Type to search

Charles H. Pennypacker's Efforts to Rid West Chester of Drunks and Clean Up the Borough


Prohibition officially lasted from 1920 to 1933 nationwide. What’s often forgotten are the hundreds of little prohibitions that preceded and followed it, including the selective ban on liquor sales declared in 1903 by West Chester burgess Charles H. Pennypacker. That year, Pennypacker distributed to local bartenders a list of 87 men he labeled drunks, forbiding liquor sales to any of them.

“There are two ideas of the law regarding habitual drunkards,” Pennypacker told the Daily Local News. “My interpretation is that I am an interested party. I am interested in the preservation of good order in West Chester.”

The plan seems to have worked—at least for Pennypacker’s 1903-1906 term. Subsequent burgesses were less zealous.

Born in the borough, Pennypacker once sought out a newspaperman to publicly deny a rumor that he’d been born in West Pikeland. “I first saw the light of day in West Chester and have lived here all my life,” he said. “What’s more, I expect this to be my abiding place as long as I live.”

Pennypacker was also a lifelong advocate of the superiority of suburban living—West Chester living, in particular. “There is no spot on Earth better adapted to the development of character than a suburban town,” he declared in 1904 at a banquet observing the 14th anniversary of the Merion Fire Company. “You may talk as you please about urbanity, but suburbanity is the acme of civilization.”

According to the Daily Local, “his chief delight was the boast: ‘West Chester is some hundred feet higher and, therefore, nearer heaven than Philadelphia.’”

Both Pennypacker’s father, Uriah, and paternal grandfather, Joseph, had also been burgesses, though the office had less authority in their days. Joseph was a founder of the First Baptist Church of West Chester. Uriah was a prominent attorney. His son was educated at West Chester Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, then studied law with his father. He was admitted to the bar in 1870.

Pennypacker worked for 10 days as a newspaper reporter. He never named the paper, but the experience was a disaster. “I wrote an editorial which was a stinging rebuke of some municipal measure,” he later recalled. “The manager of the paper came to me and said, ‘Mr. Pennypacker, it would never do to publish that editorial of yours as it might cause us trouble.’ ‘All right,’ I said. ‘If that editorial is not published, you can look for another editor.’ Well, the editorial went into the wastebasket, and I put on my hat and left the newspaper office never to return. That put a stop to my ambition to become a newspaperman.”

Continued on page 2 …

As a lawyer, Pennypacker’s most prominent role was in the 1874 murder trial of William Udderzook, which had its origin in a life-insurance fraud. Pennypacker represented several insurance companies. The fraud was revealed, the crime proven,
and Udderzook hanged. Pennypacker was only 29 at the time.

He also represented many relatives against the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. In 1877, a passenger train carrying 130 Pennypackers home from a family reunion at Schwenksville encountered a washed-out bridge near Kimberton. The locomotive, tender and several passenger cars rolled into a 60-foot chasm. Seven were killed and dozens injured.

Pennypacker’s real love was collecting books, mineral specimens, artifacts, shells and stories of Chester County. He traveled around the county, spent hours talking to folks, and wrote his observations for the Daily Local. In 1902, one fan wrote to praise Pennypacker’s memory and encourage him to write a county history. “Charles has a great memory, greater than Benjamin Franklin,” insisted J.H. Whitcraft.

Like Franklin, Pennypacker was also known for his wit and pithy sayings. Among his sage words of advice: “Don’t get mad. Leave that to the dogs.” “Big and jolly” is how the Daily Local described him.

Pennypacker was “mentioned” as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1896, but the seat went instead to former judge and political insider Thomas Butler. It was the 1903 election that seems to have been a walkaway for Pennypacker. With the Republican nomination in his pocket, the Daily Local simply referred to him as “the next burgess” and asked what he would do when he was in charge of the borough. “Just exactly what I please,” he answered. “I shall always strive for the best interests of the borough and its people. Further than this, I have no promises to make, and if the people want to elect me on that kind of a platform, all well and good.”

In office, Pennypacker proceeded to deal with his pet peeves: dirty sidewalks, frame buildings, cesspools, unsanitary cellars, speeders and gamblers. His epiphany on the sidewalk issue came during a visit to New York. “The place was the limit for bum pavements,” he told the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph. “You had to get your shoes shined at the end of every block, and wear auto gogs to keep the gladsome ooze from putting a coat of sticky on your eyesight. I concluded that West Chester would have none of that.”

Locally, the main issue was builders making no provision for pedestrians to get by. Pennypacker turned the screws. “Those who owned the pavements were all friendly to me, and did the work without tolling the bells or breaking their hearts,” he said.

Continued on page 3 …

Pennypacker also insisted that property owners keep their cellars whitewashed and treated for pests. He ordered cesspools drained and went to bat against the council over his ban on frame buildings. Craps dens were raided, and the borough’s eight-mile-per-hour speed limit enforced. “An automobile is a rich man’s toy and a poor man’s curse,” declared Pennypacker. “They course through our streets, leaving a trail of dust and gasoline perfumery and scared horses. It is my mission to enforce the ordinance and enrich the borough treasury.”

Pennypacker was quotable and friendly to reporters, who inevitably compared him to his cousin, Samuel Pennypacker, then the governor. Samuel famously hated the press, pushing through a bill making it easier for officials to sue newspapers for libel. Charles called that a mistake, and reporters loved him for it.

Pennypacker’s list of drunks was likely compiled mostly with input from the police, whose office he visited daily. It received wide publicity. “What happened was natural,” recalled the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1911. “Every person in West Chester who had even the most remote idea that his name might be on the list went immediately to a saloon to see. He ordered a drink.”

Officially, Pennypacker was a Republican, but he undoubtedly had dry sympathies. When asked if he was a temperance man, he responded, “I never touch a drop of liquor.”

In 1903, the borough collected more than $700 in fines for public drunkenness at $10.52 per violation. “The amount will not be so large next year,” Pennypacker said. “The drunks can’t stand the $10.52 clip and are beginning to sober up.”

A pro-temperance town, West Chester largely accepted Pennypacker’s infringement on its people’s liberties—if that’s what it was. When he died of a lingering illness at age 65, one newspaper recalled him as “the man with the biggest hat,
biggest collar and one of the largest hearts in Chester County, a lawyer of the old school, who strangely believed that statutes meant what they said.”

» More Local History Stories