May 2021

Surprises from the United Workers of Norwich (CT)

I picked up this pamphlet at the Brimfield flea market a few years ago based on its title. “United Workers!” I thought. “It must be a labor organization, cool!”

Friends, I was wrong. The United Workers of Norwich, Connecticut was a social welfare organization incorporated in 1878 for the purpose of “the relief of suffering and the elevation of destitute women and children” in Norwich. It was the type of organization that, remarkably, gets less attention from historians than labor organizations.

Then – 1878

Let’s take a look at the names of the founders, as listed in its charter, and then guess why the United Workers of Norwich doesn’t get much historical attention:

Sarah A. Huntington

Lucy A. Jewett

Maria P. Gilman

Sarah L. Giesey

Myra Mitchell

Fannie P. Palmer

Emily Davies

Carrie L. Thomas

Mary H. Seymour

Mary R. Greene.

See the common element there?

But wait, there’s more! The “United Workers” were not a grassroots organization of working-class people. No, I found nine of these 10 middle-aged white women in the 1880 census for Norwich, and they were all well-off enough to have live-in servants and support a variety of relatives and others. Two of them (Gilman and Thomas) had never married, yet were able to support multiple non-working relatives – that suggests inherited wealth. Four of them (Huntington, Jewett, Mitchell, and Davies) were widows, supporting adult and/or younger relatives with their own or their husbands’ money. In Jewett’s case, her household also included three 19-year-old Chinese boys who were students. Three of them (Giesey, Palmer, and Green) were married, two to clergymen and one to an iron manufacturer. Palmer’s household included a boarder who was artist named Mary A. Phipps.

In short, the founders of UWN were wealthy and generally conformist philanthropists, looking to make use of the energies they were not supposed to put into things that were claimed to be the male domain (like business, or politics, or science, or higher education). In 1878, the married women had only just gotten the legal ability to hold property in their own name, rather than their husbands’.

The organization’s charter (granted by the state legislature in 1878, and amended in 1889, 1893, and 1917) allowed it to hold up to $200,000 in real estate and also gave it “the same powers in regard to the adoption of children as are given by Section 471 of the General Statutes to the board of management of orphan asylums chartered by the state.”

Then - 1929

As of 1929, the UWN had been operating for 53 years. As printed in the annual report, its constitution stated that its purpose was “the promotion of practical benevolence in the Town of Norwich.” This is interesting, because there was also a City of Norwich, yet this document seems to ignore its existence. Unsurprisingly, given the time period, the group laid claim to the term “nonsectarian” by asserting that membership was open to “all earnest Christian Workers in the community.” That phrase may explain why it called itself “United Workers” – it was made up of people seeking to do good works (though only Christians). Also, in the course of outlining the officers’ roles, the constitution assumed that the officers would all be women.

So, 53 years on, what was this organization doing?

No, wait, let’s look at its finances. The bottom line of its financial statement was $963,687.47. Yes, that’s nearly a million dollars, in 1929 dollars. According to US Inflation Calculator, that would be $15,050,097.41 in today’s dollars. This organization was loaded.

But then, looking deeper, we find that it had $98,605.88 tied up in real estate – the United Workers’ House, the Rock Nook Children’s Home, and Sheltering Arms. They had also issued mortgage loans valued at $20,700, had $40,574.02 in six different savings banks, owned $458,086.79 in stocks, and held $332,860.46 in bonds. They were mainly operating off “interest and dividends” ($47,068.22), receipts from investments ($67,707.43), and receipts from legacies in cash ($47,241.40). 

This was, of course, the year during which the stock market crashed and took most of the economy with it. Remember, though, that this annual report was compiled in January 1930, when the scope of the rolling economic disaster had not yet become clear. No doubt its finances suffered in the succeeding years.

Turning back to the people and their activities, all of the officers and virtually all of the standing committee members were still women. The auditors (who needed to be accountants) were men, and there was an eight-member advisory board that was also all men (which included the organization’s attorney).

Let’s just look briefly at the seven top officers, using the 1930 census (first pause to breath and count to 10):

Mrs. Albert H. Chase = Ada R. Chase

Mrs. Charles B. Gilbert = Helen F. Gilbert

Miss Adelaide L. Butts

Miss Matilda Butts

Mrs. Harvey M. Briggs = Hortense M. Briggs

Mrs. Henry H. Pettis = Martha A. Pettis

Mrs. William H. Oat = Anna L. Oat.

This was a much more middle-class group, still middle-aged, and with much smaller households. Only two (Chase and Gilbert) had a live-in servant, but then such arrangements were much less common in 1929. Their spouses were in sales (hardware, auto supplies), a lawyer, and the editor and the publisher of the Norwich Bulletin newspaper. The Butts sisters, both in their 70s and never married, lived together with no one else. And there was one major departure from the 1878 group: Helen F. Gilbert gave her occupation as high school teacher.

I did notice, as I went through the report, that the women submitting the committee reports did put their own given names on them.

We could be here forever looking at the rest of the vice presidents and committee members. Instead, let’s talk about the committees, briefly. There was one for the United Workers’ House, which held offices and classrooms; the committee’s secretary included a line in her report that endears her to me, saying that “we all know that an old house requires eternal vigilance to keep it in good repair” (p. 9).

This house was at 9 Washington Street, and a little judicious searching found a scanned photograph of it posted on Facebook. At present, it appears that the building no longer exists.

The Family Welfare Department, headquartered here, rendered assistance to 305 families, ranging from medical and dental treatment to employment assistance to cash loans, as well as material goods; they also collected and distributed Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas toys and candy. The Public Health Nursing Department undertook prenatal and newborn education and care, work with handicapped children, tuberculosis care, smallpox vaccination, and miscellaneous medical care. They also were part of making “Alpine Light treatment” available to children at the Rock Nook Clinic. I think, based on some quick research, that this treatment involved therapeutic application of ultraviolet light. Altogether the visiting nurses and the clinics worked with over 3,000 patients during the year. There was also the Club Committee, which did “Club Work.” The committee report clarifies that they gave cooking and sewing classes to girls, apparently using the headquarters classrooms.

The Norwich Neuropsychiatric Clinic was a program in its sixth year, and was about to change its name to Norwich Mental Hygiene Clinic. This isn’t the place to go into the whole concept of mental hygiene – it’s complicated in all the ways that early mental health movements were – and anyway the committee’s report talked far more about education and going to meetings than actual activities. It was apparently located in Backus Hospital.

The Sheltering Arms was apparently a small convalescent home. This facility was started as one of the UWN’s first projects and was originally located in this building:

According to Old Houses of the Antient Town of Norwich, 1660-1800 by Mary E. Perkins (1895), this house (built by the fourth Thomas Leffingwell some time after 1733) was on the old Canterbury road, and was sold to the United Workers in 1878, who used it to aid “the sick and the suffering” (p. 48).

By 1929, however, the Sheltering Arms was located at 165 McKinley Avenue, according to the annual report. The City of Norwich’s online records say that the convalescent home there was built in 1925. Its staff cared for 23 patients during the year, held a number of special events, and received donations of a grandfather clock (from the family of a deceased committee member), dining-room china, and 148 items from the Needlework Guild.

The Rock Nook Children’s Home was an orphanage. Again according to Perkins’ Old Houses of the Antient Town of Norwich (p. 365), this was the building it was set up in:

The house seems to have been built before the Revolution by Jesse Brown, who ran a tavern in it. In this photograph, however, its appearance is much more mid-nineteenth century than that; Perkins herself noted that it was “much altered and modernized.” She also reported that it was donated to the United Workers by Moses Pierce, who had purchased in in 1855 (p. 367). According to the 1929 annual report, the facility held an average of 30 children a month, and also benefited from donations by the Needlework Guild.

The Riverside Home was apparently another convalescent home, which had 65 residents at the end of the year, but was not the property of UWN. It seems they had been given responsibility to “visit” or inspect it.

The volunteer staff, and the accountants, had the responsibility of managing the funds (including many memorial funds and restricted bequests) of an organization with multiple facilities staffed by paid employees and volunteers. In 1929, the women in charge, or at least the ones I looked at, had all been born before 1900. Had they had any formal education that helped them with the job? Or was it all “hands on” experience, because they were still pushing up against the limits that society had placed on their interests and ambitions? I don’t know. This is a newsletter item, not a thesis.

Now - 2021

The other thing about The United Workers of Norwich is that, over 140 years after its founding, it still exists, albeit under the name United Community & Family Services. It seems to have pivoted to the health care field (no more orphans or sewing classes), and is very active in the community and on social media. According to its 2020 annual report, issued while the COVID-19 pandemic was still grinding on, its operational revenue was $33,957,805 and its operational expenses were $35,703,813. No longer an all-female-led organization, it ran multiple health-related programs at schools in Norwich and was active in seven other eastern Connecticut towns as well.

Those 10 women in 1878, who did not yet have the right to vote, started an organization that lasted over 140 years – longer than most of the profit-making corporations founded by men at the time, which their socioeconomic status kept them from being part of.

Also, here is the location of the Sheltering Arms home (now including the Ross Adult Day Center), built in 1925:

And here is the location of Rock Nook Community Behavioral Health Programs:

Almost as fascinatingly, at some point during the twentieth century they moved their headquarters into the Governor Samuel Huntington House at 34 East Town Street:

Color photograph of a two-story frame house, painted yellow with white trim, with a pillared porch and a sign with the name, address, and historical status of the building.

So, if anyone out there is looking for a thesis project on American women’s charitable organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, here you go. I found the 14th annual report (1891) scanned into Google Books, and further searching there found other “United Workers” reports from other cities. And I’ll give you a scan of the 1929 annual report, too.

The Ashton Cookbook

This is April's newsletter (really).

I decided to write up another cookbook from my collection, because it turned out to be even more interesting than I thought it was. Here is the cover:

This is actually a lined blank book, with all the recipes (except for some newspaper clippings) handwritten in it. Keep that “Treasury Department” information in mind as we go along.

Before we go into the people details, there are three vague clues about this book in the form of notes written in it:

(1) The inside front cover has the note “Small store Room” written in pencil.

(2) The reverse of the front page has the note “check out what you take out. Flo[   ]t for gen mess. Back for wardroom.”

(3) The inside back cover has the note “Wardroom Mess.”

These are not, of course, domestic kitchen related notes; wardrooms occur on warships.

Our first very specific clue is the name and address written in ink on the front side of the first page, which says:

Sarah L. Ashton

1019 Ashmun St

Sault St. Marie


c/o Wynn Apts

To deal with the short lead first, I searched for “Wynn Apartments” in Sault Ste. Marie and to my surprise turned up a relevant hit – Chippewa County businessman Robert J. Wynn acquired the Wynn apartment building in 1912.

The 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Sault Sainte Marie, Chippewa County, Michigan (plate 29) shows 1019 Ashmun Street as one side of a three-story, six-unit apartment building.

Before anybody gets too excited about this delightfully specific information, here’s what that block looks like in the current Google Maps view:

That’s a Rite Aid and its parking lot, I don’t know why it has a marker that says “higi.” Mr. Wynn’s valuable apartment building, former residence of Sarah L. Ashton, is no more.

So let’s return to Sarah L. Ashton. For the longest time, I was convinced the first name was “Soval” and spent too much time trying to find anyone of that name. Finally I just started looking at Ashtons and found her entry.

First, though, I referred to some of the notes on the recipes in the book, specifically:

Mrs. Moore – Soo. Michigan 1938

Mrs. Meserve? Kezar Falls Maine, 1939

Jeanne Daughatry? Soo. Michigan, 1940

“Soo” means “Sault St. Marie,” seeing as the “Sault” is pronounced “Soo.” Anyway, this told me to look in the 1940 federal census. And there she was!

Connecticut-born Sarah Ashton was a married woman acting as head of household, living at 1019 Ashmun Street (one of three households at that address). Aged 30, she had a 10-year-old daughter Louise and a five-year-old son, helpfully named Peter Jr. Both children were born in Connecticut, but five years before the family resided in Portland, Maine.

So far so good, but where was Peter Sr.?

Answer: In the Coast Guard, on the USS Ossipee, stationed at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

He was Peter P. Ashton, 40 years old, and born in Ohio. Five years before, he was also in Sault Ste. Marie. Unfortunately, the census enumerator did not record the occupations of the Coast Guard sailors.

This explains the U.S. Treasury blank book, because at the time the Coast Guard was still in that department! And it explains the “wardroom” and “mess” references written in it! Peter must have taken his wife’s handwritten cookbook with him onto the Ossippee.

So to get a more complete picture of his couple, let’s go back to 1930, when Peter and Sarah had just married.

Sarah L. Ashton was lodging at 111 Blinman Street in Ward 3 of the City of New London, Connecticut, in the household of a widowed French Canadian woman and her young grandson. The form also tells us that she had married at 19, and that her father was born in Connecticut and her mother in Massachusetts. She did not give an occupation.

Peter was not living with her because he was in the “U.S.C.G. Receiving Unit” in New London, according to the census.

He was 30 years old, had married at 29, and reported that he and his parents were born in Ohio.

And his occupation was listed as “Ships Cook First Class.”

According to a simple index to Connecticut marriage records (1897-1968) created by the Connecticut State Library and accessed through, Sarah Jordan married Peter Ashton at New London, Connecticut on September 9, 1929. That’s consistent with the 1930 census information, which is great.

Since the censuses after 1950 are not publicly available, I turned to city directories to trace their movements before and after that date. And I made a Google Map to look up the various addresses:

The New London city directory for 1930 had them at 111 Blinman Street; in 1931 they were at 45 Willetts Ave; in 1932 they were at 77 Howard Street; in 1933 and 1934 they were at 59 Willetts Ave; and in 1935 they had removed to Portland, Maine. According to Google Maps, the current Blinman Street and Willetts Avenue buildings may be the same, while 77 Howard Street is now a modern commercial district.

An interesting but not surprising aspect of their movements has to do with Sarah L. Jordan’s parents. In the 1920 census, when she was 10 years and 9 months old, her family was living at 9 Stony Hill in New London, a road that no longer seems to exist. Her father, John J., was 48 years old and a house painter; her mother, Louise V., was 47. She had two older brothers, Joseph A. (22 and working as a flag man on the railroad) and Sherman R. (19 and working as an oiler at something beginning with M), and supposedly a younger sister, whose name started with L and was 1 years and 1 month old. The census enumerator’s handwriting included many unnecessary flourishes that make it hard to read.

In 1930, after all but the youngest child (now identified as a son named Leander B., age 17 and working as a grocery store salesman) had moved out, the Jordans were living in a two-family house at 77 Howard Street – the same place their daughter and son-in-law were listed in the 1932 city directory. By 1940, Sarah’s father John had died, and Leander was living with Louise and working as a salesman for a wholesale bakery.

After they moved to Portland, ME, Peter and Sarah stayed there for about three years (in 1935, only Peter was listed, on his ship; in 1936, their address was 177 Cumberland Ave, and in 1937 it was 44 Myrtle Street, and there was no listing or them in 1938).

Then in 1939, they turned up at 1019 Ashmun Street in Sault Sainte Marie. They were there in the 1940 census, and then not listed in the 1941 directories. Between 1942 and 1950 they were listed in the city directory as living at Cohanzie Road in Waterford (next to New London). In 1952, the directory said they had removed to North Carolina. The key thing here, though, is that in at least 1942 and 1944, the directory also listed Louise Jordan and Leander Jordan (who was actually in the army) at Cohanzie Road as well. Cohanzie Road no longer exists; according to a local news site, it is now called Vauxhall Street Extension. This is a very long road, so for the Google map I just picked the point where it intersects with I-395.

Also, from 1947 to 1950, Peter Ashton was listed in the directories as working at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy – not on a ship. According to the directory and census information – I don’t have access to Coast Guard personnel records – Peter Ashton as assigned to the Ossipee between 1935 and 1940. The Ossipee (specifically the WPG-50 iteration of the name) was a Coast Guard cutter built at Newport News, VA in 1915 and assigned to Portland, ME in that year. The ship was 165 feet long and 32 feet wide and apparently looked like this:

The ship was transferred to the Navy in 1917 and patrolled in the Mediterranean during World War I, then returned to the Coast Guard at Portland in 1919. It stayed there until 1935, where Peter Ashton joined its crew. It was then transferred to Sault Sainte Marie in 1936, and the other information indicates that the Ashtons moved with it. Then on November 1, 1941, the Ossipee was transferred to the Navy, patrolling in Lake Erie until June 1945, when the ship (then 30 years old) was decommissioned and sold to a private individual.

So: the period during which this cookbook could have been kept in the wardroom of a ship was only from 1935 to 1941. Why Peter would have borrowed this book from Sarah is another question. There appears to have been a Navy cookbook that was in use during that period. And presumably, since the 1930 census said he was a ship’s cook (first class), he had been trained in cooking by the Coast Guard. Still, it seems possible that this book served, however unofficially, on the US Coast Guard vessel Ossipee for some period in the 1930s. That is a most unusual history!

As to its owners, Peter P. Ashton (February 5, 1900 – August 5, 1959) died in a veterans’ hospital in Norfolk, VA, as a retiree from the US Coast Guard (though his residence was in Elizabeth City, North Carolina). This death record identified his wife as Sarah L. Ashton, and his parents as Jenny Brady and Charles Wesley Ashton. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The gravestone recorded his service in the Coast Guard, World War II, and the Korean War:

It also stated that he was born in North Carolina. This is odd, because his obituary in the Raleigh, NC News and Observer stated that he was born in Youngstown, Ohio (which is consistent with the census information). He served in the Coast Guard for 30 years, ending his career as a chief warrant officer (a big step up from being a cook).

Sarah L. Jordan Ashton’s death was reported in the News and Observer in 1989, when she was 79 years old. The obituary said she was from Mystic, Connecticut (which is close to New London), and had been a busy volunteer in Greenville and in Elizabeth City (where she lived from 1950 to 1966).

How her cookbook wound up in a collection of miscellaneous papers being sold at the antique show in Brimfield, Massachusetts is a mystery that is likely to never be solved. Did she give it away at some point when she was in Connecticut, before they moved south? There’s no way to know.

This turned out to be an even more interesting story than I expected. I hope you enjoyed it too!

The Library of Benjamin Douglas, Part 1

A while back, I ran across the item-level inventory of Benjamin Douglas’s library in his 1775 probate record. It included no fewer than 60 titles, many of them multi-volume, and that is an impressive number of books. The inventory also included his wife Elizabeth’s books, because in 1775 a married woman’s property was legally her husband’s property, and that was another 12 titles, some of which were also multi-volume. They each also owned pamphlets that were not separately listed (3 for her, and 36 for him).

So who was this guy who owned so many books, and whose wife also was educated enough to have her own library? He is not famous, but frankly that is likely because he was only 37 years old when he died. The library tells us that he was a lawyer, because more than half of his books were law and law-related works. Guessing that he was a Yale graduate (the next guess would be Harvard), I looked him up in Dexter’s Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale and there he was in Volume II. He was born in Plainfield, August 29, 1739, graduated from Yale in 1760, and joined the bar in New Haven in 1762, where he also resided, becoming King’s Attorney for New Haven County before his death.

His probate inventory shows that he was a slaveholder, keeping two people (a 20-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl, called Harry and Candice) in then-legal bondage. This fact did not, alas, prevent his contemporaries from believing that he was a delightful and universally-loved person. Would he have become a revolutionary? Would the concept of “liberty” have percolated through his mind well enough to imagine liberty for enslaved people? He missed his chance to show us, but his library does offer some hints.

In fact, I would not be interested in Benjamin Douglas outside of my research project if it weren’t for his library. Outside of the most wealthy and prominent families, the fate of most private libraries at the death of their owner is to be broken up and sold. Worse, probate inventories most often just refer to a “lot of books” and their collective value. Here, we have an itemized list. We can look through them to see what the books’ owners were reading – what food they were giving their minds.

Now, 32 of Benjamin’s books were law books, and most of those were basic reference texts about case law, specific legal theories, etc. The fact that he owned “Jacob’s Law Dictionary” only tells us that he was a lawyer. But there were two books that the men making the inventory lumped in with the law books, probably because they had the word “law” in their titles, that were not really law books. They were “Puffendorf’s Law of Nature &c” and “Burlamarqi’s Nat: & Pol: Law” in two volumes (the latter in octavo format, meaning they were printed in relatively small volumes).

These were actually works of Enlightenment philosophy.

“Puffendorf” was Samuel Freiherr von Pufendorf (1632-1694), whose work was originally written in Latin and called De Jure Naturae Et Gentium Libri Octo, or On the Law of Nature and of Nations in English. Published in 1673, it was translated and reissued many times; this edition [], from 1729, was probably pretty close.

“Burlamarqui” was Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748), whose works Principles du Droit Naturel (1747) and Principes du Droit Politique (1751) were later translated and published as The Principles of Natural and Political Law, again in many editions. This 1763 edition [] could have been the one that Benjamin Douglas had.

Natural law was a project of the Enlightenment, was intended to provide a rational, organized alternative to scriptural authority for the laws and rules of society. It included the concept of natural rights, and sought to use human reason to develop systems of law, morality, and ethics – with the same ultimate goal as religion, namely to create a just and orderly society. Unfortunately it drew on society as it existed at the time and tended to assume that the common denominators among existing systems represented “natural” laws. Thus, such Enlightenment thinkers quite often developed “rational” reasons for the existence of slavery, for the subjugation of women, for corporal punishment, and so forth. I’ve been disappointed in the Enlightenment since I realized that in many ways, its thinkers substituted “nature” for “God” instead of really taking human responsibility for human behaviors and systems.

But I digress. What these two books tell us about Benjamin Douglas is that he had received a mainstream eighteenth-century education in law and philosophy. Concepts of natural law were part of the ordinary furnishings of an educated man. In the year after his death, the Declaration of Independence would include in its first sentence the phrase “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Both the pro- and anti-independence sides of the Revolutionary argument used the same set of concepts, only reaching different conclusions from them.

I don’t recommend trying to actually read these two books – scanning their tables of contents will tell you a lot about them. It’s dense material even without the convoluted syntax that the writers of their period tended to use. Some of the other books he owned, which I’ll talk about in some later newsletter, will be a little easier on the brain.

What I’ve Been Reading

Meghan K. Winchell, Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (2008). An interesting sociocultural history of a phenomenon that was, when you really think about it, pretty darn weird and quixotic.

Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (2019). This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I appreciated Levin’s highly detailed review of the evidence and how it’s been misused to pretend that there were bunches of Black Confederate soldiers.

Tragedy and Memory: The Wreck of the General Arnold

Historical Notions #3

While looking over a map from approximately 1794, I noticed the following annotation off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Around a drawing of a two-masted sailing ship, it says “Magee’s Shipwreck December 26 1778.”

Intrigued – why commemorate an event that occurred some 16 years before the map was made? – I indulged in a little quick Googling. It was, in fact, a deeply tragic event: the American privateer General Arnold, captained by James Magee, ran aground on White Flat during a blizzard, no more than a mile off the shore, and over 70 of its men froze to death even while Plymouth townsmen tried in vain to rescue them.

In a survey of other historic maps of Plymouth, I found that an unnamed “wreck” was noted in an 1853 U. S. Coast Survey map, and on an 1857 map of Plymouth County. Whether this was the wreck of the General Arnold is uncertain, for reasons discussed below.

What is more certain is that the event reverberated in local memory for many years. The map drawn in the 1790s, which was almost certainly done by a local man, is the first example. The second is a history of the town of Plymouth published in 1832, which was 54 years after the event. The author, James Thacher (who was a medical doctor as well as a general scholar), devoted a full two pages to the story of the shipwreck. I suspect, however, that it was drawn from, if not actually copied from, an earlier book about the wreck that was written by a survivor, Barnabas Downs, Jr., and published in 1786. In the style of early books (which often received no advertising other than the listing of their title), it was called A Brief and Remarkable Narrative of the Life and Extreme Sufferings of Barnabas Downs, Jun.: Who Was Among the Number of Those Who Escaped Death on Board the Privateer Brig Arnold, James Magee, Commander, which Was Cast Away Near Plymouth-Harbour, in a Most Terrible Snow-storm, December 26, 1778, When More than Sixty Persons Were Frozen to Death: Containing Also a Particular Account of Said Shipwreck. I have not been able to examine this book myself, as it is only available in print or via Evans Early American Imprints (to which I have no access). It is the only first-person account of the wreck that I have been able to identify, however, which makes it the most likely source of Thacher’s details. I think that Downs was probably the source used by Edward Rowe Snow in Storms and Shipwrecks of New England, which also recounts the story, though I am sorry to say that prior experience with Snow’s work suggests that he is not always a reliable source. I use both Thacher and Snow, however, as sources for the following description of the disaster.

As I write this, an overnight December nor’easter is moving into New England. We had days of warning that it was coming, and we have central heating and a moderate faith that the electricity will stay on. In 1778, the only warning of an oncoming storm would have been the clouding over of the sky and the wind picking up. Perhaps someone’s bad knee might have registered the change in air pressure, which may also have been noted by the owner of one of the relatively rare barometers. When the General Arnold left Boston on December 24, however, there would have been no way for its captain and crew to know that it was sailing into a deadly storm.

The General Arnold was a brig or brigantine, a two-masted wooden sailing ship. I am not sure of its exact size, but it was probably about 100 feet long, or perhaps six and a half car lengths. The crew reportedly numbered 105 men and boys. (For comparison’s sake, the famous early twentieth-century ship Titanic was a little under 900 feet long.) As a licensed privateer, headed out for what they called a “cruise,” the General Arnold also carried 20 cannons, and some of the men aboard were “marines.” And yes, the ship was probably named after General Benedict Arnold, who in 1778 had not yet displayed his treachery.

By Friday, the 25th of December, Captain Magee realized that a storm was coming on and sailed for Plymouth Harbor. Arriving after dark, he had no choice but to anchor off the coast. Plymouth Harbor is dangerous, and he needed a pilot to come aboard and guide the ship safely in, which could not happen at night. But none of the precautions he took to reduce the ship’s profile in the wind and shift weight to its hold (by moving most of the cannons there) were enough. The waves and freezing wind grew so strong that the ship’s anchor began dragging along the ocean floor instead of holding the ship in place. The direction it was pushed was toward the shore. Before long, the ship ran aground in an area of shallows called White Flat.

Daylight on Saturday found the General Arnold deeply embedded in the sand, lashed by wind and waves that threatened to break up the ship entirely. It can be difficult to imagine the power of waves: most of us only see and play in the smaller ones, and many others have only seen them on a screen. But water is heavy – just fill up a bucket with water and lift it a few times. Now imagine a mass of water the size of a tractor-trailer hitting you. It doesn’t have to be moving fast, because it out-masses you by many orders of magnitude. Ships, even now, are not designed to stand up to waves, they’re designed to float atop them. Captain Magee’s ship was in deadly danger.

Also, once the waves damaged the ship enough, as well as starting to sweep over the deck, everyone on board was soaked to the skin. Cold and wet is very dangerous, and during this day members of the crew began to succumb to hypothermia. The snowstorm was so heavy that ship and shore were invisible to one another throughout the day. Fortunately for the ship, the tide went out during the afternoon, drawing away enough water that the waves no longer threatened its integrity. Then, as New Englanders can report often happens after a big snowstorm, the temperature began to drop, freezing many more sailors to death.

Dawn on Sunday the 27th brought lower, but still severe, waves and the returning tide. The cold was strong enough to freeze the more placid stretches of water. The General Arnold’s men could see a schooner frozen into the ice not far off. Three men took a small ship’s boat across the open water, then scrambled across the ice to the other ship, and never returned nor sent the boat back to attempt a rescue of the others. The remaining crew were doomed to endure another day and night of bitter cold.

This is not to say that their plight was unnoticed - with the snowstorm over, people ashore had seen the General Arnold and begun attempts to reach it. But where the sea was not frozen, it heaved with massive chunks of ice and still-strong waves, far too unsafe for their small boats. Instead, they began building a rough causeway of wood across the more solid ice. It was slow work, carried out while the sons and grandsons of sailors could hear the stranded men shouting and screaming for help, and still far from complete at nightfall. They started work as soon as it was light again the next day, Monday. By noon, they finally reached the stranded ship and found 70 of the original 105 men dead, many of them frozen solid as they had died.

It was, unquestionably, a traumatic event for both the victims and the rescuers. To think of the laying out of all these bodies at the county courthouse must bring to mind other grim scenes of mass accidental death, like the sinking of the Titanic or the mid-twentieth-century circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut. A reported sixty of the dead had to be buried in a mass grave in Plymouth, and a few were buried there in individual graves, while other bodies, and the living, were gradually returned to their homes. Captain Magee survived and went on to less disastrous privateering cruises, and then to prosper in the China trade until his death in 1801. He was buried in Plymouth. Snow cites Samuel Eliot Morison (Maritime History of Massachusetts) for the information that he used to hold Christmas parties for the families of his shipmates. The mass grave of the sailors was not marked until 1862, when a wealthy stranger heard the story and paid for an obelisk to be set up there.

It seems likely that the tragedy continued to be remembered locally, at least, though later maps and other nineteenth-century histories do not mention it. I have not been able to review many modern histories of the town (and there are a lot of them that focus on the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony, and nothing later … even though the separate colony ceased to exist in 1691), so I don’t know how often it came up in the twentieth century before the 1970s.

One thing that happened in the 1970s, though, was that the remains of a wooden ship emerged from the sand and was claimed to be the General Arnold. The discovery set off a four-way court battle over salvage rights, from which the Pilgrim Society withdrew in 1977 because its ongoing research had concluded that the General Arnold had been re-floated almost immediately and sailed away. As William R. Cash, a Boston Globe journalist, reported, others continued to believe the ship was the General Arnold. The argument over whether it was this ship continued through at least 1986, when journalist Maryann Mrowca reported on an effort to excavate another part of the ship and prove its identity. In the absence of articles about the triumphant presentation of that proof, I have to suspect that it was not found.

Is it likely that the ship was re-floated after its 1778 sinking? Yes. Ships and their equipment – especially including the cannons! – were extremely valuable during the war. If it did not actually break up, the General Arnold could have been claimed by its owners and repaired for return to service. It could have become one of many ships that vanished without fanfare during the era before radio, and it may have been renamed after the general’s treachery was revealed in late 1780. I’m inclined, in fact, to believe that the Pilgrim Society’s research found evidence to one or both effects.

Two books about the wreck and the mystery have been published by small Massachusetts presses (or possibly self-published): Bowley and Johnson, The Wreck of the General Arnold: The Story of a Disputed Revolutionary War Privateer Wrecked on the Flats of Plymouth Harbor and Its Effect on the Men Vying to Own Her (1995) and Cavallaro et al., Solved: The Mystery of the General Arnold (2007). There may be copies in Plymouth, but I haven’t been able to visit there to find out.  

The cemetery monument, Downs’s memoir, the 1794 map, marine archaeology, and several histories also are not the only way the tragedy has been remembered. This newer remembering did not start until the early twenty-first century, however. In 2008, two of the co-authors of Solved spearheaded an effort to identify and memorialize the sailors who died and were buried in the mass grave. Also during these years, the Shirley-Eustis house in Roxbury, once owned and renovated by Captain Magee, began holding public holiday parties hosted by Magee impersonators; announcements in The Boston Globe highlighted his Irish origins and sometimes the shipwreck. The Pilgrim Hall Museum also added “Captain Magee” and his parties to its St. Patrick’s Day roster, and newspaper articles gave the details of the shipwreck (see the photograph below).

Marble and granite memorials are one thing. They’re very traditional. I wonder, though, are these holiday parties, created to help support historic sites, an adequate or appropriate way to keep alive the memory of the terror and grief of the tragedy of 1778? Or is it just the best way, given the ever-growing number of things to be remembered and the near-unimaginable distance between those days and the present?


Campbell, Robert and Vanderwarker, Peter. “Cityscapes, History Lives Here: The Shirley-Eustis House Gets a New Lease on Life.” Boston Globe, Sunday October 27, 1985, p. 427. Accessed via

Cash, William B. “Salvagers Vie for Sunken Ship.” Boston Globe, Aug. 27, 1977, Pg. 7. Accessed via

Downs, Barnabas, Jr. A Brief and Remarkable Narrative of the Life and Extreme Sufferings of Barnabas Downs, Jun.: Who Was Among the Number of Those Who Escaped Death on Board the Privateer Brig Arnold, James Magee, Commander, which Was Cast Away Near Plymouth-Harbour, in a Most Terrible Snow-storm, December 26, 1778, When More than Sixty Persons Were Frozen to Death: Containing Also a Particular Account of Said Shipwreck. Boston: E. Russell, for the Author, 1786; repr. ed. Yarmouthport, MA: Parnassuss Imprints, 1972.

Knox, Robert. “A 1790s St. Patrick’s Day Party at Museum.” The Boston Globe, Thursday, March 14, 2002, p. 190. Accessed via

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860. Boston: Riverside Press, 1941; Northeastern Classics edition, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1979.

Plymouth, Town of. “A Plan of Plymouth Including Bays, Harbour, Ponds, Islands, &c.” Maps & Plans No. 1240 (Boston: Massachusetts State Archives, ca. 1794).

Mrowca, Maryann. “British Divers Help Recover Shipwrecked American Revolutionary War Brig.” Associated Press, August 4, 1986.

Snow, Edward Rowe. Storms and Shipwrecks of New England. Boston: Yankee Publishing Company, 1943, 1944, and 1946; reprint edition, Carlisle, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2003.

Thacher, James. History of the Town of Plymouth; From Its First Settlement in 1620, to The Year 1832 (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1832), pp. 216-218.

United States Coast Survey. “Plymouth Harbor and Vicinity.” Sheet T-455. Washington, DC: United States Coast Survey, 1853.

Walling, Henry F. “Map of the County of Plymouth Massachusetts.” Boston and New York: D. R. Smith & Co., 1857.

Wilcox, Emily. “Naming the General Arnold’s Lost Sailors.” The Boston Globe, Thursday, August 21, 2008, pp. 9, 12. Accessed via

Wullf, June W. “Family Datebook.” The Boston Globe, Saturday, December 6, 2003, p. 28. Accessed via

Anna Rompf Lapp’s Cookbook

An item from my collection.

Actually, before we get started I’d like to draw your attention to Washington's Farewell Address from 1796, in which an elected president declared his sincere and earnest desire to get out of politics. The contrast with the present day could not be greater.

And now, something nonpolitical!

As some of you know, I collect old cookbooks, and sometimes even cook from recipes in them. Most of them are just books, with little history other than as physical objects and examples of written foodways. Some contain notes by nameless past owners (occasionally, copious notes). A few have a name written on them. Two, however, contain something more crucial: the name and address of a past owner.

That makes it possible to learn about those owners. In this case, Anna Rompf Lapp of Brooklyn and Syracuse, New York.

The book in question is The Presidential Cook Book, published in 1895 by The Werner Company. It includes a portrait of the First Lady at the time, Frances Folsom Cleveland, though she had nothing to do with it.

It billed itself as an abridgement of The White House Cook Book, which was first published in 1887 and reprinted many times in many editions (including under the “Presidential” title). As a result, according to an article I found online, it was at one time practically ubiquitous in American kitchens. As far as anyone has been able to determine, though, the White House connection was nothing more than a marketing ploy.

My copy of the Presidential version includes numerous scribbled notes on its surviving flyleaf page – mostly references to specific items within the book. It also contains the note “To Mrs Anna Lapp, 308 5 ave Bklyn NY.”

Moreover, one of several items tucked between the pages of the book is a photograph, which has a note on the back: “Grandma 61 yrs + Dorothy 8 ys.”

You can imagine my delight when my very first query, in the 1900 federal census, found an Anna Lapp on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, married to Peter Lapp, with a two-year-old daughter. Following this couple forward in time confirmed that their daughter eventually had a daughter named Dorothy. I’m leaving out most of the details about her because Dorothy lived until 2016, and that’s too close to the present for random chatter on the internet. She eventually moved to Connecticut, though, which is how her grandmother’s cookbook wound up in my rarely-in-New-York hands. I may have bought it in the same Connecticut town she lived in. (Alas, I can’t remember exactly where I bought it, but there is an antique shop in that town.)

At any rate, who exactly were Anna and Peter Lapp?

To begin with, they were a May-September couple: Peter was a full twenty years older than Anna, and this was his second marriage. In 1900, Anna was 29 years old and Peter was 49 years old, they had been married for five years, and their daughter was two. Both were New York-born children of German immigrants. Anna’s age in 1900 means the photograph of Anna and Dorothy (when Anna was 61) was taken in late 1931 or in 1932.  

Five years puts the year of their marriage at 1895, the same year this edition of The Presidential Cook Book was published. On the strength of this, and the fact that the name and address have a “To” attached to them, I believe this cookbook was a wedding present. Is that awesome or what? Someone – I am going to say Anna, though it could have been her daughter or granddaughter – chose to protect the cover of the volume with light blue cotton cloth, sewn into place with thread. I have no intention of trying to take it apart.

I have been able to learn surprisingly little about Peter Lapp, who was also known as Peter T. Lapp. The State of New York doesn’t make images of its marriage records available to, so I have not been able to get the names of his parents, which would be extremely helpful clues. The index of New York marriage records indicates that when he married, he gave his name as Theodore, a detail that has also proven unhelpful.

From census records and city directory entries, however, we know that he was a shopkeeper. Exactly what type of shop varied: cigars, stationery, “variety store,” candy, and “general store” were all mentioned at various times from the early 1890s to 1915. At first the family lived and worked on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, at either #308, 310, 314, or 320. As of 1906 or so, this was a section of Brooklyn that was not yet fully developed, but it was a prime location for a shop, with a trolley stop just outside. Then and now, this was the block between Second and Third Street, and the commercial/residential buildings that are there now are almost certainly the same ones that were there around 1900.

From 1905, however, for a few years the family was recorded at 560 Court Street in Brooklyn, about a mile west of, and across the Gowanus Canal from, their Fifth Avenue location. This building was on the west side of Court Street, between West 9th Street and Garnet Street, but I think some of the buildings there are newer than 1905.

Then, the 1910 federal census reported the family on Milton Avenue in the village of Solvay, town of Geddes, which was and is a suburb of Syracuse in Onondaga County, New York. Where in Brooklyn they had lived in a rented apartment on their own, here they owned a building and were sharing it with four other small working-class families. They may in fact have been running a rooming house. The 1915 state census found them in the same place as of June, although renting to only one other family.

Then on August 5, 1915, Peter Lapp died, leaving Anna a widow.

I have not been able to find an obituary for Peter Lapp; there seems to be a gap in scanned newspaper coverage for the Syracuse area in 1915. I did, however, find that after Anna died on December 30, 1945, an obituary was published in early January. The single paragraph gave her name as Anna Rompf Lapp, and her survivors as a married daughter, a granddaughter, five niblings, and three siblings: Mrs. Caroline Scherrer, Mrs. Catherine Dick, and William B. Rompf.

Armed with this information, I determined that Anna was not a native of Brooklyn or New York City. Back in the 1880 federal census, Anna Rompf (or Romph, as the census return has it), aged 9, lived in Geddes, New York, with siblings Carrie, Catherine, John, and a newborn sister. Their parents, Peter (age 40) and Lena (age 33) were German immigrants, and their father worked as a salt boiler. According to the information they later gave the federal census taker in Syracuse in 1910, Peter Rompf had immigrated in 1868 (and by then was a naturalized citizen), and Lena Rompf had immigrated in 1855. The latter form also listed another son, Balde W. (age 22), whom I believe later went by William B.

At some point after 1880, Anna moved to New York City, where she met and married Theodore/Peter Lapp. Their move to Geddes in about 1910 was in fact a return to her roots. In her widowhood, she continued to run the general store (according to the 1920 federal census) or a confectionary (according to a 1925 city directory). The information from the 1915 state census indicates that the building was between Boyd Avenue and Center Street; as shown on the following Sanborn Fire Insurance map from about 1911, that was on the south side of Milton Street, and across from the railroad tracks, and I think it was the middle building.

The 1920 census also showed that her daughter had married, and the young couple lived in the building while Madaline worked for Anna in the shop.

I am confident that the building in which Anna Lapp lived and worked from approximately 1910 to 1925 was this one, currently known as 2409 Milton Avenue (image from Google Maps):

That is an early 20th century storefront, with an apartment above, tacked onto the front of an older house – quite typical of the time period, and more than capable of housing multiple small families (in 1910) or a widow and a small family (1920).

By the 1930 federal census, however, Anna Lapp owned a different general store in Camillus Township, Onondaga County, somewhere on West Genesee Turnpike. Camillus is another suburb of Syracuse, in fact the next one to the west of Solvay and Geddes. Her own home was valued at $8,000. Something significant seems to have happened to her daughter’s family, however: Madeline lived and worked with her mother, while her husband was living with a cousin in neighboring Cayuga County, and their daughter was living with an aunt and uncle, also in Cayuga County.

Then in 1940, the federal census found Anna Lapp still living in Camillus, Onondaga County, but alone. At 69, she had no listed occupation; her daughter’s family was together again, at least, and living in a neighboring town. She was still resident in Camillus when she died at the end of 1945, and was buried at St. Agnes Cemetery in Syracuse.

Her cookbook, passed on to her daughter or granddaughter, has not survived the years unmarked. At present, the cover is completely separated from the signatures, and some water damage occurred at some point. I prefer to think that it was Anna who wrote the many page references scribbled on the surviving blank page at the front of the volume, and who marked some recipes throughout the book with a checkmark or Χ, and occasionally the remark “good.”

And there’s another thing – you thought we were done, didn’t you? There’s this note:

It’s not much easier to read in the original, either, and I think it was a draft rather than a completed work, but here is what it says:


     Generaus to a fault you have many friends and seen many happy days though inclined to be rash at time you are thoroughly practical full of fun and gayety

     You will be fairly successful through life and will acquire considerable means either by


               will be [??]      called a

                For you           luck keep

The        [????]     at y          1895 you our

                                              lucky day


   17            27th                      anth

Is it from her husband? The mention of 1895 as “our lucky day” certainly makes it seem so. But it is incomplete and oddly disjointed at the end – a mystery, except for the affection it expresses.

Rest in peace, Anna.

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