Monday, April 21, 2014

Philander Worden and the Great Pumpkin

A tavern in Flatbush, circa 1853 [NYPL]
This is the story of a gang of counterfeiters, many glasses of punch - and a gigantic pumpkin vine.

I came across this story while researching an interesting witness in the Harvey Burdell murder case of 1857. In true Six Degrees of Separation* style, this led me to a punch-loving group of counterfeiters in the 1830s:

In 1857, the murder of New York dentist Harvey Burdell electrified the city and the subsequent murder trial continued to do so, for much of that year. You can read about it in the wonderful book Butchery on Bond Street by Benjamin Friedman, which I reviewed here.

Two of the witnesses in the trial (many of whom were incredibly interesting people in their own right) were Cyrenius and Sophronia Stevens. Sophronia was a mysterious lady clad all in green, with a green veil, who had made clandestine visits to Burdell - not just to have her teeth fixed. Cyrenius was her much older husband.

On the witness stand, Cyrenius was asked about his line of business.  He said he didn't want to talk about his line of business, and anyway he didn't have any. Sophronia was asked whether the Stevens' residence, 87 Mercer Street, was an "assignation house" (a brothel, in other words) and whether she had taken Burdell there. She said she didn't really want to answer that.  So I started wondering about Cyrenius and Sophronia, whose names I already admired. And I went off to the newspapers to see what I could find out.

The New York Tribune, covering the Burdell trial, was blunt. It called Stevens a counterfeiter and added that he "came into Court with a lie in his mouth." As for Sophronia, the Tribune said she was the mistress of a brothel. Cyrenius, despite this, denied in court that he was ever arrested or indicted for forgery in 1832 in Philadelphia, his detailed denial only confirming this (so did the papers in 1832, I found). Cyrenius Stevens had been part of a busy counterfeiting gang in the 1820s and 1830s in New York. Rosetta Jackson, another gang member, kept a brothel in the 1840s at none other than 87 Mercer Street.**

Vanderveer homestead in still-rural Flatlands, 1930s [Brooklyn Museum]
Cyrenius, after his 1832 arrest in Philadelphia, was arrested in New York in 1840 for passing counterfeit money along with Rosetta Jackson, Matilda Vasquez, Nancy Pomeroy, and the gang's ringleader. He, like the Stevenses, was in possession of a wonderful name: Philander Worden. Worden*** was a porter at a tavern on Chatham Street, when he wasn't counterfeiting $5 bills.

Cyrenius Stevens must have been busy that lovely summer Sunday in August 1840 when Rosetta, Matilda, possibly Nancy (the third woman was unnamed), and Philander went on a spree with their counterfeit money. They had a stack of fake $5 bills "on the Morris Canal Bank," which was in Jersey City, New Jersey.

All of New York City's splendors were waiting. So what do you think they did? Take in a show? Have a luxurious dinner at a restaurant? Go on a spending spree? No. They went to Long Island to drink punch. There was a reason for this, though -  they would spend the fake $5 bills and get lots of real change in return, from country taverns where city slickers could easily fool the country folk. That was the idea, anyway.

So they crossed over to Brooklyn via ferry and  hired a carriage. Then they went straight to Flatbush, which in 1838 was little more than a country town. First they went to Wiggins' Hotel and ordered glasses of punch. Matilda paid. It cost 50 cents, so they made $4.50. Equally rural Flatlands was the next stop. Philander led the girls into Daniel McPherson's tavern and called for one glass of brandy and three glasses of punch. Rosetta paid, with a fake $5 bill. After they drank the brandy and punch, they visited three more hotels in Flatlands and drank more punch. And passed more counterfeit bills.

Then they went back to McPherson's, for some reason. Maybe the punch was irresistibly good.

Unfortunately for them, the young man who had taken their money had grown suspicious. He showed the $5 bill to McPherson and they both decided that it was counterfeit. McPherson and the young bartender saw the carriage coming back, as did a small crowd of people who had gathered, interested in the fake bill. Matilda and Rosetta stepped from the carriage. I don't know where the third woman was - she seems to have abandoned the party - which, as you'll see, was a very good idea.

British Food In America
Philander Worden was gone too, "having found it convenient to leave." But he hadn't gone very far. The enthusiastic small crowd - about 20 people - started hunting for him. They found him in a nearby pumpkin patch, trying to conceal himself under "a mammoth pumpkin vine."

He was brought back to McPherson's and charged with passing counterfeit money. He protested that he was innocent, "but could not explain why he hid under the vine." Philander, Rosetta and Matilda were taken to Brooklyn (that is, what is now downtown Brooklyn) and "conducted to prison." The third woman, of course, got away - having not trusted her luck to hiding in a pumpkin patch.

*Five degrees, to be precise:

1. Harvey Burdell, 1857 murder victim
2. Trial witness and one of Burdell's supposed paramours, Sophronia Stevens (he had several)
3. Her supposed husband, Cyrenius Stevens [he had another family in the city and she was also known as Sophronia Burke in census records]
4. Cyrenius' fellow counterfeiter/87 Mercer Street brothel keeper, Rosetta Jackson
5. Rosetta's punch-drinking and counterfeiting companion, Philander Worden

**87 Mercer had quite a history, which will be the subject of another post.

*** He was probably the "appropriately named" Philander Worden mentioned in Julie Miller's Abandoned: Foundlings In Nineteenth Century New York as having fathered a child named Ann Louisa Harned in 1814 (p 50).





Sunday, April 13, 2014

Genin's Bridge Over Broadway

This lovely engraving from 1852 shows the proposed bridge over Broadway at Fulton Street, that a hatter named J.N. Genin wanted to build. This was so that customers could cross from St. Paul's Chapel to his store in comfort, above the dust and dirt of the street.

John Nicholas Genin (1819-1878) was probably the best known hatter in New York in the mid nineteenth century. Genin was chiefly known for his hats, but Genin's Bazaar, located at 513 Broadway (between Broome and Spring Streets), in the St. Nicholas Hotel, sold not only hats but clothing for men, women and children. In the late 1850s he added a hat emporium, also at the St. Nicholas, at 214 Broadway.

Also known as Genin the Hatter, his fame spread beyond New York City in the fall of 1850, when Jenny Lind came to America and gave her famous concert at Castle Garden. Several New York business men bid at auction for the privilege of buying the very first ticket.  John Genin won with a bid of $225. This was reported in papers "throughout the United States" and people asked "Who is Genin, the Hatter?" According to the New York Mercury (as quoted in the Geneva [NY] Gazette), "Every man involuntarily examined his hat, to see if it was made by Genin; and an Iowa editor declared that one of his neighbors discovered the name Genin in his old hat, and immediately announced it...in front of the Post Office." The man then sold his Genin hat at auction for the princely sum of $14.

1855 portrait of John N. Genin [eBay and NYPL]
In October 1851 the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer reported that J.N. Genin had petitioned the City for

permission to construct an oriental, single arch bridge over Broadway, from St. Paul's Church to opposite his store, at his own expense for the accomodation of pedestrians: dimensions 16 feet from lower part of the bridge to the ground, width of bridge 5 feet 6 inches, do [ditto] of stairs 3 feet 9 inches.

The petition was approved and the bridge built. Genin's bridge was completed by early 1852. The Morning Courier noted in February 1852, that it was very useful on a wet winter day:

Yesterday, the pavement that fronts the block in which GENIN'S store is situated was as clean as if it had been newly scoured, while the rest of the street - thanks to the proverbial neglect of the Street Commissioners - was encrusted with half-crisped mud to the depth of several inches. We pay some $200,000 a year for public street-cleaning, and yet the only passible portion of Broadway, during the late muddy weather, was "Genin's bridge."

Unfortunately in 1859 business setbacks forced Genin to close the hat store; the bazaar closed soon after that. The trouble was the high rents charged by "Broadway landlords...an unscrupulous and unconscionable set of harpies." The Troy Daily Whig noted that Genin's rent at the St. Nicholas for the two stores was "not a cent less than $18,600 per annum" - an incredible amount in the 1850s, especially in the aftermath of the 1857 economic panic.

Museum of the City of New York
The image on the right is the "Broadway Bridge" from 1870, which spanned Broadway between St. Paul's Chapel and Quinlan's Hat Store. I suspect that this is the Loew's Bridge or Fulton Street Bridge built in 1866-67, which replaced the original early 1850s Genin's Bridge. Now the Trinity Bridge is there, and you can read more about both bridges here at Forgotten New York.

There's plenty more that we could talk about - other pedestrian bridges in New York, the poem written by Mary Tucker in the 1860s about Loew's Bridge (at the Wired New York link there's a good discussion of this). But instead, I'd like to end with a hat. One of Genin's hats, that is. I was delighted to see that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of his hats in the Costume Institute (jolly Mr. Genin would be pleased, too).  And what a magnificent thing it is - a jaunt, cafĂ© au lait colored stovepipe hat with attitude to spare. At the link you can see an image of the hat label, too -  probably very similar to the one the Iowa gentleman showed to all his friends in front of the local Post Office back when Jenny Lind sang at Castle Garden in 1850.

Image of 1852 bridge from Museum of the City of New York; Genin's Bazaar ad from The Jewish Messenger, ca 1857, at Fulton History (which is also the source of the other newspapers).