Friday, March 1, 2013

The Mendenhall Mob

The Aaron Klair House
There were a number of reasons why I started writing this blog 2-1/2 years ago, one of them being to help combat what I felt was a common misperception. (I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating in this case.) I think that when a lot of people are asked, about Mill Creek Hundred, "What was around here 100, 200, or 300 years ago?", the common response would be, "Oh, it was all just farmland." And as we've seen here, that dismissive phrase is just not accurate. Although to be fair, even though MCH has been home to many other things over the centuries, the great majority of its expanse has been primarily used as farmland. But with those farms, it's important to bear in mind that they were built, lived on, and worked by real people. I know that sounds on the surface like a simplistic idea (of course there were "real" people there), but it's one I feel gets overlooked sometimes.

I think the main reason it's so easy to forget that those names we see on maps and census rolls represent real people is that we rarely get personal, up-close glimpses into their lives. Once in a while we have a photograph or two of a 19th Century resident, which is always wonderful. There's no better way to be reminded of the "realness" of someone than to actually look into their eyes, to see the part of their hair, to take in their crooked smile or the wrinkles on their face. [I don't know if I mention this enough, but if anyone ever has or knows of any old photos of people or places in the area, please let me know.] Other times -- even more rarely, it seems -- we come across a personal story from their lives that makes you think, "Yeah, they sound just like some people I know. I understand exactly how they felt and what they were thinking." This is a whole other level of "realness", and it's why I love the story of The Mendenhall Mob.

This story was first brought to my attention quite a while back by Bill Taylor, a relative of one of the players in the story. At first we had only part of the story, and were left to speculate about the motives of those involved. Then, about a year later, Bill (thankfully) brought it up again in a comment, which ultimately lead to at least a partial explanation of the chain of events. The invaluable Donna Peters came up with a couple of newspaper articles that finally shed some light on the whole affair. (Proving that she can be of use even when the Eastburns are not involved. OK, A) of course I'm joking, and B) I'm sure they could still be connected if we wanted to.)

The original information uncovered by Bill came from the December 18, 1855 edition of the Delaware State Reporter, a short-lived newspaper out of Dover. It stated that Samuel Taylor and Aaron, Egbert, and Frederick Klair were all arrested for "participating in a mob at the house of James Mendenhall". The four appeared before Justice of the Peace William Silver, Jr., and were bound over for $250 each. This was all we knew. Obviously, a number of questions cry out for answers. Why were they there? What does "participating in a mob" mean? Were there more people involved, or were they the whole "mob"? (I still maintain that Four Man Mob would be a great band name.) What exactly did they do? And what ever became of their case, and/or the underlying cause that precipitated what we've dubbed, The Mendenhall Mob.

As it turns out, I think we've found a pretty convincing answer to the first question, a good guess at the second and third, and partial answers to the rest. The key discovery was made by Donna, and came in the form of another short newspaper article from earlier the same year. As you can see below, in late July 1855 James Mendenhall Jr. was brought before the Justice of the Peace on the complaint of his wife, Ann Mendenhall. She claimed "[...] that he had deserted her, and left her without proper means of support, having no property, rights, or credits that could be sequestered for her maintenance." So if I'm understanding it correctly, it basically sounds like he left her, and had nothing she could take for whatever passed for alimony at the time.

From the Delaware State Reporter, July 31, 1855

So now we have the final player in the drama, and the one who in a way is the (as far as we know, quite innocent) driver of it all -- Ann Mendenhall, James' wife. I admit that initially I thought the motives behind the Mendenhall Mob could have ranged anywhere from politics, to a business deal gone wrong, to some sort of personal altercation between angry young men. After seeing the above article, though, it seemed like a good bet that the December event had something to do with the marital problems of the Mendenhalls. The next piece of information Donna found pretty much closed the case, though. Any guesses as to Ann Mendenhall's maiden name? Yup, she was a Klair.

Ann Klair was born in 1833, so she was about 22 when this was playing out. Of the members of the Mendenhall Mob, Aaron was her father and Egbert and Frederick were her big brothers. Samuel Taylor was obviously a friend of the family, probably a buddy of Egbert and Frederick. The Taylors lived nearby, and may have occupied the adjoining farm to the Klairs. As you might recall from the post about the Klairs, Aaron and his family lived in the stone house (shown at the top of the post) that still stands on the former Three Little Bakers (Pike Creek) golf course. James at the time was still living in his family's home, not far away. James Mendenhall, Sr.'s house was east of Limestone Road, between Mendenhall Mill Road and Brackenville Road, in what is today the development of Westwoods. Just a couple miles from the Klairs.

And just in case you thought that maybe the whole affair was being blown out of proportion, and that maybe the legal aspect was just a formality, we have one more newspaper article that gives an insight into the emotions involved. This comes from the August 2, 1855 issue of The Jeffersonian, a paper in Stroudsburg, Pa. Here it is below, in all its gossip columnly goodness.

Stroudsburg, PA Jeffersonian, August 2, 1855
Obviously, "Mr. M" is James Mendenhall, Jr., "Miss K" is Ann Klair Mendenhall, and Aaron is her father. The house mentioned is the one at the top of the page. As you can tell, there definitely were some strong feelings on all sides of the story. Of course, if some guy married my daughter, treated her poorly, then kicked her out, I'd probably apply "a stout switch", too. All this eventually leads us back to our original event, the actions of the Mendenhall Mob four months later. (Yes, I know it would probably more accurately be termed "The Klair Mob", but I'm sticking with our original name.)

With all of this background now in place, the general purpose of the mob seems clear. My guess is that it was probably just the four of them, although it's possible they they had the backing of the community, emotionally if not physically that day. The Klairs and Taylor most likely went to the Mendenhall's to "talk some sense" into young James. Which probably is a nice way of saying they marched over there to kick the crap out of him. Whether they actually did or not is unclear, but since they were arrested they certainly at least threatened him pretty well.

We may never know what their exact motivation was that day -- the whole affair had been going on for months. They might have been trying to get him to "man up", be a husband, and take his wife back. Or they could have been trying to exact some financial compensation for Ann. Or they might just have been fed up with him, and went over there to "relieve their frustration" at his physical expense. The charge of "participating in a mob" may have just been levied because there was a group of them taking part. Today, it may have been individual accounts of aggravated assault or terroristic threatening, depending on what they actually did. Of course, I'm not an expert in 21st Century law, let alone mid 19th.

We don't yet know what the legal outcome was for Taylor and the Klairs. I'd imagine it wasn't anything too harsh, if at all. Officially, the ill-fated marriage of James and Ann finally was dissolved by an act of the State Legislature on February 24, 1857, a little over a year after the "mob action". (Apparently it took legislative action to get a divorce then.) Ann remarried just a few years later to another local farmer, William Derrickson. Derrickson had been married to Ann's older sister, Phebe, but only for a year before Phebe died. William and Ann had three children, the first of whom was born about 1861, so Ann and William may have been married a year or so before. They lived in the Thomas Justis House on Milltown Road, presently next to St. John the Beloved Catholic Church. Sadly, they only had little more than ten years together, as Ann died in September 1871, at the age of 38. As far as we know, they had a happy marriage.

James Mendenhall, the formerly "Unmanly Husband", also remarried, this time to Elizabeth Gibson in West Grove Township, Chester County. I can't be sure that James moved from the area because of his actions towards Ann, but by 1860 he was living in Chester County, and seems to have remained there until his death in 1906. From the tone of the Jeffersonian article, he wasn't a particularly well-respected member of the community, at least not at that point. Maybe the whole affair soon blew over, or maybe he found it difficult to interact with his neighbors and moved away. We may never know. In either case, the whole story of the Mendenhall Mob allows us a rare insight into the personal lives of some of the 19th Century residents of Mill Creek Hundred.


  1. Scott and Donna
    Thanx so much. Just getting caught up with MCH. We've been swamped with work. "Rebuilding Wilmington, one brick at a time!~!~!"
    Perhaps an epitaph... Years ago, when I was a young and strapping lad, I played hockey and skated at the Cheter County Skating Club. One of my dear friends was a fine, deminuitive debutante named Roberta (Bobbie) Mendenhall. She lived on a grand farm in Kaolin, just north of Route 41.
    I really have to wonder... if just maybe... that horrid cur Mr. M... just may have been her Great Great Grandpappy. Funny how, some generations later, two families may have crossed pathes once again.
    Thanx for the help, Donna. Great read, Scott.
    Unca Billy

    1. Unca Billy, It would be cool if "Bobbie" found this post and replied. I have tracked the male descendents of Mr. M., as far as I can. He had 1 son, Hamilton Alexander Mendenhall. H. A. had 2 sons:
      1-James Horace b. 20 MAR 1898 in Avondale, d. 12 JUN 1936 in Kennett Square. 2 sons:
      1a-James H. b. 1922 in Avondale
      1b-Ralph Ivins b. 1923, d. 9 JAN 2010 (found his obit, no daughters.)
      2-Alan Hamilton b. 29 DEC 1899, d. 7 dec 1875 in Kennett Square. (struck by a car) He had 1 son:
      2a-Alan Hamilton Jr. b. 10 OCT 1928, d. 4 JUN 1985.
      So, if "Bobbie" is a descendent of Mr. M., she would be the daughter of either James H. Mendenhall (1a) or Alan Hamilton Mendenhall (2a)