Signer #52, P.A. Culvert: "The Door-Knock Thesis"


16 Feb
16Feb

(Best Candidate:  1823—October 31, 1902)

Culvertn., A passage under a road or canal, covered with a bridge; an arched drain for the passage of water."                                          

—Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1846)

                                                    [The signature given on Mary Culver’s will]

Memorial re-creations of the signers’ roster are in an eerie state of agreement regarding the fifty-second signature on the Declaration of Sentiments.  The 1893 NAWSA Handbook, the 1908 “Roll of Honor,” and the 1881 first volume of The History of Woman Suffrage all concur on “P.A. Culvert” with zero variation (835, 810).  The name's spelling was not altered or amended—and thereby not thrown into contention—in any of these documents.  The lack of variation suggests that the name “P.A. Culvert” was so far removed from Signer #52’s actual name that it was beyond the realm of recognition and correction.  It also suggests that #52 was yet another curious local, who was not a well-known regional activist.

Predictably, I could find no one with the surname “Culvert” in the counties surrounding Seneca Falls in the 1840s, 1850s, or 1860s.  Because of the alternative meaning of this surname, searches for “P.A. Culvert” were swamped with false positives.  Searches for “Culvert” and “Seneca Falls” produced results documenting a slew of bygone infrastructure projects in the village and on local waterways.  It did not matter if I narrowed searches exclusively to the 19th century: every database search returned results for pipe manufacturers in Pennsylvania

My instincts then turned to an emerging, somewhat unusual pattern.  Whoever transcribed the names of the Declaration signers for publication has, so far,  had a tendency to objectify surnames.  What I mean by this is that the transcriber is prone to misread a signer’s last name as a physical object.  The best candidate for Signer #34, “Mary S. Mirror,” involves the objectification of the surname “Minor.”  Signer #83, Robert Smalldridge was objectified into Robert Smallbridge.  And like the mis-rendering of Smalldridge to “Smallbridge,” culvert is, oddly enough, another term from the field of engineering.  

It is important to observe that this signer's actual surname could be Covert.  The town of Covert, Seneca County, is about 27 miles away from Seneca Falls, located on the western shore of Cayuga Lake.  Covert was evidently founded by members of a family with the surname “Covert.”  The 1867-8 Gazetter and Business Directory for Seneca County lists more than 40 male Coverts, living on the strip of land separating Lake Seneca from Lake Cayuga, in places like Lodi, Romulus, and Ovid (137, 139).  While I could find no highly viable candidates for Signer #52 from the Covert family, “Culvert” could still be a potential corruption of that last name.

Still, the closest, common surname to Culvert is, of course, Culver.  Searches for “Culver” in the region did generate a number of results.  One Culver family, in particular, attracted my attention by fitting into a number of patterns establish by the signer profiles undertaken thus far. As a result, Mary Ann Newberry Culver of Waterloo represents my best-guess candidate for Signer #52, for a variety of reasons.

The 1850 census identifies this individual as “M.A. Culver,” 25, living with spouse, Hezekiah, 26, a carpenter.  Mary and Hezekiah have three children—“S.E.,” Emeline, and Gertrude—all under age six by 1850.  From this census, we learn that Mary (or the respondent accounting for her in this census) had the habit of relating her given name, Mary Ann, in the form of initials, much like the name recorded on the Declaration.

But how could an uppercase, cursive “M” morph into an uppercase “P” on the Declaration?  It is conceivable that the transcriber might have mistaken a messily done second arch of the “M” for the final loop of the “P.”  Or, if Mary Culver had just given the initial “M,” the transcriber could have seen a “P.A.” in the first and second arches of the “M,” respectively.  Another alternative, based on the handwriting sample from Mary Culver’s last will and testament, is that the minor loop initiating a cursive “M,” in some hands, could be misread as the loop of the “P.”                                              

I am inclined to say that this example from her probate letter is likely not Mary Culver’s own orthography, but it is, most probably, the writing of her legal representative.  It still reasserts the reality that stray marks or idiosyncratic handwriting on the Declaration could produce alternative readings.  Moreover, this example reveals how the final stroke of an ultimate lowercase “r” can very well suggest a cursive “t.” 

Location is another factor that makes Mary Culver a prime candidate for Signer #52.  The 1874-5 Seneca Falls and Waterloo Village Directory and the 1890-1891 Boyd’s Directory of Seneca Falls & Waterloo situate the Culver family on Inslee/Insley Street in Waterloo, “n Main” and “nr Main” (153, 141).  The 1894-5 Business Directory of Seneca County is more specific, designating the Culver home at “Inslee cor. Williams”—that is, Inslee Street at the corner of Williams Street, now East Williams (481).  This situates Mary Culver just a little over three miles away from the Wesleyan Chapel.  From Inslee, she would have had to turn left onto nearby Main Street (modern-day Route 20), and the chapel would be on her left (so, it would have been a journey of a single, left-hand turn). 

And that is not the only significant landmark.  The M’Clintock House, where the Declaration was drafted, is just two blocks west down Williams Street.  If Mary Culver is Signer #52, perhaps one key driver of convention attendance was the effort of local conference organizers, like Stanton and the M’Clintocks, to recruit participants en route to the chapel.  Were local canvasing and door-knock solicitations the best way to recruit convention participants and signers?  Did Stanton go door-to-door in the southwest quadrant of Seneca Falls, on her way to the conference, to boost local involvement?

Mary’s 1902 obituary reveals that she was born at Tellers Point, New York, in 1823 (this might itself be a mistake in favor of Pillar Point, New York).  Recognized as “a resident of this village for sixty-four years,” Mary’s relocation to Waterloo would have occurred circa 1838.  In the 1870 census, Hezekiah’s profession is listed as “millwright,” and Gertrude, 21, and Emaline, 28, are listed as working in a woolen mill.  Alfonzo, 19, is a carpenter’s apprentice.  Frances, 12, George, 10, Jessie, 8, and Edward, 4, are new additions to the family.

Born in Waterloo circa 1822, Hezekiah died on October 21, 1876, of dropsy.  His obituary states that “he followed the occupation of millwright, had no superior in his trade, and in that capacity was employed for many years in the Island Distillery.”  Adding to a growing list of Signers in this camp, the Culvers likely did not support the Temperance Movement, due to personal-economic considerations.  By 1880, Alfonzo, a carpenter; George, “a news room clerk”; Jessie, a farmhand; and Edward all still live with their mother.  Hezekiah is identified in his obituary as being the father of nine children.

By the 1900 census, son George still resides with Mary. The 1894 Business Directory of Seneca County lists him as the manager of a local Western Union Telegraph office (481).  Identifying only George and Alphonzo as her survivors, Mary’s obituary reveals that she died on Halloween night, 1902, a Friday, at age 78.  


Works Cited

Boyds’ Directory of Seneca Falls & Waterloo. Syracuse: Central City Publishing House, 1890.

Child, Hamilton. Gazetter and Business Directory for Seneca County. Syracuse, 1890.

---. Reference Business Directory of Seneca County, N.Y., 1894-95. Syracuse, NY: E.M. Child, 1894.

“Culver Family.” Federal Census, 1850. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. Ancestry.com.

“Culver Family.” Federal Census, 1870. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. Ancestry.com.

“Culver Family.” Federal Census, 1880. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. Ancestry.com.

“Culver Family.” Federal Census, 1900. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. Ancestry.com.

Evans, William & Wesley Crofoot. Seneca Falls & Waterloo Village Directory, 1874-5. Truair, Smith & Co.

Hezekiah Culver Obituary. Findagrave.com. Accessed Feb. 16. 2019.

Mary Culver, Probate Letter. New York Surrogate's Court. Seneca County, New York. 18 Nov. 1902.

National American Woman Suffrage Association. NAWSA Handbook. 1893.

“Our Roll of Honor. Listing Women and Men Who Signed the Declaration of Sentiments at First Woman’s Rights Convention, July 19-20, 1848.” Library of Congress, Washington. 

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, et al. History of Woman Suffrage, vol I. Susan B. Anthony, 1881.

“Waterloo” [Obituary of Mary Ann Culver]. Seneca County Courier-Journal.  Nov. 6 1902.

Webster, Noah. An American Dictionary of the English Language. Harper, 1846.

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