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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Nine
Deluge (continued)


The City is Weekly Invaded with New-comers

Economic and social conditions only worsened for Harrisburg’s African American community in the new decade. The regular arrival of additional African Americans from south of the Mason-Dixon Line was noticed by two of Harrisburg’s largest newspapers, with the staff of the Patriot and Union—a staunch Democratic newspaper—expressing their concern over increased crime rates in the African American neighborhoods in extremely racist tones:

Whoever has taken the trouble to watch the Court proceedings during the past week will not fail to have noticed that more than two-thirds of the trials were for crimes and misdemeanors committed by the lawless black vagabonds and scoundrels who infest our city and county…the evil is growing at an alarming rate. Instead of suffering only by the natural increase of negro thieves and beggars, the city is weekly invaded with new-comers, both free and runaway slaves, to beg, steal or cheapen the price of labor, to the serious disadvantage of poor white men—and even to the detriment of the few hard-working and honest colored men who have been raised here, and have given the community no trouble.72

The editors of the Patriot and Union blamed “Black Republicans,” persons they identified who had “dragged the negro into politics,” for the troubles, and they had a tidy solution. An editorial requested passage of “a stringent law against any further migration of negroes into this state.” That desire for legislation banning African American immigration into Pennsylvania was fueled by the same racist propaganda that drove the African colonization movement in previous decades, specifically, white fear of huge birth rates and uncontrolled population increases in black communities, with a corresponding increase in idleness and crime. But anti-black immigration laws, like federal funding for colonization, were a racist pipe dream.

The firmly Republican Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, now edited by George Bergner, who styled himself as a friend to the African American community in Harrisburg, was less overt and more paternalistic in its racism, reporting in August 1860, “Of late there has been considerable disorder among the colored population, and a large number are now in prison awaiting trials for various offences.”73

Among the Harrisburg crimes attributed to African Americans and reported by Bergner in that issue was a man who assaulted and threatened to shoot a city woman, a fight between two men, a theft, and the existence of a “disorderly den” in the area east of the industrial corridor known as “Allison’s Hollow, where the lowest class of colored loafers most do congregate to drink whiskey and make things rip promiscuously.” Bergner also noted, however, that the site in Allison’s Hollow was also “the resort of disorderly whites.”74

In truth, the African American residents of Allison’s Hollow, Tanner’s Alley, and Judy’s Town were beset by crime, but so was the rest of the city, and whether the African American community was the source of an unrepresentative sample of these problems is highly disputable. As noted, these communities suffered from overcrowding, unemployment and underemployment, poor sanitary conditions, lack of sufficient educational facilities, and poverty. These conditions were worsening in the new decade rather than improving.

Despite the racist presentation, the Patriot and Union article was correct in its observation that the weekly “invasion” of African American newcomers, slave and free, was detrimental to the community, both black and white. What it did not report, though, was a similar influx of other groups, namely European immigrants, drifters, homeless persons, and uprooted country folk looking for work in the city. All these groups put pressure on the new city’s resources, and all caused their own problems.


The "Street Schools"

One of the most noticeable problems was a sudden proliferation of young men and boys, both white and black, who spent most of their time on the street corners of the city’s main thoroughfares. First complained of several years earlier, the problem seemed to be getting particularly bad by the summer of 1860. These “corner loafers” blocked the sidewalks, accosted women, insulted passers-by, and annoyed everyone with their use of profanity. Most had no job and many were drunk much of the time. George Bergner referred to the phenomenon as “our street schools,” decrying them as “among the very worst institutions of the present age.” He counted “scores” of these young “pupils” on Market Street, “where blackguardism and rowdyism, obscenity and profanity, are taught ‘without a master,’ free of charge.”75 The market sheds in the city square also attracted groups of juveniles who “annoy ladies and gentlemen who visit the market,” and “form bad associations and contract immoral habits.”

Bergner’s observation, “Let [your son] run in the streets night by night, and if he does not get a fixed home in prison, it will not be because he has not deserved it,” was an accurate depiction of these locations as breeding grounds for crime. Harrisburg’s public school enrollment in 1860 showed more than a ten percent drop in attendance from the previous decade for non-American-born white males, ages six to fourteen, which was the general demographic of the “corner loafers.” After age fourteen, school attendance dropped off precipitously, as this was the age at which young men (and women) generally entered the work force.76

By the end of 1860, though, some of Harrisburg’s largest employers were feeling an economic pinch as orders from Southern consumers slacked off. This slowdown resulted in layoffs at the Eagle Works, where twenty-seven men were let go. Workers were also “discharged” from the Wilson and Brothers manufacturing plant on State Street and from the Harrisburg Car Works.77 This pre-winter loss of jobs only sharpened the enmity between newly arrived African Americans and poor whites, and swelled the ranks of the street ruffians.

Poverty breeds a host of other problems, and Harrisburg exhibited these ills as well in its poor neighborhoods. A woman on Mulberry Street was arrested in August for emptying out the manure from her hog pen and cow stable into Raspberry Alley. Such practices, although in violation of city ordinances, were all too commonplace, and the excess excrement only supplemented the piles of horse and mule manure deposited on unpaved city streets by those ubiquitous work animals. Informal dumpsites were located all over the city, and piles of manure, rotting vegetables, household garbage, and heaps of ash made for a generally unhealthy environment.

Disease was rampant, as were vermin. The columns of the Telegraph and the Patriot and Union were filled with advertisements for items to combat such pests: “Schwerin’s Annihilating Powder” was designed to “exterminate roaches, bed bugs, ants, moths, flies, fleas, garden worms, vine bugs” and was advertised as “sure death to rats and mice.” Grocer D. W. Gross, in the city, sold Costar’s Exterminating Powders, for “every form and species of vermin.”78 Such ads were featured prominently in local papers with eye-catching illustrations of rats and insects. Far from being hidden on back pages, they occupied several inches of column space alongside announcements of properties for sale, ads for stylish carriages, and advertisements announcing the availability of the newest fashions from New York.

Vermin and disease were not the only problems, though. In the summer of 1860, stray dogs became a nuisance and a public hazard, gathering in packs and menacing pedestrians. Sightings of rabid dogs were reported frequently, and the problem reached such a dangerous level that the city constable began offering a reward of one dollar for each un-muzzled dog captured on the streets of Harrisburg. Self-appointed dogcatchers made a tidy sum rounding up the canines and turning them in to authorities. The control of vermin and other pests was an important and necessary business in nineteenth century Harrisburg.

Alcohol was also a source of trouble and generally seen as a plague among the poor. The Telegraph regularly reported on undisciplined “lager houses” that tolerated brawls and sold beer to youngsters. There were several of these establishments located on Ridge Road, north of Harrisburg, that were singled out by the editor as examples of “disorderly houses.” Public drunkenness was a related problem, and the newspapers reported in nearly every issue on the arrest, confinement in jail, and subsequent fine of “one dollar plus costs” of those arrested.

Less frequently noted in the news columns, but no less outrageous, were the brazen operations of the city’s houses of prostitution. One notorious house that served liquor to its clients was operated in Short Street by a woman named Mary Avey. Avey served several prison terms of from two to three months for selling alcohol to “men and women of the baser sort.” Another house in the Fourth Ward, ironically located on Love Lane, was kept by a woman named Fanny Jones, who also served time for her profession.

Gambling houses were a third type of social ill and a number of these establishments existed throughout the city, located generally in the poorest neighborhoods. In November 1860, a man named Dick Allen was arrested for operating a gambling den in Tanner’s Alley. The reputation of this neighborhood was by now in serious decline, to the extent that even the Telegraph referred to the street as “the common resort of colored men and women of the baser sort.”79

Harrisburg’s African American residents ended the year 1860 on uncertain footing. They were cheered by the general rise of anti-slavery sentiment in Pennsylvania—sentiment that swelled in response to the Southern fire-eater rhetoric, the “Slave Power Conspiracy” proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, and the Dangerfield trial—even if that sentiment was slow in taking hold among white residents of the city. Yet they were still apprehensive over possible white backlash in the wake of John Brown’s raid.


Wide Awakes and the 1860 Election

With the headlines still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the last executions occurring in March, the raid lurked like a pale specter over the presidential electioneering that began in the summer of 1860. All four major presidential candidates had backers in the city, but by the approach of the November elections, Harrisburg’s white residents were firmly divided between the Republican ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, and the Southern Democratic ticket of John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane.

As expected, the Telegraph championed the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket and editor George Bergner sold a Lincoln biography and Lincoln campaign breastpins and medals from his bookstore, while the Patriot and Union supported the Breckinridge-Lane ticket. To try to attract the more moderate backers of the Constitutional Union Party, which presented itself and its candidates, John Bell and Edward Everett, as alternatives to the increasingly polarized major party candidates, the Patriot and Union stressed only the “preservation of the union” stances of their candidates, rather than their platform advocating the right of slaveholders to take their slaves into the territories. The more moderate rhetoric was very attractive to many white Harrisburgers, who were still quite jittery over the prospect of a border war with neighboring Maryland and Virginia. Harrisburg’s African Americans, although they could not vote, overwhelmingly supported the Republican ticket, and, at the risk of angering the pro-Southern Democrats, the Wide Awakes.

A phenomenon of the 1860 election was the proliferation of political “clubs,” which took their rallies to the streets in a spectacular fashion. The Republican clubs were dubbed “Wide Awakes” because they usually held boisterous torch-lit night rallies. An active Wide Awake club was present in Harrisburg by the summer of 1860. Clubs also existed in Lancaster, York, Middletown, Hummelstown, Carlisle, Jonestown, Bridgeport, Susquehanna Township (a unique equestrian club), Mechanicsburg, New Cumberland, Marietta, Duncannon, and elsewhere. The Telegraph carried regular announcements of local meetings and urged its members to support clubs in neighboring towns by sending delegations to their rallies.80

In the face of such activity, the political opposition was not idle. Regular rallies were also held in Harrisburg by Democratic clubs, and a smaller Bell and Everett election club held sporadic rallies at the office of the aged war hero Colonel John Roberts, in the 200 block of Chestnut Street, but these efforts were generally overshadowed by the more frequent, better organized, and better attended Wide Awake events. Harrisburg’s Democrats watched the soaring popularity of the Republican clubs with wary eyes.

It was not the abundance or even the high-spirited nature of these rallies that bothered the Breckinridge supporters and raised the John Brown specter among Democrats, though; it was their deliberate organization to resemble militia or paramilitary units. The Harrisburg Wide Awakes followed the regional and national pattern of organizing into companies, with uniforms, officers, assigned ranks for enlistees, and military style gear. They drilled regularly, staged parades, and marched solemnly to the local rallies in military formation.

While on parade, the ranks maintained a stern, martial bearing: no joking or horseplay, no laughing or chatter. The men were reminded that intoxicating liquor was banned for use when on parade. They were sometimes accompanied by a military-style band, and if singing was included as part of the procession, it had to be campaign songs, and all the men were expected to lend their voices in unison. Harrisburg’s first Wide Awake club—the city would support two official clubs by the time of the November election—held its meetings in the armory of the Cameron Guard, an old city militia unit, at the Exchange Building on Walnut Street.

All this martial pomp and regalia made Democrats very nervous. The memories of John Brown’s private army raid, and of the numerous threats from radical abolitionists in the North to raise and forward troops to Charles Town to rescue Brown, were still all too vivid to ignore what appeared to be the formation of hundreds of well-drilled, uniformed Republican companies less than a year after the attack on Harpers Ferry.

As early as September 1860, the Democratic editor of the Pennsylvania Sentinel branded the Harrisburg club a “Band of Mercenaries.” The Patriot and Union editor had no problem with identifying the Wide Awakes as John Brown organizations. In mid-October, following the gubernatorial race that elected Republican Andrew Gregg Curtin the next governor of Pennsylvania, it printed side-by-side two small articles that essentially accused Harrisburg Republicans of being complicit in a national abolitionist plot to form a private army:

Celebration.—The first anniversary of the taking of Harper’s [sic] Ferry by Old Osawatomie Brown, was celebrated in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening, by a grand Wide Awake torchlight procession, serenade to the Governor elect, and a number of eloquent speeches by eminent black Republicans.

Query?—What has become of the Cameron Guards? Swallowed up by the Wide Awakes, and now we are informed that a military company is likely to grow out of them. Is this to follow all over the country, wherever they have an organization? If we are to have partizan military companies, the Democrats should know it in time, so that they can secure a few of the public arms before they all fall into the hands of the followers of Old Ossawatomie.81

The Telegraph countered that both the Bell and Douglass factions also sported uniforms and carried torches, arguing, “No sensible man expects to find treason and rapine under the red cloaks of the Union torch-bearers that figure so largely at the Bell-Douglas gatherings in our principal cities east, south and west.” Yet according to Wide Awake defenders, the Breckinridge faction dismissed their organizations as harmless and was quick to denounce the Wide Awakes as “an organized army of John Browns, thirsting for an opportunity to invade the peaceful homes of our Southern friends.”82

The “benign political club” defense put up by George Bergner would have been easier to accept had the Telegraph not published very militant-sounding “duties” for the Harrisburg Wide Awake club on the eve of the gubernatorial election:

Wide-Awakes of the Old Keystone! – You are the organized Vigilance Committee of the State. Be at your posts early on election morning. Form your lines at the polls. At the order, “Right Face—March,” deposit your ballots as you reach the place of voting, and then you are ready for the day’s work…Search every township and every part of the township, on horse-back and in wagons, and bring up the luke-warm, and those who are so over-confident that they think their vote is not needed. Do this, and the vote at night will show a victory that will prove your worth, and will elect Andrew G. Curtin by 20,000 majority at the lowest calculation. Wide-Awakes, we again urge the importance of your being organized throughout the State on the day of election. To the polls and do your duty!83

In addition to marching in formation through the polls, Wide Awakes were instructed to challenge voters they suspected of being improperly registered, and to escort friendly voters, Republican poll watchers, and party officials to the polls.

The intimidation factor in these tactics was huge. Wide Awake companies consisted of young white men, age twenty-one or older, sporting enameled military cadet style caps and short capes. Their six-foot torches were the length of rifled muskets, and when lit, billowed black smoke and dripped fiery, hot oil on their bearers and on those around them. The caps and capes were made of enameled oilcloth for protection against the hot oil, and gave the wearers a shimmering, glowing appearance, particularly by torchlight. The Harrisburg Keystone Wide Awakes wore red leather caps with matching red oilcloth capes.84

In procession, trailing acrid black smoke, encircled by fire, and raining red-hot coal oil, the corps must have resembled an invading army from the netherworld. Little wonder, then, that the same men, attired in their heavy, flame-retardant gear and with their unlit torches shouldered like muskets, presented such an inspiring or intimidating sight (depending upon your political view) to other voters at the polls.

By November, the Telegraph had dropped the charade of pretending that the local Wide Awakes were not militia-in-training. George Bergner hopefully observed, “A large number of the Wide Awake clubs throughout the country are forming themselves into military companies. We hear some talk of forming one in this city, and there is public spirit enough among the young men to effect it.”85

Since the purpose of the Wide Awakes was to motivate and organize voters into paramilitary units, there were no African American companies, the vote having been taken away from Pennsylvania’s African American men with the State Constitution of 1838. However, as the campaign wore on, other auxiliary groups sprang up to embrace persons who were similarly not politically enfranchised. A company of white female Wide Awakes formed in Warrington, York County, and marched in procession, “going through the ‘fancy drills’ with a degree of accuracy which elicited unbounded applause” from those observing the parade. A Harrisburg Juvenile Wide Awake company, consisting of youngsters too young to vote, formed in October and marched on Market Street. The Patriot and Union reported, “Their equipments were the same as the ancient order, and the show was quite respectable in appearance.”86

But no African American Wide Awake club formed in Harrisburg, either unofficially or as an auxiliary unit. It seems that the parade of the armed Garnet Guards in August 1859 was more of a martial display by Harrisburg’s African American men than local authorities were willing to tolerate. Not even the unbridled enthusiasm of the 1860 Presidential campaign was enough to override that lingering fear. Harrisburg’s black community, though they had arguably more at stake in the impending election than local whites, were legally and socially shut out of active campaigning, almost.

A final, all-out Presidential campaign rally and parade was planned for the evening of Tuesday, 23 October 1860, in preparation for the election, which was two weeks away. The Wide Awakes, as usual, would parade from their formation site on Front Street to the site of the Republican rally in front of the Jones House on Market Square, following a winding route that touched on all the wards of the city. Visiting companies from across the region were expected, with the mounted Lincoln Rangers, an equestrian company from Susquehanna Township, in the van.

As with previous rallies, sympathetic persons living along the route of the procession were asked to “illuminate” their houses in a show of support. This activity involved lighting as many candles or lamps as possible in the front rooms of the house and opening all the window shades and doors, so that the light flowed out into the street. The illumination complemented the torchlight and was considered a safer show of support than the bonfires that had been employed at previous rallies.

Bonfires, which generally were built by gangs of boys who were too young to participate in the parade, had been banned by the mayor since early October, when both parties had scheduled major rallies on the same night, creating significant public safety concerns. The political bonfire ban left the illumination of houses as the most conspicuous way for non-members to participate in the rally.

The parade route happened to pass through several neighborhoods that had a considerable number of African American residents, and many of these residents took advantage of the opportunity to show their support for Lincoln and the Republicans. The Patriot and Union, in reporting on the parade the next day, noted, “In the way of doing it up strong, the Negroes far excelled the whites. A large number of Negro houses were most brilliantly illuminated—among them the residence of a darkey named Joe Popel, in Filbert street, which, it is said, made a much better display than the Telegraph office.”87

It is fitting that Joseph Popel was the one resident identified by name for providing a fine show for the Wide Awakes. Ever since his bold solitary assault on the southern slaveholders at the Walnut Street prison in 1850, for which he was severely beaten, Popel had been a leader of the local resistance. In 1850, when a local judge gave permission for a group of Virginians to take several black men back to slavery, and provided police protection to those southerners, Popel found a way to defy the law and stand up for his beliefs. Ten years later, when State law denied him a voice in electing the nation’s next president, Joseph Popel found a way to defy that law and make his voice heard. His example was well observed.


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72. Patriot and Union, 26 November 1860.

73. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 3 August 1860.

74. Ibid.

75. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 17 November 1860.

76. For the school attendance of Harrisburg boys in the age range of 6-14, American-born whites remained steady at 77 percent between 1850 and 1860, while the attendance of blacks fell from 51 to 41 percent. The attendance of Irish-born boys fell from 85 to 68 percent, and that of German-born boys fell from 83 to 67 percent. In contrast, the rates of attendance for girls in those same groups did not change by more than 4 percentage points, and for the non-American-born groups, the change was positive. Eggert, Harrisburg Industrializes, 255.

77. Patriot and Union, 28 November 1860.

78. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 26 June, 3 August 1860.

79. Ibid., 13 September, 25 October, 1, 2 November 1860. Love Lane, or Love Alley, ran north to south for one block, between North and Briggs streets, just south of Green Street. Its name was changed to Prince Street circa 1910. “Streets and Alleys in the City of Harrisburg,” in Harrisburg City Directory, 1870, 30.

80. Ibid., 23 August, 11, 13, 27 September 1860.

81. Pennsylvania State Sentinel, 19 September 1860; Patriot and Union, 19 October 1860.

82. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 6 October 1860.

83. Ibid., 29 September 1860.

84. Ibid., 18, 22 October 1860.

85. Ibid., 3 November 1860.

86. Ibid., 15 November 1860.

87. Republican rallies were usually held at or in front of the Jones House, while Democratic rallies were held in front of the Eagle Hotel (later known as the Bolton). Patriot and Union, 25 October 1860.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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