Tag Archives: 1880’s

John Bute Holmes, surveyor and polygamist.

To quote my colleague Susannah in her fascinating post from a few weeks ago, “Hints about long vanished and forgotten aspects of New York surround us if we know where to look.”  This is no recent concept, and was in fact intriguing to City Surveyor John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887) as far back as the 1860s,  continuing up to his death in the 1880s.   Holmes created maps that showed dualities – the city as it had been and the city as it was – and he  himself led a life of multiplicities, leading to a certain fogginess surrounding basic biographical details. You’ll understand why he attempted to remain rather elusive  later in the post.

Holmes claimed to have been born on the Island of Mauritus in the Indian Ocean in 1822 (an article published shortly after his death states he was just shy of 69 years old in 1887,  implying his birth year would have beem 1818);  have moved to Cork, Ireland, at the age of eight;  and, according to him, he left Cork to emigrate to the United States in 1838, 1841, or maybe 1842, depending on the particular situation he was trying to talk himself out of.  He worked as a surveyor, moving back and forth between Cork, London, and Owego, New York, until 1848, and then resided in Brooklyn and Staten Island until 1856.  His exact whereabouts between 1856 and 1873 are somewhat vague (perhaps as a result of the fact he was hiding from the wife he had left destitute), though he is assumed to have been in or near New York City based upon his City Surveyor position.  He eventually landed on a farm in New Jersey and died there in 1887.

It was while conducting the assessment of maps in the J. Clarence Davies Collection, as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant project, that I first came across a number of maps executed by Holmes.  These maps featured farm boundaries, property lines, streets, and lanes from the 18th century or even earlier, overlaid with the existing street grid from the second half of the 19th century, when Holmes was conducting his survey.  The map below of the East and West De Lancey Farms is a perfect example, showing De Lancey (now condensed to “Delancey”) Street  cutting right through the middle of the original farm property, running east to west.

John Bute Holmes. Map of the East and West De Lancey Farms.  Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2902.

John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887). Map of the East and West De Lancey Farms. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2902.

(Click on any of the maps in this post to be taken to the high resolution image in the Collections Portal, where you have the capability to zoom in on the finest detail.)

The maps are extremely helpful when trying to identify streets whose names have changed. The map of the Bayard Farm, shows a number of such streets with their previous names and the names they had at the time of Holmes’s surveys.

John Bute Holmes (ca. 1820-1887) and Th. Casimir Goerck (d. 1798).  Map of the Bayard Farm.  Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.2811.

John Bute Holmes (ca. 1820-1887) and Th. Casimir Goerck (d. 1798). Map of the Bayard Farm. Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.2811.

The Map of Kip’s Bay Farm closely follows the boundaries of today’s neighborhood of Kips Bay.  You’ll see in this map that some streets didn’t just change names, but actually changed in layout, as well.

John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887).  Map of the Kip's Bay Farm.  Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2823.

John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887). Map of the Kip’s Bay Farm. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2823.

The Museum holds several more maps from this series, referred to as the “John Bute Holmes Conveyancing Maps,” published by M. (Matthew) Dripps, including the key to how they all fit together.  While the entire series hasn’t yet been digitized, you can view a number of them on the Collections Portal by clicking here.

The more time I spent with the Holmes maps, the more I began to wonder about the man behind them.  I always wonder what used to be here and how did this street get its name as I walk down New York City’s streets.  I envisioned John Bute Holmes doing the same thing, nearly 150 years ago.  Was John Bute Holmes a kindred spirit?  After a little research, however, I began to feel amazed and even baffled by Mr. Holmes.

While I’ve had trouble unraveling the exact chronology, John Bute Holmes was married to at least four women during his life, sued by a fifth for “impeaching her chastity” as a result of “breach of promise of marriage,” known to have lived with another “as husband and wife,” and was reputed to have killed a policeman with whose wife he was involved.  Some of these relationships appear to have overlapped, and most of the wives were unaware of the previous wives, even when the unions had been dissolved legally.  It wasn’t until Holmes’s death in 1887 that the four legal (or at least to their knowledge) wives came face to face in an attempt to claim their inheritance.  The dual nature of Holmes’s maps strangely seems to reflect the duplicitous nature of Holmes’s life.  Did Holmes get so entranced by his maps that he felt he was living in multiple time periods, and therefor entitled to multiple wives?

 F. (Fanny) Palmer (1812-1876).  Love, Marriage and Separation.  Museum of the City of New York. X2012.5.34.

F. (Fanny) Palmer (1812-1876). Love, Marriage and Separation. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.5.34.

A few different accounts in the New York Times attempt to sort it out, and briefly, this is what I’ve come away with:

  • Wife # 1: Anna Maria Clear, married Cork Ireland 1838.  Holmes left her in 1856, Anna filed for divorce in 1875.  One daughter.
  • Living as husband and wife:  Ida Kerr, dates unknown.
  • Wife #2: Hannah Wright Williamson (also his half-sister), marriage date unknown. Three children.
  • Sued for breach of marriage promise: May Chamberlayne, 1874.
  • Wife#3: Mary Sullivan Browning, marriage date unknown.  One son.
  • Wife#4: Katie Meadows, married ca. 1886.

The two women who seemed to feel they had the strongest claim to Holmes’s inheritance were first wife Anna, who was 64 at the time of his death, and final wife, Katie, who was just 19.  Just like Holmes’s maps represented the city in two time periods, these two women represented Holmes as he was once, and Holmes as he was in the present day.  Click here to read the May 27, 1887 New York Times article for more details on the fight amongst the wives and their children.

Festivities of the Gilded Age “Season”

The morning after returning from visiting family for Thanksgiving, I awoke with the thought, “The ball season has again returned, and already the ‘busy hum of preparation’ for its festivities may be noted on every hand.” (New York Times, November 20th, 1870).  Well, perhaps I didn’t use those words exactly, but when I realized my first holiday party of the season was that night, I reconciled myself to the fact the holiday season was upon us in full force.  While most of us may have a busier social calendar than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Gilded Age New Yorkers celebrated all the way through January and February, up until the the onset of Lent, which brought about the close of the winter season.  During Lent,  New Yorkers continued to entertain quietly,  but large, ostentatious events were put on hold until the end of the religious observance.

Invitation to the Patriarch's Ball, February 29th, 1982, from the Collection on New York City Society.  Museum of the City of New York. 83.20.2.

Invitation to the Patriarch Ball, February 29th, 1892, from the Collection on New York City Society. Museum of the City of New York. 83.20.2.

One of the most coveted invitations during the season was to the Patriarch Ball.  With the support of Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, wife of William Backhouse Astor, Jr., Ward McAllister founded the Society of Patriarchs, a committee of 25 “representative men of worth, respectability, and responsibility.”  Each member of the Society was responsible for distributing a certain number of invitations, with the goal to unite the old and newly rich in conducting each season’s “most brilliant balls.”

Menu for First Assembly Ball, December 10th, 1896, in the Collection on New York City Society. Museum of the City of New York. 47.229.2.

Menu for First Assembly Ball, December 10th, 1896, in the Collection on New York City Society. Museum of the City of New York. 47.229.2.

The exclusive “Assembly Balls” were initiated in 1882, and were considered to represent the best and most brilliant of New York society. Originally, three Assembly Balls were given during every winter season, in December, January, and February.  They were organized by a committee of 50 women, and each hostess was given nine invitations to send out as she saw fit.    Original leaders included Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mrs. August Belmont, Mrs. Paran Stevens, and Mrs. Hamilton Fish, and the events were held both at Delmonico’s and the Waldorf Hotel (and later the Waldorf-Astoria), over the years.  While just as exclusive as the discontinued Patriarch Balls they replaced, the Assemblies were considered more fashionable.

Some of the balls, while I am sure quite lovely, were essentially corporate parties or professional gatherings, such as the Matthew T. Brennan Coterie.  The Matthew T. Brennan Association was a political club affiliated with Tammany Hall that honored one of its “oldest and most dedicated workers,” Matthew T. Brennan, who also served as a New York City Police Commissioner (New York Times, August 18, 1970).  This November 20th, 1870, New York Times article presents a preview of the ball season, and mentions that members of the M. T.  Brennan Association would each be assessed $25 to cover the expense of the ball, an equivalent of $450 in today’s dollars.  That’s a pretty expensive party ticket.

Admission ticket to the Matthew T. Brennan Coterie, January 12, 1870, in the Collection on New York City Society.  Museum of the City of New York. 36.196.1.

Admission ticket to the Matthew T. Brennan Coterie, January 12, 1870, in the Collection on New York City Society. Museum of the City of New York. 36.196.1.

Another attraction of the holiday season was of course the fancy dress or masquerade ball.  One of the most famous of such balls was the Vanderbilt Ball of 1883, already described in all its glory in one of our earlier posts.    Gilded Age New Yorkers, however, had an insatiable appetite to dress up in fanciful costumes.  The Grand Masquerade of the Prospect Association seems to have been a bit more of a raucous affair than the Patriarch or Assembly Balls.  In 1886, the ball was excessively large, “if not select, and was composed of the juvenile element of the so-called gilded youth.” (New York Times, February 5, 1886)  Due to the crowds,  at 1 a.m.  the Police enforced a halt to all wine sales outside of the supper room, to the great dismay of the attendees.  One can just image those Patriarchs and Assembly hostesses groaning that there was clearly something behind an exclusive invite only party, and these ticketed events just got out of control.  What were the “gilded youth” coming to?

Admission ticket to the Prosepct Association's Grand Masquerade Ball, January 31st, 1884, in the Collection on New York City Society.  Museum of the City of New York. 49.66.51.

Admission ticket to the Prospect Association’s Grand Masquerade Ball, January 31st, 1884, in the Collection on New York City Society. Museum of the City of New York. 49.66.51.

While I did not find any invitations in the City Museum’s collection directly related to Christmas balls, I did find some related to Hanukkah.  The Young Men’s Hebrew Association (now, along with the Young Women’s Hebrew Association, more commonly know as the 92nd Street Y) hosted its annual Chanucka Celebration at the Academy of Music throughout the 1870s and 1880s.  While the New York Times reported on how crowded the event was, the Jewish holiday was still unfamiliar enough to the paper’s readers that several paragraphs were devoted to explaining the origins of the holiday, and how it was celebrated.

Admission ticket to the Young Men's Hebrew Association Chanucka Celebration, December 15, 1881, In the Collection on New York City Society. Museum of the City of New York.  X328.1.

Admission ticket to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Chanucka Celebration, December 15, 1881, In the Collection on New York City Society. Museum of the City of New York. X328.1.

To learn more about the famous balls of the Gilded Age, check out Susan Gail Johnson’s essay “Like a Glimpse of Old Versailles,” in Gilded New York: Design, Fashion, and Society, the companion text to the Museum’s exhibition.

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.

The Education of a Young New York City Gentleman

I decided to check back in on Fairfax, and see what else he’s been up to since we first introduced him. If you aren’t familiar with young Master Harrison, check out our earlier post, “Who was Reginald Fairfax Harrison?”

Diary of Reginald Fairfax Harrison, 1883-1884, in the Manuscript Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 71.123.

Fairfax’s diary entry for May 17, 1883, begins: “I went to school, and Mr. Cutler told us that Mr. Treton was going to look over our compositions and that Mr. Roosevelt and the Rector of Mt. Zion Church and another gentleman were going to judge who should get the prizes. Mr. Roosevelt is our oldest graduate and it will be very nice to come back after being away so long and … be an honored Judge.”

There are two names in this diary entry that gives us clues to the caliber of education Fairfax was receiving – “Cutler” and “Roosevelt.” According to an obituary in the New York Times, Dr. Arthur H. Cutler served as headmaster to the school he founded, the Cutler School, for nearly 40 years.

Wurtz Brothers. 49 East 61st Street. General exterior, ca.1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1110

The obituary states that the school was a private, collegiate preparatory institution, attended by the sons of many of New York’s prominent families. “The first graduate of the Cutler School was Theodore Roosevelt, who went to Harvard in 1876, and the roster of pupils through the succeeding years includes the names of J.P. Morgan, Waldorf Astor, and many others” (“Dr. Arthur H. Cutler, School Founder, Dies,” New York Times,June 22, 1918).  According to real estate listings in the New York Times, the school held four different locations during its existence; it was originally founded at 20 W. 43rd Street around 1873, then moved to 20 East Fiftieth Street in 1893, and moved again to 49 – 51 E. 61st Street in 1913. The school moved to 755 Madison Avenue following the death of Dr. Cutler, in 1918.

Theodore Roosevelt for Governor, 1898, in the Ephemera Collection.Museum of the City of New York. 41.310.57. William McKinely and Theodore Roosevelt, 1900, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 41.310.50.

When Theodore Roosevelt, future President of the United States, visited the Cutler School in 1883, he was finishing out his term as New York State’s youngest State Assemblyman, having been elected right out of Harvard.   Fairfax’s diary entry is very respectful when he speaks of “Mr. Roosevelt,” and the reader can tell that his participation in the Cutler School composition competition was very exciting for Fairfax and his schoolmates, and that they enjoyed knowing that an alumnus of their school had already achieved such a great reputation.  Little did Fairfax know that this noted alumnus of his school would go on to serve as Governor of the State of New York in 1898, Vice President of the United States in 1901, then quickly move into the office of President following the Assassination of William McKinley in September of that same year.

Who was Reginald Fairfax Harrison?

Diary of Reginald Fairfax Harrison, 1883-1884, in the Manuscript Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 71.123.

I recently came across the “Diary of Reginald Fairfax Harrison, for the Year 1883-1884,” while in the process of working with a researcher from the Central Park Conservancy who was looking into the history of children’s relationships to the Park.   Young Master Harrison, or “Fairfax,” as he was called, was fourteen years old when he began this diary, turning fifteen on March 13, 1884. The diary begins on Sunday, April 29, 1883,  during which “It rained and snowed this morning, and I was not able to go to church.” Reginald goes on to recount that after his mother led him in prayers, he finished reading both Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, and Golden Days for Boys and Girls magazine.

Diary of Reginald Fairfax Harrison, 1883-1884, in the Manuscript Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 71.123.

This diary led me to wonder “Who was Reginald Fairfax Harrison?”  Simply from the information I read in his diary I felt fairly confident that Fairfax was a member of New York City’s upper socio-economic class.  Fairfax’s friends include “H. Havemeyer,” whom the reader assumes is a member of the wealthy sugar-refinery owning Havemeyers; and “Harry Whitney,” whom we can conclude is most likely Harry Payne Whitney, a member of the prominent and wealthy Whitney family, and future philanthropist and husband of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of Art.   In addition, many of the activities and opportunities Fairfax mentions (which will be discussed in later blog posts), are those not open to just every fourteen-year-old boy in late 19th Century New York City.

George Gardner Rockwood (1832-1908). Burton Harrison's Sons, ca. 1888. Museum of the City of New York. Photo Archive.

My curiosity led me to look further into our collection, and discovered that Ms. Baird, the woman who had donated the diary to the Museum, had also donated a photo of Fairfax and his two younger brothers, Francis Burton and Archibald Cary, as part of the same gift that included the diary. (Fairfax is seated, Francis is next, then Archibald.)  By confirming Fairfax’s brothers’ names, I now had no doubts that this was the same Reginald Fairfax Harrison born to Burton Norvell and Constance Cary Harrison.

Fairfax’s father, Burton, served as Secretary to Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the United States Civil War, following which he moved to New York and resumed his law studies.  In 1875, Burton became secretary and council to New York’s Rapid Transit Commission.  Constance was an author, and in her memoir, Recollections Grave and Gay, she states that she solicited Emma Lazarus to write her poem “The New Colossus” for collection in an album created to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.  That poem is now inscribed on that very pedestal.

Farifax certainly came from successful parents, but what did he do with the opportunities he had been given?  Fairfax graduated from Yale in 1890, and obtained an M.A. from Columbia.  He entered the railroad business, working primarily for the Southern Railway, which he successfully steered through the Panic of 1907 as its Vice-President in charge of Finance and Accounting.  After various positions with other railroads, he returned to the Southern Railway in 1913 as its President, a position he held until his retirement in 1937.  Fairfax authored several works, primarily on topics related to Virginia genealogy and history.  He had planned to focus his attention on his writing following his retirement from the railroad, but died just three months later, on February 2, 1938.

More posts to come on Fairfax’s life in New York City!

The College of William and Mary, Special Collections research center holds the papers of Fairfax Harrison

The Library of Congress holds the family papers of Burton Norvell Harrison, including some by Fairfax Harrison.