A Practical Joke of Great Proportions

Daniel Huntington (1816-1906). Reverend Morgan Dix, 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 54.292.

I recently finished reading The Rector and the Rogue, W. A. Swanberg’s riveting true account of a peculiar situation targeting the Reverend Morgan Dix of Trinity Church over 130 years ago. This led me to wonder what sort of objects we might have in the collection related to this tale and its participants. I’ll try not to give away too much about the tale, in case you intend to read The Rector and Rogue yourself.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). West 25th Street. Rectory of Trinity Protestant Episcopal Chapel, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1266

The hoax began simply enough, on the morning of February 18, 1880, when Reverend Dix received a letter from the Acme Safe Company, thanking him for his inquiry into their products, enclosing a price list, and promising to follow-up.  While there was nothing threatening in the contents of such a letter, Reverend Dix had not made any such inquiry.  The Revered asked his secretary to write to the business, letting them know there had been a misunderstanding, and no further action was necessary.   The Acme Safe Company letter was followed shortly thereafter by additional letters from other businesses, and individuals as well began calling on the Reverend at his home (pictured above) throughout the day, each stating they were simply responding to inquiries they claimed to have received from him. The Reverend asked for proof of these inquiries and the vendors produced postcards inquiring into their goods and services and bearing the forged signature of Reverend Dix. (On an aside note – the Museum only has a few postcards from the 1880s in its  Postcard Collection, as the Post Office held the monopoly on printing postcards until the late 1890s, thus there were far fewer in circulation.  Early postcards functioned as a way to communicate quickly rather than as a souvenir from a visit or vacation.)

Byron Company. Portrait, Tom Burns 1890, Superintendent of Police N.Y.C, 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.20247.

After several days of nuisance, Reverend Dix approached Postmaster Thomas L. James, who then involved New York City Chief of Detectives Captain Thomas Byrnes (pictured to the right). This variety of harassment continued, with some pauses and variations, for the next month.   The Police Department and the Postal Service began investigating all present connections to Reverend Dix, as well as figures from his past, to try to find someone who might hold a personal grudge against him.  Even the parishioners and staff of Trinity Church (pictured below) were unable to escape the scrutiny of the

Photographer unknown. Broadway, north from Exchange Place, ca 1884. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.11.495.

investigation; in fact, the two prime suspects were connected to the Reverend through his church. Unfortunately, the Post Office and the New York City Police had trouble coordinating their investigations, and though they eventually arrived at the same suspect, the Postmaster was able to track him down first.  The identity of the the joker was a surprise to many: he traveled within the upper tiers of society, lived the sort of life of leisure led by the independently wealthy, and was generally regarded as a collegial sort of fellow.  While I won’t ruin the surprise and provide the culprit’s name,  I will note an interesting coincidence: he claimed to be a member of the Fairfaxes of Virginia.  You guessed it, the prankster may have been a distant relation of Reginald Fairfax Harrison, a young man whose diary is held in the Museum’s collection, and has been featured on this blog in the past.  To the end, the culprit pledged that he did not hold any sort of personal grudge against the Reverend; alas, it was just a practical joke that got slightly out of hand.

3 responses to “A Practical Joke of Great Proportions

  1. Very interesting! I think I’ll read the book!

  2. Interesting Lindsay…………..

  3. I love the connection to RFH! Now I want to check out this book.

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