South Side

Who Was Carson?

Namesake Mystery Solved

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

The main street through Pittsburgh’s South Side? The busy nightlife strip? You may drive it every day, 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 environmentalist? How about Kit Carson, the frontiersmen so admired by settlers heading West by way of Pittsburgh?

No, 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 what quiet? What?

Bigamy, murder, a trial as big as O.J. Simpson’s, and the attempted kidnapping of the governor. Oh, and a beautiful woman, of course. A woman who stepped out of her time to be strong, independent, and quite criminal.

I found the origins of the street name only because of the wonders and whims of Googling.

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.

According to the paper linked below, Dr. Bedford did not show up in Pittsburgh until after the Revolution. In fact, he had served the other side.

Be that as it may, in 1783, as independence from England was imminent, and the gates on Indian land totally removed, a young woman traveled two weeks across the wilderness from Philadelphia in a Conestoga wagon.

Mary (Molly) Carson had been working at her father’s inn where many officers of the Continental Army stayed.

One was James O’Hara. He received thousands of acres in Indian land in the Pittsburgh area for his military management services. The city girl fell in love, married him and moved into his log house.

It’s said that Molly Carson O’Hara introduced Pittsburghers to rugs.

She laid them out on the floor of her new home. People 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.

But, she was not the Carson for whom Dr. Bedford named his street.

It would be appropriate, but alas, no.

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

Lack of curiosity could cause that, but the 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.

In 1811, Dr. Bedford started a little town he called Birmingham after the city near his hometown in England.

He got the land through his wife, Jane Ormsby, whose father was awarded Indian land the same way as O’Hara.

Jane died not long after she married the doctor. He gathered up his things from a nice house he had near the new fort downtown, Fort Fayette, 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, all names of Jane’s sisters, who had their own neighboring developments.

Just when the streets were named, and if Bedford was even still alive, is in question.

Regardless, Jane’s sisters all built comfortable houses with landscape gardens rolling down to the river. Remember, 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.

Capt. John Carson, a burly brute prone to over drinking, came home after three or four years among the missing. His wife, Ann, had set up a china shop to support their four children. Nice, but she had a new husband: handsome young 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, Capt. Carson only stalked Ann. Then, once assured her new husband was not armed, he went after him with a steak knife in each hand. One went through Smth’s coat, but otherwise missed him.

Ann Carson/Smith stopped Capt. Carson from carving her new man any further. Smith fled for the time being.

A few days later, he came home to find Capt. Carson and his inlaws. They didn’t much like young Smith. Carson, twice the size of Smith, approached with his hands out to show he was not carrying any steak knives now.

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, a hand still tucked into the breast of his coat. 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. 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 only 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 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. He helped set up a glass factory there, the first of many.

So, Dr. Bedford knew the Carsons. He likely was “acquainted” with Dr. Carson’s seafaring son.

Why the Street Name 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. Propriety also would have been a big reason.

A lack of propriety in the extreme surrounded the sordid trials of Richard Smith and Mrs. Ann Carson (or Smith).

TRANSCRIPT OF TRIAL IS STILL AVAILABLE

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

Trials 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!”

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. Perry Mason comes to mind. 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 she 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, 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.

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

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