Life And Events From 1892 In Pennsauken – Part II
The creation of Pensauken Township in 1892 was only one way the world was changing in that era.
Looking back on 1892, on the doorstep of the 20th Century, we can see change happening; and from our standpoint a century and a quarter later, we can even see its approach in events that would have been little noticed by the citizens of that era.
1892 was the year that the great immigration station at Ellis Island began its business of renewing the American dream. Also, it was the year when a black man named Homer Plessy was arrested for attempting to ride a whites-only train car in Louisiana, leading to a Supreme Court case that sanctified the racist doctrine of “separate but equal” for decades to come.
1892 was the year that the western outlaw gang of the Dalton brothers was annihilated in a bloody shootout in Coffeyville, Kansas. It was also the year that someone used a hatchet to murder Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Was it Andrew’s daughter Lizzie?
For the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America, this was the year that school children in the United States were first led in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance—without the words “under God.”
Future Pennsauken mayor George Braunwarth was born less than two weeks after the creation of the township. He would preside over the community during the extraordinary changes that came with the Delaware River Bridge and Crescent Boulevard in the late 1920s. Also born in 1892, Neil Deighan would make the most of those same developments by opening major local restaurants and nightclubs along those arteries, including “Neil Deighan’s” at Central Airport and the “Old Mill Inn” near the Burlington County line.
A much older Pensauken tavern, not far from the site of the future “Old Mill Inn,” experienced a year of change in 1892. The Sorrell Horse Hotel changed management twice during the year, first when manager Charles Starn retired, to be replaced by the German-born proprietor Joseph Schmidt; and again when Schmidt fell ill and died later in the year. Schmidt’s widow succeeded him, and she proved quite capable.
In the nearby Pennsville section, a friendly wager over that year’s election appeared to oblige Abel Miller to transport Alfred Dover (of today’s Burrough-Dover House) from the schoolhouse to the post office in Parry, a section of Palmyra, by wheelbarrow. The 57 year-old Dover, however, declined his triumphal procession on the grounds of health.
In Pensauken village, leading citizen Job Pidgeon operated a corner store that provided groceries and goods to the community from its location at Park and Union avenues. A conscientious merchant who was expanding his inventory to better serve his neighbors, Pidgeon was also a member of a local farm family, the local postmaster, and a home builder. Pensauken village also boasted its own railroad station, public street lighting, and the Pensauken School.
The comparatively new Methodist Church in Pensauken had quickly become a center for the community, not only in spiritual matters, but cultural and civic ones as well. In October 1892, Reverend Jewett delivered a special sermon commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus.
Not far from Pensauken village, Jordantown was a well-established African-American community with its own “colored school.” In 1892, it was reported that a camp-meeting in Jordantown was drawing large crowds from nearby Merchantville. The crowds probably came from the other substantial African-American community of the new Pensauken Township, Homesteadville. Often still referred to by its nickname of “Matchtown,” the neighborhood had not been the site of a working match factory for many years by 1892.
However, in 1892 “Matchtown” attained probably greater notoriety than any other part of the township for some time to come, as a site involved in a series of sensational criminal trials. In 1890, the body of young local farm wife Annie Miller was found in a “bushlot” in Homesteadville, apparently murdered and ravished. Suspicions fell on the Millers’ farm worker, Francis Lingo. Lingo, born a slave in Maryland and now a farm laborer living in Homesteadville, had a significant criminal record and was already a controversial figure in the community. In 1889, Lingo had worked for another farm family in the area when the wife, Annie Leconey, was found murdered. Lingo was at first a suspect and then a witness in the unsuccessful prosecution of the uncle of the victim in 1890. Many suspicions and resentments lingered from that episode.
In 1891, Lingo was tried and convicted of the Annie Miller murder and was expected to hang. However, the Lingo defense team, prominently including a former judge who had previously convicted Lingo on a theft charge, proved both tenacious and resourceful. On appeal, Lingo was granted a retrial, which took place in late 1892.
Coverage of the Lingo retrial was lurid and fraught with outrage. Newspapers and tabloids across the nation covered the proceedings and viciously racist imagery bolstered the sentiment for blood justice. The defense had other ideas, however. They presented the court in Camden with a case built on cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and a carefully constructed timeline that they believed showed Lingo could not have committed the act. In the end, the judge agreed, and Lingo was set “free,” into an inflamed and hostile environment. Public meetings and threats of lynching followed the verdict in Merchantville; and similar sentiments were felt in neighboring communities, as reported in Trenton newspapers.
With the help of friends and allies, many of whom had also helped support his defense, Lingo absented himself from the immediate vicinity and went on to make some money from his infamy by appearing at a Dime Museum in Philadelphia as the “Victim of Circumstances” and the “Man Who Escaped Death.” It was confidently predicted that few Pensauken residents would pay the ten cent admission fee. Nor would this be the end of the local drama of crime and punishment for Francis Lingo.
The trials of Frank Lingo, still laden with mystery and tragedy, also carry the weight of the subsequent history of racial injustice when considered today. Perhaps they also raise the modern specter of serial killers and the sensations they create in the public imagination. It should be recalled that London’s Jack the Ripper murders were nearly contemporaneous, having taken place in 1888.
The life of Pennsauken Township at its creation was one of events mundane and extraordinary, humorous and tragic. While a century and a quarter is hardly a second on the clock of history, the speed and scale of changes since 1892 may seem to place that year in another epoch. If we trace the lives and events of the community in that year, however, we can always discover connections and resonances that lead to our own time and lives.
Sources for this column include contemporary and historical newspaper accounts from the Camden Courier, Palmyra Weekly News, The Times of Trenton and other local newspapers; also Lane, Roger, “William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America,” Oxford University Press, 1991.