Do you live in an old house? Do you know who lived there before you moved in? Before you were born? How about who lived there before your grandparents were born? Wouldn’t you like to find out? This post is about how I learned about who lived in my house 170 years ago, and learned some interesting facts about the history of my Philadelphia neighborhood, known today as Bella Vista.
I became acquainted with Elizabeth Benner when I moved into an old house in South Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. Elizabeth wasn’t a neighbor in proximity so much as she was a neighbor in time. She and her family occupied the house I live in now more than one hundred years before I moved there. As the new owner of an old house, I took a workshop at the Philadelphia Historical Society called, “Who Lived in Your House in 1880?” and found Elizabeth’s name in the 1880 census. Interesting, but I didn’t think much about it as the years passed.
My interest in the Benners and the history of my house was rekindled recently when a member of my book club remarked that my house was probably a trinity house that had been expanded. Intrigued, I went into my basement and compared the floorboards and crossbeams in the front basement with those in the back basement. I know bupkis about construction but even I could see that they were very different. What do you think?
If you’re not from Philadelphia, you might not know what a trinity house is. A trinity house gets its name from its three one-room stories that sit on top of one another over a basement. Built to house the working class, each small room was probably around 200-250 square feet and accessible via a circular stairway like this one. This was typical working class housing in Philadelphia because land was cheap and there was room to spread out. That’s why we don’t have a history of tenement living like New York City. We are a city of row houses and the trinity is the smallest row house you can get.
I found some old pictures on the Philadelphia Free Library’s photo collection site of trinity houses with a third floor dormer (which my house has) and outside cellar entrances (which my house had at one time) here, here, and here. When my house was expanded, they tore out the circular stairs and installed straight staircases that are almost as steep as ladders. The risers are nearly 10 inches high!
I already knew that the neighborhood Catholic Church around the corner, St. Paul’s, was founded in 1843. This got me to wondering about how old my house really was and wanting to learn more about the people who had lived here before. Here’s what I learned.
Elizabeth Benner’s husband was named William and he was a brick maker. He was deceased by the time I caught up with his family in 1880, but I was curious to know when he and his family moved into my house.
I scoured the online city directories and found some answers. The first mention of William was in the 1851 McElroy’s Philadelphia Directory which gave his address as “10th Street above Christian,” the intersection where I live now. A couple of later directories put him at 377 South 10th Street which is a few intersections away from my house. This doesn’t make sense and I wonder whether the information is accurate. People didn’t move around a lot in those days.
The old City directories indicate that the Benners were definitely living at my address by 1858. The directories and census show they remained there there through the 1860s, the 1870’s and the 1880’s. The elder William is listed in the 1870 census as being 50 years old. He and Elizabeth were probably born in 1820. The 1880 census indicated that Elizabeth was born in Ireland. The 1860 census said that she and her husband William were born in the US. Given the anti-Irish sentiment of the time, this might not have been an error on the part of the census taker but who knows?
By 1880, Elizabeth Benner was a widow who lived with four adult children: two boys, (30-year-old Joseph, a gas fitter, 27 -year-old William P. who worked as a clerk in a mercantile office,) and two girls, (24-year-old Rose and 22-year-old Mary, who were listed as being “at home.”) Nicholas Stafford lived with the Benners, too. He was a 40-year-old plumber, and I think he was a relative (he is identified in one census report as “son”) because the 1860 census indicates he was living with the Benners 20 years earlier. His date of birth and the spelling of his first name varies from census to census, but I finally settled on “Nicholas” born in 1840 and probably in Ireland. Elizabeth’s four other children, however, were probably born in Philadelphia, starting with William P. in 1848. The Benners had a fifth child, a daughter who was stillborn in October, 1865.
The neighborhood where my house sits now used to be known as the Township of Moyamensing, and it wasn’t part of Philadelphia until the surrounding boroughs and townships were consolidated into the city in 1854. Even after consolidation, Moyamensing was a rough, high crime neighborhood populated with Immigrants who poured into Philadelphia to escape the Irish Potato Famine. I would guess that William and Elizabeth came over during the first wave of the exodus.
Who lived in Moyamensing before the influx of Irish Immigrants? The European powers had been squabbling over the territory since the Swedes arrived in the 1600s. Then the Dutch drove out the Swedes and the British drove out the Dutch. The British dispossessed the Lenape tribes who were indigenous to the area, and had driven them out by the late 1700s although some remained in the area through the early 1800’s. (The word Moyamensing is a Lenape word that means “The Place of Pigeon Droppings.” ) When the smoke cleared, the British were gone and immigrants were starting to arrive.
The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network web site has an interactive map function that let me superimpose images of maps of the same geographical area for different periods. Using this site, I was able to take an 1808 map of Philadelphia by John Hills that included my neighborhood and superimpose in to an 1843 map of the same area by Charles Ellet, Jr. While I realize that these maps are not necessarily accurate depictions of the development of a given area, it does appear that the neighborhood around my house at 10th above Christian didn’t start to get built up until the late 1830’s, early 1840’s. It was probably farmland before that.
When I tried to research beyond 1880, my census research hit a dead end. I wasn’t getting anywhere by trolling the census records for William P. Benner so I decided to switch my search to his younger brother Joseph. I hit pay dirt! The 1890 Census records have mostly been destroyed but the Benner family popped up again in the 1900 census. I always understood that the ethnic composition of my neighborhood started out as Irish and morphed into Italian. That comports with what I learned about who was living in my house in 1900.
Backtracking a bit, I said that the 1890 census records had mostly been destroyed, but not all of them. There is a record called United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War from 1890. It showed that Nicholas Stafford, who lived with the Benners for so many years, served with the Union Pennsylvania Volunteers, McMullen’s Company, Pennsylvania Independent Rangers for three months and 25 days. Such a short time! I was confused. At first, I thought he might have been wounded and sent home early but that wasn’t the case at all. I learned from this site that “this company was organized chiefly from the membership of the Moyamensing Hose Company, on May 20th, 1861, and served with Gen.Pattersons force in the three months campaign. The McMullin Rangers are credited, together with the 23d Regiment, with participation in the action at Bunker Hill, W. Va., July 15th, 1861.”
The name McMullen was familiar. Where had I heard that before? Then I remembered. William McMullen was a notorious 19th century political boss who was responsible for the assassination of Octavius Catto. Some more research and I learned that William McMullen raised the regiment Nicholas joined. I wouldn’t consider McMullen a selfless patriot. He probably raised the regiment because it looked good, and enhanced his political cachet. He ruled Moyamensing as his personal political fiefdom, and controlled the Moyamensing Hose Company which was more like a street gang than a professional fire department. Read more about them and other early Philadelphia fire companies here.
I would guess that Nicholas was a member of the Moyamensing Hose Company or at least familiar with it. I can envision McMullen throwing an enlistment rally fueled with lots of booze to get drunken and naive young men to join his regiment in the early days of the Civil War when everyone thought the conflict would be over by Christmas. Nicholas must have joined up with his pals and was back in three months and 25 days. He was lucky. The unit didn’t see much action which didn’t stop McMullen from staging a big parade to welcome back the Rangers when they returned to Philadelphia. Nicholas received a military pension in 1891, however, and by that time he, Joseph, William P. and Rose had moved to 921 Christian Street which is literally a stone’s throw from where I live now. Elizabeth had probably died by this time. She would have been 80. I wasn’t able to find out what happened to Mary Benner, but I learned that Rose Benner married a man named Snyder and died in 1914. It was from her death certificate that I learned that her mother Elizabeth’s maiden name was Elizabeth Jack.
Another family had moved into my house by 1900. They were Italian immigrants Thomas Fechi and his wife Mille. Their baby Maggie was born in the United States. Thomas was a laborer. The Fechi’s were sharing the house with 46 year old Mary Tale, who I am guessing was Mille’s mother (she is listed as a boarder but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t related), and her children Louis (19) Joseph (18) and Rose (14). They had emigrated to the US a few years after Mille.
And that’s where I drew my search to a close. If I want to identify other people who have lived in my house over the years and maybe even determine when it was converted from a trinity to the house it is now, I will have to go to the Office of the Philadelphia Recorder of Deeds and do a title search, more properly called an information search, to trace the chain of title back through the years.
To access census records online, go to FamilySearch.org. You will have to create an account, but it’s free and well worth it, especially if you’re interested in history and genealogy.