By Michael Schreiber
We recently reported on the life of Rhoda McCoy, who died in 1899 and is buried in the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) churchyard in Philadelphia. Here we continue the narrative with a report on Rhoda’s son-in-law, Augustus Sargent, and his brother Edward. Both men had a connection to Gloria Dei Church. Augustus and his wife Mary are interred in the churchyard. Edward and his wife Susan were married at Gloria Dei.
When they were young, both brothers probably helped their parents in the tavern that they operated. As young adults, both worked as comb makers. In later life, both became keepers at the county prison.
Both of their parents died when the boys were young. Although friends and relatives might have helped out, the children, now in their early teens, had to manage much more on their own. Perhaps around that time or slightly later, Augustus’s elder brother, Edward, entered apprenticeship as a shell comb maker.
Combs were used as decorative items for women’s hair, as well as implements for grooming. The most valued combs in that period were generally those of “tortoise shell” (actually the shells of sea turtles that were mostly found in the Caribbean and off the coasts of South America and Southeast Asia). Fashioning the implements required artistry, but the work could be quite painstaking.
In 1832, Augustus Sargent was first listed in the Philadelphia directory as a shell comb maker. Perhaps he first apprenticed with his brother Edward in the craft or worked as a journeyman in the same shop.
The year 1832 ended on an especially triumphant note for Augustus. On Dec. 30, in the Universalist Church, he married 18-year-old Mary McCoy. The newlyweds moved in with Mary’s parents, the carpenter Ephraim (an immigrant from Ireland) and his wife Rhoda, who lived on Marriot’s Lane (today Montrose Street).
While Augustus Sargent pursued his craft of comb making for close to 30 years, Edward tried other occupations as well. The 1835 Philadelphia directory showed an Edward Sargent maintaining a tavern—his parents’ old business—on the corner of Fifth and Carpenter Streets. Later directories in the 1840s, however, listed him once again as a comb maker.
Edward did not marry until 1841; he wed Susan Grubb at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church in November of that year. In the 1850s, Edward undertook a new trade—that of boilermaker. In 1851, news reports show, he was elected secretary at a meeting of the Boilermakers’ association, held in a local firehouse.
In 1860, Augustus Sargent undertook a radical change in occupations when he was hired as the keeper of the women’s wing of Moyamensing Prison, the massive castle-like building that loomed over the Passyunk Road at Reed Street.
Despite having a solid reputation for his work at the prison, a court trial that took place in the summer of 1875 threw Augustus into disgrace. The circumstances concerned a Black woman, Kate Johnson, who had been arrested for theft on July 21. She soon gave birth to a child in the prison and remained “in a sick and weary condition from her recent confinement.” Despite her weakness—and with Augustus Sargent’s apparent approval—she was soon sent in a carriage to her court trial with her 12-day-old baby in her arms. The carriage ride was quite rough, and in court she complained of excruciating pain, which almost bent her double. Her lawyer obtained an acquittal out of charity, and Johnson was sent home.
A few days later, a hearing was held before a Grand Jury to determine how it might have happened that Johnson had been sent on a “rough ride” while in a debilitated condition. Presiding Judge Elcock stated at the beginning that he was set on conducting an extremely thorough investigation, since the case had produced great public outrage.
The judge declared that the county prison at Moyamensing had proven unworthy of the high reputation it had formerly enjoyed, and that if he had the power—which he unfortunately lacked—he would see to it that Sargent and his entire staff were dismissed from their posts.
We can imagine that being shamed in public—with his tepid excuses and the slam by the judge reprinted in the Philadelphia newspapers for thousands to read—was highly debilitating for Augustus. A year and a half later, on March 14, 1877, Augustus Sargent died. He was buried in the Gloria Dei churchyard, with a small stone to mark the grave.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1860s, Edward had been continuing his work as a boilermaker. It is not certain whether he served in the Army during the Civil War.
Following his brother Augustus’ death, Edward, now in his late sixties, succeeded him as prison keeper. Edward remained on the job until around the time of his death from pneumonia on Dec. 21, 1886.
Inscription from a previous marker:
died March 14, 1877
in his 66th year
Type of Marker: Obelisk
Date of Marker (estimate): Late 19th century
Issues: Biogrowth, soiling
Historic Integrity: Intact
Structural Integrity: Excellent
Material Integrity: Excellent
Legible Inscription: Excellent
Inventory Number: 308
Plot Number: 592
Historic Number: 135
Ledger Book Number: 370
Cemetery Section: 5
Marker Height/Length (in): 84
Marker Width (in): 31
Marker Thickness/Depth (in): 31