Tag Archives: Fairfax Harrison

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.

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.