A rich merchant’s wife becomes a Revolutionary War heroine

When important people visited New York City in the middle of the 18th century, they often stopped at the spectacular home of Robert and Mary Lindley Murray.

In the colonial-era city, the Murrays were a powerful couple. Robert Murray had immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family from Ireland as a boy; he worked his way up from a mill operator to a wealthy wheat and flour merchant. Mary Lindley Murray was the daughter of Quaker immigrants from Philadelphia.

Married in 1744, they moved to New York City in 1753, according to womeninhistoryblog.com. Nine years later they rented 29 acres far from the city center and built a mansion on an estate they called Inclenberg, Dutch for “beautiful hill,” seen below surrounded by trees on the Ratzer map from 1766.

“The two-story great house was located at what is today Park Avenue and 36th Street,” states womeninhistoryblog.com. “Grand Central Station stands on what was one of the estate’s cornfields.”

Eventually this neck of the woods would be renamed Murray Hill, after the couple and their 11 children; a 1926 plaque on an apartment building at that corner on Park Avenue memorializes Inclenberg (above).

But back to the 18th century city, which in 1776 became a battleground when the War for Independence broke out. Some residents were Loyalists to the British; others considered themselves Patriots and supported the Continental Army.

While Robert Murray reportedly was a Loyalist, Mary’s sympathies went with the Patriots, according to The Murrays of Murray Hill, by Charles Monaghan. And legend has it that she proved her allegiance in September 1776, when British General William Howe came ashore at Kip’s Bay to take on George Washington’s Patriot army.

While Howe and his officers was making his way through Manhattan and Patriot militiamen were retreating to Harlem Heights, Mary invited Howe and his men to her home. With her husband conveniently away, Mary and her daughters entertained their British guests for two hours with lunch and wine to stall them so the Patriots had time to get away. (Above and below images)

“After the catastrophe on Long Island, August 28, 1776, and the affair at Kip’s Bay, the Americans withdrew up the island, time for which retreat being gained, so it is claimed, through the instrumentality of Mary Lindley Murray, who entertained General Howe and his officers at luncheon on September 15, 1776, at her house at present Park Avenue and 36th Street,” wrote Hopper Striker Mott in The New York of Yesterday.

There’s another account of this story that has a slightly different take.

According to the military journal of James Thatcher, an army surgeon, the British army marching up Manhattan to catch up to the Patriots realized “there was no prospect of engaging our troops” and decided to “repair to the home of Mr. Robert Murray, a Quaker and friend of our cause; Mrs. Murray treated them with cake and wine, and they were induced to tarry two hours or more….It has since become almost a common saying among our officers, that Mrs. Murray saved this part of the American army.”

Whatever really happened, General Howe and his men apparently did stop off at the Murray mansion—and the Patriots made their way to Harlem Heights and beyond. The legend was solidified in 1903 when the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque affixed to a boulder in honor of Mary at Park Avenue and 37th Street (above).

[Top image: by the Duskhopper via Cool Chicks From History; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Ratzer Map, 1766; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: Alamy; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL]

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12 Responses to “A rich merchant’s wife becomes a Revolutionary War heroine”

  1. Bill Wolfe Says:

    I love knowing where the name Murray Hill comes from. Thanks for the history lesson!

  2. VirginiaLB Says:

    What a great story! All your posts are so interesting–I don’t thank you enough. I’d love to read a book about Mary Murray. You have given some good recommendations in the past. Could I recommend a book I think you would like? ‘My New York’ by Mabel Osgood Wright, published in the 1920s. It’s a memoir of her growing up in Manhattan in the 1860s-1880s. Maybe you have already read it.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I don’t think I have read this one, but thank you, there are few things I enjoy more than reading a New Yorker’s memoir about their era in the city. I see she is the author of books about birds and the natural world.

      • VirginiaLB Says:

        Yes, Mabel Osgood Wright was a founder of the Audubon movement and the author of numerous books about birds, gardens, other nature subjects and fascinating novels about the changes in society in her time, very autobiographical. Not great literature but very revealing of her times. She was also a talented photographer. Her father was a noted NY minister who preached the funeral oration when Lincoln’s body was brought to NY on its way to Illinois. I think I can promise you that you will find ‘My New York’ very interesting.

  3. Marty Oppenheim Says:

    AT least two plays have been written about this incident. A Rodgers & Hart musical called “Dearest Enemy” which ran 286 performances in 1925 and Robert E. Sherwood’s “Small War on Murray Hill” which only last 12 in 1957

  4. countrypaul Says:

    What an amazing story! I’d have loved to have seen that estate, in fact, all of Manhattan “in the wild.” (I used to have a recurring dream thateverything around it is as it is, but somehow the island was “as it was.” )

  5. velovixen Says:

    Never underestimate the power of hospitality….

  6. Sheryl H Says:

    Never underestimate the power of women

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