Samuel Penny and Rebecca Rhino

Buried in Munsell’s “Annals of Albany,” in the “Notes from the Newspapers” section, is this tidbit from 1833 on the death of one Samuel T. Penny.

“He was a native of England, had resided in this city about thirty years, and was noted for his biblical knowledge and eccentricities, the latter the effect of partial insanity. He was buried in the cemetery of the First Methodist church.”

Okay. Interesting. Then there’s a footnote, which is somewhat singular, as such extensive footnotes were not common in the Annals:

“Penny married a widow – Rebecca Rhino – (rather a curious conjunction of names), who had considerable property, some of which he soon squandered; in consequence of which and his vagaries besides, she obtained a divorce from him in the state of Vermont, whither she went to reside for a while with that purpose. On her return to Albany she opened quite a large dry good store in the building now No. 585 Broadway, where she transacted an extensive business, while Penny kept a store a few doors above in the same street. Both of their names appear, as merchants, in Fry’s Directory of 1813. She resumed her former name, and many of our oldest citizens will remember Mrs. Rhino’s Cheap Store, and the crowds of customers she attracted thither.

In his latter days Penny became quite poor, and mended umbrellas for a living. He went from house to house collecting them, and was rarely seen except with a bundle of old umbrellas under his arm, striding along the streets and clearing the sidewalks of all the youngsters in his way. With them, Old Penny and Old Umbrellas were synonymous terms.”

The name Rhino seems singular, particularly in old Dutch Albany, but her name appears multiple times. In 1800, she shows up in the federal census (as men were usually the householder listed, she must have been considered the head of household). In her home were one free white male up to 10 years old, another between 16 and 26, two free white females 10 or below, two aged 16 to 26, and one (presumably Rebecca) aged 26 to 45. In the 1817 directory, she is listed at 312 North Market Street (now Broadway), engaged in “merchant commerce.” According to the State Museum, in 1800 and 1801, she paid seven dollars for a grocer’s license (yeah, government regulations are entirely new). They say that she was born in 1766 or later, and suspect that she was a widow in 1799 who married neighbor Samuel T. Penny sometime thereafter. A John Rhino, perhaps her son, shows up as a blacksmith in the 1830 directory.

The Journal of the Senate of the State of New York notes that a petition was submitted on her behalf on Feb. 20, 1816:

“The petition of Rebecca Penny, late Rebecca Rhino, of the city of Albany, praying that she may have the sole right to convey her property, which she has at present or may hereafter accumulate by lawful means; and that she may be known hereafter by the name of Rebecca Rhino, was read and referred to a select committee, consisting of Mr. Jay, Mr. A. Miller and Mr. Palmer.”

Rebecca Rhino is an interesting early example of a woman owning her own property, running her own business, and reclaiming her (original?) name in Albany. We don’t turn up much else on poor, possibly half-insane Samuel Penny. He appears on tax assessments from 1802, with a non-substantial personal estate of $50 (and owing a tax of $0.15). As Munsell noted, he showed up in the 1813 directory at 44 Market Street, also listed as “merchant commerce.” We’re sorry to report that even in the early 19th century, you couldn’t make a living fixing umbrellas.

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