[Manuscript Receipt Book, 1795–1806, of Frances Clifton of Philadelphia, wife of Slave Advocate and Poet Richard Nesbet].
These receipts gathered by Frances Clifton (1758–1807) of the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts, and then of East Northern Liberties, Philadelphia cover almost eleven years at the end of her life.
Frances is revealed to be, apparently in her own right, a taxpayer and property owner. She pays her county poor, health, and road taxes, her ground rent; she buys bricks and glazing glass, or pays for paving “front street at pool’s Bridge.”
The majority of Clifton’s receipts are repetitive and routine. However two stand out. In 1795 she pays Rudolph Nagel, a physician, for bleeding. On January 25, 1804 Frances paying $20 for “opening the ground in the African Church Yard for the burial of Margaret.” Margaret may have been a servant. The receipt is signed by Ananias Bristol for William Gray. Gray was a prominent Philadelphia African-American and a trustee of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Likely, Frances Clifton did not have the support of her (former?) spouse, Richard Nesbet, a man with a very interesting back story¹.
Frances Clifton died in January 1807. A death notice in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser states: “Miss Frances Clifton…lived many years retired from the gay world, but in the enjoyment and love of her friends…”
One of the administrators of her estate, Anna Maria Clifton, may well be “Ann Clifton,” some of whose receipts are included in the present receipt book. (The two women may have been sisters or sisters-in-laws to one another.) A newspaper ad placed by the same administrators about a month after Frances’ death solicits payments to or claims against the estate.
The ad in Poulson’s also offers to lease “Clifton’s wharf, adjoining Pool’s Bridge in the Northern Liberties” and also offers to sell the time of a “Black Boy…brought up in the family as waiter &c.” Like Margaret, the African American woman who was given a proper burial, this boy was cared for by being given a useful trade by Clifton.
Description: [Manuscript Receipt Book, 1795–1806, of Frances Clifton of Philadelphia, wife of Slave Advocate and Poet Richard Nesbet].
[Philadelphia. January 27, 1795–October 11, 1806]. Manuscript Receipt Book. Marbled wrappers; 6½ x 4 inches; 20ff. laid paper plus two additional small receipts affixed therein, the whole containing approx. 25pp. of ink manuscript. Spine and fore-edges with old, paper reinforcing; loose in binding; possibly lacking additional leaves; else good.
1. Frances Clifton married Richard Nesbet (sometimes in the records as Nesbitt or Nesbit) of London. Nesbet was unsuccessful in trade there, later failed to take Anglican Orders, and, subsequently took up the profession of law on the island. Nesbet had a respectable practice. He often served as advocate for the island’s African slaves.
But Nesbet gave his practice up. He emigrated to Philadelphia and became a land conveyancer. Following this, he opened a store in Wilmington, Delaware. Frances and their children joined him there, but the business became insolvent. He then turned to farming at Catawissa, Pennsylvania, but was not up to the task.
Nesbet’s unfortunate succession of failures was recorded by Samuel Coates, one of the managers of the Pennsylvania Hospital, who used Nesbet’s life story to illustrate one of the causes of lunacy—Disappointment. Coates wrote: “To be disappointed Five times was more than he could well bear…he became crazy, & is Now a poor Lunatick in the Pennsylvania Hospital…” [Morton & Woodbury, p142. Coates’ clinical note book also records a poignant poem written by Nesbet to his wife, Frances, which laments her absence.]
This receipt book records her name only as “Frances Clifton.” Did Frances abandon her husband? Or, did she simply stop using his name when he went into the asylum? Had Frances acquired, in her own right, property from her husband or was she managing it alone while he was in hospital? Did they get back together?
On July 15 and August 22, 1799, two advertisements appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, the American Daily Advertiser, which suggest Richard Nesbet had recently been released from the asylum and was back to work as a conveyancer and a writer.
Nesbet therein announced his intent to publish a comic poem, “in Hudibrastic verse,” The Catawessiad, and a new weekly poetry periodical, Numbers of Poetry, Serious and Comic. In the ad for the former work, Nesbet writes that he had “...been ruined in his circumstances, and for years prevented until lately, from regarding things in a natural and constitutional order, by the hidden and atrocious practices of some base particulars…”
Refs. American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, July 15, 1799, page 2 and August 22, 1799, page 4. Morton and Woodbury, The History of the Pennsylvania Hospital, 1751–1895…Revised Edition, (Philadelphia, 1897). Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, January 24, 1807, page 3.