Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ratzer Map Makes its Debut, And You Can See It, Too

It’s been a busy week at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Although many treasures are stored in its collection, it’s not every day the society debuts an extremely rare and beautiful map of New York City.

On Wednesday night, the society’s members and a few other lucky souls were treated to a private viewing of “Plan of the City of New York,” made by British army lieutenant Bernard Ratzer in 1770.

Passing around a magnifying glass, the crowd eagerly gathered around the map, which was framed behind glass and laid out on one of the large wooden tables in the society’s Othmer Library.

“Ooh, is that an orchard where my house is now?” one woman asked, while noted Brooklyn preservationist Otis Pearsall leaned in for a closer look at Red Hook Lane, a road jutting off of Fulton Street (called “Road to Flatbush” on this map) that once ran all the way to Red Hook.

One of the oldest streets in Brooklyn, all that now remains of the Native American trail is a little one-block, diagonal street connecting Fulton Mall to Livingston Street, and even this is not long for the world. The city officially removed it from the street map a few years ago so that it could be developed.

Rural Brooklyn did not yet have the street grid that Manhattan had, but there were a few manmade Brooklyn landmarks that Ratzer included, such as “Remsen’s Mill,” which was near Wallabout Bay (by the Navy Yard), “Brookland Ferry” – what we know as Fulton Ferry Landing – and Philip Livingston’s Distillery, on the waterfront roughly where Joralemon Street is today. “Brookland Parish” was also scrawled near where the Dutch Reformed church stood.

This is only the fourth copy of this 1770 version of the map known to exist. The New-York Historical Society owns two copies, one of them illegible, and the British Library owns one copy, which had belonged to King George III.

“It’s one of the greatest maps of the city ever drawn,” said historian Barnet Schecter, citing its “realistic detail, cartographic intelligence and sheer beauty” at Wednesday night’s viewing.

“The map tells us about New York’s very special role in the British Empire,” explained Schecter, author of The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution and George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps. The city was “the center of gravity for the British presence on the continent.”

An exquisite map including a striking pictorial of New York as viewed from Governors Island, it’s almost eerie to think about for what purpose it was likely commissioned. It came on the heels of another map, by John Montresore, commissioned by Thomas Gage, Britain’s commander- in-chief of North America, in the aftermath of the unrest spawned by the Stamp Act. The slide toward war had begun, and “New York was the greatest strategic prize of the Revolution,” Schecter said, and the Hudson River was the “key to the continent.”

Jonathan P. Derow, the paper conservationist based in Park Slope who restored the map, was also at the society on Wednesday, recounting the painstaking process of repairing it. The map was yellowed, shellacked, brittle and torn. It had been rolled up and completely forgotten about in the society’s collection for an unknown number of years. Exactly how it came into their possession remains a bit of a mystery, but there is a big clue. On the back of the map was written the name “Pierrepont.”

It’s a familiar name to just about any Brooklynite, if not because they know the family, then because they know the street in Brooklyn Heights, on which the Brooklyn Historical Society is located. The Pierreponts were one of the early great families of the city and are largely responsible for developing Brooklyn Heights into “America’s first suburb,” as well as being founders of Green-Wood Cemetery and – you guessed it – the Brooklyn Historical Society.

“We have a significant amount of Pierrepont material and we’re trying to figure out when the map came in…It sort of brings out the detective spirit,” said Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society.

For a brief time longer, the map will be on view at the historical society library, and then it will be returned to storage until they can arrange for a proper exhibition space, which could be more than a year, Schwartz said.

So time is of the essence. The map will be available for viewing Friday (Jan. 21) from 1 to 5 p.m. and then again next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (Jan. 26-28) from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission to the library is $6, $5 for students and seniors. The address is 128 Pierrepont St.

See this previous post for more info.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Churchill's American Family

“Newspaper editor, lawyer, turfman, financier.” All of these titles applied to Leonard Jerome (pictured at left), and they were indeed listed in the Brooklyn Eagle’s obituary of the man, on March 4, 1891. But they omitted what would be his most notable claim: Grandfather to Winston Churchill.

Of course, it was of no fault to the paper. They had yet to know of what consequence Churchill’s life would be. When his American-born maternal grandfather died, Churchill was only 17 years old – and yet to be a soldier, writer, historian and politician. Yet to be the intrepid, inspiring, tireless Prime Minister of England during World War II, when the island nation was all that stood between Hitler and complete domination of Europe.

We can perhaps attribute a bit of that grit and determination to his mother, who was, believe it or not, a Brooklyn-born gal. This comes as a shock to some – there just doesn’t seem room in his upper-crustness for Brooklyn roots. But, of course, Jennie Jerome was no ordinary Brooklyn girl. She was the daughter of a very wealthy man, Leonard Jerome.

But this very wealthy man had fairly meager beginnings. Born in 1817, Leonard Jerome grew up in Pompey, NY, in Onandaga County in central New York state. He had seven brothers and one sister. His father was a farmer; his grandfather had been a clergyman. The clan was descended from French Huguenots who traversed the Atlantic in the early 1700s, and some of them had fought in the Revolutionary War. Leonard’s mother, Augusta Murray, was “of a family honored in the county.”

His road to success began at Princeton, which he attended for two years before finishing at Union College. He then studied law for three years in the offices of John C. Beach and Marcus T. Reynolds in Albany.

He married Clarissa Hall of Palmyra, NY (Winston’s Grandma!), who may have been part Native American, at least according to family lore. (She's pictured at right).

In Rochester he got into the newspaper business, starting the Daily American with one of his brothers. The newspaper did well – well enough for him to invest in a telegraph company in New York, which is what prompted his move to Brooklyn in 1850, according to Elizabeth Kehoe’s biography of the family, The Titled Americans.

Leonard’s brother Addison soon joined him and they entered Wall Street, working full time in stock market speculation. At one time Jerome’s wealth was estimated at $10 million, though he suffered many “reverses” and was said to have gained and lost several fortunes over his lifetime.

In 1852 he took a position as consul to Trieste, Italy (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

His second daughter, Jennie, may have been born, on Jan. 9, 1854, but there is some debate over what year she was born. Most biographies, including England’s Dictionary of National Biography, have her born in 1854. But a plaque commemorating her birth at 426 Henry St. in Cobble Hill says she was born in 1850. This is based on research done by Borough Historian James A. Kelly around 1952, when the plaque was dedicated. The 1850 birth date is corroborated by details in Jennie Jerome’s own memoir, in which she says her earliest  memories are of being in Italy when her father was consul in Trieste, which, as stated above, was from 1852-53, before her supposed birth date of 1854.

In any event, they stayed in Brooklyn for a few more years, until 1858, when Leonard moved the family, now including three daughters (though some believe he may also have been the father of opera singer Minnie Hauk), to a grand home at 26th Street near Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

A contemporary of Jerome’s said that no man “ever became more completely a New Yorker.”

He maintained an interest in the newspaper business and owned a large part of the New York Times early in its existence. He was passionate about horse racing, and his name was once synonymous with “the turf.” He organized the Coney Island Jockey Club, and was president of that organization until his death in 1891. He was also founder of the American Jockey Club with August Belmont and William Travers, and built Jerome Park racetrack in the Bronx (pictured at right). The Belmont Stakes race was originally held at this track.

He was also a great lover of opera, and helped found the Academy of Music in New York, one of the city’s first opera houses, and the city’s “sanctum sanctorum of high culture,” according to Edwin Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s Gotham.

In the 1860s, Clarissa left for Paris with the couple’s three daughters (reasons for this vary: some say she was ill and wanting a specific Parisian doctor’s services, others that she and Leonard separated, still others that it was just her love for the city). Whatever it was, the move proved fateful. All three of her daughters would marry titled Brits, most famously, Jennie. She met and married Lord Randolph Churchill (at left) in 1873 and Winston was born in 1874.

Her older sister Clara married Moreton Frewen and the youngest sister, Leonie, married Sir John Leslie.

Jennie (at right) was a great beauty and a wit, fluent in several European languages, and was quickly enmeshed with the most exclusive social circles. She was close with Queen Victoria’s eldest son Edward (who succeeded his mother in 1901 and became King Edward VII, namesake of the Edwardian era) as well as an active supporter of her husband’s and later her son’s political careers.

For a dishy who’s who of late 19th century Europe, peruse her memoir, The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill.

Toward the end of his life, Leonard Jerome was in a financial downswing. A February 1887 Eagle article reported that he had taken to leasing the family’s New York home to the University Club.

“It’s rental is almost his only income and all that is left to maintain the mere shadow of what was once almost a regal state when he led society and the sporting world and when Jerome Park course was named for him. Now he alternates between New York for enjoyment and London for economy, staying while there with his daughter, Lady Churchill.”

The article goes on to report difficulties in Lady Churchill’s marriage. “Poor Jerome, who like many another American, has learned that the position of father-in-law to an English noble is a position full of difficulties and a small very unsatisfactory share of barren honor.”

Leonard Jerome died in Brighton on March 4, 1891, when Winston was only 17, so he knew not what his progeny would accomplish. The Eagle later reported that Jerome had “expressed the wish during his last illness that he might be taken back to Brooklyn to die. When made aware that this was impossible, he desired that his body might be brought home and placed in the family vault at Green-Wood.” It arrived in New York on August 5, 1891 and was interred as he requested.

When Lord Randolph died in 1895, Jennie remarried five years later to a man the same age as Winston, George Cornwallis-West. They divorced in 1912 and in 1918 she married Montague Phippen Porch, a member of the British Civil Service.

Jennie Jerome died on June 9, 1921.

Supposedly Winston was deeply proud of his American heritage and hung portraits of his American grandparents in his home in London.

In his first address to a joint session of the United States Congress, on Dec. 26, 1941, he told the assembly, “If my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way ‘round, I might have got here on my own!”

Churchill served as Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951- 55. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1953.

President Kennedy made him an honorary citizen of the United States in 1963.

Winston Chuchill died on Jan. 24, 1965.

In a 2002 BBC poll, he was voted the “greatest Brit of all time.”

Images from The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill, except for Jerome Park photo, which is from Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

Looking For Mr. Block

Elizabeth Block of Toronto, Ontario wrote in to the Eagle asking for any memories people may have of her father, a popular junior high school teacher in Brooklyn during the 1940s and 50s. Here's the letter, and you can reach her at

My father, Arthur Block, died several years ago. In the late ’40s and early ’50s he taught in a Brooklyn junior high school, and as he did all his life, he wrote musical shows, for the kids in his class to perform.

For instance, there was a revue, set in Prospect Park, called “Spring in Prospect.” One of the songs, sung by a sanitation worker with a bag and a pointed stick, was called “Business is Picking Up (Picking Up After You).” It is delightful, and, I’m afraid, as relevant as ever.

The New York City Board of Education has his files, but I’m afraid they are not in good shape. In those days, no one had heard of acid-free paper, and cassette tapes were years in the future.

I wonder if there are people out there who were his students and remember his songs?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Fabulous Ratzer Map

The New York Times posted a cool story this morning about a very rare map in the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) collection that was only just rediscovered and restored (a before and after photo is above). The 1770 map by Bernard Ratzer is titled "Plan of the City of New York." The only other institutions to have copies are the British Library and the New-York Historical Society.

I wrote a story about BHS in December that included the discovery of the Ratzer map that you can read here. The map was discovered thanks to a grant that BHS received that is allowing them to go through their archives and reacquaint themselves with what they really have, and write new, detailed descriptions of it to update their catalogue.

Here's a description of the Ratzer map as per the Times:

The map included a detailed rendering of the island’s slips and shores and streets in Lower Manhattan, the familiar mixing with the long gone. Pearl, Broad, Grand and Prince lay beside Fair and Crown and the “Fresh Water” pond.

“Manhattan, at least the part shown here, was mapped as precisely as any spot on the Earth at the time,” said Robert T. Augustyn, co-author of ”Manhattan in Maps: 1527-1995” (Rizzoli International Publications, 1997). “There was no more beautiful or revealing a map of New York City ever done.”

There are notable buildings: “The Powder House,” “The City Hall,” “The Prison,” “The Theatre.” Mr. Ratzer included detailed topography, with hills and woodlands near Kips Bay and Turtle Bay that have disappeared...

The bottom of the map contains a striking illustration of the view of Manhattan as seen from Governors Island, with ships, soldiers, waves and smoke. Brooklyn, or “Brookland,” is a patchwork of farms of different shades, bisected by Flatbush Road.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Green-Wood Cemetery Emerges as Destination for Civil War Buffs

Green-Wood Cemetery has long been known as the burial ground of many a famous New Yorker, ranging from artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat and Leonard Bernstein, to notorious politicians such as William “Boss” Tweed.

But in recent years, Green-Wood has also emerged as a surprisingly rich repository of Civil War history, thanks largely to the work of Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman and his army of volunteers.

“The word is spreading slowly but surely in terms of us being a Civil War location,” says Richman.

Through eight years of research, he has come to discover that 4,500 Civil War veterans are laid to rest at Green-Wood, with 18 generals among them. He estimates that only Arlington and West Point probably have more generals from that war.

“We’ve definitely had an increase of Civil War roundtables coming to visit. I’ve done a number of tours for these groups,” Richman says.

When the cemetery restored a Civil War monument in 2002, it triggered something for Richman, long a Civil War fan: “That it might make sense to honor our Civil War veterans who are interred at the cemetery.”

At that point he believed there to be only about 500 Civil War vets at Green-Wood. That turned out to be a fraction of what they had.

“We lovingly joke that our Civil War project has lasted longer than the Civil War. It’s lasted twice as long now,” he said recently during a talk he gave to the New York chapter of the Civil War Roundtable in Manhattan.

The search began with volunteers doing two big sweeps through the 478-acre cemetery in 2002 and 2003, checking for anything on gravestones that might indicate Civil War service.

Then they launched into a systematic approach, putting all of the names — about 160,000 — from the regiments raised in New York into a database and comparing those to Green-Wood’s own database of the buried, looking not only for name matches, but tracking down ages, birth dates and death dates to confirm the match.

“It’s part art, part science to determine whether you have the right fellow,” says Richman. “The real problem that we have is the John Smiths of the world. It’s such a common name so it’s hard to sort out who we have here.”

But by 2007, their efforts uncovered 3,000 soldiers. Many of the graves had never been marked, or the stones had become unreadable or had been swallowed up by the earth over time. So Green-Wood applied to the Veterans Administration for new markers. To date, they’ve successfully petitioned for 2,000 new gravestones.

“I started to hear from people all over the country and all over the world” who had heard about the project, Richman says. Many were descendants of the buried and had stories or documents to share about their ancestors’ lives.

In 2008, Richman’s book about the project was released, Final Camping Ground: Civil War Veterans at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, In Their Own Words, a chronological history of the war using the letters and journals of the soldiers who lived it. A biographical sketch for each of Green-Wood’s Civil War vets was prepared, and that information is included with the book as a biographical dictionary in CD form.

But Richman still wasn’t done with his research. “It dawned on me that perhaps since our database is not complete, that it might make sense to go through our chronological books and look for any men who were of appropriate age to have served in the Civil War. And so as a result of that, we found another 1,500 men, and we’re still rolling along.”

He believes there could be as many as another three to four thousand Civil War soldiers buried at Green-Wood that haven’t been discovered yet.

“We joke that you walk through the cemetery and these guys are saying, ‘Look at me! Look at me! Tell my story.’”

Richman has uncovered thousands of remarkable stories, and speaks about many of the soldiers as though speaking about old friends. He became choked up while recounting the life of William Wheeler. “He’s one of my favorites. He had quite a sense of humor, and was an incredible, off-the- charts writer,” says Richman. “When in 1864 his enlistment runs out he decided to go home. And I believe there are 103 men in his battery and there is a petition signed by 101 of them that they will only re-enlist under the condition that he lead them. And he re-enlists and he is killed in Marietta, Georgia.”

Robert Seldon Garnet is one of the 75 Confederate soldiers known to be buried at Green-Wood. He was commandant of West Point in the 1850s, and became the first general killed in battle during the Civil War. He was originally buried in Baltimore, but was later secretly buried at Green-Wood (it was only months after the assassination of Lincoln and a Confederate would have been persona non grata).

“Life would be easy if each of those Confederates had identified themselves as such on their gravestone. Unfortunately we are 0 for 75. Not a single one was so identified,” Richman says.

Then there are the Prentiss brothers, who fought on opposite sides of the war, were injured in the same battle, and then convalesced together in Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C., where the famous poet (and one-time Brooklyn Eagle editor) Walt Whitman tended to them as a nurse. They both ultimately succumbed to their injuries and are buried side by side at Green-Wood.

“When you turn around and see one of those white gravestones we’ve installed, it’s a special feeling,” says Richman. “That soldier fought bravely and then was in an unmarked grave for 140 years.”

Green-Wood Cemetery is now in the midst of planning a sesquicentennial event for this Memorial Day to commemorate the beginning of the Civil War. They will be placing luminaries in front of the graves of all 4,500 known Civil War soldiers. There will also be re-enactors, an 11-piece brass band, artillery firing, a grand procession and a Civil War exhibit in the chapel.

You can keep up on the upcoming events and tours at Green-Wood, as well as historic discoveries being uncovered by Jeff Richman and his volunteers, on their blog,

CAPTION FOR ABOVE PHOTO: Green-Wood Cemetery has successfully petitioned for 2,000 new gravestones from the Veterans Administration to place on the unmarked or illegible graves of Civil War vets. In this 2007 photo, they are being laid out in the cemetery’s meadow and prepared for installment.