The Black Bear Tavern and Ball Alley

One day, alas! Did he full soon
Forsake his work and victuals;
And careless all the afternoon,
Drank ale and play’d at skittles.

But Love so much his wits had cross’d
His mind perplext and puzzled;
That many were the games he lost,
And much the ale he guzzled.

Then as he lost he fractious grew,
And swore his mates were cheating;
And thrice he for the fight withdrew,
And thrice he got a beating.*

Over two centuries ago, the White Horse tavern—later renamed the Black Bear—was a popular place of amusement on Shippen St. (now Bainbridge St.) in Philadelphia’s suburban district of Southwark. The tavern occupied several buildings on the north side of Shippen, just west of 3rd St. Although the buildings are gone now, one feature of the tavern remains—the little intersecting byway called Orianna St. In former times, the street was called Ball Alley, which described its function—men gathered there for ball games, drink, and gambling. On at least one occasion, even the president of the United States, John Adams, was entertained in Ball Alley.

Buildings on the site were constructed in the 1760s, and were probably used as a tavern before 1775. In that year, a deed was signed in which tavern-keeper Thomas Cash sold the buildings to another tavern keeper, Anthony Fortune. Fortune had previously managed the Three Tuns tavern (also known as the Fountain and as the White Horse). This was one of the largest taverns in the city, situated on the corner of Chestnut Street and White Horse Alley (now Bank St.), and containing a stable that could hold 60 horses.** It was probably Fortune who carried the name White Horse to the establishment on Shippen St.

The owner of the new White Horse advertised his grand opening in the Feb. 15, 1775, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette: “Anthony Fortune, Late Keeper of the Fountain-Inn in Chestnut-street, Having experienced extraordinary Marks of the Public Favour during his residence there, esteems it his Duty to return his most grateful Acknowledgments to every Individual who has been pleased to favour him with his Custom; and while he pays this Tribute of Gratitude, he begs Leave to acquaint his Friends, and the Public in general, that he hath removed into Shippen-street, next Door to the Corner of Third-street, near the New-market, where he hath erected elegant and commodious Buildings, and provided every Requisite for STABLING HORSES after the best and most approved Manner.”

At the time, the tavern on Shippen St. stood in an almost rural setting, with few buildings in the vicinity. A grass lawn adjoined the tavern, and remained open for another quarter of a century. It was a convenient spot for a drinking establishment; Fortune advertised that the White Horse was quite near to the “new theatre” (later called the Southwark Theatre) on South St. as well as to the market shambles at 2nd and Lombard. And the stables that adjoined the tavern probably made it a convenient stopover for hunting parties bound for the meadows and marshes south of the city, in the area called the “Neck.”

Although a wealthier class of patrons frequented the White Horse, there is little doubt that seamen and laborers could be also found in the bar room. A tavern signboard on the same block of Shippen Street pictured a sailor and a woman with the motto:

The seaworn sailor here will find
The porter good, the treatment kind.*

Soon after opening the Shippen St. tavern, in the first years of the American Revolution, Anthony Fortune found himself under investigation for supposed Tory sympathies. He evidently survived retribution, but died in 1779, mentioning his wife Mary, son Anthony Jr., and “negro” Nancy in his will. Tax records show he was a man of some means; in his last years, he paid taxes on two white servants, two “negro” slaves (including Nancy), and two cows.

Soon after Fortune’s death, George Haughton, a cabinet-maker and upholsterer by trade, took over operation of the White Horse, promising that “he will be obliged to those Gentlemen who will favour him with their custom, as they may depend on the best of entertainment.” In July 1783, Haughton was seeking to expand his businesses; he had just opened a new upholstery shop at Front and Arch Sts., and was advertising for a “smart youth as an apprentice.” In September, however, these plans were cut short as Haughton unexpectedly died.

Four years later, the White Horse tavern came into the hands of Dean Timmons, an innkeeper, tallow chandler, soap-boiler, and dealer in imported merchandise. Almost immediately, Timmons slid into bankruptcy, while alleging that he had been swindled in a land purchase in Kentucky. On Aug. 2, 1787, Dean Timmons sold the tavern to Philip Timmons (probably his brother) for £350 plus ground rent. Under Timmons’ ownership, the White Horse became the Black Bear.

Dean Timmons died in 1793, a victim of the great yellow fever epidemic, leaving Mary Timmons (his widow) and Philip Timmons as joint executors of his estate. In the early summer of that same year, just before the onset of the epidemic, Philip put the Black Bear up for sale. The main building of the tavern was described as consisting of a two-story brick house with two rooms on a floor, with good cellars and garrets. A two-story frame building adjoined it. A notice of sale in Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser (June 20, 1793) states that this annex contained space intended as a billiard room, and that it was also suitable as a dining room for 60 to 80 persons.

A notable feature of the tavern, as we mentioned, was the ball court, or ball alley, to its side. What kind of sport was played here? Although various ball games were popular in early America, the long narrow Ball Alley would lend itself perfectly to one of the forms of bowling—such as nine pins and skittles. England, Ireland, and the European continent had all developed regional variations of these games, which were brought over to this country. In most versions, wooden pins were knocked down by rolling a ball or hurling a wooden object at them.

Commentary in the Independent Gazeteer of Nov. 12, 1789, attested to the popularity of these games in Philadelphia. In listing reasons for “Why the Summer is the properest Season for Public Dinners,” the author stated, “Because there is time for skittles, bowls, and Dutch-pins, amusements peculiarly proper—after the body is over-heated.”

Curiously, while Ball Alley continued as a place for games, it also became a city street, with people (most of them fairly poor) residing in small houses along its length, and into the adjacent Pine Alley (now Kater St.). One resident of Ball Alley in the 1790s was John Logan, a bricklayer, and his wife Jane. John Logan appears in court records in 1790 after petitioning to be released from jail. He had been charged and found guilty of helping to conceal a band of desperados who had escaped from Walnut Street Prison and murdered a man during a robbery. One of the killers (who were recaptured and hung on the gallows) was also named John Logan, probably a close relative.***

In 1800, Jane Logan appeared in records of the Alms House, where she had just been admitted. The notation of Thursday, Aug. 14, states that “she seems to be far gone in a Consumption, and dont appear to be long for this World. Her husband whose name is John Logan, is a Bricklayer by Trade but being subject to dissiness in his head, is not capable of working on the scaffold, as she says he fell off of one and broke his arm by which he’s rendered incapable of supporting himself and her, therefore she’s sent here …”

After Dean Timmons’ death in 1793, his wife Mary took over management of his tavern on Dock Street for a short time, while Philip Timmons opened a tavern two doors away. Philip sold the Black Bear on Shippen St. to Gifford Dally (sometimes spelled “Dalley”), who re-opened the establishment in January 1794 as “Dally’s Hotel.” “Hotel” was a French word that was relatively new in America, employed at a time when French manners and styles had become fashionable in many circles, and used to denote an establishment that was fancier than an ordinary “tavern.”

At the same time that he purchased and refurbished the tavern, Gifford Dally was serving as doorkeeper to the U.S. House of Representatives—then meeting in the building that is now known as Congress Hall. The doorkeeper was elected by the House at the beginning of each yearly session; his duties were to manage access to the chambers and to see that order was maintained. Dally, born and raised in New Jersey, had been serving in the post since 1789, when Congress was based in New York City. When the federal government moved to Philadelphia, Dally also came there, and remained as doorkeeper until 1795.

Dally had long experience as an hotelier. During the Revolution, Dally had managed Philadelphia’s City Tavern (later known as the Merchants Coffee House), stepping in after the previous manager, Daniel Smith, a Tory, had fled the city with departing British troops.

In 1780, Dally leased the London Coffee House, at the corner of Front and Market Sts., which he managed for a couple of years. The owner, John Pemberton, a Quaker, was quite strict in the terms he placed upon Dally in the rental agreement. It was specified that Dally “covenants and agrees and promises, that he will exert his endeavours as a Christian to preserve decency and order in said house, and to discourage the profanation of the sacred name of God Almighty by cursing, swearing, &c., and that the house on the first day of the week shall always be kept closed from public use, so that regard and reverence may be manifested for retirement and the worship of God;” he further “covenants, that under a penalty of 100 Pounds he will not allow or suffer any person to use, play at, or divert themselves with cards, dice, back-gammon, or any other unlawful game.”

Of course, the terms for the Black Bear, which Dally purchased outright, were hardly as strict as for the London Coffee House. Dally advertised that at the new hotel, he had “furnished himself with the best of LIQUORS; and will furnish a TABLE for parties, with the best provisions the markets afford, at any hour on the shortest notice.” Also, as far as we know, the games continued in Ball Alley—and probably with gambling.

Ball Alley was also rented to organizations for public events and dinners. One such event was advertised in the Philadelphia Gazette (April 24, 1794): “To commemorate the glorious successes of France by which that republic has asserted her own rights and brightened the political prospects of AMERICA, all the sincere republicans residing at this time in the city and liberties of Philadelphia are invited to join in a public entertainment to be held in the Ball Court adjoining Dally’s tavern, in Shippen Street, on Saturday the third day of May next. Tickets at 3 dollars each …”

This entertainment in Ball Alley seems to have been sponsored by one of the radical political clubs of the day—most of which soon merged into what became the Democratic Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson. The event took place on the first Saturday after May Day, which was the traditional day for societies of “democrats” to stage rallies and feasts, and to raise their liberty poles. These forces tended to sympathize with revolutionary France, whereas the Federalists, associated with the economic policies of the George Washington administration and counting many of the big import merchants as supporters, tended to side with Britain—which was the major trading partner of the United States.

In early 1796, just two years after its well-publicized opening, Dally’s Hotel closed its doors, and the buildings were advertised for lease. It appears, however, that Gifford Dally had made extensive renovations during his ownership. The main house was now advertised as being three stories in height rather than two. Tragically, Gifford Dally died of the yellow fever in August 1798; his daughter Kitty also sickened from the fever and died two weeks after her father.

The tavern, in the meantime, had been acquired by James Cameron, who had formerly run the Golden Swan on N. 3rd St. Under Cameron’s management, which lasted only one year, the Shippen St. tavern became a base for Federalist political activists.

The two elemental parties, Federalists and Democratic Republicans, were in bitter contention by this time—locally as well as nationally. The election of Republican candidate Israel Israel to represent Philadelphia and Delaware counties in the state Senate was overturned in January 1798. The vote had been challenged on grounds that many voters had not produced sufficient proof of citizenship, and that some of the polls in the districts of Southwark and Moyamensing were held at unapproved venues. Federalists maintained that if the contested votes were excluded, their candidate, Benjamin R. Morgan, would emerge as the rightful winner of the Senate seat. Ultimately, it was decided to hold a new election in which voters could once again choose between Israel and Morgan.

On Feb. 16, 1798, Federalists from Southwark and Moyamensing held a meeting in a room of Cameron’s tavern, in which they approved giving support to Morgan in the upcoming election. According to the following day’s report in the pro-Federalist Gazette of the United States, “friends of Israel Israel” attempted to enter the meeting at Cameron’s but were rebuffed. The intruders then returned as a “numerous and daring mob, who attempted … to force themselves into the room.” After being again ejected, the mob gathered outside the tavern, and tried to raise enough of a clamor to disrupt the meeting. After perceiving that their efforts were in vain, the Israel supporters retreated. Morgan won the Feb. 22 special election by 4540 votes to Israel’s 4183.

On April 21, President Adams himself attended a celebratory dinner for Morgan, which was held in Ball Alley. Two large sails spanned the alley to give shelter to the dinner tables below. In its report on the event, Gazette of the United States (April 23, 1798) took a shot at the pro-French sympathies of the Democratic Republicans by crowing: “over the head of the President waved, not the tri-colored emblem of Gallic perfidy, but the banner of Freedom, the Eagle of the United States.”

The numerous toasts at the dinner included “Death to Jacobin principles throughout the world,” which received nine cheers. The Federalists also toasted the district of Southwark, where a strong majority of voters had favored Israel and the Democratic Republicans: “May its mistaken citizens be undeceived, and its former federal character be speedily restored.”

In 1799, James Cameron left the Black Bear tavern to return to the Golden Swan, and the Shippen St. establishment was then taken over by Cadwalader Evans. Under Evans’ administration, the Federalists continued to use the premises for their meetings. Within a few years, however, the Black Bear seems to have switched political allegiances. Under the management of John Boyd and subsequent proprietors, the tavern became known as a meeting place for militia regiments—most of which, in the early years of the 19th century, were partisans of the Democratic Republican Party and the Thomas Jefferson administration in Washington. During training exercises, militia units would muster their ranks in front of the Shippen St. tavern, and then parade with drums and colors throughout the city.

As the War of 1812 approached, the pro-Federalist satirical newspaper, The Tickler (March 4, 1812), poked fun at these displays, linking them to offers by Napoleon Bonaparte to send military aid to the U.S. government: “In the event of our going to war with Great Britain, Bony [Bonaparte] intends to send to our assistance nine sail of the line. Quere: What will be the quantum of their service to us, if manned and commanded by Frenchmen? Will they not rot and sink in our harbours, if left to the control of those windy heroes, whose exploits, whenever they reside among us, are confined to Ball Alley and Shippen street?”

In subsequent years, the fame of the Black Bear diminished, while nearby taverns gained popularity—such as Capt. Garret Beckhorn’s Red Lion, which stood directly across the street at 62 Shippen. In 1833, Shippen St. was widened, a covered market shambles (the “Washington Market”) was constructed in the center, and many of the street’s frame houses were torn down and replaced by buildings of brick.

Nevertheless, for most of the 19th century, this stretch of Shippen St. and its environs was known for its rowdiness—a location for alehouses and brothels.

In the 1890s, the neighborhood was once again “cleaned up,” and a new generation of buildings rose along Shippen Street. As part of its new image, the street was even given a new name, that of a naval hero—[Commodore William] Bainbridge Street. The old Ball Alley became Barrow St. in 1858, and was dubbed Orianna St. in the 1890s. Today, community activists working on behalf of “Bainbridge Green” propose to enlarge and refurbish the central island of the street with green spaces and plazas. In looking toward the future, of course, it would be useful to research and record the rich history of this area, in which the old tavern at Ball Alley played a significant role. Even the president of the United States was feted in Ball Alley!

Future articles in this series will describe the history of other sites along the length of Bainbridge Green, including that of the Southern Dispensary, the Scots Presbyterian Church and burial ground, the Dutch synagogue, and the former Oak Street houses (414-418 Bainbridge St.).

* Stanza from a poem, “Tom Shuttle & Blousalinda,” reprinted from The Tickler (Philadelphia, Pa., Nov. 1, 1809).
** Anthony Fortune gave the name “White Horse” to his new tavern on Shippen St. But a White Horse tavern with earlier beginnings was located on Market St. at the corner of Elbow Lane—a tiny street that dates from the time of William Penn. Elbow Lane still exists as an alley running from east to west, but it originally took an “elbow” turn northward into Market Street. Anthony Fortune, when he took over the Three Tuns tavern (also called the Fountain), extended the north-south segment of Elbow Lane to connect with his establishment on Chestnut Street, in order to afford access to stables in the rear of the tavern. The entire street (now called Bank St.) was generally known as White Horse Alley, after the tavern at the Market St. end. The Three Tuns and Fountain tavern on Chestnut St. was also sometimes referred to as the White Horse, perhaps because of its proximity to the alley of that name.
*** In his forthcoming book, the author of this article, Michael Schreiber, will describe more details of the 1789 murder in which John Logan took part. The working title of the book is “Thomas Cave: His Life and Times in Old Philadelphia.”
**** The signboard depicting a sailor and a woman was described by John Fanning Watson in his “Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania” as belonging to an old-time tavern on Shippen between 2nd and 3rd Streets.

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