HISTORICAL NOTES

As a native Philadelphian and one whose family was among its earliest residents, I have always been haunted by history. Living in the middle of the city in Society Hill which was named for William Penn's Free Society of Traders, those past centuries are ever present. It's impossible to walk down the streets without feeling transported through time. The brick homes, the grand religious houses and government buildings, even the cobbles and pebblestones of the roads abound with ghosts.

It was in researching two ancestors, Nicholas Biddle and Francis Martin Drexel, that the idea of The Martha Beale Series first took shape. During the 1840s, Drexel ascended to power and prominence while Biddle was publicly castigated and gradually eclipsed; the period was known as The Great Depression. This financial catastrophe was instigated by Andrew Jackson's deregulation of the banking industry; it was a time of foment throughout the country, but especially in Philadelphia whose status as a preeminent industrial city added to its luster as the nation's first capital.

The grinding poverty of the newly emigrated stood in stark contrast to the vast wealth of the old established families; a vociferous abolitionist movement fought an equally determined pro-slavery coalition; a series of murderous labor strikes and race riots collided with Penn's heritage of empathy and tolerance. Mesmerism, somnambulism, clairvoyancy and conjuring became a panacea that appealed to every social class. Philadelphia, considered the “Athens of America” and an arbiter of style, eagerly embraced the vogue.

It's important to note also that the city remained divided into townships, boroughs and districts, and had no unified police force until The Consolidation Act of 1854 that created a municipality measuring 129 square miles, and containing approximately 1500 farms and 10,000 head of cattle within its boundaries. Until that time, a criminal could break the law in one part of town and escape punishment by fleeing into another area of jurisdiction. The inadequacy of such a system was the subject of much public debate and outrage. The penny papers, gazettes and broadsheets of the day devoted considerable ink to the problem.

The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, and The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, whose home on Washington Square was completed in 1847, provided me with a plethora of primary research materials. Holding the actual newspapers and journals published in 1842, and reading their editorials, their short works of fiction, their articles, essays and advertising cards was transformative. I was also able to access records and annual reports from the mental asylum referred to in the novel, from the orphanage and the Philadelphia Gas Works, peruse Godey's Lady's Book and its “Fashion Plates”, and of course read the original of the famous Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism which provided so much background for The Conjurer, the first novel in the series.

On a lighter note, I discovered a remarkable diary at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. It was lovingly transcribed into typed pages during the 1940s. The journal describes the life (and clothing styles) of a young woman whose father was an aide de camp for General and then President Washington (I won't name her as some of the passages are quite intimate). Washington was clearly smitten with her, and she details the numerous compliments he paid her during his soirees and levees when he purposely sought her out. She was fond of hats with white plumes and white slippers to match - all of which receive her fullest attention. When Mrs. Washington got wind of the situation, she paid the young lady a visit. Spotting a portrait of her husband in a place of honor (portraits of the great man were plentiful), she declared, “ I see you have a copy of my husband's picture, but I have the original and intend to keep him as long as I live.” Racy doings in the Quaker city! The long-dead beauty gave me inspiration for Theodora Crowther's elderly aunt in Deception's Daughter. I simply couldn't resist.

If you stroll the Philadelphia streets Martha et al walked, I think you'll find yourself as caught out of time as I, and as in love with the city's vibrant past.

Cordelia Frances Biddle

HISTORICAL LINKS

Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp

The Library Company of Philadelphia

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Eastern State Penitentiary

Landmarks Tours

Nicholas Biddle’s home Andalusia

Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania

 
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