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Joshua Pancoast: A Murder in the Family

Federal-style house at 336 Spruce St., built by Samuel Pancoast in 1790, was home of Joseph Wharton, who established Swarthmore College — an early co-educational institution — and the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, the first of its kind.

Keeping a family business in the family — sometimes for several generations — is a tradition as old as the Company. On the rolls are more than a score of examples from colonial times to the present. Nowadays a promising son or daughter probably learns the basics by earning an MBA or other degree. Sons of 18th-century house carpenters mastered the techniques of design, construction and engineering on the job, as apprentices to their fathers. In one instance, Joshua Pancoast trained his younger brother, Samuel.

Joshua Pancoast was 26 years old when elected to the Company in 1763. Two years earlier he and Hannah Lownes stood before the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends (or "Quakers") and declared their intention to marry. In the eight years before Mr. Pancoast's untimely death, the couple had three children: Samuel, Ann and Sarah. They lived on south Third St. near Spruce and invested in some properties on nearby Union St. (now Delancey).

The only mention of Mr. Pancoast's construction activities is a house somewhere on Market St., which he was compelled to leave unfinished. This is how it came about. In July, 1768, Mr. Pancoast through an advertisement in the "Pennsylvania Gazette," offered "four dollars reward for the return of an apprentice house carpenter." Fourteen months later, in September, 1769, the "Gazette" printed this brief paragraph: "Friday last, Mr. Joshua Pancoast fell from the roof of a three-story house in Market St., by which his skull was fractured, several bones broken, and he was otherwise very much bruised, so that his life is despaired of. One of his apprentices is committed to jail, on suspicion of pushing him off the roof." Later, this final item: "William Meredith was indicted for murder of his master, Joshua Pancoast, and found guilty of manslaughter."

To settle her husband's estate, Mrs. Pancoast sold their investment properties at an auction at the London Coffee House, on the southwest corner of Front & Market Sts. More than a meeting place, the coffee house was the center of mercantile and political life until merchants were attracted to the elegant City Tavern, built in 1773 by Thomas Proctor of the Carpenters' Company.

Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia
London Coffee House, operated by the Bradfords at Front & Market Sts., served as the early focus of Philadelphia's political and commercial life. One brother operated the coffee house; the other had a print shop in the adjoining building (at left) where the "Proceedings of the First Continental Congress" were printed. At right, along Market St., is the slave market.

Samuel S. Pancoast learned the trade of house carpenter as an apprentice to Joshua, his brother. In 1769, a year before Joshua's death at the hands of an apprentice, Samuel joined the Friendship Company of Carpenters. Mr. Pancoast signed the articles of the Carpenters' Company in 1786 when the two associations of master builders merged. He was promptly elected to a six-year term on the committee of the Book of Prices, which set standards and costs for construction by members. Mr. Pancoast was elected Company vice president in 1789.

He was one of 38 members who were "encouragers" (pre-publication subscribers) to the Philadelphia edition of "The British Architect," by Abraham Swan, the first book on architecture published in America.

Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia
Library Company's first building at Fifth & Chestnut Sts. was completed in 1790 with help from eight Company members. Franklin, who founded the Library Company, died within several months of the building's dedication.
Decorative columns, provided by Samuel Pancoast, enclosed supporting timbers and replaced partitions dividing Hall's first floor into two rooms.

As with many early members, we possess only fragments of Mr. Pancoast's construction activities. In 1787 he received two pounds, one shilling, eight pence for supplying decorative columns which replaced partitions on the first floor of the Hall. Two years later he was one of eight members who helped erect the new home of the Library Company on Fifth St. south of Chestnut, just east of Independence Hall. Instead of money, payment was in membership "shares" in the prestigious Library Company. The one house with which he is credited is 336 Spruce Street, birthplace of Joseph Wharton, an iron and steel magnate whose generosity established both Swarthmore College and the school bearing his name at the University of Pennsylvania.

Something of the training of house carpenters is revealed by records of two of Pancoast's apprentices. Aaron Thompson, on May 21, 1773, agreed to an apprenticeship lasting six years, ten months and six days. In exchange for his labor, Aaron received training, plus nine months of evening schooling and five pounds worth of clothing.

A genealogy of the Grier family has comments from Jonathan, another Pancoast apprentice: "In the spring of 1828, I then being 16 years old, I left home [Salem county, New Jersey] for Philadelphia to learn the trade of house carpenter and builder under Samuel S. Pancoast, formerly of this county. The shop was located at Buttonwood and Franklin Sts. [near Eighth and Buttonwood] then entirely out of town. Samuel not being married, I boarded with his brother, Joseph, at the southeast corner of Third and Coates Sts. [now Fairmount Ave.] for a year or more; when he got married, I boarded with Samuel. I served nearly five years as an apprentice and received 10 dollars a year and board. I was of age on the 8th day of December 1832. That summer the cholera was so bad that business was suspended. I came home and spent two or three months, went back and finished out my time and worked piecework for my boss at the houses he was building at 1004 and 1006 Coates Street. In the spring of 1833, Josiah L. Haines, a fellow apprentice somewhat older than myself, entered into a partnership and took up some ground on Tenth St. corner of Melon [just south of Fairmount Ave.] We built our shop there and a brick house on one of the lots. At that time we were entirely out of town, no houses near, and brick yards all around..."


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