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James H. Leathem was the oldest child of William and Lydia Leathem and was born in Delaware. In the early 1800s, they moved to Philadelphia and later to the anthracite coal mining region near Pottsville, PA. However, the family returned to Philadelphia. In time James would marry, Sarah Ann, and raise his own family of four beginning during the American Civil War. James and, at least one of his sons, Howard were painters by trade.