The Censor Mayor

Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car - First Run - New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (

Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car – First Run – New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (

The “People’s Mayor” or “political chameleon”? From his flamboyant, convention hall swearing in during a “howling snowstorm” in January 1936 to his indictment less than three years later, Philadelphia’s mayor wielded power with flair. As historian John Rossi put it: “Hardly a week passed that didn’t witness some dramatic gesture” on the part of Philadelphia’s Mayor S. Davis Wilson.

He battled in the courtroom and in the Press with the city’s privately owned utilities, claiming the people were being robbed. “I’m going to wipe out the whole system” he boasted in a hallway argument with a young Richardson Dilworth, lawyer for the PRT (Philadelphia Rapid Transit) before promising to punch him in the nose.

(“Like hell you are,” Dilworth replied, as he shed his coat. “I’d like to see you try.”)

Wilson grabbed headlines every which way: luring the Democratic Party to bring their Presidential convention to Philadelphia, convincing organizers of the Army-Navy football game that Philadelphia should be their city of choice and the Philadelphia Orchestra to produce pop concerts. He urged the Mummers to reschedule their New Year’s Day parade to a more spectator-friendly time of year. And just for the sake of yet one more headline, Wilson offered the position of superintendent of Philadelphia police to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Wilson seemed everywhere—and was, with his name “stenciled on all kinds of city property” from “traffic lights to trashcans,” earning him another nickname: “Ashcan Wilson.”

As his first year in office came to a close, Mayor Wilson attended the revue “New Faces” at the Forrest Theatre. Actors portrayed the former and current first ladies, Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Roosevelt, haranguing Girl Scouts “on the delicate subject of babies.” Wilson walked out.

“It’s a damnable outrage, to poke fun at the President’s wife!” exclaimed the Mayor. “Take that skit out – or I’ll stop the whole show,” he demanded. It didn’t seem to matter that “New Faces” had run for months in New York without complaint, or that the First Ladies actually appreciated the humor.

“Either the skit goes,” demanded Wilson, “or the show does.”

The skit went.

Theater critic Linton Martin worried what Wilson’s “attitude and its enforcement could and would do” to Philadelphia’s stage. Several productions of recent years would have been shorn of their smartest and most smarting shafts of satire…”

Detail. Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car - First Run - New Subway Cars (Dedication) 9/16/1938 (

Detail. Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car – First Run – New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (

Martin and Philadelphia’s audiences didn’t have to speculate for long.

Wilson again acted as the city’s official censor on the eve of the opening of “Mullato” at the Locust Street Theatre. Langston Hughes’s play held the record for the longest running Broadway production by an African-American (before Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun”). At the New York opening in 1935, critic Brooks Atkinson called “Mulatto” a “sobering sensation.” Anticipating its arrival in Philadelphia, The Inquirer described the play as “a melodrama of miscegenation in the South” telling the story of “a wealthy Southern planter who philanders with his housekeeper” and sends “his four Mulatto children…North to be educated. The Yankee environment instills in them the spirit of equality, so that when they return to the plantation they antagonize their family and neighbors.” Advertisements promised a “darling drama of sex life in the South.”

“It will probably cure no ills and provoke no race riots,” wrote Percy Hammond, somewhat prophetically. And not once did “Mulatto’s” 373 performances in New York or its three month-run in Chicago stir the hint of a riot. But that’s what Mayor Wilson claimed to fear in Philadelphia.

“The show won’t go on,” declared the mayor, claiming “Mulatto” was “an outrageous affront to decency.”

“As long as I am mayor,” Wilson remarked to The New York Herald Tribune, “I will not permit such shows in Philadelphia.” He sought confirmation from his “special censor group” which previewed an edited version of the play. “Mulatto” producer Jack Linder assured the censors and the Press that “many changes have been made” and “the objectionable features have been removed.” One critic wondered whether enough “soap and water has been applied to make it safe for Philadelphia consumption.”

The mayor’s censors came in with a tie: 3-3. One publicly criticized Wilson’s last-minute ban as “stupid and unfair” and was relieved of her duties. Wilson stuck to his original decision and posted police at the entrances of the darkened theater.

“Mulatto” found audiences elsewhere, as close as the Garden Pier Theatre in Atlantic City the following August. And two years later, after Wilson’s death of a stroke, the play’s producers attempted again to bring “Mulatto” to the Philadelphia stage, this time at the Walnut Street Theatre. But Wilson’s successor invoked the earlier decision and debate continued. As the courts considered the ban, the Reverend Marshall L. Shepard, compared “the play’s possible importance to that of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” He couldn’t understand “why the play should provoke rioting. It only depicts the truth.”

Wilson’s censorship stood. And from what we can tell, Langston Hughes’ “Mulatto” has yet to have its Philadelphia premiere.

[Sources Include: “Race Problems in the South the Theme of ‘Mulatto,’ a ‘New Drama’ by Langston Hughes. By Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, October 25, 1935; “The New York Theatre,” by Percy Hammond, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1935; “The Call Boys Chat: New Faces,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1936; “Wilson and Lawyer Near Fight Over P.R.T.” The New York Times, February 4, 1936; “Mayor Plays Gallant, Bans Girl Scout Skit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 10, 1936; “The Playbill,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 7, 1937; “Mayor Won’t Yield; Show Fails To Open,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1937; “Philadelphia Halts The Play ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 9, 1937; “Mrs. Favorite to Lose Job on Theatre Censor Board,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1937; “Censors Tie On ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 11, 1937; “The Call Boy’s Chat: Revues In This Land of the Free-for-All,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 15, 1936;   “The Call Boy’s Chat: Taking the Dare Out of Dubious Drama;” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 14, 1937;  “Indict Mayor of Philadelphia in Vice Inquiry,” Chicago Daily Tribune; September 10, 1938; John P. Rossi, “Philadelphia’s Forgotten Mayor: S. Davis Wilson, Pennsylvania History, Vol. 51, No. 2 (April,1984); Joseph McLaren, Langston Hughes, Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997).]

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part I)

Map dated October 7, 1920, showing the grounds of Pennsylvania General Hospital (known as "Blockley") and the adjacent burial grounds for the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Map dated October 7, 1920, showing the grounds of Pennsylvania General Hospital (known as “Blockley”) and the adjacent burial grounds for the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Gray, lanky, and serene-faced, Joe Sweeney is now 80 years old.  The former Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy grew up in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. His father was a prominent physician at Pennsylvania General Hospital, his mother a nurse.  His mother, born into a well-to-do North Carolina family, converted to her husband’s Roman Catholic faith, not just out of love, but out of a remarkable thing she saw during the 1918 flu epidemic.

“There were lines of people people on 34th Street trying to get into the hospital,” Joe said.  “The people who died at the hospital were buried across the street, where the Civic Center was.  The seminarians from St. Charles dug the graves.  Mom and Dad had horrible experiences, but she was inspired by what she saw.”

Young Joe came up through Philadelphia’s parochial school system, living in a big Victorian house at 38th and Spring Garden and attending St. Agatha’s Parish. Yet he never got the chance to row in high school: his father died when he was only ten years old.  Even though his father was a highly-paid physician, the Sweeneys did not have enough in savings to maintain their previous lifestyle.   “My mom put the older boys through parochial school,” he said, “but she couldn’t afford to keep everyone at home.”  To earn extra money, Joe would run errands for the local Pennsylvania Railroad employees.  During the 1940s, the PRR was in slow decline, but it was still one of the biggest employers in Philadelphia.  Thousands of brakeman, signalmen, locomotive engineers, and repairmen worked long and hard shifts at the Powelton yards adjacent to 30th Street Station, “In the afternoons, the clerks would give you an address to a train man to let him known when and where to report,” Joe remembered. “The PRR would give you a quarter to deliver the slip to the man at his home.”

3417 Baring Street, located one block south of Joe Sweeney's childhoold home, December 14, 1962.

3417 Baring Street, located one block south of Joe Sweeney’s childhoold home, December 14, 1962.

Running errands for the railroad also gave young Joe his first taste of alcohol.  As the dusk approached, he would stop by the houses on Brandywine Street, just north of Powelton Village, where the wives of the railroad workers were making dinner. “The mother would give you a metal pot, and you’d go to the nearest bar, where there would be a blackboard with the names of the guys.”

The bartender would fill up the pot with beer, and then give Joe a shotglass full of beer.

31st and Mantua avenue 4.20.55.ashx

“That was his pay to you,” Joe remembered.  “I remember being so small that I had to reach up to the bar to get that little shotglass full of beer.  It was the culture.  Teach you how to drink.”  Yet despite the heavy drinking, the clergy made sure that their flock would turn off the spigot in time for Sunday communion.   Monsignor Mellon of St. Agatha’s would stride into Deemer’s bar, fully dressed in his robes, and announce, “Alright men, It’s Sunday!”  And everyone would scatter and the bar would close.

When he turned 17, Joe left home and enlisted in the Navy.  He came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s and enrolled at Lasalle University. It was there that he discovered rowing, which would turn into a lifelong passion.  It was also on Boathouse Row that he discovered the so-called “Irish Mafia,” headed by the legendary Kelly clan.

To be continued…


Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.


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America’s Better Bet: The Wooden Washington

Statue of George Washington by William Rush. Photographed May 6, 1921 by Wenzel J. Hess. (

Statue of George Washington by William Rush. Photographed May 6, 1921 by Wenzel J. Hess. (

William Rush, ship figurehead carver extraordinaire, had done it again. His “bold and striking likeness of the President” on the 250-ton ‘General Washington’” gave “pleasure to every spectator” according to the Pennsylvania Journal. This time, Rush had notched his game up from a tomahawk-wielding “Indian Trader” with a real, life-size, sitting commander-in-chief. So practical, so promising—so distinctly American—here in the 1790s, was a reality show on the prow of a ship. It transformed the busy docks of Philadelphia and London into sculpture galleries.

As a practical patriot, Rush knew what would speak to the American spirit—and what wouldn’t. He deployed his talents in a modest and practical way, scaling to the moment, the American reality.

Giuseppe Ceracchi, on the other hand, that ambitious goldsmith from Rome, was neither aligned nor in synch with that reality.

Ceracchi “burst upon the American scene” in 1791, “fresh from the rabid republican turbulence of Revolutionary Paris, filled with a volcanic enthusiasm for Liberty and the Rights of Man…” Knowing Continental Congress had not yet commissioned the equestrian statue of the Founding Father approved in 1783, he presented Congress with a proposal for a giant, operatic design of extraordinary scale. Ceracchi described it in a letter to Congress and tacked his sketch of it on a wall at Oellers Hotel at 6th and Chestnut Streets.

Ceracchi’s baroque “Monument designed to perpetuate the Memory of American Liberty” would feature a larger-than-life-bronze Washington on his horse atop a rocky summit surrounded by allegorical groups “to be of the finest Italian Marble.” According to the artist’s description, “Liberty arrives on American soil in a chariot driven by Saturn” pulled by four winged horses. Poetry and History welcome her while Philosophy removes the blinding-veil from Policy. Meanwhile, Valor “faces down terror-stricken Despotism.” Each of the allegorical figures, which would include Apollo and Clio, Neptune and Mercury, Nature and Minerva, Genius and Fame, would stand fifteen feet tall. Ceracchi envisioned his entire pompous project at least sixty feet, possibly even one hundred feet tall.

Congress seemed star-struck enough to entertain the idea, no doubt helped by Ceracchi’s offer to take “no pecuniary Reward” willing to be “satisfied with the Glory, which his performance will receive from the Subject itself.” Ceracchi demonstrated his skill and intentions by sculpting a life-sized marble bust of the President as a Roman emperor (with appropriate ancient hair style and toga) and a he sculpted in terracotta a portion of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, which would watch over Congress as it deliberated. In the end, however, Congress chose not to fund the commission. (“At the present time it might not be expedient to go into the expenses which the Monument . . . would require, especially with the additional ornaments proposed by the artist.”) And so the Washington bust eventually found its way into the Metropolitan Museum and Minerva came to rest at the Library Company.

An equestrian Washington would take another fifty years in New York and Richmond, and more than another century in Philadelphia.

George Washington by William Rush, rear view. Photogrpahed April 8, 1929 by Wenzel J. Hess. (

George Washington by William Rush, rear view. Photographed April 8, 1929 by Wenzel J. Hess. (

Meanwhile, the modest, earnest Rush, sculptor of pine—never bronze or marble—moved up the creative ranks from ship carver to the “First American Sculptor.” And in 1815, two decades after the collapse of Ceracchi’s proposal, Rush produced “a dramatic and spirited interpretation of the first American president as a statesman.”

Writes Linda Bantell: “Washington wears the costume of the period over which is draped a ‘flowing Grecian mantle’” to use Rush’s own words. It “cascades over the edge of the pedestal. In his right hand, Washington holds an unfurling scroll while leaning on a book (a common symbol for wisdom), on top of a Doric column (for fortitude); his right foot is thrust forward, catching the edge of a second scroll as it too unfurls.”

Rush’s down to earth, full -standing, in-the-moment wooden Washington was everything Ceracchi’s was not. Nowhere was the heavy-duty allegorical narrative. Gone was the imported marble and the imperial posturing. Here stood the man, not in bronze, or in marble, or even in rare imported wood. This wooden, not-even-quite-life-size Washington was carved in plain American pine and placed in Independence Hall to greet the Marquis de Lafayette on his return visit to America in 1824. Lafayette claimed it revived in his memory Washington’s “majesty of countenance, the affability of his manner, and the dignity with which he addressed those about him.”

In 1831, Rush rejected an insultingly low offer of $500 from a potential private buyer. That would only reimburse Rush for his months of labor so many years before, he complained. But when the City of Philadelphia matched the offer, Rush accepted. And so the wooden Washington stood in Independence Hall for the next century and a half, as genuinely presidential a work of art as there might ever be in America.

And Rush’s reputation? It would forever hover somewhere between “inspired artisan” and “sculptural genius”—an appropriately American immortality.

[Sources include: Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1982); “Enclosure: Giuseppe Ceracchi to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 31 October 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives; To George Washington from Giuseppe Ceracchi, 31 October 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives; Wayne Craven , “The Origins of Sculpture in America: Philadelphia, 1785-1830,” The American Art Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Nov., 1977); Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, “Fragment of a Lost Monument,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 7 (Mar., 1948).]

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Misty Eyed for Market Shambles

2nd and Pine (

Head House Square, South 2nd Street – Pine to Lombard Streets. May 10, 1916 (

As early Philadelphia expanded, the city’s spine of market shambles kept up. “The market could…be conveniently extended in the same plan,” wrote an observer in 1809, almost giddy that Philadelphia might be able to maintain its century-old shopping traditions in the new century. But 19th-century growth would outpace everyone’s expectations, rendering the last remaining shambles a quaint, shabby, vestige.

The city mid-century “market mania” ushered in an era of grand market halls that modernized food buying with a collection of block-long, light-filled, state-of-the-art venues for hundreds of vendors and thousands of shoppers. Many Philadelphians liked these markets, as well as the bragging rights they offered, but others preferred to shop at the city’s vestigial vintage shambles.

“There were three phases in the logical development of a market,” explained the author of a 1913 study, “first, the curbstone market; second, the open shed; and third, and the modern enclosed market house. Strange as it may seem, Philadelphia’s municipal markets are in the second phase—namely open sheds. The North and South Second Street markets are all that remain to us of Philadelphia’s once well-developed market system.” The 18th-century design had been updated with “sheet iron roofs, cement floors and the systematizing of the numbering of the stalls.” Otherwise “they stand as they were built.” Just the way many Philadelphians, who were exceedingly proud of their old market shambles, and their old marketing ways, had always liked it.

“Few cities can boast of markets better supplied with the bounties of nature than Philadelphia,” claimed one mid-19th-century guidebook. “Let the reader, particularly if a stranger, take a tour of observation through them, especially on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and he will behold an exceedingly interesting and gratifying spectacle. He will find those buildings well supplied with all kinds of meat, poultry, game, fish, vegetables, fruit, &c., while the streets in the immediate vicinity are crowded in all directions with well-filled baskets.”

“These markets, distributed throughout the city, embrace altogether over forty entire squares, in addition to the range of wagon stands on Market Street and Second Street, which of themselves form a line equal in extent to three miles.”

Here’s where the shambles stood:

2nd Street Market - Butter and Egg Stall, June 14, 1935 (

2nd Street Market – Butter and Egg Stall, June 14, 1935 (

High Street Market. — Those long ranges of buildings that line this noble avenue, were not contemplated in the original plan of the city. Penn designed Centre Square for this purpose. The first of these houses was erected in 1710; it extended half way up from Second Street. In 1729, it was carried up to Third Street, where, for a long period, it was marked with the appendages of Pillory, Stocks, and Whipping Post. … Before the Revolution, the markets were extended to Fourth Street and eventually stretched all the way to Eighth Street. “In 1836, the old market-houses were torn down, and the present light and airy structures were erected.” At the easternmost end stood a fish market and a New Jersey Market with a domed head house flanked by cornucopia. West of Broad Street, the markets extended from two more blocks.

South Second Street Market extends from Pine to Cedar (South) Street.

North Second Street Market extends from Coates (Fairmount Avenue) to Poplar Street.

Callowhill Street Market is situated in Callowhill Street, between Fourth and Seventh Streets.

Shippen (Bainbridge) Street Market extends from Third to Fifth Street.

Maiden (Laurel) Street Market, Kensington, Maiden Street, between Broad and Manderson Streets.  This is Laurel and Frankford Ave at Delaware Avenue.

Spring Garden Market, Spring Garden Street. Extensive ranges of light and graceful market-houses line this elegant avenue, from Sixth to Twelfth Street.” The 1862 Philadelphia atlas shows another block of market sheds from 13th to Broad.

Girard Market, Girard Avenue, between Tenth and Lewis (Warnock) Streets.” The 1862 Atlas shows market sheds from Lawrence Street (between Fourth and Fifth) to Seventh and then also from Tenth to Twelfth.

Moyamensing Market, extends from Prime (Ellsworth) to Wharton Street.”

Franklin Market, Franklin (Girard) Avenue…consists of two ranges; one extending (a block east to) Hancock Street to the Germantown Road (now Avenue), the other from Crown (Crease) Street to the Frankford Road (Avenue).”

Eleventh Street Market, Moyamensing. Eleventh Street, extends from Shippen (Bainbridge) to Fitzwater Street.”  The 1862 atlas shows four blocks, from Bainbridge to Carpenter Streets.”

Head House Square, South 2nd Street - Pine to Lombard Streets. May 10, 1916 (

2nd Street, South to Lombard Street, May 10, 1916 (

By 1917, market watchers knew that more than 1,500,000 Philadelphians, living in hundreds of miles of new and old blocks of rowhouses made 25,000 market visits every day. More and more, these visits were shifting to a new market genre: the corner grocery store. Philadelphia had 5,266 retail grocery stores as well as 2,004 butchers and retail meat dealers and  257 delicatessens—approximately one store for every 54 families.

“If retail markets are to succeed,” worried Clyde Lyndon King in 1917, “they must change their locations as population centers shift. Public markets have evidently not adapted themselves to these changes as quickly as have private stores.”

And to further disrupt the old market system, buyers began to use their newly-acquired telephones as shopping aides, leading some market experts to believe “there can be no public market in the day of the telephone.”

“Can we, in this day of the telephone and the corner grocery store,” wrote Achsah Lippincott, “bring back the old custom of marketing?” Many Philadelphians still appreciated the idea, but more as wistful sentiment than serious possibility. “The corner grocery has come to stay,” admitted Lippincott. And so had the telephone. If the city’s remaining vintage market shambles were going to survive, they’d do so as quaint relics at the margins of the city’s increasingly massive food distribution system.

[Sources include: Some Account of the Markets of Philadelphia,” The Port Folio, (1809), pp. 508-511; Clyde Lyndon King, Public Markets in the United States (Philadelphia, The National Municipal League, 1917); Achsah Lippincott, Municipal Markets in Philadelphia (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science) Vols. 49-50, 1913; R. A. Smith, Philadelphia as it is in 1852, (Lindsay and Blakiston, 1852); E. M. Patterson, Co-operation among Grocers in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Dissertation, 1915.]

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The Food Market Bubble of 1859

Dock Street - Fish Market. April 28, 1914 (

Dock Street – Fish Market. April 28, 1914 (

“The completion of the market between the two rivers will probably take place in the present generation,” wrote an anonymous commentator in 1809, adding “a uniform, open arcade mathematically straight, two miles in length, perfect in its symmetry… will never be a contemptible object.”

But the coming generation of Philadelphians wouldn’t be so patient, or appreciative, of the vision for an urban village. While the anonymous writer worried some “pragmatical architect” might come along and “destroy this symmetry, by adopting new dimensions as to height or breadth, and taking a different curve for his arch,” the public had moved on, to the position of total demolition.

By the middle of the 19th-century, many Philadelphians had come to recognize that the city’s spine of market sheds was a vestige of a 1680s vision for a “country town” and little more than “a time-honored nuisance.” By 1850, the population would exceed 120,000 and a few years later the two-square mile city would consolidate to become one and the same with the 159-square mile county. By 1900, Philadelphia’s population would explode to nearly 1.3 million. That would demand sweeping transformation of how this sprawling, modernizing city would supply itself with victuals.  As historian Helen Tangires put it: squat, quaint, open-air markets had “no place in the emerging vision.”

That vision demanded an entirely new type of building: spacious market halls with soaring arched ceilings made possible by modern trusses accommodating hundreds of vendors and thousands of shoppers. These market halls would join the repertoire of large urban building types: city halls, schools, museums, libraries, theaters, factories, train sheds and depots. They’d play a distinct role, explains Tangires, in a 19th-century “moral economy” where government and private interests collaborated to support the community’s social, political and physical well-being. And Philadelphia, as it so happened, provided perfect conditions for this market movement to flourish.

Western Market, Market Street at 16th northeast corner, ca. 1859 ( Library of Philadelphia Print and Pictures Department)

Western Market, Northeast corner of 16th and Market Streets, ca. 1859 ( Library of Philadelphia Print and Pictures Department)

Four years after consolidation, “in the wake of the demolition” of Market Street’s old sheds, writes Tangires, 17 market companies were incorporated in the city, leading to a period of “unparalleled construction.” Each new corporation issuing stock meant another “unprecedented opportunity for speculation in food retailing,” another new hall with “the latest innovations in refrigeration, lighting, ventilation, and construction.”  Philadelphia’s “market house company mania” turned out an impressive collection of state-of-the art “market palaces.”

One by one, they opened with celebrations. At the northeast corner of 16th and Market Streets in April, 1859, architect John M. GriesWestern Market Company invited in the public and received praise for its arched roof and clerestory above a 170-by-150-foot interior with “280 stalls with Italian marble counter tops” divided by commodious aisles. At each end were galleries devoted to “the sale of flowers, seeds, and ice cream.” Iron-framed doors with “wicker inserts for air circulation lined the entire perimeter.”

Seven blocks away, an auction of 431 vendor stalls at the Eastern Market, a 300-by-100-foot-hall at 5th and Commerce Streets, brought higher prices than expected, spurring more confidence and investment citywide. When the Eastern Market opened in November, 1859, a company of top-hatted hosts served a feast in the center of the main floor.

Center City would have its share of new market houses and so would neighborhoods that only a few years before were beyond the city proper. The Fairmount Market Company, incorporated in March, 1859, raised $100,000 by selling two thousand shares at fifty dollars apiece.  Before long, they started building a 100-by 300-foot hall at the northwest corner of 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Pennsylvania Avenue, West from Hamilton Street and 21st, October 25, 1900 (

Pennsylvania Avenue at 22nd Street, October 25, 1900 (

Throughout the city, from Northern Liberties to Point Breeze, from West Philadelphia to Germantown, the city’s appetites launched a golden age of market construction. And that was only the first round. “The market house company mania that began in Philadelphia in 1859 continued unabated through the rest of the state particularly during 1870s and 1880s,” writes Tangires. “They grew up like mushrooms in every part of the city.” In North Philadelphia alone, market halls cropped up at 9th & Girard, 10th & Montgomery, Broad & Columbia (Cecil B. Moore), 17th & Venango, 18th & Ridge, and 20th & Oxford—to mention but a few of the 39 listed in a City Directory from 1901.

A glorious tradition. And an unsustainable one. “Too numerous and costly,” observed Thomas De Voe as early as 1862, citing “false confidence,” false starts and early failures due to “overcapitalized and highly speculative” market halls. The Franklin Market at 10th and Marble (now Ludlow) was soon re-purposed as the Mercantile Library. Neither the Eastern nor the Western Markets survived. Nor did the Fairmount Market. Not one of Philadelphia’s soaring halls survive. Gone are the Black Horse, the Union, the Fidelity, the Globe, the Red Star and the Red Lion. Could it be that the Green Hill Market at 17th and Poplar stands as the city’s last remaining hall of those chartered in 1859?

Ask anyone today about the city’s great food halls and they’ll point you to the Reading Terminal Market, a street-level emporium under the 1892 train shed at 12th and Filbert Streets. It stands where not one, but two of the grand, original market halls once stood, side by side, in the heady days of Philadelphia’s “market mania.”

Architecturally, it’s the result of a steep compromise. But it’s also a proud, lone survivor.

[Sources include: “Some Account of the Markets of Philadelphia,” The Port Folio, (1809), pp. 508-511; Helen Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and “Public Markets,” The Encyclopedia of Greater PhiladelphiaLaws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania, Passed at the Session of 1859 (Harrisburg, 1859); A Digest of Titles of Corporations Chartered by the Legislature of Pennsylvania, Between the Years 1700 and 1873 Inclusive (Philadelphia: J. Campbell & Son, 1874); Gospill’s Philadelphia City Directory for 1901 (Philadelphia: James Gospill’s Sons, 1901).]

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West Philadelphia’s Satterlee Hospital (Part II)

Continued from Part I: 

1869 map showing the Satterlee Hospital site divided into lots for future real estate development. Source: Wikipedia.

1869 map showing the Satterlee Hospital site divided into lots for future real estate development. Source: Wikipedia.

The hard work of Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes and the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity paid off when the fighting finally stopped in the spring of 1865 and the Union emerged victorious from the Civil War.  Out of the 60,000 patients who passed through Satterlee Hospital, only 260 died of battle wounds and disease.  Sadly, countless veterans who survived American hospitals fell victim to another affliction: opiod addiction.  Faced with limited pain treatment options, Victorian physicians freely injected their patients with morphine to alleviate pain.   Wrote one Union veteran who survived the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville:  “No tongue or pen will ever describe…the depths of horror in which my life was plunged at this time; the days of humiliation and anguish, nights of terror and agony, through which I dragged my wretched being.” According to Horace Day’s estimate in 1868, between 80,000 and 100,000 Americans (north and south) were in the deadly clutches of the poppy-derived morphine molecule.

The Home of the Merciful Savior of Crippled Children, May 25, 1951. 45th and Chester Avenue, on the site of the former Satterlee Hospital.

The Home of the Merciful Savior of Crippled Children, May 25, 1951. 45th and Chester Avenue, on the site of the former Satterlee Hospital.


“When bachelor dens cast over waking hours a loneliness so deep,” c. 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“When bachelor dens cast over waking hours a loneliness so deep,” c. 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After the war, crews came in and demolished all of the structures on the Satterlee grounds, and the land slowly reverted back to meadow.  Mill Creek continued to rush through the site, draining into a large pond that had once supplied fresh water to the patients.  A few large twin houses sprung up along Baltimore and Chester Avenues during the next two decades, but it wasn’t until the electric trolleys arrived on Baltimore Avenue in the 1890s that the area around Satterlee began to become more densely developed.  The caring religious presence didn’t desert the area after the nuns departed, however.  The Home of the Merciful Savior for Crippled Children, erected at 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue, was organized by a local Episcopal minster and his wife for “the care, support and maintenance of children crippled by disease, accident or in other way.”

To preserve open space in the increasingly crowded streetcar suburb, the Clark family purchased 9 acres of the former Satterlee site from the city for $103,000 and turned into a verdant neighborhood park.    Yet even with the buildings gone, the memory of Satterlee did not fade. In 1916, residents of the area purchased a large stone from the Devil’s Den part of the Gettysburg Battlefield and placed it on the northern edge of Clark Park as a permanent commemoration of the work of Dr. Hayes, his medical staff, and the Sisters of Charity.  Artifacts such as bullets and uniform buttons still occassionally turn up in the dirt.

As for Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, he did not rest on his laurels after his grueling Civil War work.  Rather, he returned to the frigid polar seas and continued his surveying and mapping work. In 1869, he made a third exploration voyage to the Arctic, cruising around Greenland aboard the brig Panther.  He wrote down his memories of this expedition in his book The Land of Desolation, and lectured frequently about his travels, but not so much about his Civil War record.   Like many men of his generation, he probably wanted to put all of the horrible things he had seen and heard behind him.  He moved to New York and served as a Republican in the New York State Assembly, and was an active member of the American Geographical Society of New York. He died in 1881, aged only 49. He never married.


Anon, Opium Eating: An Autobiographical Sketch by An Habituate (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1876), p.67.

Dillon J. Carroll, “Civil War Veterans and Opiate Addiction in the Gilded Age,” Journal of the Civil War Era, November 22, 2016.

“Friends of Clark Park.”, accessed January 26, 2017.

“Satterlee Artifacts Unearthed,”, accessed January 26, 2017.

Hayes, Isaac Israel, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume XI (1881-1890),, accessed January 26, 2017.

“History — The HMS School,”, accessed January 26, 2017.






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Is “Gentrification” Going the Way of “Slum”?


Second and Pine Streets, 1958 (PhillyHistory,.org)

When it comes to talking about urban change, words serve their purpose, until they are considered inadequate, wrong or just go out of style. “Slum” and “urban renewal” for instance. Usage of these terms peaked in the second half of the 1960s, but then faded. Could it be we’re beginning to see a similar downturn for “gentrification”?

Sociologist Ruth Glass“coined “gentrification” in 1964 . “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts,” she wrote of a downtrodden district in London, “it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Glass’s word focuses on the shifting “social character” of communities—poor neighborhoods becoming upscale destinations.

A year before Glass introduced the term, Nathaniel Burt wryly noted in Philadelphia Gentleman: “Remodeling old houses is…one of Old Philadelphia’s favorite indoor sports, and to be able to remodel and consciously serve the cause of civic revival all at once has done to the heads of the upper classes like champagne.” Burt understood “the Renaissance of Society Hill” was “just one piece of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle” with the potential “to transform the city completely.” But a one-word shorthand for that complex puzzle? Not for Burt.

City planner Edmund Bacon preferred “renewal” in his 1962 film, Form, Design and the City. But, according to Denise Scott Brown, Bacon put too much emphasis on retailing and on “a certain kind of ‘center city living’ as expressed by Society Hill … its coffee bars, tree lined streets, cobbled squares.” Such amenities appealed more to “sophisticated intellectuals and professionals” than to anyone else. Anyway, Scott Brown concluded, they are “only part of the story.”

But the cat was soon out of the bag. The popular press and the public came to love the idea of gentrification. In October 1977, the Inquirer introduced the word on page one: “Gentrification is an imposing word for a process familiar to all Philadelphians,” wrote Richard Ben Cramer, “especially to those who lived 20 years ago in Society Hill, or 10 years ago near the art museum or more recently and Queen Village…  A neighborhood close to Center City, filled with poorer residents, mostly renters, is suddenly “discovered” by middle-class people who rush in to buy and renovate the houses in the area. The run-down neighborhood suddenly becomes attractive. Higher-priced shops and restaurants open. The sidewalks, gardens, curbs, even the streets themselves are better tended. And the poor? Well, the poor go elsewhere.”


Society Hill – “Honeymoon Couple” near Second and Pine Streets, June 17, 1968. Office of the City Representative. (

In the year following Cramer’s story, “gentrification” appeared five times in the Inquirer and the Daily News. In 1979 and 1980 it was used 25 times. Between 1981 and 1990, “gentrification” had become a staple of urban discourse, appearing more than 500 times. Just “as Ruth Glass intended,” noted social scientists, gentrification “simply yet very powerfully” captured “class inequalities and injustices”—even if some preferred the term for the wrong reasons. It implied the existence of a privileged “gentry” bored by their suburban experiment, willing to return to the city for less foliage, but a richer quality of life. Popular opinion assumed gentrification would, in time, significantly transform the entire city.

The term gained credibility and legitimacy as an accepted shorthand for the cycle of disinvestment, decline, reinvestment and revival. Public and planners came to believe that gentrification’s cycles of disinvestment and reinvestment were desirable and sustainable—a viable model for urban change.

As evidence, advocates presented the soaring values of Society Hill real estate, which rose nearly 250 percent during the 1960s alone. Discussions quickly turned to “what would become the next Society Hill”? Queen Village? Fairmount? Northern Liberties? But those were only three neighborhoods in a city with scores more, most lacking proximity to Center City.

Critics saw gentrification as “pompous and irrelevant,” an “anti-vernacular” “Trojan horse for post-industrial sustainability.” Neil Smith’s close look at data on the newcomers to Society Hill in the 1960s revealed that the vast majority were not the suburban “gentry” being re-urbanized, but folks from other city neighborhoods. Only 14% came from suburbia. Smith concluded that “the so-called urban renaissance has been stimulated more by economic than cultural forces.” When it came to making a “decision to rehabilitate an inner city structure, one consumer preference tends to stand out above the others—the preference for profit.”

How had this flawed shorthand made its way into the heart of the urban lexicon? In “Walking Backwards to the Future,” researchers suggested that perhaps the original, heady promise of a dual upgrade in class and investment was the result of “too many glasses of chardonnay … shared between researcher and gentrifier.”

Today, more and more, studies discussing gentrification include commentary suggesting counter-intuitive, even contradictory findings suggesting that it is not the defining experience in Philadelphia, or most American cities. One recent Pew study found that only 15 of Philadelphia’s 372 residential census tracts gentrified from 2000 to 2014, and that these tracts tended to be contiguous with, or near, Center City. Meanwhile, “more than 10 times that many census tracts—164 in all—experienced statistically significant drops in median household income” during the same years.

In other words, after more than half a century, “gentrification” may finally be fading as the reliable, accurate and useful description for urban change. Instead, we should be examining the more complicated “broad array of influences” and those, for the time being, are averse to shorthand.

[Sources include: Denise Scott Brown, Review of Form, Design, and the City, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 28:4, 1962; Richard Ben Cramer, “Back to the City, London Style,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1977; Susan Mayhew, A Dictionary of Geography, (Oxford University Press; 5th ed.2015); Dylan Gottlieb, “Gentrification,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, (Rutgers, 2014); Neil Smith, “Gentrification,” The Encyclopedia of Housing (Willem van Vliet ed., 1998); Neil Smith, “Toward a Theory of Gentrification: A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People,” in The Gentrification Debates: A Reader (Routledge, 2013); Tim Butler and Chris Hamnett, “Walking Backwards to the Future—Waking Up to Class and Gentrification in London,” Urban Policy And Research, 27:3, 2009; Philadelphia’s Changing Neighborhoods—Gentrification and other shifts since 2000 (PEW Report, May 2016).]

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No Coal; No Peace – The Story of Philadelphia’s 1918 Coal Famine

Northeast Corner of 10th Street and Washington Avenue, September 15, 1914 (

Northeast Corner of 10th Street and Washington Avenue, September 15, 1914 (

Every day in the depths of winter, coal cars trundled down Washington Avenue supplying the city’s lifeblood. You wouldn’t know it looking at the trackless six lanes of blacktop today, but locomotives once hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of anthracite to at least thirty coal yards between 2nd and 25th Streets.

Coal powered nearly every factory and heated nearly every shop, school, theater and home—a quarter of a million of them. On extremely cold days, a  large school, just one of the city’s 231, would consume as much as 10 tons. The University of Pennsylvania needed 150 tons to stay open. In all, the city could burn as much as 19,000 tons. Every day.

And on the first frigid week of January 1918, it all ground to a halt.

The temperature dropped below zero during the final days of December 1917 and would remain in the single digits for more than a week. The flow of coal from upstate stopped, and soon so would the city itself. Frigid, coal-less Philadelphians turned to the dealers of Washington Avenue, but their stockpiles were quickly exhausted. William Bryant at 10th Street had been promised a shipment of 50 tons, but by the time the coal cars arrived, four-fifths of the contents were gone. The coal famine of January 1918 had turned citizens into coal hoarders and coal thieves. And as mobs they would decimate the coal supply of Washington Avenue.

South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street, March 16, 1915 (

South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street, March 16, 1915 (

City officials estimated as much as “half the population was without coal.” Mayor Thomas Smith urged “public recreation centers, school buildings, churches, theaters, moving picture houses and hospitals be thrown open to receive suffers and keep them warm.” As schools and factories began to close down, he appealed to “good Samaritans to take cold neighbors in.”

Philadelphia’s coal famine threatened “social and economic catastrophe.” On January 2, 1918, the coal-less poor, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants, took the matter into their own hands.

“Driven to desperation after burning fence rails, old furniture and every bit of available fuel, the poor began a series of raids on coal cars on Washington avenue” reported The Philadelphia Tribune. “Men, women and children with buckets, bags, push carts, baskets, toy express wagons and even baby buggies, worked like beavers in and among the switching crews carrying the precious fuel to their homes. There were at least 2,000 persons in these crowds and the police and railroad crews did not interfere, as the people were freezing and desperate… Women and children, for days, had stood shivering at the yards weeping and begging for coal.”

“We’re almost starving, my babies and me,” a widow sobbed to an Inquirer reporter. “It’s all right to almost starve. We’re pretty near used to that, but we can’t freeze. I could, but my babies can’t.”

“You must help us!” shouted cold and hungry women and children to the police called in to stop them. “The officers shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs” on the crowd and the coal cars. The mob took that as encouragement. Children quickly “crawled over the heads of the police…on the coal cars.”

Samuel Young, Coal. 17th Street and Washington Avenue, February 17, 1917. (

Samuel Young, Coal. 17th Street and Washington Avenue, February 7, 1917. (

“In a second…  a black shower descended upon the ground near the cars. As fast as the bits of coal struck the ground they were picked up and stored carefully away in a bag or a bucket or an apron.”

“What can we do?” asked one of the policemen,. “The poor devils are hungry and cold. …When a woman, lugging a baby to her breast, pushes me aside… why, I am not going to be the one to stop her.”

“I’ve seen more real misery in the last few days down here around these coal cars than I ever saw in all my police experience,” he added.

More than 150 tons of anthracite would be liberated on Washington Avenue’s coal-yard corridor that first week of 1918. According to the Inquirer, “most of the coal stolen was consigned to the J. W. Matthews Coal Company, Tenth street and Washington avenue;  William A. Bryant, of Tenth street and Washington avenue, and S. Margolis, of 815 Washington avenue.” At 12th and Washington, men and boys emptied a coal car.

And while the police turned the other way, the railroad did not. “In the midst of the raid on one of the cars came the chugging of a freight engine. No one paid the slightest attention. The engine was hastily coupled to the car. It drew away. Not one of the coal-seekers jumped. They still continued to toss out bucket after bucket of coal.”

On the ground, “those…left behind followed the slow-moving engine and car, picking up fuel as it was thrown to them. This was only one of several raids by persons driven frantic by the want of fuel, …who, armed with buckets, bags, wheelbarrows and pushcarts, defied the police and railroad guards and mobbed trains of coal when they arrived along Washington Avenue.”

South Philly’s “coal-hunters were undaunted.”

[Sources: “Coal Lack Closes 43 Public Schools; Blame Cold Alone …Severe Weather Conditions Halt Coal Train On Way Here,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1918; “Suffering Crowds Storm Coal Yards; Railroads Helpless,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 4, 1918; “Coal Famine Grips Our City—Much Suffering,” The Philadelphia  Tribune, January 5, 1918;  R.R. Stockholders…Ask Refuge for 100,000 Suffering From Cold Here,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1918;  Men, Women and Children Empty Cars of Fuel Despite Efforts of Policemen and Guards,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 6, 1918.]

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Life Finds a Way On The Locust Strip

East on Locust Street from 13th Street, October 30, 1959. (

Bon Bon Club (formerly The Top Hat Cafe), looking East on Locust Street from 13th, October 30, 1959. (

The Top Hat Cafe opened at 1235 Locust in the early 50s, and almost immediately slid off the rails.

Outside the bar, on March 1, 1952, Nicholas Virgilio “was slapping around a 16-year old girl…when a sailor grabbed his hand to stop him.” Virgilio, 23, known as “Lothario of the taprooms” a/k/a “Nicky the Blade” “swung around, grabbed a switchblade from his pocket and plunged it into Glenn Long, 19, a sailor at the Navy Yard.” It would be the first of several murders by Virgilio, the most notorious of which would be the 1978 bar room execution of an ex-judge in Atlantic City.

The new captain of the police station at 12th and Pine, Frank L. Rizzo, knew a bad thing when he saw it. Rizzo chose the Top Hat for his very first raid.

The mayor-to-be showed up at the stationhouse at 3:30A.M. on Friday, May 30. He and three other officers walked two blocks north to The Top Hat Café. “Within minutes, Rizzo and his team had arrested the bartender, two waitresses, the owner, nine patrons” one of whom scuffled with Rizzo, ripping the captain’s new suit.

For Rizzo, that raid would be the first of hundreds targeting the Locust Strip.

Le Bon Bon Club replaced the Top Hat in the mid ’50s, with new neon, but otherwise the story was the same: strippers mixing with patrons, after hours service, under aged drinking, B-girls solicitation of drinks and other nefarious services. The naked city, literally and figuratively in all its gritty glory.

A decade later, Rizzo testified in Washington before the Senate Rackets Subcommittee about Philadelphia’s “‘exotic’dancers-turned-B-girls” of the Locust Strip. “These obscene and indecent shows will simply not be tolerated,” he told the Press. “They must clean up and run respectable places of business or get out…This is the beginning. We’re going to keep after them until they clean up.”

And Rizzo’s sustained campaign seemed to make a difference—for a while, anyway. “For the time being, the personality of Locust St. is being suppressed.,” wrote  Joseph Daughen in The Bulletin. “The awesome image of Rizzo’s Raiders has apparently thrown fear into the hearts of the stripperie operators, and the come hither hostesses are now thither.”

Le Bon Bon Club, 1235 Locust Street, October 6, 1955 (

Le Bon Bon Club, 1235 Locust Street, October 6, 1955 (

Cork Club, Continuous All-Girl Revue, Ber-Mar and Hotel, 1212-1215 Locust Street (

Cork Club, Continuous All-Girl Revue, Ber-Mar and Hotel, 1212-1215 Locust Street (

But as Jeff Goldblum (playing Dr. Ian Malcolm, a chaos theory expert in Jurassic Park) put itLife, uh… finds a way.”

Nine years later, the Locust Strip was “a collage of schlock on a one night stand,” wrote Fred Hamilton in The Bulletin. “The present Locust st. bust-out joint” lies “somewhere between the cult of the 33 RPM record and the era of Day-Glo paint. … “It has all the glamour of post nasal drip.”

“The Strip is not blaring music and flashing neon,” he wrote. “It is a handful of broken-down joints… It is busty girls and scratchy records played full volume and all the flat black painted walls you’ll ever want to see. The strip is a cliché…”

A year later, Sandy Grady noted yet another crackdown on “B-girls.” “Last week District Attorney Arlen Specter buried The Strip under a ton of padlocks.” Nine bars in all, were closed, including the Bag of Nails 1231 Locust, The HMS Pinafore, 1233 Locust and The Revolution, 1219 Locust.

“The Strip looks like the inside of Grant’s tomb,” wrote Grady.

He found an enraged cabbie: “Look mac, if you’re from out of town hunting action forget! Locust Street is dead. Go over to Jersey. Listen Mac, this is the fourth biggest town in the country and it’s a graveyard,” the cabbie fumed. “The do-gooders killed this town.”

“It’s just dirty” complained “a girl in a see-through blouse” to Bulletin reporter L. Stuart Ditzen, “Every city has its strip.”

“Yeah agreed a timid looking man in a brown suit who said he was a patron of the padlock bars. ‘Every city has its strip.’”

The Why Not Lounge at 1305 claimed to be the final holdout. In May 1974, the Why Not went away, too. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board had ended an era. Or so they thought.

Three years later, The Bulletin’s D. I. Strunk went in search of the Locust Strip and found it alive, if not very well. He visited the PGA Bunny Club, Salsa, Footlights Lounge and Bag of Nails. He encountered “girls… dressed in pasties and tiny bikinis.” He saw them “dance and gyrate against mirrors…so smeared that a ton of Windex couldn’t clean them.”

Strunk saw the “potpourri of racial and social and economic classes who come to drink and look…men with knit caps, sailors, businessman, customers, clerks, lawyers” all coming “to sit and drink and watch together under the same roof.”

“I come down here to think and forget about other things,” said one regular, lawyer named Tom.

“Everybody has their eyes on somebody else’s fancy,” philosophized another, Jerome, standing in the shadows outside All in the Family Lounge.

Life finds a way.

[Sources: “Two Girls, 16, Testify They Got Liquor in Cafe,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1952; “Fiery Hearing Climaxes Raid on Cafe by Rizzo,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 1952; “Rizzo Vows Midcity Cleanup, Nabs 13 in Raids on 3 Clubs,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 25, 1961; “Center-City Booze Bistros Have Lost Their A-Peal,” by Joseph Daughen The Bulletin, June 14, 1962 ; “Locust Street Strip—a Collage of Schlock and Lots of Hard Sell,” by Fred Hamilton, The Bulletin, August 13, 1971; “Dancers and Barmaids Are Glum as 9 ‘Strip’ Bars Close,” by L. Stuart Ditzen, The Bulletin, June 10, 1972 ; “That Crackdown on B-Girls Ends All Our Worries,” by Sandy Grady, The Bulletin, June 13, 1972; “Era is Ending as Bars Close on Locust St.,” by Joseph D. McCaffrey, The Bulletin, May 15, 1974; “They Try to Keep Locust Lushland Sedately Sinful,” by D. I. Strunk, The Bulletin, October 16, 1977; S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (Camino Books, 1993); “‘The Blade’ is Cut Down: Killer Nicholas Virgilio dies in Prison,” by Kitty Caparella, The Philadelphia Daily News, March 18, 1995.]

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Philadelphia and the American Infatuation with Tear Gas

Policeman Guy Parsons and Other Officer with Gas Masks, [1922] (

Policeman Guy Parsons and Other Officer with Gas Masks, [1923] (

“I rob banks,” Willie Sutton famously quipped, “because that’s where the money is.” Sutton didn’t realize that’s also where the tear gas was.

Disguised as postal messengers early one morning in February 1933, Sutton and a partner in crime gained entrance to the Corn Exchange National Bank & Trust at 60th and Ludlow Streets. They tied a guard to a chair, but the guard freed himself, managed to release tear gas—and foiled the robbery.

Tear gas had become an accepted law enforcement tool—one of the more successful technology transfers from the battlefields of World War I to urban America. Months before the Treaty of Versailles, military leaders were gung ho to demonstrate the potential of tear gas in places like Philadelphia.  “More effective than clubs, and less dangerous than bullets,” they boasted.

Brass in Army Chemical Warfare Service promised that tear gas had positive “psychological impacts.” It could offer police “the ability to demoralize and disperse a crowd without firing live ammunition.” Tear gas, according to recent history in The Atlantic “could evaporate from the scene without leaving traces of blood or bruises, making it appear better for police-public relations than crowd control through physical force.”

Getting taxpayers to pay for the deployment of gas-filled bombs on their hometown streets would be a hard sell. After all, as early as 1899, the Hague Conventions prohibited “projectiles filled with poison gas.” And then there was the recent horror of poison gas on the battlefields of France. But military chemists claimed they had reconstituted formulas, making them tame enough for use in peacetime America. At least that’s what Major Stephen Delanoy, fresh back from France “where he had been for more than a year perfecting various gases for the government” promised.

Gas Squad, June 5, 1923 (

Gas Squad, June 5, 1923 (

To demonstrate “how efficacious gas could be” Delanoy came to Philadelphia where he had a friend in Philadelphia police Superintendent William B. Mills. Together, they choreographed a high-profile experiment where 200 “volunteers” from the Philadelphia police force would be gassed at the city’s Model Farm near Fort Mifflin in South Philadelphia.

On July 19, 1921, according to The New York Times, “Police Supt. Mills took a battalion of his huskiest men into a roped-off enclosure with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs. Three times they charged but each time we’re driven back weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.”

“Before they entered the mimic battle,” Delanoy “assured the men that the substance was ‘absolutely not dangerous.’ It is merely a tear-producing, choking, nauseating gas,” he said. “But be careful you don’t swallow too much.” Philadelphia’s guinea pigs apparently swallowed just the right amount. The “sham attack” sold them on the stuff.

“The effectiveness of teargas as a mop dispeller received the emphatic endorsement of 200 stalwart Philadelphia policemen today,” reported the Times. “Police officials said the test had undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work. Not only is it immediately effective in disbursing a mob, but it might be used to drive a fugitive from a barricaded building.” They imagined how a “container… placed in a bank vault…would also thwart burglaries…”

“Bullets as mob-quellers now belong to the Dark Ages” declared The Literary Digest. Police would get “gutta-percha hand-grenades containing chemical gas” and their victims would choke and copious tears would flow. “One of these bombs or grenades is equal to a hundred police clubs in a riot,” declared the officer in charge, after the Philadelphia test.”

“This method of dealing with offenders against the peace has many obvious advantages,” stated The Inquirer. “It is humane, for one thing. Riding down or shooting into a mob may cause needless injuries or deaths, sometimes of innocent bystanders.”

Within a few months, City Council approved a $2,500 appropriation to supply equipment for a new fifty-man, “gas battalion” with the Philadelphia police. Amos Fries, chief of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, who had been working “to redeploy the technology for everyday uses” provided “chemicals, material and equipment free of cost to the city.” Philadelphia taxpayers only needed to purchase “masks and other paraphernalia for local use.” Within a few years, police departments from New York to San Francisco were stocking up on tear-gas supplies.

Philadelphia police, anxious to make good on their investment, considered ways to put tear gas to work fighting a spate of unsolved robberies. Officials ordered their “bandit-chasing squad” to carry “tear bombs along with sawed-off shotguns…to end the robbers’ activities.” They didn’t have long to wait for the opportunity.

The opportunity came on October 7, 1922, when police learned of the “ransacking” at the “dressmaking establishment” of R.A. and J. A. Brown, 1530 Sansom Street. One officer fired two rounds at the suspects, and missed. They had hidden behind packing cases. No problem. Police “hurled a tear bomb against the wall directly above” their hiding spot. For the first time in an American city, plumes of tear gas filled the air. One suspect crashed through a window and escaped into a side alley.

Police captured the other suspect. According to The Inquirer: “When the air cleared sufficiently, the policemen entered the room and found George Rex, colored, twenty years old, of 18th and Lombard streets, in a stupefied condition, temporarily blinded.”

Trench warfare had come home.

[Sources: Willie Sutton’s Robberies. (PDF); Tear Gas For Mobs, U. S. Colonel’s Plan, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 1919; “New gas with K. O. Wallop May Help Police In Battles,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 19, 1921; “200 Philadelphia Policeman Weep in Flight From Tear Gas in Sham Attack,” The New York Times, July 20, 1921; “Knockout Gas for Mobs,” The Literary Digest (Funk & Wagnalls), Vol. 70, August 20, 1921; “City Police to use Gas Bombs Shortly,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1921; “Gas Bombs Prove Nemesis to Bandits,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1922 and Anna Feigenbaum, “100 Years of Tear Gas: a Chemical Weapon Drifts off the Battlefield and into the Streets,” The Atlantic, August 16, 2014.]

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