Revealing Family Secrets

How John Mason might have looked upon entering the service in 1864

How 18 year-old John D. Mason might have looked upon entering the service in February 1864

When Catharine Mason filed her claim for a “Mother’s Pension” following the death of her soldier son, she didn’t expect she’d have to divulge embarrassing details about her personal life just to collect her rightful benefits.

From government pension records, we learn that John D. Mason was unmarried and still residing with his mother at the time of his enlistment in Co. A, 2d Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery “Provisionals” on 22 February 1864. We also learn that though his mother was married, she had become dependent upon him for income. In an affidavit filed in 1867, Catharine offered the following information:

…Catharine Mason, aged 53 years [in 1867], a resident of Philadelphia…declares that her son, John D. Mason, was an apprentice to the saw-making, and had been so employed for about four years preceding the time of his entering the service, and was receiving as earnings … an average [of] $4 per week. That her said son had always been living with her up to the time of his entering the service and that during these four years he regularly contributed the said amount of $4 per week to the maintenance and support of his mother, being for food, clothing, fuel, &c. and that she gave him board and sometimes clothing and she actually depended upon [him] for her support. That her son, at the time of entering the service gave to her the sum of two hundred dollars which he had received as City Bounty which was expressly for her support and also gave her the installments of Government Bounty which he had received which was also for her maintenance and support.

She also declares that her son did not send her any of his pay home while in the army on account of having been taken prisoner-of-war a few months after enlistment [and] that she has no property or income due or coming due other than that derived from her own labor. That her source of livelihood is derived from light kind of work and from nursing at which she earns, when so employed on an average of $2 per week.

She further declares that her husband, John [E.] Mason — the father of the soldier — abandoned her support about the fall of the year 1856 and has not since returned to her support. That he is a very dissipated man and for further proof she depends upon the evidence of the witnesses.

Also personally appeared Jesse M. Pugh and Josephine A. Pugh, residents of No. 205 N. 12th Street, Philadelphia, Pa., persons who …. declare that they know … John D. Mason was an apprentice to the saw-making and had been so employed for four years…All this we knew from the fact that we had been living as boarders in the same house with [Catharine] and her son…

In her affidavit, Catharine declared that she married John E. Mason in Philadelphia on 2 May 1842 and the ceremony was performed by Rev. John B. Clemson. [Rev. John Baker Clemson (1803-1891) was the Rector of the Church of the Ascension in Philadelphia in 1841.]

Pension records show that Catharine received a Mother’s Pension from 28 September 1864 to 4 March 1869 at which time it is alleged her husband returned, promising to abandon the use of intoxicating drinks and support her. In consequence, Catharine “refused to [continue drawing] her pension. In a statement made in 1876, Catharine claimed that “she neglected to apply for the payment of her pension for a period of over three years and her name was stripped from the rolls under the provisions of the Act of July 27, 1868. That she was deterred from applying for pension during this period by the threats of her husband who was then living with her although…he did not adequately provide for her… [In the spring] of 1872 his habits became excessively bad…until he abandoned her in April 1875, keeping a butcher’s stall in the Bainbridge Street Market between 3rd & 4th Streets in Philadelphia. That he neglected his business…and continually lost money…and finally failed, unable to pay his debts. That during the whole of the period between March 1872 and April 1875 he failed to provide for her support, [requiring her to keep] a small store and [supplement her income] by nursing the sick. That during this period, he made her life a border to her by his extravagance and abuse and was a hindrance in her efforts…” She gave her residence, at the time, as 2033 Summit Street, Philadelphia.

Appearing with Catharine at the same time (1876) to provide testimony were Ann Eliza Traveo (108 Church Street, Philadelphia) and Laura V. Donelly (316 Dean Street, Philadelphia) who stated that “they had been intimately acquainted” with Catharine for “at least fifteen years” [since 1860] and were well acquainted “with her condition.” They knew that Catharine’s husband lived with her from 1869 to 1875 and that from March 1869 to March 1872 he remained sober and “in part” supported her, “but that on or about March 1872 he relapsed into intemperate habits…” They knew him to be “a butcher in Bainbridge Street Market” but made “foolish purchases” and “allowed meat to spoil” and “spent all his cash earnings on liquor.”

In 1876, Catharine’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Louise V. Donelly (1220 S. 16th Street, Philadelphia), came forward to testify on her behalf stating that she had “been acquainted with Catharine and her husband… for the last 28 years.” Her testimony corroborated the story told by the others.

In 1877, Miss Martha A. Elsegood (1721 Hamilton Street, Phildelphia), one of the sisters of Saint Ann’s [Catholic] Church on 8th Street near Locust, came forward to testify that she visited Catharine when she lived in the southwestern part of the city and that during the period that her husband lived with her, he “ill-used and maltreated her, taking her earnings, and [became] an incumbrance rather than a support [to her].” Sister Elsegood also testified that she “was frequently obliged to assist [Catharine] by contributions of money and clothing” as her husband “was a very intemperate and violent man [who] used his earnings in buying intoxicating drinks…”

Adding further testimony in 1877 was John Hamilton (501 D__ly Street, Philadelphia) whose present residence was next door to the house the Masons rented from late 1869 until 1873. He remembered Catharine’s husband as a “violent, passionate man intemperate in his habits that would go upon sprees every two or three weeks [that would last for several days to a week and abusing [Catharine].” He also recalled an incident in the winter of 1872/73 where John Mason “bought a large number of hogs” which were purchased on credit but that he “lost heavily” on this speculation.

Finally, also in 1877, Catharine called upon her 33 year-old daughter, Mrs. Jane Westenberger (1018 S. Seventh Street, Philadelphia) to provide testimony, Jane stated that she lived with her mother until March 1877 and remembered the same hog-buying incident that “turned out very badly…owing to [her father’s] “intemperate habits and neglect of business.”

Additional testimony by Ann Eliza Travo and Annie E. Rhey revealed that:

…[they were acquainted with Catharine] for at least four years and know that her husband is a man of intemperate habits and that he abandoned her on or about April 15th 1875. That he has not again lived with her nor contributed to her support. That he had no property, real or personal. When he last abandoned her they were living on the west side of 73d Street (number not remembered) and [Catharine] was absent from home nursing a sick woman when her husband sold out the furniture belonging to her, thus stripping the house and leaving her so destitute that she has been compelled to live with Mrs. Ward, her aunt, except when out nursing and cleaning house…

Squalid Conditions at Andersonville Prison in 1864

Squalid Conditions at Andersonville Prison in 1864

So we learn from the pension file that young Pvt. John D. Mason was raised in an impoverished environment primarily by his mother with little or no aid from his alcoholic, often absent, and possibly abusive father. Yet despite this, he selflessly risked his life to join the army so that he might give his mother the substantial enlistment bonus that the city was paying volunteers to fill their enlistment quotas. We learn too that he intended to send his mother his service pay but his plans went awry. How so?

Pvt. Mason’s service record is scanty, but it appears that he was reported missing in action on June 2d, three months to the day after he was enrolled in the ranks of the Provisionals. A regimental history informs us that on the morning of June 2d, after turning back two assaults by Confederates the previous day in the Battle of Cold Harbor, the “Provisionals” were “compelled to fall back with the loss of about 60 in killed, wounded, and missing. Pvt. Mason of Co. A was deployed in the skirmish line that morning and was probably captured as the enemy advanced. Unfortunately there are no surviving  accounts by others in his unit to inform us of the details of his capture.

Without elaboration, the only other record in the pension file states that Pvt. John D. Mason “died at Andersonville, Georgia, on September 27, 1864. The cause of death was stated to be scorbutus (Vitamin C deficiency) while a prisoner of war. He was buried outside the prison in a grave marked No. 9871.

Grave of J. D. Mason at Andersonville

Grave of J. D. Mason at Andersonville; Photo courtesy of Kevin Frye

Family Information gleaned from Pension Record and other sources:

Catharine Mason [maiden name not given] must have been born about 1813 in Pennsylvania. She married John Mason in May 1842 at the age of 28. This was probably her first marriage.

The 1850 Census enumerates the Mason family in Moyamensing Ward 2 of Philadelphia. The household included John and Catharine with children Jane (b. 1843), John [D.] (b. 1845), and William (b. 1850). Philadelphia Death certificates show that Catharine and John had another daughter named Sarah Mason but she died on 11 August 1853 when only a year old. This young child was buried in Philanthropic Cemetery.

Curiously, John and Catharine Mason are enumerated twice in the 1870 Census. On the 5th of July, they are enumerated in Philadelphia’s First Division, 1st Ward, and the household includes John and Catharine as well as children Jane (now 26), William (now 20) and Catherine (age 5). They (John and Catharine) are also enumerated on 25 June in Philadelphia’s Tenth Division, 1st Ward. Most likely the second location was where John resided by himself.

John Mason was a butcher, when employed. John D. Mason was apprenticed to “saw-making.” Catharine earned income by performing housework for others or by nursing.

Philadelphia Death Records show a Catharine Mason, birth @ 1813 in PA, who died on 9 August 1881 at the age of 68. Her last residence was given as 1018 S. 7th in Philadelphia. She was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. Perhaps this was the mother of the Pvt. John D. Mason.

On-line genealogical records (unverified by me) show that Jane Mason (1843-1922) married 1st, William Frederick Brown, and 2nd, Charles Lybrand Westenberger.  William Mason (b. 1850) became a butcher like his father and married a woman named Rose. Catharine Mason is enumerated in her son William’s household in 1880.

I believe that Louise V. (Penot) Donnelly — the woman who identified herself as Catharine’s sister-in-law, was the wife of John Donnelly (b. 1817 in Pennsylvania). From this, I would conjecture that John Donnelly was Catharine’s biological brother and that the “D.” in Pvt. John D. Mason’s name stood for Donnelly — his mother’s surname, which was a common naming convention in the 19th century.

A Catharine Donnelly, washer, 5 Salem’s Alley, appears in the 1843 City Directory. Thomas Donnelly, dealer, lived at the same address. In the 1844 Directory, Catharine Donnelly appears at 352 Cedar — no occupation given. Joseph P. Donnelly, pawnbroker, appears at the same address. In the 1844 Business Directory, John Mason, Butcher, appears at Adams n 13th; a Catharine Donnelly appears at Lily Alley, no occupation given. In the 1864 Directory, John Mason, butcher, is shown at 108 Shippen. It is clear that the Catharine Donnelly in these directories is Catharine Mason.


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