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Betsy's House

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Betsy Ross House today

          A quarter of a million visitors come every year to the little colonial house at 239 Arch Street. They want to see Betsy Ross House, birthplace of the American flag. They don't know that they would not be visiting Betsy's house if it were not for some people they probably never heard of -- Amelia Mund, Charles William Smith and Vexil Domus Weisgerber.

          It all started with Betsy, of course. She was Elizabeth Griscom, the eighth of 17 children of Samuel Griscom, a Quaker merchant from Oxford Township, in the far northeast of Philadelphia County, way up above Frankford. Her father had a city house on Arch Street east of Fourth in 1773, when Betsy was 21. She was studying upholstery at Webster's shop at Second and Chestnut Streets. So was John Ross, son of an Episcopal cleric. As Betsy and John stitched, love blossomed.

          Betsy's parents, naturally, wanted her to marry a devout Friend. In New Jersey, a girl over 21 could marry without her parents' consent. So one night in November, 1773, John and Betsy sneaked across the Delaware River on the paddle-wheeled horse-powered ferry to Gloucester, where John had a pal who owned a tavern. In William Hugg's tavern, Betsy Griscom became Betsy Ross. Her parents were unhappy. The Friends Meeting crossed her off the rolls for "disobedient conduct." 

          Betsy and John moved into a house that was then number 89 Arch Street. (The city changed the numbering system 70 years later, and most true believers in the Betsy Ross story say it became 239 Arch.) The couple went into the upholstery business. When the Revolution began, John Ross joined an American military unit. His duty was near home, guarding munitions on the Philadelphia waterfront. In January, 1776, the munitions blew up, and so did John Ross. After only two years of marriage, Betsy became a widow.

          On June 15, 1777, the Widow Ross married Captain Joseph Ashburn at Gloria Dei Episcopal Church in Southwark. Ashburn was a Philadelphia seaman, and an old boyfriend of Betsy's. They had two daughters, but Captain Ashburn was away at sea much of the time, kept busy privateering on behalf of the American Revolution. In March, 1782, Ashburn died in a British prison after being captured on the high seas. His cellmate, John Claypoole, came to Philadelphia when he was released, and broke the sad news to the Widow Ashburn. On May 8, 1783, she became Mrs. Claypoole. They had five daughters.

          Betsy Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole died on January 30, 1836. For 34 years, there was not a word printed about her making the first flag, either in periodicals or history books. No tourists visited any little brick houses on Arch Street. On March 14, 1870, William J. Canby, a grandson of Betsy Claypoole, read a paper at a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, relating a family tradition that Betsy Ross made the first Stars and Stripes. The arguments started, and haven't stopped yet. Historians said they could find no contemporary record that Betsy Ross made the first flag, and that, indeed, Congress had paid Francis Hopkinson for designing a national flag.

          Betsy's daughter and other descendants swore affidavits that they had often heard her tell how Congressman George Ross, her late husband's uncle, had dropped in one day in spring, 1776, accompanied by George Washington and Robert Morris, and asked her to stitch up a flag. Anti-Betsy historians said that there wasn't any nation to make a flag for, in the spring of '76. Pro-Betsy people countered that Congress had authorized privateers to prey on British shipping, and that ships needed colors, and that Betsy is on record as being paid by the state of Pennsylvania for colors for its navy in 1777. Yes, said the Anti-Betsies, but Congress didn't approve the Stars and Stripes as the nation's colors until June, 1777. That, huffed the Pro-Betsies, doesn't mean the design wasn't used before it was approved.

          Books have been written on the subject. Investigations have been conducted by prominent citizens. Years have passed, and some disagreers still disagree. But in 1870, when William J. Canby's pronouncement was made public, there were no doubts in the minds of Philip and Amelia Mund. Canby's paper said that the first American flag was made in a little colonial house on Arch Street between Second and Third. The Munds lived in the only colonial house still standing in that block. So this, the Munds decided, must be the place.

          In 1859, Mund, a German tailor, had rented the Arch Street shop. He paid a year's rent in advance. He never heard from the landlord again. The owner may have been Captain Henry F. Bowen, commander of one of Stephen Girard's merchant ships, whose records were later destroyed in a fire in New York. Whoever the landlord was, he stopped collecting rent. Philip Mund, not one to argue with fate when it offered him a bargain, tailored happily on Arch Street for a decade.

          Then came the Canby paper. Philip and Amelia Mund decided that fate was tossing in a bonus with the rent-free shop. Being the birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner couldn't hurt business. But tailoring was not the kind of volume operation that would be helped by the publicity. So the Munds turned the shop into a saloon. They hung out a sign, with an image of a flag on the top, and under it the words, "Come In and Drink for Old Glory!"

          One of Mund's customers was a lawyer who, hearing his host's story of the rent-free premises, offered some gratis legal advice. Mund took it. He paid 21 years back taxes, and, in 1880, was granted title to the property by the courts under a "squatters' rights" law.

          Philip Mund was found dead under the water hydrant in the yard one morning in 1884. Mrs. Mund ran the saloon until 1889, then converted the place into a cigar store. About then, Amelia Mund began to make rumblings about selling her combination historic shrine and tobacco establishment, which now had, in the window, a sign with a picture of a flag and the legend, "The First Was Made In This House."

          In 1891, Amelia announced that a man from Colorado Springs wanted to buy the house and move it to Chicago for the Columbian Exposition of '92. When that didn't happen, she began saying that the house was going to be replaced by a factory if some patriotic citizen didn't buy it from her.

          Amelia Mund died on September 20, 1895. A week later, questions were asked in City Council about why the city never bought the historic house. The president of the Select Council (there were two houses of Council then, Select and Common) explained that the owner had asked for an exorbitant price.

          Charles P. Mund, son of Philip and Amelia, sold the house in 1902, to a law firm representing a citizen's group that wanted to save it. The sale price was $25,150. The property was assessed at $4,500. In 1907, the group, the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association, tried to sell the house to the Federal government, was turned down, then tried to donate it to the city and was turned down.        

          The city filed a lien on the property in 1909, against taxes for 1905 through 1908. Members of the association said they had ignored the taxes on purpose so the lien would be placed and the house sold for taxes, to clear the doubtful Mund title. An anonymous donor put up the money to pay off the lien and reacquire the house.

          Arguments soon started about who had been the one man responsible for saving the Betsy Ross House for posterity. Was it Charles William Smith, or Charles H. Weisgerber?

          Smith was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1842, and came to Philadelphia as a young man as representative of a coal company, with offices at Second and Walnut Streets. He was one of the first persons to worry about Amelia Mund's warnings that the house might be lost. He was horrified to find it "a wine house and beer saloon," he said in 1892.

          Smith wrote a few years later that "The owner, a German lady, had but just refused an offer from a near neighbor, whose intentions were to put up a commercial building. This good old lady, knowing little of our country, but seemingly inspired by patriotism, refused the offer, saying, ‘I believe the nation should own this building, and I will wait.’ She did not live to see her wish consummated."

          This is the story Smith and his supporters told for many years. After he retired in 1915, telling the story was his main occupation. Every year through the Twenties and Thirties, his sister, Mrs. Annie Shoemaker, notified the Philadelphia newspapers in advance that the birthday of Charles William Smith would arrive on February 7, and that he had saved the Betsy Ross House from oblivion. The newspapers dutifully recorded the event, although evidence that the writers were becoming weary of repeating the announcement cropped up in one 1933 story, which began, "Charles W. Smith will celebrate another of his recurring birthday anniversaries tomorrow."

          Smith often said that it was he who raised the money to save the house by selling 1,040,270 certificates at 10 cents apiece, mostly to school children. That would have raised $104,027. The house was purchased for $25,150. In his annual birthday interviews, Smith never brought up the subject of subtraction. Smith died in his sleep in 1934, at age 91.

          Smith was a member of the Masons, the Union League and the Sons of the American Revolution. He claimed that all of them had honored him for saving the Betsy Ross House. He did not belong to the Patriotic Order of Sons of America, which paid a lot of attention to the Betsy Ross House through the years. The P. O. S. of A. also put a monument on Betsy's grave at Mount Moriah Cemetery, 62nd Street and Kingsessing Avenue, after her remains were moved there in 1857 from the Quaker burial ground once at Fifth and Locust Streets. (She was reburied in the Betsy Ross House yard in 1976.)

          And far from honoring Smith for flag-house saving, the P. O. S. of A.  backed one of its own members, Charles H. Weisgerber. In a 1929 P. O. S. of A. magazine, the organization demanded that Smith "deny the responsibility of the various birthday publications and acknowledge the truth of Brother Weisgerber's sacrifice and work." The magazine supported its anti-Smith stance with statements attributed to Charles P. Mund, adding, "Speaking of Mr. Charles W. Smith being a pioneer of a movement saving the House from possible destruction and introducing a plan for the possible purchase of the house is all rot. The negotiation for the sale of the house was entered into with Mr. Charles H. Weisgerber, who was at that time (1889) and many years before, interested in developing plans by which he could secure possession of the House that it might be saved as a patriotic shrine."

          Charles H. Weisgerber was born in New York in 1856, and moved to Philadelphia with his family in the 1860s. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and won a scholarship to study in Paris. On his return in 1891, he decided to enter a painting in an exhibition at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Passing the Munds' shop one day, he was intrigued, and went inside to talk to Mrs. Mund. He was inspired to create a nine by 12 foot painting, depicting Betsy Ross showing the new flag to Washington, Ross and Morris.

          In 1896, a group of 32 prominent citizens including merchant John Wanamaker (who had been Postmaster General from 1889 to 1893) and clerics, judges, educators and politicians, formed the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association. Both Smith and Weisgerber were on the board. Both always insisted that they were the organizers, and both claimed credit for the 10-cent fund-raising certificates. Weisgerber's painting was reproduced in full color in the center of the certificates that Smith claimed to have sold by the thousands.

          In 1898, Weisgerber moved into the Betsy Ross House as custodian and manager. He lived there until he was found dead in the bathtub in 1932. His wife, Sarah Jane, gave birth to one of their two children, a boy, in the house on April 14, 1902. Weisgerber named his son Charles Vexil Domus Weisgerber. "Vexil Domus" is Latin for "Flag House."

          Little Vexil D. Weisgerber became the star attraction of the Betsy Ross House. His father was fond of dressing him in an Uncle Sam suit and encouraging the long-haired toddler to recite all the famous sayings concerning Old Glory. Vexil would stand in the front room and shout quotations at visitors: "Nail the flag to the mast: Commodore Barry! If any man attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot: Governor John A. Dix! Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country's flag, she said: Barbara Frietchie!"

          On Vexil's seventh birthday, his papa threw a birthday party for him. All the kids in the neighborhood (who nicknamed the boy "Flaghouse") gathered at the Betsy Ross House. Vexil was in his Uncle Sam Suit, recitations ready. His father had not neglected to invite newspaper reporters.

          Vexil studied engineering at Drexel University and, at age 23, eloped to New York with his 18-year-old sweetheart. He later moved to Gloucester, N.J., where he preferred being known as Charles V. D. Weisgerber. His father suffered a stroke while bathing in 1932, and died at age 76. The senior Weisgerber had spent nearly half his life in the Betsy Ross House. Like most newspaper articles that mentioned him through the years, his obituaries said that it was he who had sold the certificates that raised the House-saving funds.

          A month later, his widow sued the Memorial Association. She said that the association had bought the four lots adjoining the Ross House to the west in 1929, but had never made payments on a $60,000 mortgage loan. Vexil, identified as the manager of the association, announced that he knew nothing of its financial affairs but was working to improve the museum.

          William Carr, a lawyer, was president of the association. He promised that money would be raised to solve the financial problems. After nearly five years, radio manufacturing tycoon A. Atwater Kent, Jr., paid off the mortgage; the city agreed to waive $10,000 in back taxes. Kent also donated $25,000 to restore the house.

          R. Brognard Okie, Philadelphia architect who in the same period was planning the reconstruction of William Penn's Pennsbury mansion in Bucks County, was hired to turn the warn-out shop into the perfect colonial row house it probably never was. He remodeled the interior, and placed the front door to the east side of the building, although all indications are that it was always on the west side. The front also got a new, more residential looking window, and an office upstairs for Vexil D. Weisgerber, secretary of the Betsy Ross Memorial Association.

          Vexil became curator of Betsy Ross House, but declined to live there with his wife and two sons, neither of whom were named Vexil Domus. He also continued his engineering career. Under Vexil's guidance and that of members of the modern American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association, the old house on Arch Street developed into a city-owned museum visited annually by thousands.

          The family stored the huge Weisgerber painting, which was too big to be displayed in Betsy Ross House. It was used as the image on a U. S. commemorative postage stamp in 1952, celebrating Betsy's  200th birthday. After Vexil Weisgerber died in 1959, the painting was displayed for a while in the Pennsylvania Historical Museum in Harrisburg, then put in storage by the family. It was professionally restored in 2000 and displayed at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. In 2001, Vexil's two sons donated it to the state, where it languishes in Harrisburg among other unappreciated artifacts. Both sons are deceased. The Smith vs. Weisgerber rivalry seems at last to be at rest.

BetsysFiftynine.jpg
Betsy's House 1859
Betsy Ross House about 1900
Betsy Ross House about 1900
BetsyThirtyone.jpg
Betsy's House 1931

[Answers to the Ben Franklin quiz:

1. A;  2. B;  3. D;  4. E;  5. C;  6. B;  7. D;  8. C;  9. E;  10. D.]

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