Action off Cape Francois, 21 October 1757 by John Cleveley, the Elder

By Michael Schreiber

He Found Menace at Sea and Heartache at Home

Soon after the present building of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church was consecrated, in the year 1700, the congregation received additional bequests of land to the west of its property. In the latter part of the 18th century, Gloria Dei dedicated a small portion of the land to be used as an auxiliary graveyard. The entrance to the burial ground was on Second Street, just below Christian.

In June 1873 the church sold the land to Thomas Sparks, the owner of the nearby Sparks Shot Tower, who used it for industrial purposes. Supposedly, the gravestones were removed at that time, and the caskets were dug up and relocated to another cemetery. Today the land is used as a playground and sports field.

In 1907, it was observed that the tops of three tombstones were still visible above ground. This was reported in an article by Antonia Lynch, “The Old District of Southwark,” printed for the City History Society in 1909. Lynch stated that inscriptions on the stones commemorated Elizabeth Snell (who “departed this life April 29, 1798”), Elizabeth McKechnie (“departed this life May 24, 1797”) and Elizabeth Glensey (“departed this life … 1800”). All three women were identified in Gloria Dei records as being “strangers” (not members of this church).

In order to learn more about the Second Street Burial Ground, Amy Grant, a member of the board of the Historic Gloria Dei Preservation Corporation, and I undertook research on one of the grave occupants mentioned by Antonia Lynch in 1907. Our subject was Elizabeth Snell, whom the inscription on her tombstone had identified as the wife of Captain James Snell. Unsurprisingly, we found much more information on Captain Snell than we did on his wife Elizabeth—or on his two later wives, for that matter. We are providing here a very brief outline of what we found during our investigation into their lives.

James Snell was born on March 13, 1757, in Falmouth, Cornwall. As he entered his teens, James followed his father in the trade of a mariner. On Nov. 13, 1780, he married Elizabeth Hopkins, probably at the stone parish church of King Charles the Martyr, which still stands in the center of Falmouth.

James and Elizabeth and their children emigrated to Philadelphia probably in early 1793. On May 27, 1793, James Snell signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. Two weeks later, on June 15, having been hired by merchant James Crawford, he set sail as master of the brig Minerva, bound for Bordeaux, France. Unfortunately, in August, after loading cargo in Bordeaux, the French refused to allow the Minerva to leave port, even though France and the United States were not officially at war.

Snell and the Minerva spent many months in France, not returning to Philadelphia until July 1794—over a year after the voyage had begun. The news upon Snell’s arrival was extremely sad. About 10 percent of the city’s population had died in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. A possible victim of the epidemic was his one-year-old son James Snell Jr., who had died in November of the previous year.

Snell and the Minerva set off for Europe again in August 1794. The Minerva was captured by the British and taken to a West Indies port. Once freed, the French embargoed the brig and held her with about 100 other American vessels in the harbor of Le Havre. The brig was released in February 1795 and returned to Philadelphia on April 9—about eight months since her departure the previous year. Two years later, the Snells lost another son to the yellow fever.

In late April 1799, Elizabeth, 41 years old, gave birth to a daughter but lost her own life during the birth. At the time of his wife’s death, James Snell was at sea as master of the 245-ton ship Harmony. On May 27, while returning to Philadelphia, the Harmony was captured by a 36-gun French corvette, the Sturges. Capt. Snell was removed onto the privateer vessel and carried to France. In his absence, the mate, Nelson, and other Americans staged a rebellion and successfully retook the Harmony. The ship returned to Philadelphia on June 22, 1799, under Nelson’s command.

In the meantime, Snell remained in the hands of his French captors for several months. After being released, he made his way back to Philadelphia, possibly only then receiving the news of his wife’s death. Snell named his new daughter Lucy, after his older sister in Falmouth. It might have been at that time that he ordered the stone to mark his wife’s grave—the one that was still in place a century later.

Remarkably, within a couple of weeks, James Snell gained a new wife. On Nov. 6, 1799, he married Elizabeth Fletcher, recently arrived from England, who at 21 was half his age. The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. Collin at Gloria Dei church. A little more than a month after their marriage, on Dec. 22, 1799, the young couple went to St. Paul’s church, on Third Street, for the baptism of the infant Lucy. Despite that happy instance, the marriage of James and Elizabeth Snell almost immediately began to fall apart.

Capt. Snell soon decided to put an end to the situation. He petitioned the court to commit Elizabeth to the Alms House, stating that she had been “in a state of Intoxication the whole of her time.” The judge ruled in accord with his wishes, and Elizabeth, just 23 years old, was duly incarcerated. A few weeks later, as yellow fever returned to the city, Lucy died, and Capt. Snell buried his three-year-old daughter in the grave of her mother at Gloria Dei’s Second Street burial ground.

After returning from a perilous voyage to Haiti, on Sept. 8, 1804, James Snell married 33-year-old Mary Gordon, a widow, at Christ Church. As far as we can tell, Mary Snell tolerated being the wife of a sea captain, who was away from home for half the year. As a former schoolmistress, she appears to have been a self-reliant woman.

For the next decade, James Snell continued his voyages to Europe and to the West Indies. He captained several vessels over the years, and apparently was detained by the British during the War of 1812. We described those adventures, and more, in the fall 2021 edition of Founders Magazine.

You can learn more about Capt. Snell’s adventures at sea in the Fall 2021 edition of Founders Magazine. We have also written about other sea captains who were connected with Gloria Dei Church.