New acquisition: 19th-Century Obituaries

Written by Forrest Moyer on August 22, 2019

In January 2018, the MHC received a surprise package in the mail from Lois Beun Callaghan of Santa Fe, NM, a descendant of John Meyer/Moyer (1799-1877) of Skippack Township. It contained several 19th century German newspapers with Meyer’s name on them — Der Morgenstern (Doylestown, PA), Der Neutralist (Skippack, PA), and Montgomery County Presse (Lansdale, PA) — and a separate file of hundreds of obituaries (and some marriage notices) clipped from these papers in the years 1844-1893. We’re thankful to Lois, who grew up in the area, for remembering our community with this gift, a major contribution to the Center’s historical and genealogical resources.

An inventory of the years 1844-1860 is available here. It includes perhaps a third of the obituaries in the collection. The rest will be added at a future time.

People of the mid-19th century lived with frequent death, if not in your own family, then in your neighbor’s household. Corpses were prepared for burial and laid out for viewing in the family home. Often children died within the first few years of life; grandmother and grandfather lived and died at home in the care of younger generations. The common experience of death, and the frequency with which some illnesses took life — consumption, typhoid fever, stroke — did not, however, diminish the value of deceased persons to their family and friends.

Some obituaries are more detailed and colorful than others, due likely to who wrote and submitted the notice to the paper. Sometimes it was a minister, sometimes a friend or family member (often identified only by initials). Other notices appear to have been written by newspaper staff or an undertaker.

Here are translations of a few early death notices clipped by John or Maria Kolb Meyer. As a point of reference, John and Maria are buried in the Upper Skippack Mennonite Cemetery.

1847 Johann Georg Haselmann

[Died] On the 5th of June, Mr. John George Haselmann, of Worcester Township, in age 32 years, 4 months and 2 days. The deceased [Verblichene, literally “faded”] was born in Redewitz, Kingdom of Bavaria (Germany), from whence he emigrated to the United States in the year 1839, and came to Baltimore on August 22 of the same year. He leaves a grieving widow with 3 small children, and an old mother. On the 7th of June, at the “Baked-Stone Church” in Towamencin [Christ Union Church, built of brick], in the presence of a great company of mourners, his lifeless [entseelter, literally “soul-less”] body was given over to the cool lap of the earth. Rev. C. Miller gave the funeral sermon on Psalm 37, verse 5. [poem follows, signed F. F.]

It’s interesting to note that these German obituaries often refer to a dead body as entseelt [soul-less]. This suggests a focus on the departed soul of the person, rather than the mere lifelessness of their remains. Another common description of burial is that the remains were given over to dem kühlen Schooß der Erde [the cool lap of the earth, or sometimes der mütterlichen Erde, the motherly earth]. Very poetic.

Aside from details of the person’s life, death and burial, we sometimes get historical tidbits. For instance, Haselmann was buried at the Backsteinernen [Brick] Church in Towamencin. Construction from bricks or “baked stones” was a modern innovation at the time in rural eastern Pennsylvania, where locally-quarried stone had been the standard material. To this day, we have a hamlet called Brick Tavern, named for an inn that was called in another obituary the Backsteinernen-Gastwirtshaus. We also have a baptismal certificate in the MHC collection that refers to the East Swamp Mennonite Meetinghouse as the Backensteinernen Mennoniten Versammlungs-Hause.

The Brick Church in Towamencin, along Sumneytown Pike above Kulpsville, built 1833. Photographed in 1913, after the Lutheran and Reformed congregations built “twin” churches next door. The old Backsteinernen Kirche was demolished a few years later. Photo courtesy of Christ Lutheran Church, Harleysville.

1847 Johannes Hunsicker

[Died] On Wednesday morning the 17th of November, in his home in Skippack Township, Montgomery County, Mr. John Hunsicker, for about 38 years a beloved teacher in the Mennonite fellowship, in age 74 years, 2 months and 20 days. This past Saturday, accompanied by a very numerous procession of relatives, friends and acquaintances, his lifeless shell was conveyed to the earth at the burial ground of the Skippack Meetinghouse; at which occasion, impressive funeral sermons were given by Revs. Rodenbach [Rodenbough] and Beidler in English at the house [of the deceased] and Revs. Kriebel and Oberholtzer in German at the meetinghouse. Mr. Oberholtzer preached on the text 2 Timothy, chapter 4, verse 7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

John Hunsicker was senior bishop of the Mennonite Church in eastern Pennsylvania. He was wealthy and progressive, favoring education and ecumenism. He supported the innovations of a group of ministers calling for change in the church. As a result, he was removed from senior leadership, and his progressive minority were pushed out of the church at a momentous conference one month before his death. I described the scene in an earlier blog post:

On the other side [at the conference] was old bishop Henry Hunsberger of Blooming Glen, who had been elevated to the position of moderator because of Hunsicker’s alignment with the progressive faction. At the meeting, which was attended by many lay people in addition to ministers, the progressives (who sat as a block) hoped to gain a hearing for their innovations. Henry Hunsberger did not allow it, and the progressives walked out. Unwilling to submit to the demands of the conservative majority, they formed a separate conference….

At John Hunsicker’s funeral a month later, John Oberholtzer (leader of the progressive group) preached the main sermon, highlighting Hunsicker’s fighting the good fight and keeping the faith. The majority of Mennonites may have felt differently! Ironically, within a few years, the Hunsicker family became too liberal even for Oberholtzer, and another break occurred. The other preachers at Hunsicker’s funeral were David Kriebel, a Schwenkfelder, and Henry Rodenbough, pastor of Lower Providence Presbyterian Church.

Das Begäbnüß [The Burial], folk art watercolor by Isaac Clarence Kulp. There was usually preaching at both the home of the deceased and the burial ground, either in the cemetery itself or in a meetinghouse. Funerals gave opportunity for preachers to address extended family and non church members. Kulp included in his painting a “worldling” — a man with fine clothes and top hat outside the cemetery to the left — because, Kulp said, every family had one or two who had gone away to the city and fallen away from the plain faith. These people the ministers wished to exhort. Image courtesy of Hiram & Mary Jane Hershey.

1850 Abraham Gehman

Fell asleep trusting in the Lord, Saturday the 14th of September, in Hosensack, Upper Milford Township, Lehigh County, Pa., Abraham Gehman, son of David and Susanna Gehman, of nervous shock [Nervenschlag], from which he suffered nine days. As his life was consecrated by virtue and piety, so was he patient and trusting in illness and death, in the hope of a better life. On Tuesday his lifeless shell was brought to rest, in the presence of a great number of friends and mourners, at which time touching and edifying talks were given by the Revs. Weiser, Klemmer, Schelly and Gehman. His age was 17 years, 9 months and 19 days. [poem follows, unsigned]

Abraham’s fine gravestone in the Upper Milford Mennonite Cemetery features a weeping willow. Image from findagrave.com

Young Abraham Gehman died of some attack to his nervous system, or mental state, which manifested for nine days. Someone knowledgeable about 19th century medicine will have a better guess than I at the meaning of Nervenschlag. In any case, it was a tragedy for his parents, David and Susanna, who had already seen seven of their children die at various ages, and Abraham was the only son who made it close to adulthood. Two of their daughters lived to marry and have children.

Abraham’s obituary shows the influence of the evangelical-revivalist movement that was sweeping Pennsylvania German communities at the time. Phrases like “fell asleep trusting in the Lord” and “the hope of a better life”; words like “consecrated”, “piety”, “touching”, “edifying” — these were not typical of Mennonite obituaries. They represent new emphases that would crystallize by 1858 into a new denomination, the Evangelical Mennonite Society, of which David & Susanna Gehman were founding members. Today it is the Bible Fellowship Church.

1853 Hannah Sellers

[Died] On the 6th of May, in New Britain Township, Bucks County, Miss Hannah Sellers, daughter of Ephraim and Elizabeth Sellers, in age 20 years, 9 months and 1 day. She was a little sickly for almost a year, but for about four months had become much worse, with severe vomiting, during which she slowly declined, until finally the Lord was pleased to put an end to her suffering and through death take her to himself. She was consecrated to the Lord in life and in death — an exemplary and lively young Christian. She saw with glad eyes the completion of the new prayer-house [Bethaus] at Hilltown, founded by her father’s family [zu dessen Stiftung ihres Vaters Familie gehörte]. She worked also for it to come to pass and be completed. Seeing that her end could not be far away, she spoke of the dedication of this temple: “I wish to be there, not alive but dead.” Her wish is now fulfilled, and her corpse is the first that has been laid to peaceful rest in this new cemetery. Over her grave, the first memorial [Todeshügel, literally, death mound] has been raised to the resurrection and eternity. Beloved and mourned, the dear departed will live on in the hearts of all who knew her. On Sunday the 8th of May, with a tremendously large funeral procession, she was given over to the motherly earth. At her funeral, the Rev. J. Naille gave a comforting talk on the scripture: “What is your life?”

Like Abraham Gehman’s obituary, that of Hannah Sellers describes a young person enthusiastic about faith. Hannah’s obituary details her involvement in building a new church, called piously a “prayer-house” or “temple”. Her’s was the first burial at the new church location.

The building she worked for still stands. It is today the home of the Hilltown German and Hungarian Sportsman Club, and their website says it was founded as the Hilltown German Reformed Church — even though St. Peter’s Church is just a mile down the road. I’ve been unable (so far) to clarify whether this was a new home for the St. Peter’s Reformed congregation, at which they remained for only 20 years until a larger union church was built, or whether this was an entirely new Reformed congregation necessitated by evangelical influences.

Image source: Google Street View

The Sportsman Club claims to maintain the cemetery where Hannah Sellers and others are buried, but this photo from findagrave.com shows toppled gravestones, suggesting the maintenance could use some improvement.

1856 William & Catharine Mattis Tyson

[Died] On the 9th of February, in Skippack Township, Mr. William Tyson, in age 37 years, 3 months and 20 days. The deceased was a beloved father and neighbor, and one of the quiet in the land [einer von den Stillen im Lande]. His burial took place on the 11th at the Brethren cemetery [Dunker Gottesacker] in Worcester [Lower Providence] Township, at which occasion the Rev. A. S. Link preached at the house of mourning and Rev. Henry G. Johnson at the meetinghouse. [poem follows, signed H. G. J.]

[Died] On the 2nd of December, in Springville [Spring City], Chester County, in the home of Francis Goshow, widow Catharine Tyson, born Mattis, in age 38 years, 7 months and 3 days. The corpse was brought to the home of Jesse Mattis in Skippack on the 5th and the same day laid to rest at the Brethren cemetery in Lower Providence Township, at which occasion the Rev. George Detweiler preached at the corpse-house [Leichenhause] and Rev. Henry G. Johnson at the meetinghouse. [poem follows, signed H. G. J.]

William & Catharine Tyson were buried at the Dunker or German Baptist Brethren Gottesacker [God’s acre, cemetery] in Lower Providence Township, with William’s family. But none of the preachers at their funerals were Brethren. Henry Johnson was the independent-minded Mennonite bishop at Lower Skippack (he and the congregation were expelled by the Mennonite conference in 1861). George Detweiler was a conservative Mennonite preacher at Upper Skippack. A. S. Link was a Lutheran pastor at Towamencin who encouraged home prayer meetings and for that reason was pushed out of his congregation in 1859.

It’s noteworthy that in the midst of the religious upheaval of the time, and the Tyson’s unclear affiliation, William is described as “one of the Quiet in the Land.” This is an uncommon description. Also interesting is the record that Catharine moved, after her husband’s death in February, to his sister’s home in Spring City. This kind of detail is helpful for genealogists in establishing and confirming relationships.

Isaac Clarence Kulp’s painting of Die Vermahnung am Haus [The Exhortation at the House]. This could be A. S. Link preaching to Catharine Tyson at the “house of mourning”. The text Kulp placed at the top begins: “Arme Witwe, weine nicht! Jesus will dich trösten [Poor widow, weep not! Jesus will comfort you]. Courtesy of Hiram & Mary Jane Hershey.

1859 Jacob Landes

[Died] On the 25th of December, in Franconia Twp., of heart attack, Mr. Jacob Landes [Landis], in age 77 years, 2 months and 16 days. The deceased was sitting that morning, between 7 and 8 o’clock, in company with his son-in-law and wife by the stove, conversing with them about the meaning of holy Christmas, when he suddenly, with a smile on his face, fell from the bench against the stove, and in no more than the blink of an eye, gave up his spirit [in wenigen Augenblicken seinen Geist aufgab]. On the 27th, in company of a large funeral procession, his earthly remains were brought to rest at Delp’s cemetery, at which occasion the Revs. George Detweiler and Jacob Landes preached at the house of death [Sterbehause] and the Rev. Henry Nice at the grave, on the text Gospel of Matthew 25,13: “Watch therefore; for ye know neither day nor hour, etc.” [poem follows, unsigned]

This is a rather charming obituary that paints a picture, both physical and spiritual, of the moment of a person’s decease. Jacob Landes, an old man, died suddenly, falling from a bench against the stove, his life snuffed out in the blink of an eye. Yet, his countenance was joyful; his spirit departed during an intimate conversation with family about the meaning of Christmas. As usual, we don’t know who wrote this obituary, but it’s labeled “Eingesandt“, so we know it was sent in, probably by someone who cared for Jacob and wanted to describe his passing in a positive way.

The picture below is from Harbaugh’s Harfe, a Pennsylvania Dutch book of poetry published in 1873. It shows an old man — “mei Dady“, Harbaugh’s father — sitting on a bench and looking hopefully toward the end:

He sees perhaps the cemetery there,
That already holds Mammie;
He see perhaps a blissful rest,
There in the better world!

Posted Under: Blog

3 replies to “New acquisition: 19th-Century Obituaries

  1. Laura Church -

    To Forrest and everyone who worked hard to enter all these historical treasures, thank you. I’m proud, yet amazed to find that I’m directly descended from 7 or the 12 founders of Germantown, and early Mennonite, Amish, Quaker snd Dunkard/German Baptist pioneers of Skippack, Lansdale, Telford, Salford, Perkiomen, then pioneers who cleared and settled Hagerstown, MD, Somerset County, PA and the states of Ohio and Indiana. Were it not for the research which you and others within the MHC have provided, I would not know of the 11 Mennonite ministers from whom I descend. It makes me love the Mennonite faith very much. Bless you all. Laura Church lauraochurch at gmail dot com.

    Reply

  2. Carol (Koch) Billman -

    Thanks for the interesting trip into the past. My brother, who died in 1939 (18 mos before I was born), was laid out in my parent’s living room. My mother sat, alone, all night, watching over his body, until the viewing the next day. I know where he was buried, but know nothing about a service, etc. Carol Billman

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  3. Joann Cosgrove -

    These obituaries are really amazing to read and so moving. In regards the obituary for Abraham Gehman who died of “nervenschlag” it reminds me of a cause of death I read about in death notices in another old German community somewhere in the midwest. They called the cause of death “nerbenfever” and it was thought to actually be what we call typhoid fever. Perhaps that was also the cause of Abraham’s death although we can never know.

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