A Unique Hero

I first became aware of Peter Helm when I was just starting out doing genealogy. I found a reference to his marriage to Elizabeth Schlemmer on 1 Jan 1771 at the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia on a reel of microfilm at the public library.1 I wasn’t yet certain Elizabeth was part of my Schlemmer family. I did a bit of research on Peter Helm by using that same library’s subscription to America’s Genealogy Bank and found this entry:2

Helm, Peter relieved with thanks

“Mr. Peter Helm having at an early period of the prevailing fever, offered his service so superintended the care of the sick at the City Hospital, and the Board of Health having the strongest impression of the benevolent view of Mr. Helm, accepted his service until such time as the board could form some permanent arrangement for conducting of the hospital. This being done, so as to enable the board to dispense with the services of Mr. Helm,

Resolved, that the chairman in close this resolution to Mr. Helm, the warmest thanks of the board for the services he has rendered to his fellow citizens.

Published by order of the Board, WILLIAM MONTGOMERY, Chairman, pro tem, Health Office, City Hall, Sept. 29, 1797″

It made enough of an impression on me that I didn’t forget it even though I didn’t follow through with it at the time. Not until I learned of this book: An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy was I in a position to learn more about what it was that Peter Helm had done to earn the gratitude of the Hospital Board. I checked out the book specifically to learn if Peter Helm was mentioned in it; I was not disappointed. It’s a very well written and researched book that I recommend highly. Besides being a great study in the best and worst of human behaviors, it’s an excellent detail of what Philadelphia, and health care was like in 1793. Our newly founded form of government might have been thrown into complete chaos by the lowly mosquito if things had played out differently.

In 1793, Peter Helm lived at 30 N. Front Street in Philadelphia. He was listed in the city directory as a cooper (Cedar Cooper), a man who makes barrels.3

1793 city directory

This places him within two blocks of North Water St. where the first recorded death from Yellow Fever occurred that fall.4

People left the city in the thousands, including George Washington and his wife. However, Matthew Clarkson, the Mayor of Philadelphia, stayed to manage the city. He’s his own tale of heroism and dedication, and my admiration for him and his administrative and organizing capabilities is great. When things got really bad, he didn’t lose his head, and managed to find truly capable people to volunteer to do everything that needed to be done to help the sick and dying as well as restore order to the city. Two such people were Stephen Girard, a wealthy merchant, and Peter Helm, our Cedar Cooper, to take over management of the suburban mansion Bush Hill that had been converted to a hospital. “The first thing they did at Bush Hill was to divide the chores. Peter Helm dealt with what went on outside the building, while Girard directed what happened within. (Murphy p. 72)

Bush Hill

“Helm was a humble man who brought to Bush Hill three enduring qualities – an established work ethic, and endless supply of common kindness, and an indomitable spiritual courage.” (Murphy p. 72)

“Helm established a simple system for receiving new patients and having the dead carted away for burial. He set up an area where coffins could be made, provided decent housing for the nurses and other staff members; had the barn converted so those recovering from the illness could be kept apart from the newly ill, and found storage for supplies. He even had the pumps repaired so that fresh water could be provided for the patients for the first time.” (Murphy p. 72)

Peter Helm exercised his faith in the most admirable way possible. He asked for nothing in return for his services…believing that it was his duty to care for all patients equally. This makes him uncommonly heroic in my eyes.

I’m not descended from Peter Helm. I’m not descended from his wife Elizabeth Schlemmer, either. I am descended from her younger brother John Jacob Slemmer (he was the first in this family to anglicize this surname). He’s my 4x great-grandfather; he learned the trade of Cedar Cooper by being an apprentice of Peter Helm for a term that was to last 8 years, 1 month and 16 days. He was to receive 1 year of schooling, and at the end of this time, he was to receive his freedom dues.5

Slemmer, Jacob Sr Indenture cropped

Peter Helm was very good at his job. “He was skilled enough at his woodworking that the ever-demanding President Washington employed him several times to make objects for his household.” (Murphy, p. 71-2) He was a good teacher, too, because Jacob Slemmer became quite successful as a Cedar Cooper. He was contracted to make canteens for Pennsylvania. An example of one of his canteens (the middle one) graces the cover of this book.6

Canteen book cover

Jacob might not have finished absolutely every day of his apprenticeship since, you know, a war broke out. Both Jacob and Conrad, his father (Peter Helm’s father-in-law) served in that conflict. They are both now proven Patriots in the DAR. Not everyone who apprenticed with Peter completed the work.7

Helm, Peter runaway apprentice

We don’t know if any of Peter Helm’s family was stricken by the disease. I’m left to surmise that his wife was equally generous, since she cared for the family in his absence. We do know that Peter Helm and his wife Elizabeth, as well as two of their daughters Mary and Elizabeth survived the yellow fever outbreak. Peter Helm left behind a Will that was proved on the 18th of January 1800.8

Helm, Peter Will reference

I find it interesting that Peter Helm crafted his Will just a month before the outbreak of a deadly fever. He seems like an extraordinary individual, and I’m proud to claim this distant relation to him. AND I’m more than a little proud that my 4x great-grandfather studied his art from a man whose work was favored by our first President. I kind of beam a little every time I realize that.

1Hinke, W. (1939). Church records of First Reformed Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, v. 1-4, 1748-1831 (p. 198). Philadelphia: Self Published. This book was filmed by the LDS church and was accessed at a public library’s Genealogy Department in 2009.

2(1797, October 2). Philadelphia Gazette, p. 3.

3City Directories for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1793 (publisher T Dobson), page 63, entry for “Helm, Peter”, digital image, Fold 3.com, http://www.fold3.com/image/240/78696918/

4Murphy, J. (2003). An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. New York: Clarion Books, pg 7.

5Record of indentures of individuals bound out as apprentices, servants, etc., and of German and other redemptioners, 1771 October 3 – 1773 October 5. Unpublished bound volume. Depository: American Philosophical Society. Call Number Mss.647.P53, page 126.

6O’Donnell, M. (2008). U.S. Army & Militia Canteens 1775-1910. O’Donnell Publications.

7The Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Dec 4, 1790 · Page 1, http://www.newspapers.com/image/39937460, Accessed 23 February 2015

8Lineages, Inc., comp. Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania Wills, 1682-1819 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2000. Original data: Philadelphia County Wills, 1682-1819. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1900.


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