Meet the Benners

My house in 2021

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 some ninety 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!

Climbing these stairs give you a workout!

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.

Moyamensing Hose Company headquarters on 744 S. 8th Street where Columbus Hall stands today.

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.

921 Christian Street, the Benner’s home in 1900

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.

How Irises Almost Led Me to a Life of Crime

I have always been a sucker for irises. They are my favorite flower. And of all the colors irises come in, my favorite is purple. Purple irises impede my judgment faster than a couple of shots of whiskey on an empty stomach. The closest analogy I can make is to people who turn stupid and gaga at the sight of a cute baby. They struggle to maintain a sense of boundaries and decency as they poke some stranger’s child and go kitchy-coo. I feel the same loss of control when I see a purple iris. I want to pluck it and take it hostage. I am an adult woman and these days, I manage to control myself when I see irises. But when I saw the riot of purple irises you see below during a recent walk in Philadelphia, I was taken back to my youth and recalled the time I did something that could have gone terribly wrong.

I was attending a small college in central Pennsylvania. My dormitory was next to a ramshackle wooden house with a detached garage that was not part of the college. A fence surrounded the house which had a small yard and garden. I never paid much attention to it.

But one day when I was coming back from class, there they were. The irises. Purple irises, bales and bales of them growing like crazy in the yard, under the fence and fairly stuffed into a narrow strip of ground between the fence and the sidewalk. Hundreds and hundreds of irises. I had never seen so many irises. I was gobsmacked.

I decided right then and there to liberate some of the irises. But not in the light of day-no I didn’t dare. I didn’t want to hear the disdainful clucks of any townies or my fellow students who, I felt, were so judgmental and so conservative that they ironed creases in their jeans. So I hatched a plan. I set my alarm to wake me at 5:00 am on a Sunday morning when I figured most people would be sleeping. I threw a coat on over my pajamas and crept out of my dormitory with a pair of sharp scissors, a flashlight, and a paper grocery bag. I made my way down the road and crept behind the garage where the irises where growing profusely. I knelt down and began to saw away with my scissors.

“Do you go to college here?” I heard a voice behind me. My heart jumped. It was a woman’s voice and it sounded pleasant enough, but maybe she was softening me up for the kill before marching me off to the Dean’s office where she would tell the Dean, in a shrieking and not so pleasant voice this time, what I had done. Then the Dean would call my parents. I had visions of drama. Much drama. The kind of drama only my parents were capable of. Followed by my father having a fit of apoplexy and exploding into little bits (which he never did) or screaming and threatening to write me out of his will (which he did all the time.)

I decided to play it cool, and took a deep breath. “Yes, ” I replied trying to sound as innocent as I could, trying to sound like secreting myself behind an old garage dressed in a coat and pajamas, and cutting some stranger’s flowers and shoving them into a grocery sack as fast as I could at 5:00 am on a Sunday morning was a normal activity for a college student.

I looked up and she was holding some small magazines fanned out like a deck of cards. “Would you like one?” She asked. I didn’t dare say no. “Sure,” I replied, “I’ll take one. She pulled one out and handed it to me. When I saw the name of the magazine, I knew I was home free. There would be no visit to the Dean’s office and no drama.

“I’ve heard of The Watchtower,” I said, “but I never read one. I’ll take a look at this. Thanks.”

“Do you think any of your classmates would be interested?” she asked, pressing the rest of the magazines into my hand. “They might be, ” I replied, “I can put these in the student union lounge.””Thank you, she replied, “and have a blessed day.

I returned to my room, and put my purloined irises into a jar. I can’t remember if I put the magazines in the student union building. I probably did, after my heart stopped pounding. But that is the last time I ever helped myself to anyone else’s flowers. Not that I haven’t been tempted.

Beading from Wolf Hall

I’ve been doing a lot of reading during the Pandemic.  I’m currently working my way through Wolf Hall  by Hilary Mantel, a book I heartily recommend. It takes place during the reign of Henry VIII and focuses on the life and career of Thomas Cromwell, one of his closest advisors.   I’ve written before how I find distasteful (!) many of the aspects of the Elizabethan world. (Although I am also working on family genealogy and learning a little about what life was like for some of my ancestors who lived through it.)  Let’s just say that religious fanaticism is nothing new and leave it at that.

I’ve gotten to the part in the book where Anne Boleyn becomes queen.  The book concentrates more on the history and personalities and does not contain detailed descriptions  of clothing and jewelry.  Still, there are some and it got me to thinking and I pulled out some of my unfinished bead design projects.  I was trying to design a necklace as a surprise afor a person (who I considered a part of my funky extended family) who loved Renaissance Fairs and was also into beading.  But she died unexpectedly and I put the project on mothballs.

Maybe I’ll take it up again.  Many of the pieces use cubic right angle weave, a stitch that was very hot at the time.  I also love cross-weave beading (right angle weave is but one form of this)  and was experimenting with that stitch as well.  Here are some pictures. Rest easy Wendy and thanks for inspiring me.

Week Three and My Hair Looks Great!

 

IMG_4352Social distancing has changed my life.  I have finally learned how to clean and operate the various remote controls scattered around my living room.   I have learned how to use less toilet paper.  I have spotless  door knobs.  I have become acquainted with Joe Exotic, and wonder whether he had to remove his body piercings and start wearing underwear when he went to prison.   I have learned that when you can’t find tofu at the neighborhood Acme or Whole Foods, that a nearby Asian supermarket will have it in stock and everyone there will be wearing face masks.

I don’t have to worry about missing a manicure, because my nails are snowy white from all the hand washing and bleach.  I  don’t have to worry about my roots growing in, because they are the same color as the rest of my hair.  And I don’t have to worry about missing a haircut because my hairdresser and I are sheltering in place together.  Here’s how that happened.

A few years ago, I sent away for a hair cutting kit,  gave it to my husband along with a sharp pair of scissors and asked him to watch a YouTube video on how to use it.  Then I asked him to cut my hair.   Why did I do this?  I knew I needed to start getting regular haircuts but did not relish the idea of scheduling trips to a hair salon.   I see my dentist as recommended and that’s about all I can manage. But quite frankly I was getting to that age where every woman must pay attention to  personal grooming lest she start to resemble Alice the Goon.  And why did I pick my husband?  Because all men who love me must suffer.

My husband is not one to embrace new experiences.  He does not run from them so much as sidestep toward them kicking and screaming with one eye closed and his arms waving frantically.   But for some reason known only to him,  he watched the video then cut my hair.  And  he did a great job!  I was still working at the time and my office colleagues loved my new look.   When they asked me who cut my hair, I replied, “Mr. Ken.”  When they asked for his number, I said it was the same as mine.

So if you are fretting about your hair, hand your significant other a pair of scissors and have at it.  This coronavirus thing is not going away any time soon, so if your partner screws up your hair, you will have one more reason to stay inside.   And support  your hairdresser when this is over.   They will need your business more than ever.   Check out this link for more information.

 

Mr. Ken recommended this video.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

Greek Tragedy

I went to the hand doctor today. I can’t believe it’s been more than two months since they rebuilt my thumb joint. I am progressing nicely and should be back to throwing pots by February. Which is good because I pretty much sold all of the pottery I brought to Handmade for the Holidays, and a nice amount of the jewelry too.

So I haven’t been doing too much making lately. I am hoping that will change soon.

I leave you with a story.

I walked into the living room where my husband was watching a movie called Troy the Odyssey. I noticed the cheap vinyl piping on the actors’ costumes that was supposed to pass for Greek warrior gear. I commented that it must not be a very good movie.

My husband replied that the movie was so tragically bad that it could only have been written by Sophocles.

“Sophocles?” I asked, Didn’t he write plays? ”

“He wrote Oedipus,” my husband responded.

“And Antigone,” I added, remembering my Greek tragedies.

“He did write Antigone,” my husband informed me. And the great tragedy there was that she never wrote back.”

My Studio Then and Now

Libby Mills ran a series on her blog a few years ago called Studio Snapshot and she was kind enough to feature my workspace in one of her posts.  I thought it would be fun to do a then and now post of my space.

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Then

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Now

A little neater. now, don’t you think?  I have to confess that one of the reasons it’s so orderly is because I am not in the middle of any projects now, because I am recovering from hand surgery and because I have been cleaning.   Our boiler and water heater entered into a mutual suicide pact last week which necessitated replacing them both with this new gizmo.  Which necessitated drilling through the foundation.  Which created lots of dust.

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The New Gizmo

New Gizmo does not need to use the chimney as it is vented out the side of the house, and the workshop is so clean is because I have been steam cleaning the fine layer of dust off of everything.

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Chimney opening

This means I can move my kiln and my polymer oven to the back basement, install a ventilation system  like this one that will blow out the chimney, and gain some space in the front basement.    I do not plan to add anything else to the front basement because I like the idea of having more room to stretch,  something I did not always have. But I will have to have some electrical work done in the back so I can run my kiln, oven, and ventilation system there.  I haven’t done any lamp working for a few years but I have worked with bronze metal clay, porcelain clay, and have done some glass fusing.

 

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Pretty Cluttered

I have donated all but my very favorite beads ( which leaves quite a lot of them) and have installed new lighting in the work space.  And I have gotten rid of a TON of supples, paints, fabric, glues, found objects, old tools, metal and more to good homes.

I replaced all my old furniture with Ikea Helmer cabinets and Linmon table tops  When I like about this is when you want to move supplies, you can simply switch drawers. Everything fits! And everything’s on wheels which makes it doubly convenient.  You can move things around without a lot of fuss.

 

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I still have my old watchmaking bench but I use it for display and to hold supplies

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When your space is as small as mine, something has to go every time you bring something new in.  I snagged this cabinet for $5.00 at a house sale.  I am still deciding what to toss.

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I don’t think I will ever have enough hammers though.

 

Home Organizing Tips and My Old Camera

I spent today cleaning out old paperwork and files that were taking up precious space in my small home.   I work fast.  I am not one to get sentimental about old tax returns or even the copy of my marriage license that I found buried in a file.  And I didn’t find any pictures to take me back to my (not so) wild youth.  No cat pictures either (except a blurry Polaroid of my Bridge Kitty Pooky sitting by our old rowing machine.  I don’t know why I kept it.)

I have learned some things about home organization in the past few weeks.  Tools, boxes and bags that are supposed to help you stay organized are no good if they have nooks and crannies where things can hide.  That’s why I spent three years wondering where my miter  vise and  the wedge to my ring clamp were hiding.   They were under my nose the whole time, secreted in one of these.  And some things are so big (I tossed this behemoth after I had emptied it) that it’s easer to store  the things they contain in a drawer and have done with it.  Enough of that.

My cleaning out trip down memory lane didn’t stall due to sentimentality  until I stumbled on my first digital camera hidden on a shelf behind some books.  (Fortunately  for me, I was almost finished purging, so the discovery didn’t derail  my good intentions.)

My first digital camera  was a  Fuji Fine Pix 2800   It only had 2 megapixels but it also had 6X optical zoom which was unheard of for a budget camera in those days (2002). And it took beautiful pictures although the files were small and not really suitable for print media.

Here are some of the pictures I found on the huge  Smart Media  cards used with the camera:

 

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GlassBeads

 

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ClaspMakingBeadSwapBarcelona Cat

I took some new pictures of a project I am working out to see if  the camera still functioned:

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I would keep the camera for web-based photography, but I  like the flexibility that larger files give.  So, I will erase all the media cards, find a spare card reader (the big media cards won’t fit into a standard computer slot) and donate the camera to a thrift shop.

 

Bye old friend!

Making a Box

Continue reading “Making a Box”

Beyond The Words: Robin Hiteshew’s Portraits of Irish Writers

 

It was 1989 and my friend Robin Hiteshew asked if I wanted to attend a poetry reading by Seamus Heaney at Swarthmore College.  I was familiar enough Heaney’s work to jump at the chance.  Later I got to meet him, but was too shy to do anything but mumble and shake his hand.

 

 

Thirty years later, at the opening of his show, “Portraits of Irish Writers” Robin compared  a photo portrait of Heaney he took during that visit to Swarthmore with one he took almost a decade later in Cambridge where Heaney was teaching at Harvard.  In the first photo,  a slightly disheveled Heaney struck a casual pose under a tree on the Swarthmore campus.  In the second picture, Heaney was wearing a tailored jacket  “Look,” said Robin pointing to the first picture, “his trousers are rolled.  That’s before he won the Nobel prize and the game got more serious.”

Robin Hiteshew has been photographing Irish writers (and musicians) for more than forty years and it has been a labor of love.  His portraits are personal and revealing in a way that is truly beyond the words.   And he has a story to go with each one.

Robin’s new show, “Beyond the Words: Portraits of Irish Writers” will run until June 26 at the McNichol Gallery which is located in the Thomas A. Bruder, Jr. Life Center at  Neumann University. Admission is free.  For directions, press here.

 

In My Workshop Right Now (as of Yesterday)

Colored porcelain jewelry elements waiting to be bisque fired.

 

Experimenting with different textures.

 

 

Colored porcelain pinch pots.

 

The cracks can stay

 

I work on fabric or canvas

The polymer side of the table

 

Making fish (taught by Amy Sutryn at May meeting of Philadelphia Area Polymer Clay Guild)

 

One lazy Bluefish