David B. Lee of Philadelphia: Inventor, Flight Pioneer, Dreamer, Attorney (1792-1836)

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Recently I decided to delve into the history of one of my mystery ancestors by the name of David B. (probably Bishop) Lee, an ancestor for whom I have had the BMD facts (birth, marriage, death) for quite awhile but whose life seemed to hold many mysteries.

David B. Lee’s family is rather well documented in various published genealogies  and journals. He belongs to the Guilford, CT, Lee family, a descendant of Edward Lee (d. 1727/8). However, these published sources merely illuminate the mystery of who David was and what his life consisted of. How did he end up in Philadelphia when none of his family seemed to have any connection to that city? How on earth did his daughter Orit ( a very unique name, the same as his sister) end up marrying someone in western New York with an equally unique name, Zina Henderson? So many things in David Lee’s story were highly unusual while at the same time being incontrovertible.

Here is what I knew about David: He was born 9 May, 1792 in Guilford, CT, a son of of Eber Lee (1760-1855), a Revolutionary War soldier, and his wife Huldah Bishop (1759-1836).  He lived in Philadelphia and married successively two daughters, Sarah and Rachael, of a Capt. James Cassell of either New York or Boston. He had daughters Orit Lee (b.c. 1825) who married Zina Henderson (my ancestors);  Sarah Lee (b. c. 1830) who married a Griffith; and Melvina T. Lee (b.c. 1833) who married Thomas Cheeseman. These daughters were born in Philadelphia, and David died in 1836, leaving a very young and presumably vulnerable family in Philadelphia with no other known family connections near them.

Additionally, a few years ago I spent half a year in Washington, DC, having been evacuated from Egypt during the Morsi revolution. At that time I discovered an obituary for Melvina Cheeseman of Camden, NJ, at the Library Of Congress which mentioned that her father was Judge David Lee of Philadelphia. This was quite an interesting piece of new information, as I had had no inkling of David Lee’s profession.

During the past year, I have traveled quite a lot in the US and three different times run up against evidence regarding David Lee that I couldn’t substantiate. First, at RootsTech 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah, I stopped at the booth of the Historical Society Of Pennsylvania and related that I had an ancestor from Philly that was purportedly a judge. Presumably he would have had to be a member of the Philadelphia Bar Association, so what were their suggestions regarding where I could look for further information? They mentioned several resources they had online, so I joined HSP and planned to examine their resources later. Unfortunately, HSP had technical problems all summer, and I was unable to examine their materials until recently.

Next, by happenstance in Albuquerque, my brother and I visited the Anderson-Abruzzo International Air Balloon Museum. There I saw an exhibit about a David Lee of Philadelphia having flown a balloon in a series of attempts in September of 1819. I recently learned that this balloon had been constructed by a partnership referred to as either Lee, Pomeroy & Co., or Lee, Bulkley and Pomeroy. One of these attempted flights, carried out across the river in Camden, NJ, caused a riot due to a launch delay of several hours combined with an ample supply of spirits. I inquired about this David Lee at the museum and was told that what is known about him has been gleaned from newspaper accounts about attempts to fly “The Camden Balloon,” as it was known, and little else. Knowing that my David Lee was in Philadelphia at this time seemed interesting, but frankly, I believed the likelihood of a connection to be remote. The fact that I had gleaned information linking David to the legal profession seemed to further discount the likelihood that my ancestor had also been engaged in flying hot air balloons in the early 1800s. It turned out that I was wrong.

My third run-in with unsubstantiated connections to David Lee was in Boston at the NEHGS Library, where I camped out for a couple weeks. In passing, I had mentioned Capt. James Cassell to some of the staff, and they were aware of a Capt. James Cassell who was buried in Boston Common Central Burying Ground. This James Cassell had emigrated from England before the Revolution and served as a mariner in the Continental Navy under John Paul Jones and John Barry.  During this service James Cassell was taken captive by the British at Barbados. James Cassell later married Abigail Dolbeare, a member of a very well-known Boston family engaged in the pewter trade and a direct descendant of one of the most interesting and influential of all New England pilgrims, William Pynchon. Again, this seemed interesting, but at the time, I hadn’t done enough research to substantiate this potential connection.

Having started to take a fresh look at David Lee in the last few weeks, I was astonished when these bits of information started to take on the air of credible, likely, even firm connections to my ancestor. At first, I could see there was a David Lee living in Spring Garden, Philadelphia County in the 1820s and 1830s. Spring Garden, which used to be a separately incorporated town, is the very heart of today’s Philadelphia. The David Lee here was at first listed as a scrivener (letter-writer or copyist) who seemed to be associated with the well-regarded book-binder/publisher R.W. Pomeroy of Philadelphia. This same David Lee generally distinguished himself as David B. Lee at the addresses 109 N. 4th, 105 N. 9th, and 23 Wood, Philadelphia. Then I found that David B. Lee was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar Association on 29 May, 1826, and thereafter listed his occupation in city directories as attorney.

Next I found David B. Lee, Esq., in church, civil and social announcements as being married to Sarah Cassell of Boston by Rev. Dr. Holcombe of First Baptist Church, Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1823. This announcement was carried in several social magazines and newspapers, including the Boston newspaper, The Central Centinel(sic), where all the significant announcements for the family of Capt. James Cassell, Revolutionary Soldier who married Abigail Dolbeare, were also consistently published. Sarah/Sally Cassell’s christening was also dutifully recorded in the church records of Trinity Church, Boston, being 8 years old when christened with her brothers and sisters in 1799. Significantly, the David Lee family and descendants consistently affiliated with Methodist Episcopal Churches in their neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden shortly after the marriage of David Lee and Sarah Cassell in 1823.

At this point, having established a framework for David’s family, I started trying to establish what David’s professional affiliations were and what his law practice might have consisted of. I was astonished to then find a series of patents that David B. Lee had registered, starting as a young man still in Guilford, CT in 1816. David Lee registered a patent for a spinning wheel head, which is the business end of a spinning wheel. Many spinning wheel head designs, modifications, improvements and patents existed, and clearly David had a keen interest in technology an entrepreneurial endeavors.

Next on 9 June, 1824, David B. Lee and Stephen Stewart of Philadelphia registered a patent regarding a mode to generate steam power. Again in 1829 David registered a patent for a steam engine device which was apparently some sort of two chambered circular piston for a steam engine. Lastly, in 1834, he registered a patent for valves for steam boilers.

On top of all this, there were two other endeavors that David B. Lee was involved in as a principal character. First was the hot air balloon affair. I had really forgotten about my encounter with this in Albuquerque, thinking it entirely improbable  that my ancestor David Lee had anything to do with hot air balloons. This feeling was reinforced by recollections of my grandfather, Murl Lee Henderson, his middle name coming from this very source. I couldn’t imagine that my very head-decidedly-not-in-the-clouds grandfather had as his ancestor, of whom he was a namesake, a radical who was flying balloons around in 1820. Inconceivable!

My first recollection of the hot air balloon reference to David B. Lee was upon seeing umpteen references in the newspapers across the country in 1822 to David B.Lee. Here are a couple of examples:


(The Norwich Courier, Norwich, CT,  Wednesday, April 10, 1822)


DavidBLEE-Flying2 (the newspaper Watchman, Montpelier, VT, Tuesday, April 30, 1822)


As I mentioned, there are innumerable versions of this report in papers across the country during the next several weeks.The story was no less fascinating and absurd 194 years ago than it is today. Kudos to the Montpelier paper for keeping the correct original date of the petition, April 1, in the story. I don’t know the origins of April Fools Day, but….

Also showing that the story had staying power, here is a snippet from the actual National Archives website that is live today, clearly demonstrating that the National Archives preserves everything from the profound to the absurd (not necessarily in that order):


So the petition David B. Lee sent to the U.S. House OF Representatives is recorded in the official house Register. In addition to being a counterclaim to the usurper James Bennett, it directly petitions the government for exclusive rights to US atmospheric air space for balloons and flying machines for 50 years, or a period that Congress shall deem appropriate.

Clearly acutely stung by becoming a national joke due to his flying pursuits, our dear ancestor David B. Lee shares a single exchange in correspondence with the imminent and illustrious inventor and former President Of The United States (and my cousin in another line), Thomas Jefferson (lovingly preserved by the Library Of Congress and mostly transcribed by me):

The art of navigating the atmosphere has been my constant study with little exception from my earliest childhood – But being granted for a fool by every person to whom I revealed my subject; I kept it almost an entire secret till early in the year 1819-

I constructed a balloon with all the necessary apparatus for flying and fixed a day for my first aerial excursion, with the most sanguine expectations that I should soon soar in the uper regions of the atmosphere and show to the world that the Americans could do that which other nations had attempted without success-


But I was doomed to a more _____less fate- While inflating the balloon, an accident happened to the apparatus for preparing the gas which delayed the opperation for several hours and some of the people who were assembled to witness the experiment being ignorant of the subject and disappointed and dissatisfied with the delay rushed in upon the balloon in a mob and completely destroyed it-


This so discouraged my patron that notwithstanding he believed the thing practisable he would give me no more assistance-  Since that time I have mentioned my plans to different people but without success-

David appealed to Thomas Jefferson for support, but alas, in his reply (here’s my transcription),  Jefferson demurred:

However I can really give no opinion understandingly on the subject and with more good will than confidence wish you succeed.

Thomas Jefferson

Joy. I have a new favorite ancestor.

At this point, I’m planning to start a David B. Lee Descendants & Heirs Association in time to petition the Congress on April 1, 2022, the 200th anniversary of David’s petition, referring back to our illustrious ancestor’s original petition, giving an updated address to which to send the status of our petition and to ask what is taking so long.

To be fair, as indicated, David B. Lee’s balloon actually made several successful flights, and he is credited as a flight pioneer in the Who’s Who of Ballooning. Really, I’m totally in awe of this guy.

So I mentioned another endeavor in which David B. Lee was involved. In 1833 and 1834, David B. Lee and William Beach submitted a proposal to light the city of Philadelphia using 300-foot towers which would burn coal and tar on high and use a system of mirrors and reflectors to distribute light throughout the city. They estimated this system would save 90% of current costs for night lighting. Unfortunately, the City Of Philadelphia instead sent an expert to Europe to research how European cities were providing lighting at night and apparently went another direction. Yeah, so no pending checks from the City Of Philadelphia. Bummer.

So back to the more traditional concerns of genealogy: David’s family and progeny. As mentioned, David married Sarah Cassell December 25, 1823 in Philadelphia. In about 1825, the couple had a daughter, my ancestor Orit/Oretta Lee, who is named after David’s sister Orit Lee (who married Elah Camp). My Orit Lee married Zina Henderson in about 1842, presumably somewhere in western New York state or possibly in eastern Michigan. The couple migrated to Fayette County, IL, where they had some children including my next ancestor, Edmond David Henderson (born in 1849). Significantly, Sarah Cassell’s oldest brother, the patriarch of the Cassell family after Capt. James Cassell’s death, was named Edmund Cassell. More on this later.

David’s wife Sarah Cassell Lee presumably died some time between the birth of Orit in about 1825 and about 1832, possibly earlier. Next, David has a daughter named Sarah L. (probably Lavina) Lee in December of 1830. Who was her mother? Was it Sarah Cassell Lee or someone else? It might Sarah’s younger sister Rachael Cassell Lee, or it might be another woman. However, Sarah L. Lee in fact married a man named John GRIFFEE not Griffith. More on them later as well.

David B. Lee had a third daughter named Melvina T. Lee, who was born in December, 1833, in Philadelphia. Melvina’s mother was Rachael Cassell Lee, the sister of David’s first wife, Sarah Cassell. Then David B. Lee dies on September 9, 1836 in Philadelphia. Then his son William Lee is born on May 20, 1837. So David dies leaving a pregnant wife and three little daughters and, exasperatingly, he leaves no will. What kind of lawyer dies with no will???? I guess one whose real passion is inventions and flying.

Yes, so at the best part of the story, David dies, probably very suddenly. While there is mention of his death in the paper, and members of the bar association of Philadelphia are entreated to pay their respects, there is no report of his falling from a hot air balloon or anything. He probably died of something much more mundane, like a heart attack or something. Who knows? All that is known is that his family took a decidedly downward trajectory in the society of Philadelphia and later across the river in Camden, NJ.

In the next few years, after occupying the heart of the city in the most desirous and genteel areas, widow Rachael Lee starts inhabiting the outer reaches of the city in working-class tenements and working as a tailoress or seamstress. She seems to continue association with others in the bookbinding profession that her husband was associated with at first, but later she moves across the river to the east into Camden, NJ, about 1844. I find no record of her past then, and by 1846 she seems to have died.

It is unclear when David’s first daughter Orit Lee separates from his other family, but she is clearly not with Rachael and the other children by 1840. She may have gone with other relatives much earlier, even before David died. At this point I hypothesize that she was in some way assisted by her dead mother’s brother, Edmund Cassell, since she named one of her children Edmond David Henderson.


As for the others, the widow Rachael Cassell Lee seems to have kept the children Sarah, Melvina and William Lee together. First they were together in Philadelphia, then in the 1840s they stuck together in Camden, NJ. After Rachael apparently dies, Sarah and Melvina are seen in church records attending class in a couple different Methodist Episcopal churches together. Melvina T. Lee marries Thomas G. Cheeseman at the Third Methodist Episcopal Church, Camden, NJ, on 26 September, 1848, being only 14 years old. Her sister marries John Griffee at the First M. E. Church in Camden, NJ, on 19 Feb., 1849. In the 1850 census, their little brother William Lee is in the household of John Griffee and his wife Sarah (Lee) Griffee in the Middle Ward of Camden. Thomas and Melvina (Lee) Cheeseman can be found in the South Ward of Camden in 1850.

William Lee works as a coal dealer and marries Mary Ann Griffee, probably a sister to his sister Sarah’s husband, on 23 Dec., 1856 at the First M.E. Church, Camden. William Lee has fewer children but is still in Stockton Twp., Camden, NJ in 1880. His children include son William (b.c. 1858), James (b. 1865), and Emma (b.c. 1873).

Both Sarah Lee Griffee and her sister Melvina Lee Cheeseman have large families of children in Camden and die there, Sarah in 1907 and Melvina in 1917.

I haven’t run across any reference to David Lee being any kind of judge anywhere. He could have been some sort of municipal judge or justice of the peace or something, which would have justified the title of judge. It could have been an honorific, or just an exaggeration. I don’t know whether he attended any college or institute or simply received tutoring or served in an apprenticeship to pass the bar (although the latter seems unlikely given the spare time David clearly had to pursue his own interests).

Anyway, that’s the tale so far of an utterly fascinating and unexpected ancestor of mine. And if anyone wants to know why I’ve been doing research on my family since I was 9 years old (nearly 37 years now), this is exactly why.


About glamberson

I am an amateur genealogist and a professional technologist, having experience in both areas that goes back to the 1980s (at least). My genealogical interests really began in 1979 when my grandfather died. Computers & technology have been primary interests since the early 1980s. My first personal computer was an Apple IIe bought shortly after they first became available.
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