It can be a challenge to reconstruct the lives of working-class Berkshire individuals who lived in the 19th century and earlier.
Existence of a carte de visite photograph of Benjamin Wilson is a case in point. What can be learned about the life of a man who shoveled coal or hefted ice blocks most of his life?
Wilson lived in Pittsfield. Described as a “big and venerable” employee at Morton’s coal yard “where he has handled the shovel and basket for thirty years,” the Sept. 1 1881 Eagle included the picture in which he was “photographed in work-day garb, with the implements of his trade around him, and the picture is to be used as an advertisement for the business.”
Wilson sits in a somber pose with shovel and delivery basket.
He died in January 1886. A funeral was held at Second Congregational Church. The Berkshire County Eagle advised: “His parents came from Connecticut and reared 10 children, only one of whom is now living. Benjamin came to this town 40 years ago and went to work for the late Gerry Guilds, in the coal trade. He continued at this work until three years ago when his age, nearly 90 years, compelled him to seek rest. He was a man of kindly heart, respected by all who knew him, and his loss will be especially felt in Rev. Mr. [Samuel] Harrison’s church, where he had for a dozen years served acceptably as deacon.”
A delegation from the F.G. Guild & Co. office attended the service. Guild himself had died in 1872, and his partner W.G. Morton had assumed the business.
Wilson was listed as a laborer living at 56 Robbins Ave. in 1886. His son Benjamin Jr., a “night soiler,” boarded with him, according to Hamilton Child’s Berkshire County Gazetteer. If there was an occupation lower than a coal shoveler, it was a night soiler: a collector of waste from outhouses, limited by ordinance to nighttime work. In May 1882, a divorce was granted to Parthenia S. Wilson from Benjamin Jr.. She charged cruelty and abusive treatment and was granted custody of their three children.
In 1886, she lived at 28 River St., her occupation given as laundress.
Further record of Ben Jr. is elusive.
Guild had started the coal enterprise when the first trains on the Western Railroad arrived in the city in 1841, meeting an early shipment of coal with his team and single wagon. Wilson was one of his early hires.
In February 1870, Wilson Sr. was gathering ice from Silver Lake with a span of horses when they broke through “and were only saved from drowning by prompt assistance,” according to an Eagle notice. Guilds offered “ice of the best quality, in large or small quantities, upon the most favorable terms,” according to an advertisement.
In February 1868, the Springfield Republican estimated Ben Wilson “has lifted or carried coal enough upon his shoulders to make a pile in the Park quite as large as the new insurance block, or about 227,120 tons.”
The coal-handler’s wife was Anna Eliza. The couple had a daughter, Susan, who married stove mounter Charles W. Vosburg in 1866. Vosburg was the first non-white juror empaneled in court proceedings in Pittsfield, as this newspaper reported Jan. 8, 1900.
In 1863, Ben’s son Henry had enlisted with Company I, Massachusetts 54th Infantry. Wilson received a letter from Henry dated Oct. 18, 1864, when the latter was in the South. He enclosed $20 and a request to hear back soon. Henry died in July 1965 in Charleston, S.C., of dysentery.
Ben Wilson was affable and well-liked, but that was in his business relations. Feelings toward Black residents and other minorities could be less than charitable here, even in entertainment. As an example, the month before Wilson died, a group in Hinsdale held a standing-room-only event at Town Hall. It included a skit with blackface performances, “The Coal Heavers Revenge,” according to The Pittsfield Sun.
While it was socially acceptable in the era of Ben Wilson, blackface entertainment fortunately is considered disgraceful today.