Cordelia Frances Biddle



Biddle and Drexel

The lives and careers of my Philadelphia ancestors, Nicholas Biddle and Francis Martin Drexel, elided during the 1840s. Drexel ascended to power and prominence while Biddle, due to his defense of the Second Bank of the United States and fight with President Andrew Jackson, was publicly castigated. The period was known as The Great Depression. This financial catastrophe was instigated by Jackson’s deregulation of the banking industry; it was a time of foment throughout the country, but especially in Philadelphia whose status as a preeminent industrial city added to its luster as the nation’s first capital.

The grinding poverty of the newly emigrated stood in stark contrast to the vast wealth of the old established families; a vociferous abolitionist movement fought an equally determined pro-slavery coalition; a series of murderous labor strikes and race riots collided with Penn’s heritage of empathy and tolerance. Mesmerism and conjuring became a panacea that appealed to every social class. Philadelphia, considered the “Athens of America” and an arbiter of style, embraced the vogue just as the city embraced the works of artists like Benjamin West, William Rush and Thomas Sully and architects Benjamin Latrobe and William Strickland.

Philadelphia’s Growth During the Industrial Age

One of the Industrial Age’s earliest technical wonders was the Water Works, which harnessed the Schuylkill River in 1822, providing the city with clean drinking water. Nothing in America had equaled its engineering genius. As the Greek-revival buildings that housed the pumping mechanisms sparkled in pristine glory, less beautiful and far busier wharves sprang up along the Schuylkill where coal-heavers off-loaded that vital product in order to feed the new and ever-growing industries powered by steam instead of water. Textile mills, foundries, sugar refineries, Henry Derringer’s firearms manufactory, Mathias Baldwin’s locomotive works, and a gas works expanded the city’s boundaries into formerly semi-rural terrain. During this period Philadelphia established so many textile mills it rivaled Massachusetts.

It’s important to note also that the city remained divided into townships, boroughs and districts, and had no unified police force until The Consolidation Act of 1854 that created a municipality that measured 129 square miles, and contained approximately 1500 farms and 10,000 head of cattle within its boundaries. Until that time, a criminal could break the law in one part of town and escape punishment by fleeing into another area of jurisdiction. The inadequacy of such a system was the subject of much public debate and outrage. The penny papers, gazettes and broadsheets of the day devoted considerable ink to the problem.

Civil War and the Drexel Family

When the nation devolved into Civil War, Philadelphia found herself politically divided. Commerce and industry had forged intricate personal and professional ties to the southern states. Marriages between Philadelphians, Virginians and Carolinians created extended families in north and south. City textile mills depended upon southern cotton, which was shipped north, woven into “cottonade” (an exceptionally sturdy fabric) and sold to slave owners; calico printed in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties was shipped to Africa, sailed up the river Niger and traded for boatloads of slaves that were carried on an oblique route to the Caribbean Islands, and transferred to the mainland. Philadelphia’s refineries required sugar from the South.

Francis Martin Drexel (Katharine’s grandfather), never one to shy away from challenges, put his money where his heart was, providing a substantial loan to the Union to fund the war. The city began to resemble an armed camp with troops arriving and departing, and the wounded returning to hospitals built for that purpose: Mower General and Saterlee, which together housed upward of 8,000 wounded soldiers. When the Union finally prevailed, Philadelphia celebrated wildly.

With Lincoln’s assassination, the city’s appearance and mood changed in an instant. Gone were the brightly colored flags; in their place crape draperies hung from each private and public building; houses of worship remained open around the clock. Katharine’s parents’ home (1503 Walnut Street) was on the route of Lincoln’s funeral cortege. “Father Abraham” was mourned so deeply that the city became eerily silent save for the rolling wheels of the funerary carriage. I believe that day marked the beginning of Katharine’s recognition of the evils of racial bigotry.

My research into Philadelphia history as been aided by The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and The Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Holding the actual newspapers and journals published in 1800s, and reading the editorials, short works of fiction, articles, essays and advertising cards is exhilarating.

The archives at the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament was my source for primary documents on Saint Katharine Drexel – among them her marvelously youthful journals, her deliberations on whether or not she should devote her life to God, and her later meditations.