Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Prolific John Heffner

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

In Landis Valley’s extensive newspaper collection, curator Bruce Bomberger discovered in the September 6, 1883 edition of the Reading Eagle this sad, but odd, tale of a prolific man looking for a decent living.

On Tuesday, September 4, 1883, a certain John Heffner, 67-year-old German rag picker from Reading, PA, dressed up in a full suit, high hat, and coarse shoes, tearfully parted with his children, and went to Lancaster to look for work.  He took with him several dollars and a card that bore the inscription, “Fredericka Hefner, 816 Bingaman Street, Reading,” and it’s a good thing he did.  While crossing the railroad tracks on Prince Street in Lancaster, he was struck and killed.  The card was what identified him.

A sad tale, but not odd—yet.  Turns out, the rag picker sired a prodigious family which he, somehow, supported by picking up rags, pieces of paper, stumps of cigars, etc. and utilizing in various ways.  All told, John Heffner fathered 42 children with three wives.  Heffner didn’t say goodbye to all of them on September 4, though, as only five daughters survived to see 1883.

A native of the Kingdom of Wurtemberg (which includes the Black Forest, top, and whose capital is Stuttgart, bottom), he started his brood at the age of 25 in Germany.  Mrs. Heffner #1 bore 17 children in eight years:  twins in each of the first two years, triplets in each of the next four, and in the seventh year a single child.  She died the year after (in February, 1848) and was laid to rest in the village church yard in Germany.

Faced with a large gaggle of children ages seven and younger, Heffner accepted the help of a young woman, who took charge of the children three months after Mrs. Heffner #1 died and shortly thereafter became Mrs. Heffner #2.  She bore Heffner a son in February, 1849, and that same Christmas came Heffner child #19, which made the Heffner family the largest in that part of Germany.  The Eagle colorfully speculated that, “When they gathered around the table, the household had the appearance of a small orphan asylum.”

Twins came in each of the next five years and then, after the entire family packed up and moved to America, Mrs. Heffner #2 had one child per year for three years.  Childbirth is very hard on a body, and so she died in 1857, having been married for nine years and producing 15 children.  Of that large brood, 12 had died, leaving Heffner with 20 to be taken care of by a widow, who became Mrs. Heffner #3 in 1858.

Mrs. Heffner #3 brought one child to the family and added nine more in the next ten years.  The Eagle states that “another was born since then,” but does not give the child’s birth year.  The article also does not delve into how Heffner supported his large family, though it does say, “None of the first set of 17 of children survive.  Two of the 15 of the second wife still live, and 3 of the third wife’s 9.”  According to the article, “The old man has long since forgotten the names of his numerous progeny.”

Fast Mover

In looking over the chronology, it seems that Mr. Heffner moved awfully fast, mourning a wife for a few months before marrying again and proceeding with adding more children to the family.  Further research on, though, reveals that, according to antebellum traditions, a man could mourn for three months, whereas a woman must mourn for a minimum of two and a half years.

The tracks that Heffner crossed were probably on the Reading and Columbia Railroad line, which, according to the website, "Pennsylvania Railroad Stations Past & Present," had a station at Prince and Frederick Streets, near the present-day Clipper Stadium.

Heffner's Reading

Heffner lived on Bingaman St., of which we don't have a picture readily available in the collection.  We do, however, have a few Reading postcards from the turn of the 20th century.

At right is a postcard of the St. Joseph's Hospital, which was built in 1885 at 12th and Walnut Streets (the image, though, was taken a few years after construction).  Heffner would have seen a much different building in his lifetime, which can be seen in the article "St. Joseph's Hospital" on the Go Reading Berks website.

Another interesting find (and an ironic one, considering Heffner's search for work on the day he died) is this postcard image of Labor Day in Reading, taken around the turn of the century.  It features the huge Kline, Eppihimer & Co. department store (second building from the left).

Below are images of the Penn Street Bridge, which spanned the Schuylkill River from 1885, two years after Heffner's death, to 1913. According to Go Reading Berks, the old steel bridge was built for ordinary traffic, but expanding industry in the western part of the city necessitated rail lines across the span. These were built without thought for the strength of the structure so, in 1913, the current viaduct was built.