Glimpse Of The Sixties
( Originally Published 1918 )
Glimpses of the Sixties—At the Sign of the Buck-horn "—Madison Square in Civil War Times—A Contemporary Chronicler—Mushroom Fortunes—Foreign Adventurers—Filling the Ballroom—Brown of Grace Church—Sunshine and Shadow—The Avenue and the Five Points—The Old Bowery—Blackmail—The Haunts of Chance—Two Famous Poems, William Allen Butler's "Nothing to Wear," and Edmund Clarence Stedman's " The Diamond Wedding."
IT seems but yesterday that the old Fifth Avenue Hotel passed to the limbo of bygone things. When " Victoria's Royal Son " came to visit us it was new and stately, and held by loyal patriots to be something for strangers from beyond the seas to behold and wonder at. But before the hotel there had been a famous tavern on the site, and then a hippodrome.
" Can it be true," wrote Mrs. Schuyler Van Rennselaer in an article in the " Century Magazine " many years ago, " that I dreamily remember a canvas hippodrome where the Fifth Avenue Hotel stands? Kids curvetting in idiotic pride over imaginary mountain peaks on the rough ground of what is Madison Square? Can it be true that when we looked from our nursery windows towards Sixteenth Street we saw, on a lot foolishly called vacant, the most interesting of possible houses, an abandoned street-car, fitted with a front door and a chimney pot, and inhabited by an Irish family of considerable size? " That delightful Swiss Family Robinson-like habitation may have been a creation of Mrs. Van Rennselaer's fancy, but Franconi's Hippodrome was an historical fact, and the tavern that she remembers was Corporal Thompson's Madison Cottage, where, at the " Sign of the Buck-horn," trotting men gathered. When Fifth Avenue was in its infancy Madison Square still recalled the name of Tieman's, and in the centre there was a House of Refuge for sinful boys. At the Square the old Boston Post Road for a moment touched what was afterwards to be the Avenue before it twisted off in a northeasterly direction.
Corporal Thompson's establishment was a diminutive frame cottage, surrounded by what might be called " a five acre lot," which was used, when used at all, for cattle exhibitions. It was, Mr. Dayton recorded, " the last stopping place for codgers, old and young. Laverty, Winans, Niblo, the Costers, Hones, Whitneys, Schermerhorns, Sol Kipp, Doctor Vache, Ogden Hoffman, Nat Blount, and scores more of bon vivants, hail fellows well met, would here end their ride for the day by ` smiling' with the worthy Corporal, and wash down any of their former improprieties with a sip of his ne plus ultra, which was always kept in reserve for a special nightcap. There was a special magnetism about the snug little bar room, always trim as a lady's boudoir, which induced the desire to tarry awhile, as if that visit were destined to be the last; so it frequently happened that a jolly party was compelled to grope slowly homewards through the unlighted, gloomy road that led to the city."
But all that has been in the days before. By the time that the Fifth Avenue Hotel had been firmly established on the site of the Buck-horn, the corner had become the centre of the new town. Across the Square, at the northeast angle, on the site of the building now capped by the figure of Diana, was a low, sordid shed. It was the Harlem Railroad Station. There, from one side started the cars for Boston, and from the other, the cars for Albany. Cars, not trains, for horses were the motive power as far as Thirty-second Street. There engines were attached in the open street. Later, the horses ran through the tunnel as far as Forty-second Street where the Grand Central Station now stands. In the Square the Worth Monument had been erected in 1857, and on the east side of the park, then enclosed by a high railing, was the brown church which dated from 1854. That decade from 1860 to 1870 was one of constant changes and shiftings. The New England soldier who marched through the town on his way to the front in 1861 rubbed his eyes a little when he passed through it again homeward bound after the surrender of Lee's army at Appomattox Court House had brought the War of Secession to a close. The last vestige of Knickerbocker life had disappeared forever.
It had been, and still was, an era of extravagant speculation. Mushroom fortunes were springing up, and their possessors, as socially ambitious as they were socially inept, invaded Fifth Avenue strong in the belief in the all-conquering power of the Almighty Dollar. In most cases they did not last long. But they served a purpose. They erected the splendid houses on the Avenue that a few years later the clubs were to occupy and enjoy. Of the clubs that were an the Avenue in 1868, a contemporary chronicler wrote that nearly every one recorded the brief life of a New York aristocrat. " A lucky speculation, a sudden rise in real estate," so runs the rhetorical statement, " a new turn of the wheel-of-fortune, lifts the man who yesterday could not be trusted for his dinner, and gives him a place among men of wealth. He buys a lot on Fifth Avenue, puts up a palatial residence, outdoing all who have gone before him; sports his gay team in Central Park, carpets his sidewalk, gives two or three parties, and disappears from society. His family return to the sphere from which they were taken, and the mansion, with its gorgeous furniture, becomes a club-house." Perhaps this picture should be regarded with a certain restraint. The observer was an up-state minister, looking for the excesses, wickednesses, and extravagances of the great city. His judgment may have been as faulty as his style.
But, if merely for the sake of learning a certain point of view, it is amusing to turn over those old volumes dealing with the sunshine and shadow of the city of the sixties. High Life and Moneyocracy, we are told, were synonymous. To use the Tennysonian line, " Every door was barred with gold, and opened but to golden keys." " If you wish parties, soirees, balls, that are elegant, attractive, and genteel (how they loved those dreadful adjectives elegant and ` genteel!) you will not find them among the snobbish clique, who, with nothing but money, attempt to rule New York." The words are of the clerical visitor before quoted. " Talent, taste, and refinement do not dwell with these. But high life has no passport except money. If a man has this, though destitute of character and brains, he is made welcome. One may come from Botany Bay or St. James; with a ticket-of-leave from a penal colony or St. Cloud; if he has diamond rings and a coach, all places will be open to him. The leaders of upper New York were, a few years ago, porters, stable boys, coal-heavers, pickers of rags, scrubbers of floors, and laundry women. Coarse, rude, uncivil, and immoral many of them still are. Lovers of pleasure and men of fashion bow and cringe to such, and approach hat in hand. One of our new-fledged millionaires gave a ball in his stable. The invited came with tokens of delight. The host, a few years ago, was a ticket-taker at one of our ferries, and would have thankfully blacked the boots or done any menial service for the people who clamour for the honour of his hand. At the gate of Central Park, every day splendid coaches may be seen, in which sit large, fat, coarse women, who carry with them the marks of the wash-tub." That was the kind of hot shot that the rural districts wanted from those they sent to look into the iniquities of the Metropolis. At once it made them sit up and filled them with a sense of their own sanctity.
According to the same ingenuous chronicler, the most famous figure in the social life of the New York of the sixties, the later Petronius, or the forerunner of Mr. Ward McAllister, was Brown, the sexton of Grace Church, which, for many years, had been the fashionable centre. " Arrogant old Isaac Brown," Mrs. Burton Harrison called him in her " Recollections, Grave and Gay," " the portly sexton who transmitted invitations for the elect, protested to one of his patronesses that he really could not undertake to ` run society ' beyond Fiftieth Street. To be married or buried within Grace Church's walls was considered the height of felicity. It was Brown who passed on worthiness in life or death. He arranged the parties, engineered the bridals, conducted the funerals. The Lenten season is a horribly dull season, but we manage to make our funerals as entertaining as possible "—Brown said, according to the quoted story. Without Brown no Fifth Avenue function was complete. " A fashionable lady, about to have a fashionable gathering at her house, orders her meats from the butcher, her supplies from the grocer, her cakes and ices from the confectioner; but her invitations she puts in the hands of Brown. He knows whom to invite and whom to omit. He knows who will come, who will not come, but will send regrets. In case of a pinch, he can fill up the list with young men, picked up about town, in black swallow-tailed coats, white vests, and white cravats, who, in consideration of a fine supper and a dance, will allow themselves to be passed off as the sons of distinguished New Yorkers. The city has any quantity of ragged noblemen, seedy lords from Germany, Hungarian Barons out at the elbow, members of the European aristocracy who left their country for their country's good, who can be served up in proper proportions at a fashionable party when the occasion demands it. No man knows their haunts better than Brown."
Here is a picture of the famous Brown, drawn by the same pen:
" Brown is a huge fellow, coarse in his features, resembling a dressed up carman. His face is very red, and on Sundays he passes up and down the aisles of Grace Church with a peculiar swagger. He bows strangers into a pew, when he deigns to give them a seat, with a majestic and patronizing air designed to impress them with a relishing sense of the obligation he has conferred upon them."
Later Peter Marie wrote the poem, " Brown of Grace Church," beginning :
" O glorious Brown ! thou medley strange,
This is the eloquent story of Mr. and Mrs. Newly-Rich who did not seek the social chaperon-age of the all-powerful Brown. He had been a reputable and successful hatter. She had made vests for a fashionable tailor. By a turn of fortune they found themselves rich. He gave up hatting and she abandoned vests. They bought a house on upper Fifth Avenue and proposed to storm society by giving a large party. The acquaintances of the humbler days were to be ignored. It was guests from another world that were wanted. But instead of going to Brown and slipping him a handsome fee, Mr. and Mrs. Newly-Rich took the Directory, selected five hundred names, among them some of the most prominent persons of the city, and sent out invitations. The first caterer of the town laid the table. Dodsworth was engaged for the music. The result is easy to guess. The brilliantly lighted house, the silent bell, the over-dressed mother and daughter sitting hour after hour in lonely, heartbroken magnificence. But save for its association with the omnipotent Brown, it is the story, not of the sixties in particular, but of any decade of social New York.
It may be worth while to follow the critic from up-state in some of his venturesome explorations of other parts of New York. Those to whom he was to return, those for whose entertainment and instruction his book was written, wanted to hear of the shadows as well as the sunshine. It was the picture of a very sinful metropolis that they demanded, and the author was bound that he was not going to disappoint them.
The frontispiece of the book shows the Stewart Mansion at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, and by contrast, the Old Brewery at the Five Points. Before the Mission was opened the Five Points was a dangerous locality, the resort of burglars, thieves, and desperadoes, with dark, underground chambers, where murderers often hid, where policemen seldom went, and never unarmed. A good citizen going through the neighbourhood after dart was sure to be assaulted, beaten, and probably robbed. Nightly the air was filled with the sound of brawling. Wretchedness, drunkenness, and suffering stalked abroad. There were such rookeries as Cow Bay and Murderer's Alley, the latter of which continued to exist, though its sinister glory had long since departed, until fifteen or twenty years ago. The lodging houses of the section were under-ground, without ventilation, without windows, overrun with rats and vermin.
For diversion the miserable denizens of the quarter sought the near-by Bowery, with its brilliantly lighted thinking dens, its concert halls, where negro minstrelsy was featured, and its theatres where the play were immoral comedies or melodramas glorifying the exploits of picturesque criminals. News-boys, street-sweepers, rag-pickers, begging girls filled the galleries of these places of amusement. Here is the clerical visitor's description of the thoroughfare that was then the second principal street of the city : " Leaving the City Hall about six o'clock on Sunday night, and walking through Chatham Square to the Bowery, one would not believe that New York had any claim to be a Christian city, or that the Sabbath had any friends. The shops are open, and trade is brisk. Abandoned females go in swarms, and crowd the sidewalk. Their dress, manner, and language indicate that depravity can go no lower. Young men known as Irish-Americans, who wear as a badge long frock-coats, crowd the corners of the streets, and insult the passer-by. Women from the windows arrest attention by loud calls to the men on the side-walk, and jibes, profanity, and bad words pass between the parties. Sunday theatres, concert-saloons, and places of amusement are in full blast. The Italians and Irish shout out their joy from the rooms they occupy. The click of the billiard ball, and the booming of the ten-pin alley, are distinctly heard. Before night, victims watched for will be secured; men heated with liquor, or drugged, will be robbed, and many curious and bold explorers in this locality will curse the hour in which they resolved to spend a Sunday in the Bowery."
To find adventure and danger the rural visitor did not have to seek out the Bowery and the adjacent streets to the east and west. Adroit rogues were everywhere. Bland gentlemen introduced themselves to unwary strangers. Instead of the mining stock or the sick engineer's story of our more enlightened and refined age, these pleasant urbanites resorted to the cruder weapon of blackmail. The art was reduced to a system. Terrible warnings were conveyed to the innocent country-side by the chronicler in such sub-heads as " A Widower Blackmailed," " A Minister Falls among Thieves," "Blackmailers at a Wedding," " A Bride Called On."
Darkly the investigator painted the gambling evil of the New York of the sixties. The dens of chance were in aristocratic neighbourhoods and superbly appointed. Heavy blinds or curtains, kept drawn all day, hid the inmates from prying eyes. Within, rosewood doors, deep carpets, and mirrors of magnificent dimensions. The dinner table spread with silver and gold plate, costly chinaware, and glass of exquisite cut : the viands embracing the luxuries of the season and the wines of the choicest. " None but men who be-have like gentlemen are allowed the entree of the rooms " is the naive comment. " Play runs on by the hour, and not a word spoken save the low words of the parties who conduct the game. But for the implements of gaming there is little to distinguish the room from a first-class club-house. Gentlemen well known on change and in public life, merchants of a high grade, whose names adorn charitable and benevolent associations, are seen in these rooms, reading and talking. Some drink only a glass of wine, walk about, and look on the play with apparently but little curiosity. The great gamblers, besides those of the professional ring, are men accustomed to the excitement of the Stock Board. They gamble all day in Wall and Broad Streets, and all night on Broadway. To one not accustomed to such a sight, it is rather startling to see men whose names stand high in church and state, who are well dressed and leaders of fashion, in these notable saloons, as if they were at home." Conspicuous among the keepers of the gambling hells was John Morrissey, who had begun life as the proprietor of a low drinking den in Troy, and as a step in the march of prosperity, had fought Heenan, the Benicia Boy, for the championship of Canada. He was a personality of the city of the sixties. The author of the curious volume thought it necessary to tell of his career as he told of the career of A. T. Stewart, and Henry Ward Beecher, and the particular Astor of the day, and the particular Vanderbilt, Fernando Wood, and Leonard W. Jerome, and George Law, and James Gordon Bennett, the elder, and Daniel Drew, and General Halpin, and half a dozen more of the town's celebrities.
The Franconi Hippodrome on the Fifth Avenue Hotel site had become a memory, but far down-town Barnum's Museum was flourishing, with the doors open from sunrise till ten at night. Early visitors from the country inspected the gallery of curiosities before sitting down to breakfast. The great showman was living in a brown-stone house on Fifth Avenue, at the corner of Thirty-ninth Street. He was approaching his sixtieth year, and had retired from active life, although he still held the controlling interest in the Museum. A. T. Stewart was living in the white stone home he had erected at Thirty-fourth Street. James Gordon Bennett's city residence was on the Avenue at Thirty-eighth Street. In fact, with a few notable exceptions who still clung to their downtown homes, such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts, all the great money kings of the decade were gathering in the upper stretches of the ripening thoroughfare. But the descendants of the Patroons held to the sweep from Washington Square to Fourteenth Street, or to lower Second Avenue, which, to the eyes of its " set," embracing a number of old-school families of Colonial ancestry, was the " Faubourg St. Germain " of New York.
In every other memoir touching on the New York of the sixties will be found an allusion to the Flora McFIimseys. For example, Mr. W. D. Howells, in " Literary Friends and Acquaintances," told of his first visit to the city at the time of the Civil War. After Clinton Place was passed, he wrote: " Commerce was just beginning to show itself in Union Square, and Madison Square was still the home of the McFlimsies, whose kin and kind dwelt unmolested in the brown-stone stretches of Fifth Avenue." There are two poems linked with the story of New York. They are Edmund Clarence Stedman's " The Diamond Wedding," and " Nothing to Wear," and the William Allen Butler verses, beginning:
"Miss Flora McFlimsey, of Madison Square
were the very spirit of the Fifth Avenue of that day. Butler wrote the poem in 1857, in a house in Fourteenth Street, within a stone's throw of the Avenue. After finishing it, and reading it to his wife, he took it one evening to No. 20 Clinton Place, to try it on his friend, Evart A. Duyckinck. Not only did the verses themselves have a Fifth Avenue inspiration and origin, but the woman who later claimed that she had written the nine first lines and thirty of the concluding lines, told in her story that she had dropped the manuscript while passing through a crowd at Fifth Avenue and Madison Square. It was a famous case in its day, and the claimant found supporters, just as the absurd Tichborne Claimant found supporters. But Butler's right to " Nothing to Wear " was fully substantiated. Horace Greeley made the controversy the subject of a vigorous editorial in the Tribune," and " Harper's Weekly," in which the poem had originally appeared, pointed out that although the verses were published in February, the spurious claim was not put forward until July. Writing of " Nothing to Wear " forty years later, W. D. Howells said :
" For the student of our literature ` Nothing to Wear' has the interest and value of satire in which our society life came to its full consciousness for the first time. To be sure there had been the studies of New York called ` The Potiphar Papers,' in which Curtis had painted the foolish and unlovely face of our fashionable life, but with always an eye on other methods and other models; and ` Nothing to Wear ' came with the authority and the appeal of something quite indigenous in matter and manner. It came winged, and equipped to fly wide and to fly far, as only verse can, with a message for the grand-children of ` Flora McFlimsey,' which it delivers today in perfectly intelligible terms.
" It does not indeed find her posterity in Madison Square. That quarter has long since been deliviered over to hotels and shops and offices, and the fashion that once abode there has fled to upper Fifth Avenue, to the discordant variety of hand-some residences which overlook the Park. But it finds her descendants quite one with her in spirit, and as little clothed to their lasting satisfaction."
The nuptials that Edmund Clarence Stedman satirized in " The Diamond Wedding " united Miss Frances Amelia Bartlett and the Marquis Don Estaban de Santa Cruz de Oviedo, and were held in October, 1859, under the direction of " the fat and famous Brown, Sexton of Grace Church." Miss Bartlett, a tall and willowy blonde, still in her teens, was the daughter of a retired lieutenant in the United States Navy. The Bartlett home was in West Fourteenth Street, a few doors from the Avenue. The groom, many years the bride's senior, and of strikingly unprepossessing appearance, was a Cuban of great wealth. The wedding was the talk of the town, and Stedman, then a young man of twenty-six, satirized the ill-mating in a poem that appeared first in the New York " Tribune.
Famous as the wedding had been, the verses became more so. They were copied into the weekly and tri-weekly issues of the " Tribune, and into the evening papers. Stedman, in later years, told of being startled by a huge signboard in front of the then young Brentano's, opposite the New York Hotel, at the corner of Broadway and Waverly Place, reading: " Read Stedman's great poem on the Diamond Wedding in this evening's Express! " The father of the bride, infuriated by the unpleasant publicity, challenged the poet to a duel, which never took place. Years later Stedman and the woman he had lampooned met and became the best of friends.