Moravian Links to Jefferson and Lincoln
By Nicole Radzievich
This article originally appeared in the November 24, 2017, edition of The Morning Call; photography, courtesy Addison George/Special to The Morning Call
Many communities can probably boast that Abraham Lincoln once slept there.
But how many can claim a connection to his death bed? Bethlehem can — or at least to the bed’s owner.
After the bullet hit Lincoln at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C, he was taken to the nearby home of William Petersen where the president spent his final hours on a spare bed.
The bed belonged to Petersen’s 17-year-old daughter, Louisa, who was away at the Bethlehem Female Seminary.
That historical nugget resurfaced this summer when Brielle Popolla, a Moravian College undergraduate, was sifting through artifacts during her internship at the Moravian Archives, a repository of records for the church whose missionaries founded Bethlehem 276 years ago.
The archives has a letter Louisa A. Petersen wrote in 1864 about why her trunk hadn’t arrived home yet from school.
The letter, Popolla said, includes the teenager’s signature and provides a peek into the household where Lincoln died.
The letter is one of about 60 artifacts Popolla curated for the exhibit “Bethlehem Connections,” which runs through Feb. 28 at the Moravian Archives, 41 W. Locust St., Bethlehem.
“We’re trying to reach the general public or those who may not know a lot about Moravian history,” said Popolla, a history major who confessed she knew little about the Moravians before her internship. “But people know the names Roosevelt, Jefferson and Lincoln. This exhibit is a way to draw people in with that familiarity and tie in a bit of Bethlehem history.”
Bethlehem traces its founding to 1741 when Moravian missionaries fled religious intolerance in Europe and settled on a 14-acre commune along the Monocacy Creek. The Moravians Christianized American Indians and also built a community that included a complicated network of artisanal industries and a novel education system that championed learning for all, regardless of income, gender or race.
The community, known for its pacifist nature, soon caught the attention of Gen. George Washington and other Revolutionary War-era icons who saw Bethlehem as a refuge and sought to establish a hospital there. Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette were among the city’s visitors.
Moravian ingenuity played a role in how Bethlehem grew into a more secular city, expanding across the Lehigh River to become a center of industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bethlehem — and Moravians in particular — is a local lens to view history, Popolla said.
Her exhibit spans from the 18th century, when Ben Franklin responded to the Moravians’ concerns about the encroachment of soldiers on their land during the French and Indian War, to the 1990s when the Rev. Dr. Gordon Sommers, who served multiple Moravian pastorates, was invited to the White House to offer prayers for President Clinton’s family.
In between, the exhibit features a motley collection of letters, photographs and trinkets that connect American history to Bethlehem.
There’s a letter from William Doster, the Bethlehem lawyer who defended two co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination; a World War I recruitment poster and a telegram from Edith Roosevelt, the second wife of President Theodore Roosevelt.
In the middle of the room is a copy of the Preliminary Articles of Peace, which was a precursor to the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. The worn copy, with a tattered edge mended with stitches in the lower right corner, was signed by Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, on Nov. 30, 1782. The copy was owned by John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary who published scholarly works on Native American culture.
“We can tie this thing from American history — the prequel to the end of the Revolutionary War — back to this one man who was a Moravian,” Popolla said.
To emphasize that local connection, Popolla included Heckewelder’s pocket watch in the display.
Popolla had to play detective as she tracked down the backstory of some documents. In an 1809 letter to Bethlehem Female Seminary Principal Andrew Benade, President Thomas Jefferson made mention of his tuition payment for his grandniece who attended the school. Jefferson did not disclose the name of his grandniece in the letter, sending Popolla off to research the answer. The girl was Margaret Peyton, the granddaughter of Jefferson’s sister.
But the artifacts that struck Popolla were the letters of everyday Moravians writing about what would become historic events. Take Orlando Desh, who was just entering adulthood at the onset of the Civil War.
At 19, he had traveled with the 129th Pennsylvania Infantry to Virginia, where he wrote a letter to his parents from the battlefield. The letter, adorned with a pro-union image on the upper left corner, informed them that he and his younger brother, Ambrose, were fine.
“There has been an awful battle on Saturday,” Desh wrote. “I think there will be a pretty severe battle. I have not time to write much.”
The letter was dated Dec. 15, 1862.
That was the last day of the Battle of Fredericksburg, which involved 200,000 troops and ended in a Confederate victory.
“In the middle of all this, he’s telling his parents I’ve been in a battle. It’s a really bad battle. It might start again, and I’m just writing a letter while I can. My brother and I are fine, FYI,” Popolla summarized.
Desh and his brother survived the Civil War. Desh, who lived to be 89, was back in Bethlehem by the time the war ended. In the archives, pieces of his story and many others are not only preserved but available for the curious as well as the scholarly to peruse.
If you go to the exhibit:
It's free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday until Feb. 28 at Moravian Archives, 41 W. Locust St., Bethlehem