Title: Brewer, cotton mill owner, president of Mount Moriah Cemetery
Birthdate: March 9, 1832
Death Date: December 22, 1915
Plot Location: Section 108, Lot D
In the spring of 1851 two brothers left the port in Londonderry, Northern Ireland and set foot in Philadelphia. James was 19, arriving with William, 23. This may have been the same James Smyth who is listed as entering military service in 1855, giving his occupation as a laborer. The record says he was court-martialed and discharged in 1857.
During the Civil War years the city directories show James was the owner of a “Wine, Liquor & Cider Store.” From there he began a brewery in 1866. He faced competition from about 60 others in the city, including one founded by Christian Schmidt six years earlier. (“Schmidts of Philadelphia” was the most popular brand in the market in the mid-20th century until the company was sold in 1987.) James was a brewer and “maltster” for about eight years before selling his business to Continental Brewing Company.
Sometime in the 1860s James also joined the Board of Managers of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association. He was elected president in 1871 but stepped into controversy over the issue of permitting burials by people of color.
In May of 1875 an owner of several lots sold one of his deeds to Mrs. Margaret Jones so she could bury her sister. That took place without incident, but it was a different story when she asked to bury her husband there in September and was refused. Henry Jones was a well-known caterer, so his funeral was publicized and drew a large number of people. It drew even more publicity when the cemetery blocked the procession from entering and refused to bury him.
It took more than two weeks for the Association to respond to the bad press, with James as spokesperson. Mrs. Jones’ attorney filed suit and the case worked its way to the state Supreme Court. Mount Moriah lost, not only there but in the court of public opinion. The public relations nightmare got worse when the cemetery still refused to allow the burial, even after receiving a court order. That was six months after Henry’s death, so Margaret gave up, fearing backlash, and buried her husband elsewhere.
James Smyth & Co.
While not embroiled in that litigation, James took the proceeds from the brewery and founded a cotton mill. He also found a woman named Margaret Wylie Faires to be his bride. They married in 1877 when he was 45 and she was 31, and they never had any children.
Confidence in the nation’s economy began to return after a depression in the 1870s. James was so confident he borrowed heavily to buy another mill in the Frankford section of the city. Perhaps he was too confident, because it required expensive renovations. He took out loans to pay his existing loans. Then the winter of 1882-83 saw a drop in revenue, as reported below. After some lengthy discussions, James persuaded his creditors to agree to a repayment plan.
Another hurdle surfaced in 1884 as workers formed unions to demand better pay and working conditions. A strike occurred after the management of James Smith & Co, refused to agree to arbitration. Then on November 14, 1885, a 12-year-old girl employed as a bobbin carrier got caught in some machinery and was killed.
An 1849 state law had forbidden the employment of minors under the age of 13. It set a fine of $50 for violations but provided no means of enforcement unless someone brought suit. Someone eventually did so on the family’s behalf in 1887, but the defense argued that the girl lied when she reported her age as 14. Verdict for the defendant.
Documentation about James and his occupation for the next two decades is sparse. In the midst of his troubles he must have resigned from the board at Mount Moriah around 1884. What finally happened to James Smyth & Company isn’t known.
Life After 60
An 1895 city directory shows he was a clerk, living with Margaret in a boarding house at 4403 Osage Ave. This was confirmed because that address also appears on Margaret’s death certificate in 1901. She caught tuberculosis some time before that and spent her last days at the Norristown State Hospital.
Government records show James worked for the Navy as an inspector between 1897 and 1903. The next directory listing found was in 1908 where his residence was the Masonic Home at 3333 North Broad Street. He died there in 1915, the cause listed as “senile dementia.”
The man who once employed 900 was given a simple funeral service through the charity of the boarding house owner where the Smyths once lived. He was interred with Margaret on the Yeadon side of the cemetery in Section 108.
Support the Friends of Mount Moriah
Help us in our mission to restore and maintain the beautiful Mount Moriah Cemetery by donating to our cause or volunteering at one of our clean-up events.