthly meetings to attend to the removal of them. But as this departure may have been generally from a want of a perfect knowledge of the discipline, great tenderness toward the survivors ought to be exercised. We, therefore, suggest the propriety of using persuasive measures to be used to induce such surviving relatives to remove, or consent to the removal of these monuments.”
After consideration fo the report was adopted, and Moses Paxson, Oliver Hampton, Oliver Paxson, Aaron Eastburn, Hugh Ely, Aaron Paxson, and John Comfort were appointed to use their endeavors to induce such of our members as may have placed monuments to graves, to remove them, or consent to their removal.
If you visit Plumstead Friends Meeting, you’ll find it pleasantly sedate. The meetinghouse seems unconcerned with the passing of time (it’s only heat source is a wood stove in the center of the room), and there’s a simple graveyard enclosed by a plain stone wall, containing graves as old as the nation itself. But the graveyard has not always enjoyed this state of placidity. In the summer of 1856, some of the cemetery’s occupants were torn from their slumber in a daring grave robbery. The following advertisement appeared in the Intelligencer in the August of 1856:
Notice to Trespassers.
All those persons who, regardless of law and good order, recently trespassed on the premises of the Society of Friends of Plumstead, by abruptly driving into the Grave Yard with wagon and horses, disfiguring some of the graves, and opening others, and disinterring several coprses, and taking them away without consent of the Sexton or any of the Trustees, are hereby requested to come forward and render satisfaction for the same without delay, which may save cost, prevent exposure, and oblige the undersigned.
ABRAHAM MICHINER, Committee
THOMAS STRADLING, } of Trust.
DAVID CARR, Sexton.
Plumstead, 8th month 26th 1856 -3t.
N. B.—Notice is also hereby given to all other persons not to commit the like depredations.
(The Spruance Library has a filing cabinet full of news clippings sorted by municipality and topic, which is where I found this little gem.)
The inquisitive guest will find that this cemetery has another secret. If you climb over the far wall and search through the brush, you’ll find the last resting place of the burying ground’s most ignominious residents, Abraham and Levi Doan. They were part of the Doan Brothers gang (brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Levi, Joseph, and cousin Abraham) who gained notoriety first as Loyalist spies during the Revolution, and then as outlaws after the war. All of them were eventually captured, but Aaron, Mahlon, and Joseph escaped and fled to safety. Their leader, Moses Doan, was the victim of an extrajudicial murder at the hands of a vengeful posse, and is buried in a hedgerow somewhere in Plumstead. The other two, Levi and Abraham, were captured and hanged on September 24th, 1788, and buried at Plumstead Meeting, where they once were members. They lie outside the graveyard wall, forever branded outlaws: