Saturday, August 29, 2009

Samuel Tilden and the 1876 race for president

Editor's Note
This originally appeared in the Hudson Register-Star Aug.29, 2009.

NEW LEBANON — Samuel Tilden couldn’t believe it. He had beaten Rutherford Hayes fair and square by more than 250,000 votes, but now it was all slipping through his fingers.

Down South they were still fighting it out over the remaining 19 electoral votes. Tilden had secured 184; one shy of a guaranteed win, but Hayes only had 165.

The 20th electoral vote was from Oregon, was first deemed illegal, but eventually went to Hayes.

Democrats and Republicans had poured down to Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida to ensure that their candidate would get a fair shake, but the news that floated back north was of voting fraud from Republicans and the intimidation of African American voters by the Democrats.

Eventually these three states sent two different electoral votes to Congress, one indicating a win for Tilden, the other for Hayes.

In late January, with the inauguration date inching closer, Congress passed a law forming a 15-member Electoral Commission to pick a winner. Five Republicans and five Democrats were on the board with one neutral party, Supreme Court Justice David Davis, who later bowed out and was replaced by a Republican. Two days before the inauguration the committee gave all the disputed votes to Hayes.

The decision may have been due to a concerted effort at finding the truth or, more likely, to a back-room deal, now termed the “compromise of 1877.”

The deal between Republicans and Southern Democrats put Hayes in the White House and helped end Reconstruction by withdrawing federal troops from the South. With that the new Republican state governments were voted out and African Americans were quickly disenfranchised.

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a contemporary editorial, Tilden hadn’t been a party to the compromise.

Thomas Hendricks, who was Tilden’s running mate, would eventually attain the position of vice president in 1884 under President Grover Cleveland and would die in office the next year.

Hayes, who only served one term as president, hadn’t been his party’s first choice for the job, but was elected as a compromise to James G. Blaine, who they believed couldn’t win the general election.

Tilden, on the other hand, had won the Democratic nomination handily and did so on a reform ticket based on his dealings with New York City’s Tweed gang of Tammany Hall. But the truth was far from being black and white.

William “Boss” Tweed and his cohorts had been bilking the public for years, managing to steal between $30 million and $200 million in six years, by some estimates.

As the Democratic chairman of the New York state, Tilden was slow to act against them, taking five years to do so. It took Tweed’s former allies—including the boxing champion turned politician John Morrissey—a number of reform-minded newspaper editors, like Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and a cartoonist named Thomas Nast to push Tilden to act.

In a New York Times editorial from 1870, Tilden is decried as a “fugleman” or wing-man “for Tweed” at a Democratic convention filled with “city thieves and bullies.”

In 1871, Tilden finally acted and began the process that would eventually send Tweed to prison, breaking him both financially and physically.

The governorship of New York came after that in 1875 and the Democratic nomination for president a year later.

Tilden was born in New Lebanon in 1814 to Elam Tilden and Polly Younglove Jones. The elder Tilden had come from Connecticut with his family when he was young and would eventually make his fortune with a pharmaceutical company based in his hometown.

Tilden graduated from New York University Law School in 1841 and became a corporate lawyer who represented nearly every major railroad at the time.

Following his loss on the national stage, Tilden retired from politics, turning down the 1880 run at the White House, due, he said, to ill health.

He lived in New York City at 15 Gramercy Park South in a house remodeled by Calvert Vaux, Frederick Law Olmsted’s collaborator on Central Park.

When he died in 1886, he bequeathed $4 million for a free public library and reading-room in New York City. This was combined with the Astor and Lenox libraries to found the New York Public Library.

He was buried in New Lebanon. And on his grave, written, one would guess, in regard to the 1876 election, are the words “I Still Trust in The People”.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The firemen’s riot of August 21, 1865

The boy hoisted the old straw mattress onto the roof, lit a match and quickly scampered down the way he had come. A few moments later a bell began clanging loudly, waking the neighborhood. The firefighters from Company No. 6 jumped into action, pulling on their boots, leather helmets and wool jackets and began hauling their pumper towards the scene of the blaze. And that’s when the fight broke out.
Their long-time rivals Engine Company No. 41 were waiting for them at Ridge Street, near the intersection with Delancey St. The fire had been a ruse to draw them out and settle their differences once and for all. This was to be achieved through guns, clubs, axes, fists and even the metal fire horns used to amplify the fire fighters’ voices during operations.

When Big Six, as they were known, reached Ridge Street all the gaslights had been extinguished. Suddenly No. 41’s pumper pulled up from behind them and stopped slightly ahead and to their right. “Give it to them! Kill the sons of bitches,” someone shouted and the sound of gunfire smashed the unnatural quiet. According to Anthony Burk, the foremen of No. 6, the shots came from near No. 41’s pumper. He was hit three times by bullets. One struck him near his right eye; another on the right cheek and a third grazed his ear. He claimed he hadn’t fired back, but several firemen from No. 41 said they had seen him with a gun that night, and they said, he started firing first.

The Metropolitan Police didn’t seem to be of much help that night. They allegedly stayed out of the fight until the shooting died down and there were enough of them to make a dent in the escalating fracas. Platoons began pouring in from all over the eastside. They poured in from Ridge, Delancey and Grand Streets surrounding the combatants. According to members of both fire companies, the police used their nightsticks with wild abandon to disburse the crowd, bloodying a number of firemen that morning.

Later in court the police were unable to say who or how the fight began. Officer Robert Gray arrived just before the fight broke out. “I heard a cheer,” he remembered,” but I don’t know from which company it came.” He did recall that the gunfire seemed to be coming from both companies, which was apparent when the smoke cleared 25 minutes later and two firemen from No. 41 lay dying, while others from both companies suffered from bullet wounds, knife slashes and head injuries. Mathias Bettman, a runner, lay with a bullet wound in his abdomen, while James Quigley, a bunker, suffered a bullet wound in his chest. Bunkers slept at the firehouse, while runners would come to the fires from their houses when the alarm sounded. Harry Howard, one of the last Chief Engineers of the volunteer fire department, had put the bunking system in place a few years earlier.

That spring the state legislature had passed an act creating a "Metropolitan Fire Department,” spelling the demise of the volunteer companies in New York City. The attorney general, John Martindale, believed the law was illegal and fought on behalf of the volunteers. It went before the State Supreme Court and was found constitutional just two months before the riot. Throughout this time the battles between rival fire companies continued to rage and in fact escalated, probably due to the pressures the men were experiencing as they became pawns in a political game between Albany and Tammany Hall, the political machine controlling the city. The companies were pushed to the breaking point and with tempers flaring violence was the outcome.

The month before the New York Times had railed against the territorial and sometimes politically motivated brawls that all too often erupted at fires, slowing down rescue operations and leading to more property damage. It was the insurance companies that first put forth the idea of a paid fire department. They were tired of paying out on blaze after blaze. From there it became a political chess game between the Tammany Hall Democrats who had deep ties with the fire companies and the Republicans in Albany who were interested in resting any kind of political control they could from Tammany.

Fire companies had been brawling each other for years, but this fight pushed the city over the edge and ended with a coroner’s inquest jury censuring the fire commissioners for “not being more efficient with organizing a proper fire department.”It wasn’t until 1866 that the new department was fully in place and it was the brave volunteers who had agreed to continue to battle blaze after blaze in the city until that time. These men made up the core of the new fire department that would eventually become the Fire Department City of New York.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Belgian paupers

The police herded the 12 men onto the ship headed for New York City. They were from a local beggars’ colony and had asked for and received the help of the provincial government in getting to America. They were going to get a chance to start over, but before that happened, these 12 poverty stricken Belgians would help set off an international scandal and a debate in Congress.

There were 351 passengers on board the ship that October 1854 day, but these 12 men happened to arouse the suspicion of the packet ship Rochambeau’s captain, Harris Stackpole. Due to their meager baggage he assumed they were “paupers.” He asked the American counsel whether he could throw them off. The counsel, according to the captain, told Stackpole he would have to take them and could not put them ashore without violating the contract.

Stackpole had heard the rumors of the Belgian government shipping paupers and criminals to America, but couldn't prove that these men were of either class. “It was spoken of by American captains that there were going to be a lot of paupers shipped, but it was impossible to find out about it,” he said in court. “I did hear the interpreter say the passage of these men had been paid by the Burgomaster.”

Stackpole, born in 1816, was a highly respected captain from Maine who would later retire from the sea and become a merchant in Thomaston, where he had was born, raised and eventually died in 1896.

An internal government letter from that time (that ended up published in every major American newspaper) gives a glimpse of the Belgian government’s plans for shipping the poor to America.

“The transports for immigrants for the United States will take their
departure from Antwerp,” it reads. “A large number of vessels are prepared already to leave at various periods of this month…The departure will take place during the year, every fortnight.”

Liberated prisoners and the poor were to be sent to Antwerp at the cost of 180 francs each, which was paid by the municipal government sending them.

Belgium, only a little more than 15 years after being recognized as a legitimate nation, was just coming out of what was known as the "hunger years,” which lasted from 1843 to 1850.

Industrialization and its centralization in urban centers came early to the country, helping to destroy the rural, home based industry of flax weaving. When combined with the potato blight that swept across Europe, devastating the staple crop of the rural poor—and which was responsible for between 40,000 to 50,000 deaths in Belgium alone—the government was soon dealing with a huge influx of country people into its cities.

The government response was to put these people into beggar’s colonies and when the poor kept pouring in, the government, at least in the province of Antwerp, decided on another strategy, that is, they sent them packing to other countries including France, Canada and the United States.

The plan worked for a little while, until the word spread among American ship captains who vigorously tried to keep those they considered beggars from coming aboard. Stackpole went so far as to post handbills offering a reward to anyone who could, or would, confirm when the beggars would be shipped to America.

Stackpole's suspicions were confirmed after they put ashore in New York harbor.

Sgt. William Bell of the Emigrant squad attached to New York City Mayor Fernando Wood’s office, along with several officers, went on board the Rochambeau before the passengers could disembark and secured the "convicts" and intercepted some correspondence for the Belgian Consul related to the men, who were taken to the Tombs, as the city’s jail is known.

The American government assumed the men were either convicts or beggars, neither of which were tolerated stateside.

It’s highly probable that Lewis Baker, the man who would be charged with the murder of Bill “The Butcher” Poole the next year also came aboard that day, as he had been a member of the Emigrant Squad since its formation two years earlier. This was the same case in which champion bare-knuckle boxer John Morrissey would be named as accessory to the killing.

Bell would later act as a defense witness for his old comrade, telling the jury that he had known Baker since childhood and could vouch for his good character.

The 12 Belgians from the Rochambeau remained in jail while the case made its way through the legal and political worlds of New York.

In the following months two inquests were held to try and get to the bottom of the situation, as much in the name of justice as for the fact that the 12 men were being housed and fed on the city’s dime.

The first was held before Judge Abraham Bogart Jr. and began on Christmas day. Stackpole and the first mate, Christian Hildebrand, both related their belief that the men were convicts, but neither could present any proof backing it up. One of the 12 men also spoke at the hearing, the first time the public had heard from them.
J. Baptist Stour, a native of Forest, Belgium, told the judge he had been confined in the Workhouse at Lavine and that he and nine others made application to the mayor of Antwerp to be transported to the United States. The application was accepted, he said, and each man was given 10 francs to defray their expenses.

The case was kicked upstairs to a higher court and the men remained in the Tombs.

As a side note a year later Judge Bogart was convicted of a misdemeanor while in office for taking bail from a defendant without giving notice to the DA, as required by law. The conviction was later upheld by the Supreme Court

After the fist hearing in city court Mayor Fernando Wood, on Valentine’s Day, addressed a letter to Henry W. T. Mali, the Belgian consul in New York, in which he stated that he believed the 12 men were not of a “character to be permitted to go at large in this city or in this country.”

He suggested that they be returned to their own country
at the cost of the Belgian government, citing his belief the men had arrived there the same way and that they were indeed criminals. “While we cannot set them at liberty, we can no longer retain them in custody,” Wood told the consul, but hold them they did.

The Belgian government remained moot on the subject, following the lead of other countries such as England and Germany and biding its time.

That same month the case came before Judge James Roosevelt, the man who presided over the Lew Baker murder trial.

Two of the 12 accused, Joseph Poismanns, 30, a native of Louvain, and 40-year-old Jean Waggemanns, of Ghent, were there to plead for their release since they had now been in jail for more than two months.

According to a NY Times reporter the men appeared to be in good health and looked to be of a “respectable appearance” like “the majority of adult male emigrants from the working classes of Europe who land in this country.”

Poismanns, who was a tanner by trade, told the court he had been in a poor house voluntarily for six months before coming to America because he had been unable to find work.

He said he wasn’t a convict and had never even been in a courtroom before now. Waggemanns told a similar tale and with this information in hand the judge said that it all seemed to be a matter of a translation problem, in the sense that what was meant by a poor house in Belgium was different then what it meant in America and that the men were not paupers in the same sense of the word. “This ‘depot’ as it had been called, [is] like a Home of Industry with us,” he concluded, adding that he could not assent to the doctrine that “the law looks on a man as a pauper because he has not a cent in his pocket.” He set the men free.

But other wheels had been set in motion. The case of the 12 Belgians had become fodder for the larger national debate concerning immigration as well as the fiery dispute on state’s rights.

As soon as the case hit the papers the Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant political party also called Nativists or Native Americans, bandied the story about in the halls of Congress saying that this was just another reason to keep immigrants out of America. Members of the party authored legislation that would do just that.

Legislation was introduced in January 1855 to keep “foreign paupers, criminals, idiots, lunatics, and insane and blind persons” out of America. It was tabled.

The next month a bill was introduced that would allow the states to legislate any matters concerning immigration. It too was tabled.

Again, in March a bill to exclude foreign paupers and criminals was introduced.
The report that accompanied this bill contained the correspondence concerning the Belgian paupers as well as other similar cases.

According to the report “the immigration of foreign paupers and criminals is the chief source of intemperance, the fruitful source of pauperism, and the prolific source of crime; it has brought upon the country a large juvenile vagrant population; the mother of crimes, it has flooded our country with irreligion, immorality, and licentiousness.”

The report recommended the adoption of a state policy that would discourage the “esprit du corps” that bound immigrants together; banning the sale of liquor licenses to immigrants who were not citizens; prompt conviction of criminals and establishing institutions “to take charge of all juvenile delinquents and vagrants,” among other reforms.

The Know Nothings were a voice in the wilderness, so to speak, in contrast to the vast majority of politicians who were pro-emigration, reflected in the tabling of every piece of ant-immigration legislation introduced by the Nativists.

More importantly, the issue of who was able to control the flow of foreigners into port cities, the state or the federal government, a debate wasn’t fully settled until the smoke had cleared from the war that tore the country apart and remade it into a unified nation.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sometimes you get lucky

Sometimes you get lucky.
I recently wrote an article (which I’m including below) about a screenwriter named Richard Rosenzweig who is working on a screenplay that revolves around Morrissey’s 1853 prizefight at Boston Corners.

We met at a local bar after the article came out and discussed all things Morrissey. He provided me with a copy of some notes taken by a turn of the 19th century reporter who spoke with several locals that witnessed the fight. The first person accounts provide a new perspective on the fight, told from the point of view of the country people who were literally overrun by thousands of crazed fans mostly from New York City.

Here’s the article that originally appeared in the Register-Star Newspaper.

Oct. 12, 1853 was a fine fall day in Boston Corners and the perfect setting for an illegal bare-knuckle boxing match between John Morrissey and James “Yankee” Sullivan. At that time Boston Corners, more colorfully known as Hell’s Acres, was a tiny hamlet of 120 inhabitants located on the border between Massachusetts and New York.

The hamlet and surrounding 1,016-acre triangle of land was part of Massachusetts, having been incorporated as a district in 1838 — but in name only. There was no post office or police department, and the residents didn’t vote or pay taxes to the state. To the east of Boston Corners, the Berkshire Mountains presented a formidable barrier for law enforcement from Massachusetts. Connecticut to the south and New York to the north and west also acted to insulate the area from Massachusetts’ law.

Between 4,000 and 10,000 fight fans overran the hamlet for the match that ended with Morrissey winning in 37 rounds.

The strange history of the hamlet of Boston Corners and the illicit bare-knuckle prize fight held there in 1853 have caught the imagination of many people through the years and continue to do so today. One of those is Richard Rosenzweig, a jazz drummer by profession and screenwriter by avocation, who has spent three years researching and writing a script, “Hell’s Acres,” based on a somewhat obscure 1938 novel of the same name.

According to Rosenzweig, his fascination with the story of the hamlet began when he bought a house in Hillsdale four years ago. After visiting friends in Boston Corners he learned about the area’s history and when his brother, an artist who head been living in the county for several years, introduced him to the novel “Hell’s Acres” by Clay Perry and John Pell, he couldn’t resist.

“I fell in love with it,” he said, adding that he had never intended to write an historical drama, but felt the story was too good to pass up.

The story revolves around James Grayson, a horse breeder in Saratoga who goes undercover to break up a gang of horse thieves from Boston Corners. The climax of the story takes place during the Morrissey-Sullivan fight.

“It reads like a boy’s adventure story,” said Rosenzweig.

According to him, many of the novel’s characters and settings were based on fact, but the main character and the story itself are fictional.

Rosenzweig said he read the book once and skimmed through it from time to time in order to make the story his own.

“I loved doing the research,” he said. “And it was cool that I got to write most of it here.”

He said he would often drive by many of the locations where the story took place.

Rosenzweig recently had the chance to hear his words come alive at Time and Space Limited in Hudson, during the March 2 read-through of “Hell’s Acres.” The event was part of the Movies Without Pictures program by Upstate Independents, an organization that acts as a resource for independent filmmakers in the Northeast.

There are plans for a similar event in April.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The NYC board of ed, a whorehouse and prison or How not to teach by example

One fine May Manhattan day in 1858 Richard Barry—school commissioner, board of education member and city councilman—decided to while away some time carousing with prostitutes at a Bordello on Howard Street in what is now known as SoHo.

At that time the neighborhood was transforming itself into the City’s first Red Light District, with new houses of assignation popping up on almost a daily basis.

Barry, who apparently thought nothing of spending a Monday in a whorehouse, had his fun and left, but soon came storming back, screaming about being robbed of $20 by one of the working girls. He threatened and cajoled Philip Wolfe, the owner of the establishment, but Wolfe just ignored him. Barry vowed vengeance, which he got about a half-hour later.

Barry—who represented the Sixth Ward on matters of education—returned with three representatives of the Dead Rabbits, a Sixth Ward gang, and soon educated Wolfe on how denizens of that ward settled disputes. He hit Wolfe on the head with a decanter and proceeded to pummel him into a bloody mess, with the help of the gang members. Adding insult to injury, they stole $100 from Wolfe before leaving.

Wolfe, after recovering enough to speak with police, said he believed Barry would have killed him if not for the aid of other pleasure seekers in his establishment coming to his aid.

The 14th Ward police arrived as they were leaving and arrested Barry and a volunteer fireman (and Dead Rabbit) Patrick Burk. The two other gang members, John Thompson and John Chase were arrested later after trying to pass a counterfeit two-dollar bill at a nearby bar. One of them pulled a knife on the arresting officer and would have gotten away if not for some concerned citizens who collared the pair.
Barry, Chase and Burk bailed out of jail, leaving Thompson—apparently moneyless and friendless—to stew in the Tombs, the City’s underground jail.

The BOE member was indicted for first-degree assault, to which he pleaded guilty before Judge George G, Barnard.
Barnard, a flamboyant man from a wealthy New York family, had spent his younger days prospecting for gold in California and performing in minstrel shows, among other pursuits, before settling down to practice law back home.

When Barry came before him he told him that he had received between 100 and 150 letters from “prominent and influential men” asking for leniency, but, said the judge, he had hundreds of poor men without money, friends or influence who he sentenced to prison for similar crimes. So he sentenced him to four months in prison.

“A fine would be inadequate and imprisonment seems to be the only remedy to the recurrence of scenes like this,” he told Barry, who was shocked that he was going to have to do time for simply beating a whorehouse proprietor within an inch of his life.

It’s hard to reconcile this image of Barnard as an impartial jurist and later descriptions of him as a scoundrel in the pocket of both the Tweed Ring and the Robber Barons, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt. Barnard would allegedly whittle twigs and swig brandy in his courtroom. He was indeed later impeached, but like many public figures who fall from grace in the public eye, it’s possible that the judge’s defects are all that remain to history.

Monday, January 26, 2009

a snapshot of death in 1855

As the poet William Butler Yeats once put it, "a man awaits his end, dreading and hoping all." In mid-19th century New York, John Morrissey and the city's other residents had more to dread than hope for as far as their chances of survival went. Death came in many forms in a time before science had clued in on the causes and cures of diseases. Many of these would be all but eradicated, at least in the United States, 100 years hence.

According to the New York Times—it once posted a list of numbers and causes of death weekly—there were 441 deaths in the city of New York for the week of March 31 through April 7, 1855. The numbers in this snapshot of death were not an unusual weekly toll.

At that time there were approximately 650,000 people living in the city, so this weekly number, averaged out over a year, meant that almost 10 percent (compared to less than 1 percent today) of the population was dying. But not to worry, a huge influx of immigrants were continually swelling the population, as was the birth rate.

Of those who died that week the largest percentage—40 people—came from one of the biggest and poorest wards in the city—the 17th. That ward contained the Bowery and part of the Lower East Side.

The 17th ward had a seemingly ever-increasing population in the 1800s, growing from 18,619 in 1850 to 95,365 in only 30 years. All within less than a half-mile square.

The 17th ward did not contain the poorest and most famous neighborhood of 1800s New York—the Five Points. The Five Points was in the 6th ward, which came in sixth in amount of dead residents that week, but then there were twice as many people living in the 17th at the time in an area almost four times the size. And since this is not based on per capita data, it's probable that these numbers don't accurately reflect the level of death that occurred in the 6th ward. Needless to say, the poor were dying in droves as compared to the richer classes living uptown. For instance, the 22nd ward located above 40th Street on the West side, which had roughly an equivalent number of residents in 1855, only saw 12 deaths that week.

But even those who could afford clean water and medical care could and did succumb to a number of diseases, including Tuberculosis, then known as Consumption, and Scarlet Fever. In that week in 1855 there were 49 deaths from Consumption and 24 from Scarlet Fever. Children had it even worse than adults, that week there were 41 stillbirths and 21 children who died from Marasmus, better known as starvation.

Medicine in the mid-1800s was rather a crude affair, with many doctors still relying on the ancient idea of the body's four humors—yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm—to treat their patients. Too much black bile? You have melancholia and must be bled. Too much yellow bile? You are choleric and must be bled. You get the point. Many times the cure was worse than the disease. Mercury was used extensively in cures and would often lead to poisoning and death. Surgery was worse yet, with doctors unaware of the need to sterilize instruments or hands before working on a patient. Surgeons would wear the same blood and gore stained smocks in surgery after surgery as a badge of honor to show that they were old hats at their profession.

Morrissey suffered at the hands of doctors who tried in vain to cure his Bright's Disease, now known as Chronic Nephritis. He died of pneumonia at 47, most likely brought on by a weakened immune system, due in part to the "cures" he had taken.