Eyewitness 1847: Harmonists' patriarch dies in unique town

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Journalist Sara Jane Clarke provided one of the last written descriptions of George Rapp when she reported on the Harmonist town of Economy in the summer of 1847.

The German-born Rapp had led members of the communitarian Harmony Society on their multiple treks from Europe to three different locations in the New World. The last town Rapp founded, Economy, on the banks of the Ohio River, is part of present-day Ambridge.

"The Patriarch, Rapp, is still living and, with his quaint garb and flowing white beard, is a most respectable and Abrahamish-looking personage," she wrote in a story that appeared Aug. 9, 1847, in The Pittsburgh Daily Gazette. Clarke, who grew up as the daughter of a doctor in nearby New Brighton, wrote under the pen name Grace Greenwood. Her story about "The Economites" first appeared in a women's magazine called "The Home Journal."

"He must be very old, and has been quite famous in his time," she wrote. "I believe Byron speaks of him somewhere."

In his epic poem, "Don Juan," Lord Byron devoted two dozen lines to "Rapp the Harmonist" who "embargo'd marriage in his harmonious settlement ..."

Byron's reference was to the Harmonists' practice of celibacy, which flowed from their belief that they must keep themselves pure in preparation for the imminent return of Jesus. "In this unique town, though there is much industry, there is no bustle," Clarke wrote. "All is order and quietness, almost Sabbath-like repose."

She attributed that quietness to the "peculiar regulations of the society" that translated into a scarcity of children. "We hear not the musical laughter and prattle of childhood -- nor the blowing of penny trumpets, nor the beating of tin drums."

Clarke observed good and bad from that policy. "There are no dances and frolickings of youths and maidens on the village green, and no happy young bridegroom may be seen sitting in his porch, serenely smoking his meerschaum."

But neither were there drunkards or shrews. "In the chill night, no injured wife wanders without, flying from the brutalities of inebriated manhood -- and within no poor fellow is remorselessly [criticized] for the day's offenses."

No sooner had Clarke's story appeared than the Gazette reported cataclysmic change to the communal society. "George Rapp died at Economy" the newspaper reported on Aug. 11. While the story said he was nearly 92 and passed away on Aug. 9, the commonly accepted date for his death is Aug. 7 at age 89.

"His influence was of no common kind, and exerted as it was, produced no common result," the Gazette story said. "What the effect of his death may be with the community among whom he presided, remains to be seen."

While they waited for the return of Jesus, society members continued to operate and invest in a variety of successful businesses, including railroads and oil drilling. Over the decades, however, Harmonist membership became smaller and smaller. It dissolved in 1906 when the last trustee sold off its remaining assets.

Much of what was the village of Economy is now part of a national historic district in Ambridge. About six acres that include many of the most significant Harmonist buildings are part of a state historic site operated by volunteers.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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