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Through Her Eyes: Bringing History to Life at the Philadelphia Science Festival

Donah Beale
Donah Beale takes on the persona of 18th Century Pennsylvania Hospital nurse, Lucy Finley

To say that Philadelphia was a busy place to be in the summer of 1776 would be an understatement. There was a revolution underway, independence to declare, and the founding of a nation happening in the heart of what would become the first capital of the United States of America. But, there’s another part of this story that many likely haven’t heard, and that’s the story of Pennsylvania Hospital nurse Lucy Finley.

“She had to have lived within walking distance of the hospital,” said Donah Beale, a historical reenactor who will inhabit Finley’s character as part of the Philadelphia Science Festival this Sunday at an open house at the hospital. “So if she’s walking distance from the hospital, she’s walking distance from Independence Hall and everything else that’s going on at the time.”

There will be four historical reenactors in Pennsylvania Hospital on Sunday focused on various aspects of the history of the hospital – including Beale’s husband Charles, who will be stationed in the library portraying someone doing medical research. But for Donah Beale, a seasoned reenactor who has performed up and down the east coast, it’s the real life research she’s done that has given her a chance to inhabit Finley for the first time.

This will be Beale’s third year working as a reenactor at Pennsylvania Hospital. It was while researching with Stacey C. Peeples, MA, curator and lead archivist of the hospital’s historic collections, that she came across Finley, and was immediately drawn to her.

beale 3

“There was just something about the way her name was written,” Beale said. “The same person wrote every name in the ledger, but for some reason, the name Lucy Finley was written with a little more care.”

Beale immediately set out to learn as much as she could about Finley. Records show she worked a series of jobs at the hospital from 1776 through the 1780s, starting out as a washer woman, soap maker, and baker, before eventually becoming a charge nurse. It’s a progression that has Beale riveted.

“If I could have dinner with somebody, anyone in the world, I’d want to have dinner with Lucy Finley,” Beale said. “I’d want to ask her ‘How did you pull that off exactly, young lady?’”

Records show Finley was also a patient at the hospital during this stretch. She was treated for a sore leg in September and October of 1981, five years after she’d already been working as a washer and soap maker. Beale notes that it was not uncommon for people who were otherwise stable, sober, and responsible to help out in the hospital. She thinks Finley may have started helping out as a nurse during her seven-week stay, and that she must have done well, leading to her actually getting paid for her nursing work.

Through Lucy’s eyes, as well as those of the other historical reenactors, visitors will have the chance to see the history of America’s oldest hospital come to life.

“This is different from any other tour where someone would lead you around,” said Peeples, who organizes the open house. “There are guides available in certain parts of the hospital and in the garden, but the reenactors make this interactive and add so much color from the time period.”

Beale will combine everything she’s learned about Finley with all that history knows about nurses at the time to paint a picture of what life in the hospital was like. She notes that nurses at the time had very different jobs than they do now. They didn’t give medication or hook up an IV (that didn’t become commonplace until the 1950s), for example. Instead, the job was closer to what a school teacher in the early 19th century would be expected to do, or perhaps a mother with a sick child. They cleaned up bodily fluids, did laundry, or maybe did some cooking.

“You could spend hours giving someone gruel or washing a patient,” Beale said. “The work involved a huge amount of tasks, though none that were terribly sophisticated.”

Beale in Door way

Peeples points out that so much of what we know from the period is seen through the eyes of the poor.

“Someone like Lucy who started out doing wash was not a woman of means,” Peeples said. “We know what she was paid when she was at the hospital, and how her work evolved. As historians, we’ve learned to take small bits of information and expand that by combining it with other sources to develop a fuller picture.”

Beale agrees, noting that records also show the price of certain goods at the time. Combining that information with what someone like Finley was paid fills in the details on what kind of life she likely led, and it also further shows her connection to the history unfolding around her. Her early wages were paid in shillings and pounds – 15 shillings per day in April of 1779, three pounds per day by November – while she was later paid in dollars – 20 per day in June of 1780, essentially making the same money throughout, even as the currency and its value fluctuated during the war. In addition to all of those details, Beale notes Pennsylvania Hospital itself adds to the portrayal of people from the time period.

“It’s not just the costumes, it’s also the original building. The spaces where all of this happened still exist,” Beale said. She also points out the history of the building could be an opportunity to expand reenactments in the future, noting that British soldiers occupied the hospital for a time during the American Revolution.

In addition to her husband Charles, Beale will be joined by fellow historical reenactors Mary Anne Cowan and Nancy Webster. Cowan will be in the operating theater with Donah Beale. Webster will be in the apothecary. In addition, Kate McGrann will be in the Physic Garden.

The open house runs Sunday, April 28th from noon to 4:00 p.m. Peeples advises visitors that they will be required to walk up and down several steps in order to see all of the reenactors. For more information, visit the Philadelphia Science Festival’s website.

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