A Scandal in the Family | Discovering Adelphia Binga

Adelphia Seymour-Powers-Binga

Below are newspaper headlines involving my 3rd great-grandmother Adelphia Binga and her alleged brother John H. Thomas. The first article, “A Sister’s Devotion” (7.23.1896) tells of Adelphia’s efforts to obtain a pardon for Mr. Thomas from a life sentence on a double murder charge. The article outlines the case and how Adelphia responds to the discovery that John is alive and well. NOTE: Based upon an old Detroit newspaper obituary, Adelphia believed he’d died several years earlier.

“Mrs. Binga who is herself quite old, but as active and vigorous of mind as any woman thirty years younger, resolved to devote the reminder of her days to the relief of her brother-to securing his pardon or to witness his death, or to die herself…First ascertaining through the assistance of attorneys and others, that it was too late to have the case reviewed by the Supreme Court and that all the records of Thomas’ trial before Recorder Swift had been lost, she set about obtaining affidavits of favorable character from several persons who had been eye witnesses of circumstances that had bearing on his innocence…These she has presented to the pardon boards, one after another,  for the last three years.  Every time they have been rejected, the last time in May of this year, but she is dauntless.”   A Sister’s Devotion, Detroit Free Press, 7/23/1896, p. 10

The second article, “The Other Side Of It” (7.24.1896) exposes neighborhood perceptions of Mr. Thomas and opinions about why Adelphia sought to free him from prison.

“These people say that Mrs. Binga is working on sentimental grounds solely, that as the sister of the convicted man she is actuated by motives that no other reasonable person would for a moment countenance.  They go on to give testimony that she carefully omits from the mass of affidavits that for the past three years she has been gathering and placing before the pardon board.”  The Other Side of It, Detroit Free Press, 7/24/1896, p. 7

I was shocked by this circumstance, as these sensationalized stories were the only bits of information I had regarding Adelphia. At the onset, I only had a few family stories, an almost indecipherable death certificate and a bad photo of an 1880’s tintype. The tantalizing prospect of a sibling raised my hopes of finding Adelphia’s origins. Although, having a convicted double murderer as an uncle was an unsettling notion.

Detroit Free Press, 7/23/1896, p. 10

Detroit Free Press, 7/23/1896, p. 10

Soon after, I found the “Wonder’s by Women” article wherein Adelphia describes her birth circumstances.

” I was left at the age of two weeks in the woods with an old Indian doctor, and raised among the Indians.”  Wonders by Women, St. Paul Daily Globe, 2/10/1889, p. 12

I was upset by this devastating news and I’m surprised it wasn’t communicated through the generations. Adelphia openly shares her life circumstances through these news articles, so it’s baffling that her situation was lost to oblivion. Sadly, we may never discover Adelphia’s true origins.

Due to the unfortunate circumstances of her birth and being raised within another culture, Adelphia likely suffered from emotional turmoil. These articles indicate that she was driven to self-actualize and I suspect she may have, at some point, invented a personal identity.

Detroit Free Press, 7/23/1896, p. 10

Detroit Free Press, 7/23/1896, p. 10

Adelphia leaves the adoptive home during her teen years, possibly working as a mid-wife and unlicensed doctor in Buffalo, NY. A family story says that William and Adelphia meet and marry in Buffalo. My research shows that they were married in Detroit, MI on 4/17/1844, by Pastor William C. Munroe. I suspect that she may have moved to Windsor, CA or even Detroit, before encountering William W. Binga. It took a while for me to find the registry listing, because William’s surname was misspelled Bingo. Also, Adelphia’s maiden named was Seymour and not Powers (the maiden name on her death certificate). Searching the 1830 and 40 US Census, I found several Iroquois families with the Seymour surname.  NOTE: This is a northern tribe that settled along the Hudson River. In the “Wonders by Women” article, Adelphia speaks of discovering her true identity stating,

“…(I) did not find out who I was until after I had been married and had two children of my own.  I wouldn’t tell you who I am, as I am related to some of the finest families in America.”  Wonders by Women, St. Paul Daily Globe, 2/10/1889, p. 12

Her first born, Adelaide comes along in 1845, Victoria in 1847, and Charlotte in 1849. Apparently, Adelphia acquires information regarding her true identity sometime before 1850. In every Michigan Census from 1850 to 1880 she lists New York State as her birthplace and that of her parents. Referring to her birth family Adelphia states,

“…they don’t want to know where I am or anything about me.”  Wonders by Women, St. Paul Daily Globe, 2/10/1889, p. 12

Adelphia’s birth circumstances and her identity search explains the maiden name change on her death certificate, but I don’t know why she would take the name of those who didn’t claim her at birth and wanted nothing to do with her later in life. The “Wonders by Women” article answered many questions for me and I’m very grateful that Adelphia so openly shared herself in this way.  Even though this situation seems a bit far fetched, without this interview we may have never known anything about her background.  I often wonder what was so horrible about Adelphia’s conception and birth that her family abandoned her.

The Circumstances of John H. Thomas

John H. Thomas and his parents are mulattoes from Virginia.  Born in 1815, he’s possibly an escaped slave. John enlists in company F of the First Michigan Colored Infantry on February 21, 1860 in Detroit, MI and musters out to Charleston, SC a week later. On May 12, 1863 he transfers to company E of the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry. He’s later discharged on July 16, 1864 at Morris Island, S.C. by reason of physical disability, having been unfit for duty 60 days. An accident during a work detail, causes an indirect inguinal hernia (a rupture wound), when a large heavy barrel falls on John. At that time, rupture wounds were chronically irritating with no hope of full recovery or complete pain relief. Consequently, John is designated an invalid on his pension records. Despite the disability, John makes his living as a barber at William W. Binga’s shop. Apparently, he spends lots of time drinking alcohol or blacked out as a result of his drunkenness.  The debilitating nature of his injury is probably why he’s sighted as being an alcoholic with a “vindictive disposition.”

John H. Thomas Home, Murder Scene

John H. Thomas Home, Murder Scene

“They say that Thomas was always known among the people of his neighborhood…as a quarrelsome man whom it was dangerous to approach, that his vile, vicious temper was daily visited on the head of not only his wife, whom he unmercifully whipped, but on his stepdaughter Hattie Fisher, whom he had tried to ruin, but who always repulsed his advances.  So great was the fear inspired by this man Thomas among his neighbors, regardless of color, that they protest strongly against any effort looking to his release…They claim that it is not liberty he seeks, but vengeance pure and simple.”  The Other Side of It, Detroit Free Press, 7/24/1896, p. 7

Those sworn to affidavits state that John could not have committed the murders, because he was blacked out in the barbershop lounge from drinking the night before.  It’s also interesting that these witnesses are not allowed to testify at his trial.

“Thomas claims that there was not the slightest evidence offered of intent or reason for the crime on his part.  The friends whose testimony is added to the foregoing are Hezekiah Watson, Harrison Worlds, Sam Jenkins and Alex Jenkins.  They swear that at about 11 o’clock on the evening before the murder Thomas came to Binga’s barbershop in a state of beastly intoxication; that they carried him upstairs and put him on a lounge, and went out and locked the door; that they did not come back until 5 o’clock in the morning and then found Thomas still on the lounge and very stupid from the drink.  None of this evidence appeared in the trial.”  A Sister’s Devotion, Detroit Free Press, 7/23/1896, p. 10

Detroit Free Press,5/19/1875, p. 1

The 1880 Michigan Census lists John as divorced. Clearly a widower and apparently by his own hand, this designation could be a simple mistake. However, John and Elizabeth could have been cohabiting and John was formerly divorce. I’ve been unable to locate a marriage license, divorce documents or 1860 and 70 Michigan Census listings for the Thomas’.  As well, my search for background information on murder victims, Elizabeth Thomas and daughter Hattie Fisher has been unfruitful.

John H. Thomas dies at Jackson Prison on 5/31/1899, two years after Adelphia’s death. He’s buried along with her and several other family members in the same Saginaw, MI cemetery section. I’m convinced that Adelphia and John are likely not blood related. He could be a Binga ancestor, a close friend of William’s or someone she met before marriage. This perplexing situation will take more research to determine John H. Thomas’ relationship to the Binga family, his migration to Detroit before the Civil War and why Adelphia considered him a brother. Click here to read all related newspaper articles.

©2011, C. Rae White

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About C. Rae White

I'm a proud 6th generation Detroiter, a creative who loves working with my hands and a fashion fanatic with a thing for shoes, bags and jewelry. I'm a family researcher who loves discovering the details of my ancestors lives. Thanks for stopping by!
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4 Responses to A Scandal in the Family | Discovering Adelphia Binga

  1. Wow, I as stated in my email, simply wow! This is very intriguing and I am glad you shared this with us. So the possibility is that he may not be related to you, but the real question is why did Mrs. Binga go through all that trouble to get him released? I hope you find some more answers. Peace.

  2. C. Rae White says:

    Me too, because it’s all very strange and confusing. I never thought it would be this hard to find the true identity of Adelphia Binga, she has become an enigma with a few very tall tales attached to her persona.

    I’m not sure why she spent the last few years of her life defending this man, maybe she really loved him deeply or she did it out of respect for her deceased husband (John could have been a Binga relative and I haven’t yet found the connection).

  3. Chip Canty says:

    Well, well, it looks like I have a distant cousin who’s as fascinated with history as I am! I just discovered 10 days ago that my grandfather — who till way past his death at 97 had his family convinced he was white — apparently was Marvelyn Cotillier’s older brother, William. I’m just unraveling a fascinating family history, even chasing down a bit of family gossip that even juicier than this one, if you can believe it. Would love to compare notes with you sometime! — Chip Canty, Boston, MA.

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