By Michael Schreiber
The Twisted Tail Bourbon House and Juke Joint is a new arrival in the Headhouse Square area of Philadelphia’s South Second Street. However, the building housing the Twisted Tale is one of the oldest in the city to house a drinking establishment — and there are reports of resident ghosts to prove it!
Daniel and Susanna McKaraher — who are both buried at Old Pine — were the first to open a tavern in the building around 1799. But the McKarahers’ story as innkeepers begins with another tavern — the Sign of the Mermaid, located on the west side of Second Street, just north of Lombard.
In the 18th century, South Second Street contained a large number of taverns. Some were alehouses that drew a rowdy crowd. Others were more respectable; farmers who came from the countryside to sell meat and vegetables in the New Market often used their bedchambers for overnight stays.
The Mermaid was one of the larger taverns — three stories, with a four-story addition in the rear, and separate kitchen and stables. Unfortunately, by 1788, the long-time owner of the Mermaid, William Murdoch, had fallen steeply into debt. Murdoch’s tavern was confiscated by the city, and purchased in a sheriff’s sale by William and Susanna Hammill. Susanna was born in Fagg’s Manor, Chester County, to schoolteacher John Dunwoody and his wife, also named Susanna. William Hammill, a “Scots-Irish” immigrant from the northern part of Ireland, married the daughter Susanna in 1774 at the Third Presbyterian Church (“Old Pine”), at Fourth and Pine Streets. Apparently, Susanna was only 16 years old at the time of their wedding. A couple of years after their marriage, William left to fight in the American Revolution. It was said that the hardships of life in the army eventually caused William’s death, which came not long after purchasing the Mermaid. For a decade after her husband had died, Susanna managed the tavern, while raising five daughters from the marriage (two sons had died in infancy).
It was not at all uncommon for women — most of them widows — to operate commercial businesses in Philadelphia of that era. Next door to the Mermaid, for example, was a millinery shop (a shop for women’s hats) owned by a Black woman, Jane Mullen. A large African American community, both slave and free, lived in the New Market area, and many of them were undoubtedly Mullen’s customers. And next door to her establishment was another millinery shop, run by Arrabella Stewart.
Susanna Hammill was not much more than 30 years old when William died. She was said to have been uncommonly beautiful, and we can expect that the young widow had many suitors. It was a local blacksmith and militia officer, Daniel McKaraher (also spelled McCarragher), who finally won her heart. Unfortunately, Daniel already had a wife (of a sort), Rosanna; she was Daniel’s second wife, having married him in 1780, while Daniel, a widower, was serving as a soldier in the Revolution.
In 1792, after Daniel had evidently been involved with Susanna Hammill for quite some time, Rossana McKaraher sued him for desertion and cruelty, seeking a divorce and alimony. Daniel replied in court that Rosanna had never really been “lawfully joined in marriage with him.” Furthermore, he said, if he had “ever offered any indignities” to Rosanna, it had only been “occasioned by her violent temper and disposition and by [her] indecent and provoking conduct.”
The court awarded Rosanna a divorce in June 1793, by which time it appears that Susanna and Daniel already had a daughter, Elizabeth, on the way. But Rosanna wasn’t through with Daniel yet. In a new case, in 1800, she sued for alimony payments, asserting that she now understood that Daniel was wealthier than he had told her he was several years earlier. Testimony from both sides was quite bitter. One of Daniel’s daughters from the first marriage testified in court that she had witnessed Rosanna stealing money from Daniel’s desk using a false key. After trying to sort it all out, the court ordered Daniel to pay Rosanna $120 in alimony per year, which he continued to send her until the day he died.
Daniel McKaraher was highly respected in the community; his reputation hardly fit the image that Rosanna created of his being a “debaucher” and a thief. Some sources state that Daniel had been a freedom fighter in Ireland, and was forced to emigrate for political reasons shortly before the American Revolution. He fought with Washington’s troops, and endured the cold winter at Valley Forge. After the war, he became active in political affairs and with the Masonic brotherhood, serving for many years as treasurer of Philadelphia’s Grand Lodge.
It is curious that throughout the decade of the 1790s, the Mermaid tavern (the name might have changed by then) continued to operate under the nominal ownership of “Susanna Hammill (widow), innkeeper,” while city directories located her husband at his house and blacksmith’s forge at Third and Union. Moreover, Daniel McKaraher’s account books, on file at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, show that as late as 1807 he was paying for two separate pews at the Presbyterian Church — one for himself and another for the “Widow Hammil.” These are possibly indications that the marriage of Daniel and Susanna was one of common law, and not officially recorded by the state or recognized by the church.
On Aug. 11, 1794, in a sheriff’s sale, Daniel McKaraher purchased a vacant lot on the opposite side of the street from Susanna’s tavern. The property was located on the northeast corner of a small street called Relief Alley (now Naudain Street), currently the site of the Twisted Tail. But events intervened before Daniel and Susanna could take steps to build on the property. A month after buying the lot, Daniel was called away to command a militia company in military action against the farmers of western Pennsylvania who had taken up arms in the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. And on Oct. 11, 1794, Susanna’s 18-year-old daughter, Susanna Hammill, named for her grandmother and mother, died after a lingering illness. Apparently, Daniel was away with the troops when the young woman died, and Susanna and her children had to mourn without him.
Close to five years passed until Daniel and Susanna McKaraher were at last able to open their tavern at the new site. The old Mermaid tavern and the blacksmith’s shop on Third Street were both sold, and their living quarters were relocated to the new building as well. It was quite spacious and one of the better taverns in the district, furnished with looking glasses, framed maps and pictures on the walls, and many items of mahogany. Daniel’s receipt books show that he continued to perform occasional smithing jobs even after opening the tavern with Susanna.
But the McKarahers’ good fortune did not last very long. Susanna died at age 49 (of lock jaw) and was buried in the cemetery of the Third Presbyterian Church on Aug. 21, 1807. Sometime later, a reconciliation seems to have taken place between Daniel and Rosanna. After Daniel died, in 1811, his sons Charles and James — together with Rosanna — continued to operate the tavern for a while. Nevertheless, Susanna’s heirs challenged the settlement of Daniel’s estate, and their suit raged in the courts for years.
Oh, and the ghosts? People say that they make themselves known every once and a while at the Twisted Tail. Perhaps the McKarahers’ legal battles are still being fought in the restless world of the spirits.
More information on Daniel and Susanna McKaraher, and on the people of Philadelphia’s New Market ward in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, can be found in Michael Schreiber’s book, “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America.”