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.

A Winter’s Day

Winter dumped a load on the East coast this week. I’m glad I didn’t have to be anywhere. Still, it’s fun to go out and explore.

One of my favourite murals is a snow scene!

A little South Philly humor. I have yet to meet a poop fairy.
Local basketball court under snow
Bob’s garden is closed for the winter and turtle is fast asleep in the heated Koi pond dreaming about sunny days ahead.

Saturday Night in Our Market

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I have an Italian last name and live in South Philadelphia. So everyone thinks I was born and raised here. Not so. My Mother’s family (and me with it) hails from the Midwest and her Scots-Irish ancestors reached these shores in the early 1600’s. But everyone’s gotta come from somewhere and that’s why when my Mother’s relatives were bragging about their DAR memberships, my Father would proudly announce that he could trace his family “all the way back to the banana boat in New York Harbor.”

The Sicilian half of my family got most of my attention during my childhood, maybe because they were louder than the W.A.S.P. half. My mother would go around saying things like “That’s just not done,” and dispensing other mots of wisdom that I did not begin to comprehend until I reached adulthood. The Sicilian food was better anyway.

The 9th Street Market in South Philadelphia  is commonly called “The Italian Market.” It was predominantly Italian at one time, but starting in the 70’s, there was an influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia. People began arriving from Mexico and Central America about 20 years ago. The market and the surrounding neighborhood is a heady mix of restaurants, cuisines, cultures, ethnic groceries, shops, bakeries and more.

What does that have to do with Cavalleria Rusticana? It started when my friend Doris asked me to join her and another friend for a musical program called Honoring Our Ancestors, presented by the Our Market program and Orchestra 2001,  and held in the 9th Street Market this past weekend.

Orchestra 2001 presented a great program of music from Central and South America, Asia, and Italy.  The last work was  Intermezzo from Cavaleria Rusticana, which is the quintessential Sicilian opera.  The story goes like this:  Mama loves boy more than anything.  Boy doesn’t listen to his Mama.  Boy breaks Mama’s heart.   Boy dies.  We all cry to some of the most beautiful operatic music you will ever hear.  Listen and see if you agree.

Philadelphia: This Week in History

It’s been quite a week.  I wouldn’t say that things started with the murder of George Floyd, because they started long before that.  I worked as a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia for seven years when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, taking mostly court appointments.  I wasn’t a white knee-jerk liberal, and I wasn’t idealistic.  But what I saw, and what I experienced changed how I see the world.

Many police departments have had toxic cultures when it comes to dealing with people of color.  Philadelphia is no different.  One of the most divisive figures in the city’s history has been Frank Rizzo who was the Police Commissioner from 1968 to 1971, and later, Mayor.  There was a controversial mural of Rizzo not far from my house in the Italian Market.  People in the neighborhood have been trying to get it removed for years.  This week, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program ended involvement with the Frank Rizzo mural and it is going to be replaced with art more fitting for the neighborhood.

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Rizzo Mural

 

Likewise the bronze statue of Frank Rizzo that has stood before the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building since 1999 has been removed after years of  argument over whether it should stay or go.

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Statue being removed during wee hours of June 3, 2020

I said in the opening sentence of this post that the events of this week didn’t start with the murder of George Floyd.  We all have a tenancy to ignore things that don’t affect us and to bury feelings that make us squirm.  It’s only human, but it’s dangerous-like ignoring a chronic headache that turns out to be a brain tumor that could have been treated if only we had paid attention.   And it’s only human to do things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done them.  That’s dangerous too,  We have to think about what we think about and we have to be aware of our history.  If they don’t teach us in school, we have to find out for ourselves.

I invite you to have a peek into Philadelphia history of the 1870’s, the era of Reconstruction when slavery as a formal institution had ended in this country and when social parity for everyone seemed like it might even  be achievable.  Until it wasn’t.

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Octavius Catto,

It only took 147 years for Philadelphia to commemorate  the work of Octavius Catto who was murdered in 1871 while helping black voters exercise their right to vote.  Read the post, Octavius Catto’s Quest for Parity.   Then understand that we must change, or this tumor we’ve been ignoring for so long will kill us.

 

 

 

 

 

Try Something Different and See What Happens

I did something different today.  I wrote a letter.  A real letter, not a card.  With a pen.  In cursive. On notepaper.  And I addressed it.  And put a stamp on it.  There’s a mail box on the corner across from my house.  I fought my fear that there were corona virus germs on the mail box handle.  I pulled  the handle down, and dropped the letter through the slot.   And then I looked across the street toward St. Paul’s church and saw this.

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Saint Paul’s Church, South Philadelphia

Actually, St. Peter is the one in the picture.  How do I know?  Peter’s the one with the keys to the pearly gates and I think the big book he’s holding  is where all your transgressions are recorded.  You die, you go to the pearly gates of heaven,and St. Peter meets you like a  bouncer at an exclusive night club and decides whether you get in.

How do I know all this?  Twelve years of Catholic school.  That and the fact that I had a mother who had a hard time allowing herself to relax, and enjoy something like a nice outfit or a yummy dessert without feeling guilty.  And when I got older, I would ask her, “Why tease yourself?  It’s not like there’s a prize for the person who suffers the most.  It’s not like St. Peter’s gonna meet you at the pearly gates with a ******* Kewpie doll.”

St. Paul is down at the end of the block out of camera range, and he is wearing a mask too.  And he’s holding a sword to smack the heads of passers by who might not be wearing a mask or observing proper social distancing.  Which is why I did not go down there to take his picture.  Because even though I was wearing a mask, I knew he was down there waiting to see if I would screw up.  Twelve years of Catholic school will do that.  I’m scarred for life.

Try something different and see what happens.  It just might spark your creativity.

Stay safe and well.

 

Opera on the Mall and Bok Party

Lots going on in Philadelphia arts-wise last weekend.  First up was Opera on the Mall a broadcast of La bohème in front of Independence Hall  Opera Philadelphia.  The event  kicked off to their Festival 019.

Two Screens
Plenty of room to stretch out, two screens and great sound.

CheckInWasEasy
Check in ran smoothly

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Some people brought their dogs.  I am sure there are Canine opera lovers.

 

FoodTrucks
Lots of food trucks

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And activities for non-opera lovers

 

OpeningScene
Act I begins.

 

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Bug repelling ankle bracelets just in case.

 

The next day was the family day block party at the Bok Building.

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Glass blowing on South 9th Street

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Pottery
Pottery for the kids who could have their finished product fired and mailed to them.

 

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InsideBokDrawings

No block party iscompletewithoutone
No block party is complete without a bouncy house!

 

 

Fleisher 121st Annual Faculty Exhibition

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I’ve started a new semester at the Fleisher Art Memorial but can’t do much in the pottery studio because of my hand (surgery next month).  But I went there today anyway  to check out the 121st (yes, you read that right) Annual Faculty Exhibition which is in full swing  and will be open for another week.  Here are some highlights from the show.

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Henry Bermudez The Girl

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Detail

 

Budayev
Aleksandr Budayev Two Figure Drawing

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Carol Stirton-Broad  Dashes and Dots

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Joni Woods Shuttle

Brett Lukens
Emily Brett Lukens Near or Far

 

There are many other fine works in the show which closes on September 21, 2019.    Don’t miss it if you are in South Philadelphia.

Fleisher Student Show 2019

Did you know that Fleisher Art Memorial is the oldest community art school in the US?  And that the  121st annual exhibition of student work opened there on February 15th?  With offerings that include works on paper, painting, sculpture, ceramics and jewelry, the work seems to get better with every year.

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The 121st annual student exhibition closes on March 15, 2019.

 

A Bevy of Beauty at Bok

Bev Beaulieu, proprietor of  Bevy of Objects, is one the artist entrepreneurs I met  during my tour of the Bok Studios in October.

BevyofObjects

Bev graduated from  Tyler School of Art and then headed to New York City where she interned with David Yurman, worked as an apprentice goldsmith, and served stints as a jewelry designer for Alexis Bitar, and Ippolita.   After returning to Philadelphia, she designed watches and jewelry for Modern Bands, Inc. and co-founded Beech Hall with Tyler classmates Wade Keller and Danielle Kroll to design and market home goods and fashion accessories.

Then she opened Bevy of Objects where she designs and sells fine jewelry and offers CAD design service working with ethically-sourced and recycled materials.

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A Bevy of Objects is located on the fifth floor of the Bok building.  I noticed the great light as soon as I entered her spacious studio.   Bev wanted a studio  on the fifth floor because of the light and the huge high school windows let in plenty of it.   Like the other artists I spoke to,  she had nothing but raves for the Bok developers who  worked with her to make her studio as comfortable and as functional as possible.  The biggest restriction they imposed on her was that she could not alter the black boards which, to her, was not a problem at all.

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Bev lives in the same neighborhood as Bok and relishes the fact that she can walk or bike to her studio.

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If you are in the market for a special piece of jewelry you really should check out A Bevy of Objects.  You can shop the web site or work with Bev to make a custom design.

To find out more about Bev Beaulieu and A Bevy of Objects, check out her Instagram Feed and her Facebook page.

Philadelphia’s Fabric Row

I feel so lucky to live in a City where I am within walking distance from wonderful shopping districts with a genuine historical significance.  Of course there’s the 9th Street (Italian) MarketJeweler’s Row, and the Reading Terminal Market.   But one of my favorite areas is Fabric Row  is located on Fourth Street below South Street. Even though  I don’t sew much,  I love window shopping on this colorful street.  There’s always something to see.

 

According to the Philadelphia History Museum’s web site, Philadelphia’s bustling fabric row on South Fourth Street ran through the heart of a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Peddlers hawked dry goods from pushcarts and sidewalk stands. Successful vendors opened family-run shops. Dressmakers, shoppers, and tailors flocked to this area of the Queen Village neighborhood to purchase fabrics and notions for their customers and families.  

There aren’t as many fabric stores on Fourth Street as there used to be. Times change.  People are not sewing as much as they used to. (Although home sewing has moved into a new phase.)  New businesses are popping up among the fabric stores  including independent fashion stores,  shops selling hand made goods and the wonderful  Kawaii Kitty Cafe.  It is still a thriving, vibrant area.

 

 

Visit Fabric Row the next time you visit Philadelphia.  In the meantime,  here are some more pictures  I took on walk down Fabric Row when the weather was much warmer!

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To learn more about Fabric Row at Hidden City Philadelphia, the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia and the Fabric Row web site.