Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jodine Mayberry

Delaware County, Pennsylvania

Carved out of Chester County in 1789 (with the remainder of that county lying to its southwest), Delaware County long served as a distinct but close neighbor to the City of Philadelphia. Linked to the Philadelphia port from the eighteenth century onward, the eastern part of the county, including Chester and its neighboring municipalities along the Delaware River, was almost indistinguishable from nearby Philadelphia neighborhoods while much of the rest of the county remained agricultural into the late twentieth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, the introduction of regional railways fostered new town centers at commuter stations. The westernmost section remained predominantly rural until the late twentieth century, when the county began to experience the effects of large-scale development. That mixed settlement pattern created some of the widest social disparities observable in any suburban county in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

[caption id="attachment_26692" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a small log cabin with wood shingle roof and stone chimney The Lower Swedish Cabin on the Darby Creek is the last remaining log cabin of several built by Swedish and Finnish settlers to Delaware County. These same settlers refused to sell William Penn land in Chester to create his colonial capital, forcing him to look northeast to what is now Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Lenni Lenape were the original inhabitants of the area that became Delaware County. In the early seventeenth century, Swedish farmers settled in the area, while Dutch trappers came to trade pelts. Later in that century, William Penn (1644-1718) gained control of the area as part of a land grant from the English king. Arriving in the new territory in 1682, Penn initially made the existing Swedish settlement of Upland his “shire town,” renaming it Chester after a county in England. Only when an established landowner there refused to sell him enough property for the town to expand did Penn turn north to locate his provincial capital, Philadelphia, twelve miles up the Delaware River.

Although no longer the provincial capital, Chester remained a county seat and continued to serve that role after Delaware County separated from Chester County in 1789. During its early history it remained a small market town, hemmed in by farms and the river. In 1850, when the county courthouse and jail became dilapidated and too costly to fix, residents established a new county seat in mid-county and named it Media. That prompted many prominent county citizens to relocate from Chester to Media, where they built fine brick homes and offices surrounding the new courthouse.

[caption id="attachment_26691" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of a two story Colonial building clad in stone. The Old Chester County Courthouse was built in Chester in 1724. It remained in use as the county courthouse after Delaware County separated from Chester County in 1789. A new county seat was established in Media in 1850 and the courthouse became Chester City Hall. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

William Penn encouraged the formation of self-governing communities in his new territory. The earliest townships became incorporated well before Delaware County separated from Chester County, some even before 1700. Penn’s followers named their settlements after the places in England that they left behind or adopted Biblical or descriptive names. In Delaware County, these included Darby, Swarthmore, Ridley, and Lansdowne as well as Middletown, Bethel, and Concord. Quakers from Wales settled along the “Welsh tract” on the county’s northern border, where they founded several villages, including Haverford, Radnor, Tredyffrin, and Bryn Mawr, all named for places in Wales.

Some settlers clustered in market towns and manufacturing centers that prospered largely due to their connections to Philadelphia. Living at increasing densities, residents wanted reliable water supplies, well-maintained roads, docks, and other transportation and commercial facilities, and peacekeeping by hired constables. They secured those services by carving out small self-governing boroughs from large townships. Most such population centers sat near the border with Philadelphia, with housing stock and population mix very much like adjacent areas of the city. By the 1880s and 1890s, a number of them had seceded from large eastern townships like Darby, Upper Darby, and Ridley and successfully established themselves as independent boroughs. Over time this historic pattern of intense fragmentation in southeastern Delaware County brought disadvantages to the smallest jurisdictions.

Transportation Routes and Settlement Patterns

The county’s earliest east-west transportation routes made a lasting impact on development, spawning settlements and boosting their populations over time. One of the most important routes ran along the Delaware River connecting Philadelphia with Wilmington, Delaware. Well before the American Revolution, travelers used a roadway that crossed the southern border of the county between those two cities. In 1851 the state chartered a privately owned company to maintain a section of that roadway as the Darby and Ridley Turnpike (also known as the Chester Pike) and collected tolls to support its upkeep. Eventually, with the creation of the U.S. Highway System in 1926, this route became U.S. Route 13.

[caption id="attachment_26702" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of the Thomas Leiper estate. It features a prominent porch, columed entryway, and twin chimneys. One of Delaware County’s earliest major industrialists was Thomas Leiper (1745-1825), who built the first permanent railway in 1809 to haul building stones from his quarry on Crum Creek to a wharf on Ridley Creek where they could be loaded onto barges bound for Philadelphia. The three-quarter-mile horse-drawn railway operated until 1828 when Leiper’s son George (1786-1868) replaced it with a canal that operated until 1852. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Railroads boosted settlements along the Delaware River when, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad (PW&B) ran a line along the river. Construction began between Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1837, and by 1850 the extended route connected Delaware County to Washington, D.C., in the south and New York City to the north. In 1870 the PW&B built a line north of the river called the Darby Improvement, aimed at skirting areas prone to flooding and serving growth in this largely undeveloped southeast corner of Delaware County. Around rail stations on that line, developers built new towns such as Ridley Park, Sharon Hill, and Norwood.

The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad reinforced development along the Delaware River by starting its own service from Philadelphia to Baltimore in 1838 on tracks owned by PW&B. When the Pennsylvania Railroad bought control of PW&B in 1884, the new owner barred its competitor from using its right-of-way. That forced the B&O to build another rail line only a few miles north of the PW&B, completed in only two years. In 1887 the B&O also came into possession of an important north-south rail route when its subsidiary, the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad, acquired a rail spur originally built by the Thomas Leiper (1745-1825) family to haul quarried stone from their property on the Crum Creek. The B&O network boosted industrial development by providing direct passenger and freight service to the massive Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone on the Delaware River.

Halfway up the county from the Delaware River, early settlers in 1702 began constructing an east-west route known as the Baltimore Pike, making it among the earliest public roads in the English colonies. Later known as Route 1, this road spurred growth in towns along its path, including Media, Swarthmore, Wallingford, and Lansdowne.

In the northern tier of the county, a major east-west route was created in 1848 when private investors built a toll road called the Philadelphia and West Chester Turnpike. During the 1850s, private enterprisers added a horse-drawn rail line along part of the turnpike, and by the 1890s they had introduced trolley service that ran all the way from West Chester to Upper Darby down the middle of the road that became known as West Chester Pike, later Route 3. These east-west routes of roads and rails made commuting to Philadelphia possible. Developers built communities for the new professional classes to inhabit Victorian-style homes. Almost overnight, builders gobbled up any farmland within walking distance of commuter railroad stations. In 1850, when Media was established, the population of Delaware County was 24,679, according to that year’s census. By 1910 it had grown to 117,000.

[caption id="attachment_26697" align="alignright" width="300"]A map showing proposed routes of Interstate 476, labled Interstate 476, colloquially known as the Blue Route, runs through the southeastern portion of Delaware County. Its construction, though delayed for thirty years, increased traffic and commerce to the area and was intended in part to spur Delaware River waterfront redevelopment in Chester. (I-476 Improvement Plan via Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

In the late twentieth century, planners added an important new north-south route to the county’s already-dense transportation network. The southernmost section of Interstate 476, known as the “Blue Route” because of its color designation on planning maps, extended through the middle of the county to link the Pennsylvania Turnpike north of Delaware County to Interstate 95 at the county’s southern border. The protracted, thirty-year negotiation over the route, caused mainly by vigorous opposition from residents living in its path, meant that suburban development had already overtaken most of the land adjacent to the highway by the time it opened in 1991. While the Blue Route did not change the settlement patterns much in mid-county, it did increase traffic and commerce at interchanges with the major east-west routes. Some observers credited the Blue Route with spurring redevelopment near the southern end of the highway on the Chester waterfront, including a professional soccer stadium, a Harrah's casino, and a race track.

Manufacturing and Commercial Centers

Although farming dominated Delaware County throughout the eighteenth century, many paper, cotton, woolen, lumber, and grain mills proliferated along four creeks: Darby, Crum, Ridley, and Chester. Along the Delaware River, early investments in shipping, shipbuilding, brickworks, and iron foundries prompted further industrial development after the Civil War, especially shipbuilding in and around Chester. John Roach & Co., founded in 1864, ranked as the largest shipbuilding company in the United States during the 1870s. By 1900, a third of the county's population lived in Chester, and the waterfront industrial complex contributed significantly to the country’s defense during both world wars, particularly Sun Shipbuilding Company, founded in 1916 by Joseph N. Pew (1886-1963).

[caption id="attachment_26701" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a crowd of thousands of men. The front row is seated while the rest stand. The Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company was founded by the Pew family in 1917 as a subsidiary of Sun Oil Company. At its peak at the end of World War II, Sun Ship employed nearly forty thousand workers and had launched 318 vessels. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The Baldwin Locomotive Works moved from Philadelphia to the borough of Eddystone on the Delaware River in 1906, and by 1916 it was building army tanks for use on the battlefields of Europe during World War I. Sun Oil Co., also owned by the Pew Family, built an oil refinery in 1890 in Marcus Hook at the southern tip of the county. There the convergence of rail, roads, a deep-water port, and the nation's growing thirst for petroleum gave rise to the refineries that became the borough's dominant industry. Other manufacturers located on the Delaware River included Scott Industries, which produced paper and foam products, and American Viscose Co., which made rayon and other synthetic fibers. Ford Motor Co., Boeing Helicopter, and Westinghouse Electric also flourished along the river, drawing workers from all over the country.

[caption id="attachment_27407" align="alignright" width="300"]color map of Delaware County PA showing median household incomes, 2014 This map shows 2014 median household incomes in Delaware County, tucked against the southwest edge of Philadelphia. Click on the map in the image gallery at right for a larger view.[/caption]

From the 1950s onward, Delaware County manufacturers fell victim to the same forces that had already begun to dismantle Philadelphia’s industrial base. From 1970 to 2000, Delaware County lost 54 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Of the manufacturing employment that remained, over a third (38 percent) was in aerospace manufacturing, largely due to Boeing’s continuing presence.

Unlike manufacturing jobs, the service jobs that replaced them were scattered more broadly throughout the county. Retailers, restaurants, and services followed the spread of population into communities that offered desirable housing styles and schools. Health care provided another important source of employment, dominated by general medical and surgical hospitals, but also including physicians, residential facilities treating intellectual disabilities, community care for the elderly, and nursing homes.

In some cases, shopping malls served as focal points for development. For example, the Springfield Mall, a 590,000-square-foot, two-level facility opened in 1974 along Baltimore Pike, near its busy intersection with Pennsylvania Route 320. Its original anchors included a John Wanamaker department store. Although the mall declined during the 1980s, it recovered strongly after the Blue Route opened in 1991, helping to spawn a nearby development of age-restricted townhomes, condominiums, and golf course, as well as the Springfield Health Plex and hospital. Shopping centers and retirement communities like these brought increased traffic and commerce to the county’s major east-west corridors like U.S. Route 1 and West Chester Pike.

Population Growth and Change

Beginning as early as the 1830s and continuing through World War II, early industrial opportunities along the Delaware River drew thousands of Irish Catholic workmen to mill and factory jobs in Upper Darby and Clifton Heights across the border from West Philadelphia. Polish and Italian workers came in the twentieth century to work in factories or to run small businesses. Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants built churches and parochial schools that flourished until the 2000s, when they started to decline along with the county’s aging Catholic population.

Some companies built housing for their workers. The Washington Print Works built Eddystone Village, named for a lighthouse in England. The village, just north of Chester, subsequently became the Borough of Eddystone. Flooring manufacturer Congoleum Nairn Inc. built housing for its workers in Trainer on the Delaware River west of Chester City. In other instances, independent developers built housing for workers in the county’s older settlements, ranging from apartment buildings to row houses to small cottages, in Chester, Clifton Heights, Eddystone, Ridley, and Nether Providence before and during both world wars.

[caption id="attachment_26699" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of shoppers walking through a busy business district. Sign on shop reads Florsheim Shoes. Upper Darby in northwestern Delaware County has been home to a bustling downtown business district for most of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as seen in this 1978 photograph. The borough was primarily farmland until the construction of the Market-Frankford Elevated Line in 1907 provided easy access to and from Philadelphia. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

When manufacturing declined, housing values in many blue collar neighborhoods also declined. As these neighborhoods became more affordable, they drew growing numbers of minority and immigrant residents, especially in the last few decades of the twentieth century. By the 1990s, African Americans comprised 80 percent of the population of the city of Chester and some of the inner suburbs along the border with Philadelphia, such as Yeadon, Colwyn, and Darby Borough. Because of its transportation system and large rental housing stock, Upper Darby—the county’s largest municipality in both area and population—became a major catchment area for immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Asians from the Indian subcontinent constituted the majority in tiny Millbourne, the county’s smallest municipality at just .07 of a square mile, nestled between Philadelphia and Upper Darby Township.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, many municipalities remained more than 90 percent white. They included townships in the northern and western suburbs like Newtown Square, Edgmont, Chadds Ford, and Bethel. Perhaps more surprisingly, some boroughs in southeastern Delaware County with homes priced affordably for a broad range of both white and nonwhite buyers remained over 90 percent white in 2000 (for example, Eddystone, Norwood, Prospect Park, and Ridley Park). The result was a pattern of racial and ethnic separation into predominantly white or black towns, through a combination of zoning ordinances and informal real estate practices that materialized despite objections from fair housing activists as early as the 1970s.

Social Disparities Amid Changing Political Landscape

The final decades of the twentieth century witnessed dramatic population shifts in Delaware County, with some older communities losing population while newer suburbs to the west and north gained. Those population shifts mirrored the widening income gaps between communities. By 2014, fast-growing Bethel Township boasted a median household income of $123,349, while the shrinking number of residents in Chester City survived on a median household income of only $28,607.

These contrasting development patterns created differences in tax resources and therefore in municipal services. Compared to area townships, boroughs were especially disadvantaged because their very small landmasses (in some cases only one square mile or less) were entirely developed, leaving little room to create new taxable property. Their municipal budgets were too small to fund first-rate services. With stagnating tax bases, school districts collected fewer dollars to spend on public education. Among the fifteen school districts in Delaware County in 2015, the three highest-spending districts spent over $22,000 on each student; these were the districts of Radnor Township, Rose Tree Media, and Marple-Newtown, all serving children in the northern suburbs and mid-county. The four lowest-spending districts (William Penn, Penn-Delco, Southeast Delco, and Upper Darby) spent less than $16,000 per student. Three of those four low-spending districts hugged the western boundary of the city of Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_26809" align="alignright" width="300"]a chart indicating a shift between a majority Republican voter base to a majority Democratic voter base in Delaware County between the years 1980 and 2016. Historically the Republican Party dominated county politics starting before the Civil War and continuing through most of the twentieth century. Republican-dominated municipal governments were able to keep many communities virtually all white for decades but, as in Upper Darby and Millbourne, the racial makeup of some communities started to change at the end of the twentieth century. County voters who had given majorities to Republicans Ronald Reagan (1911-91) and George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) favored Bill Clinton (b. 1946) in the 1990s and continued supporting Democratic presidential candidates in subsequent elections.[/caption]

To make such stark inequalities worse, the lower-spending districts were educating higher shares of low-income children. For example, in 2015 only 9 percent of the school population in high-spending Radnor Township had incomes low enough to qualify for free- and reduced-prices lunches. That same year, low-spending districts like Southeast Delco and William Penn served student bodies in which 82 percent and 70 percent, respectively, qualified for the lunch program. Both these districts served multiple towns too small to operate their own schools and densely developed so that they had little prospect of adding new property to bolster their tax base. Southeast Delco educated children from three boroughs plus one township, while the William Penn School District served six small boroughs crowded together at the Philadelphia border. Despite levying relatively high property tax rates compared to their neighbors, these older communities remained consistently underfunded.

According to the 2010 census, the county population was roughly 80 percent white and 18 percent black, with Asians and Hispanics making up the rest. The growing proportion of minority residents appeared to have an impact on political attitudes and behavior. Historically the Republican Party dominated county politics starting before the Civil War and continuing through most of the twentieth century. Republican-dominated municipal governments were able to keep many communities virtually all white for decades but, as in Upper Darby and Millbourne, the racial makeup of some communities started to change at the end of the twentieth century. The political makeup of some municipal governments such as Media and Swarthmore also slowly changed, while gerrymandering of state and congressional election districts helped the Republican Party maintain its grip on the county as a whole. In national elections, the voters shifted in 1990s toward Democratic candidates. County voters who had given majorities to Republicans Ronald Reagan (1911-91) and George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) favored Bill Clinton (b. 1946) in the 1990s and continued supporting Democratic presidential candidates in subsequent elections.

Twenty-First Century Development Patterns

While the populations of many communities in eastern Delaware County remained stable or declined over time, at the end of the twentieth century the western suburbs experienced growth and sprawl. The county’s last valuable unprotected wetlands, woodlands, and farms were located in the western and northern municipalities where new development rapidly replaced open land. As the population in that area continued to grow, so did the need for open space. To preserve farms and woodlands, the county government published a plan in 2013 for economic development and land use that encouraged infill development to preserve and rehabilitate existing infrastructure and housing stock wherever possible while also protecting green spaces.

Key to that strategy was revitalizing the Delaware riverfront. Nearly twenty-five million people lived within a two-hour drive from the heart of Delaware County’s waterfront industrial area, making that location potentially attractive to businesses that relied on quick access to markets up and down the East Coast. Moreover, the nearby Philadelphia International Airport provided passenger and cargo service to waterfront producers.

[caption id="attachment_26810" align="alignright" width="300"]a chart indicating population shifts in various Delaware County municipalities between 1980 and 2010 The final decades of the twentieth century witnessed dramatic population shifts in Delaware County, with some older communities losing population while newer suburbs to the west and north gained. Those population shifts mirrored the widening income gaps between communities. By 2014, fast-growing Bethel Township boasted a median household income of $123,349, while the shrinking number of residents in Chester City survived on a median household income of only $28,607.[/caption]

County planners favored guiding residential investments on the eastern side of the county into transit-oriented developments around regional rail lines and bus ways, for example, at Sixty-Ninth Street (Upper Darby/Millbourne), in Darby, Lansdowne, Media, Parkside, Ridley Park, and Swarthmore. For the western and northern suburbs, planners advised a shift in development patterns away from the sprawling single family homes popular in the 1990s and 2000s, to more dense housing patterns such as townhomes.

No matter how carefully the county government documented the need for and potential benefits of such development strategies, the structure of local government in Pennsylvania gave primary responsibility for regulating land-use to local governments, which controlled zoning. County governments played only a limited role, mainly advising and supporting local planning efforts. Not surprisingly, affluent townships like Radnor and Middletown devoted the most open space for both recreational and passive uses. Local governments in those communities, along with other affluent townships like Concord, Nether Providence, and Upper Providence persuaded citizens to approve bond issues for millions of dollars to purchase and preserve open space. In contrast, leaders in the older suburbs, especially the small boroughs, faced greater obstacles. These small, densely-populated communities possessed few undeveloped parcels. Moreover, local leaders felt pressed to develop any available spaces in order to bolster their precarious tax bases.

One large-scale example of the trend to direct new investment into already-developed locations involved repurposing Granite Run Mall in Middletown Township, near the center of the county. That mall, opened in 1974 as a middle-class shopping venue, failed to compete against e-commerce and the retailers occupying Springfield Mall. By summer 2015, an investment partnership that included longtime developer Bruce Toll (b. 1943) demolished the retail spaces located between two large anchor stores, in order to replace them with high-end retailers and restaurants. The plan would transform the site into a mixed-use town center called “The Promenade at Granite Run.” This new incarnation included not only retail but also hundreds of residential apartments, a renovated movie theater, bowling alley, and seven thousand square feet of pediatric offices operated by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Delaware County’s long arc of development created dramatic contrasts: from a gritty industrial belt along the Delaware River, to Victorian towns built around rail stations, to pastoral landscapes painted by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) in Chadds Ford on the county’s western edge. These stark differences created both challenges and opportunities for county leaders. The broad variation in the age, character, and social composition of different communities, while making coordinated planning difficult, also insured that Delaware County offered living choices for newcomers of almost all backgrounds and means. The combination of abundant rail transportation, high-density town centers, and surviving open spaces made the county a prime candidate to adopt a “smart growth” plan aimed at concentrating future development in existing settlements in order to preserve natural landscapes.

Jodine Mayberry is a retired journalist. She was a legal writer and editor for West Publications, a division of Thomson Reuters, for 18 years. (Information current at date of publication.)

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. (Information current at date of publication.)

Abscam

Launched in March 1978, the FBI sting operation known as Abscam led to the conviction of a U.S. senator, six congressmen, three Philadelphia City Council members, and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, for taking bribes from undercover agents pretending to be the Arab sheiks. The FBI secretly filmed the transactions in hotel rooms in New York and Philadelphia, a yacht in Miami, and a mansion in Washington, D.C. The operation stunned Congress, led to widespread criticism of the Justice Department for engaging in “entrapment” tactics, and later inspired the 2013 film American Hustle.   

[caption id="attachment_19172" align="alignright" width="300"]Court room sketch of Thomas P. Puccio Thomas P. Puccio, shown in the foreground, was the Justice Department prosecutor during the Abscam political corruption probe in the late 1970s. (Courtesy of The Courtroom Sketches of Ida Libby Dengrove, University of Virginia Law Library)[/caption]

Neil J. Welch, then head of the New York office of the FBI, and Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Puccio directed the two-year sting operation using a convicted con man, Melvin Weinberg, and his girlfriend, Evelyn Knight, who were facing prison sentences for financial fraud, as informers and planners. Weinberg created a phony company, Abdul Enterprises, and FBI agents posed as owners or employees of the company. The FBI established a $1 million fund to pay out the bribes. Dressed as Arab sheiks or claiming to represent two Arab owners of Abdul Enterprises, agents met with their targets in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Miami, and offered them envelopes or bags of cash in exchange for promises of political favors. All the while, the transactions were being videotaped by hidden cameras.

The Sting Changes Focus

Abscam started out as an operation to recover stolen artwork and fake securities, but when one of the stock forgers suggested to the “sheiks” that they focus on bribing New Jersey state officials to obtain a casino license, the FBI, following the money, shifted its focus to political corruption. Weinberg then spread the word among his criminal associates that the sheiks were looking to break into Atlantic City casino gambling. Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, also a New Jersey state senator and a mover and shaker in New Jersey Democratic political circles, contacted Abdul Enterprises and told the undercover agents he could “deliver Atlantic City” for them. He then acted as a middleman, putting them in touch with the other politicians who eventually were caught up in the scheme.

[caption id="attachment_19171" align="alignright" width="300"]Court room sketch of Melvin Weinberg and informant during the Abscam sting operation. Melvin Weinberg, shown here in a courtroom sketch from the Abscam trial in 1981, and his girlfriend, Evelyn Knight, both of whom were facing prison sentences for financial fraud, were used as informers during the Abscam sting operation. (Courtesy of The Courtroom Sketches of Ida Libby Dengrove, University of Virginia Law Library)[/caption]

When the scheme was first disclosed to the public, law enforcement authorities told reporters that Abscam stood for "Arab scam." However, after a judge presiding over one of the cases received a complaint from the American-Arab Relations Committee, the judge said it was clear that the code name referred to "Abdul scam," in reference to the name of the fake company, Abdul Enterprises.  No Middle Easterners were ever involved in the sting.

The accused went to trial in 1980. Eight politicians were tried in federal court in Brooklyn, two in Philadelphia, and two in Washington. In the case of U.S. Senator Harrison A. “Pete” Williams (D-N.J.), the highest-ranking political target, the “sheik” offered no money but instead offered to make him a silent partner with an eighteen-percent ownership of a titanium mine. Williams would be able to profit by steering government contracts to the mine in exchange for expediting the immigration process for the sheik and helping him get a piece of the casino construction and licensing action then underway in Atlantic City. Williams, of Westfield, New Jersey, later argued in his defense that he received no money, but he was convicted nevertheless.

U.S. Representative Frank Thompson (D.-N.J.), a well-liked politician who had represented Trenton and Mercer County for thirty-four years, accepted a cash bribe of $50,000, also to help the sheik bypass immigration laws. Congressman John M. Murphy (D.-N.Y.), who represented Staten Island, met with the sheik the same day as Thompson but was not videotaped. Instead, he sent his attorney, Howard Criden, to pick up his $50,000 bribe at a hotel near JFK International Airport. Other congressmen caught in the scheme, each taking a $50,000 bribe, were John Jenrette (D-S.C.), Richard Kelly (R-Fla.), and representatives from districts including parts of Philadelphia: Raymond Lederer (D.-Pa.) and Michael "Ozzie" Myers (D.-Pa.). Myers famously told the undercover agents as he accepted his bribe that they were going about it the right way because “money talks and bulls**t walks.”

[caption id="attachment_19170" align="alignright" width="300"]Court room sketch of Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, shown here in a courtroom sketch from 1982, also served as a New Jersey state senator and was a mover and shaker in New Jersey Democratic political circles. (Courtesy of The Courtroom Sketches of Ida Libby Dengrove, University of Virginia Law Library)[/caption]

Three Philadelphia City Council members, Council President George X. Schwartz, Harry P. Jannotti, and Louis C. Johanson, all Democrats, were convicted of accepting a total of $65,000 in bribes during separate meetings in a suite of the Barclay Hotel in Philadelphia. FBI agents, posing as the sheik’s representatives, told them he wanted to invest in a luxury hotel and coal facilities on the Delaware River, and they all promised to use their influence in City Council to get those projects approved. In all, 19 people were convicted as a result of Abscam, including Congressman Murphy’s attorney, Howard Criden; Alexander A. Alexandro Jr., an immigration official; and several businessmen. Among the convicted politicians, Florida Representative Kelly was the only Republican.

Two Congressmen Not Prosecuted

Two other members of Congress met with the sting operators but were not prosecuted. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who represented the 12th Congressional District in the coal country north of Pittsburgh, was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. The U.S. Department of Justice chose not to indict him, and he testified against Thompson and Murphy. Murtha turned down the $50,000 bribe saying he would eventually take the money after working with the agents for a while but he was not interested “at this point.” He always said that his only intent in meeting with the scammers was to bring jobs to his district. Murtha was re-elected 19 times after Abscam. South Dakota U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, a Republican, met with the undercover agents in a mansion in Washington, D.C., at the behest of a neighbor. When they started talking about contributing to his campaign in exchange for help with the phony immigration matter, Pressler told them “it would not be proper” to accept the offer and left the meeting. Thus he committed no crime.

[caption id="attachment_19169" align="alignright" width="252"]The Barclay Hotel, site where three Philadelphia City Council Members accepted $65,000 in bribes during separate meetings in 1980. The Barclay Hotel, shown here from the corner of Eighteenth Street and Rittenhouse Square in 1931, was where three Philadelphia City Council members—Council President George X. Schwartz, Harry P. Jannotti, and Louis C. Johanson, all Democrats—accepted a total of $65,000 in bribes during separate meetings in 1980. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Williams resigned just before the U.S. Senate was scheduled to vote on his expulsion, and five of the six congressmen resigned to avoid expulsion. Myers was expelled by a vote of 376-30, becoming only the fourth member of Congress to suffer that fate. All were convicted of various charges and each was sentenced to three years in prison. Williams and Thompson served two years, Myers served 21 months, Kelly served 13 months, Murphy served 16 months, Jenrette served 13 months and Lederer served 10 months. Errichetti served all of the three years in prison while the Philadelphia City Council members each served several months in jail. Several of the convicted politicians appealed on the basis that they were entrapped–tricked by the FBI into committing a crime they would not ordinarily have committed without the enticement. Philadelphia federal Judge John P. Fullam had set aside the convictions of City Councilmen Schwartz and Jannotti on grounds of entrapment and prosecutorial misconduct but the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. Eventually, federal appeals courts either upheld or reinstated all of the convictions, and in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review any of the Abscam convictions.

In the aftermath of Abscam, Congress was concerned about the damage it had caused to the reputation of the legislative branch and sought to prevent the FBI from undertaking similar projects in the future without strict supervision. In 1981, U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued the first of several guidelines for FBI undercover operations, formalizing agency procedures for such undertakings and Congress held several hearings exploring the issue of entrapment.

Jodine Mayberry is a retired journalist. She was a legal writer and editor for West Publications, a division of Thomson Reuters, for 18 years.

Law and Lawyers

From its earliest days as an English colony, Pennsylvania needed lawyers to run the government, settle disputes, and keep the peace. As Philadelphia became a large city and important commercial, insurance, banking, and shipping center on the eve of the American Revolution, its lawyers were crucial to every civic endeavor, including the making of a new nation. With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of corporations, Philadelphia’s lawyers kept pace, growing from one-man practices to giant law firms. The law evolved as the country grew up and opportunities for Jews, women, and African Americans expanded in the legal profession and judiciary throughout the twentieth century.

When William Penn arrived in 1682 to govern as the proprietor of Pennsylvania, he brought with him a largely English system of government and law. This included counties, governing councils, courts, jails, judges, sheriffs, constables, and justices of the peace. The same legal system was brought to New York and New Jersey and the three lower counties of Penn’s grant that later became the state of Delaware.
Like so many other aspects of colonial life, Penn’s followers, the Society of Friends, or Quakers, put their own stamp on the early provincial Pennsylvania legal system as well as the governments and law of West and East Jersey. Although he had trained as a lawyer for a year in London, Penn and his Quaker brethren mistrusted lawyers and the unwritten and vague English common law, interpreted solely by judges, under which the Quakers were persecuted for their beliefs.

[caption id="attachment_17559" align="alignright" width="212"]A black and white engraving of James Wilson Philadelphia-based Attorney James Wilson signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He became the first associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1789. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Quakers believed in a gentler form of criminal justice. They preferred fines and public shaming to imprisonment and capital punishment, and they favored informal arbitration of civil matters among themselves and disdained lawyers. Nevertheless, English-trained lawyers came to Pennsylvania and made themselves useful to the new colony, becoming civic leaders and holding public office. In the earliest days, judges were likely to have little or no formal training and were chosen more for their character and stature in the community than their legal knowledge. Very few lawyers involved themselves in criminal matters, as it was the custom for the accused to represent themselves in court even in capital cases, trusting their fate to juries of their neighbors.

London for Legal Training

The earliest colonial lawyers specialized in civil practice stemming from land disputes, debt, and trade. They either trained at one of the four Inns of Court, prototype English law schools, in London before immigrating to America or went back there for training. Sending a son back to England for legal training was an expensive proposition, so in most cases students apprenticed to experienced local lawyers for periods of several years, commonly paying their mentors fees for the privilege. Students learned the law from sitting in court and watching proceedings and from copying legal documents. Both judges and lawyers "rode the circuit" to outlying counties that lacked their own courts to conduct hearings and trials.

As Anglican immigrants, as well as Germans, Dutch, Swedes, and other Europeans began to outnumber Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, they gradually dropped out of civic affairs, finding that many aspects of governance clashed with their religious beliefs. Thus, English common law became the prevailing standard in the middle colonies. Lawyers largely depended on a handful of treatises on legal procedure, Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws,” and their knowledge of the English common law to conduct the legal business of the colonies. However, as the colonies developed their own legal systems, their legislatures undertook to codify the laws, and these new legal codes required trained lawyers and judges to apply and interpret them. The courts and bar associations gradually established standards for lawyers and restricted access to the courts to lawyers who met those standards. By the 1760s, lawyers were required to complete a four-year apprenticeship with “some gentleman of the law” before they were allowed to practice in the county courts and a year of such practice before they could appear before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Law books were scarce, and it was often a significant part of an apprentice’s work to copy those borrowed from other lawyers

By the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia had a thriving legal fraternity, and many of the colony’s lawyers played prominent roles both in resisting and in forging the new nation. Philadelphia’s conservative, upper-class attorneys largely supported the crown and opposed the movement toward independence, but some became revolutionaries. One, James Wilson (1742-98), a Scottish immigrant who settled in Philadelphia, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and served as one of the first associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

After the war, Philadelphia was the second-largest city in the new country and was a center of manufacturing, shipping, insurance, and finance. From 1790 to 1800 it was also the national capital. The national and state governments and all of the city’s courts were located on Statehouse Square at Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. Lawyers lived and worked in the same area and congregated daily in the surrounding streets. They were a small group, well known to one another, and many were members of Philadelphia's oldest and wealthiest families. Judges and lawyers kept up the English custom of powdered wigs and formal black attire for some years after the war. Throughout much of the nineteenth century the city’s lawyers carried distinctive green cloth bags in which they transported their legal papers so that “green bag of technicalities” became a pejorative for lawyer.

Single Practitioners Dominated

[caption id="attachment_17553" align="alignright" width="220"]A scanned page from the Legal Ingelligencer The Legal Intelligencer is the oldest daily legal publication in the United States. It was founded in 1848 by Philadelphia lawyer Henry E. Wallace and remains in the city to this day. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

A typical law office of the time was a two-story residence with the ground floor dedicated to offices and the second floor serving as family quarters. Most lawyers were single practitioners or formed firms when their sons or other relatives followed them into the profession, and partnerships were rare until the late nineteenth century. Around 1800, a partnership was usually two individuals: one man, the barrister, to appear in court and the other, the solicitor, to conduct business transactions. By the end of the century, one-man offices and two-man partnerships had evolved into hundreds of larger law firms. After the war, the law courts became distinctly defined as criminal, civil, and chancery, or business, courts. In Pennsylvania, lawyers did a good business litigating shipping and insurance issues stemming from the piracy of cargo ships in a separate maritime court. Each county had its own trial court called the Court of Common Pleas, while the Supreme Court and Superior Court became exclusively appellate institutions. Lawyers either settled in each county seat or migrated there from Philadelphia to practice law. In Delaware County, when the county seat moved from Chester City to Media in 1850, dozens of attorneys relocated to the new town as well.

The education of lawyers in the new nation continued as before, with lengthy apprenticeships, but students no longer went to the Inns of Court for training. American universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, began to teach law courses as well. James Wilson launched a promising series of lectures in 1790 at the College of Philadelphia, later to become the University of Pennsylvania, but he lectured for less than one term before giving up his academic endeavors.

Another early development was that printers began publishing court decisions and legal codes, creating the need for lawyers to amass law libraries. In 1802, seventy-one attorneys formed the Law Library Company of Philadelphia to share access to law books. The law library was a stock company whose shares were valued at $20 and whose members paid annual dues of two dollars. In 1821, sixty-seven Philadelphia lawyers formed the first American bar association, the Law Association of Philadelphia, which merged with the law library in 1827. The bar association split from the law library in 1967 and the library became the Jenkins Law Library, still a major resource for Philadelphia-area lawyers.

Tarnished Reputation

In the Jacksonian era, the public generally looked down on the legal profession. Many lawyers had tarnished their reputations in the post-war years with land speculation and financial wheeler dealing. Some of Philadelphia’s attorneys got caught up in these practices, but the legal community persevered because the city’s thriving business and commercial activities needed well-trained lawyers.

The University of Pennsylvania established a law department in 1850 and thereafter, requirements for admission to the bar included university training. Philadelphia attorney Henry E. Wallace founded The Legal Intelligencer in 1843, making it the nation’s oldest continually published legal newspaper. It published legal news, opinions, legal notices, and insider gossip on the activities of lawyers and law firms. Even though Philadelphia Quakers were prominent leaders of the pre-Civil War abolition movement, the city’s lawyers, still largely upper class and conservative, were unsympathetic to the abolition cause. Nevertheless, a handful of Philadelphia lawyers became involved in the antislavery movement prior to the war, and many law students and attorneys fought on the Union side.

[caption id="attachment_17556" align="alignright" width="238"]A painted portrait of John Graver Johnson John Graver Johnson defended Standard Oil and the Sugar Trust, among others, during the antitrust trials of the 1890s. He also provided counsel during the antitrust trials of two local railway companies, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baldwin Locomotive Company. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Private John Graver Johnson (1841-1917) emerged from the war to become the most celebrated Philadelphia attorney of the nineteenth century. Even though he was a single practitioner and a product of the apprenticeship system, Johnson was considered the most skilled corporation lawyer in the United States of the century. He represented the Sugar Trust in the 1880s in one of the first antitrust cases after the adoption of Sherman Antitrust Act. Over the next 35 years, he represented countless banks and corporations, including U.S. Steel Corp., and argued numerous times before the U.S. Supreme Court. Johnson also amassed a valuable art collection that he left to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The city expanded geographically throughout the nineteenth century, and as its lawyers prospered they began to move their residences, along with the merchants, physicians, and captains of industry, to the Rittenhouse Square area around Nineteenth and Chestnut Streets. At the same time, immigrants poured into Pennsylvania and the legal profession began to open up slightly to Irish and Italian Catholics, Jews, blacks and women—the children of farmers, laborers, and small business owners.

The Move to City Hall

In 1901 Philadelphia City Hall was completed at Broad and Market Streets and the courts, the bar association, and the law library all moved out of the State House Square complex and into the massive new building. At the same time, elevators and cast iron construction materials allowed for the proliferation of tall office buildings, including the sixteen-story office Land Title Building, constructed at Broad and Chestnut Streets, across from city hall. Lawyers rented offices and established firms of various sizes in the new buildings. The invention of the typewriter and telephone revolutionized how law firms and businesses conducted their affairs.

A handful of Jewish lawyers practiced law in Philadelphia throughout the nineteenth century, from about 1800, but they were not welcome in the upper-class Protestant circles of the Philadelphia legal community or invited to join gentile law firms. Horace Stern (1878-1969) graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1899 and formed a partnership with Morris Wolf in 1903 to create one of the first all-Jewish Philadelphia law firms, Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen. Stern left the firm to take a seat on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 1920 and became chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1952. Wolf, Block hired and nurtured countless Jewish lawyers, becoming one of the largest law firms in the United States before its dissolution in 2009.

Since African Americans had little economic or social power throughout the nineteenth and much of twentieth centuries, the city’s small number of black lawyers were excluded from the white legal community and found work practicing criminal law and handling legal matters within their own community. In the first half of the twentieth century, black lawyers educated in Philadelphia went to practice law in the minority communities in other counties of the state or were able to gain employment in community and government agencies. Many gravitated to legal work for churches, municipal legal departments, and organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Bar Association, formerly the Negro Bar Association, that advocated for fair housing and employment, school integration, criminal justice reform, and other issues that later coalesced into the Civil Rights movement. The Negro Bar Association was founded in 1925 after five African American lawyers were denied admission to the American Bar Association. By the 1940s it had established free legal clinics in most U.S. cities with more than 1,500 black residents, including Philadelphia.

African American Lawyers Ascend

[caption id="attachment_17594" align="alignright" width="242"]A black and white photograph of Sadie Mossell Alexander and Raymond Pace Alexander seated in their home Sadie Mossell Alexander and husband Raymond Pace Alexander were two of the first African American lawyers in Philadelphia. Both were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, fighting for desegregation of schools and business. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Two African Americans, Henry Johnson and Isaac Parvis, were listed in the 1850 Philadelphia census as lawyers, but nothing else is recorded about them. Theophilus J. Minton was admitted to the bar in 1887. Aaron Mossell Jr. (1863-1951) was the first black student to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, in 1888. His daughter, Sadie Mossell Alexander (1898-1989) was the first African American woman to graduate from Penn Law School, in 1927, after having already become the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics, also from Penn. She practiced law until 1982. Her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander (1898-1974), a graduate of Harvard Law School, formed the first black law firm in Philadelphia and, in 1959, was elected the first black judge of the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. Both were very active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Women in particular had a very hard time being taken seriously by the legal profession. Caroline Burnham Kilgore (1838-1909), a medical doctor, fought for next ten years to gain admission to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, finally graduating in 1883. She was admitted to practice before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court two years later and before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890. Even after women lawyers became more common, they often practiced law in their husbands’ firms or were relegated to probating wills and handling domestic relations cases, areas of law seen as suitable for women.

Several new legal specialties developed over the span of the twentieth century, including tax law, bankruptcy, personal injury, labor and employment, intellectual property, consumer fraud, and environmental law. When men and women were injured or killed on the job or in auto accidents, lawyers would seek to represent them or their families for a contingency fee, payable as a percentage of whatever recovery the client received. The legal establishment frowned on this “ambulance chasing,” but in 1928 the Philadelphia Bar Association concluded that the contingency-fee arrangement was necessary for the protection of injured persons who did not have the resources to pay attorneys up front.

Night School at Temple University

[caption id="attachment_17596" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Horace Stern, Lewis Levinthal, and an unidentified man wearing tuxedos. Judge Horace Stern (left) was one of the first men to open the law field to Jews. He founded one of the first all-Jewish law firms in the city and became the first Jewish justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Admission to the bar required graduation from law school and passage of a rigorous bar examination. The apprenticeship path had disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, but another pathway opened, night law school. Temple Law School opened in 1895 as an evening school, enrolling 46 students in its first class and graduating 16 of those students in 1901. Night school enabled working class Irish, Italians, Jews, blacks, and women to attend classes while they were also holding down day jobs. Lawyers educated at Penn looked down on Temple’s evening law school graduates as being less well educated and holding less prestigious degrees, and Temple was seen as being “the Jewish law school.” It was thus nearly impossible for Temple graduates to break into the large old-family firms.

The legal profession in Philadelphia, as in other cities, became a distinctly two-tiered system with the upper-class Protestant “governing class” lawyers operating quietly from plush offices to serve their political and corporate clients, while night school graduates became single practitioners or formed small partnerships, operating from storefront offices, representing the working class, minorities, and immigrants. Philadelphia’s first Legal Aid Society office opened in 1901 to serve the poor. By 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, it was averaging 15,000 cases a year. Starting around 1900 courts throughout the country also started to set up public defenders offices or adopted a system of appointing lawyers from private firms to represent indigent criminal suspects.

In 1908, the American Bar Association published the first Canon of Professional Ethics for practicing attorneys. One of those canons was a requirement that wealthy law firms provide a significant amount of work pro bono publico, or for the public good, representing poor clients, a requirement still in effect. In addition, area law schools also have provided pro bono programs to both serve the poor or specific causes and to provide practice for students.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill of Rights provided veterans with stipends and tuition to go to college, making college education available to millions. Penn and Temple law schools had no available space and had long waiting lists, but other area law schools, Rutgers University Law School in Camden, New Jersey, Villanova University Law School in Montgomery County, and Widener School of Law in Delaware helped take up the overflow.

The Civil Rights Movement

Many black Philadelphia attorneys, long on the forefront of the fight for social justice, became involved in the 1960s civil rights movement. As counsel for the NAACP, Raymond Pace Alexander led legal battles to desegregate Pennsylvania schools as early as the 1930s. World War II Marine veteran Cecil B. Moore (1915-1979), a Temple graduate admitted to the bar in 1953, took the fight to integrate Girard College, a school established in the previous century for orphaned white boys, to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965 and won. Even as late as the 1960s, women and blacks still struggled for equality in the Philadelphia legal community. There were few (or no) blacks or women on the bench, in big firms, or in executive positions in large corporations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made minorities and women a protected group in education and employment, and by the 1970s, women accounted for nearly 50 percent of area law students, while black male enrollment increased but remains low in proportion to black representation in the general population. Also by the 1970s, the Philadelphia area’s major industries— locomotive- and shipbuilding, auto making, steel production, pharmaceuticals, and textile manufacturing— began to decline or relocate to other parts of the country, taking with them many legal jobs. When the Pennsylvania Railroad went bankrupt in 1970, it was the largest bankruptcy in American history and several hundred attorneys worked on its dissolution for years.

[caption id="attachment_17554" align="alignright" width="195"]A sepia-tone portrait of William Rawle. U.S. District Attorney William Rawle expanded the definition of "treason" during the Whiskey Rebellion trials in 1794. The law firm he founded in 1783, Rawle Law Offices (now Rawle & Henderson, LLP) is the oldest continually operating law office in the United States. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the last half of the twentieth century, many law firms grew to include hundreds of lawyers and multiple offices. Inevitably such growth included expansion to other cities and countries, either through mergers or the creation of branch offices. Tracing its origins back to 1875, Philadelphia’s Dechert, Price & Rhodes, as it came to be known in 1962, opened offices in London and Brussels, among other global cities, even as it established offices in Washington and New York before opening other offices in the region: in Harrisburg (1969) and Princeton (1987). Another venerable Philadelphia firm, Ballard Spahr, dating to 1885, opened its first branch office, in Washington, D.C., in 1978, later expanding services to New Jersey in 1999 and Delaware in 2002. Because most U.S. corporations incorporate in Delaware and the state’s chancery court has dictated corporate governance for companies throughout the country, Ballard was but one of dozens of large firms that located in Wilmington. One prominent Philadelphia firm, Pepper Hamilton, relocated to Berwyn in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. A few firms first established on the other side of the Delaware, in Camden, left their urban locations as well. These included both Archer and Greiner and Brown Connery, both founded in Camden in 1928. Well after they established their presence in the South Jersey suburbs in the 1970s, both firms opened offices in Philadelphia, affirming the continuing importance of a location central to the region. While some old established firms became less relevant and downsized, merged, or faded away, the nation’s oldest continuously functioning law office, Rawle & Henderson, founded in Philadelphia by William Rawle in 1783, was still flourishing in 2015 with offices in five states.

By the end of the twentieth century, technological innovations continued to change the practice of law and business in general. Copy machines, faxes, computers, email, and the Internet all revolutionized the practice of law, greatly improving the productivity of courts, law firms, and business. The legal documents once produced by quill pens in candle-lit front parlors 300 years ago are now filed and shared electronically with the stroke of a key.

Jodine Mayberry is a retired journalist. She was a legal writer and editor for West Publications, a division of Thomson Reuters, for 18 years.

Philadelphia Lawyer

The term Philadelphia lawyer originated in the eighteenth century as a description of members of the Philadelphia bar, then widely considered the best trained in the American colonies and exceptionally skilled in the law and rhetoric. By the twentieth century the term had taken on a less flattering secondary meaning, to denote a clever attorney skilled in manipulating the law for his clients’ advantage. Both definitions continue to be used.

[caption id="attachment_17503" align="alignright" width="169"]a black and white portrait of Andrew Hamilton Andrew Hamilton (above) represented John Peter Zenger in his libel trial and remains one of the most oft-cited examples of a "Philadelphia lawyer." (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

For some time the term was associated with Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741), a Philadelphian who went to New York in 1735 to represent John Peter Zenger, a printer and newspaper publisher who was charged with libel for publishing attacks on the royal governor. At a time when the English common law held that "the greater the truth, the greater the libel," Hamilton argued that Zenger’s articles were true and therefore could not, by definition, be libelous. Under the common law, jurors were expected, on pain of being arrested and fined themselves, only to determine the facts and were prohibited from determining the law. Much to the chagrin of the judge, the jury found the publisher not guilty in one of the earliest recorded cases of jury nullification, or defiance of legal instruction. Hamilton’s arguments were published in Philadelphia, New York, and London throughout much of the 1700s and were widely admired by other lawyers.

Recent scholarship has questioned Hamilton’s association with the term. Whether it originated with him or not, the term Philadelphia lawyer came to be applied to the city’s legal professionals in general. The province’s early lawyers trained in long apprenticeships under experienced attorneys and political leaders or they went to London to train in the Inns of Court, prototypical law schools, where they received the best English legal training of the time. The phrase “this would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer” was a common saying by the early nineteenth century, used to describe a problem so difficult it needed a highly skilled specialist to solve. It seems to have entered the language as an English, rather than an American, proverb. The phrase first appeared in print in 1788 in the Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine published in Philadelphia. An American visiting London wrote to a friend in Pennsylvania, "They have a proverb here which I do not know how to account for;–speaking of a difficult point, they say, ‘it would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer.’"

Fame for Philadelphia Lawyers

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the term was in common usage in the United States, turning up in novels, biographies, and newspaper and magazine articles, while still being employed by British authors. The German-born writer Francis Joseph Grund (1805-63), in his 1837 book The Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations, noted that American lawyers had to be better trained than their English counterparts because they had not only to learn the laws of the nation as a whole but also the laws of each state. “The most fertile in argument and scientific distinctions are, I suppose, those of Philadelphia, their fame being established by the adage, ‘This will puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer;’ which is expressive of the same difficulty as the squaring of a circle in mathematics,” he wrote.

[caption id="attachment_17501" align="alignright" width="242"]A black and white photograph of Woody Guthrie playing a guitar with the words "this machine kills fascists" written on it Folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a song about a Philadelphia lawyer promising his married lover a speedy divorce, an example of how the connotation of the words changed over the years to indicate an unscrupulous attorney. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

As before the Revolution and the founding of the new nation, Philadelphia lawyers remained part of the city’s upper class, set apart from ordinary citizens. Their chief legal business of the early nineteenth century involved the collection of debts and taxes, execution of foreclosures, and recovery of property for landlords and creditors, none of which endeared them to the common people. Often residents met lawyers for the first time when they were evicted or sent to debtors’ prison. It is in this context, Robert R. Bell argues, that "the common opinion was that the law was nothing more than tricks and technicalities, run by unscrupulous men who build legal careers on the disasters of others."

Nevertheless, references to “Philadelphia lawyer” in print, if not in casual conversation, continued to be largely complimentary throughout the nineteenth century. In modern usage, the term continues to reflect both meanings—a highly skilled, intelligent attorney and a shrewd, unscrupulous lawyer willing to manipulate the law. The phrase became such a part of the American lexicon that the great folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a song in 1937, “Philadelphia Lawyer,” about a lawyer visting Reno, Nevada, who promised his lover a quickie divorce so “we can get married tonight,” only to be done in by the lady’s husband.

Jodine Mayberry is a retired journalist. She was a legal writer and editor for West Publications, a division of Thomson Reuters, for 18 years.

Media, Pennsylvania

[caption id="attachment_16784" align="alignright" width="300"]The Media Theatre built in 1927. Built in 1927 by Samuel Dembow as Media's third and largest movie theater, the Media Theatre was designed by the firm of Magazine, Eberhard, and Harris and served for nearly seventy-five years as a movie palace. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Media, Pennsylvania, was built on farmland in the 1850s as the new county seat of Delaware County.  The county, which was carved from Chester County in 1789, lies in the southeastern corner of the state along the Delaware River between Philadelphia and the state of Delaware.  Located only 12 miles from Philadelphia, Media is an early example of a “planned community,” intended as both a commercial center and a place to conduct court and county government business.  For many decades, it was an important stop along rail and highway routes between Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. 

Media started out as a small village named Providence, settled by Quakers in 1682. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, who came to America with William Penn, settled along the Delaware River establishing meetinghouses throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs. Penn granted Media’s first English settlers, brothers Peter and William Taylor, 700 acres and Thomas Minshall, 625 acres in and near Media. Minshall allowed his neighbors to hold Friends meetings in his house in the 1680s. He then donated a tract of land on his farm for a meeting place. The Providence Friends Meeting’s first log meetinghouse was completed in 1700 and was replaced with the current stone building in 1814.

Providence remained a small village of about a dozen buildings surrounded by farmland until 1850.  Ridley Creek and Crum Creek flowed on the east and west of the town to create a landscape of hills and valleys and to provide fresh water and fish to local residents.  In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, many textile, lumber, and grain mills operated along their banks.  

In 1683, the county government  chartered the “Providence Great Road” to enable local farmers to  move  their crops to market from the west to the county seat in Chester. There, their produce could be shipped on the Delaware River. 

Allure of the County Seat

When the eastern half of Chester County split off in 1789 to create Delaware County, keeping the city of Chester as the county seat, the arrangement failed to satisfy citizens of the area’s outlying precincts, who came to be known as “removalists.” They had to carry their goods to market on packhorses along narrow paths or on carts along deeply rutted tracks and they considered the journey to Chester City too long and arduous. Radnor Township, which was closer to Norristown, the county seat of Montgomery County, threatened to secede from Delaware County if the county seat was not relocated. Chester merchants and residents resisted, however, because they feared losing their livelihoods if county government relocated. 

The issue went unresolved for decades until the municipalities of Delaware County called a meeting at the Black Horse Tavern in Middletown in early December 1845 to vote on a location for a new county seat.  Although many delegates could not get there because of the wretched roads, the delegates who attended chose Providence, five miles inland from Chester City, where the county already had a poorhouse and farm called “the House of Employment.”  The Pennsylvania Legislature passed a bill in 1848 allowing the Delaware County commissioners to establish the new county seat at Providence.  Minshall Painter (1801-73), a descendant of Thomas Minshall, suggested that the town be renamed Media as it was located in the center of the county. 

The county commissioners purchased a 48-acre tract of farmland and sold 200 building lots in and around Providence, reserving a large tract in the center for the new county buildings. Several doctors, judges, and attorneys were among the first buyers. Many property owners along the Delaware River sold their land and built in Media, freeing the riverfront for later development as a shipbuilding and industrial center. By 1853, the town consisted of more than 70 stores, banks, office buildings, churches, and homes.  A major fire destroyed a shingle factory in the early 1850s, and Media passed an ordinance banning construction of wood-frame buildings as a fire precaution.  Thereafter, stores, law offices, government buildings, and homes were built of brick. The Media Borough Council built the Media Water Works on Ridley Creek in 1855 to supply the new town with clean water. Three newspapers were published in Media in the 1890s: the Delaware County American, the Delaware County Record, and the Media Ledger.  In 1891 the town formed its first volunteer fire department, the Media Fire and Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1, which still serves the community and is still an all-volunteer company.

Although the name Providence was lost, the surrounding townships of Upper and Nether Providence remained. The new county courthouse, jail, and sheriff’s house were completed in 1851 and the first court session took place Aug. 25. By 1870, the county commissioners had to add wings on each side of the original courthouse because the county, and with it county government, had grown so rapidly.  By 1910 the population of Media had reached 3,562.

A Dry Town from the Beginning

A clause in the bill creating Media decreed that no alcohol could be sold in the town, and from its founding until the repeal of Prohibition, Media remained a dry town, a testament to its strong Quaker roots. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Media featured a temperance hotel called the Charter House for travelers. Despite its “dryness,” Media became a popular summer resort for well-to-do Philadelphians in the late 1800s with several large hotels.

[caption id="attachment_16785" align="alignright" width="300"]The Thomas Minshall House remains the oldest house in Media. The existing fieldstone structure was built before 1789 as an addition to the original 1682 log house, which was later torn down. The house passed through many owners until its last owner deeded it to Media Borough in 1975. (Wikimedia Commons) The Thomas Minshall House remains the oldest house in Media. The existing fieldstone structure was built before 1789 as an addition to the original 1682 log house, which was later torn down. The house passed through many owners until its last owner deeded it to Media Borough in 1975. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Media was a crossroads for travelers going from Philadelphia south or coming from the western counties to Chester, which had remained a major market city. From colonial times, taverns and inns on the outskirts of Media served travelers by horse and stagecoach. The roads to towns such as Newtown Square and Radnor, on the western edges of the county, gradually began to be improved in the nineteenth century. 

With the advent of automobiles, Providence Road was paved and designated as State Rte. 252. Another early road, Baltimore Pike, extended through Media, crossing Providence Road on its way from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Maryland. South of Media the pike eventually became part of U.S. Route 1, a highway that today extends from Maine to Florida. Construction on the Baltimore Pike began around 1811 to carry stagecoach traffic. Like Baltimore Pike, two other early roads originating in Philadelphia and running through Delaware County, Lancaster Pike and West Chester Pike, were named for their destinations.  All three remain important roadways, carrying commuters between Philadelphia and its southern and western suburbs. Dozens of towns sprang up along their paths in the nineteenth century.

In 1854, the Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington rail line was completed through Media. The railroad later became the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Media/Elwyn commuter line, running from Elwyn, on Media’s western edge, to Suburban Station in Philadelphia, making Media a suburb of Philadelphia. Trolley service began in 1913 to the 69th Street terminal in Upper Darby, a transportation hub serving Philadelphia and Chester and Delaware Counties.  The 101 trolley still runs down the middle of State Street in Media on its way to Upper Darby. 

Underground Railroad

Before the Civil War, abolitionists and Underground Railroad conductors who resided in Wilmington, Delaware, 15 miles southwest of Media, directed escaped slaves along three routes through Delaware and Chester Counties north to Philadelphia, a major center of Quaker abolitionist activity. The middle route went through Media and some former slaves and freedmen settled along the route in Middletown. In the early 1850s the county relocated the almshouse to Middletown and sold the Media property. The new owner converted the building to a lodging house for black families, making Media an integrated community almost from the start. Many local residents in Media, as well as Delaware County, fought for the Union in the Civil War. 

Media’s Quaker community helped run the Underground Railroad and later played a major role in peacefully integrating the town’s schools and public services. In January 1937 in the middle of the school year, Dorothy Biddle James (1900-85), then chair of the Media Friends School admission committee, enrolled the first African American student, causing an uproar among unprepared parents as both public and private schools were then segregated by race. One-third of the students left the following school year and the school nearly closed, but its administrators persevered with their experiment in integration, establishing a model for later school integration in Media and Delaware County. 

James played another significant role in Media history when, in 1944, she was having lunch at a new restaurant in Media. She noticed that two black women were refused service and followed them out. The women had lunch at a nearby drugstore and planned the formation of the Media Interracial Fellowship House, a safe place for blacks and whites to come together in community activities and work for civil rights. The Media Fellowship House, located at 302 S. Jackson Street, continues to serve as a vibrant center for the community, hosting a wide variety of programs, events, speakers, and organizations. 

Local African American citizens formed the Media Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1930s. The branch was very active during the 1960s civil rights struggle, along with the Philadelphia and Chester branches. 

[caption id="attachment_16787" align="alignright" width="300"]The 650-acre Tyler Arboretum, located just outside Philadelphia in Media, Delaware County, is one of the oldest and largest arboreta in the Northeast. In 1825, two Quaker brothers, Jacob and Minshall Painter, founded what would become the Tyler Arboretum. The two brothers, networking with other tree collectors, quickly gathered more than a thousand tree types. The 650-acre arboretum, located in Media, is one of the oldest and largest arboreta in the Northeast. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Many Delaware County Quakers and other religious and peace groups, as well as college students from Quaker-founded Swarthmore and Haverford Colleges, opposed the Vietnam War, and many demonstrators showed up at the courthouse in Media week after week to stage silent protests. In 1971, a group organized by a Haverford College professor and calling itself the Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI broke into a two-man FBI office in the town and stole more than 1,000 classified documents. The documents, published in 1972, revealed that the FBI had been running a clandestine political surveillance operation on U.S. citizens, known as COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program).  A U.S. Senate committee, the Church Committee, investigated and the program ended. The eight members of the group were not identified until 2014 when four of them agreed to be interviewed for a book and documentary film. 

Media’s downtown business and shopping district was hard hit in 1974 when two large, modern, covered shopping malls opened on each side of the borough. The town’s business association then reinvented State Street, the main street, as a lively mix of restaurants, bars, gift shops, and crafts stores. State Street is often closed off in the summer as Media hosts arts and crafts shows, flea markets, produce markets, and open-air dining on Wednesday nights.

Incorporated at only 0.8 square miles in size, the borough’s geographic boundaries have never grown. With a population of 5,327 in 2010, Media was 77.7 percent white, 13.2 percent black, and 9 percent Asian, Latino, and other or mixed races. Even though it remained the county seat, Media never became a major municipality in Delaware County because of its location away from the Delaware River and its late development in comparison to other boroughs and townships in the county, most of which date from early colonial times. Its population was only 0.01 percent of the population of the entire county, which was 558,579 in 2010.  Because of its status as the seat of county government, however, Media  generated many jobs in the courts, law enforcement, county offices, retail establishments, and law offices and thus remained a popular destination throughout the county.

Jodine Mayberry is a retired journalist. She was a legal writer and editor for West Publications, a division of Thomson Reuters, for 18 years. 

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