pittsburgh

Who Was Carson?

Namesake Mystery Solved

Carson Street. You don’t know who it’s named after do you?

You may drive the main street through Pittsburgh’s South Side every day. Perhaps, you’ve downed a lot of beer and listened to music there at night. But, you don’t know who Carson was.

Don’t worry. Until now, no one else did either.

Are you going to guess Rachel Carson, the famous local environmentalist? How about Kit Carson, the frontiersmen so admired by settlers heading West by way of Pittsburgh?

It would be nice, if either were true. But, it’s not.

The truth goes back two centuries. It’s not so nice. It was kept quiet, and then just forgotten.

Kept quiet? What?

Oooh…, bigamy, murder, a trial as big as O.J. Simpson’s, and the attempted kidnapping of a governor. Of course, there was a beautiful woman. A woman who stepped out of her time to be strong, independent, and quite… well, criminal.

I found the origin of the street name only because of the wonders and whims of Googling. It gets complicated, but I think you will find it fun.

Let’s start with what local historians have told us until now.

Who Named the Street?

The street was named by Dr. Nathaniel Bedford, the man who founded a town that became the South Side.

He often is said to have been a doctor at Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh’s earliest days. But, that seems to be a myth perpetuated by the patriotic.

Dr. Bedford did not show up in Pittsburgh until after the American Revolution. Fort Pitt was long gone. In fact, he was not patriotic in the American sense. He was loyal to, and served, the other side.

Be that as it may, in 1783, independence from England was imminent. The gates on Indian land were about to be totally removed. A young (perhaps naive) woman was rudely jostled for two weeks in a Conestoga wagon as she traveled rugged wilderness and mountains from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

This city girl, Mary (Molly) Carson, had been working at her father’s inn. Many officers of the Continental Army stayed there.

One was James O’Hara. He was promised thousands of acres in Indian land in the Pittsburgh area for his military management services. She fell in love. They married and moved into his log house in Pittsburgh, hardly even a village yet.

It’s said she introduced Pittsburghers to rugs. She spread them on her cabin floor. Visitors thought the 23-year-old was wacky. Why would anyone lay bed coverlets on the floor to walk on?

Molly laid down more than that for Pittsburgh. She and O’Hara went on to spawn upper crust families: the Schenleys, Dennys, Wilkinses and Darlingtons. They all had, and have, O’Hara/Carson genes.

But, no. We’re not done. She was not the Carson for whom Dr. Bedford named his street.

It would be appropriate, but alas. . .

The 1876 History of Allegheny County reports it quite succinctly. Too succinctly, I’d say. It says only that Dr. Bedford named the street after an acquaintance, a Philadelphia sea captain. Nothing more.

A Mystery Sea Captain

DOCK STREET WHARF IN PHILADELPHIA CIRCA 1800

Later writers take the liberty to describe the namesake as a friend, even an old friend. But, no one identifies exactly who Carson was, nor why he was so honored by Dr. Bedford.

Lack of curiosity could cause that, but absence of internet resources likely doomed any effort to find the lost sea captain.

Turns out, he was hiding in plain sight. Modern preoccupation with genealogy made him fairly easy to find.

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation recently speculated the mystery Carson must have been a brother or some other relative of Molly Carson. But, it took it no further.

If only it had.

Let’s look at the beginnings of the street before it had a name.

In 1811, Dr. Bedford started developing a little town he called Birmingham.

He got the land through his wife, Jane Ormsby. Her father was awarded Indian land the same way as O’Hara, who had married Molly Carson.

Jane, sadly, died not long after she married the doctor. He gathered up his things from a nice house near Fort Fayette downtown, and moved to the south side of the Monongahela River.

He sold lots and started naming streets. There’s Jane Street. Also Sarah, Mary, Sidney, and Josephine streets. They are Jane’s sisters. They all had neighboring developments.

Exactly when the streets were named remains in question.

Regardless, Jane’s sisters built comfortable houses with landscaped gardens that rolled down to the river. There were no bridges yet. Just ferries.

The center of Birmingham, as Dr. Bedford drew it up, was to be Bedford Square. Today, it’s a quiet conjunction of little-traveled streets.

The main East-West street was to be Bingham Street not Carson. It runs either side of the square, parallel to Carson. It took you to the ferry at what is now 15th Street.

Another ferry was where the Smithfield Street Bridge is today. The road that became Carson Street went there.

When did it become Carson Street?

Now It Gets Interesting!

Well, let’s get to the juicy stuff! The story is similar to O.J. Simpson’s, if you set it at an 1816 seaport, and told it somewhat backwards.

Sea Captain John Carson, a burly brute prone to drinking too much, came home after three or four years among the missing. His wife, Ann, meanwhile, had set up a china shop to support their four children. Carson might have thought that was nice. But, she had gotten something else, too. A new husband. He was young. He was handsome. He was Richard Smith.

PHILADELPHIA CORNER WHERE DRAMA BEHIND CARSON STREET’S NAME UNFOLDED

There are many characters in this story, but I’ll spare you any more names.

At first, the returned Capt. Carson just stalked Ann. Then, assured her new husband was not armed, he went to the couple’s home. He attacked the man who stole his wife with a steak knife in each hand. One blade pierced Smith’s coat, but not him.

Ann stopped Carson. Smith fled.

A few days later, Smith returned home to find the captain still there. Worse, Ann’s parents were there. too. They didn’t much like Smith. Carson, twice the size of Smith, approached him with his hands out to show he was not carrying any steak knives.

He said he came to take “peaceful” possession of his wife, her bed and her house. The Captain told Smith to get out.

“Very well, sir.” Smith responded. But, he walked in with a hand tucked into the breast of his coat. It was still there. He turned toward the woman he married only a few months before.

“Ann, shall I leave?”

“No, stay,” she responded.

The captain repeated his demand for Ann, her bed and her house as he continued to approach. Smith pulled out a 15-inch black powder pistol.

He shot Carson in the mouth.

WATERCOLOR FROM 1817 illustrates murder scene. The Carson Street namesake is at left. The painting recently sold online. Too bad Pittsburghers didn’t know the story. It surely would have driven the price up.

The shot staggered the captain.

“I’m a dead man,” he gasped. Blood started to gush.

Actually, he wasn’t dead. It took a few weeks.

Carson Dies a Tragic Hero

But, when he died, Capt. Carson was cast as a tragic victim worthy of national sympathy — and, it turns out, a street name in Pittsburgh.

But, Pittsburgh is a long, long way from the sea. What’s the connection?

That’s where online genealogists come in.

Turns out the Pittsburgh rug lady, Molly, had a brother named John Carson. But, he wasn’t a sea captain. He was a respectable Philadelphia doctor.

He had sons, though, and one was a sea captain. His name also was John. So, Mary Carson O’Hara, the Pittsburgh matriarch, was Aunt Molly to Capt. Carson.

Furthermore, the captain’s father and Dr. Bedford were of the same generation, went to medical school in Britain, and likely knew each other. Dr. Bedford is known to have had doctor friends in Philadelphia, including the famous patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush.

Also, Molly’s husband, James O’Hara, invested in Dr. Bedford’s Birmingham development. He helped set up the first glass factory there, for which South Side became famous.

So, Dr. Bedford knew the Carsons. Like everyone else, he knew of the Carson “tragedy.’

Why the Mystery?

With that established, we can move on to why a developer would name a street after someone, and then say little more about it.

First of all, Dr. Bedford died in 1818, not that long after naming the street. At the time, the named portion was just a couple of blocks long. Also, propriety.

A lack of propriety in the extreme surrounded the sordid trials of Richard Smith and Ann.

TRANSCRIPT OF TRIAL IS STILL AVAILABLE ONLINE

Newspapers drooled. Thousands of Philadelphia sailors left taverns to go to the captain’s funeral. They demanded the manipulative widow be hanged from a yard arm, seriously.

Trials back then tended to be spectacles of cheering and jeering, this one even more so. Attorneys often played to the gallery rather than the judge and jury. There’s a reason for the term, “Order in the court!”

It seems the trial judge essentially told the jury to find Smith guilty of first degree murder. It did.

His questionable instruction to the jury is perhaps a reason why you can still get the trial transcripts. (See links below.) They have been required reading at many law schools. The latest reprinting was in 2012.

At some points, the transcripts read like dialogue for television. At others, attorneys pontificate endlessly about nuances of law. Only law students could get through those.

The Widow Gets Off

Ann was tried separately for aiding and abetting in the murder. The trial no sooner started than the prosecution said, “Never mind.” They didn’t have enough evidence.

Was Ann grateful? Penitent? No, not Ann Carson.

She immediately set out to save her one remaining husband.

Ann tried to get Gov. Simon Snyder to pardon Smith. He refused. She appealed to a newspaper editor, a close friend of the governor. The editor refused.

Infuriated, Ann enlisted the help of a few ruffians just out of jail. They were to waylay the governor on a road, and force him to sign a pardon.

Plan B was to kidnap the governor’s young son.

Plan C was to kidnap the editor, or his boy.

Word leaked out. Authorities arrested Ann and her desperados as they waited along the road. She was dressed as a man. She wore a pistol on each hip.

As Ann was taken before a grand jury, she learned her young, handsome Smith had been hanged by the neck until dead. Was she done? Not Ann.

Ann’s Memoir Tells All, Sort Of

With the help of political opponents of the governor, who were in charge of the grand jury, she got off rather lightly. Then, she moved in with a female author and created a popular memoir that reads like a Victorian romance novel.

In it she justifies all her actions in kindly terms, and roundly condemns the governor. More importantly for modern readers, it gives an inside look at life in the merchant class of Philadelphia just after the Revolution. And, truth be told, it’s very well written.

You can find links to her memoir below.

Was that the last of Ann?

Nope. She got involved in counterfeiting and was arrested for that.

Was that the last of Ann?

The last of Ann depends on how you word the answer.

Some say she died in prison. Typhoid (and the wages of sin) took her. Others are more charitable. They say she died while nursing typhoid-stricken inmates.

“I was not born to be a non-entity,” she observes in her memoir.

Unlike Capt. Carson. He is forgotten.

A busy street, one of the longest in Pittsburgh, was named after him. But, no one knows it.

EXAMPLE OF GUN THAT KILLED CARSON

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