The Dispensary System of the 19th century was created to serve the needs of the impoverished and ailing citizens of the County of Philadelphia. These clinics were situated around the county and were staffed by a variety of paid and volunteer physicians from the neighborhoods. The clinic doctors set broken bones, stitched up wounds and treated, as best they could, the many contagious diseases of the era with bleeding, pills, and potions. One of the least discussed duties of these caregivers was the home visit that would be made upon the death of a patient and the signing of the official death certificate required by the Health Department of the County of Philadelphia. In the first half of the century, these documents were written on any available piece of paper: the back of an envelope, a piece ripped off a hand poster or even a piece of a brown paper bag, with the occasional grease stain. Only later did printed forms come into use.
As the historian that rediscovered the Bethel Burying Ground beneath part of the Weccacoe Playground, I have studied the originals of over 2,400 of these death certificates pertaining to the internments in this historic 19th century African American cemetery. The name that is the most commonly seen as the attending physician is that of Samuel Keen Ashton, M.D. (1822- 1895).
A sixth-generation descendant of a Mayflower passenger, he came from the upper strata of Philadelphia society. He graduated from Germantown Friends and the University of Pennsylvania, B.A. (1841), M.D. (1843) and settled into a comfortable life at 222 South 8th Street, his home and his of office. His connections at the University most certainly assisted in growing his practice. He quickly became involved in his professional associations and church; Dr. Ashton was a life-member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society. He would eventually marry the daughter of a United States Army surgeon and begin a family that would grow to nine children.
Whatever the motivation, Dr. Ashton quickly provided his services to the Southern Dispensary and soon would find himself in the poorest streets and alleys bearing the notorious names of Bedford Alley (now Kater St.), Middle Alley (now Panama St.) and Gaskill Street (now Naudain St.), all in Southwark or Moyamensing. There, the young doctor would encounter the poorest of the poor of all races, in vastly overcrowded dwellings that were little more than hovels. Piles of garbage lay in the street, clogging the gutters with black water covered with foul-smelling vegetation. These communities were epidemic incubators that Dr. Ashton visited repeatedly to see his fever-ridden patients. Often, he would administer to the sick where entire families lived in 8’x 8’ rooms with no heat or water. Sanitation facilities consisted of over owing outhouses and cesspools.
Besides encountering the threat of contagious diseases, the doctor would have to have been on his guard against assault from the local gang, the “Killers,” a collection of thugs that terrorized the Southwark and Moyamensing neighborhoods. Their favorite game of “Hunting the Nig” certainly would have included those people that aided the black families.
In 1862, Dr. Ashton, then forty years old, was contacted by William Still, an African American Philadelphian who is known to history as “The Father of the Underground Railroad.” Mr. Still was asking prominent white Philadelphians to sign a petition addressed to the owners of the City’s railway transportation system. It requested that African Americans be allowed to utilize public transportation. Philadelphia was the most racist and segregated city above the Mason-Dixon Line. Black men and women faced possible violence and humiliation if they attempted to board a horse-drawn trolley or railcar. In this form of oppression and apartheid, Black adults could not travel for work and were forced to accept whatever was available locally. At this time, all the other major cities on the East Coast permitted blacks on their transit vehicles.
Possibly Dr. Ashton had seen the effects the loss of transportation had on the black families he treated. Options for work, education, and health care depended on the ability to travel in the city. Without that, the families faced unemployment or underemployment and other opportunities that were essential to moving out of poverty. Tragically, the transportation owners rejected the petition. Their reason: they could not afford the possible financial loss if whites stopped using their services because they wouldn’t sit next to a black man, woman or child. The right of African Americans to ride public transportation in Philadelphia was not established by law until 1867. The petition failed, but it was the first major step by white Philadelphians in the battle to provide African Americans with equal rights.
Undaunted, Dr. Ashton would continue treating the poor for three more decades before succumbing to pneumonia in February of 1895 at seventy-three years old. Two sons followed in their father’s footsteps and became physicians. One of these, Dr. William Easterly Ashton wrote in the dedication to a 1890 medical textbook that he authored the following:
DR. SAMUEL KEEN ASHTON
THE KIND AND INDULGENT FATHER,
THE TRUE FRIEND,
THIS MANUAL IS AFFECTIONALLY DEDICATED BY HIS SON,
IN APPRECIATION OF THE EXAMPLE OF HIS LIFE AND OF HIS MANY ACTS OF PATERNAL CARE
Samuel Ashton was buried February 14, 1895, in the cemetery of St. James the Less Church situated at Hunting Park Avenue and Clearfield Street in Philadelphia following a viewing at the family home at 222 South 8th Street and a service at Christ Church.