All Things Wireless & Letterpress

All Things Wireless & Letterpress

Monday, March 6, 2017

Rescued by the Past.

This is a story about how a family from the Revolutionary War rescued me from a life of crime.

In 1969, newly arrived in the 'burbs of West Philadelphia, this fifteen year old military brat's life was tipping on a precipice.I had already been expelled from the Tredyffryn-Easttown Township school transit system for assaulting a bus driver, supposedly. Despite becoming interested in printing and even beginning apprenticeship through my school,  I had already joined a gang for self protection.  Thus, having already been pegged as a delinquent, for the rest of the year I walked the Penn Central tracks from where I lived behind the Devon Horse Show, to Conestoga HS, Berwyn, a distance of some eight miles. Looking back, it was actually quite an interesting experience walking the rails.

I wasn't your typical gang punk. But I was indeed a punk. It was a persona I put on to mask a lot of fear. Getting caught up in a turf war taught me that I needed protection. which was why I joined a gang to begin with. But I was a bit different from the other guys.  I had just came from Germany as an Army Brat. I spoke two languages and had a slight Euro/ Brit accent.  I had no home town, so I didn't really come from anywhere; I was forever the "New Guy".  In 1960s Philadelphia, living on the bad side of town, you didn't want to be the "new kid". No sir.
This punk collected stamps instead of knives, loved Prokofiev instead of Iron Butterfly, read history instead of the Furry Freak Brothers, played harp and guitar and was at the tender age of 15 already doing lettering and letterpress jobs for pay (through Conestoga High School.). Not a lot, but it was something.

One thing for certain: my peers didn't know what to make of me.  Except I was smaller than most guys my age....and that dynamic was fully exploited.

Walking the commuter rail tracks home home from school one day, I happened upon an antique store. Since I had developed an interest in old books while living in Germany,  I thought I might inquire, to find if they may have perhaps one or two old volumes. I was thinking in terms of maybe 1860 or so. I was directed downstairs to the basement, where racks of books stood side by side. To my astonishment, most of these books dated to the eighteenth century!  I had some money, so I bought a 1735 Baileys Etymology, and a Bible, printed by W. Young of Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, 1782 for a buck and a half each.

Now, this was no ordinary "Polyglot" bible. In it I discovered a handwritten Genealogy of the Leamy Family, starting with John Leamy who married Mary, his wife in 1765. Apparently when John bought the bible, he entered the date of his marriage to Mary. His was a handwriting that I would die for. Turning the pages, I read with fascination each birth, each marriage, each death, following sons and daughters to grand children, to great grand children. Over the years, the Bible went from daughter to daughter, apparently because every forty years or so the name changed, from Leamy to Jenkins to Norts. The handwriting and shade of ink would change, from black to ochre to turquoise (one 1830s entry was a lovely shade of teal!) - to blue. I would follow the thicks and thins of the quill strokes. The swirls encircling the "J"s, the "I"s, the "T"s, as I have never before or since have seen them inscribed. The last entry was dated 1870.  One hundred years of family.

I was captured by the handwriting.  I was fascinated by the personalities.  I found myself going to the library instead of breaking into apartments, which did not endear me to the gang.  I had to know about these people, what were they like?  What did they do?  What occupied their thoughts? How much of a role in their lives did this Bible play?  How were they affected by the British Occupation of Philadelphia?  Did they know the Anthony Waynes?  Could they have met Baron Von Steuben or Washington himself?  Or did they, as many of their neighbours, lean to the Crown?  St. Davids Church was after all, in their day, the Church of England

I located, in time, their graves at the St. Davids Church Cemetery.  Consequently, all through the summer of 1970, I spent my time hiding out from the gang in the peaceful shade and pleasant properties of  St. Davids Church. A stream passed by the grave yard, and a stone foot bridge traversed it's banks. With paper and pencil and the Leamy Bible in hand, I would copy, and copy, and copy and copy those remarkable pen strokes.  There were several places around the old church property to sit and concentrate.  By the foot bridge.  On one of the many boulders that projected from the slants of the surrounding hills.  On one of the benches by the church's stone walls. Alternately, I would stroll the cemetery itself, and, memorize the epitaphs inscribed upon the old stones.  They were like pleasant conversation, each inscription revealing a little about the person being memorialized. I recognize now, as a Believer in Jesus, that what I was reading were their life verses and testimonies, all pointing to a living Hope in Him.  I missed that then, but I got it now.  I think God knew that someday I would remember them, and the words from the Talking Stones.

On one of the rocks near the St. David's Cemetery.

The entries in my bible metered much like those inscriptions on the grave stones: 
"Sacred to the Memory of Mary Leamy, wife of John Leamy, who departed this life on the twenty-siscth (and 'x' was formed by backing an 's' against a 'c'.) of November, 1789, aged forty-nine years, sisc months and twelve days, being eight o'clock Sunday morning."

"Suzanna, daughter of John Leamy and Mary, his wife, was born on the thirtieth day of March, 1779, it being one o'clock Tuesday afternoon".

"Lydia Leamy, daughter of Robert Leamy and Abigale his wife, was born on the 10th of May, 1830, being about seven o'clock Friday morning."

The Rector of St. Davids noticed me there, day after day, and invited me into the old sanctuary, built in 1715. He showed me the graves beneath the pews. He showed me the church's mini-museum, with artifacts found on the property going as far back as the 1600s. There were even a few newspapers, the Philadelphia Enquirer, printed by Ben Franklin at Hall & Sellers!  One article told of a pastor, from this church, who covered several churches in the area.  They found him and his horse frozen to death under a tree one particularly bad winter, while en route from one church to the next.

Over time, I picked up still more books from that little store in Berwyn on the Main Line. One was Lydia Leamy's confirmation Prayer book, given to her, according to the inscription on the now all too familiar handwriting, at "Radnor Church, 1845". I already knew her well from the genealogy. I knew her parents. I located their graves. The children's graves, all buried at St. Davids...which prior to the Civil War was indeed called "Radnor Church".

The Old Rectory, St. Davids Church, Radnor PA.

All this time spent in the peace and quiet of St. David's church, learning how to write in that beautiful hand that was apparently handed down from father to son, according to the Rector, all that time finding and reading 180 - 230 year old Colonial books, all that time tracking and locating the graves, riding daily between the Devon Horse Show where I lived, and down Sugartown Road to Dorset Road, past the old colonial homes and properties, down Darby Paoli Road, reading the stones, talking to the Rector.....I became very conversant with a family long departed, yet loomed so importantly in my life. The guys around where I lived wondered where I was, I had stopped "hanging out".  

The more I spent time practicing my handwriting, copying the Leamy Family Bible, and the more time I spent riding past the old colonial homes and farms on the way to St. Davids, the more time I spent in the St. Davids museum, the more time I spent talking to the Parish Priest and the Rector, the less time I spent getting into scuffs with the law.  Correspondingly, the more familiar I became with the Welsh and German people who lived in the area, and whose graves I would read and re-read:

Here Lyeth the Body of Elizabeth Wayne,
amiable consort to Gen'l Anthony Wayne. 
"Friends for me, lay doon and weep,
I am not dead but goon to sleep
In the dust I must stay
Until the Resurrection Day,
Beneath this stone I shall remain
Till Christ shall rise me up again!"

The Old Stones spoke to me of a Faith in a Saviour which these people of the Delaware Valley possessed, a Faith that they lived . . . and died by.  Death was very close, every day.  But so was their Joy, as expressed in their hymnology, the hope inscribed upon their stones, and assurance of their future in Christ, where we read:

Beneath this stone a loving form
is laid in silent dust to rest
his gentle Body neatly borne
to Jesus' Home among the blessed.

A mother's love could not him save
from that long cold and dreamless sleep
He's won a vict'ry o'er the Grave
and now he plays 
at Jesus' feet.
 At the intersection of two paved foot-paths through the cemetery is probably the oldest stone in the yard...  A fellow named Isaacs is buried there.  His stone calls to passers by:

Behold, oh Man
as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I,
as I am now, so Thou shalt be:
Prepare therefore, 

My friend, George Hansel, posing by a stone in front of the entrance to the old sanctuary, which was built in 1715.  The old Isaacs grave is straight ahead, and off to the left, at the footpath intersection.

My eighteenth century books became like time capsules to me.  The Bailey's Etymology, printed in London in 1732, and inscribed "J.B", 1735, was my portal.  Learning to handle the language as an 18th century English Speaker proved quite helpful when researching period publications..  Researching William Young, the printer of that Bible, and it's retailer, was another point of interest.  Philadelphia was the printing capitol of the Revolutionary War era, with the likes of Ben Franklin, Hall & Sellers, Dunlap and his Pennsylvania Packet, Kristof Sauer and his German publications, printed from out of what is now called "German town".  The 1700s seemed very near, walking where they walked, reading the literature that informed them, visiting the homes left so close to the way they were, that whole neighborhoods will tell you that George Washington himself could ride up on his charger, and have reasonable expectation to find a familiar face coming to greet him.

As for me, all this activity  kept me off the streets!  It weaned me from the gang,  You could say that the Leamy Family kept me from getting into trouble.  I attended Conestoga High School for about one year, whereupon my father decided to relocate us to Florida by 1971.  But it was my interest in the 18th Century and the books I had collected and poured over that sparked a complimentary interest in Letterpress, which was taught in Conestoga, courtesy the Northern Chester County Technical School. I have been printing ever since.

Alas!  My move to Florida resulted in the loss of my beloved books.  My Baileys Dictionary was destroyed by vandalism.  My Bible was stolen, along with several other books.  All I had left was the Prayer book given to Lydia Leamy, who was confirmed at Radnor Church (St. David's Church) in 1854.  That little book was re-united with the Leamy Family in 1998, when I met Don Leamy on GenWeb.  When I discovered that his was the originating family, I had to send it to him.  

I love to think back on those days at St. David's.  And the amazing connection that we who are in Christ now, can connect so personally with believers who were, but are not now, but one day soon will be - in our presence at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.  I want a seat next to the Leamys.

Thanks for keeping me out of trouble.  Two hundred year time lag notwithstanding.

gary / the Paper Wren.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful story, Gary. I can relate, but not the part about gangs. I grew up in the rural Midwest near where relatives going back to some born before the Revolution are buried. It is fascinating to learn how our ancestors lived. I pursue my love of history through family genealogy and through our county historical society and the city historical sites commission. 73 K9LJB