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Home | Articles | Christian Beschler: The Sussel-Unicorn Artist

Christian Beschler: The
by Donald M. Herr

Fig. 1: Religious text. Christian Beschler. Northumberland County, Pa., 1799. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H 12-1/2, W. 14-3/4 in. Courtesy of the Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia. Text in translation reads: "God, you are still so rich today. Dear child, grow up the same way. Think only of your God, who cares for you in need. Persevere steadfastly and you will enter God's house. Love foe as well as friend; thus you will have meant well. Honor father and mother well, as should be proper. Amen. Written February 19, 1799."
The Arthur J. Sussel estate auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, on October 23, 1958, included a religious text dated 1799 decorated with "a lion and unicorn and two pairs of parrots amid rosettes, tulips and vases of floral vines (Fig. 1)."1 Scholars and collectors soon referred to its maker as the "Sussel-Unicorn" artist, with Dr. Donald A. Shelley noting the artist by style in his seminal The Fraktur-Writings or Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans of 1961.2 In 2007, Dr. Don Yoder identified the words gemacht von CB (made by CB) on two newly discovered "Sussel-Unicorn" taufscheine (birth and baptismal certificates).3 These initials belonged to the schoolmaster Christian Beschler, whose work, after nearly fifty years, can now be attributed (Figs. 2, 4). This discovery has greatly increased our knowledge of the fantastically decorated manuscripts (Fraktur) ascribed to this artist.4

Fig. 2: Birth and baptismal certificate for Jacob Redinger. Christian Beschler, Northumberland County, Pa., ca. 1814. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 13-1/4, W. 16-1/2 in. Private collection. Text in translation reads: "Jacob Redinger was born in the year of our Lord 1813 the 30th of May around seven o'clock in the evening and was baptized the 18th of June by Pastor Reyly [Reily]. The sponsor was the worthy Jacob Lautenschleger. The parent's names are Samuel Redinger and his wife Magdalena, nee Lautenschleger. In the year of our Lord 1814. Made by CB." Remainder of text, not in Beschler's hand, reads: "Died Dec. 19, 1890."
Only eight taufscheine (one of them blank), one religious text, and a book-plate sized drawing by the Sussel-Unicorn artist, Christian Beschler, are known to the author. His taufscheine are characterized by a bright orange or orange and yellow central rectangular area that contains the text adorned with compass stars and geometric designs. Whimsical unicorns and birds with manes eating berries, lions with faces, angels, hearts, half circles, compass stars, and pots of flowers fill the colorful documents. There seems to be an obsession to fill all available space. His religious text and drawing share these motifs.

Fig. 3: (Detail of figure 2.) Parrot-like birds eating berries are motifs favored by Christian Beschler.

Schoolmasters were often the decorators of Fraktur, and it follows that many of Beschler's taufscheines were made for children in Upper Mahanoy Township of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, where the teacher resided. This rich cultural area produced a lively assortment of wonderful Pennsylvania German decorative arts, including the colorful Mahantongo Valley furniture.5 The decorative heritage of the area is further enriched with the identification of the Sussel-Unicorn artist.

Fig. 4: Birth and baptismal certificate for Catharina Hohwerther. Christian Beschler. Northumberland County, Pa., dated 1814. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 13-1/4, W. 16-1/2 in. Private collection. Text in translation reads, "Catharina Hohwerther was born the 30th of December, in the year of the Lord 1813, and was baptized by Pastor Hempton [Hemping] the 9th of January, 1814. The sponsors were the esteemed Mister Adam Hohwerther and his much loved house wife Catharina. The parent's names are the same. The esteemed mister Peter Hohwerther and his wife Elisabetha, nee Diehl. Made by CB 1814." Text in heart Reads: "All your life keep God before your eyes and in your heart." Catharina Hohwerther lived on a 130-acre farm near Howerter's Church in Upper Mahanoy Township with her parents, Johann Peter Hohwerther (1772-1862) and Elisabeth (1778-1860).14 Her parents and grandparents are buried in the cemetery at Howerter's Church.

There was a significant migration of Pennsylvania Germans from Berks County to Northumberland County in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The unicorn motif favored by Beschler has in fact been found on painted blanket chests from Berks County. It seems plausible that Beschler may have seen the design and adapted it to his colorful certificates. Unicorns, chained (Figs. 1, 12) and unchained, adorn all but three of his known pieces. Two certificates have unicorns with bulbous horns (Figs. 9, 12). The smiling lions and whimsical angels in lunettes (Figs. 1, 10), and toothy, standing angels (Figs 7, 8) are both endearing and charming.

Fig. 5: Birth and Baptismal certificate for Magdalena Fuchs. Christian Beschler. ca. 1801. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 13-1/4, W. 16-1/4 inches. Private collection. Text in translation reads, "Magdalena…was born in the Year of our Lord the and baptized by Pastor the sponsors were The parents name was the same Johannes Fuchs and his much loved wife Anna Maria, nee Lichtes." German script that accompanied the certificate notes that Magdalena Fuchs (Fox), daughter of Johannes Fuchs and Anna Maria Lichtes, was born August 15, 1801 in Upper Mahanoy Township, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. She married Johannes Willhelm Miller (born April 17, 1786 in New Hanover Township, Montgomery County) and had eight children. The first two died at seven and ten days of age. Others were Johannes, Martin, Henrich, Margaret Ana, Jacob, and Lesli. She died May 25, 1871.

Christian Ernst Beschler, son of Baltasar Beschler and Maria Catherina Beschler née Weis, was from the city of Wertheim in central Germany. His name appears on the passenger list for the ship Polly that arrived in Philadelphia on October 13, 1764. The Wertheim public records for March 2, 1769 tell us that Christian Beschler was "now a resident of 'Bockhill' [sic] in the County of 'Bucks' in the Province of Pennsylvania in North America." On April 6, 1769, the records describe Christian Ernst Beschler as a "schoolmaster in Pennsylvania."6 He likely settled in Rockill as it was located on a route of German migration (extending back to 1720) along the Perikomen Creek.7

Fig. 6: (Detail of figure 5). Unicorns with multicolored tails and spiked manes eating berries are found on most of Beschler's works.

In his publication Pennsylvania German Immigrants, 1709-1786, Don Yoder writes "The name Beschler is uncommon in Pennsylvania. One of the few areas in which it is found is the Mahanoy area of Northumberland County, where one Christian Beschler appears circa 1800, as the witness to the Will of Adam Kempel of Mahanoy Tp. It is possible therefore that our schoolmaster BESCHLER ended his days in this area, where 'a man named Besler' is said to have taught the first German school in the Mahantango Valley, evidently in the 1790's."8 Details on Beschler are further confirmed by an account from 1881: "The first school-house was constructed of logs, on the [Caspar] Heplar place, and the first school was taught by a man named Besler."9

Fig. 7: Birth and baptismal certificate for Lydia Haas. Christian Beschler with anonymous scrivener. Northumberland County, ca. 1815. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 13-1/4, W. 16-1/2 in., Private collection. Text in translation reads: "Lydia Haas, legitimate daughter of Georg Haas and his wife Elisabeth, nee Müller, was born on the 19th of February 1815 in Upper Machanay Township, Northumberland County, in Pennsylvania. She was baptized on the 12th of April 1815 by pastor Reyley [Reily] and given the name Lydia. The sponsors were Georg Paul and Maria Zerfink."
Christian Beschler lived in the area during the time that the pieces are dated, as did the recipients of the taufscheine. The names of many of the recipients are found in the church records of Lutheran and Reformed congregations in the immediate area. These include St. Jacobs (Hohwerther's), Zion (Klinger's), and Schwaben Creek (Himmel's) Union churches. Three of the recipients, Catherina Hohwerther (Fig. 4), Magdalena Fuchs (Figs. 5, 6), and Lydia Haas (Figs. 7, 8), lived in Upper Mahanoy Township as did Beschler.

In 1801, Christian Beschler witnessed an agreement between the Lutheran and Reformed Congregations on the use of the church building constructed in 1800 for Zion (Klinger's) Union Church.10 Maria Sara Fuchs (Fox) a sister of Magdalena Fuchs, whose taufschein is included in this survey (Fig. 5) was baptized in this church on July 3, 1803.11 Johannes and Anna Maria Fuchs, the parents of Magdalena and Maria Sara, were sponsors at the baptism of Anna Maria Bauer (Fig. 11) at Klinger's Church on June 21, 1812.12 Baptisms in the Mahantongo Valley were administered by circuit-riding pastors, including the Reformed (United Church of Christ) minister James Ross Reily (1788-1844) and Lutheran minister Johann Nicolaus Hemping (1775-1855), whose names are recorded on the certificates. The records of the Howerter (St. Jacob's) church in Upper Mahanoy Township, Northumberland County, note that Lydia Haas was born February 19, 1815 (Fig. 7).13

Fig. 8: (Detail of figure 7). Among Beschler's known taufsheine, angels with eyebrows appear only on this image.

Fig. 9: Birth and baptismal certificate for Jacob Jaekle. Christian Beschler. ca. 1796. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 13-1/4, W. 16-1/2 inches. Private collection. Text in translation reads: "Jacob Jaekle was born in the year of our lord 1796 the 16th of October and was baptized the 14th of November 1796 by Pastor Andony Hauss [Anthony Hautz], the sponsors were Jacob Jaekle and Anna Maria Höhn, both single. The parents were the esteemed Conrad Jaekle, and his much loved house wife, Catharina, nee Höhn." Text in left heart reads: "All your life keep God before your eyes and in your heart, and guard yourself against committing sins." Text in right heart reads: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the duty of all mankind." Jacob Jaekle [Yeagley] (October 16, 1796-March 10, 1870) married Catharine Schroyer (1800-1874). Both were born in Northumberland County. Jacob was a framer and stonemason near Allenwood, Pa. He moved to New York State in 1840 and died in Seneca County, New York. See E.E. and M.L. Deppen, Counting Kindred of Christian Deppen and History of Christian Ruchty (Sinking Spring, Pa.: 1940). 350.

Fig. 10: Birth and baptismal certificate for Johannes Kreniger, Christian Beschler. Northumberland County, Pa., dated 1798. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 13, W. 16-1/2 inches Winterthur Museum. Text in translation reads: "Johannes was born the 26th of June 1798 in the year of Christ and baptized by Pastor Moeller. The sponsors were Wilhelm Heim and his wife Barbara and the parents were Heinrich Kreniger and his wife Anna Maria." Johannes Kreniger was baptized at Himmel's church on August 12, 1798.17
Schoolmasters often had to supplement their meager income with other sources beyond commissions such as Fraktur. Some were farmers, laborers, or ministers. It is not surprising then to find Beshler described as something other than a schoolteacher in the 1810 census for Upper Mahanoy Township, Northumberland County. In it he is listed as a "shoe maker." In the census, the household is recorded as containing one white male and one white female forty-five years of age or older.14 In the 1817 tax list for Upper Mahanoy Township, Christian Beshler is listed as an "old man." He is absent from the 1808, 1811, and 1818 lists.15 Although his death probably occurred in this rural area, a search of death and cemetery records of Northumberland, Schuylkill, and Dauphin counties failed to locate his name.

The recent discovery of the two Sussel-Unicorn taufscheine identified as being gemacht von CB (made by CB) greatly increases our knowledge of this recognizable and elaborately decorated Fraktur group. This new information reveals the previously ascribed anonymous identity of the Sussel-Unicorn artist to be schoolmaster Christian Beschler.

Donald M. Herr is an independent scholar of Pennsylvania German decorative arts from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has authored and guest curated Pewter In Pennsylvania German Churches; Joseph Lehn and Lehnware; and John Long & John Boyer: Nineteenth Century Craftsmen in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Don and Trish Herr are in business as The Herrs. Dr. Herr gratefully acknowledges Dr. Don Yoder, a founding trustee of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, for his translations used in this article.

Fig. 11: Birth and baptismal certificate. Christian Beschler. Northumberland County, Pa., dated 1813. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 13, W. 16 inches. Private collection. Text in translation reads: "To these two married people Michael Bauer and his lawful wife Susanna, nee Strauss, a little daughter was born into the world named Elisabeth in the year of our Lord, 1813, the 12th of February, was baptized by Mister Ullrich , preacher and servant of the Word of God the 4th of April of this year. The baptismal sponsor was Elisabeth Strauss. The above named Elisabeth was born and baptized in America, in the state of Pennsylvania in Berks County in Bern Township." [Text in right heart]. "The way of life is full of sorrow, For I should go make my way to heaven." [Text in left heart]. "I am baptized in Christ's blood. Grant me, Jesus, a blessed end 1813."18

1. Was previously sold as lot 311, Collection of George H. Lorimer, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc. 1944.

2. Russell D. and Corinne P Earnest, Papers for Birth Dayes: Guide to the Fraktur Artists and Scriveners, (Albuquerque, New Mexico.: Russell D. Earnest Associates, 1989, 406; Second Edition, Vol. II, 1997), 753. See also Dr. Donald A. Shelley, The Fraktur-Writings or Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans (Allentown, Pa.: The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, vol. 23, 1961), 180.

3. The two Fraktur with the initials were discovered by the author; Don Yoder did the translation. Both Fraktur are in private collections.

4. Dr. Yoder, professor emeritus of folklife studies and American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, identified the German script initials as CB on January 29, 2007, and reconfirmed
the initials on November 4, 2007. Professor Yoder has translated voluminous German script records for over half a century.

Fig. 12: Blank certificate. Christian Beschler. Blank taufschein. Northumberland County, ca. 1796. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H 13-1/4, W. 16-1/2 inches. Private collection. This hand-drawn certificate without a text suggests that Fraktur artists sometimes drew examples for "stock" and the text was completed at a later date. On occasion, the text was completed by another hand as in the example made for Lydia Haas (Fig. 7). The chained animals and unicorns with enlarged horns are found on Beschler's earlier pieces dated 1796 and 1799.

5. Henry M. Reed, Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley: with an essay by Don Yoder and a foreword by Monroe H. Fabian, (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University, 1987).

6. Letter of Attorney, Wertheim Archives. Don Yoder, ed., Pennsylvania German Immigrants, 1709-1786: Lists Consolidated from Yearbooks of The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1984), 176, 194, 195.

7. W.W.H. Davis, The History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania; From the Discovery of the Delaware to the Present Time. (Doylestown, Pa.: Democrat Print and Job Office Print, 1876). 529.

8. Pennsylvania German Immigrants, 195.

Fig. 13: Fraktur drawing. Book plate. Christian Beschler, ca. 1800. Hand-drawn, lettered, and colored on laid paper. H. 5-3/8, W. 3-1/8 inches. Dietrich American Foundation. Photograph by Will Brown.19 Text in translation reads: "All that I have now begun Shall in Jesus' name be done. To God in the highest alone." The star-shaped flowers, beaded stems, pot with two leaves, and three-leaved flower motifs on this piece are also found on the taufschein for Magdalena Fuchs and other Beschler pieces.

9. History of Schuylkill County, Pa. with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. (New York, NY: W.W. Munsell & Co., 1881), 214.

10. Irwin R. Klinger, Zion (Klinger's) Church History, Part I. (Apollo, Pa., Closson Press, 1988). 13.

11. Ibid., Part II., 15.

12. Ibid., 34.

13. Lydia Haas was the daughter of George Haas and his wife Elisabeth. The sponsors were George Paul and Maria Zerving. Dr. Don Yoder, translator, "The Baptismal Records of St. Jacob's (Howerter's) Lutheran and Reformed Union Church, Upper Mahanoy Township, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania 1803-1859," The Northumberland County Historical Society Proceedings and Addresses 22 (1984), 127-250. Howerter's Church was located near Pitman, just inside the Northumberland County line in the Mahantongo Valley. The church burned in 1943 at which time the Lutheran Church relocated to Pitman, and the Reformed congregation moved to Leck Kill, both in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Lydia married Charles Schlegel and died February 19, 1896. She is buried at Salem (Herb's) Church at Rough and Ready, Schuylkill County, Pa. Lydia's siblings Georg and Ester were also baptized at Howerter's in 1813 and 1819 respectively.

14. Federal Census, 1810 Upper Mahanoy Township, Northumberland County, Pa. 256.

15. Pennsylvania State Archives, 350 North Street, Harrisburg, Pa. 17120, March 31, 2007.

16. Genealogical and Biographical Annals of Northumberland County Pennsylvania (Chicago, Ill.:J.L. Floyd & Co., 1911), 846.

17. Record of the Schwaben Creek or Himmel Lutheran and Reformed Church, Washington Township, Northumberland County, 1774-1856. Copied by William J. Hinke, May 1944. Located in the Archives of the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society, Schaff Library, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

18. Pastor David Ullrich served the Himmel's Church in Northumberland County from 1809 to 1811. See John H. Carter, "The Himmel Church," in The Northumberland County Historical Society (October 15, 1935), 53.

19. Illustrated in Frederick S. Weiser, The Gift is Small The Love is Great, (York, Pennsylvania: York Graphic Services, Inc., 1994). 60.

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