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Nicholas Waln was born in 1742. Although not in any way directly identified with the public or official life of the community he was a striking and well-known character. After completing the curriculum at the William Penn Charter School he began to study the law and pursued his labours with such diligence that he was admitted to the bar before he attained his majority. He went to England in 1763 and renewed his studies at the Temple, but after spending a little more than a year on the other side of the Atlantic, he came back to Philadelphia and entered into active practice both here and in Bucks. His brilliant intellect and legal acumen soon won him distinction as a barrister in Pennsylvania and his practice grew to be handsomely lucrative.
After practising less than ten years, however, when he was in the heyday of his professional career, he suddenly gave up his practice and became a deeply concerned member of the Society of Friends, devoting himself almost wholly to preaching and performing other ministrations in behalf of Quaker interests. A Philadelphia woman of the period writing to a member of her family in England and commenting on Nicholas Waln's sudden abandonment of his valuable practice says, “He has resigned on principle as he says no good man can practice law.” It is related of him that one day as he was on his way to Newtown, where the county courts of Bucks were then held, he stopped to see a friend who lived near the Pennypack and remarked to him while there that he engaged in an important case that was to come before the court relative to property.” On his way back to the city he stopped again to see the same friend and appeared
deeply dejected. On being asked the cause of his depression he answered, “I did the best I could for my client, gained the cause for him, and thereby defrauded an honest man out of his just due.”
This was in 1772, and following closely upon this episode he appeared one day in meeting and testified to his change of heart. He had hitherto been a man of the world and, though nominally a Quaker, he had not been in the habit of attending Friends' Meeting. On this memorable occasion, he walked into the preacher's gallery, knelt, and poured out a fervent prayer and confession, renouncing the worldliness of his former life, and professing his will to live thereafter more consistently with the promptings of his conscience. This he did and practised benevolence and good deeds instead of ingeniously contorting the intricacies of the law.
But however much Nicholas Waln might renounce his worldly ways, however much he might give up his former gay clothing and the yellow chariot in which he used to drive abroad in style, however plainly he might dress and forswear even coat collars, nothing could quench his sense of humour or keep his tongue quiet when something witty popped into his head. Once, when chidden by some of his oppressively dignified and duller friends for some of his rallies, he told them that if they only knew how much of his mirth he did suppress they would not think so ill of him.
Shortly after his conversion, as he was walking along the street one day in the plainest of garb, he met a young dandy of the town offensively fripped out in the extremest of the extreme fashions of the period. He had on a well-fitted topcoat surmounted at the shoulders by a collection of little capes each a bit smaller than the one beneath. Walking up to the festive youth, Nicholas took hold of the lowest cape and said, “Friend, what is this?' The would-be Beau Brummel, wishing to be facetious, replied, “ That is Cape Henlopen.” Touching the cape next above, Nicholas enquired, “ And what is this?”
That,” said the young popinjay, “is Cape Hatteras.”
Then,” said Nicholas, touching the jack-a-dandy's head with his finger, “this must be the lighthouse!”
On another occasion, as Nicholas was going along the street, he noticed a house where a pane of glass had been broken in the parlour window and a sheet of paper pasted over the aperture till new glass was set in. Seeing the mistress of the house at her knitting in the back part of the room, Nicholas jammed his walking-stick through the paper and, putting his mouth to the hole he had made, called in, “ Sham pane and no glass!”
It was while living in the South Second Street house that Nicholas was much annoyed by repeated depredations on his woodpile. He not only suspected his nextdoor neighbour of purloining the wood, but assured himself of the circumstance before acting. He then bought a cartload of wood and sent it to the offending neighbour with his compliments. The man was naturally enraged as he had no notion that he was even suspected. He went to Nicholas in a temper and demanded to know what such a thing meant. Friend,” said Nicholas, “I was afraid thee would hurt thyself falling off my wood pile.”
He was clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but, notwithstanding his exalted position among Friends,
he was always keeping them on tenterhooks of suspense by his sallies, and on one occasion he so shocked them by one of his uncontrollable bursts that a deputation of weighty Friends ”
was sent to labour with him. Nicholas was nervous and fidgety and could not stand the extreme deliberation that some people affected in speaking. Once a visiting Friend was moved to speak in meeting and rising to his feet looked about him, cleared his throat loudly, and began, “I feel —” Then followed a long pause, more throat clearing, and, after another survey of the assembly, the speaker solemnly repeated, “I feel Again pausing and casting his eye over his hearers, he reiterated for the third time," I feel This was too much for Nicholas's impatient spirit; he felt that something must be supplied to feel. In a tone louder than a stage whisper he burst out, “A louse!”
A The effect on the meeting can be better imagined than described. Nicholas knew that he was to be waited on because of this indiscretion and he likewise knew when he was to expect the visit of the elders. On the evening when the Friends went to his house, the windows were all dark and no answer was returned to their oft-repeated rappings. Finally concluding that Nicholas must be away, they were turning from the door when a window on the second floor went up and Nicholas's head, arrayed in a nightcap, came out. “Friends," said he,“ you needn't come in. The Lord's been here before you!” A print representing this incident is still in existence.
Nicholas Waln's wife was Sarah Morris Richardson, the daughter of Joseph Richardson, a man of large fortune. It is said that she was an exceedingly small woman, and family tradition has it that her father weighed her in a pair of scales against a bag full of gold coin that was to be her wedding portion so that she was literally “worth her weight in gold.” Nicholas died in 1813 universally love and respected. It is said that even on his deathbed he could not refrain from joking. Almost with his last hard-drawn breath he said, looking up, “I can't die for the life of me.”