Author Archives: Ken Finkel

Fatal Collapse at 5th and Clearfield

“My God, it’s Reiss!” shouted Alfred Haggerty. The patrolman had noticed something at the bottom of the gaping pit at the intersection of 5th and Clearfield and stared at it for minutes before realizing it was the body of the missing police officer. A week before, Joseph A. Reiss and his partner, patrolman Joseph Cheplick, […]
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Wrong Turn, Wrong Street, Wrong Day

That morning, just like any other Thursday, John Connor stepped out of his family’s two-story rowhouse, near 13th and Moore Streets, and made his way up Passyunk Avenue to his job in Center City. Summer still lingered in the sunny September air, and the 23-year-old Connor looked forward to another day behind the wheel of […]
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Cohocksink: The Northern Liberties Cover-Up

With an investment of $100,000—the equivalent of millions in today’s dollars—City Fathers assured Philadelphians that the “noisome” Cohocksink, the creek that drained much of North Philadelphia, had finally been contained. No longer would its “fetid and polluted waters” meander in plain sight, sluggishly making their way to the Delaware. It was 1871, and this country-creek-turned-urban-sewer […]
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Liberty Unveiled

Little “blue-eyed, pink-cheeked” Nona Martin, the five-year-old from Chestnut Hill, stood motionless, “awed by the numberless masses that stretched away before her vision down Broad Street, as far as the eye could see.” By her side, on the platform, was her grandfather, William G. McAdoo, the “tall, gaunt, commanding” Treasury Secretary. Behind them loomed the […]
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1918: Death on the Home Front

September had been tough, especially the middle of the month, when more than a quarter of the soldiers at the Frankford Arsenal had been hospitalized with the “Spanish Flu.” On October 1, as the deaths were counted, the Inquirer grasped for a positive tone, pointing out the number of new cases had actually fallen off […]
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Censoring Philly Street Dance after the Shimmy Ship had Sailed

“Those moaning saxophones,” fretted John R. McMahon in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “call out the low and rowdy instinct.” And with degrading names like “the cat step, camel walk, bunny hug, turkey trot,” McMahon figured jazz dance mocked the dignified traditions of social dance. Most insidious of all was a move they called the shimmy. […]
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Taking to the Streets with the Philadelphia Police (Singing and Dancing)

Philly’s Finest got into the big band business while the getting was good. Only three years after 1912, when bandmaster Lieutenant Joseph Kiefer (formerly of the U. S. Navy) started up his talented squad, he expanded its ranks to 72 musicians. He then spent the better part of the next decade riding the rising tide […]
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When Mechanization Took Command

Great 20th-century cities demanded forward looking solutions. When Philadelphia announced its intentions to join the City Beautiful Movement, grandiose cleanups would call for something more than the pith-­helmeted army of “White Wings.” Marching, uniformed  broomsmen were more reminiscent of 19th- century colonial conquests than 20th-century urban efficiency. The new solution would be a machine, and […]
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Rogue Abattoirs and the Plight of Philly’s Meat Men

“If we do not want to eat the stuff ourselves,” declared veterinarian Charles Allen Cary in 1887, “we had better bury or burn it.” Experts of the American Veterinary Association called for more inspections of dairies and slaughterhouses to reduce the amount of tubercular meat and milk reaching consumers. At the turn of the 20th […]
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Cleaning Up In Philadelphia

What with coal ash, horse droppings and the refuse of day-to-day life, cleaning the early 20th-century city proved no small task. But for South Philadelphia pig farmer turned politician Edwin H. Vare, cleaning up in Philadelphia proved to be quite a lucrative operation, both literally and figuratively. Back then, the city didn’t clean its streets—private […]
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