Excerpt from Those We Met Along the Way by Sharece Blakney
- In June of 1864, Congress passed legislation requiring equal pay for Civil War soldiers, regardless of race. However, the law was not consistently enforced by the War Department.
- The Blockley Almshouse consisted of an insane asylum, an infirmary, a poorhouse, and an orphanage. The complex was located on the West bank of the Schuykill River in Blockley Township, the present location of the University of Pennsylvania.
- In response to the effects of solitary confinement on Black prisoners at Eastern State Penitentiary, doctors claimed they were predisposed to mental illness.
Torbert Ganges was born around 1839 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, first appearing in the historical record at age 11.¹ In 1850, he was listed in the household of Sampson Ganges, working as a boatman.² Sampson, also born in Bucks County, was among the first generation of children born in America to the Ganges Africans. In 1800, the U.S.S. Ganges confiscated a pair of illegal slave ships carrying 135 people. A court battle ensued over their legal status before they were placed in the care of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The Ganges Africans were signed into indentured servant contracts, and many of them assimilated into Pennsylvania’s free Black community.³
The trajectory of Torbert’s life took several turns despite being relatively brief. After leaving school at age 16, Torbert next appeared in historical documents in 1862, in the reception records of Eastern State Penitentiary. At 23, Ganges was arrested for rioting before he volunteered to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. On February 26, 1864, 25-year-old Ganges enlisted with the 32nd Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops, Company H.⁴ The 32nd was organized at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia before they were ordered to South Carolina where they fought in the Battle of Honey Hill.⁵ After the war, the 32nd Regiment Infantry had lost a total of 150 men. A pair of officers and 35 enlisted men were mortally wounded or killed, and 113 died of disease. Torbert Ganges and the remaining soldiers of the 32nd Infantry were mustered out on August 22, 1865.⁶ After returning to Bucks County, Ganges was imprisoned again in Eastern State Penitentiary. He served two terms for larceny and receiving stolen goods, in 1876 and 1879.
In 1893, Torbert made the local paper for his role in apprehending an accused murderer. According to Ganges, a man came to his home and offered to pay him for food. He gave the man a loaf of bread but refused to take any money. A short time later, the man returned, asking to purchase tobacco from Ganges. After giving the man tobacco and refusing money, Ganges went into town and alerted authorities that he had seen a man fitting the description of Wallace Burt. Burt was wanted for the murder of a local elderly couple.⁷ Torbert Ganges was awarded $448 of the $1,000 reward offered by the county following Burt’s conviction.⁸
In December of 1895, Ganges again made newspapers when he was arrested for robbery. Ganges was charged with Samuel Crusen from New Jersey, accused of stealing poultry and produce.⁹ James Bunting’s poultry house was missing chickens, and William Vandegrift was robbed of provisions he kept at a boardinghouse for farm laborers he employed. Charles Pope was robbed of 30 bushels of wheat, 20 bushels of apples, 25 bushels of potatoes, and buckwheat flour. The irony of the crime is that Torbert and Crusen borrowed a cart from Charles Pope to carry the load that was stolen from him.¹⁰ The pair were caught after a resident of the boardinghouse tipped off the local farmers. According to the Allentown Leader, “Old Torbert Ganges has an old black horse with a crooked hind leg, that twists when he walks, making a peculiar hood-print on the ground. Detective Wharton traced this hoof-print seven miles between a house that had been robbed and Ganges’ hut.”¹¹ Ganges pleaded guilty to burglary and was sentenced to six years and six months at the prison. Before handing down the hefty sentence, the judge reminded the 56-year-old Ganges that he had already sentenced him to the prison twice.¹²
Ganges served a few months of his sentence before he was transferred to the almshouse “for treatment,” he died on July 16, 1897. While the article that announced Torbert’s death was unclear on a cause of death, it did note that he was sent to the almshouse on the recommendation of an appointed court commission.¹³ Torbert Ganges’ final appearance in the historical record is on a “Burial of Indigent Soldiers” list in 1899.¹⁴
1 1850 United States Federal Census [database online], Census Place: Lower Makefield, Bucks County, Pennsylvania; Roll M432_758, Page 19A, Image 44.
2 Ibid. While it is possible that Sampson Ganges was Torbert’s father, it is speculative since the 1850 federal census does not list a relationship to head of household.
3 Materials on the U.S.S. Ganges, the indentured contracts, and documents from the court case can be found in Collection 0490, Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Also see, Sharece Blakney, Stories We Know: Recording the Black History of Bartram’s Garden and Southwest Philadelphia, edited by Aislinn Pentecost-Farren (published by the John Bartram Association and Mural Arts Philadelphia, 2017).
4 Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops; Infantry Organizations, 31st through 35th; Microfilm Serial: M1992; Microfilm Roll:22
5 Samuel Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5; Prepared in Compliance with Acts of the Legislature, 1871. Page 1061 – – On the same page listing Torbert, there is a Peter Ganges, also 32nd USCT and page 1060 shows a William Ganges, 32nd USCT as a Corporal. The 1850 Federal Census shows an 18-year-old William Ganges living in the same household as Sampson and Torbert.
6 Frederick Henry Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (The Dyer Publishing Company, 1908), 1729.
7 The Central News (Perkasie, Pennsylvania), Thursday, October 5, 1893; Page 3. The article describes Wallace Burt as an “Indian half-breed”, other papers running the story described him as a half-breed Cherokee and a negro looking half-breed Indian. Torbert Ganges is referred to as a colored man in some newspapers or an old negro.
8 The Allentown Leader (Allentown, Pennsylvania), Friday, December 13, 1895; Page 1.
12 The Allentown Leader (Allentown, Pennsylvania), Thursday, December 19, 1895; Page 1.
13 The Columbian (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), Thursday, July 22, 1897. Page 6
14 The Central News (Perkasie, Pennsylvania), Thursday, February 17, 1898; Page 4. – – The Bucks County Gazette (Bristol, Pennsylvania), Thursday, February 16, 1899. He appears on this list twice. Once for his burial in 1898 and then when his headstone is placed in 1899.
About Sharece Blakney
Sharece Blakney is an independent historical research consultant. Her research interests focus on American slavery and freedom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, specifically in legal and social history. Her current work, Stories We Know and Those We Met Along the Way, involves the development of the African American community in Kingsessing and Southwest Philadelphia. Previous projects include Charting a Path to Resistance, an interactive mural and mobile app commissioned by the City of Philadelphia. The mural centered on abolitionism, Black women activists, and racial violence in nineteenth-century Philadelphia.
Blakney holds an MA in American History from Rutgers University-Camden and is currently pursuing an MI in Library & Information Science with a concentration in Archives & Preservation at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.