In that spirit I was invited to reflect on 250 years of the history of the "Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company" of Baltimore.
Cox's widow did not fare well initially in her efforts to obtain relief because she was making too good a living as a storekeeper:
1779 Cox, Mary, Baltimore. To Gov. Thomas Johnson.
Apr. 15 "The unhappy widow" of Maj. James Cox was left, on the death of her husband at Germantown [Pa.] October 4 with only £50; to maintain her 5 children she applied to the Orphans' Court who granted half pay; all spare furniture had to be sold and part of the stock; to make a living she turned to shopkeeping; now the court says "you are making money fast and we dont think you are intitled to the Benefit of that Law"; expects the governor to "do everything in your Power to alleviate such Dystresses."
A.L.S. 1 p.384XXV, 80
The Mechanical Company apparently was never faulted for such unseemly behavior as setting fires in order to put them out or to contribute to a mob brawl, although it did have one black sheep member who proved to be a possible arsonist and robber of the post office. He was one of those orphan boys taken in as apprentices by the members of the Company. His sponsor was William Gwynn, one of the newspaper publishers in town in 1814, and a well-known Baltimore lawyer whose portrait hangs in the Mitchell Courthouse. It is not clear whether or not William Gwynn was related to, or adopted by William Gwynn, but when William Gwynn retired in 1834 from publishing, he sold the business to William Gwynn Jones who in May of 1835 was caught robbing the post office.
1835 was a year of great tension in the City. Baltimore lived up to its reputation as 'Mob Town gained in 1807 when a mob attacked Luther Martin's house in search of the disgraced Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. Hezekiah Niles expressed his concern in the "Register" on September 5, 1835:
During the last and present week we have cut out and laid aside more than 500 articles relating to the various excitements now acting on the people of the United States, public and private! Society seems everywhere unhinged, and the demon of blood and slaughter has been let loose upon us! ... We have executions and murders and riots to the utmost limits of the Union! The character of our countrymen seems suddenly changed, and thousands interpret the law in their own way --sometimes in one case, and then in another, guided apparently only by their own will!
The Banks were having a difficult time after a speculative romp that ended as another did recently with a dramatic downturn in the economy. The citizens of Baltimore were not happy. The mayor resigned because of the rioting and General Sam Smith at the age of 83 was called back to be the mayor. He restored order, but in the meantime, William Gwynn Jones a member of the Company since 1822, and one of the Company's director's of the Baltimore Fire Insurance Company robbed the post office and may have set fire to the Atheneum. Edgar Allan Poe writes about the robbery in a letter to Mr. T. W. White:
|William Gwynn, Baltimore Courthouse Collection|
Niles does not say much about the Mechanical Society in the Register, although at one point he is called upon to defend a check drawn upon one of the banks that was at the center of the 1835 bank riots. His defense was a noble one. He explained that it was a check sent to Louisville on behalf of the Mechanical Society in support of the victims of a disastrous fire there. The reach of the Company was not just to the citizens of Baltimore in putting out fires, but also helping residents of other cities in their time of need.
On behalf of the Society, Fonerdon wrote:
Our Country lately experienced all the miseries of a desolating and cruel War but by the interposition of a kind Providence, the Americans were enabled under your wise direction, and patriotic exertions during their arduous struggle, to secure the invaluable blessings they now enjoy. Being thus exalted to the possession of Civil and Religious Liberty, and enjoying the benefits of a free and equal Government: we cannot divest ourselves of sympathy for all, who struggle for the same blessings. ....
Adam Fonerden. President of the Society3
Attest Charles Peale Polk Secty
Washington replied on June 11:
The language of your Address shews that you have rightly estimated the purposes for which our general Government was established. And so evident are the benefits resulting to the industrious Citizens of every description throughout the United States from the operation of equal Laws, & from the security & tranquility with which they have pursued, their various avocations, under a Government of their own choice, that it becomes the duty of those who are entrusted with the management of their public affairs, to endeavour, by all proper means, to continue and promote those invaluable blessings: And that the happiness & true interests of a people are best secured by observing such a line of conduct as will, while they discharge their political obligations, preserve to their Country peace with other Nations and cultivate the good will of mankind towards them. ...If the Citizens of the United States have obtained the character of an enlightened and liberal people, they will prove that they deserve it, by shewing themselves the true friends of mankind & making their Country not only an asylum for the oppressed of every Nation, but a desirable residence for the virtuous & industrious of every Country”