Monday, August 11, 2008
Charlotte Temple - Seduced and Abandoned in Old New York
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.