Stories from the Old 8th Ward

The James Russ House, one of the largest residences in the Old Eighth Ward was home to both the Keeley Institute and St. Clare Infirmary. Corner of North and Fourth Streets. Photo, c. 1911, courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

While many of Harrisburg’s City Beautiful advocates sought to “save” the people of the Old Eighth Ward from the outside, many individuals and organizations within the ward dedicated their lives to serving the community as well as the wider city.

The Old Eighth Ward was home to a number of fraternal and sororal organizations dedicated to community service. The largest and oldest of these organizations was the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, which met at the Brotherly Love Lodge located right next to the famed “Frisby Battis Corner,” the center of African-American Republican politics in the ward. Among the members of the G.U.O.O.F were famed Harrisburgers Jacob Compton, Joseph L. Thomas, and Colonel Strothers. Simultaneously, many of the women of the ward, such as Martha F. Saunders and Anna E. Amos, were members of the Daughters of Temperance. Not only did these organizations provide social security and stability to a community before the New Deal, they also had a long history of working for emancipation and African-American rights prior to the Civil War. In fact, in a time when southern states still enslaved African-Americans, both organizations led August 1st Emancipation Day parades which celebrated the abolition of slavery in British Caribbean colonies–a precursor to Juneteenth celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

As an organization named “Daughters of Temperance” would indicate, this was indeed a time when many institutions were also concerned with combatting drunkenness and alcohol consumption. The Old Eighth Ward was the site of many hotels and saloons that served alcohol–including many that continued to serve alcohol during Prohibition–that largely catered to traveling canal and rail workers, soldiers stationed in the city, as well as others who did not live in the ward. This led to the rise of “Temperance Hotels,” which sought to serve these travelers while also encouraging sobriety. Ironically, one such hotel was demolished long before Capitol expansion in order to make space for expansions of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Later, the Daughters of Temperance opened a Temperance Hall that served as the headquarters for both their social reform efforts as well as women’s suffrage advocacy.

One other prominent organization working for temperance was the Keeley Institute, which was housed in the largest mansion in the ward, the James Russ House. Before the rise of the 12-step method for treating addiction, the Keeley Cure was literally the “gold standard,” as central to the treatment was the injection of bichloride of gold. While we now know that this is a dangerous medical treatment, the Keeley method also focused on treating addicts in caring, home-like environments, making the Russ House the perfect site for the institute.

A bottle of Dr. Keeley’s Gold Cure

For a short time, the Keeley Institute relocated, and during that time, the Russ House served as the St. Clare Infirmary run by Sister Mary Clare Grace and the Sisters of Mercy in Harrisburg. As this was a time of virulent anti-Catholicism in America, the reputation and adoration that Sister Mary Clare Grace received is all the more remarkable. The St. Clare Infirmary was open during the Spanish-American War and many soldiers from nearby Camp Meade were treated there. J. Howard Wert, looking back on the infirmary, said it best

“During the Spanish-American war… the work of this St. Clare Infirmary became especially conspicuous. Many a stricken soldier had reason to bless its shelter and thank God for the ministering care of those devoted Sisters of Mercy. Mother Clare now rests beneath the low green tent toward which we are all trending, but I would be recreant in my duty, if, in this connection, I did not place a wreath of recognition and laudation on her tomb.”

–J. Howard Wert, writing in his “Passing of the Old Eighth” column,
Harrisburg Patriot
May 12, 1913

Finally, as a neighborhood with many wooden structures, fire companies were crucial for maintaining the safety for the ward’s residents. The first company, the Citizens Fire Company was chartered in 1841, and the ward was always very proud of its service record. The second department, the Mt. Vernon Company was founded in 1858, and the leadership of the company was an important civic stepping stone for notable Harrisburgers.

The bell tower of the Citizens Fire Company. Note the Capitol Dome in the background. Photo, c. 1911, courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Sister Mary Clare Grace, Founder and First Superior of the Harrisburg Sisters of Mercy. Photo courtesy of the Mercy Heritage Center.

Sister Mary Clare Grace was born in Ireland in 1833 and trained as a sister at St. Xavier Academy in Chicago. She arrived in Harrisburg on September 1, 1869. Even though she was born into a relatively affluent family, she immediately earned a reputation in Harrisburg for living a life of Holy poverty. She was also known for strict observance of religious discipline. However, this strictness made her an incredibly effective institutional leader, whether she was running St. Genevieve’s Academy, the Mercy Home residence for other Sisters of Mercy, or the St. Clare’s Infirmary. When she arrived in Harrisburg, she was often met publically with anti-Catholic sneers, a common experience for Sisters in conspicuous habits across the United States in the nineteenth century. However, by the time she passed in 1911, having lived in retirement in the very St. Genevieve’s Academy, the people of Harrisburg flocked to her funeral and sang the praises of her life of service.

The headline of Sister Mary Clare Grace’s obituary, Harrisburg Daily Independent, June 19, 1911.