|A tavern in Flatbush, circa 1853 [NYPL]|
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 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|
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).