You Can Spit Here: Samuel Pennypacker’s Veto Messages

During Samuel Pennypacker’s tenure as governor of Pennsylvania, he vetoed many bills. “There is far too much legislation,” he declared, and the “modern tendency to invent new crimes ought to be curbed.” During his time in office (1903-1907), he vetoed or used his influence to destroy thousands of bills that would have created stiff fines and punishments for offenses. At the time, politicians were overcome with a “perfect mania for legislation,” proposing bills regulating or controlling just about anything, causing one critic to write “a statue is the panacea for the legislative quack.” The Governor believed that it was “far better to leave the law alone unless the necessity for change was plain.” Under Pennypacker’s watch, less than half as many bills were passed annually by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly than there were before or after his term.

Samuel Pennypacker

Samuel Pennypacker, probably reading a new bill with disgust. Capital Preservation Committee.

Another unusual detail from Pennypacker’s efforts to curb legislative excess was his colorful style of vetoing. Unlike previous governors, he wrote detailed and thoughtful official reasons for each veto that were published for the public. Granted, there was probably a lot more going on behind the scenes in the Governor’s office. However, these veto messages give us some insights into Pennypacker’s thought process and some of the pressing issues that affected Pennsylvanians in the early 20th century.

Below is Pennypacker’s 1903 veto message for a law that would have imposed fines or prison sentences for any citizen caught spitting in a public place. The law, supported by members of the State Board of Health, was intended to protect public health and help prevent the spread of communicable diseases like tuberculosis (called consumption then). Take a read to see why Pennypacker would oppose such a bill!

“The purpose of the bill appears to be an effort to make people nice and cleanly in their habits by legislation. It is not confined to those who have consumption or other diseases which may be so transmitted. There are certain inconveniences which necessarily result from association with our fellows and which have to be endured. There is an efiluvia, more or less disagreeable, from every living person. There is an exudation from every pore of the skin. There are conditions under which spitting is almost impossible to restrain.

Spittoon

Pennsylvania senators and representatives had personal spittoons next to each of their desks, and the Governor custom-made brass and bronze one. They were used as late as the 1950s. Capitol Preservation Committee.

Among the thousands of people who go to a circus, one or more may have a cold; catarrh, or sudden contact between the teeth and tongue may cause a flow of saliva. Imprisonment seems to be severe punishment for yielding to what cannot always be prevented. If spittoons were provided, there would be a stronger reason for such legislation. Upon the whole, while it must be conceded that spitting is not nice, pleasant or polite, it seems to me that it would be better to leave the cure of a bad habit to the gradual development of a better taste and higher culture rather than to attempt a regulation by law, in the shape of an enactment which imposes imprisonment, instead of a well digested health regulation.”

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A Vital Link to the Past: Pennsylvania Birth and Death Certificates

Birth and death certificates are a genealogist’s best friends. They provide authoritative information about individuals (much more than just their dates of birth and death), and are the starting point for many exciting searches into family history. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Health began recording birth and death certificates in 1906 (many of which are available online today). Since then, the department’s Vital Statistics division has recorded and preserved information about millions of Pennsylvanians. As you probably know from personal experience, birth and death records are extremely important in many situations.

It takes a lot of coordination and effort to record all of these births and deaths, and we should not forget the clerks and typists who were (and still are) the unsung heroes of this critical work. They make this wealth of historical information available to us today. Do you think you have the patience and skill to type out and organize hundreds and thousands of certificates each year? With no mistakes? That’s what these women did. Enjoy these Pennsylvania Vital Statistics office photographs taken in 1945 and description of the division written in 1955!

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Reception Room

“The Division of Statistics and Records coordinates the functions of the Section of Vital Statistics and the Section of Statistical Methods. The Section of Vital Statistics is responsible for the collection, permanent binding, filing and indexing of records of birth, death, adoption, marriage, divorce, annulment of marriage and annulment of adoption.

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Recording Room

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Snake, Rattle, and Roll: Pennsylvania Timber Rattlesnakes

Not so long ago, it was easy to find a timber rattlesnake in most parts of Pennsylvania. It was even easier to kill one.

In the early 19th century, pioneer adventurer Phillip Tome recalled that it was common to see thirty or forty snakes at a time near his home along Susquehanna River. “The snakes were so numerous that we used to clear the yard and build fires to keep them away,” he recalled in his 1854 memoir “on leaving the house we always put on a pair of woolen socks and leggings over our shoes to protect our legs.”

Tome trained his dogs to bite rattlesnakes in their middle and shake them to pieces. Anytime he and his brother were hunting, they made sure to kill the biggest and ugliest rattlesnakes they found. After a lifetime of travel in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, Tome declared that snakes were “very numerous east of the Allegheny mountains, but the state of New York was never as badly invested with them as Pennsylvania.”

Irvin George_1921

Irvin George, Champion Snake Catcher of Perry County, 1921. PA State Archives RG6.20: Department of Forests and Waters.

Though Tome was known to exaggerate his stories, his attitude towards rattlers was typical of many Pennsylvanians in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Perry County, champion snake catcher Irvin “Daddy” George feared rattlesnakes as much as he was skilled at capturing them. “I always considered it a duty to kill or capture every rattlesnake or copperhead that I can as it may save somebody from being bit,” he said in a 1942 Altoona Tribune article. George was known as the “St. Patrick” of Perry County and would tie captured snakes to his cart wheels as he road down the road to and from his home. The snakebite scars covering his arms were testament to the thousands of rattlers he caught. Continue reading

Relishing His Crime: SCI Graterford and the Stolen Hotdog

On March 20, 1952, an inmate at Pennsylvania’s SCI Graterford prison was written up in the Warden’s Daily Log for stealing a hotdog (“larceny of frankfurter”) from the mess hall. Not what I was expecting to find as I was searching for a prisoner admission record, but worthy of mention here I think.

Graterford Hotdog

PA State Archives RG15.HH.

I wasn’t able to find any other mentions of hot dog thefts or of inmate E-1832 at SCI Graterford. Hopefully he had a frank discussion with the warden and cleaned up his act…I hope he didn’t meat with any other consequences.

Because activities in prisons were usually documented in extreme detail, these records can be a gold mine of information for researchers. If you’re interested in learning more about prison history in Pennsylvania, the State Archives has records from several state prisons that are really great!

Forests Have Always Been a Play Place for Children in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s forests comprise some of the best places to relax and see grand natural views in the state. In the 1920s, over 1.3 million acres of Pennsylvania was covered in forest. Though this may seem like a lot, it was actually a small amount compared to 100 years earlier, when forests covered practically every square mile of space in the Keystone State. A voracious lumber industry decimated the Pennsylvania forests in the 19th century, leaving 5 million barren acres known as the “Pennsylvania Desert.”

In the early 20th century, prominent Pennsylvanians finally took notice of their dwindling forest spaces and began took efforts to preserve them. “Why not restore Penn’s Woods?” Governor William Sproul asked in 1920, “why not let these mountains contribute once more as they have done in the past to the wealth, prosperity, and beauty of Pennsylvania?” Sproul was joined by other champions of Pennsylvania’s forests- Joseph Rothrock and Gifford Pinchot– and created a Department of Forestry and dozens of state parks and forests.

Pennsylvania’s forests were never empty natural spaces, they have always been full of people and activity. Before European colonization forced them westward, Pennsylvania’s woods were inhabited by the Shawnee, Erie, Iroquois, Susquehannock, Lenape, Delaware, and Munsee tribes. European settlers used Pennsylvania’s forests to build homes, industries, and entire communities as they spread across the state. By the early 20th century, no other state had more people living in rural areas than Pennsylvania. And most of those rural Pennsylvanians lived in or around forests. Striking a balance between harvesting protecting these forests makes Pennsylvania the perfect place for any hunter, hiker, or nature lover of any age today.

Below are a few pictures of Pennsylvania children who played and lived in the forests of Pennsylvania. Some of these are taken in State Parks, built to preserve the state’s forests, while others are from logging camps and other unprotected natural areas. All paint a picture of a vibrant play place where there were plenty of things to do for any kid. All of these photographs were taken from the Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20: Department of Forests and Waters, Public Relations Office, Photographs and Negatives 1890-1971. Please cite the State Archives if you copy any of these images!

Promised Land Lake


“Promised Land Lake,” Delaware State Forest, Pike County, 1928, P.E. Gottshall

Wading

“Wading,” Hammersley Region, Clinton County, W.T. Clarke

The Kiddies Have Been Playing

“The Kiddies Have Been Playing,” Near Betula, McKean County, W.T. Clarke

Playing Among the Trees

“Playing Among the Trees,” Penn State Forest near Milroy, July 2 1924, J.S. Illick

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Historic Photos of Hunting and Fishing in Pennsylvania

I came across a great collection of hunting/fishing photographs the other day at the Pennsylvania State Archives. All of these were taken by the PA Department of Forestry in the north and west parts of the state between 1915 and 1935 to document the uses of Pennsylvania’s natural areas. The folks in these pictures don’t look too different from the hunters of today.

All of these photographs were taken from the Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 6.20: Department of Forests and Waters, Public Relations Office, Photographs and Negatives 1890-1971. Please cite the State Archives if you copy any of these images!

A Hunting Party

“A Hunting Party,” Logan State Forest, June 1925 photo by H.B. Kirk

Ole Bull Public Camp Ground

“Ole Bull Public Camp Ground,” December 1922 photo by W.A. Luey

A Catch of Coons Rabbit and Pheasants

“A Catch of Coons, Rabbit and Pheasants,” photo by H.W. Shoemaker

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Al Capone’s Secret Release from a Pennsylvania Prison

ESP Capone Mug Shot

Al Capone’s Eastern State Penitentiary Mugshot. ESP Historic Site.

In the spring of 1929, Al Capone left a meeting of mafia leaders in Atlantic City and was traveling back to his Chicago home when he was arrested in Philadelphia. The mobster was caught carrying and concealing a deadly weapon, a .38 caliber revolver. After a quick trial, Capone and his bodyguard Frank Cline both pled guilty and were sentenced to serve one year in Eastern State Penitentiary. If you visit the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site today, you can even see Capone’s cell as it looked at the time. But what most people don’t know is that Capone was secretly transferred to SCI Graterford the day before his release.

Newspaper articles published shortly before Capone’s March 1930 release date warned that the mob boss’ enemies were coming to meet him at the prison gates and crowds of onlookers started showing up at the ESP gate to get a glimpse of “Scarface Al” in person. Worried about violence and “possible harm, bodily or otherwise,” the ESP Board of Trustees and Warden Herbert Smith came up with a plan: release Capone from another prison. SCI Graterford, built in 1927, was only 30 miles north of Philadelphia and there was plenty of room for Capone and Cline. The two men were both quietly driven to Graterford in the warden’s private car. They spent their last nights as prisoners in a Graterford cell. The public didn’t catch on to the trick until it was too late.

Capone Slips Away NYT Headline

The New York Times was among the papers waiting to see Capone at ESP.

The next morning Capone and Cline walked alone out of Graterford’s gates and into a Buick sedan that sped back to Chicago. Later that day, a crowd of two thousand reporters and curious Philadelphians were disappointed to hear that they wouldn’t get to see America’s most infamous mobster walk free. “We certainly stuck one on your eye,” Warden Smith shouted to the crowd, “the big guy went out of here…we shot him out in a brown automobile.”

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Capone and Cline’s commutation record. PA State Archives, RG15.18

Al Capone’s year at Eastern State Penitentiary and SCI Graterford was the first prison sentence he ever served. Some newspaper accounts claim that he arranged to be arrested on purpose in Philadelphia to keep himself safe from rival gang assassins in Chicago after the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Capone always denied this charge, and a month after his release from Graterford said: “One thing I would like to set at rest is the report that I went into jail to dodge something. If I wanted to go to jail, I certainly wouldn’t pick one in Pennsylvania. I would have looked around for one where there were more conveniences.” Whatever the case, Capone’s stay at ESP and Graterford mark an interesting chapter in Pennsylvania’s corrections history.

Graterford Warden Log_March 1930

Capone’s record (prisoner C-5227) in the Graterford Warden Daily Journal is buried amongst the details of routine prison activities. PA State Archives RG15.HH.

Administrative staff at SCI Graterford recently helped transfer a large collection of their historical records to the State Archives in Harrisburg, including a 1930 Warden’s journal that describes Capone’s secret transfer and release from Graterford. This journal is the only known record that confirms Capone spent time at Graterford. These records will be preserved in the archives building and will be available to visitors to look at in the coming months. The State Archives also has Capone’s ESP admission records and his sentence commutation order, personally signed by Governor John Fisher.

If you’d like to learn more about Al Capone and his prison time in Pennsylvania, read this New York Times article: Capone Slips Away From New Prison_NYT18301930 or contact the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site or the Pennsylvania State Archives for more information.

The Freedom Gang

I’d like to tell you a story of a train heist gone wrong, of a tough gang of thieves who didn’t quite pull off the job. And they didn’t get away either. But the men reporters called the Freedom Gang still have a story I think you’ll want to hear.

It was winter, 1901. Jesse James had been dead for nearly 20 years and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to South America earlier that year. More sophisticated law enforcement and secure forms of currency like traveler’s checks were making train robberies harder to pull off and even harder for bandits to get away. But the risks weren’t enough to stop the Freedom Gang from going after a safe full of cash, guarded by a lone engineer at a quiet Pennsylvania station.

The Freedom Gang was led by William O’Brien, a mustachioed Canadian who went by many names. Some called him Wolf or Little Joe or even Ralph Walhopper; he seemed to have a different name for each robbery he had pulled in the past. O’Brien was what the police called a “yegg man,” a burglar specializing in safe cracking. A printer by trade, he had a $100 price on his head for pulling off a string of bank robberies in Michigan. Moving east, he set his sights on the small town banks and unguarded railroad stations near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

Freedom Gang Members

The five members of the Freedom Gang, 1901. Pennsylvania State Archives RG 15.66.

O’Brien arrived on the East Coast and didn’t waste any time recruiting a gang of fellow thieves. He found four men who worked for the Northern Central Railroad– they knew the area well and would be less suspicious hanging around NCR stations late at night. The quintet pulled off a few small robberies in Aberdeen, MD and York Haven, PA before they moved on their big target: The NCR Station in New Freedom.

New Freedom was a small town on the Mason Dixon Line, 40 miles north of Baltimore. Its rail station was the junction of the Northern Central and Stewartstown railroads and the gang knew that a large amount of money was usually stashed in the office safe.

They broke into the New Freedom station late on a Wednesday night. The lone engineer guarding the office was out inspecting the tracks when the burglars crept in and got to work on the safe. O’Brien drilled a hole in it and stuck a short fuse and nitroglycerine inside. The bomb should have blown the door easily but surprisingly failed. Detectives said it was because a wedge stuck in the door joint had broken off and too much air was allowed to get in. There was $5100 cash inside; so close but just out of reach. The gang tried twice but failed each time.

After the second attempt the engineer returned from his patrol and noticed a light in the building. As he walked down the station platform, he neared the door and peered through the window inside. To his surprise, there was no one there and he turned off the light.

A second later a hand reached out from the darkness and grabbed him. The muzzles of four revolvers flashed in his face and a chorus of voices demanded he give up his valuables. He pulled away and started to run but a blow to the head knocked him out cold. He woke up a few minutes later to see the thieves holding his watch and pocket book. The Freedom Gang took him back to the office, threatened him not to tell anyone what happened, and said to go home. And before he knew it, the thieves had disappeared into the night.

New Freedom NCR Station

New Freedom Station still stands today. Steam Into History.

The engineer waited till the coast was clear and ran for the police. Within a few hours railroad detectives were called in. They got to work early the next morning.

There weren’t many clues at the scene of the crime, the thieves wore masks and the engineer couldn’t identify any of them. There were no other clues left behind near the safe or on the office. The Freedom Gang had gotten away clean…or so it seemed.

After making some inquiries in New Freedom, the detectives learned that several men had spent the night in a nearby hotel bar. When they ran out of beer money the men pawned a watch with the barkeep for a few pints of whiskey and left. As luck would have it, this was the engineer’s stolen watch from last night.

The chase was on. After more questioning the detectives learned that an NCR trackwalker had seen several men drinking in an open freight car earlier that morning. They raced over to the railyard, but it was too late. The car was empty, save for two whiskey bottles tossed on the floor. With police assistance, the rest of town and locals interviewed, but there were no more signs of the gang.

The detectives widened their search to a 10 mile circle around New Freedom. A thorough hunt led them to nearby Bentley Springs and by the end of the day to Parkton. Searching the surrounding woods, they found five men asleep by a campfire. It was O’Brien and the Freedom Gang.

Capture of the Yegg Bank Burglars

Still from the 1904 film “Capture of the Yegg Bank Burglars”.

They stole silently into camp and aimed a pistol at each man. The signal was given and the gang was woken up and ordered to surrender. Two men tried to pull their own guns out for a fight but realized they’d been had. The chase was over; the Freedom Gang caught.

They were taken to the police station in Baltimore and searched. O’Brien’s men carried revolvers, a bottle of nitroglycerine, a bar of soap, chisels, $10 in cash, and a ring of keys in many shapes and sizes. For all their planning and preparations, this was all they had to show for their tiny crime spree.

The Freedom Gang’s run on the wrong side of the law was over. A sturdy safe, back luck, and good detective work doomed the thieves to a quick capture. But even if they had gotten away, the gang would have been one of the last great outlaw gangs to threaten America’s trains and banks. Their way of life was almost dead.

Though there would be a few more high profile train and bank robberies after the Freedom Gang was caught, the golden age of the outlaw gangs was over. It was becoming much harder for a gang to burst into town, pull a heist, and get away clean. Changes in technology, forensic science, law enforcement practices, and lots of other factors had changed the criminal landscape forever.

Eastern State Penitentiary

The Freedom Gang served their time in this Philadelphia prison. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

The story of the Freedom Gang barely registered a blip in the newspapers. It was, after all, a failed crime attempted by a couple of second-rate thieves who were easily captured. But the gang’s story ends better than most of the great train and bank robberies of the day. Many train robbers were killed in shootouts with guards, on the run from the law, or were swiftly sentenced to death by the courts. The Freedom Gang was sentenced to just seven years and nine months in the Eastern State Penitentiary, and they even got out early when a judge commuted their sentence.

When the Telegraph Lines Connects Pennsylvania

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Many of the most memorable inventions of the 19th century aided transportation and communication, as seen in this 1876 Currier & Ives print. Library of Congress.

Long distance communication and transportation have historically been struggles in America. Long roads, bad roads, and many times no roads at all have slowed the movement of people, goods, and ideas all over. Fortunately, Americans turned this challenge into an opportunity with new inventions and industries that have improved our lives in many ways.

It’s easy today to take long distance calling, good highways, and next day delivery for granted, but these were all distant dreams in the 19th century. As new inventions were created and became available for use, they had dramatic impacts on the every day lives of ordinary Americans- sometimes in ways you might not expect.

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Conestoga wagons were also known as covered wagons or prairie schooners to settlers moving to the American West. Landis Valley Farm Museum.

Maybe it was just pure luck, but Pennsylvania happened to be at the heart of many 19th century technological advances that made transportation and communication possible over long distances. Conestoga wagons, invented by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, made travel easier on the region’s rocky, rutted, and muddy roads (and also where there were no roads at all). No surprise that generations of settlers moving out west made Conestoga wagons the vehicle of choice to move their families and possessions westward across the continent. Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Hudson Railway was one of the first American railroad companies and was the first to operate a locomotive on rails in the United States in 1829. The Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered in 1846, became the largest railroad in America and helped move freight and good all over the country.

One story from Pennsylvania’s innovative past you may not have heard of comes to us from Lancaster County. In the late 1840s, both the curious and the suspicious were introduced to a rudimentary new technology: the telegraph. We all know that the telegraph was the basis for our modern electronic communication networks, but the first people to see a telegraph had mixed feelings about the new machine. Continue reading

The Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, Pennsylvania

Muncy_Kitchen

Inmates training in the kitchen at Muncy. Lycoming College.

In 1913, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed an act establishing the Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, about 20 miles east of Williamsport, PA. The first woman was admitted in 1920 and Muncy’s population grew steadily in the following years. Many new buildings were built in the 1930s, some of which are still in use today. Originally, the institution was built to house first-time female offenders between the ages of 16 and 30, but the maximum age limit was removed when Muncy was transferred from the Department of Welfare to the Department of Justice (now Corrections) in 1953.

Muncy Cottage

Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

By 1955, 11 cottages were built on the grounds. According to one report,

“The cottages are homelike in atmosphere with pianos, radios, and record players in the living rooms where each evening, except Sunday, the girls may congregate, play the piano, listen to the radio, sing, play cards, crochet, embroider, and on Saturday nights dance until 8:00 o’clock…the beautiful campus and well-kept, mountain stone buildings compare most favorably with those of the best of our modern American colleges. It is hard to believe that such beauty and freedom could ever be associated with a penal institution.” At Muncy, “each girl is encouraged to use nail polish, rouge, and lipstick, and to arrange her hair attractively. Every individual girl is issued three print dresses which she wears to religious services and movies, as well as at all other appropriate times.”

Inmates were kept busy working on Muncy’s 828-acre farm and in the power sewing shop throughout the year. Inmates were paid two cents an hour for their work. In the 1950s, Muncy also offered vocational and business classes in the winter months to help women find employment after they were paroled. If an inmate was paroled, she was given ten dollars, a suitcase with several outfits, a “very stylish hair-do,” and a ride to the train or bus station.

Muncy Group

Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

Muncy still only holds female inmates, and is known today as SCI Muncy. The Pennsylvania State Archives has a variety of documents, photographs, and other interesting stuff related to the facility. To learn more about Muncy’s long history and the women who were detained there, see the Department of Correction’s history of Muncy, or this Muncy scrapbook that’s been digitized by Lycoming College Archives. Lots of interesting stories here!