Hidden Histories

Earthquakes, Philadelphia, and Murder!

Wednesday, 8/24/11

Yesterday, on August 23, many portions of the Eastern U.S., including Philadelphia, were jolted by an earthquake, a geological activity most individuals associate with the far Western states such as California. However, this has not always been the case, as recorded historical events aptly reveal.

On August 31, 1886, a devastating earthquake, perhaps as powerful as 7.3 on the Richter Scale rocked Charleston, South Carolina, resulting in over one hundred deaths and wide-spread destruction throughout the city, with some 2000 buildings being either damaged or destroyed.

There are also many primary accounts or records located here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania describing the total destruction of Port Royal, Jamaica by an earthquake, on June 7, 1692Isaac Norris I (1671-1735), a prominent Philadelphian and later Mayor of the city, lost his father Thomas and other members of his family, along with much of their property during that catastrophe in the West Indies.

Earthquake tremors were felt on a number of occasions in Philadelphia throughout the 18th-century, namely in 1727, 1758, 1763, 1772, and 1783. Benjamin Marshall, the son of the famed diarist, Christopher Marshall, recorded in a Letter-Book, {I leave the antiquated spelling as this appears in the original and any further quotes from primary sources}, for November 10, 1763, how in Philadelphia,


"...The 30 of last month...about 4 O'Clock in the afternoon we were surprized with a smart Shock of an Earth Quake, which much frightned many people, in their different places of Worship, and broke them all up, it happily concluded without doing any mischief..." (see, PMHB, or the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol.XX: 1896, pp's. 204-205).

Yet perhaps the quake most remembered and written about transpired on Wednesday, December 7, 1737. Quaker merchant Samuel Coates of Philadelphia wrote his friend Joseph Scott of New York on December 8, 1737, describing the event, and his beliefs as to its origin:


"Last night about 11 o'clock we had a Violent Shock of an Earth quake which lasted About 2 Minutes. The People Afrighted thought their Houses would fall upon them; it was Atended with a Noise like a Coach Driver over a Rough Pavement but Lowder; through Mercy there is no More Damage Done that we hear of but frightning the People and Breaking some Chimney Ware.
Dear Friend though those things are by most Men ascribed to Chance or to Natural Causes, they can't be without the will or permission of the Allmighty Creator and Ruler of the Universe and may Warn us to be prepared for Death let it come when it will."

Benjamin Franklin would also comment on the above quake, in his famed newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, for the week of December 8 - 15, 1737, remarking how, "the Shake" had also been "nearly as violent" (at what is now New Castle, Delaware), as it was in Philadelphia. He added that as far away as Conestoga, some 100 miles West of the city, "some clouds at the same time were seen to waver, dance, disappear and appear again in an uncommon and surprizing manner...Three of four Evenings successively after the Earthquake, an unusual Redness appeared in the Western Sky and southwards..."

Franklin was so intrigued by the quake that he would publish within the Pennsylvania Gazette, two succesive articles on the "Causes of Earthquakes," from December 8 - 22 of 1737.  (see also, PMHB, Vol. LV: 1931, pp's. 24-31).    

Interestingly, social historian, folklorist, and early antiquarian of Philadelphia, John Fanning Watson, in his famed Annals of Philadelphia, recorded how, "When John Penn first arrived, {which was on October 30, 1763} on a Sunday, a strong earthquake was felt as he stepped ashore at High-street wharf. It raised some superstition...long remembered; and besides that, when he went home, a dreadful thunderstorm arose; and, finally, when he next time returned here as proprietary, a fierce hurricane came!" (Vol.1: 1900 edition, p.413).

Regrettably, one does often associate earthquakes with fatalities, but normally not with murder. The largest earthquake recorded in United States history, was that of the 'New Madrid Earthquake' of 1812, which reversed the course of the Mississippi River for a time, created lakes in Tennessee, and resulted in the deaths of a number of settlers in Missouri when their town literally sank deep into the earth, permanently burying them and their community.

Prior to the above event, in December 1811, two nephews of Thomas Jefferson, George and Lillburn Lewis, while living in Kentucky, literally murdered one of their slaves with an axe, while forcing the other enslaved persons to watch the dismemberment, as a discouragement to any future rebellion. Interred within the chimney of their residence, the hiding place of the corpse was soon discovered as a result of the violent shocks of the 'New Madrid Quake' in January and February of 1812. The skull and bones of the murdered slave fell from their place of concealment, causing the arrest of the Lewis brothers, whose history has been aptly portrayed in such works by author Boynton Merrill, Jr., Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Trajedy (1976, 2004 revised edition).

One never knows what primary or secondary sources exist on any given subject until certain events transpire, such as an earthquake. However, the above events are just a few of the many types of subjects and records available here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, for the reader's investigation, research, or enjoyment.

Comments

Interesting post, Dan! I especially liked the stor...

Interesting post, Dan! I especially liked the story of the Jefferson nephews!

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