1832 Cholera Outbreak in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut

Lately, there has been a fair amount of news coverage (“Fates Of Irish Workers Sealed In Mass Grave”, “Pennsylvania Ghost Story Leads to Murder Mystery”, “CNN Visits Penn Museum to Follow Story of “Duffy’s Cut” Excavations in Malvern, PA”) about the mystery surrounding “Duffy’s Cut,” a stretch of land in Chester County where, during the summer of 1832, 57 Irish laborers died. The men were hired by labor contractor Philip Duffy to construct mile 59 of the Pennsylvania and Columbia Railroad. The cholera epidemic that was ravaging parts of the U.S., including New York City, spread to Philadelphia and reached the laborers’ camp in mid-August. Within two and a half weeks, all of the men were dead.   

All of the deaths were blamed on the disease; however, historical documents and local stories suggest that some of the victims may have been murdered by locals, antagonistic to Irish Catholics, who wanted to prevent the outbreak from spreading. A few years ago, scholars and other interested parties began an archeological dig at the site of the mass grave to try and determine whether foul play had indeed occurred.       

Although downplayed in histories concerning the 1832 cholera epidemic, the toll that the disease took on Philadelphia that summer was high. Many residents fled from the city to the countryside. August proved to be the worst month with well over a hundred cases a day reported. A significant number of those cases resulted in death.  The worst days in the city were August 6, when there were 176 cases and 71 deaths, and August 7, when there were 136 cases and 73 deaths reported.      

There was a fairly organized and concerted effort on the part of the medical community in the city during the early months of the outbreak. However, by August medical personnel were overwhelmed and began to seek outside help. The Committee of the Almshouse, later known as Philadelphia General Hospital, asked Bishop Kenrick if he could request the help of the Sisters of Charity to serve as nurses. The order, founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, already had a presence in the city. In 1814, at the request of then Bishop Egan and Fr. Michael Hurley, pastor of St. Augustine’s Church and close friend of Mother Seton, sisters began working in St. Joseph’s orphanage.       

Sister Rose White, first sister servant of St. Joseph's Home, no date

Kenrick agreed to contact the order.  In addition to the five sisters already in Philadelphia, eight others were sent from the motherhouse in Maryland. They lived and worked in the Almshouse and other hospitals, including St. Augustine Church, which Fr. Hurley had turned into a makeshift hospital under the supervision of Dr. Oliver H. Taylor.        

Father Michael Hurley, no date

Four Sisters of Charity were also called upon to minister to the dying men at Duffy’s Cut. Their presence was recorded from the accounts of an eyewitness; however, no official record of their mission exists. Relevant documents may have been destroyed in the fire at St. Augustine’s several years later. Ironically, although most of the patients cared for by the Sisters of Charity at St. Augustine were recorded as being non-Catholic, the church was not spared by Protestant nativists when it was burned to the ground during the riots of 1844.       

Lithograph of St. Augustine in ruins, 1844

Cholera had run its course in Philadelphia by early September. None of the sisters who ministered in the city and at Duffy’s cut during the outbreak perished from the disease. Their assistance, as well as that of Bishop Kenrick and Father Hurley, was publicly recognized by the city. The Board of Health and the Almshouse Committee recognized their efforts, and the city awarded silver plates to the sisters and thirteen physicians who had played a prominent role during the outbreak. The sisters declined the offer, instead asking that the money used to make the plates be used as funds for the orphanages and schools that the order administered.          

 In his diary, Bishop Kenrick commented on the noteworthy efforts of the sisters and priests during the outbreak: “…displaying an example of heroic fortitude, with certain peril to their lives, the Sisters took charge of the pest-stricken patients in that Hospital. Four others of the Sisters gave their services in other hospitals…priests proved their character and their strong virtues, caring for the sick in the exercise of the sacred ministry; while non-Catholic ministers generally fled from the city.”       

Excerpt from Kenrick's diary, September 22, 1832

Kenrick was one among many prominent religious figures of all Christian denominations in the United States and Britain who viewed the outbreak as punishment for people’s sins, specifically those dealing with the overindulgence of food and drink. And although Kenrick greatly assisted those affected by the disease, in a letter to Bishop Rese of Detroit, Kenrick shares his view of the outbreak as sort of a blessing in disguise in that it allowed many to reflect on their lives and come to terms with death. He writes, “The cholera has done great good in Philadelphia. Many are prepared for death, frightened from daily examples of unexpected deaths.”   

  

Excerpt from Kenrick letter to Bishop Rese, August 16, 1832

References:  McGowan, Francis X., ed. Historical Sketch of St. Augustine’s Church, Phila., Pa. Philadelphia: The Augustinian Fathers, 1896.    

Prendergast, Edmond, ed. Diary and Visitation Record of the Rt. Rev. Francis Patrick Kenrick, 1830-1851. Lancaster, Pa: Wickersham Printing Co., 1916.    

Watson, William. “The Sisters of Charity, the 1832 Cholera Epidemic in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut.” U.S. Catholic Historian 27no. 4 (Fall 2009): 1-16.    

For more information on Duffy’s Cut see:    

Watson, William E. et al. The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006.    

 

The Bishop’s Bank

by Shawn Weldon

In the wake of the potato famine in Ireland in the mid 1840’s, thousands of Irish-Catholic immigrants poured into the city of Philadelphia. Although looked at with suspicion by the native population, these immigrants met the needs of a rapidly growing city looking for a pool of ready labor.

Irishmen filled the manufacturing and construction jobs of an expanding industrial city. Irish women served as domestic servants, an occupation that was becoming an essential part of the lifestyle of the middle and upper classes.

Although life was not easy, many of these workers were able to save some money with the hope of purchasing a home or opening their own business. One problem facing these workers was the safekeeping of their hard earned pay. Many took advantage of the savings institutions which existed in the city at this time. Many others did not trust their savings with a private institution. Perhaps their unfamiliarity with a new environment or the anti-Catholic prejudice they encountered made them distrustful.

Bishop Francis P. Kenrick recognized the problem these workers faced. In May of 1848 he opened a bank to receive, and pay interest on, the deposits of working Catholics who did not want to use the private savings institutions. Popularly known as the “Bishop’s Bank”, it was managed by Mark Antony Frenaye, a Philadelphia Catholic businessman who served for many years as the financier and treasurer of the Diocese of Philadelphia.

Mark Antony Frenaye, n.d.

Mark Antony Frenaye, n.d.

The rules of the bank for conducting business are written in the front of the bank’s first ledger book in Frenaye’s own hand. They illustrate that the Diocese ran that bank according to sound business practices. Customer relations and secure investments were the guiding principles of the Bishop’s bank.

According to Frenaye’s rules office hours were to be posted on the door and adhered to punctually. Depositors were always to be treated politely. Impatience should never be shown. Payment should never be made in “uncurrent” money (a constant concern during this period) but should be in gold or city notes. Concerning disagreements over money owed he wrote, “With depositors never contend on small matters; if you cannot mildly convince them, pay; it is better to lose a few dollars, than to send abroad a discontented trumpet!”

Bishop's Bank Rules, 1848

Bishop's Bank Rules, 1848

Regarding investments Frenaye was adamant. The rules state, “Bear in mind that investments must always be made in stock of ready sale: City, or State of Pennsylvania. No other; City is the best. County stock is good, but of slow sale. Never purchase any other stock. Beware of Banks, Canals, railroads, other States of the Union, and all kinds of fancy stocks. Some of them may be good, but they are liable to ruinous fluctuations: Safety and quick sale, when needed, and not speculation, must always be the rule”.

The story of the Bishop’s Bank is not just the history of an institution but also of its individual depositors. The Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center holds the ledgers and journals of the Bishop’s bank. The ledger books contain the individual accounts for each depositor, and serve as a rich source of historical information.

In addition to account information, they include notations on the depositors. Most of these notations are brief and contain only age and place of origin or residence. Although the bank was intended to serve the needs of all Catholics in the diocese, the majority of depositors were Irish. This is evident from the large number of Irish surnames and the notations listing the various counties in Ireland as the place of origin.

Other notations are more lengthy. They might include personal information about the depositor or instructions on distributing money. They provide a brief but fascinating glimpse of the life of the depositor.

The notation for Johanna Reilly, who opened an account in 1852, reads “42 years old, St. Paul’s Parish: a tall woman, pockmarked”. This kind of description is not unusual at this time. If a person was illiterate and unable to write their name, a physical description or personal information was the only way to prove identification.

Other notations, though brief, offer insights into the personal life of the depositor. Mary Reynold’s opened an account in 1848. Her notation reads, “wife of John Masterson. She does not want him to know of this deposit”. John Strain also opened an account in 1848. His notation reads only “45 years in 1846″. A later notation has been added which reads in bold letters, “he drinks, pay his wife only”.

Some notations show how public events and private life overlap, sometimes with tragic results. John Hughes opened his account in April 1864. The first notation reads, “69th Reg. Pa. Vols. In case of death in the army he desires this money to be donated to St. John’s Orphan Asylum, W. Phi.” Written underneath is, “The depositor is dead. John McCue, his brother-in-law, is appointed guardian of Hughes daughter Ann-14 years”.

John Hughes' entry in Bishop's Bank Ledger, 1864

John Hughes' entry in Bishop's Bank Ledger, 1864

Mark Frenaye managed the bank until September 23, 1857, when Bishop Wood, who had been a bank clerk before entering the priesthood, took over management. When a similar bank in Cincinnati failed, Archbishop Wood decided to liquidate the Bishop’s Bank. However, confidence in the bank was so great that depositors refused to withdraw their money, even after Wood ordered that no interest be paid.

The bank continued in this way until Archbishop Ryan ordered that no more money be received. The bank lingered on until all deposits were returned. By the end of 1889 the Bishop’s Bank no longer existed.