By Michael Schreiber and Amy Grant
In the 18th century, South Second Street contained a large number of taverns. Some were alehouses that drew a rowdy crowd. Others were more respectable; farmers who came from the countryside to sell meat and vegetables in the New Market often used their bedchambers for overnight stays.
The Sign of the Mermaid, a tavern on Second near Stamper’s Alley, was a popular destination. The Mermaid was one of Philadelphia’s larger taverns, with three stories, an addition in the rear, and separate kitchen and stables. Despite the tavern’s popularity, the owners faced many obstacles and eventually were forced to go out of business.
William and Jane Murdoch, who were married in 1763, opened the tavern during the turbulent years of the American Revolution. They appear to be the same couple who had previously run a hat shop at Front and Almond (Kenilworth) Streets. In March 1775, William Murdoch placed a notice in the newspapers stating that because of his having suffered “much affliction and loss,” he was compelled to leave the haberdashery business but would continue to clean and repair old hats. At the same time, Jane Murdoch would carry on as usual by selling ladies’ hats and clothing.
After war broke out and the British threatened to march on Philadelphia, William Murdoch served for a time with the city militia. By late 1778, as business began to revive after the British occupation, the Murdochs were living in the New Market area, and they soon opened the Mermaid tavern on Pine Street. A setback occurred in 1780 when two indentured workers at the tavern absconded with an unspecified amount of money from the bar room. The Murdochs offered a $400 reward for William Palmer, “an Englishman about 60 years old suffering from disabled fingers on his right hand,” and Hannah Kelly, a “Dutch woman” who “speaks bad English” and “makes use of snuff.”
Despite such obstacles, the Murdochs steadily expanded their business offerings. Mrs. Murdoch served as the agent for Allen Cuningham’s bi-monthly wagon service to towns in the South, including Baltimore.
In October 1782, the Murdochs opened the Mermaid at its new location near Stamper Alley. A little over a year later, the Murdochs began their own coach and driver service to transport customers “to any part of the city they may desire.” But problems persisted. In 1785, William Murdoch offered a $10 reward for information leading to the theft of a horse that had been hired out for an overnight journey. The black mare was wearing a “new pad on the saddle marked with WM on the crutches.”
The Murdochs’ varied services might even have drawn some unwanted attention. William Brock, alias William Smith, had been convicted of grand larceny in New York City in January 1786 and had a mark (probably “T” for thief) branded on his skin as punishment. Soon after being released, Brock went to Philadelphia, where he continued his trade of burglary. In April of that year, William Murdoch appeared before the court of Oyer and Terminer to testify that he had been one of Brock’s victims. As this was not Brock’s first offense, he was sentenced to death, but was pardoned a year later by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on condition that he emigrate from the United States.
Sadly, the Murdochs’ troubles did not end there. Less than two years later, William Murdoch had fallen steeply into debt; the tavern was confiscated by the sheriff and auctioned off to the highest bidder. William and Susannah Hammill purchased the Mermaid and operated it for several years. Later, Susannah and her second husband, Daniel McKaraher, established a tavern across the street, in the building that is now the Twisted Tail.
In 1789, Murdoch placed an advertisement in the newspapers requesting “speedy payment” from those who were indebted to him, and promising to repay “those who have any demands against him.” In the midst of those financial difficulties, his wife left him. Murdoch announced in local papers that he was “determined not to pay any debts she may hereafter contract.”