Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"So that the subscribers may have the child again, and the parents convicted of the theft"

Sometimes a single reference in an old newspaper underscores how very different the mindset of an earlier time was from that of our own time.

"Lost from the subscriber, living on Raccoon Creek, in Woolwich township, Gloucester county, West New-Jersey, on the night between the 9th and 10th of this instant October, an indented female child; her name is Polly Murphy, very near five years of age, pretty tall for her age, of a fair complexion, has ruddy cheeks, grey eyes, light hair, and a small scar on her forehead; had on an almost new homespun lincey petticoat, with red, brown and yellow stripes, turned up round-about, a red ragged woolen short gown, and a coarse ozenbrigs sh
ift...¹ "

As a parent reading this notice from 1775, my heart went out instinctively to that lost child, remembering a cold November when my not yet three-year-old daughter went out into the night in her stocking feet - having decided to follow her mother's car to the library - and the panic I felt until she was found, safe, but half a mile away.  My sympathy is naturally with the parents of Polly Murphy, but they were not out looking for their child.  Her master was.

"...It is supposed she has been taken away by her parents, who stayed that night with the subscriber, and with the child disappeared that morning.  The father’s name is Henry Scharff, has a lean face and thin hair, had on an old, worn out blue coat; the mother is a lusty, hearty woman, of a fair complexion, has big lips, and black hair, and is big with child.  Whoever takes up the above persons with the above described child, and secures them, so that the subscribers may have the child again, and the parents convicted of the theft, shall have five pounds reward, or for the child alone three pounds, and all reasonable charges paid by   ANDREW MINTZ"
[Pennsylvania Gazette October 18, 1775]

18th Century America's cultural and class distinctions are stark in this run-away advertisementFrom Mintz's perspective, the poor white parents of Polly Murphy have taken advantage of his hospitality and broken a binding contract by removing their five-year-old daughter from her indenture.  Readers of the newspaper would be expected to view the father, with his different surname, and the pregnant, probably Irish mother, as dishonest as well as unfit parents from a societal underclass. 
Hard information about Andrew Mintz is very hard to come by.  This single newpaper ad from 1775 is all that I have been able to find .  Intriguingly, Mintz is an Ashkenazic or eastern European Jewish surname.  Sephardic or "Spanish" Jews were more common in 18th Century America than the Ashkenazim, though there were a few of these.  He could have converted to Christianity, as did my ancestor Eleazer Cohen, a merchant from Amsterdam who lived in Philadelphia at this time. 

More likely Mintz could just be a German name
like Müntz that happened to be spelled like a Jewish one.  There was a Benedict Müntz who died in Philadelphia in 1764 whose name was also spelled Mintz.  These Mintz's were not Jewish, and intermarried with Moravians.

Sometimes even very young children like Polly Murphy were bound to service when their families could not afford to support them.  These indentures were long, and did not include niceties such as the option for early termination if the circumstances of the parents improved.  They had no recourse if they just wanted her home again.  Their child became chattel.

This was a common condition in 18th Century America, a form of long-term white slavery at a time when the permanent enslavement of black people was well established.  Appallingly, it is also a form of slavery that exists in different but still recognizable forms today, with bonded debt slavery and child labor affecting millions of people around the world.


1.  Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey, First Series --Vol. XXXI
Extracts from American Newspapers Relating to New Jersey for the Year 1775
, Edited by A. Van Doren Hon Eyman, Somerville, N.J. : The Unionist-Gazette Association, Printers, 1923.

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