Alternate sources: pew rentals and coffin receipts

pew holders

What can you do when the records that surely would contain a wealth of information about your ancestors no longer exist?

My 4th great-grandfather, Charles Bender, has long been one of the more elusive members of my family tree.

One of the big reasons why is that the church he joined as an adult is defunct and its records seemingly lost.

The First Presbyterian Church of Northern Liberties, was organized in 1813 out of the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. It was originally located at 2nd and Coates Sts. (now Fairmount Ave.), but moved to 6th and Buttonwood Sts. until it dissolved in 1917. Besides being an important neighborhood parish, from which sprung three more congregations, it also had the distinction of organizing the first Sunday schools in Philadelphia.

So what became of the records of its parishioners?

Sadly, the only ones that appear to have survived are lists of pew rentals from 1820 to 1830.

Nicholas Helverson was a local coffin maker and undertaker who was charged with collecting the church’s pew rents. Thankfully, his descendants were thoughtful enough to gift his account ledgers to the Historical Society of Philadelphia.

It made sense to make a trip to the HSP and rifle through the ledgers, each sealed in a Ziplock bag stowed in a cardboard box in the special collections section. If Helverson was charged with collecting pew rents for the church, he surely must have been the go-to undertaker for its parishioners.

I already knew for certain Charles belonged to the church, from a published membership list (compiled from Helverson’s records), and notation in Thomas James Shepherd’s The Days that are Past, a history of the church’s organization.

Certainly, the baptisms of his children and perhaps even the marriages for those who survived to adulthood (Philip H. Bender, Sr.), and the burials for those who did not, occurred at First Presby of N.L.

Truly a genealogical tragedy that these records are gone!

But I was holding out hope that in Helverson’s records, I could at least find record of Charles’ burial in the account ledgers and maybe some of his deceased children’s names too.

No such luck.

Helverson’s coffin receipts, though vague when it comes to names (often recorded as “Mr. [insert surname]” or occasionally only as “A man from [insert street name]”, are usually well detailed when it comes to customer’s address and what the funeral expenses were for. These details include things such as who the coffin (including size if small) was made for, who paid for it (sometimes a relative), carriage or hearse arrangements and for whom.

Unfortunately, the years between 1830 and 1834 are a bit spotty.

From pension records, I gleaned that Charles’ death occurred in August or September 1832. I believe he may have died as a result of the cholera epidemic that was happening in Philadelphia during the late summer of 1832.

I was really hoping to learn the exact date.

All I did find was that for years Charles secured seating on pew 38 next to his dear friend, Philip Hess.  An interesting bit of information, but not the jackpot I had hoped for.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.