Stories from the Old 8th Ward
One of the most exhaustive resources for studying the Old Eighth Ward is a series of columns published in the Patriot newspaper between 1912 and 1913 penned by local educator and editorialist, J. Howard Wert, titled “Passing of the Old Eighth.” A white Civil War veteran, he was politically progressive for the time, and while he was active in the Harrisburg school system, he was a strident advocate for school integration, often partnering with the African-American educational reformer, William Howard Day. However, Wert was also a staunch advocate for the Capitol expansion project and the City Beautiful movement and believed that on the whole, the Old Eighth Ward was a neighborhood marked by vice and ultimately a blight upon Harrisburg’s civic landscape.
Thus, when Wert sought to “tell the story” of the Old Eighth, he did so from a very particular vantage point. His progressivism was marked by the kind of white paternalism that was all-too-common at the time. In their edited collection of Wert’s columns, historians Michael Barton and Jessica Dorman note that Wert was at his most descriptive when describing the vice of the city. Describing the actions of canal workers who frequented the ward’s drinking establishments, Wert wrote that
There were orgies by day, and fiercer orgies by night that were protracted till the stars had paled before the brightening eastern skies.J. Howard Wert, “Passing of the Old Eighth,” Patriot, February 17, 1913.
Two drinking establishments, Lafayette Hall and the Red Lion, were especially prominent in both Wert’s descriptions of the Old Eighth Ward as well as the perception by Harrisburg’s more affluent public. Although Lafayette Hall was intended to be a well-appointed and garish restaurant, bar, and dance hall, it’s owner, Harry Cook–whom Wert describes as quite the villain–could not obtain the proper licenses for operating the establishment. But that did not stop Cook, and Lafayette Hall became an infamous yet ostentatious destination for heavy drinking and other carousing. At the other end of the spectrum yet no less notorious was the Red Lion. As Wert writes
“if a Harrisburger wanted to show a visiting sport from another city a gilded palace of sin, he took him to Lafayette Hall. But if he wanted to show the same visitor sin itself in concetrated form, without any ornamentation, flounces, or furbelows, he took him to the ‘Red Lion,’ and the visitor generally came away admitting that the Five Points of New York, or the Old Loun in Baltimore had nothing to beat it.”J. Howard Wert, “Passing of the Old Eighth,” Patriot, June 23, 1913.
However, it is important to note that while the Old Eighth Ward might have been the location of these “dens of iniquity,” the majority of their clientele were not residents of the neighborhood. Most patrons searching out hard liquor, illegal gambling, and even prostitution were those who did not even call the city home. During the Civil War, soldiers stationed at nearby Camp Curtin poured into the Old Eighth. So too did canal and rail workers with their wages burning holes in their pockets. Yet this detail was lost on most civic reformers from outside the ward. The railroad was the lifeblood of Harrisburg industry, so it was easier to displace some of Harrisburg’s poorer residents in the name of public health and virtue than try and regulate the industries that supported the ward’s illicit economy.
At the same time, Wert knew enough about the residents of the ward that he felt he needed to offer a counterweight to his persistent descriptions of vice. In a column dedicated to both an addiction treatment center and a hospital that had existed in the Old Eighth, Wert wrote
“To prevent any misapprehension, I wish to say again, most emphatically, that, althought disgraceful vice conditions were in evidence, year after year, in the ‘Old Eighth,’ yet it has it always been the home of many devoted and noble men and women whose unsullied lives shine all the more brightly by the contrast.”J. Howard Wert, “Passing of the Old Eighth,” Patriot, May 12, 1913
It is also worth noting that in close proximity to the vice of the ward were vibrant religious communities–both Christian and Jewish–as well as an extremely popular temperance movement. One of the most prominent temperance organizations were the Daughters of Temperance, who not only worked to combat alcohol consumption but were instrumental in advocating for emancipation prior to the Civil War and Women’s suffrage.
The story of one individual of a downtrodden and oppressed race upon whose patient endurance of the vessels of injustice have discharged their contents for centuries… possessed of indomitable resolution, tireless energy and rectitude of purpose… one of the best known citizens of Harrisburg, respected by allHarrisburg Telegraph, May 20, 1911.
Joseph L. Thomas stands in sharp contrast to the colorful villains that populated Wert’s columns. In fact, it is quite notable and perhaps evidence of Wert’s myopic perspective that Thomas never appeared in the “Passing of the Old Eighth” series, despite being one of the most well-known, respected, and beloved residents, business owners, and civic leaders from the ward. Thomas was born in Winchester, Virginia in 1852, but by 1911 he was a Harrisburg resident for over fifty years and had his home and office at 429 State Street in the Old Eighth Ward. In fact, his residence was located directly under the current Pennsylvania War Veterans’ Memorial Fountain of Capitol Park. In 1895, he joined the undertaking business with a partner who soon after died, and Harriet A. Hill, the partner’s widow, turned over the business to Thomas. As a graduate of four of the leading embalming schools in the country, and rising above being orphaned as a teenager, the citizens of Harrisburg had great respect for his excellence in his position. The citizens of Harrisburg also elected him to the city’s Common Council for two terms and to the School Board for one term. He was also a prominent member of Harrisburg’s fraternal organizations, rising to the position of chairman of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, whose mission concerned taking care that no family should be wanting or lacking support when facing affliction.
Thomas was so beloved in Harrisburg that in 1911, just as the state legislature was passing the Capitol expansion bill, the Harrisburg Telegraph published a glowing full-length column praising the African-American leader. Drawing comparisons to none other than Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Robinson, the column urged people to
“There are men in every community, less known to fame than they, who, unostentatiously, are laboring in the same vineyard, doing the work the Master gives them to do. Harrisburg has such workers and one of the number is Joseph L. Thomas”