At the Archives

Ensconced in the corner of the Philadelphia City Archives at Sixth and Spring Garden, Bella and Sophie hoped to find some record of Mary’s arrest. Or of her time spent in the House of Correction or the Almshouse, as reported in the article.

An archivist named James helped them. He was an intelligent man with a sweet smile who acted as if it were his relative they were searching for. His earnest face and eager suggestions calmed Bella’s nerves. Does he feel this way about all the folks who came here searching for answers? After a detailed interview to determine what they were searching for, James went into the storage stacks with their notes to find evidence of Mary’s arrest and incarceration.


The archive viewing room was well-lit, long, and narrow, with large yellow tables scattered about in the center. Along the outer wall, painted with a subway map, were windows up high toward the ceiling. Bella could see the feet of pedestrians ambling along.

The inner wall boasted a hand-painted mural of historic city scenes with ladies and gentlemen dressed in period clothing, toiling at jobs that no longer existed. The milk and coal delivery men, the street lamp lighters. Their sepia faces gazed out at Bella with challenging eyes. 

"What are you searching for?" they seemed to ask. "Why won't you let us rest in peace?" 

One woman—pictured with a brood of children in front of a water pump in a brick alley—looked over her shoulder with sharp eyes. "Mary isn’t here. She’s gone." 

A shiver ran along Bella's shoulders. 


Sophie patted her arm. “Here, take my cardigan. You seem cold.” She draped her wool sweater on Bella’s shoulders and steered her to the long table where their papers were strewn about. Bella glanced back at the mural, but instead of seeing the reproachful faces, she saw it shift as the painted portion on the door moved. Bella was surprised to see James come through the door from the bowels of the storage area. He pushed a dolly stacked with dusty books of all sizes, wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. Her nerves were on edge, and the mural creeped her out, but she was glad to see so many items for them to review.

“This is everything I could think of.” James scratched his head. “Looks like you’ll be here a while. I’m off to help the next patron, but I’ll check on you later. Good luck.” He returned to the reception area. With determination, Sophie considered the large pile of books, and instructed Bella to lay them across the sizable yellow table. Once the books—about two dozen or so—were laid out, Sophie chirped, with alacrity, “Well, let’s dig in!”


Two hours later, with dust-covered hands and a dry mouth—drinks are forbidden in the archive viewing room—Bella uncovered something interesting. On the spine were the dates ‘July 1897 – September 1897’, the time frame of Mary’s arrest. She read the cover aloud, “This is the Casebook of Dr Ella M. Henderson, and private in nature. If found, please return to: Philadelphia Almshouse, Insane Department, Women’s Ward, Blockley Township, West Philadelphia.”

Dr. Ella M. Henderson. A woman? Huh, how interesting. I can’t imagine there were too many female doctors back then. The book was large, and the supple, brown-leather cover so worn, it was as soft as silk. Bella imagined Dr. Henderson would have prized her book above all other possessions. She must have been one of the first doctors of psychology in the city and must have felt the need to prove herself to the men in the field. Keeping copious records was an excellent way to provide solid evidence of her findings throughout her career.


Curious, Bella flipped through the pages to find that Dr. Henderson’s meticulous notes were organized by date, as she assumed they would be. The casebook was more of a diary than a medical journal. She read the entries, realizing this doctor handled cases of women brought from other institutions. “House of Corrections” and “Almshouse” were mentioned more than once.

“Sophie.” Bella whispered. Sophie sat across the expansive table, thumbing through police reports from that summer. “Didn’t the article of Mary’s arrest mention an almshouse?” Sophie nodded her head.

Paging through the book with care, as the paper was razor thin, Bella turned the pages until she came to August 3, 1897, the day Mary would have been admitted to this doctor’s care. There was nothing there—not one entry. Crestfallen, she almost closed the book, but something told her to flip one more page. Not quite believing her eyes—or her luck—on the following page, she found an entry on August 5, 1897, which referenced the admission of an M. Lichtenbaum.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” She slammed her hand down on the table.

“They sent her to an effing insane asylum!”   

“What?!” Sophie came to see. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Bella was dumbfounded. How could she have happened upon this doctor’s case book only to find her great-grandmother’s name written in ink? Of all the ledgers and records and journals and whatnot in this archive, I found her! It was as if Mary had directed Bella to this book—to this page. Mary lead them on the journey—to unlock the past and give her a voice—to give her peace. Bella turned to the ghostly woman in the mural and gave her an insolent smile.

“Evidently, you were wrong.”

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13 thoughts on “At the Archives

  1. Susanne

    How sad for Mary. What happened to her that night? What happened to her children? I’m hooked. And thank you for using the word “alacrity”. It’s been so long since I’ve read that word I’d forgotten the meaning and had to look it up.

    1. thechroniclesoferica Post author

      Oh my word, that’s hilarious! I LOVE that word and use it every chance I get 🙂
      I can’t wait to be able to share the novel with you all! It’s a “larger than life” story, that’s for sure.

  2. Gloria Biggs

    Amazing what you find in the archives. What you thought was the story, but not. Discovering the past history of family is very interesting!
    Thanks for another interesting. Part of your story
    Love ya,

  3. Gloria Biggs

    Looking through the archives for family history is very interesting. Sometimes what you thought was the story sends you somewhere else.
    Another good part of your story!
    Love ya,

  4. Aunt Kate

    So amazing Erica! I’ll bet Mary did guide you to that page, so her story could be told. Thanks for uncovering it for the family. I’ll continue to pray for you in this part of your journey and what will transpire for all of us as a result.
    Many blessings to you as you continue! 🙏🏼
    All my love,
    Aunt Kate

  5. Kirsten

    I thoroughly enjoyed my time reading your blog entries! And I can’t wait to hear more about Mary’s personal story and how your family tree evolved. Can you tell us about the photograph and how you came about it? God speed with the completion and publishing of this book. Please put me on the list for a pre- first edition, or tell me where to go to pre-order.

    1. thechroniclesoferica Post author

      Thanks Kirsten! I certainly will. Can’t wait for the day. I feel so strongly that Mary’s story needs to be told.
      The photo was with my mom’s cousin, whose mother used it to paint the portrait of Mary.
      I have some more research to do to confirm, but it is possible that it is actually Mary’s mugshot from her arrest, as other mugshots of women at that time period in Philadelphia are of the same sort. Hoping our friend at the archives can confirm this for us! Stay tuned!!!!

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