By all outward appearances, Henry Coy led a relatively unremarkable but prosperous middle-class life for roughly 15 years when he lived in the block of Cooper Street that later became Johnson Park. Only after his death in 1881 did rumors arise that created a macabre legend about Coy and his family. But were the rumors true?
Coy, a Canadian, arrived in the Philadelphia-South Jersey region by 1858 and by 1860 lived at 101 Cooper Street, a three-story brick house that had been standing at the northeast corner of Front and Cooper since the late eighteenth century. His journey to the region may have included time in Massachusetts, where his wife, Sarah, was born. In 1860, at age 35, he headed an extended family household that consisted of Sarah, then age 25; their eight-month-old daughter, Mary Hannah; two women and a child who may have been Sarah's relations; and two servants. By 1870, the Coy family expanded to five children. Sarah Coy's mother, Mary, also lived with the family for a time and died at 101 Cooper Street in 1866, at age 74.
To support the family, Coy commuted by ferry across the Delaware River to Philadelphia, where he worked as an agent for Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines. The company, based in Bridgeport, Conn., had emerged quickly during the late 1850s as the leading manufacturer of sewing machines, largely for industrial use. Coy had the only Wheeler & Wilson shop in Philadelphia, in second-floor space at 628 Chestnut Street; he offered machines and operators for hire as well as stitching done in the office. In addition to supporting his family, the income allowed for some minor luxuries, including two carriages and a gold watch.
Around 1870, Coy left the sewing machine business to become a manager for the S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Company, the Philadelphia-based leading maker of high-quality dental instruments. He not only led the instrument-making shop, he also designed and made instruments himself. Forceps, mallets, punch instruments, and other dental tools bearing his maker mark, HC, remain in the Historical Dental Museum at Temple University and other collections.
The Coy family left Cooper Street in 1874 and moved about three miles eastward to Stockton Township, Camden County, and from there to Palmyra in Burlington County. Henry Coy continued in the dental instruments business until his death in 1881.
The next year, on May 1, 1882, a bizarre story appeared in the Camden Morning Post:
AFTER TWENTY YEARS.
A FATHER'S ECCENTRICITY
Three Dead Bodies which a Camden Man Refused to Have Buried
The report claimed that three bodies recently buried in Palmyra were long-dead children of Henry Coy. And, most shockingly, that during his years on Cooper Street Coy had kept the remains in coffins in his home. "He was a very eccentric man," said the Post, "and it is said he was unwilling to make the acquaintance of any one near him, and that he has found great pleasure during these long years, in sitting for hours at time in the room with the caskets containing his departed children."
The tale, reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reappeared in a much longer, more obviously fictional version eleven years later. Published first in the Philadelphia Times in a section devoted to "Life's Thrilling Side," and then picked up again in Camden by the Morning Post on June 19, 1893, the new version retained the story about the deceased children. But it also spun a highly elaborate description of Coy (this time named Philip, "a long-bearded, impenetrable Canadian") and his haunted mansion replete with secret closets, concealed panels, vaults, and a coffin-shaped cupola. Attributing new details to two caretakers of the property after the Coys moved out, the 1893 version of the story portrayed a haunted house that echoed with sounds of infants wailing and feet shuffling in the cellar. For readers of the late nineteenth-century, the story may have offered a racist clue to its fictional nature by attributing the ghost stories to "Cyrus Green, an old colored man" and his wife, Sarah. Camden readers would have spotted an obvious confusion of references to the "Cooper mansion," which was not the house the Coys occupied, and other errors of local details. Philip was the name of Henry Coy's adult son who died in 1892, prior to publication of the second story.
The Coy story also appeared in a pamphlet about Camden historic houses in 1920, characterized as a "rumor." Could there be any truth to the legends of the Coy family?
The records of the family across the U.S. Census of 1860, 1870, and 1880 show no disappearing names of children, and hence suggest no deaths. However, New Jersey birth records document an earlier child, and perhaps twins, born in Camden to Henry Coy on March 7, 1858 (the records do not name the mother, and it is unclear whether two very similar records for the same date are duplications or documentation for twins). No Coy children of this age appear in the 1860 Census, so the 1858 infant or infants are unaccounted for.
Some elements of the later stories may suggest a plausible explanation: in the 1893 version, Coy is reported to have buried deceased twins in a Haddonfield cemetery without a proper funeral. It is conceivable--but speculation--that after his death in 1881, children buried elsewhere might have been exhumed to be buried with him in Palmyra. This would account for the story about burials that appeared in 1882, and at least one other Cooper Street family is known to have moved an earlier-buried child to rest with a later-deceased parent. Indeed, the Coys have a large, enclosed family plot in the Epworth Methodist Church Cemetery with just one headstone that is perhaps revealing in its silences: "Henry - Sarah S Coy / And Family."
Time period on Cooper Street
Location(s) - Cooper Street
Location(s) - Other
Stockton Township, Camden County
Palmyra, Burlington County
Dental instrument designer/manufacturer (after 1870)
Mary Hannah Coy (daughter)
Elizabeth Coy (daughter)
Philip H. Coy (son)
Susan Coy (daughter)
Hellen Coy (daughter)
Susan, Haddie, and Addie Brown (possible relatives of wife Sarah)
Mary Seger (mother-in-law)
Ada Robbins Coy (daughter-in-law, married son Philip)
Lydia Everson (servant)
Jane Wilson (servant)
Emma Everman (servant)
Samuel Stockton White (employer at S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Co., Philadelphia)
Boyer, Charles S. "The Old Houses in Camden, New Jersey." Annals of Camden, Vol. 1 (privately published, 1920).
"Camden's Pet Ghosts." Camden Morning Post, June 19, 1893.
Camden City Directories, Camden County Historical Society (Ancestry.com).
Edmunson, James M. American Surgical INstruments: The History of Their Manufacture and a Directory of Instrument Makers to 1900 (Novato, Calif: Norman Publishing, 1997), 61.
New Jersey Births and Christenings Index (Ancestry.com).
"S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Co." in Matos, William, comp. Philadelphia: Its Founding and Development, 1683-1908 (Philadelphia, 1908), 324.
U.S. Census, 1860, 1870, 1880.
"Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing Co." in Hounshell, Davis, From the American SYstem to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkinson University Press, 1985), 68-75.
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