This little square pianoforte fit neatly into a home. With the lid down, it looked and functioned just like a side table. It was just the thing in the mid-to-late 18th century for dinner parties. The trendiest hostess amused her guests by playing an accompaniment while everyone joined in singing the latest hits.
The decorative nameboard identifies the manufacturer as Astor & Co. at 79 Cornhill, London. Under the lid, additional markings indicate piano importer George Schetky sold it in his Philadelphia music store. This information narrows the date of manufacture to circa 1796-1824.
“One old small piano”
When Jesse Walton of Alton died in 1866, his estate included “one old small piano.” The estimated value of Walton’s personal estate, including some boxes, trunks, shelving, chairs, and a clock in addition to the piano, totaled $50. By comparison, a good secondhand piano alone cost about $150-$200 at the time. People considered square pianos old-fashioned.
Willard Flagg of Moro purchased the little old piano. It eventually ended up with his daughter Mary. The Madison County Historical Society received the piano through Mary in 1938.
A Lovejoy connection?
The story that the piano once belonged to Elijah P. Lovejoy surfaces in an unidentified 1875 newspaper article. The article describes the piano’s provenance as follows: Lovejoy owned the piano in 1837 when he was killed by the mob attacking his Alton press. The piano was next acquired by Jesse Walton (also an abolitionist). Upon Walton’s death, Willard Flagg obtained the piano for a pittance at the estate auction.
The story grew legs over time. When another piano owner sold a “Lovejoy piano” in 1885,† Willard Flagg’s widow (Sarah Smith Flagg) contested the claim with two affidavits. (Unfortunately Lovejoy’s widow couldn’t settle the dispute, having died in 1870.)
One of Jesse Walton’s daughters (Julia Walton McConnel) attested that the Flagg piano was the same piano she had grown up playing, and that her father had purchased it from Lovejoy’s widow (Celia).
A piano tuner (V. Walter) attested that the Flagg piano was the same piano he tuned for Jesse Walton in 1861. He further attested that Walton told him the piano had been owned by Lovejoy. (Later sources elaborate that V. Walter was blind.)
What do you think?
The connection to Lovejoy is hard to prove with objective evidence. Both affidavits rely on secondhand information.‡ No receipts, letters, or other documentation has been found containing a firsthand account of ownership of the piano being transferred from Celia Lovejoy to Walton. No evidence has been found that the Lovejoys even owned a piano.
As a hero and martyr, Elijah Lovejoy’s fame and fascination rivaled that of any celebrity. Just like celebrity fans today, some Lovejoy enthusiasts prized anything he touched. Maybe Jesse Walton obtained this piano from Celia Lovejoy. Or maybe the story grew around this old small piano because people, then and now, want to feel close to their heroes.
Whether or not Elijah and Celia Lovejoy owned this piano, today we benefit from the fact that Madison County residents treasured it. Either way it remains a lovely example of a popular instrument from a bygone era.
Listen to Kelly Nivison play Clementi’s Sonatina No. 3, Op. 36, Spiritoso on a similar Astor & Co. square piano.
†Mary Gere of Upper Alton sold her “Lovejoy piano” to an A.M.E. church official representing northern Missouri. The bishop planned to present the piano to Wilberforce University, a private black university in Ohio.
‡In a letter to Sarah Flagg, Julia says that her father purchased the piano from Celia Lovejoy “a few years after the murder of her [Celia’s] husband.” Since Julia was born in 1841, four years after Elijah Lovejoy’s death, she was too young to have firsthand knowledge of the piano purchase.
Alton Telegraph. Various articles.
Cole, Michael. Square Pianos. Accessed February 5, 2020. http://www.squarepianos.com/index.html
Jesse Walton probate documents. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://www.ancestry.com/ (subscription required).
Kickapoo, Volume 1, Number 23 (October 10, 1928). Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Palmieri, Robert, editor. The Piano: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Scharf, J. Thomas, and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia: 1609-1884. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1884. Available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library https://www.hathitrust.org/
Simon, Paul. Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
United States census records and other public records.