Saturday, June 1, 2019

Philadelphia Freedom: The Genesis of Q. Patrick's Murder at the Women's City Club (1932)

Acorn Club, Philadelphia
located about a half mile from
where Richard Webb once lived
Murder at the Women's City Club, Q. Patrick's second crime novel, was a product of Richard Wilson Webb's early, pre-Hugh Wheeler years in Philadelphia (1926-1932), when he established himself in double careers as a pharmaceutical executive and a mystery writer and made a host of friends from a rich variety of backgrounds.  In the City of Brotherly Love, Rickie, as he was known to these friends, finally had the freedom, both economic and social, to begin being the man he really wanted to be. 

Murder at the Women's City Club
, co-written with Martha Mott Kelley, stands as Rickie's Philadelphia crime novel, even though the city is never in fact named in the novel.  More particularly it's a tribute to a remarkable generation of Philadelphia women, like Rickie's friend Frances Ritter Bartholomew.

Frances Ritter Bartholomew (1873-1939), the daughter and granddaughter of prominent criminal attorneys from Pottsville, Pennsylvania seems to have grown up rather a solitary person.  Her slightly elder sister, Helen, died as an infant the year before Frances was born, while her father, Lindsay "Lin" Coates Bartholomew died when Frances was six.  A year after remarrying, Frances' mother passed away when Frances was fifteen, leaving her in the care of her new stepfather, John Beale Howard Gittings, a prominent "Main Line" Philadelphia doctor and teacher at the University of Pennsylvania.  He survived until Frances was thirty-one.

In her adult life Frances Bartholomew followed the examples of her father and and stepfather, who in life had devoted themselves to defending the despised and the downtrodden.  Lin Bartholomew had done his best to defend alleged members of the notorious Irish secret society "the Molly Maguires" at murder trials where the decks had been iniquitously stacked against them, while Dr. Gittings for many years served as a visiting physician at Philadelphia's Hospital of the Good Shepherd, which had been founded by the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in the wealthy Main Line to provide medical care to indigent children. 

Like her father Frances Bartholomew took on the mantle of social justice, and like her stepfather she devoted herself to caring for children in need.  Between 1870 and 1920 Philadelphia's population doubled as streams of migrants, many of them Europeans but many as well African-Americans who had fled the Jim Crow South, poured into the City.  Many of these newcomers, notes Rosina McAvoy Ryan in "Settlement Houses" in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

lived in crowded, ventilated row homes where toxic smells and putrid streets were inescapable.  Open drains with raw sewage seeped from back alleys into the streets.  Flies and mosquitoes, along with the horse manure festering in the cobble-stoned streets, were summer health hazards.  

Settlement houses were first started in the 1890s by so-called Progressives (a dirty word in some quarters today) to ameliorate myriad social ills that national, state and local governments had failed to address effectively.  Residents, as they were called, settled in local houses in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, where they conducted programs of education, vocation, sanitation and the like to alleviate the sufferings of the local populations. 

Many of the settlement houses, notes Ryan, were staffed by so-called "new women" of the 1890s, who had "revolted against the prevailing values of domesticity by gaining independence outside the family and finding personal satisfaction through 'municipal housekeeping,' improving conditions outside the home."  Many of these women were influenced by the doctrine of the Social Gospel, "which emphasized Christian responsibility for addressing urban problems."

The first two settlement houses in the United States (the movement began in the United Kingdom) were founded in New York in 1886 and 1889, followed by the most famous such institution in the US, Jane Addams' Hull House, also in 1889.  Philadelphia's first settlement house was founded three years later.  Famed black civil rights activist WEB Du Bois resided at a Philadelphia settlement house in 1896-97 when he was compiling research for his sociological study The Philadelphia Negro.

Frances Bartholomew would convert to Quakerism and go to work at the Eighth Ward Settlement House at 928 Locust Street, founded in Philadelphia in 1895 "for sanitary, industrial, educational and social work among Negroes."  The House maintained on its premises a kindergarten, playground, public baths, laundry, savings fund, women's club and dancing class, as well as a three-story gray fieldstone house at nearby Newtown, known as the Paper Mill House (this had originally housed three families who worked at a paper mill, along with a general store). At this latter location the House maintained an establishment dubbed "Happyland": a children's holiday camp with an open air dance hall.

Paper Mill House, once home to "Happyland"

In 1900 Frances at the age of twenty-seven became Head Resident at the House, when her predecessor married.  Three years later her report on the House chided the city for ignoring the Eight Ward's festering social problems, with tart references to "static virtue" and "dynamic vice":

Our problem--once removed--is, of course, the immorality of the neighborhood.  Actually it is the far famed inertness of respectable Philadelphia.  For more than a generation static virtue has carefully avoided us, even though we murder, rape, and steal under its very nose; so dynamic vice goes cheerfully on its way, undisturbed, and politically encouraged and protected.

Despite this pessimistic note, Frances persevered as head resident for decades and became a beloved personage by many in the city, as someone known for taking up cudgels, metaphorically speaking, on behalf of the underprivileged black population.  Concerning her work at the Eighth Street Settlement House, Frances in 1906 wrote in the Philadelphia Public Ledger (in tones which sound somewhat patronizing to many modern ears) that

For eight years we have lived and worked in one of the worst Negro sections in Philadelphia, where we have seen and studied the Negro in his most degraded state, and we are glad to give as testimony to his better nature that during all the years never once have we been subjected to any annoyance, much less any insult.

That the race has its faults we agree.  So has the white man--with infinitely less excuse.  For our experience has taught us that the faults of the Negro are easily traceable to two hundred years of slavery and an exceedingly doubtful example set in some of the virtues by our own people.

Florence Kelley, a more famous
contemporary of Frances Bartholomew
and an aunt of Martha Mott Kelley
A laudatory 1907 article in the AME Church Review described Frances, who in two years would co-found the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as "a sweet-faced Quakeress...unconscious of color differences in estimating the value of men.

In the 1950s Louis Martin, an African-American who had been raised at the House after the death of his mother in 1899, when he was but ten years old, warmly recalled "Ma Thol," as the children knew her, as a kindly, genteel lady who took her young charges to the opera and on fresh-air summer excursions to "Happyland," taught them to waltz and two-step, and had in her head myriad notions about education and social equality that were deemed scandalous in her day.

In 1930 Frances, who remained single all her life, resided in Philadelphia at an attractive row house near Rittenhouse Square at 2105 Locust Street, about a mile from the old Eight Ward Settlement House.  Her fellow lodgers at the house (two doctors and their families resided on either side of them) were Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and his close friend Robert Elson Turner, an associate professor of French Language and Literature at Bryn Mawr whom Rickie had met when both young men resided in Paris at the fizzing height of Roaring Twenties. 

"Do not be deceived by his coy smile and innocent looks"
Rickie's friend Robert Elson Turner, before his expulsion from Hamilton College (for bootlegging)
Despite sexist assurances at right in his college annual that "the women"
had rescued Robert from becoming "the college aesthete" ("aesthete" often was code for gay)
Robert Turner in fact was in a relationship with Rickie Webb for several years
before Rickie met Hugh Wheeler in 1933

Rickie, who had become research manager for Smith, Kline and French Laboratories, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical company, had hired Robert as an assistant researcher.  (Robert had double majored, however improbably, in French and chemistry and even been arrested and expelled from Hamilton College for indulging in a bit of bootlegging.) 

Soon Robert would be displaced in Rickie's life by a young man from England named Hugh Wheeler, though Robert and Rickie remained lifelong friends (with ups and downs) and Robert served as a co-executor of Rickie's will.

It was not to Robert or Frances Ritter Bartholomew whom Rickie turned to in 1930, however, when he was seeking a collaborator in writing mysteries.  For Cottage Sinister (1931), reviewed here, he found a writing partner in Martha Mott Kelley, a young Radcliffe College graduate and book reviewer who recently had published a short story in Scribner's Magazine.  A descendant of famed Quaker abolitionist and feminist Lucretia Mott and a niece of prominent Progressive social reformer Florence Kelley (1859-1932), "Patsy," as Martha was nicknamed (the Q. Patrick surname was derived by combining "Pat" with "Rick" and adding a "Q." for misdirection), had a wealth of social background upon which to draw in writing a novel.

Cottage Sinister, set in a rather synthetically portrayed "bookish" England (in Rickie's native county of Somerset), did not take advantage of this rich American material, but the second and final Pat and Rick collaboration, Murder at the Women's City Club did.  Boy, did it--or girl, did it, I should perhaps say.  A marvelous tribute to women of Philadelphia, women like Frances Ritter Bartholomew and Florence Kelley, the novel will be discussed in the next post.


  1. Fascinating! I wanted to read about the book - I love the idea of that setting - but this was well worth reading.

    1. Thanks, Moira. I know it's been a long time coming, but the piece on the actual book has been posted! And it's long too, lol.