Big cities have long frightened many country people. They have too many buildings, too many streets, and too many people who might, well, do things.
But Jesse Hause was neither a rube nor easily intimidated. In 1880, on a business trip to the big, bad city, he was buttonholed by a man claiming a vague acquaintance. Lured by a plausible story, Hause, age 62, found himself in a strange building where he faced two larger, younger, stronger men as the scam became plain.
But he still left with all of his money.
“Evidently, Mr. Hause reads the newspapers,” remarked the editor of the Daily Local News, which published the story.
Born near Ralston’s Store, a hamlet in Chester County’s West Vincent Township, Hause was the son of German Lutherans Jacob and Ann Hause. During his boyhood, the family moved to Marsh, an area in East Nantmeal named for its chief geographical feature: a wetlands three miles long and a half-mile wide near the Conestoga Turn-pike (now Route 401). There, the family farmed and ran a general store, which also housed the local post office where Jacob was postmaster.
After finishing public school, Hause was “variously employed” until 1854, when his father retired and turned over the store and post office to him.
It was a lucrative franchise, as postmasters kept a percentage of the proceeds in exchange for housing offices on their property and providing services. In certain locations, this could mean serious money. In 1869, for instance, the Ercildoun postmaster earned $190. The reason: nearby Ercildoun Seminary boarding school, whose lonely students sent and received lots of mail.
In Marsh, Hause probably earned less. But, like the free ATMs at Wawa today, a post office got people into the store. It was so worth having that politicians often paid off supporters with postmasterships. This produced a lot of post offices. In 1899, Chester County had 176. An efficiency movement has since reduced them to about 50.
As a postmaster, Hause was a useful friend to have. Much of his surviving correspondence was with lawyers and politicians looking for information. In 1884, a local congressman wrote to ask, “Would you be so kind as to furnish me with as full a list as convenient of the regular patrons of your office, together with the occupation and politics? Your early reply will be appreciated and considered as a favor.”
Both Hause and his father also had financial interests in the South. In January 1861, as states were passing secession ordinances, he wrote with concern to David McConkey, a West Chester banker: “What will be the consequence in case the disturbance between the North and South should continue, or the Union dissolve, relative to the money loaned in the Southern states? Father and I, each of us, have obligations to men living there, as you can see by your books.”
As the secession crisis deepened, Hause was an outspoken opponent of the Lincoln Administration. A party ally, R. Emmett Monaghan—a former state legislator described in Hause’s obituary as “his particular friend”—was described in the Daily Local as pounding the bar and denouncing the government in local taverns. Hause probably felt similarly.
Hause’s postmastership was revoked. His obituary attributed this to the influence of an unnamed “powerful official.” It may well have been Republican U.S. Rep. John Hickman, a former Democrat renowned for his vehement denunciations of the members of his former party. What Washington giveth, it could also taketh away.
This neither intimidated Hause nor dampened his political ardor. Following Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, he solicited a West Chester lawyer to take up the case of local Democrats whose right to vote he felt had been infringed upon. R. Jones Monaghan (R. Emmett’s brother) told him to forget it. “If you care about your cash and don’t desire to bring suits for the purpose of being defeated and put into costs, you had better let the whole matter pass,” Monaghan wrote.
Shortly after, Hause’s post office was reopened. The war was winding down, and there were no other good locations.
At age 48, Hause married for the first time, to Hannah Evans, in 1866. They had one son. During all those long years of bachelorhood, he had lived with his father and, apparently, saved and invested. In his obituary, the Morning Republican described him as “one of the most prominent citizens of the northern part of the county, as well as one of the wealthiest.” The Daily Local called him “strictly honest and conscientious.”
Wartime differences seem to have been forgotten.
Men like Jesse Hause were not suckers. Persuading them to gamble—which, of course, was illegal—required multiple levels of trickery. In small towns and rural areas, that was hard to pull off. Word gets around.
Cities, however, are full of strangers, and all newspapers regaled 19th-century Americans with crime news. In 1857, C.H. Brainard targeted wary tourists
with Tricks and Traps of New York City, a 64-page pamphlet warning readers of “Peter Funk shops,” patent-safe swindlers, pickpockets, garroters, highwaymen, gamblers, and gambling houses. (Peter Funk shops were seemingly legitimate businesses that gave less than full value.) Other cities produced similar books.
Don’t, warned Brainard, be a pigeon: “You are watched and your footsteps dogged,” he wrote. “Your detectors and tempters move in the best society. They were once honest and true men, and having been tempted and fallen themselves, know well how to drag others down.”
And that seems to have been what the young men on Market Street had in mind for Hause. The first introduced himself “very familiarly” as a salesman at Hood, Bonbright & Co., a dry-goods store, and passed on. The second approached a few steps later, shook Hause’s hand, and said, “I guess you don’t know me.” Hause admitted that he did not.
The young fellow smiled. “I am the son of Judge Wollerton of West Chester and am a dealer in agricultural implements in the city,” he explained.
William Wollerton had, indeed, been an associate judge in the Chester County courts and was then president of a West Chester bank. It was a solid name to drop. Hause may not have known the judge, but he would’ve recognized the name.
Judge Wollerton, however, had two living sons: Samuel, a physician in New York, and Frederick, a banker in Scranton. A third son, Charles, had died as a child.
The young gentleman asked a favor: “Would he not be kind enough to take with him a few of his agricultural circulars and distribute the same at his post office?”
Hause hemmed and hawed. He had business to do, and not much time. “The young man, however, insisted,” as the Daily Local told the story. “The good name of Wollerton being familiar to Mr. Hause, he decided to go with his young friend to his place of business for the purpose of receiving the circulars.”
They walked south from Market on Sixth Street, crossed Washington Square to Seventh, and entered a building where “Wollerton” said he had an office. Inside, the younger man asked an associate for the circulars and was told so-and-so had them. Waiting for so-and-so to appear, “a new actor appeared upon the scene: a
fellow represented to be a genuine Ken-tucky cattle dealer.”
The Kentuckian accused Wollerton of having cheated him at cards the night before. The younger man insisted that he never gambled, showed concern, and asked what had happened. To demonstrate, the Southerner pulled out a pack of cards, spread them across a table, and began a spiel.
“While all this was going on, Mr. Hause was a silent looker-on, standing nearby and waiting for the agricultural circulars,” went the story.
The Kentuckian bet Wollerton a dollar that he couldn’t pick the winning card. Wollerton, again, protested that he never gambled, but picked up a card just for fun. It was the winner. The Kentuckian bet him $5. When Wollerton won again, the Southerner pulled out a large wad of cash and pressed $5 into his hands. He was an honorable man, the Kentuckian insisted, and always paid his debts.
“Then it was,” reported the Daily Local, “that the two parties turned to Mr. Hause and asked him to take a hand in testing his luck.”
And Hause finally realized that there would be no agricultural circulars. “Step-ping back a few paces, looking the villains full in their faces, he put his hand to the breast pocket of his vest as if to draw a pistol and said, ‘You men are villainous rascals of the worst kind, and one step on the part of either of you towards me will lead to your certain death at my hands.’”
Hause remembered the men’s faces as “bleached” as he backed out the door. “The fun of this circumstance lies in the fact that Mr. Hause had no pistol about him, and hence his game was one of strategy,” went the story in the Daily Local.
Seems even a country fellow can play at that game.