Monthly Archives: April 2011

Friday’s Find – Historic Philadelphia, PA Maps

I was recently trying to geographically analyze census data from the mid to late 1800s. More specifically, I was looking at various families of the same surname who were living in the city of Philadelphia. I was trying to get a feel for the proximity of the various neighborhoods in which they lived and potentially a better feel for their relative socio-economic status. The problem was that I was unfamiliar with the neighborhoods and their locations within the city.

I was finally able to find an incredible mapping site that is almost too good to be true! The site is  The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. On the site is an Interactive Maps Viewer tool. It contains various historic maps of Philadelphia and is designed such that they can be overlaid with a semi-transparent current Philadelphia streets map!

The map viewer works much like any graphics software that supports layers. In this case each layer is one of the maps. You are able to toggle the visibility of each layer/map independently as well as adjust it’s transparency with a slider control. You can also drag the various layers/maps up or down the stack.

The maps are very high-resolution, so you can zoom in close and see the details. In fact, the only drawback could be the load time if you have a slow internet connection. If you’re looking for historic Philadelphia maps, this is definitely a resource worth checking out.

Thriller Thursday – Disaster on the Rails

Here’s another one for the Thriller Thursday series at Geneabloggers.

It was a cold, dark Friday evening in January. Snow blanketed the ground. The Atlantic Express train had departed Albany about 2:40 in the afternoon and was en route to New York City. The train was packed with passengers including quite a few politicians and prominent businessmen. Extra parlor-style passenger cars, as well as a second engine, had been added to the train to accommodate the all the travelers. The train was nearing the end of the 150-mile trip when an overheated axle forced it to stop. By now it was after 7 o’clock and the train was near the Spuyten Duyvil Junction.

Spuyten Duyvil. It was an area in the Southern Bronx named for the adjacent Spuyten Duyvil Creek – a body of water separating the Bronx from Manhattan. It is a Dutch phrase meaning Devil’s Whirlpool and is descriptive of the turbulence of the creek, particularly during high tide. And so to those of us predisposed to superstition, what could be more prophetic than to have disaster strike on the evening of Friday the Thirteenth near the Devil’s Whirpool?

The year was 1882, and the passengers, though inconvenienced by the unexpected stop, were keeping warm and comfortable with the stoves and lamps in the parlor cars. When it first became necessary to stop the train to let the overheated axle cool, the brakeman was supposed to walk back the track far enough so that he could use lanterns to signal any approaching train in enough time for it to stop. And in fact, this very night, just 13 minutes or so behind the Atlantic Express was the Tarrytown Special. It was pulling only three passenger cars and reportedly moving at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.

Now this particular section of the train track was said to mirror the curvature of the creek. It was described as curving like the letter S, with very few areas of straight line track. As it happened, the brakeman for the Atlantic Express walked back several lengths along the track with his latern. He was positioned near a curve in the track. Unfortunately, the Tarrytown Special conductor never saw the brakeman’s signal until he rounded the curve. At that point, he not only saw the signal lantern, but also the glowing lights of the Idlewild, the last car of the Atlantic Express.

The Tarrytown conductor may have signaled for the brakes to be applied, but the train had not slowly significantly before barreling into the Idlewild and ramming it into the next to the last car, the Empire. Both the Idlewild and the Empire were what was known as parlor-style palace cars. They were luxury cars that would have had individual chairs rather than bench seating. There was thought to be about 10 to 12 people in the Idlewild and as many as 18 or 19  in the Empire. However, since the train had stopped, some of the travelers had been wandering through the train. Upon impact, people in both the Idlewild and the Empire were thrown to the floor. The chairs, lanterns and stoves were toppled over. Some people were pinned under the debris. Fires were started when the stoves and lanterns were knocked over igniting the woodwork and upholstry. The Idlewild suffered the severest damage, followed closely by the Empire.

According to eye witness reports, most of the passengers probably survived the initial impact. Unfortunately, those in the Idlewild were pinned by debris and unable to escape the burning car on their own. Their cries and moans could be heard, but rescue efforts were hindered by the lack of axes to break through the crushed train cars and the debris. Also, there was little or no water readily available to douse the flames. In the absence of water, some would be rescuers threw snow on the fire. Most of those in Idlewild either burned to death or were overcome by the smoke before they could be freed.

Initial reports were that nine people, possibly more, died. Amazingly, after all the dust settled and some heretofore unaccounted for people were located, the number was revised to seven dead and several dozen injured. Those who were killed were NY State Senator Webster Wagner; Oliver B. Keeley, a stove manufacturer from Spring City Pennsylvania; newly married Parker Valentine, aged 22 and his bride, 19 year-old Louise Gaylord; Rev. Father Marechal; Mrs. Maud Brown; and Mr. D. L. Ransom. Only one passenger on the ill-fated Idlewild car survived, that being Miss Mary E. Daniels. She was badly burned, but apparently recovered from her injuries. Mr. Valentine Sr., the father of the groom who perished, was also on the train. He had happened to step out onto the back platform of the Idlewild just as the Tarrytown Express was bearing down on it. He managed to jump off the platform and escape to safety in the nick of time.

The story of the train wreck at Spuyten Duyvil, New York was reported throughout the nation. While the coroner’s inquest found fault with nearly all the personnel of both trains as well as the railroad officials for failing to put forth proper procedures to ensure the safety of passengers, the ultimate blame seemed to rest on the brakeman of the Atlantic Express. He was put on trial for manslaughter that November. Surprisingly, he was found not guilty.

My connection to this tragic story is Oliver B. Keeley. He was the son of Joseph Keeley and Anna Markle and he was my 3rd cousin, 4 times removed. He was only 36 years old when he died. He left a wife, Mary (nee Stauffer) and a young daughter named Clara.

Wordless Wednesday – Photo of Mamie Sassaman Dilliplane

Mamie Sassaman Dilliplane portrait on 4x6 layoutCredits: Portrait of Mamie Sassaman Dilliplane, layout created for Geneabloggers Wordless Wednesday series

Friday’s Find – UK and Canadian Marriage Records – Free at Ancestry this Week

Are you taking advantage of the free access to UK and Canadian marriage records this week? In celebration/recognition of the upcoming royal wedding, Ancestry is running a promotion from now until April 30, 2011. When I logged on to their site earlier today there was a big advertisement box with the details. All I needed to do was click on it and start searching.

Now I don’t actually have any Canadian ancestors, and my Welsh ancestors emigrated in the very early 1700s. But I am never one to pass up a good deal. (And, really, what could be a better deal than free?!) So I tried to think of how I could make the most of their generosity. As a result I’ve been collecting the marriage records for a group of Bechtel cousins that immigrated to Canada. And after that, I need to check on some in-laws of my great-grandmother. They were from England.

There’s no way I could justify the expense of an Ancestry World Membership just to gather records on people with such tangential connections to me. But since I’m a bit of a genealogy junkie and  the opportunity presented itself, I’m going to try to make the most of the situation. Thanks Ancestry!

Thriller Thursday – The Death of Allen Bechtel

An ongoing series at is Thriller Thursdays. The intent is to post about “murders, bizarre accidents, or other thrilling stories.” I decided to write about the life and death of Allen Bechtel, whose sensational suicide captured the attention of Reading, PA and vicinity for at least a few days in late 1876. So here’s the story – enjoy!

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post on Google Books and the Google News Archive. Well, one of the things I was able to find in the Google News Archive was a rather lengthy article on the life and death of Allen Bechtel. It appeared in the Reading Eagle (Reading, PA) on October 31, 1876. Based on the information contained in that article and combined with additional research, I put together a this little biography on Allen.

Allen Bechtel was a well-known pawn broker who lived in Reading, Pennsylvania. His parents were not mentioned in the article, but I believe that he was the son of Jacob Bechtel, grandson of George Bechtel and Hannah Yocum and great-grandson of the immigrant Johan George Bechtel and wife Anna Mary Klingman.

Allen was born on October 20, 1811 in Berks County, Pennsylvania. As a young man he was employed at a store in Moselem and later became the proprietor. In 1833 he married Harriet DeYoung with whom he had at least one daughter. Presumably Harriet died and in 1836 he married Mary Dunn. The two known children from that marriage were John Oliver (b. 1837) and Albert D. (b. 1839). Mary also presumably died sometime prior to 1850. In that census, Allen and his sons were residing in Alsace, Berks County, Pennsylvania with Allen’s brother Francis and his family.

In 1851 Allen wed his third wife, Barbara Ann Foreman/Fuhrman. She was over twenty years his junior. Together they had at least four children: Anson F., Allen F., Laura and Ambrose F. Bechtel. In the mid to late 1850s the family moved to Reading, PA. Allen became the owner/operator of a pawn brokerage in downtown Reading at 7th and Penn Streets. The business was apparently quite profitable and Allen became widely known not just in Reading but throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.

Allen continued, however, to have bad luck in the wife department with Barbara presumably dying in the early 1860s. Thus, in 1863, at the age of 52, Allen married 18-year-old Kate M. Reber. She was his fourth and final wife and no children were born of this last marriage.

As he aged Allen experienced health problems. He suffered from diabetes as well as Bright’s disease. Bright’s Disease is an anachronistic term for kidney disease, named for the English physician Richard Bright who first described the symptoms in 1827. It’s symptoms can include severe pain, edema (swelling), difficulty breathing, fever and vomiting. It was said in the newspaper article that the Bright’s disease “was wearing away his life.” It also stated that he was using small doses of morphia to combat the pain. He was trying to discontinue the use of the morphia, but stopping the drug was having adverse effects on his health.  The situation was leaving him “morose and melancholy.”

Due to his health problems he had been unable to actively attend to his business for several months. This too contributed to his depressed state of mind. And so, shortly after 7 o’clock on the morning of October 31, 1876, after spending an enjoyable evening with his family the previous day, Allen woke up, sat up in bed, and ended his life by shooting himself in the head. His wife, who was in another part of the house, rushed up the stairs to find her husband lying on the bed on his side in a pool of blood. A physician was summoned, but it was concluded that he died almost instantly. The pistol, which he had earlier brought home from the pawn shop, was found lying on the bed with one chamber discharged.

The pistol was a six-shooter revolver about six inches in length. The bullets were of a large caliber, the bullet chambers being about a half an inch in diameter. After exiting the body, the ball went through the curtain and the glass window pane. Later that day the slug was found across the street from the Bechtel residence.

A jury was immediately empaneled. After interviewing several family members and associates, it was determined that Allen died from his own hand while “laboring under a temporary aberration of the mind, brought about by sickness and disease.”  In other words, he was in poor health and suffering from depression. He was 65 years old and was survived by his fourth wife. He had eight children of which the youngest two (Laura and Ambrose) were residing with him.

I should note here that Allen is not my ancestor, but (assuming that I have him linked to the correct parents) he is my first cousin 5X’s removed. I would welcome hearing from other researchers who may have additional information.  I also have some limited information on his descendants which I would be willing to share.