Monday, August 11, 2008
At noon on a fine September day in 1920 the bells of Trinity Church rang out the hour as the sidewalks around Wall and Broad Streets filled with clerks and brokers, runners and secretaries scurrying to lunch. Cars and trucks moved along Wall Street, making way for a heavily laden horse-drawn wagon pulled up at the curb across from the elegant limestone wall of the new Morgan Bank building. The driver had just climbed down from his perch and walked quickly away, disappearing into the crowd headed down the street. He was later described as “an unshaven man in work clothes, wearing a dark cap”. Better dressed Joseph P Kennedy, a young stockbroker at Hayden, Stone & Co., hurried up Broad carrying a brief case stuffed with bond certificates. Before the church bells finished striking the hour the wagon exploded. The load was 100 pounds dynamite laced with of 500 pounds of shrapnel - nails, bolts and cast iron sash weights, hooked up to a time fuse set to go off at noon. A mushroom-shaped cloud of greenish yellow smoke rose 100 feet in the air above the site of a terrorist bombing that killed 31 and injured another 130.
1920 was a year filled with “Red Scare” headlines in all the papers. Public fears were stoked by random anarchist terror bombings in America and the brutal murder of the Tsar and his family by Bolsheviks in Russia. The president had been incapacitated by a crippling stroke (a fact kept secret from the public by his wife and his doctor) so his Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer was free to arrest thousands and deport hundreds of suspected anarchist and socialist immigrants in the notorious “Palmer Raids”. In May they arrested two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts for armed robbery and murder as well as complicity in bombing attempts on Palmer and a US senator. Sacco and Vanzetti’s friend and comrade, Mario Buda, swore revenge. Many scholars agree that Buda is the most likely candidate for planning the Wall Street attack. He fit eyewitness descriptions of the mysterious disappearing driver of the lethal wagon.
At the time nobody was ever charged with the bombing, even after an exhaustive investigation by the Bureau of Investigation, led by Francis Garvan and his young protégé, J. Edgar Hoover. Garvan rests today in a splendid John Russell Pope designed Greek temple - one of Woodlawn Cemetery’s grandest mausoleums. Joseph Kennedy never forgot being knocked flat on the sidewalk by the bomb concussion, his bond certificates scattering over Broad Street. The scars are still on that elegant limestone wall but the Morgan Bank, Mario Buda’s hated target, is now being converted into Phillipe Stark designed luxury condominiums. As for Mario, today some consider him “the father of the car bomb”. Shortly after the bombing he evidently escaped to Italy, where he lived out his days in his native village of Savignano di Puglia. Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted by the state of Massachusetts in 1927. In 1977 Massachusetts Governor Dukakis proclaimed August 23 Sacco and Vanzetti Day.
Just inside the Broadway fence of Trinity Churchyard lies a slab of New Jersey Brownstone with a simple inscription, CHARLOTTE TEMPLE. It marks an empty grave and the name on the stone is that of a fictional character in the most widely read novel in America until the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851. This unusual artifact of old New York was a major place of pilgrimage for more than fifty years. It was said that the grass grew greener around the grave, watered by the tears of visitors as women and men would gather there, heads bowed and weeping, remembering the tragic tale told in Susanna Rowson’s 1791 novel Charlotte, A Tale of Truth. Mrs Rowson’s story is a thinly disguised version of real people and actual events that occurred on the eve of America’s War for Independence.
One of the actual protagonists in the story was a British military officer who was the sympathetic last confidant of the inept American spy, Nathan Hale. He was also the cartographer who drew up the definitive map of New York City at the end of the colonial era. Lieutenant John Montresor was a military engineer arriving in New York in 1765 and attached to the staff of Commanding General Thomas Gage when New York was His Majesty’s military headquarters for the American colonies. Montresor had a wife and family in New York and had purchased an island in the East River for their home (today its called Randall’s Island but then it was named Montresor’s Island). Gage commissioned Montresor to survey the city, along with the harbor and its islands and to draw up a large-scale military map. This during a time of turmoil following the hated Stamp Act, a time of riots when patriot mobs often tangled in the streets with the arrogant British troops.
In 1774 he took a few months leave from the army to travel alone to London to find a publisher for his new map of the city. During his visit he met a beautiful young woman, Charlotte Stanley. She was the teen-aged daughter of a prominent Anglican cleric, and they promptly fell in love. Still in school when they met, she left everything behind to elope with her dashing lieutenant and sail away to America. He delayed in telling her that he was married and the father of several children until they arrived in New York. He installed the now pregnant Charlotte in a rented house near Chatham Square at the corner of Pell Street and the Bowery.
In Boston patriots had dumped the East India Company’s valuable tea into Boston Harbor and Parliament ordered Gage to take the army north to get control of the situation. In early December of 1775 Montresor was promoted to captain, made chief engineer of the army, and promptly sent to Boston.
In his absence he arranged for a fellow officer to take care of Charlotte and he left him money to cover her expenses. His fellow officer had other ideas. He kept the money and intended to have Charlotte for himself. Although destitute, she spurned his advances and late in December she was evicted from Chatham Square. The baby was due soon and Charlotte was ill and homeless. Kindly neighbors took her in just as her father arrived from London, searching for his wayward daughter. He found her in a hovel at what is now 24 Bowery a few days before she gave birth to her daughter. She died in childbirth and the Reverend Stanley buried his only daughter in Trinity Churchyard. The grieving father returned to England with his new grandchild.
By the spring of 1776, after their pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill, the British commanders realized that the American siege of Boston had succeeded and their position there was untenable, so they sailed off for Nova Scotia and Montresor returned to his family in New York. Filled with remorse, he was the only visitor to Charlotte’s lonely grave.
In June the British army returned to the city in force, defeated the patriots in August at the Battle of Brooklyn and captured the lower half of Manhattan on September 15. Washington’s army was encamped on the heights at the northern end of Manhattan when Captain Nathan Hale, a young American officer from Connecticut, volunteered to return to the occupied city as a spy to scout British army deployment. Just after midnight in the early morning of September 21 fire broke out in a tavern at the Whitehall docks and swept through the largely wooden buildings to the west of Broadway, consuming Trinity church and a quarter of the city. Certain that patriot incendiaries had set the fire, the new British commander, General William Howe was furious and when Hale was captured the next day Howe was determined to make an example of the neophyte spy. A peremptory trial was held in the greenhouse of the Beekman Mansion and Captain Hale was taken to be hanged in a temporary artillery park set up next to the Sign of the Dove Tavern on the Boston Post Road (present-day Third Avenue).
Captain Montresor had his marquee set up at the edge of the artillery park. As the scaffold was being constructed he noticed the strikingly calm young man, hands tied and feet shackled,quietly standing unafraid in the sun, awaiting his execution. It was a hot and humid morning and there was little shade available so Montresor took pity on Hale and invited him to wait in the shade of his marquee. Hale spent his last hours talking to the British officer and writing farewell letters to his family. It was Montresor who heard the young captain say his last words,”What a pity it is that we can die but once to serve our country.” He was so moved by Hale’s grace and courage that early that evening the British captain crossed into the enemy lines under a flag of truce and informed General Washington’s adjutant, a very young Captain Alexander Hamilton, of the particulars of Hale’s arrest, execution and his now famous last words.
Like many of the British officers in the colonies during the war, John Montresor profited from his position during the occupation of New York and left for England in 1779 with (it was said at the time) one hundred thousand pounds sterling. Three of his children had died in New York of yellow fever, his house on Montresor’s Island had burned in 1777 and the island was later confiscated by the new government. Parliament eventually asked for their money back and by 1799 his fortunes were reversed and he died in England, in debtor’s prison.
Montresor might have carried his guilty secret to the grave, but his cousin, Susanna Rowson, a sometime actress and novelist, heard rumors in the family about cousin John’s dalliance with Charlotte. After more inquiries she learned many details from a woman who had known the poor girl in New York, a now elderly Mrs Beauchamp. Changing the names-Charlotte Stanley became Charlotte Temple and Captain Montresor became Captain Montraville-her novel went through 200 editions and became a best seller for decades. New York readers soon learned that the wildly popular novel was based on a true story and began making pilgrimages to Trinity Churchyard to visit the real Charlotte’s grave.
A lovely young Englishwoman found her way to the churchyard early in 1801. Her name was Lucy and she was Charlotte’s daughter. She had made a pledge to her grandfather and had returned to New York to bring her mother home. Charlotte’s coffin was disinterred and sent to England for burial in the family plot and Lucy left a silver-plated brass plaque bolted to the brownstone slab, engraved with the name Charlotte Stanley and the family coat of arms -marking an empty grave.
In 1846 the present Trinity Church was built and in the confusion of construction the brass plaque disappeared. The supervisor of the cemetery ordered his crew to chisel CHARLOTTE TEMPLE into the slab, as this was the name that most visitors knew.
In the 1840’s a regular visitor to the grave was a young journalist from Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe. Like many New Yorkers of the time Poe was moved by the tragic tale and decided to create an appropriate fictional punishment for the story’s villain, the officer who had withheld Montresor’s money from the destitute Charlotte. He worked this character (whom Poe named ”Fortunato”) into one of his classic tales,“The Cask of Amontillado”. His story’s character “Montresor” has delicious vengeance on his deceitful former friend “Fortunato” by sealing him alive in a wine cellar. In real life Captain Montresor killed his deceitful former friend in a swordfight.
Today Poe’s story is remembered but Charlotte’s is mostly forgotten…perhaps one day you might stop by Trinity Churchyard and leave a rose on her empty grave.
Decorated with graffiti, a small column of boulders stands on a weed-choked ledge behind the east tower of the George Washington Bridge. The barely legible marker on the column reads, “American Redoubt / Fort Washington Chapter / Daughters of the American Revolution / 1910”. Overlooking the Hudson, this forgotten little monument is the only reminder on Manhattan of the dramatic naval engagements during the American Revolution that occurred on the river below, literally a stone’s throw from the rock point of Jeffrey’s Hook, the site of the Little Red Lighthouse. A moon-shaped battery, a one-gun “lunette”, stood where the lighthouse stands today. About 100 yards up the steep hill, to the northeast, was a sharpshooter’s redoubt, where the little stone column stands today.
More than once in the summer and fall of 1776 squadrons of British warships forced passage on the Hudson past the blazing cannons of Fort Lee, Fort Washington, the lunette battery and the rifle redoubt. These were the most significant naval engagements ever to occur in New York’s waters and they happened in the half-mile wide section of the river directly under the present day George Washington Bridge.
At the beginning of the war an essential British strategy in the battle for New York was control of the Hudson River, the central link between New England and the middle colonies. The American strategy was to choke off the North River section of the Hudson at its narrowest point, between the Jersey Palisades to the west and Jeffrey’s Hook on the east to prevent the Royal Navy’s passage up the river. Many years later the engineer Othmar Ammann chose this same advantageous site for his great bridge.
In the spring of 1776 the Americans built a large pentagonal earthen and timber fort on Mt Washington, the highest natural point on Manhattan Island, 220 feet above the river, and named it for the new Commander-in-chief, George Washington. On the New Jersey side two forts were constructed, Fort Lee, behind the natural ramparts of the Palisades and another atop the 300-foot cliff overlooking the Hudson, a barbette battery of 32-pounder cannons along with smaller field pieces. Ft Washington’s big guns were well within range of the river and additional smaller cannons were mounted in a battery above Jeffrey’s Hook. All together these batteries sprouted 100 cannons. In July hulks of ships were sunk in the shallower western side of the river and chained to Chevaux de Frise, ingenious wooden structures fitted with iron-spiked spears capable of piercing the hulls of oncoming warships. A secret opening in the Chevaux de Frise, to the east and just off Jeffrey’s Hook, was provided for friendly vessels to pass. This kind of obstruction had worked in the Delaware River below Philadelphia. The HMS Augusta, a 44-gun British man-of-war became ensnared in the trap and American shore batteries, firing “hot shot” into the wooden decks, set it afire, igniting the powder magazine and blowing up the ship.
In June of 1776, carrying an army of 40,000 men, the British fleet began arriving in the harbor and its commander, Admiral Lord Richard Howe (known to his men as “Black Dick” because of his swarthy complexion), arrived in late June with a squadron of ships-of-the-line, the world’s most fearsome war machines. By the first week in July, just in time for the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, hundreds of warships and transports were in the upper bay and the army encamped on Staten Island.
Admiral Howe needed to cut off the American supply line of the North River to control the upper Hudson above Manhattan and he decided to do something about it. At 3:00 in the afternoon of July 12 the 44-gun HMS Phoenix, under 36-year old Captain Hyde Parker and the 22-gun HMS Rose sailed into the river’s mouth on the incoming tide with a brisk wind from the south. Cannons at the Battery opened fire and more guns from the shore batteries at Paulus Hook to the west joined in. Parker responded with broadsides of ball and canister from both warships and continued firing into the city all the way to Greenwich Village, terrifying the citizens. It was said that the smell of powder hung in the air for hours and numerous roofs were ripped open by the cannonballs. Six men manning the artillery on the Battery were killed when one of their cannons exploded. They were buried in a single grave on the Bowling Green. By 3:30 the British ships passed the unfinished forts near Jeffrey’s Hook, the American cannons having little effect. Captain Parker celebrated on the quarterdeck of the Phoenix with a bowl of punch for his officers as they passed up the river, unscathed, past the roaring cannons.
Parker’s squadron sailed on to anchor in the Tappan Zee for the next month until, on the night of August 16, American fire ships nearly succeeded in burning his ships. The next day they weighed anchor and sailed back to the safety of the fleet off Staten Island but Howe continued to be concerned about the newly strengthened fortifications being built to block the river.
At 8:00 on the morning of October 9 Parker’s squadron, anchored for weeks in the river off Striker’s Bay, at the foot of present day 96th Street, set sail up the Hudson to test the new works at Jeffrey’s Hook. The Phoenix, followed by the 44-gun Roebuck, the 22-gun Tartar and several tenders, had a guest aboard - a brother to the ferryman at Burdett’s Ferry. He knew the American defenses in the river well and for a reward offered to guide Parker’s squadron through the secret opening in the Cheveaux-de-Frise. This time the Americans were prepared with 100 cannons on both sides of the river and sharpshooters from Moses Rawlings Maryland and Virginia Riflemen armed with Kentucky long rifles in the redoubt above the river. At about 8:30 the flotilla came near Jeffrey’s Hook, sailing in 12 fathoms in the channel to the east of the Cheveaux-de-Frise and about 40 yards from the shore. Cannons from both forts opened fire, grapeshot and ball from the forts and lethal chainshot from an eighteen-pounder in the lunette battery to the east. Chainshot ripped through rigging and sails and balls took out mizzenmasts. The Roebuck had her topmast shot away and all of the ships were shot through their hulls several times by 9:30 when the ships finally passed out of range of the American batteries. Fourteen sailors and four officers were killed and more wounded. There was no punchbowl on the quarterdeck that morning.
King George knighted Captain Hyde Parker for his daring exploits and Parker went on to a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. Fort Washington fell to an assault by German soldiers under General von Knyphausen just after noon on November 15. 2800 Americans were taken prisoner by the combined British and Hessian troops that stormed the gates. The fate of the prisoners was grim as they were marched down to temporary prisons in New York. Few of the soldiers survived imprisonment in Bridewell Prison and the sugar houses. With unashamed tears, General Washington watched from the barbette battery on the palisade cliffs as the red and white American flag atop Mt Washington came down across the river. Standing with Washington on that sad day were Generals Mercer, Putnam, Greene and Greene’s aide-de-camp, a junior officer named Thomas Paine. In The Crisis Paine describes the bitter retreat from Fort Lee and the army’s flight across New Jersey to safety over the Delaware River at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. It was there, using the head of a drum as his writing desk, that he wrote his immortal lines,“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
General Washington ordered his officers to read Paine’s words to the soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1776 – the night before the army crossed the ice-choked Delaware to victory over the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.
Fort Lee was captured by Lord Cornwallis on November 20 and the battle for New York was over.
Fort Lee is gone today-its earthen ramparts have vanished under the streets and buildings of the modern city of Fort Lee, New Jersey. After over 200 years not a trace of the old fort remains. However, the barbette battery position on the Palisade cliff 300 feet above the river is still there and can be visited today at the Fort Lee Historic Park, a quarter mile east of the site of the old fort. The 33 acre park includes a small museum with artifacts from the 18th century such as examples of chain shot and grape shot canisters along with maps that illustrate the events of 1776. A barbette battery, complete with a working cannon, again looks out over the river just as it did when the British ships challenged the American defenses.
The present day site of Fort Washington at 184th Street on the highest natural point on Manhattan Island has been preserved. The earthen walls are gone, but one of the stone bastions has been reconstructed and the footprint of the fort is marked with granite paving.
“Charging Bull”,sculptor Arturo DiModica’s 1989 larger-than-life bronze bull at the north end of Bowling Green Park on lower Broadway is a magnet for tourists. Every day, rain or shine, they line up to photograph their smiling youngsters astride the snorting bull’s huge neck.
Nearby street vendors even sell miniature replicas of the sculpture. Tourists as well as most New Yorkers are unaware that just a few steps away stands a genuine relic of the American Revolution. The black iron picket fence enclosing the park has been in place since 1771 when it was originally installed to protect an impressive statue of King George III erected by the loyal citizens of the colony of New York in tribute to their king. Recently the little half-acre park was renovated and the fence carefully cleaned and painted. This is the story of that ancient relic.
In 1765 Parliament in London decide to tax the American colonies to cover some of the huge deficit left over from defending the colonists from the French and their Indian allies during the French and Indian War just concluded. Their solution was impose a tax on all paper transactions in the colonies. The Americans were furious. Issac Sears, a privateer (sort of a licensed pirate) during the war and now a merchant, led a rowdy bunch called the Sons of Liberty. Along with many of the city’s other merchants Sears proposed tarring and feathering any agents of the King who would dare to distribute the hated royal tax stamps. When the colonists successfully launched a boycott of British goods Parliament relented and the King revoked the Stamp Act. In loyalty to the crown and gratitude to the King, the New York Assembly voted in June of 1766 to place a statue of his Majesty on the Bowling Green, “to perpetuate to the latest posterity its deep sense of the eminent and singular benefits received from him, but in particular in promoting the repeal of the Stamp Act.” They resolved to spend 1000 pounds on a two-ton gilded lead statue of his Majesty on horseback, wearing a Roman toga and crowned with a laurel wreath. In London the sculptor Joseph Wilton, coach-carver to the King, chose as his model the ancient Roman equestrian statue of the philosopher/emporer Marcus Aurelius that Michelangelo had placed in his Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome in 1538.
The statue was unveiled on August 16,1770 – the birthday of the King’s son Prince Frederick, Duke of York. Loyalty to the King was short-lived. Sears and his Liberty Boys (often a mob of rum-fueled louts) taunted the British troops stationed in the city with “Liberty Poles” and inflammatory patriotic broadsides plastered to the walls of their barracks on the commons (where City Hall stands today). The soldiers responded with harassment and contempt and a slow fuse had been lit.
Sometimes nothing seems to change in New York, like graffiti and vandalism – in 1771 the King’s statue and its fifteen-foot white marble pedestal attracted graffiti and vandals - so the common council passed some anti-vandalism laws and appropriated 834 pounds, contracting with Richard Sharpe, to “build a fence of iron railings and a stone foundation” to enclose the park. The fence was to have sharp-pointed iron pickets and the posts were each to be topped with a ball surrounded by a crown. Now that should do it. Well, at least it kept out the many pigs that roamed freely through the streets of old New York as a sort of unpaid and edible sanitation crew.
Centered on the Bowling Green, in front of Fort George, the de facto seat of government, and at the foot of the Broad Way(even then the city’s main street) the statue of King George III was the proudest monument in New York. When John Adams, one of five Massachusetts delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, traveled to Philadelphia he stopped for a week in New York. In a letter to his wife he observed, “Between the fort and the city is a beautiful ellipsis of land, railed in solid iron, in the center of which is a statue of his Majesty on horseback, very large, of solid lead gilded with gold, standing on a pedestal of marble very high.”
The first Continental Congress had convened in Philadelphia to deal with the British blockade of Boston Harbor that followed the celebrated Boston Tea Party. Further tweaking the sensibilities of the colonists, Parliament had passed a Tea Act in May of 1773 that allowed the East India Company to bring tea to the colonies without paying custom duties at American ports, thus undercutting wealthy smugglers like Boston’s own John Hancock. This aroused his friends in the Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty to dump 45 tons of East India Company Tea into Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773. Now with an occupying British army in the city and gunboats in its harbor Boston was primed for this powder keg to explode. And it did, just as the sun was rising in nearby Lexington on April 19,1775 when British light infantry fired into ranks of militiamen formed on the Lexington commons.
By June of 1775 an American army of militiamen from most of the colonies was gathering in Cambridge and the new congress appointed George Washington Commander-in-Chief. Washington was en route to Boston to take command of the army when news arrived of the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill. By the following spring the American siege of Boston had succeeded, the British left to regroup in Canada and New York prepared to be the next battlefront.
In the late spring of 1776 Washington arrived in the city with an army of 10,000 militiamen and by early July a British fleet arrived in New York’s harbor with 30,000 professional soldiers and 600 ships. As his headquarters Washington chose the Kennedy mansion at number 1 Broadway – literally a stone’s throw from the Bowling Green. This is where a messenger from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia delivered a copy of the new Declaration of Independence on the morning of July 9,1776. The army was ordered to gather in ranks on the commons that afternoon and, at 6pm, as the commander sat on his white horse, his adjutant read the declaration. The soldiers cheered and then began moving down Broadway, toward the largest symbol of royal power in the city – the King’s statue on the Bowling Green. As darkness fell a mob led by Issac Sears gathered around the fence with axes and crowbars. After many rounds in nearby taverns toasting the new declaration they were ready for some action. Some shook the locked gates, others began using their axes to lop off the gilded crowns atop the brittle cast iron posts of the fence. Using their crowbars, others wrenched the fence from its stone foundations. 23-year-old Captain Oliver Brown of the Massachusetts Artillery had concealed 40 men, about 20 soldiers and 20 sailors, in a dark alley near the park waiting for an opportune moment. As the mob pulled down the fence he saw his opportunity. Many years later he recalled the details of that night, “Several of the sailors, having no fear as to punishment for lese majeste, climbed up the leaden image of the King and tied ropes around it. When the ‘pull-all-together’ came these ropes broke. The second attempt however was successful. The statue came crashing down on the iron fence that had cost the city $4000.”
The mob sawed off the head from the shattered lead statue and passed it around the crowd and when the heavy object was passed to an old man standing in the street he dropped it and the gilded head rolled several feet along the cobblestones of the Broad Way. Captain Brown and his crew of volunteers loaded the broken remains of the statue onto wagons and headed for the docks where they placed it on a small schooner and headed up the East River, through the Hell Gate and into Long Island Sound to avoid the British war ships at anchor in the bay. They landed their heavy cargo at Norwalk, Connecticut and then transported it on oxcarts it to the Litchfield home of General Oliver Wolcott. He set up a shed in his Litchfield orchard and supervised his family and neighbors in the casting of 42,088 lead musket balls from the melted lead fragments of the statue. The general’s ten-year old son Frederick was proud of his total 936 lead balls. The careful account was registered in a document that has somehow survived. Many years later Frederick Wolcott, by then Judge Wolcott, was interviewed by Rev George woodruff for his History of Litchfield, “My father chopped it up with an axe and the girls had a frolic running it up into bullets.”
The next day General Washington registered his displeasure over the events of the previous evening with a mild rebuke to Captain Brown and his men, “The General doubts not that the persons who pulled down and mutilated the statue were actuated by zeal in the public cause, yet it has so much the appearance of riot and want of order in the army that he disapproves the manner and directs that in future these things shall be avoided by the soldiery and left to be executed by proper authority.” Washington very well may have watched the entire event from the large windows of his headquarters at the Kennedy mansion directly across Broadway from the park.
Captain Brown “always declared” later in his life that, “this was the one act of his career of which he was really ashamed”. Oliver Brown turns out to have been a fascinating figure who observed and often participated in some of the key events of the American Revolution. He was born in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1753. In February of 1845, at the age of 92, at his son-in-law’s home in Wellsburg, West Virginia, he dictated a “memorandum” about his life. It began with a sentence that was later carved on his tombstone, “I stood in front of the first cannon fired by the British on the Americans in the affray at Lexington”. At 20 he was there for the Boston Tea Party as one of dozens of spectators (he said, “I was a looker-on only.”) watching from Griffin’s Dock as the Sons of Liberty dumped tea into Boston Harbor. In the spring 1775 he was a private in the Lexington Alarm on that fateful morning of April 19 when blood was spilled at dawn on the Lexington green. Many believe that Oliver’s 16-year old brother Solomon fired the first shot that morning, an event that Emerson called “the shot heard ‘round the world.” His 17-year old brother James was among the brave farmers standing in ranks on the green, his cousin Frances was wounded and his cousin John was among the first killed by the British regulars. The British commander, Colonel Smith, continued the march on to Concord as 4000 Massachusetts militiamen left their plows and responded to the alarm. When the British began their march back to Boston the patriots harassed them along the road with musket fire from behind stone walls and trees, panicking the soldiers and some of the officers as a retreat turned into a rout. Lord Percy arrived at Lexington at about 2:00 with reinforcements and two field pieces just as Colonel Smith’s soldiers approached like a fleeing mob with a regiment of militia in hot pursuit. Percy ordered his artillery to fire into the American line and the militia ran in all directions. These must have been the cannons that Brown referred to in his recollection.
In June of 1775 he was commissioned Lieutenant in Colonel Richard Gridley’s regiment of the Massachusetts Artillery, just in time to see action in the battle of Bunker Hill. By December he was a lieutenant in General Henry Knox’s Continental Artillery and found himself in New York in the spring of 1776. After his adventure on the Bowling Green he’s next heard from in September with Washington’s army facing the British on Harlem Heights. “I was with our army on York Island and participated in the battle of Harlem Heights where we beat the British. I commanded a company of thirty men and two field pieces and lost fifteen of my men, killed and wounded.” Then he is at the Battle of Trenton on Christmas night, 1776. He would have been with Washington, crossing the ice-choked Delaware with his cannons that harrowing night. On New Year’s day, 1777 he is made captain-lieutenant of the Third Continental Artillery. He went on to see action in the battles of Princeton, Brandywine and Monmouth and resigned his commission in April of 1779. Quite a military career for a 25-year old.
But what of the dismembered statue that Captain Brown had deposited in Connecticut? 42,000 musket balls only account for half its weight. Evidently secret Tory sympathizers in Wilton made off with fragments while the teamsters, on their way to Litchfield, rested for the night at the Clapp Raymond Tavern. Behind the tavern was a pond called Davis Swamp and it was there that the fragments were hidden while the teamsters and their oxen slept. In 1822 the grandson of the tavern keeper was digging in the swamp and uncovered a 75 pound chunk of lead that village old-timers identified as a part of King George’s statue. A few years later another fragment was found under the milk room of a farmhouse a half-mile up the road. Another piece was found by a local plumber who nearly melted it down for his own practical purposes. By 1830 three more pieces were found in the Davis Swamp. Eventually the complete tail of the horse and parts of the saddle appeared when a farmer was plowing his field and they found their way to the New-York Historical Society, where they can be seen today.
The decapitated head that rolled along Broadway was quickly taken up to the Blue Bell Tavern (at present-day Broadway and 181st Street), on the Kingsbridge Road where it was placed on a pike by the side of the road. After General Howe’s army captured Manhattan in November of 1776 Captain John Montresor rode up to the Blue Bell Tavern and retrieved the King’s head and sent it back to London where it found its way to the home of Lord Townshend. Thomas Hutchinson, the exiled colonial governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, noted in his diary that he was shown the head when he visited Lord and Lady Townshend in 1778. It has not been seen since. Perhaps it is today collecting dust in some country house attic or decorating someone’s garden.
The balls wrapped with gilded crowns hacked from the tops of the fence posts began surfacing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as gifts for officials on Evacuation Day, but these seem to have disappeared as well. The fifteen-foot marble pedestal remained on the Bowling Green until 1818 when this was the heart of the city’s most fashionable neighborhood. Fort George was razed after the revolution and the rubble dumped along the water’s edge to extend the old Battery and create a pleasant park overlooking the harbor. The site was used to construct Government House, which was meant to be an official residence for President Washington. The capital was moved to Philadelphia before it was complete and the President never lived there. In 1914 the IRT subway was extended to the Battery and Bowling Green Park was selected as the site of the station. To prepare the site the contactor dismantled the old fence and put it in storage. By the time the project was completed everyone had forgotten where the fence had been stored until it finally it turned up in 1919 in the basement of the Central Park Armory, headquarters of the Parks Department and was re-erected on the original site.
If you go to visit this remarkable survivor at the foot of Broadway be sure and feel the uneven tops of the posts between the pointed pickets. No one ever bother to file down the rough edges left from that hot July night in 1776 when the patriot mob hacked off the crowns. This is a unique place where you can actually touch a piece of the American Revolution.
Saving the Theaters
During the first decades of the twentieth century dozens of new playhouses were built in the Times Square theater district. The year 1927 marked the end of the building boom and the high water mark of the legitimate theater in New York as well. 1927 also marked the advent of talking pictures with the premier of The Jazz Singer at Warners Theater on October 6. The “talkies” had a profoundly negative effect on live theater. Another blow was struck in October of 1929 with the Wall Street stock market crash and the ensuing depression that was to last through the 1930’s. The building boom was over by 1928 and no new theaters were built again until 1970. During those years 27 theaters fell to the wrecking ball as developers gobbled up real estate in the theater district.
Some of the theaters, particularly those along 42nd Street, survived because they could be easily converted to accommodate movies or burlesque shows. The Empire (nee Eltinge) accommodated both. Money to produce plays and musicals began to dry up and only the Federal Theater Project kept many houses open during the late ‘30s. Others were saved by conversion into radio studios and later into stages for live television. An excellent example of this process is Studio 54, once New York’s late 70’s uber-Disco. It started life in 1927 as Fortune Gallo’s Gallo Opera House with La Boheme as the opening production. By 1930 it was re-named The New Yorker Theater and became a home to serious drama. In 1936 the Federal Theater Project leased the playhouse and presented a jazzed-up version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado, staring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. CBS purchased the theater in 1942 to house live radio broadcasts. By the 1950’s it became a stage for live television broadcasts and home to shows like The $64,000 Question and Captain Kangaroo. In 1976 CBS moved television production into the Ed Sullivan Theater (once connected to Studio 54 by a passageway) and sold what was to become Studio 54. The Sullivan theater had started life as the Hammerstein Theater, later home to the Ed Sullivan Show and now home to Late Night with David Letterman.
The post war years were not kind to much of the theater district, particularly 42nd Street and specifically to the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. This block was lined with bawdy entertainment and drew a scruffy and sometimes menacing crowd. Mayor Wagner noted in a 1965 interview that never once, in his entire tenure as mayor, had he set foot on that block. Ironically he was to be its inadvertent savior. One of Mayor Wagner’s last acts was the creation of the New York Landmarks Commission after the egregious destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station in 1964. The New York Times, from its offices a block away on 43rd Street, declared that this block of 42nd Street was “the single worst block in the town”. Hookers, hustlers, junkies and derelicts made it such a dangerous place that real estate values crumbled and the old Knickerbocker Hotel, once Jack Astor’s glittering showplace, was sold by its owner for one dollar in 1965. John Lindsay was elected mayor in 1965 and the slow process of saving the theaters and especially 42nd Street, had begun. By 1970 the beloved Astor Hotel, filling the Broadway block from 44th to 45th was demolished, to be replaced by an ugly high rise courtesy of developer Jerry Minskoff. His intention was to use the lower floors for a JC Penney store but Mayor Lindsay bullied him into building a huge theater (Lindsay threatened to delay the building permits indefinitely) instead. The Minskoff is currently home to The Lion King.
New York in the late 60’s and early 70’s was not exactly a real estate developer’s dreamland, so many playhouses somehow survived, including the Empire and the other grand old houses along 42nd Street (most by then featured XXX movies and peep shows). By 1972 the real estate climate began to change and the Capitol Theater, a huge movie palace on west 50th Street, was demolished and replaced by two new theaters, the Uris (later wisely named the Gershwin Theater) and Circle in the Square. In 1982 the Marriott hotel chain received permits to demolish three playhouses – the Bijou and the Morosco on 45th Street and the Helen Hayes on 46th Street – to be replaced by a high rise hotel and one huge theater along Broadway. The process had been so secretive that the theater community realized, too late, what was about to be lost. They organized an eleventh hour protest and prominent actors carried protest signs in a heartfelt demonstration, but to no avail. When Marriott announced that the new theater would be named for Helen Hayes she rejected the gesture on behalf of her fellow actors and the saddened theater community. Ms Hayes was later honored by her peers when The Little Theater on 45th Street was re-named in her honor. Today the Gershwin, the Minskoff and the Marquis are booked with musicals.
The loss of these three theaters in 1982 galvanized the Broadway community just as the wanton destruction of Pennsylvania Station had galvanized the architectural community in 1964. A coalition of politicians, actors and preservationists called on the Landmarks Commission to save the remaining theaters in Times Square and the commission responded and began designating both the interiors and exteriors of most of the remaining playhouses. The theater owners fought back in the courts, led by Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs of the Schubert Organization, the largest owner of theaters in the district. The case crept through the courts for the next ten years. Finally, when the US Supreme court refused to hear the case in 1992, the theaters were saved. Today 23 pre-1928 playhouses have both interior and exterior landmark status, six more have interior designation and three have exterior designation only – the Empire is one of these. New York is truly a city of irony. Two Schubert-owned houses on 45th Street were recently re-named for Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, the same lawyers who had fought for ten years in the courts for their demolition.
The Times Square theater district to be preserved was then considered to be the blocks north of 42nd Street – that benighted thoroughfare was thought beyond hope by most New Yorkers. Except for a forward-looking group of planners and city and state officials who saw beyond the tawdry peep show facades and realized that the grand old theaters were worth saving. In 1984 they established a thirteen-acre urban renewal site along 42nd Street, from Broadway to Eight Avenue with the aim of preserving and restoring the theaters along that block. By early 1990, after years of litigation, the state took ownership of two thirds of the project site, including six of the theaters. In September the announced a new controlling entity, The New 42nd Street, with a 99 year lease on six theaters – the peerless New Amsterdam and the Empire remained under state ownership.
By 1996 the last of the peep shows was closed and the big New York developers Forest City Ratner signed a long term lease on the Empire Theater and began to restore the old playhouse. In March of 1998 they moved the theater 170 feet toward the Hudson, providing the city’s “sidewalk superintendents” with several days of excitement. The purpose of this remarkable feat was to provide a main entrance to a new AMC movie theater complex. Today the escalator that carries patrons up to the theaters passes under the proscenium arch of the old theater where Clark Gable and Lawrence Olivier once took their bows and Bud Abbot and Lou Costello performed their “Who’s on First?” routine for the first time. The AMC Empire 25 opened for business in April of 2000.