Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The rich widow haunting an uptown mansion

October 27, 2014

ElizajumelyoungIf you visit the lovely Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights and see a mysterious red-haired beauty, don’t be alarmed.

It’s just late-18th century New Yorker Eliza Jumel, a notorious social climber who spent much of her adult life in the home, shunned by society and eventually a recluse.

Born in Rhode Island in either 1773 or 1775 to a prostitute mother, Eliza spent her childhood in a workhouse before making her way to New York City in the 1790s to become an actress . . . and marry a rich, socially prominent man.

Young and beautiful, she began an affair with Stephen Jumel, an older French-born wine dealer.

Morrisjumelmansion“Eliza became Jumel’s mistress and for four years he gave her all the material possessions she could desire, but even those could not give her the respectability of ‘proper’ society that she so desperately sought,” wrote Michael Norman and Beth Scott in Historic Haunted America.

Eliza wanted to be married, so she feigned illness and begged Jumel to marry her. He agreed.

Aaronburr“According to legend, no sooner had the priest married the couple and left the house than Eliza sat up in bed and began brushing her long red hair,” state Norman and Scott.

The Jumels moved from Whitehall Street to the Roger Morris House, a summer home miles from the city that served as George Washington’s temporary headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

They redid the place with the latest furnishings from France. But Eliza was shunned by New York’s social scene and went back and forth to France with her husband, finally returning to their home before 1832, the year Jumel died.

It wasn’t long before she found her next wealthy, connected man.

ElizajumelolderIn 1833 she married former vice president Aaron Burr. It lasted a year, thanks in part to Burr’s womanizing ways and desire for Eliza’s inherited money.

For the next three decades, as New York City grew and changed, Eliza remained in her uptown mansion, living and dying alone in her early 90s in 1865.

Though buried five blocks away in Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street, her spirit supposedly haunts her former home, now surrounded by city streets.

“A governess for a child of one of Madame’s nieces said dreadful rappings would occur in the floors and walls of the old woman’s former bedroom,” wrote Norman and Scott.

Elizajumelold“One relative said her ghost, clad in all white, actually stood by her bed.”

And in the 1960s, a group of schoolkids reported seeing “a red-haired woman come out on the balcony and press a finger to her lips.

“She rebuked them for their noisy behavior. Her husband was ill and not to be disturbed, she chided.”

[Top: Eliza as a young beauty; second image: the Morris-Jumel Mansion today, from morrisjumel.org; third image: Aaron Burr; fourth image: Eliza Jumel and younger relatives; fifth photo: Eliza, older]

A dazzling City Hall fountain sprays Croton water

October 13, 2014

It took five years to build the Croton Aqueduct—the engineering marvel that brought fresh upstate water to Manhattan through a series of pipes and reservoirs.

Crotonfountain1842

When this incredible delivery system of clean drinking water finally opened on October 14, 1842, a celebration was in order.

CrotonfountainsongThe most thrilling moment took place at City Hall Park, when the park’s new Croton Fountain was turned on—and a magnificent propulsion of Croton water rose dozens of feet in the air.

That’s some water spray, right? But the Croton Aqueduct really was something—it even inspired a song, the “Croton Jubilee Quick Step” (right).

“On opening day in 1842, President John Tyler was on hand to witness the plume from the Croton-fed City Hall fountain surge 50 feet high,” wrote The New York TimesSam Roberts in his new book, A History of New York in 101 Objects.

President Tyler wasn’t the only dignitary in the crowd. Former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren also attended.

Crotonfountain1871

The Croton Fountain, which had a 100-foot stone basin, was the city’s first decorative fountain. Its spire of water dazzled New Yorkers until 1871, when a new fountain designed by Jacob Wrey Mould (he designed bridges in Central Park and decorative elements at Bethesda Terrace) replaced it.

The second fountain didn’t spray water quite so high. But it was Victorian spectacular, with several pools and gas-lit bronze candelabras. When Victorian style fell out of favor in the 1920s, it was shipped off to Crotona Park in the Bronx.

Crotonfountain2014

Seventy years later, the Jacob Wrey Mould fountain was restored and reinstalled in City Hall Park in 1999. There’s no 50-foot plume of Croton water, unfortunately, but it’s a lovely fountain nonetheless.

Centre Street at Park Row: five views, 150 years

September 29, 2014

You wouldn’t know it by this low-rise buildings and muddy road. But when this photo was taken in the early 1860s, the intersection at Centre Street and Park Row was the nexus of New York’s political and publishing worlds.

Centrestreetparkrow1860s

On the left out of view is City Hall. At right is Tammany Hall, until 1868 headquarters for the Democratic political party machine.

The spire of St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church rises above the Tryon Row Buildings, topped by a sign that says “printer.” North of St. Andrews at this time is Five Points, the city’s terrible and notorious slum.

Centrestreetparkrow1890

Here’s the same intersection (from a slightly different vantage point) in 1890. The Tryon Row Buildings have been replaced by the First Judicial District Civil Court, notes the caption to New York Then and Now, which published the photo.

“The horsecar of the Fourth and Madison Avenue line is on its way uptown to Harlem, having just come from Park Row,” states the caption. “Begun in 1832, it was the first streetcar railway in the world.” At right are the offices of a popular German-language newspaper called New Yorker Staats-Zeitung.

Centrestreetparkrow1920s

Fast forward to 1925, and things are very different in this Brown Brothers photograph. Gone are the telephone poles and horsecars, replaced by street lamps and street cars.

The newspaper business has long decamped uptown. The Staats-Zeitung building was bulldozed to make way for the New York Municipal Building, opened in 1909. On the left is the lovely New York City Hall of Records, constructed in 1902.

Centrestreetparkrow1974

By 1974, Edmund V. Gillon, Jr.’s image shows us a canyon of city, state, and federal buildings, contemporary street lamps and lots and lots of car traffic.

And Tryon Row, which lent its name to the buildings in the 1860s photo? It appears to have been demapped by now.

Centrestreetparkrow20132

The traffic in 2014 is mostly by foot and bicycle. On a warm early fall afternoon, Centre Street and Park Row is packed with tourists and city dwellers enjoying City Hall Park or crossing the street to take a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge.

And look, they brought back the old-style street lamps!

The most radical woman in 1870s New York City

September 29, 2014

VictoriawoodhullToday, she’d fit right into the city’s progressive political world.

But when she arrived in New York from her home state of Ohio in 1868, 30-year-old Victoria Claflin Woodhull was a century ahead of her time: an advocate of suffrage, socialism, and sexual freedom.

First, she was a Wall Street trailblazer. In a stock market–obsessed post–Civil War city, she and her sister opened the first female-owned brokerage house. Newspapers had a field day, dubbing the two the “Bewitching Brokers.”

Victoriawoodhullbewitchingbrokers2

The sisters did have some help. Railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt gave them an assist; when they first came to New York, they worked for the doctor-distrusting Vanderbilt as his “medical clairvoyants.”

VictoriawoodhulladThey also launched a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, which ran the first English translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

Perhaps her most audacious move was her run for president in 1872 on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party, which she organized. Her platform sounds more 1972 than 1872.

Victoriawoodhullvoting

“She campaigned on a platform of women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty and welfare for the poor, among other things,” explains the History Channel.

Henrywardbeecher2Woodhull’s presidential aspirations obviously didn’t pan out (above, attempting to vote, Election Day 1872). Her support for free love was just too much.

“Yes, I am a free lover,” she addressed her critics at a Boston campaign stop.

“I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can; to exchange that love every day if I please…. and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere….”

She also ran into trouble when she outed popular Brooklyn preacher and national abolitionist leader Henry Ward Beecher (above) as an adulterer. Beecher was one of her fiercest critics, and arguably a hypocrite. But her move backfired.

American Feminist Reformer Victoria Claflin Woodhull“Instead of being shocked by the revelations, the press rushed to Beecher’s defense while U.S. Marshalls arrested Woodhull for transmitting pornographic materials through the mail (one of the articles used the word “virginity”), states one source.

“As America voted in 1872, its first female candidate sat confined in the Ludlow Street Jail.” Well, American men, anyway.

By 1877, Woodhull and her sister moved to England. There she married for a third time and continued to support suffrage and women’s equality. She died in 1927, seven years after American women went to the presidential polls for the first time.

Why is City Hall decked out in flags and bunting?

September 15, 2014

Is it the Fourth of July? Memorial Day? Commemoration of a recently deceased mayor?

Nope. City Hall is draped in flags and bunting, with hundreds of officials dressed in black at the front entrance, to celebrate the official ground-breaking of the New York City subway on March 24, 1900.

Openingofsubwaydig1900mcny

In a next-day article, The New York Times noted the pomp, the excited crowds, and the police holding everyone back.

NYTheadlinemarch251900“Tunnel day was a greater day to the people, for it marked a beginning of a system of tunnels in future years and for future generations which will have wide extensions not only in Manhattan but eventually will go under the waters of the East and North Rivers, and whose ramifications will find lodgment in Brooklyn and Jersey City, and possibly even Staten Island before this town is a great many years older.

“Tunnel transit, moreover, means that Harlem, 125th Street, will be reached in 13 minutes, says chief engineer Parsons, who has worked it out to mathematical certainty, and points beyond with proportional celerity.

“Therefore the people rejoiced, for they have been promised great things.”

[Top photo: MCNY Collections Portal]

The rocking-chair riot that riled up New Yorkers

August 11, 2014

OscarspateOscar Spate (right) was a shady British businessman with a crazy plan in spring 1901.

He’d pay the parks commissioner $500 for the right to put 200 green rocking chairs in Central Park and Madison Square Park.

He’d charge 5 cents a seat to park attendees who wanted to sit in his cane-bottomed chairs rather than a stiff park bench. Hired attendants would make sure sitters paid up.

This idea actually got the go-ahead from the parks commissioner. It may have been because Spate claimed that the great parks in Europe had chairs for rent. Or perhaps the commissioner was worried about the homeless who had increasingly begun occupying city parks, scaring away many visitors.

Madisonsquarepostcard1900s

Paying for seating, he may have reasoned, was the only way to clear derelicts from these two parks and bring back residents, according to The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou.

While the placement of these rocking chairs for hire in Central Park didn’t appear to ruffle many feathers, the chairs in Madison Square Park ticked people off.

Madisonsquareparkfountain

Newspapers picked up the story of two-tiered seating, and New Yorkers made a point of purposely sitting in the rocking chairs and refusing to pay attendants, arguing that it was a free country.

When a heat wave struck in July, tempers really flared. “The parks still had free benches, but the privately operated chairs seemed to occupy all the shady areas,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times in 2006.

Madisonsquareparkingfbruno:wikiIn Madison Square Park, “an estimated 1,000 men and boys chased Thomas Tully, a chair attendant, into the Fifth Avenue Hotel with cries of ‘Lynch him!’ after Mr. Tully upended a nonpayer from his rocker and slapped a boy who was heckling him.”

Two days later, Spate’s permit was revoked. Ten thousand people crowded into Madison Square Park to celebrate the decision—and sit in his chairs.

Ever the businessman, Spate eventually sold them to Wanamaker’s and billed them as historic artifacts!

The above photo shows the modern Madison Square Park, with egalitarian benches [ingfbruno/wiki]

The bicycle “scorchers” menacing the 1890s city

August 9, 2014

Cyclists racing down city streets at top speed, darting around pedestrians on sidewalks and roadways? It’s not just a contemporary New York thing.

ScorchersongbookThe Gilded Age city dealt with reckless bike riders first.

Called “scorchers” for their speed, they gave the very trendy new sport of cycling a bad name and were much-discussed in newspaper articles of the day.

“A new menace appeared in the streets: the ‘scorcher’ or bicycle speed fiend, ‘that idiot with head sunk between bent handle bars,’ body thrown forward and pedaling at top speed,” wrote Peter Salwen, author of Upper West Side Story.

The Upper West Side was especially popular with riders. From Columbus Circle to 72nd to Riverside Drive and Grant’s Tomb, the broad avenues were packed with riders—and some terrified residents.

“The Boulevard, in the vicinity of 72nd Street, is becoming a place very difficult to cross, and at times dangerous to limb and possibly to life,” one New York Times letter writer complained in November 1895.

Scorchersquad

“The number of ‘hoodlums’ scorching along there with heads down, with no regard to the safety of persons crossing, is rapidly increasing; and the matter certainly needs regulating by the officers of the law.”

One month later, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt approved the formation of a “scorcher squad,” four men who were tasked with catching and ticketing these speeding cyclists.

Cyclistsfifthave124thst1897

Considered a success, the scorcher squad eventually expanded to include 100 officers (middle photo).

But as the cycling fad eased and the automobile took over city streets, the squad’s days were numbered. Considering that we’re in a new bicycle era and not all riders follow traffic rules, maybe it’s time for a second incarnation of the scorcher squad?

[Top image: via tubulocity.com; third photo, cyclists rounding the corner at Fifth Avenue and 124th Street in 1897 : MCNY]

The short life of a lower Broadway footbridge

August 4, 2014

Think Broadway gridlock is bad now? Here’s what it was like in the 1860s—when the city’s busiest thoroughfare had two-way traffic, no marked lanes, and no lights.

“Carriages, wagons, carts, omnibuses, and trucks are packed together in the most helpless confusion,” wrote James D. McCabe in 1872’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

Geninbridgecolor“It is always a difficult matter for a pedestrian to cross the lower part of Broadway in the busy season. Ladies, old persons, and children find it impossible to do so without the aid of police, whose duty it is to make a passage for them through the crowd of vehicles.”

To make this stretch of safer for pedestrians—and of course, encourage more foot traffic to his shop—a well-known hatter named John Genin, whose store sat on the southwest corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, pressured the city to build a crossing steps from his door.

He’d dreamed of a footbridge here since the 1850s and drew up designs too, as this illustration above shows.

In 1866, the fanciful Loew Bridge, named after city politico Charles Loew, opened. New Yorkers used the lacy, elegant bridge to get across town as well as take in the view.

Loewbridgecloseup1867

Genin must have been happy. But anotherr hatter on the northeast corner of Broadway and Fulton, Charles Knox, was not. Shadows cast by the bridge put Knox’s shop in darkness, and he was convinced he was losing sales.

He and a group of hatters from his side of Broadway sued the city, forcing city officials to tear it down. Loew Bridge only lasted a year, undone by a fierce business rivalry in an industry that barely exists in the New York of today.

Three centuries of Broadway and Murray Street

July 7, 2014

For most of the 19th century, the intersection of Broadway and Murray Street was the city—a bustling nexus of commerce and city government with notoriously heavy traffic.

Broadwaymurrayst1887

This photo, from New York Then and Now, dates to 1887. Without traffic signals of any kind, crossing Broadway could be tricky, as these pedestrians demonstrate.

City Hall Park is on the right; the building on the right corner is A. T. Stewart’s “Marble Palace” dry goods emporium. Note the telegraph and telephone wires on wood poles.

It’s worth remembering too that underneath this stretch of Broadway, the city’s first subway got its ill-fated start in 1870.

Broadwaymurraystreet1974

Eighty-seven years later, this downtown corner is still busy. Loft buildings and office structures line the west side of Broadway, like the lovely Home Life Insurance Building, constructed in 1894.

A.T. Stewart’s department store building is still there—from the 1910s to 1950 the home of the New York Sun newspaper. The beautiful clock was still there last time I checked.

Broadwaymurrayst2014

Today, the intersection looks almost unchanged from 1974, save for more visible traffic and pedestrian lanes markings and the loss of the pub at the corner of Warren Street on the west side. It’s now a bank branch.

Herman Melville imagines the brutal Draft Riots

July 7, 2014

DraftriotsmelvilleHerman Melville wasn’t in New York City in July 1863 to actually witness the Draft Riots.

A city native born on Pearl Street, he returned to the metropolis from Massachusetts that same year, moving with his family to a farmhouse on East 26th Street.

But the horror of the city’s worst riot certainly affected him. In 1865, he published Battle Pieces & Aspects of the War, which included a poem about the four horrific days of violence and murder that began 151 years ago this week.

The riots were ignited by opposition to the Civil War and class animosity, but more specifically the new draft begun days earlier that forced poor men to fight while richer men could buy their way out.

Draftriotsarson

Titled “The House-top. A Night Piece,” the poem “is an imaginative reconstruction of the awful scene with his judgment of the results,” states the introduction to The Poems of Herman Melville, edited by Douglas Robillard. It begins with a hot, restless night:

“No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And blinds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.”

DraftriotsillustrationnyplThe steamy Monday after the draft began, thousands of mostly poor and working-class Irish immigrants, enraged by the draft lottery, began setting fires to buildings citywide and attacking and killing black residents who happened to cross their path.

“The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And the rats of wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

[Below: The New York Seventh Regiment was called in to quell the rioters]

Draftriotsseventhregiment

Read the full text of the poem, which hints at the military force brought in to finally put an end to the Draft Riots and serves a harsh indictment of man’s dual nature to do good and evil.

As for Melville, he spent the Gilded Age falling into obscurity, working at the Customs House on West Street near Gansevoort—a street named after his Revolutionary War Hero grandfather.

[Third image: NYPL]


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