When young, both brothers worked as comb makers. In later life, both became keepers at Moyamensing prison.
By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Augustus Sargent and his brother Edward both had a connection to Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church in Philadelphia. Augustus and his wife Mary are interred in the churchyard. Edward and his wife Susan were married at Gloria Dei. When they were young, both brothers probably helped their parents in the tavern that they operated. As young adults, both worked as comb makers. In later life, both became keepers at the county prison.
In May 1805, their father, Thomas Sargent, came to Philadelphia from Gloucestershire, England. He was in his early thirties at the time (born Feb. 22, 1772), and was listed in Philadelphia directories during the next few years as a laborer, a grocer, and a “gentleman’s groom.” Thomas married a woman named Agnes probably around 1808. Their son Edward was born in January 1809, Augustus was born two years later, and a third child also soon arrived. By 1812, Thomas was running a tavern at #3 Cherry Street, where the family also resided. Thomas did not serve in the War of 1812 since he was listed as an “alien” (a non-citizen) coming from the enemy nation.
By 1815, Thomas Sargent had become the keeper of a tavern at 71 Dock Street (later, 229 Dock Street), which he acquired from the previous proprietor, David Ing. The tavern was situated in the heart of what was then Philadelphia’s central banking and business district, and no doubt served as the haunt of many of the financial brokers, businessmen, and publishers of the neighborhood. It was situated on the north side of Dock Street at the entrance to a narrow street called Goforth Alley (later, Exchange Place; renamed American Street in the 1890s). Directly on the other side of the alley stood the rounded colonnades of the Bank of Pennsylvania, the beautiful neo-classical edifice built there in 1800. The Sargent family lived above the tavern.
In June 1813, Thomas Sargent wrote a humorous piece for the Philadelphia Daily Chronicle, reprinted in other newspapers, about a talented talking crow, who was apt to cheer people on with squawks of “Attebboy!” and to express his displeasure with the cry of “Curse you!” Sargent concluded his piece by indicating that if readers wished to verify his story (presumably by meeting the crow himself), they should come to 71 Dock Street and pay the sum of 6 ¼ cents. He signed his story with the moniker “Thomas the Sergeant”—perhaps a nickname that the tavern-goers had jokingly bestowed upon their landlord.
Evidence of Thomas Sargent’s fortunes may be seen in the fact that, in July 1819, he advertised that he was selling his fine horse “for less than his value, the owner no longer having much use for him.” He also had for sale a “handsome second-hand sulky” (a light two-wheeled coach for one person, often used for racing). Sargent also joined the Masons and other brotherhoods, in which he seems to have been heavily involved. He appears to have been sympathetic to the Democratic Party, since party functions were held at his tavern.
Thomas Sargent died at age 53 in the early evening of April 22, 1824. He had suffered from Erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin that can lead to further infection and high fever. The funeral took place the following afternoon at the tavern on Dock Street, and Thomas’ brethren in the Masonic order and in the Red Men were specifically invited to attend. Then his casket was carried to the graveyard of Christ Church on Arch Street.
Following Thomas’s death, his widow, Agnes, bravely tried to continue operation of the tavern for a few months under the genteel name, the “Pennsylvania Coffee House.” Quite tragically, she followed her husband in death on Aug. 7 of the same year. Two days before she passed away, the prosperous paint manufacturer Edward Mott, also on his deathbed, fondly remembered his late friend Thomas Sargent in his will, and also mentioned Thomas’s son, Augustus. Mott might have understood that Augustus’s mother would not be long for this world, and thus felt the need to give a bequest to the young orphan.
And yet, scarcely two months later, another horrible event affected the lives of the Sargent boys. The National Gazette of Oct. 14, 1824 reported: “On Monday morning, the son of Mrs. Sargent, in Dock street, had his right hand literally torn to pieces by an explosion of gunpowder. He was amusing himself with a match at the fire, when this dreadful accident occurred.” The Aurora General Advertiser gave more details, stating that the boy had been trying to entertain himself by igniting a few grains at a time, but suddenly, the entire flask that he held in his hand took fire and exploded. His thumb was torn off near its root and “he is now in a violent fever.” The article reported that the boy was about 13 years old, which indicates that it was probably Augustus who was injured.
Following this series of tragedies, although friends and relatives might have helped out, the children, now in their early teens, had to manage much more on their own. Perhaps around that time or slightly later, Augustus’s elder brother, Edward, entered apprenticeship as a shell comb maker. He was first listed as following that trade in the 1830 directory. At the time, comb making was a major craft in Philadelphia. In 1824, there were 84 master comb makers in the city (compared to 34 clockmakers, 44 jewelers, 67 chair makers, etc.). By 1858, Edwin Troxwell Freedley’s book, “Philadelphia and its Manufactures,” stated, “In Tortoise Shell and Buffalo Horn … we have three or four manufacturers, whose work … has secured to Philadelphia the pre-eminence in the Comb business in the United States.”
Combs were used as decorative items for women’s hair, as well as implements for grooming. The most valued combs in that period were generally those of “tortoise shell” (actually the shells of sea turtles that were mostly found in the Caribbean and off the coasts of South America and Southeast Asia). Fashioning the implements required artistry, but the work could be quite painstaking.
The process began with the cruel act of stripping the shell from a turtle, usually by immersing the live animal in boiling water or oil. Sometimes, if the turtle survived the mutilation, it could then be thrown back into the sea in hopes that the shell would regenerate before the defenseless creature had been eaten. After the comb manufacturer acquired pieces of shell, they were again placed in boiling water. While still hot, the various pieces could be fused together and molded. Gold, silver, mother of pearl, and semi-precious stones could be pressed into the heated shell. In addition, a paper pattern was frequently pasted over the shell to guide the hand of the craftsman as he carved a design into the comb handle. A machine had been invented in 1817 to cut the teeth of the comb, eliminating much of the labor necessary for that process.
Horns from slaughtered cattle or bison were also used for combs; the material was far more plentiful and cheaper than tortoise shell. The horns were frequently stained or painted to resemble tortoise shells, although they were not as translucent. Adding nitric acid to the water, for instance, produced an amber color similar to that of tortoise shell. When horns were heated in water or oil, they could be bent and molded into shape much easier than with the more brittle shell. As turtles became rarer because of hunting, other materials besides horn were more commonly used in comb manufacturing—such as metal, wood, and cellulose—as well as luxury combs of ivory.
In 1832, Augustus Sargent was first listed in the Philadelphia directory as a shell comb maker. Perhaps he first apprenticed with his brother Edward in the craft or worked as a journeyman in the same shop. We might imagine both brothers marching proudly in the Philadelphia parade for the centenary celebration of George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 25, 1832. (Feb. 22, Washington’s real birthday, was also the birthday of their own father, Thomas, 60 years earlier.) The newspapers noted that more than 20,000 people marched in the parade while well over 60,000 cheered from the sidewalks.
The U.S. Gazette reported that between 70 and 80 people marched in the comb makers’ contingent: “They had a car drawn by four horses, in which was carried on the business of comb-making … The car was handsomely decorated, and was followed by a dark blue standard, with the armorial bearings of the craft. This was followed by another standard, on which was represented a boy with a lady’s dress comb in the right hand, the left grasping a bull by the horn, his foot upon a tortoise. In the background an elephant, motto ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’”
The slogan of “unity” might have been taken as advice in regard to the ongoing disputes over working conditions by Philadelphia’s journeymen comb makers, who had incorporated their trade union two years earlier. We cannot tell which side the Sargent brothers would have taken toward the grievances of the journeymen. Both brothers, however, were active in Democratic Party politics, signing their names onto an 1832 list of Philadelphians who were sponsoring a meeting for the local ticket of Democratic candidates, including Andrew Jackson for president.
The year 1832 ended on an especially triumphant note for Augustus. On Dec. 30, in the Universalist Church, he married 18-year-old Mary McCoy. The newlyweds moved in with Mary’s parents, the carpenter Ephraim (an immigrant from Ireland) and his wife Rhoda, who lived on Marriot’s Lane (today Montrose Street). Their first surviving daughter, Adelaide, born in 1838, appears to have been mentally incapacitated, although she lived well into the next century. She was followed by Emma (1844), Mary (1846), and Clara (1850). In 1836, Augustus was elected an officer of the Southwark Institute, a society that met in the Commissioners’ Hall at Second and Christian Streets. The Institute sponsored public lectures on edifying subjects and had a large membership library.
While Augustus Sargent pursued his craft of comb making for close to 30 years, Edward tried other occupations as well. The 1835 Philadelphia directory showed an Edward Sargent maintaining a tavern—his parents’ old business—on the corner of Fifth and Carpenter Streets. Later directories in the 1840s, however, listed him once again as a comb maker.
Edward did not marry until 1841; he wed Susan Grubb at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church in November of that year. For a very short while, he and Susan seem to have resided in Hoboken, N.J., where their daughter Augusta was born in 1846. In the 1850s, Edward undertook a new trade—that of boilermaker. In 1851, news reports show, he was elected secretary at a meeting of the Boilermakers’ association, held in a local firehouse.
In 1855, Edward’s work as a boilermaker led to a terrible accident. At the time, he was employed by the S.V. Merrick shipbuilding company to make repairs on the USS Susquehanna. The Susquehanna was the pride of the U.S. Navy, having served as Admiral Matthew Perry’s flagship during his renowned entrance into Japan’s Edo Bay in July 1853. After operating on the China Coast, the steam-powered side-wheeled frigate arrived in Philadelphia in March 1855 for refitting at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, located just to the south of Gloria Dei Church.
In September of that year, Edward and a 15-year-old boy were at work on machinery within the Susquehanna when somebody dropped a heavy key through an open hatch. The object struck the boy on the back of his head, causing a great wound. The injured youngster was conveyed in a carriage to his home, but he died during the journey. The Philadelphia Inquirer (Sept. 20, 1855) did not name the deceased youth but reported that he was Edward’s own son. We should be suspicious of that information, however. If the teenager were indeed 15 years old, he would have been born more than a year before Edward and Susan were married. Moreover, the 1850 census records did not list a boy of the appropriate age as living in their home; all of the children were much younger, and none of them died in 1855. So, the dead boy was more likely an apprentice from a family other than that of Edward Sargent.
In the meantime, the family of August Sargent had endured its own heartbreaks. In 1854, Ephraim McCoy, Mary Sargent’s father, died. He had been frail for some time. In 1856, Malvina Sargent, the three-year-old daughter of Augustus and Mary, died of Scarlet Fever. The following year, the couple purchased a house at 325 Redwood Street (today Manton Street). Mary’s mother, Rhoda McCoy, might have moved with the family to the new house, but in her final years, she was living on Richmond Street in Kensington. She died at age 90 in 1865, and is buried in the churchyard at Gloria Dei.
In 1860, Augustus Sargent undertook a radical change in occupations when he was hired as the keeper of the women’s wing of Moyamensing Prison, the massive castle-like building that loomed over the Passyunk Road at Reed Street. In his yearly reports on the prison, Dr. William J. Mullen, the agent for the county prison inspectors, gave Sargent high marks for his work. Mullen (1805-1882) was an excellent reference for any prison official; he was a noted advocate for prisoners’ rights, and late in life estimated that he had been able to free some 50,000 people who had been jailed unjustly.
Mullen’s 1865 report was written in the wake of a severe outbreak of spotted fever (sometimes called “jail fever”) in the prison. He stated, “Mr. Sargent, keeper of the female department, and the two Matrons, were fearless and efficient in the discharge of their arduous duties — The latter having been sick from the effects of the fever.” In 1869, Mullen wrote, “The Matrons and the Keeper, Mr. Sargent, are faithful and attentive to all their duties, and the good order and cleanliness manifested here reflect upon them the highest credit.”
The previous year, Mullen had noted that the women’s prison was being enlarged. This would require construction of a new wing extending into what had been parade grounds in the rear of the buildings. The women’s wing would also take over the old Debtor’s Prison, with its notable Egyptian-style entrance portico facing the Passyunk Road (the portico is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.) The additions allowed the construction of 40 more cells, plus a “suitable residence for Mr. Augustus Sargent, keeper of the female department.”
The enlargements of the women’s prison were completed by 1870, and the Sargent family moved into their new quarters, while keeping ownership of the house on Redwood Street.
Despite Mullen’s compliments for Augustus Sargent’s supervisory work at the prison, a court trial that took place in the summer of 1875 threw Augustus into disgrace. The circumstances concerned a Black woman, Kate Johnson, who had been arrested for theft on July 21. She soon gave birth to a child in the prison and remained “in a sick and weary condition from her recent confinement.” Despite her weakness—and with Augustus Sargent’s apparent approval—she was soon sent in a carriage to her court trial with her 12-day-old baby in her arms. The carriage ride was quite rough, and in court she complained of excruciating pain, which almost bent her double. Her lawyer obtained an acquittal out of charity, and Johnson was sent home.
A few days later, a hearing was held before a Grand Jury to determine how it might have happened that Johnson had been sent on a “rough ride” while in a debilitated condition. Presiding Judge Elcock stated at the beginning that he was set on conducting an extremely thorough investigation, since the case had produced great public outrage.
Augustus Sargent, as the keeper of the women’s section, gave sworn testimony, and the transcript of his remarks were printed in the North American, the Inquirer, and other papers (Aug. 7, 1875). He said that Johnson had been admitted to the prison on July 24, and that a doctor had attended Johnson “every time she was reported sick.” He explained further, “When I received the order from Court for her, I told her to get ready to go. … She expressed herself willing to go; I was so informed by the matron; I did not know that she was not willing to go until I read the papers this morning.”
The judge asked Sargent, “Do you think it was safe to send a woman out on a rough ride, 12 days after she had been confined?” “I don’t know,” Sargent replied.
Judge Elcock was not at all impressed by Augustus Sargent’s weak answers, which might have seemed like attempts to deflect blame from himself. The judge declared that the county prison at Moyamensing had proven unworthy of the high reputation it had formerly enjoyed, and that if he had the power—which he unfortunately lacked—he would see to it that Sargent and his entire staff were dismissed from their posts.
We can imagine that being shamed in public—with his tepid excuses and the slam by the judge reprinted in the Philadelphia newspapers for thousands to read—was highly debilitating for Augustus. When he was 13, the press had reported on how he injured himself through carelessness; now the papers revealed for all to see how his carelessness had contributed to the injuries of another person. A year and a half later, on March 14, 1877, Augustus Sargent died. He was buried in the Gloria Dei churchyard, with a small stone to mark the grave.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1860s, Edward had been continuing his work as a boilermaker. It is not certain whether he served in the Army during the Civil War. His family had seen happy times, such as the birth of their youngest daughter Fanny in 1856—and some tragedy. In 1868, their son Edward L. Sargent Jr., who had chosen the adventurous life of a seaman, came home to die. He was just 18 years old, and had contracted a lung disease.
Following his brother Augustus’ death, Edward, now in his late sixties, succeeded him as prison keeper. He and his family moved into the vacated keeper’s residence at Moyamensing Prison. Edward remained on the job until around the time of his death from pneumonia on Dec. 21, 1886. The date was the anniversary, minus one day, of his wife Susan’s death. Edward was first buried at Lafayette Cemetery on Broad Street, but three months later was disinterred and reburied next to his wife at West Laurel Hill. Their daughters Fanny and Augusta (“Aunt Gus,” who never married) both died in 1914 and were buried near their parents’ graves.
Dec. 21 was an inauspicious date in the Sargent family. Like her brother in law, Augustus’s wife Mary also died on Dec. 21—but that was over a decade later, in 1899. The funeral was held in the home of her daughter Mary Lauer and her husband William at 1219 S. Fourth Street. Mary Sargent’s will, signed in 1879 and updated in 1895, provided that the proceeds of her estate be divided equally among her four surviving children. Her major asset was the house at 325 Manton Street (formerly Redwood), which is still standing. She made a note that her daughter Mary, executor of the will, should ensure that her eldest daughter, Adelaide, who was “of feeble mind,” be provided for. Adelaide, as it happened, lived on to age 87, dying in 1925, and Mary protected her until the end. It might have been Mary as well who made certain that the grave where her parents lie together at Gloria Dei received an impressive obelisk as a monument—which stands there today.
VIEW ON MAP (WEBSITE OF HISTORIC GLORIA DEI PRESERVATION CORPORATION)
died March 14, 1877
in his 66th year