Jonathan Pitney’s Beach Village
Medicine wasn’t enough. He needed to be something more than a country doctor. Jonathan Pitney had been caring for the sick and injured for more than 30 years, and he was growing weary. A medical practice in 19th-century America wasn’t yet a path to wealth and prestige, and Pitney hungered for both. He knew he’d find neither caring for his patients.
Jonathan Pitney looked like a character out of a Dickens novel. Tall and lean, nearly always draped in a long black cape, Pitney’s piercing blue eyes and long thin hands were the first thing others noticed. His pale craggy skin, together with his large hooknose and high forehead crowned by flowing gray locks, made him a striking figure. Jonathan, the son of Shubal and Jane Pitney, was born in Mendham, New Jersey, on October 29, 1797. The Pitney family had arrived in this country circa 1700. As told to a biographer, Pitney’s great-grandfather and his brother had come from England to “enjoy civil and religious liberty, of which they were deprived at home.” They eventually settled in Morris County, New Jersey. After graduating from medical school at Columbia College in New York, Jonathan left his parents’ home in Mendham and headed south to the bayside Village of Absecon. He was 23 when he arrived in southern New Jersey, and he remained there the rest of his life.
There wasn’t much to New Jersey south of Trenton in 1820. During the two generations following the American Revolution, things had changed little. With the exception of the city of Camden along the Delaware River and the summer resort village of Cape May at the southern tip of the state, southern New Jersey was a vast pine forest. This pine wilderness was interrupted by narrow, sandy stagecoach roads that followed the footpaths of earlier residents, the Lenni Lenape. Sprinkled throughout this green expanse from the Delaware River and Bay to the Atlantic Ocean were tiny villages whose residents descended from the British Isles and Northern Europe. Their lives were centered on farming, fishing, and the manufacture of glass,bog iron, and charcoal. In time, these pioneers became known as “Pineys.” Absecon Village was part of that world and the place Jonathan Pitney chose to begin his medical practice.
Pitney was dedicated to his profession and worked tirelessly. He made rounds by horseback up and down the South Jersey coast to places a doctor had never been. Eleven years after his arrival, on April 21, 1831, Jonathan Pitney married Caroline Fowler, daughter of Rebecca Fowler, owner of the Sailor Boy Inn in Elwood, 15 miles west of Absecon and one of the many villages Jonathan Pitney visited. For years, Pitney was the only doctor many families knew and it was common for him to be called away from dinner or awakened in the middle of the night. Delivering babies, comforting the dying, stitching wounds, and setting broken bones from farming and fishing accidents made him well known throughout the region and loved by his patients. But his income was meager. Oftentimes he had no choice but to barter, and some say he relied upon his mother-in-law to get by. As the years piled up Pitney’s enthusiasm shrank, and he became as weather-beaten as his doctor’s bag.
Author of introduction, etc.: Terence Winter
Bio: Terence Winter is an Emmy Award–winning screenwriter for his work on The Sopranos. Along with Martin Scorsese, he is currently an executive producer for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. He lives in New York City. Author: Nelson Johnson
Bio: Nelson Johnson practiced law for 30 years, during which time he was active in Atlantic City and Atlantic County politics. He is currently a judge of the New Jersey Superior Court, sitting in the Civil Division of Atlantic County. He lives in Hammonton, New Jersey.
"Read Boardwalk Empire. . . . Johnson spares no detail when painting a picture of the illegal activities that flourished in Atlantic City." - Egg Harbor News (New Jersey)