Jane Grey Swisshelm

Here is a picture of the Swisshelm homestead. Could that be Jane on the porch?

When writing a historical novel based on a real person, it’s always a good idea to walk where your subject trod.  I had to go all the way to Italy when I was writing The Saint’s Mistress (I know, rough duty).  But Jane Grey Swisshelm, the subject of my next novel, is local.  Not to mention 1400 years more recent! So, it’s been a lot easier to visit sites associated with Jane.

Al and I set out to do that on a beautiful June day last week. 

Young Jane Cannon

Thomas and Mary Cannon named their first daughter Jane Grey after the Protestant “9-day queen” of 16th-century England.  Jane was born on December 6, 1815, in a house on Pittsburgh’s Water Street (present-day Fort Pitt Boulevard).  Jane’s brothers and father were susceptible to tuberculosis and so in 1816 the family moved from Pittsburgh to Wilkinsburg for better air.  In Wilkinsburg, Thomas opened a little general store and his health improved. 

Here is the approximate site of Jane’s birth: Water Street (currently Fort Pitt Blvd) between Wood and Market Streets. Excuse my thumb; my kids make fun of me all the time for that. But how about the beautiful view they would have had of Mt. Washington?

The Cannon family were Covenanter Presbyterians, strict Calvinists who had broken in 1643 with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which they believed did not resist the Anglicans fiercely enough.  In Pittsburgh, the Cannons had attended a Covenanter church, but there was no Covenanter church in Wilkinsburg.  So, in Wilkinsburg they attended Beulah Presbyterian Church, pastored by Reverend John Graham, whose house still stands today on William Penn Highway in Wilkinsburg. 

Graham house. The people who live here now were real nice about letting me take pictures.

The family’s first sojourn in Wilkinsburg was cut short by the financial crash of 1819.  Thomas Cannon’s income from renting his property in Pittsburgh plummeted, and his title to his land in Wilkinsburg was questionable because the seller had mortgaged his original land grant.  The Cannons moved back to Pittsburgh, to a little house on Sixth Street, which they shared with Mary Cannon’s parents, Hance and Jane Scott.

The Cannons’ home on Sixth Street stood on the current site of the Heinz 57 Center.
Here’s the historical marker on the Heinz 57 building. This marker is what first go me interested in writing about Jane.

One of Jane’s sisters and three brothers had died of tuberculosis and, in 1827, her father followed them.  The family – Mary, Jane age 11, William age 14 and Elizabeth age 5 – was left nearly destitute. Before he died, Thomas had lost his title to the Water Street property for non-payment of ground rent, and the title to the Wilkinsburg property was still in dispute.  To earn a bit of money, Mary Cannon made bonnets, Jane produced paintings on velvet, and William attempted to carry on his father’s chair-making business.

Finally, the title to the property in Wilkinsburg was settled, and Mary moved with her children back to Wilkinsburg and re-opened the store.

Today there’s a First National Bank on the site of Wilkinsburg’s first post office, the Stoner Dry Goods store, dating to 1840. I speculate whether Jane’s family’s store may have preceded the Stoner store on the site.

Jane and James

Not long after the move back to Wilkinsburg, Jane met her future husband, James Swisshelm, in a scene from my novel-in-progress, Righteous which I posted to this blog last month. Here’s a LINK in case you missed it.

From that fateful meeting, the rest of Jane’s story flows.  She and James met again at a “frolic” at Dumpling Hall, the home of prominent Wilkinsburg citizen John Kelly. 

Dumpling Hall in its heyday
Current view of site of Dumpling Hall in Wilkinsburg

Jane’s marriage to James was marred by disagreements, centering on both religion and property.  Jane and James came into conflict over the property she inherited from her mother on Water Street in Pittsburgh, and over the Swisshelm farm in present-day Swissvale.

Approximate site of Jane’s Water Street (Fort Pitt Blvd) property, which was a cause of conflict between Jane and James. This property was destroyed in the fire of 1845.

Jane died in 1884 in the Swisshelm homestead, but not before living a very vivid and controversial life which you can read about in my upcoming novel, Righteous.

Here are some current photos of the site of the Swisshelm farm, on the border between Swissvale and Edgewood.

Historical marker right off the Parkway East ramp
Pretty little street right off the parkway ramp, on the former Swisshelm property
Not quite as bucolic as it used to be!
I couldn’t resist including a picture of this cute little fairy garden in the front yard of a house that stands on the former Swisshelm farm.
And here’s another shot of the Swisshelm homestead as it looked in the late 19th century.

Sources

Sylvia D. Hoffert, Jane Grey Swisshelm, An Unconventional Life (University of North Caroline Press, 2004)

Jane Grey Swisshelm, Half a Century (Jansen, McClung, 1880)

Wilkinsburg, A Detailed History: https://www.wilkinsburgpa.gov/about-wilkinsburg/history/a-detailed-history/

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