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         The History and The Culture of Chess

About Chess in 19th Century Philadelphia
January 2008
The Early years



       Philip P. Randolph  

Prof. George Allen

Dr. Samuel Lewis

Chess in Philadelphia.

   This is the title of a book on Quaker City Chess now in press in Philadelphia. It is compiled and edited by Messrs. G. C. Reichhelm and W. P. Shipley, and is a complete history of the game in that locality from the early part of the century to the present day. Philadelphia, more than any other city in the land, has encouraged the cultivation of the game, and the many matches, tournaments and other similar events in connection with the game are carefully recorded and amply illustrated in the book. Only five hundred copies will be struck off, of which already two hundred and fifty have been subscribed for. Those desiring to possess a copy should, therefore, without further delay, send their subscription to Mr. W. P. Shipley, Girard Building, Philadelphia. The price of book is $2.50 per copy.
   In this issue we present one of the many illustrations which will adorn the book. It comprises the group of the earlier Philadelphia Chess Masters, and together with this will be found a brief account of these players and a beautiful illustrative gambit of the period.
   The classic chess ground of Philadelphia—we might almost say America—was the Philadelphia Athenaeum. There a distinctive school of the game was cultivated which has no parallel outside of the seven stars of Berlin in the decade from 1835 to 1845. Mr. Charles Vezin was the father and founder of the Philadelphia coterie, and under his wing such brilliant pupils as Henry Vethake, Benjamin Tilghman, Philip P. Randolph, Lewis Elkin, William G. Thomas, Samuel Lewis and H. P. Montgomery grew into sturdy mastership. Mr. Vezin, when in his prime in 1845, was almost the peer of Charles H. Stanley, then chess champion of the United States. In their match played in that year the score stood Vezin 7, Stanley 11, drawn 3. In the succeeding year Mr. Vezin had the satisfaction of winning a correspondence game from Mr. Stanley. After the death of the master in 1853, his pupils upheld the high reputation of the Athenaeum School. In two matches against New York they won each time, with scores of two to nothing, and in one to a draw, and these famous parties still stand as models of correct play in the openings that they illustrate. We should add that as early as 1847, Messrs. Randolph and Tilghman won a similar match from the Boston Chess Club with the score of one to a draw. Besides the more serious encounters, innumerable off-hand games were contested, and these were chiefly in the domain of gambit play, and as one of the bright particular games that have come down to us from this past age, we re- publish a splendid Oliver gambit won by Philip P. Randolph from Charles Vezin in 1847.

from the American Chess Monthly, 1897

Hardman Philips Montgomery

Lewis Elkin

B. C. Tilghman

The Athenaeum

as described in Notices of Public Libraries in the United States of America
   Printed for the House of Representatives , 1851, by Charles Coffin Jewett

   The whole structure is 50 feet fronton Sixth street, 125 feet on Adelphi street, and 58 feet high. It is an excellent specimen of the Italian style of architecture, treated with spirit and taste. The first story is divided into offices, and a large room of 37 by C0 feet, 14 feet high, for the comptrollers of the public schools. The second story is arranged for the uses of the Athenaeum, and is divided into a news-room, library, and chess room. The news-room is on the Sixth street front, and-is 37 by 47 feet, and 24 feel high; it will be finished in pilasters, with an enriched cornice and cone to the ceiling. The library is 37 feet wide, 65 feet long, and 24 feet high, and will be finished with a columnar ordinance of the Corinthian order, advanced from the sides of the room, forming a centre cell or nave and aisles; the latter will be filled up with bookcases, set laterally from the pillars to the wall, and is designed at some future time to be finished with a gallery, as the library extends; the cornice will be enriched with modillions and ornament, the ceiling being in panel. The chess room is 18 feet square, and is an ante room between the two large rooms; a room of the same size over this is intended for the directors' room. The third story is divided into 8 rooms (three of large size;) one of them, to be occupied by the Historical Society, is 26 feet by 37 feet, and 14 feet high.
   A feature (says Mr. Wharton) of this institution, to which I would advert with complacency, but certainly without boasting, is the free admission which it has always afforded to strangers; meaning by this term, persons not permanently residing in the city, or within ten miles of it, introduced by members. It may be worthy of remark and remembrance, that, according to a register kept by our worthy and attentive librarian, more than 30,000 strangers have visited the rooms and availed themselves of the facilities and conveniences which they afford. During certain years the number has exceeded 1,000 annually, including representatives of every civilized country and community.
   Whatever may be the deficiencies of our catalogue, in respect to the standard works of English literature, I believe it will not be easy to find, in this country, a more complete or various collection of periodical literature, from the daily journal, through the various monthlies and quarterlies to the animal registers. Our library consists now, (October, 1847) I am informed, of nearly 10,000 volumes. We receive 24 foreign journals, scientific and literary; and 25 American. We take 5 foreign newspapers, and 62 American; one at least, I believe, from every State.
   Among the curiosities of literature in our rooms is a large collection of pamphlets, bound into 148 volumes, which belonged to Dr. Franklin, some of them containing his manuscript notes and marginal remarks; and a regular series of the Journal de Paris, bound in volumes, and continued during the whole eventful period of the French Revolution.

The Later Years

             Emanuel Lasker - Gustavus C. Reichhelm                                                                                                Dion M. Martinez

The "Men of the Athenaeum" was a loosely formed group under the auspices of Charles Vezin.  When he died in 1853, the Athenaeum gradually faded as a chess force.  The American Chess Congress revitalized chess in 1857 and in 1859 some of those same players formed the Philadelphia Chess Club. Hardman Philips Montgomery, formerly of the Athenaeum group, was the club champion. This club lasted off and on, it's last incarnation forming in 1875, hosting the International Chess Congress of 1876 . . .

[when "the newly organized Philadelphia Chess Club held its first meeting in its splendidly furnished rooms, at No.10 West Penn-square, on the evening of the 14th of December. There was a large attendance of members, and the proceedings were characterized by much enthusiasm. After the adoption of a constitution and the election of a board of managers, there was an eloquent address from the President, J. II. Bennett, Esq. City of London Magazine, 1875]

. . . until 1885 when many of the same members regrouped and formed the Franklin Chess Club, one of the strongest chess clubs in America. D. M. Martinez, a wealthy Cuban who immigrated to America in 1875, was elected president of the newly formed club. The board of the Philadelphia Chess Club in the final year consisted of D. M. Martinez as President, Gustavus Reichhelm as Vice-President, and Charles Newman as Secretary with Thompson, Michaelis, Kaiser, Barclay and Del Puente making up the Executive Committee. Members of the Franklin Club included Walter Penn Shipley, Emil Kemeny and William C. Wilson - even Harry Nelson Pillsbury had a membership there.. In 1893, Persifor Frazer was it's president; W.C. Wilson was it's vice-president; the treasurer was W.P. Shipley; Reichhelm was the secretary.
   In 1896, the Mercantile Library Chess Association was formed in competition to the Franklin Club. While in just a short time it's membership swelled to rival the Franklin Club, it had no dues and the quality of chess was much lower. Eventually (1955) the two clubs merged into what today is called the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club.   
    Walter Penn Shipley

Chess in Philadelphia.
   Chess in Philadelphia is rapidly making headway. There are more players than used to be but a few years ago, and, generally speaking, they play better. The principal resort is the Franklin Chess Club. This organization fairly represents the chess strength of the City of Brotherly Love. The membership does not exceed one hundred, yet there is no difficulty at all in selecting a pretty strong team of fifteen or twenty.
   The Mercantile Library chess organization has about one hundred members. Since the chess-room is open to all members of the library, we find a much larger number indulging in play. Besides these two organizations, within the last few years, there was formed the University of Pennsylvania Chess Club, the Northwestern Chess Club, the Steinitz Chess Club, and pretty nearly every branch of the Y. M. C. A. has its chess fraternity.  -American Chess Magazine, 1897

A Tragic End . . . .

The American Chess Magazine ran the following obituary in 1897:

   William C. Wilson, a prominent member of the Franklin Chess Club, bookseller and the proprietor of the Philadelphia Circulating Library, was foully murdered in his store, at 1117 Walnut Street, on the evening of August 16.
   He was evidently killed by thieves, who carried out their purpose of robbing the place after murdering him. At about 7.30 o'clock a patrolman finding the gate at No. 1117 open and the door to Wilson's store ajar, ascended the stairs through the second story, which was vacant, to the third floor. Wilson's sleeping-room was on this floor, and in this room Policeman Smith found everything in confusion. Closets, bureau drawers and trunks had been broken open and their contents scattered on the floor.    The policeman went down-stairs to the store, which is on the first floor, fronting on Walnut Street. On reaching the foot of the stairs, Smith saw a blood-stained hammer lying on the floor. Near the front of the store was a pool of blood, and leading from this was a trail of blood around behind the show-cases.
   There the officer discovered the body of Wilson with the skull crushed in. The face was so bruised and covered with blood as to be nearly unrecognizable. Wilson's trousers had been almost pulled off, and the pockets had been turned inside out
There was a towel about Wilson's neck, with which his slayers had evidently strangled him, to make their work more certain
Wilson was last seen alive at about 6 o'clock, when he left his boarding-house to return to his place of business. He lived alone at the Walnut Street store, and was accustomed to get his meals on South Tenth Street. The men who killed him were evidently
familiar with his habits and apparently forced an entrance to the store while he was out and lay in wait for him on his return. Mr.
Wilson was about 55 years of age. He hailed from New England, and at the age of 16 was employed as a clerk in Prout's book
store, Worcester, Mass He showed remarkable talent for chess, especially for playing blindfolded, and he conducted 3 games at one occasion, as told in our last issue (p. 92). After having established himself in Philadelphia, Mr. Wilson joined the Franklin
Chess Club. Whenever a star player gave a simultaneous exhibition at the City of Brotherly Love, Mr. Wilson was sure to take a board against him, and he took great pride in the fact that he seldom failed to win his game. Among the scalps of great players
which he (figuratively speaking) wore around his belt were those of Steinitz, Zukertort Tchigorin, Blackburne, Gunsberg, Weiss
and Bird. Before the Franklin Club moved to its present quarters in the Hetz Building, it occupied a part of Mr. Wilson's
Circulating Library, then in Sansom Street. Their motive was undoubtedly robbery Wilson was commonly supposed to keep a
large sum of money in the store.
   RESOLVED, That in the death of our esteemed fellow-member, the late lamented William С. Wilson, we recognize that the Franklin Chess Club and the cause of chess generally has lost a strong champion, a faithful supporter, and an ardent enthusiast of the game The following resolutions have been passed by the Franklin Chess Club :
   RESOLVED, That we tender the relatives of the deceased our respectful and earnest sympathy and that so far as possible we
will attend his obsequies as a last mark of respect.


The follow-up was even more bizarre. E. Winter [CN #3891] published  the full account supplied by John Hilbert.

Here's a summation:
     This account  tells us that a man named William Harris confessed being on of three robbers who murdered "the aged librarian who was killed in his book store" during the robbery attempt. He claimed they beat Wilson to death with a hatchet. Apparently the police didn't believe the confession and continued searching for the murderers. William Harris turned out to be John Tittemary.  Next the police looked for a man named "Big Bill" Mason in connection with the murder. Mason, who had been arrested with two cohorts for a different robbery was seemingly never chargred with the murder either.
     Hilbert relays "Wilson’s Mysterious Murder, as various periodicals called the death of the small chessplayer who had in his younger days escaped Confederate prison, but who could not escape death by bludgeoning in his own shop."


And though the story of Chess in Philadelphia in the 19th century ended on a bitter note, the new century started with promise . . .

from Chess by David Andrew Mitchell. 1917.

Lasker and Martinez
Among the interesting curios at the Franklin Chess Club is the score of a chess game. There is, as a rule, nothing unusually striking about the ordinary record of the moves of a game, but in this particular instance the game was played between Doctor Lasker, the world's champion, and Charles Martinez, probably the strongest player in Philadelphia in 1902, at 20 moves an hour. These facts alone are sufficient to hold the attention of the observer, but on glancing down the sheet the reader finds, to his surprise, that the game was won by the brilliant Philadelphian after 44 moves. Not the least interesting feature of this attractive bit of chess history is that the entire score was kept and signed by Doctor Lasker and given to A. K. Robinson, a strong Philadelphia player, who presented it to the Franklin Club. The score of the game follows:

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