My wife and I were walking through the neighborhood the other night and I said, “I have traveled extensively in Broomall." Thoreau fans will get the allusion, but my wife is not a fan. I’ve lived longer in Broomall than in any other one place in my life, and yet as we passed by the township building and saw the old Keystone marker (see photo) that mentioned where the name “Broomall” came from, I thought that I know nothing about our namesake, other than he was “some politician."
After a few hours of research today, I know much more about John Martin Broomall. He was much more than “some politician," and his life and career are worth reviewing. He was, in the words of a contemporary historian, “one of the most able and conspicuously useful men of his day."
The Broomall family came over early from England, in 1682 or so, in the same time period as William Penn. They settled in Chester County, and generations spread out in Nether Providence, Edgemont, and Chichester. ur subject, John Martin Broomall, born in Chichester in 1816, was a fifth generation Broomall, born to John Broomall and Sarah Martin.
He was a twin; his sister also carried the Martin middle name: Elizabeth Martin Broomall. They were raised in a Quaker family and John went to Quaker schools, before graduating to Samuel Smith’s Quaker boarding school in Wilmington, where he was first a student and then upon graduation a teacher for several years.
His ambition led him to study law, in the office of one of Philadelphia’s finest attorneys, Quaker John Bouvier. He passed the bar in 1840 and began his practice of law which would continue for more than 50 years. The following year, he married Elizabeth Booth, from a Chichester family; earlier that year his twin sister, Elizabeth, had married William Booth of the same family–and so John and his twin were not only brother and sister, but in-laws as well!
His career from that time was a series of increasing responsibilities and successes. At age 32 he began serving a three-year term as deputy attorney general. He served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1851-1852, but declined re-election.
With his law partner, William Ward, he began investing in real estate in Chester, building homes in the south ward, and over the years became very wealthy from those holdings as well as other business ventures. He built the Penn Building in Chester, which housed Broomall's department store, run by his brother George, and a landmark in Chester for 79 years.
He was the first president of the Chester Gas Company, as gas lamps began to replace candles for lighting of homes and streets. In 1852, he built a unique house at Front and Penn streets in Chester–called the Mud Fort by the locals (see photo). It was constructed “one half inside the old marsh river bank, and one half outside of the bank. To prevent uneven settling, it was constructed on a timber crib tied together with iron rods.”
In addition to having a great river view, Broomall incorporated a tidal pond to drive a hydraulic ram that supplied the house with water. It was also a gas plant, installed in the basement to light the house, one of the first in the whole country. People must have come from miles around through the darkened streets of Chester simply to watch him turn on his house lights at night. But when the county seat moved from Chester to Media, Broomall did too, leaving the Mud Fort behind.
First wife Elizabeth died young, leaving two children, and Broomall took a second wife in 1852, marrying Caroline Larkin. They had five additional children, three of whom lived to adulthood. In 1856 he was active in the organization of the Republican party in Delaware County.
He ran for Congress several times in the 1850s, and lost, but served as a delegate to the 1860 Republican Convention that selected Abe Lincoln as their candidate. He was elected to Congress in 1862 and served three terms. His Quaker beliefs instilled in him a lifelong hatred of slavery, and throughout his public career he zealously advocated against it.
He aligned with Lincoln in that respect, and was a major proponent of the Reconstruction Amendments (13th-15th) which abolished slavery, and promised each person the right to vote. In 1865 he spoke in Congress in favor of the Civil Rights bill, and his speech was recalled as “one of the most magnificent utterances ever voiced in the House, and an unsurpassed example of conciseness and force in the use of the English language.”
During the Civil War, when the south made its two invasions of the north, Broomall, though in his late forties, was appointed to lead a company of militia and prepared with his men for the invasions that were turned back, at Antietam and Gettysburg. His 20-year-old son William B. Broomall saw service and combat at Antietam and Chancellorsville.
Towards the end of his terms in Congress, he remembered his constituents, as a new post office was established in his district. Post offices were given names that were not always consistent with the name of the nearest town or township, but could be named for local attractions or people. The new post office created in 1868 and located in the general store at the northwest corner of West Chester Pike and Sproul Road (now McDonalds), was called “Broomall."
After the war and his congressional service, he continued as a trial lawyer; he was well respected and sought after, and rarely lost a criminal case. He was elected as the first president of the Law Library Association of the Delaware County bar. He served as president of the Delaware County Institute of Science.
In 1872, he was a member of the Electoral College that elected U.S. Grant president for his second term. In the same year, he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention that was re-writing the Pennsylvania constitution, and authored two provisions that were consistent with his Quaker training and beliefs, but provoked much debate: giving the vote to women, and prohibiting capital punishment. He argued in favor of both provisions, but they were rejected in the final document. Nevertheless, in the next year he gave speeches in support of the new constitution, as a bulwark against what he saw as the corruption of the legislature.
He was appointed as a Delaware County judge and served with distinction, but in 1872 was defeated in his bid to retain his seat by Thomas J. Clayton, and they continued to butt heads for the balance of his life. During a trial before Clayton, Broomall became irritated at the judge and packed up to leave the court. Judge Clayton told him that if he left the courtroom, he would be held in contempt of court.
Broomall stayed, and finished his case, but announced afterwards that he would never try another case before Judge Clayton, and sued the judge for his arrest and contempt charge. Years later, in 1889, Clayton was in his courtroom picking a jury, and the jury list was exhausted. He ordered the courtroom doors closed and everyone in the court to submit to jury duty (excluding, of course, the attorneys in the room).
Broomall, by then age 73, was in the courtroom at the time. He approached the bench, no doubt remembering that earlier trial, and said to Clayton, “May I be allowed to go?” As described in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “As the bar and the audience caught on to the question, there was a broad smile, and it was evident that Judge Clayton struggled to maintain his dignity as he answered 'certainly.' It was a plainly amused judge that sat on the bench the balance of the day.”
When Broomall married the first time, it was to a non-Quaker, and he was “read out of meeting” for marrying outside of his religion. This was not a “shunning," where he was no longer welcome at the meeting. Rather, he was still welcome to worship, but was no longer permitted to participate in the business affairs of the meeting.
Nevertheless, when he moved to Media, he would attend the Providence Friends Meeting, and regularly spoke there as well. n late years, he was invited to formally re-join the meeting, but declined. Nevertheless, his Quaker beliefs guided his public responsibilities; and towards the end of his life, when applying for a passport in 1889, and the form would have required him to “swear” to the truth of the application, “so help me God," Broomall crossed out the word “swear” and the reference to God, and put “affirm” in its place. Quakers are taught to always speak the truth, and that there was no need to “swear” to God, because their word was their truth. And John Broomall’s word was his truth.
His last year was his worst one. There was a national economic depression, and many in Chester were thrown out of work when the mills closed. Broomall’s real estate holdings included hundreds of homes for these workers, and as they became unemployed and left the area, the rents dried up and Broomall could not pay his mortgages.
He made an assignment for his creditors–the equivalent of a modern day bankruptcy. In that year he had also been stricken with pneumonia, and it had weakened him badly. He went off to stay with his daughter, Dr. Anna M. Broomall, at 1229 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, but never regained his health. He died there on June 3, 1894, at age 78. His body was brought back to his hometown of Media, and he was interred in the Media cemetery.
John Martin Broomall was remembered as “the central figure in the affairs of [Delaware] County …” His obituary said that “no man was better known or more respected by the people of [Media].” He was well respected by his colleagues at the bar, and the people he served with in various public capacities. He had strong Quaker values, and he lived his beliefs each day, rather than for an hour each Sunday. He spoke passionately for the values he stood for. He was a giant in his time.
We would be fortunate to have his kind in public service today. He was far more than “some politician." And our crossroads village of Broomall should be honored to bear his name.