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Doylestown Man c.1870

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Check out this handsome gent. No name is recorded, but the photographer’s logo on the back of the card shows that the portrait was taken by B. Billian in Doylestown. Someone more familiar with historic fashion trends might be able to come up with a tighter age range based on his apparel, but based on the photographic process (a carte de visite) I’d offer a date of around 1870.

Doylestown Man CDV (front)

The photographer’s logo on the back:

Doylestown Man CDV (back)

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Written by Moses Doan

October 15, 2013 at 1:48 am

Posted in Doylestown, Photography

A Bird’s Eye View of Doylestown 1886

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Doylestown 1886

Check out this interactive map I put together of Doylestown from 1886. You zoom in to find familiar buildings or see places that have long since been destroyed.  Some details I enjoyed were the old fair grounds on the top right, where CB West is now, the fact that the jail (now the Michener Museum) was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the road leading out of town called “Lumberville Road”, which I’m guessing is now Cold Spring Creamery. I also wonder what sort of booze they were cooking up at the fruit distillery.

Written by Moses Doan

October 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm

The Twice-Buried Murderer Joseph Blundin

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A man sharpens a cradle scythe, similar to Joseph Blundin’s murder weapon.

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.

The murderer and victim were harvesting oats on the farm of Samuel Headly, probably the S. Headly marked with a red “X” on this map from 1857. The murder occurred somewhere on the road from Headly’s farm to Bristol.

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 [1834], 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.)

Written by Moses Doan

June 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Posted in Bristol, Crime, Death, Doylestown, Graves, Maps

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Doylestown in Kodachrome, 1938

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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:

KODACHROME

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:

Selected images from a 16mm film.

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:

The Intelligencer Building

Hard to read here, but the marquee features Coming of Age (1938).

The New Galena Board of Censors… who knew?

And last but not least, Bucks County historian and distinguished Doylestown resident W.W.H. Davis:

Written by Moses Doan

February 18, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Posted in Doylestown, Film, New Galena

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The Lenape Building

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Dominating the intersection of State Street and Main Street, Lenape Hall is one of the most distinctive buildings in Doylestown. The building was dedicated on November 17th, 1874, and according to the late Doylestown historian Wilma Brown Rezer in her book Doylestown And How It Came to Be, it was originally designed to provide Doylestown with a town hall, a concentrated store area, and a much-needed indoor market. Before the construction of the indoor market, farmers came to town at 4am and lined the streets with their wagons, selling produce outside regardless of weather. The addition of an indoor market presumeably alleviated wagon traffic and protected the vendors and customers from inclement weather.

The construction cost was $50,0000, and it was built using a half million locally pressed bricks and trimmed with stone from Milwaulke and Ohio. It’s grand staircase was eight feet wide, made of ash planks two inches thick, with hand-carved railings and walnut balusters. Local jeweler Lewis Spellier built the gold-lettered clock at its peak. A wood awning was installed in 1876 and replaced with tin in 1898. The corner store was occupied by a drug store from its construction in 1874 until at least 1980, when Rezer wrote her history of Doylestown.

Writing in 1876, shortly after the Lenape building first opened, W.W.H. Davis reports:

The handsomest improvement, as well as one of the most useful, in the borough is the Lenape building… Its features are a market-house and six stores on the first story, a handsome and convenient hall that seats nearly eight hundred persons, and a stage equipped with beautiful scenery, four offices and dressing-room, on the second, and a beautiful lodge-room on the third. The building is brick, with stone trimmings, and is surpassed in beauty and convenience by but a few of the kind in the state.

The Lenape building remains a fixture of downtown Doylestown. The first floor still contains a number of shops, but the upper floors have been converted into apartments. It’s served different functions over the years, and it once even contained a bowling alley, as pictured below:

A child looks on as workers remove the Doylestown trolley line.

The Ship Tavern

The site of the Lenape building was originally the home of the Ship Tavern. In 1774, Samuel Flask purchased property south of present day East State Street and built the Ship Tavern at the crossroads. It stood for a century until it was demolished to make way for Lenape Hall in 1874.

The Ship Tavern

The crossroads brought a lot of business to Doylestown, and The Ship Tavern competed for tipplers with two other bars at the intersection: Doyle’s Tavern (built 1752), now the Fountainhouse, and Magill’s Tavern (1805), now partially incorporated into building that houses the Paper Unicorn.

The cornerstone of the Ship Tavern was incorporated into the rear wall of Lenape Hall, and is still visible. The words “Doylstown 26 Miles to Philadelphia” are still visible on its surface. If you look up the alley between the Lenape Building and Finney’s Tavern, you’ll find the old milestone on the back of the Lenape Building where the stone foundation meets the brick, about eye level.

Notice the omitted "e," an old alternate spelling of "Doylestown."

Written by Moses Doan

June 14, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Her Lips Are Copper Wire

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Jean Toomer

The other night I left work and found State Street abandoned and heavy with wet spring air. Rainwater dripped from the County Theater‘s neon marquee and fog dulled the orange glow of the street lamps. It reminded me of my favorite poem by former Doylestown resident Jean Toomer:

Her Lips Are Copper Wire

whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

and let your breath be moist against me
like bright beads on yellow globes

telephone the power-house
that the main wires are insulate

(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)

then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent

An influential participant in the Harlem Renaissance, his most famous publication is the novel Cane, which compares the experiences of African Americans living in the North and South. He and his wife moved to Doylestown in 1940 and became Quakers. He withdrew from the public eye and remained in Doylestown for the rest of his life. Last Wednesday marked the 44th anniversary of his death in 1967.

Written by Moses Doan

April 6, 2011 at 8:10 am

Animalcules

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Animalcule:
  • a minute or microscopic animal, nearly or quite invisible to the naked eye, as an infusorian or rotifer.
  • a tiny animal, as a mouse or fly.
  • —Related forms: animalcular

Reading about the Bucks County Almshouse (or Alms House, or Alms-house), I came across this wonderfully archaic word that probably went extinct with the dawn of germ theory.

“The Poor House purchase has caused great uproar in some sections of the county; the discontent and opposition originated in Buckingham. Handbills, memorials, etc., are circulating, tending to prejudice the public mind, and truly, if the purchase is, as represented, it is by no means judicious. The soil is stated to be sterile, and incapable of improvement adequate to the object; destitute of a sufficiency of good water, the well and spring, in certain seasons of the year going nearly dry, generating animalcules, worms, tadpoles, etc., in such quantities as to render it necessary to filter the water before using it. Such, say they, is the place humanity sought for the reception and accommodation of the unfortunate poor.”

While this was probably just propaganda by those who opposed the whole project of providing an Almshouse for the poor, their nay-saying proved prophetic:

“The Asiatic cholera visited the alms house in the summer of 1849 when it was prevalent in the country. It broke out in July, and, in less than two weeks some 120 deaths occurred in a population of 150 inmates. Among the dead were the steward, William Edwards, Lafayette Nash, Line Lexington, a medical student under Dr. Hendrie, Doylestown, and a few of the nurses. It created great alarm, and for a time travel on the Easton road was almost suspended. There were but four cases outside the institution and only one or two in Doylestown. The dead paupers were hauled out by the cart load and buried in a trench behind the orchard, and after the disease was over the infected clothing was burned and the house thoroughly fumigated. A small band of faithful men, led by Davis E. Brower, Bridge Point, nursed the sick and buried the dead. The cause of this terrible visitation was never investigated, but is thought to have been mainly caused by want of proper sanitary care.”

[From Davis’ History of Bucks County]

Written by Moses Doan

March 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Posted in Death, Doylestown

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