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Monaca's First Dark Days

Milestones Vol 29. No. 1

by Eileen Aiken, Ed. D.

Although Monaca had been a temporary home to many people, the first permanent settlers did not arrive until 1832. Then the town was called Phillipsburg. It was nothing more than a patch of abandoned wooden structures which had housed the workers of Stephen Phillips, a builder of quality river boats.

The 1832 founders were members of a German brotherhood, the New Philadelphia Society (NPS). The majority of them had seceded from the Harmony Society, Georg Rapp's commune at Economy. But other Germans were charter members of the NPS as well. Many of them had gone to Economy early in 1832, intending to join Rapp. When they found the Harmony Society in a state of turmoil, they cast their lot with the seceders instead.

The congregation arrived at Phillipsburg with a constitution in hand and a vision in mind. Their leader was Count Leon. Half a year earlier, he had brought a delegation of about 40 people to visit Economy. When he left, his following numbered in the hundreds. Like Georg Rapp and other intellects of the day, Leon had a great interest in alchemy - the changing of common rocks into gold. All believed that such a feat could happen, but only in the presence of the "philosopher's stone," the mystical catalyst which no one had yet found. Leon claimed to possess this miraculous piece of earth.

To complement the property purchased from Stephen Phillips, the New Philadelphians bought three adjoining parcels of vacant land, giving them plenty of acreage along the Ohio River. The real estate was acquired for speculation, since their plan was to remain only for a year while they collected their severance from Georg Rapp. They had agreed to a settlement of $105,000, to be paid in three installments of $35,000 each, six months apart. They lamented that the amount was far from satisfactory to compensate for years of labor and endowments of all earthly possessions (a condition of membership). But the seceders were anxious to get on with their plan, so they agreed to the terms.

The first installment was received a month late, and was substantially less than had been negotiated. The Phillipsburgers were able to recoup some of the difference, and were optimistic that an adjustment would be made in the remaining two payments. Meanwhile, they paid off the property, advertised nationally for new members, and made a few improvements to the town: a church, a new house for Leon, and a cemetery. In addition, they re-erected the Count's alchemy laboratory, which had been shipped down from Economy at an unexpected expense. Leon spent his time endeavoring to transform rocks into gold.

Although the New Philadelphians were excellent farmers and manufacturers, they planted no crops and built no factories. Just a few artisans, such as the tailors and the blacksmiths, carried on with the work they had done at Economy. The new society had no need for the long-range enterprises of agriculture and industry. Their plan was to be gone shortly after March 6 of the following year, when their nest egg was in hand, and untold wealth had resulted from the promised gold.

The New Philadelphia Society was dealt another blow when allegations of fraud were brought against Leon. Through deft detective work, the business manager for the Harmony Society (Friedrich Rapp) had discovered that the Count was no nobleman. His true identity was Bernard Mueller; his parentage was dubious, and he had used a variety of names over the course of his life. Worst of all, he had run from Europe in the heat of scandal. Friedrich used this information to damage the reputation of the NPS, and to hold up their final installment.

Already the New Philadelphia Society was in a financial quagmire. Leon had squandered his society's money and borrowed heavily against their assets. Dozens of people had resigned, and according to contract, had been repaid the entire amount they had endowed at joining as well as compensation for their labor. Most of Phillipsburg's residents were openly expressing disgust, including those who had come with the Count from Germany. Scores more quit the NPS. In spite of this, Leon retained his power; in fact, one community leader (the former Harmonist, Jacob Wagner) openly extolled the Count's virtues many decades later.

The spring of 1833 found Phillipsburg in a sorry state. Not only had Leon failed to produce gold, but the final settlement was held up: Friedrich Rapp had imposed a string of caveats and was reneging on the agreed amount. The townspeople were starving and needed medical supplies. The situation was especially critical since several dozen of their young women were pregnant. At first the seceders attempted to resolve their problem with diplomacy, claiming that since their tie with the Harmony Society had not been severed, they were still under their original contract; this entitled them to food and medical care. That tactic failed. Next they determined to approach Economy, at least to procure some food.

But Georg Rapp was not interested in dealing with the New Philadelphia Society. When their forty or so representatives reached Economy on April 2, they saw just a handful of Harmonists, mostly women and old men, and some visitors to the town. First the Phillipsburgers visited Rapp's house and the living quarters of the tavern keeper, but their knocks went unanswered. As tension mounted, agitation turned to fury. According to eye witness accounts, the encounter included threats, brandishing of weapons, and even blows. Some seceders broke into the tavern and took food. The fracas ended when the militia arrived. The offenders were bound over, and some of them, including Leon, were slated for trial in September.

By summer, The New Philadelphia Society was still limping along at Phillipsburg. But all of these strains had taken their toll. On August 18, the brotherhood officially dissolved. Two weeks later, the Count and many of his still-faithful supporters boarded flatboats and headed for Louisiana. The few who remained in Phillipsburg - the true founding fathers of Monaca - were left to resolve matters with Rapp, pay off the many debts, build themselves a real town, and get on with their lives.