The first part of this article, about Lydia Gross’s leadership in the Doylestown Mennonite Sewing Circle and proposed Women’s Missionary Society, was written by Mary Jane Hershey and published in the MHEP Newsletter in March 1996.
The second part, written by myself, is about Lydia’s unknown or secret marriage.
I don’t tell the story to cast aspersions on her character. Rather, it is an example of how complex life could be in the old days, even for conservative Mennonites who valued honesty and integrity. Sometimes it was just better to keep secrets. Thankfully (for genealogists) records survive that tell a more complete story than people were able to tell in their own lifetimes.
There are some unanswered questions, but this is the story of how a Mennonite bishop’s daughter married a tattooed criminal, yet somehow kept the marriage secret and retained the respect of the church, eventually becoming one of the earliest female leaders among local Mennonites.
Mary Jane Hershey wrote:
Among local “Old Mennonite” churches (Franconia Conference), Doylestown had the first sewing circle which began in 1908. Lydia M. Gross (1872-1938) and Mattie Detweiler learned of clothing needs and drove a team to the home of Preacher A. O. Histand asking for permission to start sewing circle work. He was quite enthusiastic about this new venture and announced the first meeting to the congregation. Beginning in 1908 the Doylestown circle supplied clothing and bedding to Mennonite missions in India and South America, and to the eastern Pennsylvania missions, the Eastern Mennonite Home and the Christ Home at Warminster.
Looking through the lists of women who served with the church-wide Mennonite Women’s Missionary Society the only person recorded from the Franconia Conference was Lydia Gross from Doylestown. She was elected to a two year term as district representative on August 30, 1917, at a meeting at Yellow Creek near Goshen, Indiana.
Lydia Gross was involved in the discussions beginning in 1915 concerning the Mennonite Women’s Missionary Society request to become an auxiliary to the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. The appeal was rejected. Lydia Gross reported in November 1917 that although sewing circles and raising money for mission purposes was acceptable, the Franconia Conference leaders preferred that all money be channeled through the conference. Lydia wrote, “They do not approve of women having a separate board.” Later this Women’s Missionary Society was dissolved and all women’s activities came under the name of “sewing circles.”
This Lydia Gross from Doylestown was the only person born and raised in the Franconia Conference who served on the church-wide women’s organization until 1965 when another Doylestown woman, Marie Althouse Stoltzfus was appointed.
Forrest Moyer writes (2020):
Lydia Gross was a noteworthy woman from a devout family.
Her father Samuel Gross (1839-1895) was bishop of Doylestown, Deep Run and Blooming Glen Mennonite Churches. He must have been well-liked. Nearly 2,000 people attended his funeral. His father and grandfather (immigrant Jacob Gross), all his uncles on the Gross side, and several cousins, were ordained leaders.
At Doylestown Mennonite Church, Lydia’s uncle John served as deacon with her father, the bishop, in the 1890s, at the time of her marriage. Later her cousin Abram Gross became deacon at Doylestown and her brother Joseph preacher at Blooming Glen. In Nebraska, uncle Sam Lapp was deacon (married to aunt Sarah Gross, a midwife/home doctor who delivered over 1,200 babies). Four of the Lapp sons were ordained, and two were missionaries to India — so when Lydia sought to organize a sewing circle for mission support in 1908, she had a family connection to the work.
This is also a family (Lydia’s siblings) that produced leaders influential in the late 20th century — brothers Willard and Henry Swartley, Joy Swartley Sawatzky, Burton Yost and Marion Yost Whitermore.
All this to say that when Lydia married a non-Mennonite, tattooed Brit named Henry Howlett at the Doylestown Presbyterian parsonage in 1895, she was moving outside the box. I happened across this record a couple years ago while compiling a genealogy of the family.
Henry Howlett’s character
He was tattooed, you say?! Tattoos were popular in Victorian England: https://theconversation.com/how-tattoos-became-fashionable-in-victorian-england-122487 Not only sailors and convicts had them. Henry Howlett gave his occupation as “painter” upon arrival in New York harbor, August 20, 1894. According to the record, he had three pieces of baggage and intended to settle in Pennsylvania.
The English name Howlett was uncommon in Pennsylvania. Using Ancestry.com, it is possible to tie together the record of Henry Howlett in Doylestown, PA, with other records based on his age (born about 1865) and parents’ names as given in his marriage record.
His tattoos are detailed in his prison record from Eastern State Penitentiary: “Minnie Green; Harriet Martin; English coat of arms; anchor on left forearm; two English flags; sailor on right forearm; ring on little finger of right hand; anchor on left hand at base of thumb.”
Henry may have begun his working life as a sailor. An 1871 census record from London, England, lists him as the son of Henry Howlett, joiner, and Louisa, who had several boarders in their home, including a master sailor. Henry’s prison record states he left home at age 12; perhaps he was hired to a ship as cabin boy.
Henry did become a convict here in Pennsylvania. I was unable to learn much about his crime, except that it probably happened close to the time of his marriage to Lydia Gross. Perhaps the crime preceded their marriage, and when she learned of it she left him.
He was in prison by June 1897. The Allentown Leader newspaper reported that he tried to escape Bucks County Jail, where he was serving sentence for “assault and battery with intent to kill.” This may be sensational reporting. His prison record from Eastern State Penitentiary lists his first crime as “larceny”. When Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed, I plan to make a trip to Doylestown to see if I can find more court records or newspaper accounts of Howlett’s crime, as well as a divorce record, if one exists, for Henry and Lydia.Fri, Jun 18, 1897 – Page 1 · The Allentown Leader (Allentown, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com
After failing to escape, he was sent to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. His interesting prison record is below. Click the photo to enlarge. It’s also interesting to read about other prisoners, including “Chief American Horse,” a showman from Indian Territory. The record shows that Henry Howlett was to be released on August 23, 1898.
I don’t know what ultimately happened to Henry, but it appears he worked as a hired man on farms in New Jersey (per 1900 and 1905 U.S. Census). He may have later returned to England or moved to Canada.
Lydia resumes maiden identity
In 1900, Lydia Gross was listed in the census as single, using her maiden name, living with her aunt Eliza Myers Hendricks in Perkasie, working as a cigar maker.
For the rest of her life, she was known as Miss Lydia Gross, and never married. When she died, the church buried her under her maiden name, and her obituary in the Gospel Herald stated: “She united with the Mennonite Church in her early years and remained faithful until death.” Her brother listed her as single (rather than divorced) on her death certificate.
This all leads me to believe that no one (or possibly only her father, who died a month after her marriage) knew that she had been married. In the Mennonite Church at that time, marriage was considered a permament bond, and a married woman was always called by her husband’s name. Members were not allowed to marry non-Mennonites (such as Mr. Howlett). A divorced or separated person was required to report the irregularity of their marital relationship to the church before communion, and if it were known that Lydia had been married, it’s hard to imagine that the church would allow her to return to a maiden identity.
I suspect Lydia recognized that if she did not keep the marriage secret, every aspect of her life would become more difficult and marred by society’s knowledge of her criminal husband. Perhaps she lived with Henry Howlett only a few days or weeks (or not at all), and did not consider this worth disrupting her life and church fellowship. Each time she told her uncle John or cousin Abram (deacons at Doylestown) that she was prepared to take communion (a statement of “peace with God, with the church, and with all men” was required), this irregularity was under the rug.
Timeline of events
A useful exercise in genealogy is to create a timeline of a subject’s personal and family life, allowing us to notice connections and context. Here I present a timeline of what I currently know about Lydia Gross’s life. I suggest some meaning, but you can draw your own conclusions. It is important to state that Lydia was an asset to her community in Doylestown and the wider Mennonite church; possibly more so because she kept her marriage private. I’m thankful for her life.
Lydia’s uncle, John L. Gross, is ordained deacon at Doylestown Mennonite Church, to assist his uncle, Daniel Gross.
1866 November 13
Lydia’s father, Samuel G. Gross, at age 27 is ordained preacher at Doylestown, to succeed his deceased father. This was two generations in a row of brothers serving together as preacher and deacon in the congregation.
1872 March 3
Lydia is born to Samuel & Lydia Ann Myers Gross of Plumstead Township. Her father was also her pastor and bishop from birth.
1881 March 23
Lydia’s mother dies at age 36:
[Died] March 23, near Fountainville, Bucks Co., Pa., Lydia, wife of Samuel Gross, aged 36 years, 2 months and 24 days. She was buried on Sunday, the 27th, at Doylestown Meeting-house, whither she was followed by a large concourse of friends assembled to sympathize with a sorrowing husband and seven motherless children, the youngest about three years old. She suffered about eight months with an abcess of the hip and latterly also with scrofula. She bore her afflictions with fortitude and resignation. Peace to her ashes. (Herald of Truth, May 1881)
1883 November 1
Young widower Samuel Gross is elevated to the office of bishop in a service at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church.
A fight over buggy sheds and right-of-way at Blooming Glen erupts into a decade-long conflict in which bishop Samuel Gross silences and removes from office the deacon at Blooming Glen, David Fretz.
Fretz retaliates by suing Gross in court for defamation, seeking $5,000 damages. Papers from both sides, preserved at the Mennonite Heritage Center (Hist. Mss. Coll. #10), document what must have been a very stressful experience.
1887 January 22
Lydia’s only sister and oldest sibling, Christiana, is married to William Swartley.
Lydia’s older brothers Joseph and Christian are married.
The 1890 U.S. Census was largely destroyed, but we can assume Lydia was living at home, keeping house for her father and three younger brothers.
1891 May 19
Samuel Gross is served notice that Fretz is suing him for defamation. (MHC Hist. Mss. 10)
1891 October 1
Samuel inquires of the assembled Franconia Conference, what to do in case “a member” is taken into court or his property seized by the sheriff. “The advice was to remain quiet — still zu halten — until the matter is settled, then take it up with the bishop, the ministers and the deacons and brethren, etc.” (Preacher Jacob Mensch’s minutes of conference, translated by Raymond Hollenbach, MHC)
1894 January 10
David Fretz records in his diary: “John Miller was out collecting money for Sam Gross.” Perhaps the day in court was approaching. On Feb 5 and 13: “We participated in the mock court trial at the school house” and Apr 14: “I bought stuff for a suit of clothing”. (MHC Hist. Mss. 10)
1894 May 3
At Franconia Conference assembly:
First, there was a speech that complaints were made that things were no longer being done according to the rules set forth by the conference, etc…and about bishop Samuel Gross that he had gone too far in his dispute with Fretz and that he should make an apology before the conference and in his congregation, etc. A certain minister and deacon were personally asked if they would be satisfied if he did so and answered yes. So bishop Samuel Gross made a request to the assemblage for patience and forgiveness where he had done wrong. (Mensch minutes)
1894 May 7
David Fretz’s diary: “Samuel Gross was arrested. They appeared before the Squire.”
This cryptic note is the closest thing to a court date that I could find without searching records and newspapers at Doylestown. Perhaps Samuel Gross didn’t report for a court hearing after being reprimanded at the Mennonite Conference.
1894 June 21
Lydia writes a letter to cousin Sallie Gross while traveling in Ontario with brother Joseph and sister-in-law Maria: “…this evening I expect to go to [evangelical] Camp meeting. Joe’s are not going….” (William Gross family letters, Hist. Mss. 9, MHC)
1894 November 29
Lydia’s youngest brother, John, dies of diphtheria at age 16, “at the home of his father, Rev. Samuel Gross, in Buckingham” (John’s obituary).
Circa June 1895
Lydia’s sister-in-law Ella leaves her husband Christian. This would have been a scandal for bishop Samuel’s family. Mennonites held firmly to biblical requirements for leadership: “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe [or are trustworthy] and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.” Titus 1:6 (NIV)
The story is recounted by Ella’s son J. Winfield Fretz in his biography Simple Life Fretz (2016):
Mother’s first marriage had been a tragic one. She became pregnant at the age of eighteen as a result of a date rape. His name was Christian Gross, but he did not exhibit Christian traits. He was quite abusive to her — physically and verbally. In that day, pregnancy was considered a woman’s fault and it was a colossal scandal in the community. My mother had been used to love and kindness but this is not what she received from him. She lived with him for three years, during which she gave birth to two sons: Hiram and George. Mother left the marriage for good when she was pregnant with her third child (Alice). One day while her husband was at work, she placed the young George in a baby carriage, took Hiram’s hand in hers and pushed the carriage across ten miles of country roads back to her parents’ home. Both parents welcomed her back into their home.
The story goes that her husband came home, found her gone, became exceedingly angry, and drove to her parents’ house in a fit of rage. He stood outside their house bellowing, “She’s my wife! She is coming home with me now!” My Grandfather, Benjamin Landis, went out on the stoop, folded his arms across his chest and declared, “Nothing of the kind! Go home! She’s not going with you and that’s that!”
There were more words exchanged but Gross eventually went home and apparently did not bother them much after that. He tried to persuade others in the church to shun her and her family, but he was not successful at that because people in the community understood what kind of person he was. We don’t like to wish for such things but it happened that within a year’s time he accidentally stepped on a rusty nail and tied of tetanus.
1895 July 6
In this context of family grief and shame, Lydia chooses (for what reason?) to marry Henry Howlett right around the same time as her brother’s separation, on July 6, 1895.
1895 August 14
One month later, Lydia’s father dies of a heart attack at age 56:
[Died] on the 13th of August 1895, in Buckingham, Bucks Co., Pa., Bishop Samuel Gross, aged 56 years, 5 months and some days. On the 17th his remains were interred in the Doylestown Mennonite burying ground. Bro. Gross had been apparently well within a short time of his death. On the 12th he attended harvest meeting and spoke very eloquently and appropriately on the occasion. On the day of his death he seemed as well as usual until he was attacked with heart failure, and died in a few minutes. Rev. Samuel Godshall spoke appropriate words at the house. Andrew Mack, Josiah Clemmer and Rev. Seipel [Reformed minister] spoke at the meeting house. Text, 1 Sam. 25:1. Bro. Gross had labored as minister of the Gospel for twenty-nine years, and as bishop thirteen years. He leaves 4 sons and 2 daughters to mourn his departure, his wife and 2 children had gone home before him. A large concourse of friends gathered at the funeral to pay their last respect to the deceased. There were probably never before as many people together at the Doylestown church as on this occasion [another obituary said “nearly 2,000 people”]. Peace to his ashes.
Oh! How we miss his admonitions,
Whene’er we meet to worship God;
His place is vacant in our church
As well as other paths he trod.
May God in mercy bless our meetings,
And may He this our loss replace,
With servants who with willing minds,
Shall preach the word of truth and grace.
(Herald of Truth, 1 Sep 1895)
Lydia’s brother Isaac “gave his heart to Christ” and joins the Mennonite Church at Hespeler, Ontario (Isaac’s obituary).
The later Doylestown Mennonite record book states “unknown” for the time of Lydia’s baptism and church membership, but it is probably around this time.
John Coffman of Indiana conducts the first evangelistic meetings among Mennonites in the local area, preaching twice at Doylestown, and encouraging holiness of life: “…[I] appealed to the young people to stand by the doctrine of their fathers as taught by Christ and his apostles.”
1897 April 17
Lydia’s brother Henry is married to Emma Myers and joins the Lutheran Church the following year.
1897 June 16
Henry Howlett attempts to escape Bucks County Jail, and is moved to Eastern State Penitentiary on September 30.
1898 August 23
Henry Howlett is presumably released from prison.
Lydia is living with her aunt Eliza Hendricks in Perkasie, under her maiden name, and employed as a cigar maker.
Lydia writes from aunt Eliza’s house on April 27, to widowed uncle William Gross, who must have requested her help for a couple weeks. He was probably ill with an infectious disease: “…I asked my boss about coming down to your place for a week or two. He says it is quite out of the question, that we were rushed with work at present. And the most is the disease. They claim that it is catching and I will not be allowed in the factory afterward for fear of spreading the disease….” She signs, “Lydia Gross”. (William Gross letters, Hist. Mss. 9, MHC)
Lydia later becomes a nurse.
Lydia’s cousin Mahlon Lapp is ordained at Roseland, Nebraska and sent to India as a Mennonite missionary. Lydia may have attended the ordination service.
She writes a spiritual letter from Ayr, Nebraska to William Gross on August 9:
Dear uncle and family,
Greeting to you in the name of Jesus. May his blessings rest upon you. Uncle Samuel’s [Lapp] received your letter some time ago and we were glad to hear from you. They, as well as I, are glad to hear from relatives and friends in Pa. I am well and enjoy my trip very much. I have been really blessed all along through my journey. I have not had any difficulty in traveling alone. I believe the Lord will take care of us if we go for a good purpose, if we only commit ourselves in his care.
I can now fully realize how you enjoyed your trip out here. You said it helped you so much spiritually. I find it just so. I enjoy visiting and the spiritual conversations so much. And it makes me feel sad to think that now the time is coming when I must bid goodbye to all this and the friends I have met. And when I get home it will not be so. There are so few with us that will talk scripture with you, and the people seem to think that one is weak minded. It seems to me that when a person has the love of God in his or her heart they are longing to hear and speak about him sometimes. It is so different here, even the young people seem to be so interested. They will sit for hours and talk about the bible and they enjoy it. I do not mean to say that they are so much better here than our people, but the young people are more active than with us. I have visited most of the brethren and sisters in the church….
We were to Hastings and Juniata last week. We also stopped at the insane asylum. That is a large institution. There are about 750 inmates there. They are all such that cannot be cured anymore. It made me wonder what each one’s trouble was if we could see into their hearts. But it is good that there is such a place for such people. They have good beds and plenty to eat and everything much nicer and better than we could give it to them….
We had a letter from Mahlon Lapp and wife. They are in Va. They have been well all through their journey. I will close with love to all….
Lydia M. Gross
1904 February 24
Lydia’s brother Isaac is married to Elizabeth Schiffler in Nebraska.
Cousin George Lapp is ordained and joins his brother Mahlon at the Mennonite mission in India.
Lydia, with Mattie Detweiler, seeks permission and organizes a sewing circle at Doylestown to provide clothing and bedding to Mennonite missions in India and other places.
I have been (so far) unable to locate Lydia in the 1910 and 1920 U.S. census. She was not living with any of her siblings.
1917 August 30
At a meeting in Indiana, Lydia is elected to a two year term as Franconia district representative for a new church-wide Mennonite Women’s Missionary Society.
Lydia reports that Franconia Conference leaders prefer that all money for missions be channeled through the conference: “They do not approve of women having a separate board.” (quoted by Mary Jane Hershey, MHEP Newsletter, March 1996)
1918 November 26
Lydia’s brother Joseph is ordained preacher for Blooming Glen Mennonite Church.
Lydia appears in a photo of workers at the new Eastern Mennonite Home in Souderton.
1921 May 15
Lydia’s brother Joseph dies of heart trouble at age 54:
Bro. Joseph M. Gross, son of the late Bishop Samuel and Lydia Gross, was born at Fountainville, Pa., died at Blooming Glen, Pa., May 15, 1921; aged 54 y. 10 m. 17 d. Bro. Gross had been suffering from [diabetes] for several years but was able to go about his duties until last winter, when heart trouble and dropsy set in. He sat in his chair day and night for about 4 months. He was married to Maria Moyer of Campden, Ont., in 1890. This union was blessed with 1 son and 2 daughters, all of whom survive. He also leaves 2 brothers and 2 sisters to mourn their loss. Bro. Gross was ordained a minister in November, 1918, and served faithfully as long as health permitted him to attend services. His last sermon was preached at Doylestown, Pa., Dec. 26. Although very weak he preached a powerful and very impressive sermon. Since then he had been confined to his chair most of the time. He suffered much but bore it patiently and showed by his suffering the power of Jesus. He often said Jesus was present with him and sometimes reached out his hand and said, “My Jesus, such a sweet face!” He calmly fell asleep without a struggle or warning. Altho he was helpless and very weak the last few weeks of his life we still hoped he might be restored and all that human aid could do was done for him, but God saw best to take him home. Funeral services were held on May 19, Brethren Frank Swartz and Peter Loux officiating at the house, and Brethren Warren Bean and Jonas Mininger at the Blooming Glen meeting house. Text, Psa. 61:2 – “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” The funeral was very largely attended. Peace to his ashes. — Sister.
(Gospel Herald, 9 Jun 1921)
1927 June 22
Lydia’s sister Christiana dies of heart failure at age 62:
Christina [Christiana] Swartley, daughter of the late Bishop Samuel and Lydia Gross, was born at Fountainville, Pa., Nov.7, 1864; died at her home in Bucks Co., Pa., June 22, 1927; aged 62 y. 7 m. 15 d. On Jan. 22, 1887, she was married to Wm. H. H. Swartley. This union was blessed with 9 children, 8 sons and 1 daughter. She is survived by her husband, 7 sons (Harvey, Mahlon, Henry, Jacob, [Alvin, Elias,] Raymond). 1 sister (Lydia Gross) 2 brothers (Isaac Gross, Henry Gross). A son, a daughter, and 2 grandchildren preceded her. She was a consistent member of the Doylestown, Pa., Mennonite Church 40 yrs. She will be greatly missed in her home, in the community, in the church, and the Sunday school of which she was a teacher for many years. She was stricken suddenly with a heart attack on the morning of June 4, and was critically ill for 18 days, when she peacefully fell asleep in Jesus. We have the assurance that our mother is now among the redeemed ones. It was her desire to go home. She already had a glimpse of heaven before she passed over. Funeral services were held June 27 at the house by Bro. Jacob Moyer and G. Kuns (of the Brethren Church) and at the Church by Bros. Mahlon Gross, Jos. Ruth, and Jonas Mininger. Text, I Cor. 2:9.
“The parting here was full of pain,
But we shall never part again
When we go home.
Although it was so hard to part,
Help us to say with all our hearts,
Thy will be done.” — Family.
(Gospel Herald, 21 Jul 1927)
According to the census, Lydia is working as a nurse and renting a room in the home of her second cousin, Isaiah Rickert, on “Mennonite Road” in Doylestown Township. Her marital status is given as widowed, but this was probably a mistake on the part of the census taker. It’s unlikely that Lydia identified herself as widowed. She gave her maiden name.
1938 July 4
Lydia dies of heart failure and nephritis at age 66:
Lydia M. Gross was born March 3, 1872; died at the Eastern Mennonite Home, Souderton, Pa., July 4, 1938; aged 65 y. 4 m. 1 d. She united with the Mennonite church in her early years and remained faithful until death. She chose her own text (Phil. 1:23), also the ministers who should preach her funeral sermon (Jacob Moyer at the home and Jacob C. Clemens at the Doylestown Mennonite Church), both using the above text. She also chose the hymns, “My Heavenly Home is Bright and Fair” and “Death shall not Destroy my Comfort.”
(Gospel Herald, 18 Aug 1938)
Lydia Gross may appear in additional church records in her later years. For this article, I relied on Mary Jane Hershey’s summary for that period of her life.