Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

1843: A Swim and a Nickname

A Swim 

In the summer of 1843, several hundred angry boatmen blocked the transportation of coal down river at Easton. The men wanted an increase of either 30 cents in company script or 23 cents hard money per ton of coal that they transported down the river. In 1842, 236,448 tons of coal traveled south via Easton. Predictions suggested 500,000 tons of coal per year would travel the canal within five years. Naturally, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company scoffed at demands from striking workers. In mid-July, the boatmen held a rally through Easton to drum up support from the citizens. About 250 “ragged, barefooted, half dressed men…mounted on half starved mules and horses” paraded through the town with a number of men on foot following behind. The strikers tied up 400 to 500 boats to block the coal from making it to market. The strikers did allow boats from the Morris Canal Company to pass the blockade. In late July, the sheriff of Northampton County, several magistrates, constables, and Asa Packer attempted to either break the blockade or negotiate with the strikers. Packer, still a serving Representative in the Pennsylavania government, felt a rush of blood and with some companions started to untie the rope that connected the boat blockade. Angry strikers spotted this group and started to attack Packer and the others. The boatmen threw Packer into the water and unleashed a volley of stones and other objects in his direction. The interested parties settled the strike a few weeks after this incident. No one knows why Packer intervened in the manner he did. At least one writer put forward the idea that the “passionate ignorance” of the boatmen led Packer to think about founding a university to better educate the people of the Lehigh Valley, but that claim is unsubstantiated.

The Nickname 

Asa Packer did not seek a return to his seat in the Pennsylvania House in the fall of 1843. Instead, he received the nomination to fill one of the associate judgeships for the newly created Carbon County. Most American counties set up a court system with a president judge and two associates. The president judge almost always had formal training in the law, while locally prominent men with little or no formal training often filled the post of associate judge. Indeed, Packer's appointment as an associate judge relied more on his persona and less on his educational attainments. Despite the difference in experience and training, if the president judge did not attend court the associate judges could pass rulings. Asa Packer did sit in on the first murder trial in Carbon County, which started June 1, 1844. After his appointment, Packer won election for the following term and served as an associate judge from December 1843 to November 1848. For his first eleven and a half months on the job, Packer earned $105. Perhaps the most important aspect of this era of Packer's life was the acquisition of a nickname, Judge. After his time serving Carbon County, Packer's friends and associates often referred to him as "Judge Packer" or simply "the Judge."

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