Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: The last of the Allens

Today it is known for its baseball diamonds, biking runs and canal tow path walks.  But in 1895, it was not common for “respectable” people to frequent Princeton Basin, the rough neighborhood near the Raritan Canal at Princeton, N.J. So, when an unknown man was seen there around 6 P.M. on Monday September 16th of that year he was noticed. The gold watch and chain he carried and the packages of papers in his pockets were what most remembered about him later.  But when his body was discovered lying face down in the canal the next day he had gone from being a stranger to a possible crime victim.

The coroner’s jury at Trenton concluded that he was 62 years old and he came to his death “from causes unknown.”  But the view of the doctor who examined the body was a little more precise and more sinister. The man had not drowned in the canal. There was no evidence of that. He did however have a heart condition, and was, the doctor testified, “liable to die at any moment.” Both Dr. Cantwell and Coroner Bower believed that he “was pursued or attacked by some of the rough characters who live in the locality and he fell dead. Then he was robbed and his body thrown into the canal.” They noted both his gold pocket watch and his papers were missing. Only eyeglasses and a handkerchief remained in his pocket.    

But even before the coroner’s report was issued and details of his death reported, the man’s name was known. And it was front page news in the Lehigh Valley.

“Allen Dale, a great grandson of James Allen, the founder of Allentown, committed suicide by drowning himself in the canal at Princeton, N.J.” read the Morning Call’s story on September 20, 1895. Calling James Allen the founder of Allentown was common at that time, at least in part because his daughter Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf had always insisted on that point and because her grandfather, William Allen, had not actually lived in Allentown.

The Call based the story that Dale’s death was a suicide as the result of an interview with a friend of the deceased in Reading, where he had lived for many years. The friend noticed that Dale was particularly depressed recently. “He had been melancholy for some time and to a friend remarked that if things would not get better he would commit suicide.”

The last time Dale had been in Allentown was on June 6, 1868, to oversee the selling of the property that had been the site of the first Lehigh County Prison at the southeast corner of 5th and Linden Streets. He had come to represent his aging mother, Mrs. Margaret Tilghman Greenleaf Dale, who had long been living “a retired life” in Philadelphia. The property had been donated to the county by the Allens in 1813, shortly after its creation.

As he went about his business it is hard to imagine that Dale did not have mixed emotions. Because it was here that events took place that would shape his life before he was born several months later. And ever after that day it would mark him.

Everyone in Allentown knew the story. In the summer of 1832 his mother had fallen in love with Charles Augustus Dale, an Englishman who was a professional gambler. One source suggests she had met him while traveling in Europe.

Somewhere along the way they were married. Her parents, James Greenleaf and Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf, objected to the marriage and locked her up in their home. Taken to jail, his father committed suicide. Allen Dale had been born on December 22, 1832.

To judge from the few comments that exist from that time the Allen / Greenleaf’s tended to give themselves airs. At the time of Allen Dale’s death, the Morning Call referred to them as the “royal family” of Allentown. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how Dale and his mother were treated. Did children mock his birth and refuse to play with him? Did he feel resentful and defiant? Was he forced to defend his mother from the snickers of adults and the harsh mockery of his peers? Although this can be imagined in a place as small as Allentown, it is impossible to know.

But clearly there were stresses within the family. For one thing Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf and her husband began to see less and less of each other until by the late 1830s they were living apart: he in Washington D.C. where he had large investments in real estate, and she in Allentown and Philadelphia.

Allen Dale and his mother continued to live in the family home at 5th and Hamilton with his grandmother. When Ann Penn Allen died in 1851 the house was purchased by up-and-coming businessman Charles Seagraves, who split it in two, Allen Dale and his mother continued to live for a time on one side. How long they lived there before she moved to Philadelphia is unknown.

From the 1820s to the late 1840s Trout Hall, then called the Livingston Mansion, was occupied by her sister, Mary Livingston Greenleaf and her husband and first cousin Walter Copake Livingston. They lived in high style until 1848 when unsuccessful investments by Livingston led to the loss of all his money and that of the Allens as well. The couple had eight children all of whom died childless. One had gone to sea and was never seen again. It is not known if Allen Dale associated with them as playmates.

Sometime in his adulthood Allen Dale moved to Reading, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. The Call article notes that Dale, “in his early years was a heavy drinker but lately was a total abstainer.” He became active in Reading’s St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on whose vestry he was serving at the time of his death.

The real change in Dale’s life came on September 11, 1861 when he joined the First New Jersey Cavalry at the start of the Civil War. Organized at Trenton it was to serve in many of the major battles of the Civil War including Gettysburg. The unit had 12 members who received the Medal of Honor.  Dale was not among them. But as quarter-master sergeant his role in the unit his vital.

He was responsible for the company wagon and the property it contained. This included the tents, the company mess gear, the company desk, the company library, the ordnance and the subsistence provisions. He had over all charge of the horses and mules seeing they were fed and in good health. He also had to see that uniforms were disbursed properly. His rank made him second most senior NCO.

In combat, his task was to see to the safety of the company’s property. And on rare occasions he could be called into combat. In 1871 when the First New Jersey Cavalry’s history was written his name was included with that of the other field and staff officers.

With the war’s end Dale returned to Reading. At the time of his death he was paymaster for the Schuylkill division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is known that his eyes were giving him trouble and he had gone to Philadelphia to have them treated.

The person Allen Dale’s passing hurt the most was his 93 year old mother who always went by the name Mrs. Margret Dale.  Dying in Philadelphia, shortly after her son she presumably could have been buried in the Allen family vault in the city’s Mount Laurel Cemetery. Instead on November 7, 1895 she was interred in the Charles Evans Cemetery in Reading, next to her son, both their names appearing on the same gray stone monument.       

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