Category Archives: Albany

The World’s Fair Excursion and Hotel Association

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World's Fair Excursion and Hotel AssociationIt’s 1893, and you want to visit the Columbian Exposition, the massive World’s Fair being held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary (plus a year) of Columbus’s stumbling upon what was not quite the Americas (among other things). But how are you to make your travel arrangements? There’s no internet, no 800 phone numbers, not even any AAA guides  for finding lodgings (and, as it turned out, that was something you wanted to be selective about).

Into this void stepped the World’s Fair Excursion and Hotel Association, incorporated sometime early in 1893 with its principal office in Albany. It was to “conduct and manage excursions and to furnish transportation for tourists and their baggage, to furnish hotel and boarding house accommodations, and to do other business which will assist tourists in reaching the World’s Fair.” Directors of the company (and most of the backers) were Willis J. Brewster, Emily E. Brewster, and T. Gordon Lilico of Albany.

Later that year the Saratoga Sentinel reported that Dr. W.J. Brewster would be in Port Henry on June 5, “and parties contemplating a visit to the World’s Fair now, or later, will do well to make their arrangements with him and save money.” The paper also put in a plug for traveler’s checks, only recently developed in their familiar form by the American Express company (another one with Albany roots): “Travelers and parties who contemplate visiting the World’s Fair should procure of the American Express Co. one of their travelers’ check books. They are accepted all over the globe for their face value. Agent Neide will explain its working by calling at his office.”

Doctor Willis J. Brewster was listed in the 1893 directory as “physician and president, World’s Fair Hotel asso.,” with offices at 496 Broadway, and his home at 71 Jefferson St. He was 30 years old at the time; Emily Brewster was his wife, 10 years younger. T. Gordon Lilico was a veterinary surgeon (member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons of London), offices 231-237 Lark Street (next to Trinity Church), who boarded at Woodlawn at the corner of Lake Ave.

We don’t learn any more about this new Albany enterprise, so we don’t have a sense of whether it was successful. How the people doctor and the horse doctor came together to make travel arrangements for their fellow Albanians who wanted to visit Chicago, we probably won’t know.

Fastest Typesetter in the East (or West)

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George Dawson portrait, from A Collection of Family Records

George Dawson

Was Mr. George Dawson, eventually editor of the Albany Evening Journal, one of the fastest typesetters of his day? Well, the Printer’s Circular seemed to think so. Though he was much much more than that.

In order to understand this, readers will need a little familiarity with the terms. At the time, all type was set one character at a time. There were no keyboards, no machinery. Typesetters (sometimes called compositors) picked individual letters from trays (job cases, the staple of antiques stores for the last 40 years) and arranged them in forms called chases. And because it was direct impression printing, they did it all backward. Therefore, the size of the typeface mattered (technically, though we’re giving up on this distinction, a font is both the typeface and its size) in determining speed for reasons of dexterity. An em was a measure of type equal to its point size (named for the letter ‘M’ which was usually the largest letter). And while we use point sizes today, it was common in the 19th century to use the English names, so that Agate is 5-1/2 point type; Brevier is 8 pt.; Pica is 12 point. (Those old enough to have grown up on typewriters will remember Pica vs. Elite.)

The American Encyclopaedia of Printing reprinted an account from the Circular from February 1870 by a correspondent who had kept a record of newspaper accounts of fast typesetting, in which Dawson’s extreme level of skill was noted:

“There is a long list of compositors who would set 2000 ems an hour, as they claimed, and their friends have asserted. Rapid compositors for an hour, however, do not always possess endurance. Yet there are not wanting instances of extraordinary endurance combined with great speed. For instance, in 1845, John J. Hand, deputy foreman of the American Republican, of New York, undertook, upon a wager, to set up 32,000 ems of solid Minion [7 pt.] in twenty-four hours. He failed by 32 ems only. Mr. Robert Bonner – now the mighty man of the New York Ledger – was employed on the American Republican also, and is said to have set up 25,500 ems in twenty hours and twenty-eight minutes, without a moment’s rest.

Mr. George Dawson, now one of the proprietors of the Albany Evening Journal, was reported in the Rochester papers, where he was an apprentice, to have set up 27,000 ems of solid Brevier [8 pt.] in ten hours. This being so incredible a performance – although published in the newspapers – I inquired of Mr. Dawson (begging pardon of the newspapers that published it), who asserts that it was an honest 22,022 ems, done in a day of something more than ten hours; he thinks thirteen hours. As Mr. Dawson has been ever since – probably about forty years – employed upon newspapers as compositor, foreman, editor, and proprietor, his assertion cannot be gainsaid.”

George Dawson was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1813, and was brought to this country at the age of five. At 11, he was placed in the printing office of the Niagara Gleaner, and moved to Rochester in 1826 where he was employed by the Anti-Masonic Inquirer, edited by Thurlow Weed. He came to Albany with Weed in 1830 and became foreman of the Evening Journal. He went back to Rochester, then to Detroit, back to Rochester, and then returned to Albany in 1846 as associate editor. When Weed retired in 1862, Dawson became senior editor and proprietor, which he remained through 1877. He was also postmaster of Albany from 1861-67. (Most of this from Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1887.)

Howell (in his Bi-Centennial History of Albany) says of Dawson,

“it is said by those who knew him in the printing-office, that he was an accomplished, practical printer – at the case, a rapid and correct compositor; as a foreman, perfect in order and discipline; courteous and amiable in his intercourse with the employees of the office. It was not long before he began contributing to the columns of the Journal, and his contributions bore the impress of a master hand, adding largely to the ability and influence of the paper.”

This, of course, was at a time when newspapers, particularly Albany newspapers, were beyond political. Thurlow Weed was a kingmaker, and the Evening Journal dictated party politics not only in New York but frequently nationally. Dawson, when he went to Detroit, was a founder of the new Whig party, which absorbed elements of the Anti-Masonic Party. When he was enticed back to Albany by Weed, the Journal was still an absolute authority in its politics, as Howell relates:

“It gave the word of command and the lesser organs made haste to regard its behest. The orders which all obeyed, came from the capital. The Journal spoke with authority. It dictated party policies, controlled appointments, and marshaled all the forces of political campaigns. In the management of the Evening Journal, Mr. Dawson shared with his senior the enjoyment of the ‘power behind the throne;’ was thoroughly acquainted with his plans, proved an able lieutenant in his political encounters, and fully indorsed his political and journalistic views.”

Dawson sold off his interest in 1877, but came back a few years later when he had apparently “got reform” and sounded off against political machines and boss rule. If we believe Howell, Dawson was no demagogue, and did not unduly profit from his position. He was an avid angler who weighed the better fishing in the Rochester area against the opportunity in Albany when he was asked to come back, and indeed wrote a book titled “Pleasures of Angling with Rod and Reel for Trout and Salmon.” He was instrumental in the building of the 1877 Tabernacle Baptist Church at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Ten Broeck Street, which he both contributed to and supervised in its construction. So, by all accounts, George Dawson led an extraordinary 19th century life. But we have a soft spot for the old printing industry, so we hope that Dawson remained proud of his typesetting capabilities until the day he died, in 1883.

Need we say it? Like all good Albanians, he is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Is Printing a Healthy Business?

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While looking for more information on Churchill & Denison, an early pair of Albany photographers who were in partnership during the Civil War era, we ran across this odd little tidbit – not about photographers, but about printers.

The journal “Western Medical Advance and Progress of Pharmacy,” dated December, 1871, reprinted at the top of its second column, front page, a brief item from “Printer’s Circular,” another trade publication for a very different trade. Sadly, it is unaccompanied by the photograph it references, which we can only hope is preserved somewhere:

Is Printing a Healthy Business?–This is the title of a handsome photograph, 12 x 16, issued by Messrs. Churchill & Denison, Albany, N.Y., containing portraits of six well-known printers of Albany, whose appearance is deemed a sufficient answer to the question–Is Printing a Healthy Business? Upon the picture is printed the following table:If the printers of Albany are fairly represented by the “specimen six,” our readers will join us in congratulating them upon their judicious combination of mind and matter; and will doubtless be tempted to ask,

Upon what meat do these our Caesars feed,

That they have grown so great?

And whether Albany beef, or Albany air, deserves the credit of transforming from lean to fat.–Printer’s Circular.

Simply the oddest bit of 19th century fat-shaming we’ve come across. We can’t help but wonder if this was some kind of fascination of Churchill, as one of the photos he is known to have taken was of C. Adams Stevens, which oddly notes on the front that he weighed 221 lbs.

Avery Herrick, we should note, was recognized by the New York Agricultural Society in 1858, winning for best blackberry wine, best raspberry wine, and best tomato wine [we do not want to know]. He was also given honors for his strawberry wine and “Cherry Bounce.”

Rensselaer Churchill, Daguerreotypist

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C. Adams Stevens, by Rensselaer Churchill

C. Adams Stevens, photographed by Rensselaer Churchill

Our post yesterday had us curious about the photographer who may have noted the name of his subject (C. Adams Stevens), his political affiliation, and – and this is what we think least likely – his weight. The source for the photograph noted that on the back was the mark of one Rensselaer E. Churchill, and with a moniker like that, you’d think we could find more about this pioneering photographer.

Rensselaer Emmett Churchill was born about 1820 in a place called Fonda’s Bush in Montgomery County. Today we know it as Broadalbin. How he came down to Albany, and whether his first name was from a family connection or simply in honor of the patroon, we don’t know. It appears that he moved to Albany around the age of 10. He attended Albany Academy, at least in 1835, where he received certificates in proficiency in book-keeping, history of New York, and “Angus’ Exercises.” He married an Albany native named Gertrude Ramsay (the censuses seem to confuse Gertrude and Rachael, mother and daughter). They first appear together in 1855, living in a brick house in the city’s 4th ward, both aged 35. With them are six children ranging from 14 to 2, mother-in-law Ann Ramsay, and a 17-year-old Irish servant named Julia Kelley. At this time, he lists his occupation as “daguerreotyper.”

Daguerreotype was the first practical photographic process, and for many years the dominant one. Introduced in 1839, it involved copper plates and mercury vapor, creating an image on a mirror-like surface. Churchill appears to have been an early practitioner, who showed at the exhibits of the New York State Agricultural Society (today, we’d call it the State Fair) in 1850, and was awarded a medal in the “Paintings, Daugerreotypes, &c.” category for his “Daguerreotype specimens, scarcely inferior to those of Mr. Gavit, who received the first premium.” (D.E. Gavit also practiced his craft in Albany.)

Group at the Sanitary Commission Fair, Albany, New York 1864

Group at the Sanitary Commission Fair, Albany, New York 1864. Attributed to Churchill and Denison Studios, from

He appears to have moved around a bit, and along the way he had a partner. In 1860, his office or studio is at 80 State Street, and his home at 189 Hudson Ave. Two years later he had moved his office to 82 State and was living at 34 Grand. In 1863, he had partnered up with Daniel Dennison (often spelled Denison), and their business was listed as photography at 522 Broadway. (Their ad for colored daguerreotypes can be seen here.) At some point they moved a door down to 520, and the two remained in business together at least through 1869. One of their attributed works is a well-known photograph of a group of women at the Sanitary Commission Fair held in Albany in 1864; Churchill & Dennison were the official photographers for the fair. (The U.S. Sanitary Commission was established by Mary Aston Livermore in 1863 as a civilian auxiliary organization dedicated to reform and raising funds to improve health conditions in military facilities.)

But in 1870, they had split up, Dennison moving to 13 North Pearl, and Churchill keeping the studio at 520 Broadway. His home was then at 30 Plain Street; by 1878, his home had moved to 144 Hudson. When he died of heart failure on May 25, 1892, his residence was 297 Madison Ave.

One would think a pioneering photographer working in the boomtown that Albany was at the time would have left more of an impression, but we find very little about him. Getty Museum seems to have an image of his, but it’s not available online. A handful of other references tease us, but produce nothing. The newspapers that are available mention his 1850 Agricultural Society participation, and the marriage of his son to a Chicago woman, but that’s it.

Churchill & Denison images regularly turn up on eBay and other auction sources. Their photographs of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White are featured on Cornell University’s founding page. The photographs of President Lincoln’s funeral procession and catafalque were also likely by the firm.

Thanks to Paula Lemire, you can see Rensselaer Churchill’s headstone from the Albany Rural Cemetery.

This well-known photograph of a model of the Capitol was apparently also taken by Churchill.

Daugerrotype of William Jay by RE Churchill

This Churchill daguerrotype of noted jurist William Jay is in the National Portrait Gallery collection of the Smithsonian.

Col. C. Adams Stevens, the Western Adventurer/Embezzler

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C. Adams Stevens, by Rensselaer Churchill

C. Adams Stevens, photographed by Rensselaer Churchill

The Greenbush Bridge was the third bridge to cross the Hudson River between Albany and Greenbush (first was the Livingston Avenue, then the Maiden Lane), but practice did not make perfect, and this third crossing was not made smoothly. The first company chartered to build the bridge was led by a colorful character going by the name of Colonel C. Adams Stevens, who built up a local company, drew in a number of prominent investors, fought with the Legislature and got caught up in a bit of embezzlement. The bridge had been authorized by the Legislature in 1872, but by the time it came to fruition in 1882, Stevens was no longer involved.

The closest we can find to a biography of C. Adams Stevens is this brief paragraph from the New York Herald of March 11, 1875, written when he was in the midst of a Legislative investigation:

“Who Is Colonel Stevens? The gentleman has had a somewhat eventful history. He is now about sixty years of age, tall and commanding in appearance, cultured and dignified in manner. He was born in New Jersey, and, while quite young, came to Albany and studied law. In 1850 he went “West” and started the LaCrosse Democrat, which afterward was purchased from him by Mr. “Brick” Pomeroy. During the war he was a colonel in a Western regiment, and, having been taken prisoner, remained in the hands of the rebels for some nine months. Confined in the same cell with him was a nephew of President Grant. The Colonel is also said to have been intimately connected on several occasions with General Fremont in business speculations.”

Stevens was acting president of the Albany and Greenbush Bridge Company when he was brought before the Assembly in 1875. At this remove the whole affair is hard to sort out, but it appears the Committee on Commerce and Navigation was investigating the bridge company. It may well be that the politicians who were somehow upset with the bridge company were engaged in river steamboat and towing enterprises that were opposed to the construction of a bridge. Stevens didn’t take it very well, calling the Committee “a set of frauds and thieves,” and saying he would not submit his books for examination “unless he were allowed a special Police force to keep them from being stolen by the subcommittee.” He then rolled up his sleeves and goaded the legislators to “come on,” that he was ready for them. Apparently at the time the Assembly had the power to jail those whom they found in contempt, and indeed jail was threatened against “Mr.” (not Colonel) Stevens, but he was released on a voice vote.

Shortly after, it may have become clear why Stevens didn’t want the Assembly looking at his books, as the Times headline read: “A Western Adventurer’s Career – Col. C. Adams Stevens, Who is Charged with Embezzling $200,000 of the Albany Bridge Company’s Bonds.” Here’s how The New York Times told the tale of Colonel C. Adams Stevens, datelined July 26, 1876:

“Col. C. Adams Stevens, a Western adventurer, but a man of remarkable shrewdness, is exciting a good deal of attention here on account of an examination now pending, in which the Colonel is charged with embezzling $200,000 worth of bonds of the Albany and Greenbush Bridge Company. Four years ago Col. Stevens came to this city, engaged a fine building on State street, fitted it up in luxurious style, and making the ground floor an office after the style of a banking-house, had printed on the windows in letters of gold “Office of the Boston, Albany and Hoosac Tunnel Railroad Company.” Then the Colonel began operations. He called about him several of our citizens, who possessed both money and influence, explained to them that the railroad was about to be built with money furnished by Brown Brothers & Co., of New-York; that the road would shorten the distance between Albany and Boston thirty or more miles; would make a direct connection, whereby coal could be brought from the fields of Pennsylvania and sent to the North and the East, and would in various ways help Albany to an incalculable degree. He wanted no money to assist in building the road – not a dollar. That was already provided for. But a bridge was needed across the Hudson to serve as the connecting link. He proposed to purchase the South Ferry from the City of Albany and build a new and substantial bridge.”

The Colonel talked a good game. The Boston, Albany and Hoosac Tunnel Railroad Company had been around since 1850, and it’s not clear how Stevens got hold of it; it is not clear it was ever related to the actual Hoosac Tunnel, which had originally been started by the Troy and Greenfield Railroad, but was finally completed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Offers were made for the purchase of several blocks in Albany on which to erect a “grand depot.” The City aldermen were apparently willing to sell the South Ferry property for “a mere song.” The company was formed with the legendary Dr. John Swinburne (then health officer of the Port of New York) as president, and Albany City Bank’s J.H. Pratt as treasurer. Stevens was the vice president and, in 1873 and 1874 at least, acting superintendent. Capital stock of several hundred thousand dollars was raised, “of which Col. Stevens secured unto himself a trifle over half.”

Offices were at 128 State Street, just a few doors uphill from the State Geological and Agricultural Hall, above Lodge St. An 1873 filing with the State Engineer and Surveyor listed the company as having $260,000 in capital stock, of which $31,000 was subscribed, and $3100 was paid in. The company claimed $718 in engineering costs, and $957.94 for office expenses, agents and clerks. The officers of the company were nearly all from Albany and Greenbush.

A call was made on the stock, and suddenly the Boston, Albany and Hoosac Tunnel Railroad Company vanished. Col. Stevens made another call on the stock and the Albany gentry forfeited their investments instead and quit the company. Col. Stevens created a new Board, which authorized a new bond issue of $200,000, and paid the Colonel $15,000, with a “snug installment” in advance, for doing it. Mysteriously, the Colonel disappeared. The police found him some time later at the Astor House in New York City, “where he was living in fine style.” He charged his accusers of trying to defraud him, and said that “Without me the $200,000 worth of bonds are not worth fifty cents, and you know it.” In fact, the Times questioned whether he could be held for grand larceny, as the bonds “are not supposed to be worth $25.”

A report of the Boston, Hoosac Tunnel and Western Railroad Company included an appendix from 1874, with civil engineer George S. Morison reporting on his search for routes from the Hoosac Tunnel to the Hudson River or a connection to the New York Central and Albany & Susquehanna railroads. He said that Col. Stevens’ company had begun a survey of a route to Petersburgh. Morison and Stevens drove over the northern part of Rensselaer County looking at routes. In fact, he called a route the Stevens Route, which followed the course of the Hoosick River as far as Petersburgh Junction, “thereby passing around the first two ranges of parallel hills, and leaving the valley so far north that the gaps in the third range have become comparatively low.” It would have passed through a Potter Hill Tunnel, which was never built.

On Feb. 24, 1877, the Albany Evening Journal tried to catch its readers up with the events:

“Our readers will remember the arrest, in New York, some months since of C. Adams Stevens, at the instance of certain of the directors of the Albany and Greenbush Bridge Company, his arraignment before Justice Clute, and his subsequent discharge on information as to where $200,000 of the bonds of said company were deposited. The bonds were recovered by one of our detectives, and delivered to Justice Clute. There were then replevined by the officers of the Bridge Company, and were passed over to James Kiernan, at that time Under Sheriff. He deposited them for safe keeping in the Albany County Bank, where they remained until yesterday.

Sometime since, upon proceedings instituted at the instigation of the Bridge Company, Worthington Frothingham, Esq., was appointed Receiver of the effects of said C. Adams Stevens, and on the 9th of the present month he disposed of them at public auction, at the City Hall, for the sum of $365, his interest in the Bridge Company stock selling for $309. The report of the Receiver was filed Thursday, whereupon Judge Van Alstyne issued an order to Sheriff Kiernan, directing him to deliver to William Smith, of the Bridge Company, purchaser of Stevens’ interest in said company, the bonds aforesaid, and yesterday morning the order was obeyed, and the delivery made.”

In 1881, the Albany Times reported that an original issue of bonds, negotiated by C. Adams Stevens with the Fidelity Insurance, Trust and Safe Deposit company of Philadelphia, had been scuttled by the legislative investigation, and the bonds were never issued. It said that in 1880 “like negotiations were had with the Farmers’ Loan & Trust company, of New York, to secure $600,000 in bonds to be issued. The bonds were not issued, and today releases from the companies named to the Greenbush bridge company from the obligation, were filed in the county clerk’s office. This frees the bridge company from all financial impediments.”

In 1904, the ghost of the old railroad was raised again, in an article in the Ithaca Daily News on Dec. 6. In its “Around the State” section, the News reported that “There are good prospects of another important electric line being constructed between Albany and the east through Rensselaer county, and under an old charter granted over 31 years ago to the Boston, Hoosac Tunnel and Albany Railroad company ….” But other than naming Stevens and the other former officers of the company, no further information was forthcoming.

More than this of Col. C. Adams Stevens, we have not learned. We don’t find him other than in Albany, before or after the scandal. We don’t find him listed among Union officers.

The portrait above was posted at Cowan’s Auctions, as a 3.25 x 5 inch mounted albumen photograph marked as “C. Adams Stevens / 225 lbs. Democrat.” The only information Cowan’s provided was the same as what was in the Times, but we’re sure it’s the same Stevens because the photograph has a back mark of photographer Rensselaer Churchill of Albany.

Troop 14’s Frog Drive

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Academy Troop 14 1914While we’re scouring old copies of Boys’ Life (as one does), let’s take a look back at what the boys of Boy Scout Troop 14, composed of students of the Albany Academy, were doing back in 1914. They were very active in earning their own expenses and increasing their bank account through a mix of efforts. Some, of course, young people still do today to earn money. Others, it’s hard to imagine how they earned money from even in 1914 (we’re talking about frogs).

  • catching and selling fish
  • picking berries and grapes
  • weeding gardens
  • cutting and raking lawns
  • catching frogs
  • catching fish alive for the Aquarium [what Aquarium?!]
  • taking care of children
  • taking part in a show
  • developing and printing
  • performing difficult and important tasks.

We’re dying for more specificity on those difficult and important tasks, but alas, they are lost to time.

Albany Institute Mechanical Drawing

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Albany Institute Mechanical DrawingAlbany Institue Mechanical Drawing Boys' Life 1916Mechanical Drawing Boys' Life 1922


Trying to solve one mystery always turns up at least three more. Searching around for something else, we came upon an advertisement in an old Boys’ Life magazine, of all things (the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America, for those who don’t know). It was for something we had never heard of before, a mail order instruction operation going by the moniker of “Albany Institute Mechanical Drawing.” Not “Institute of Mechanical Drawing.” Perhaps intended to give the impression of some connection to the venerable Albany Institute? We found several ads for it ranging from 1916 to 1922, in Boys’ Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science Monthly, and Everyday Engineering. All pretty much along the same lines, always to a post office box. No other mention do we find, so we have no idea whether this was really a going concern, an actual correspondence course or an out-and-out scam. A sideline for a local drafting instructor or bored architect? We can’t find a name associated with it anywhere.

The Albany Fire of 1793: A Racial Fire

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The memoirs of Henriette Lucie Dillon, Marquise de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet, touched on one of the most mysterious and unsettling events in Albany history, a mix of fear, fire and racial scapegoating. Her comments on this are enlightening as they certainly reflect the understanding given her by the Albany elites who hosted her at this time, Schuylers and Van Rensselaers, and instructive in the ways they vary from less heated accounts decades later, and of course from what modern minds suspect may actually have happened in the case of the fire of 1793. This is fairly disturbing stuff, and we’re obliged to use the language of the sources.

Nearly her first mention of Albany was that the city, “the capital of the state, had been almost entirely burned two years before by an insurrection of negroes. Slavery was not yet entirely abolished in the state of New York, except for children to be born during the year of 1794, and only when these had reached their twentieth year … One of these ‘blacks,’ a very worthless character, who had hoped that the act of the legislature would give him his liberty without conditions, resolved to be revenged. He enrolled several miserable fellows like himself, and on a fixed day arranged to set fire to the city, which at this time was constructed mainly of wood. This atrocious plan succeeded beyond their expectations. Fires were started in twenty places at once, and houses and stores, with their contents, were destroyed, notwithstanding the efforts of the inhabitants, at the head of whom labored the old General Schuyler, and all his family. A little negress, twelve years old, was arrested at the moment she was setting fire to a store with straw from the stable of her master. She revealed the names of her accomplices. The next day a court assembled upon the still smoking ruins, and condemned the black chief and six of his accomplices to be hung, which sentence was executed at once.”

We can perhaps forgive the Marquise for an imperfect memory, as she was writing these memoirs no sooner than 1820, and perhaps much later than that. And recall that she had lived through the Reign of Terror. So she may well not have remembered all the particulars … but what she did remember is telling: a conspiracy of slaves, mass arson, and Schuyler heroism. Coming to Albany as a guest of the Schuylers, who did her some very substantial favors, she would of course be inclined to believe and relate a Schuyler-centric view of events.

Writing in 1867, Albany’s chronicler Joel Munsell presented a somewhat different view of events from 70 years before, using an undated article from the Albany Evening Journal:

“Sunday, the 17th of November, 1793, was a day long remembered by the inhabitants of this city, and the few who still linger among us retain a vivid recollection of the scenes enacted during that night. The greater portion of the then quiet church-going people of that day had retired to rest, and were slumbering upon their pillows, when they were awakened by the alarming cry of fire … The fire originated in a barn or stable, belonging to Leonard Gansevoort, in the centre of the block then bounded by Market, State, Maiden and Middle lanes, in the rear of the store on State street now occupied by Hickcox and Co.”

It started in that stable, but quickly spread and destroyed that block.

“The fire laid waste all that portion of the city previously described, from the dwelling house and store of Daniel Hale, northerly to the dwelling house of Teunis T. Van Vechten, on the corner of Maiden lane and Market street (now Broadway), destroying on that street the dwelling houses and stores of D. Waters, John G. Van Schaick, E. Willet, John Maley, James Caldwell, Caldwell & Pearson, C. Glen, P.W. Douw, Maley & Cuyler, and Mrs. Beekman. On State street, there was consumed the dwelling house of T. Barry (then a new and considered an elegant brick building), the store house of G.W. Van Schaick; the house of C.K. Vanderberg, partly occupied by Giles K. Porter, merchant tailor; the dwelling of Leonard Gansevoort; the drug store of Dexter & Pomeroy, and the dwelling of Mrs. Hilton. In Middle lane, there were a large number of stables, all of which were consumed, greatly aiding in the spreading of the fire by the intense heat made by the burning of pitch-pine timber, which was used for building in those days. In Maiden lane the dwelling house of Mrs. Deforest and the new and spacious store house of Maley & Cuyler were destroyed, the latter firm being by far the heaviest losers by this calamity.”

The bucket brigade was called out (at that time, every house was required to have three leather water buckets), and two primitive fire engines were put to use. Wet blankets were put up on roofs, and at least one building was chopped down in order to check the progress of the flames. Cold rain followed by sleet probably did the most to put it out. Then began the scapegoating, and one of the most shameful episodes in Albany’s history.

“The fire was so plainly the work of an incendiary, that not only were several slaves arrested upon suspicion, but subsequently a meeting of the common council was held and an ordinance passed forbidding any negro or mulatto, of any sex, age or description whatever, from walking in the streets or lanes after 9 o’clock in the evening, or from being in any tavern or tippling house after that hour, under penalty of twenty-four hours confinement in the jail.”

After being jailed for 24 hours, then they could seek to prove that they were upon lawful and necessary business, if supported by their master or mistress (ignoring that there were free blacks). If they established that, they had to pay the jail expenses (!); if they failed, there was further fine and imprisonment.

As Munsell tells it, “tradition asserts” that a young man named Sanders, of Schenectady, had been seeking the attentions of Leonard Gansevoort’s daughter, but was rejected by her or her father. Apparently this was a high insult, and Sanders in some way enlisted a friend named McBurney who was a jeweler in State street in Albany. McBurney, in turn, called on a slave named Pomp (or Pompey), who served Matthew Visscher, and promised a gold watch for anyone who would set fire to Gansevoort’s stable on a certain night. Pomp, it was written, either lacked the “moral courage to commit the act,” or preferred not to have it associated with him and so he enlisted two female slaves. One was Bet, 16 or 17 years old, who served Philip S. Van Rensselaer; the other was Dinah (often given as Dean), about the same age, served Volkert Douw.

“After Pomp had concluded the negotiations with the girls, to commit the arson, he apparently became alarmed, and fearing the consequences that might ensue, endeavored to prevail upon them to relinquish the thought of committing the fiendish act. The same evening, Pomp was seen in his master’s stable, in company with the girls, endeavoring to persuade them from doing it, and a short time previous to the breaking out of the fire he was seen with them in Middle alley, talking to them in a supplicating tone of voice. In fact he was overhead to say, that he would not give them the watch if they committed the deed.”

Boy, does that not add up. Munsell’s account gets a little confusing, saying that Bet carried live coals from the kitchen of Mr. Gansevoort to his barn in an old shoe, and threw them upon the hay. It didn’t take as quickly as she expected, so she brought more coals, and this time “the conflagration speedily ensued.” Then Munsell seems to say there were two different fires, which doesn’t match up with any other accounts we found. He says that the next day “after the fire of the 17th these same girls set on fire the stable of Peter Gansevoort in the rear of his house, on the corner of Market street (now Broadway) and Maiden lane, which was also destroyed, and the same evening visited the house on the opposite corner, and attempted to set it on fire by putting coals of fire in a bureau drawer containing clothes. It did not succeed for want of air.” Whether this somehow came from one of the girls’ confessions, or from Pomp’s stories, it is not clear, but all other accounts say the fire was on the 17th, making this part of the tale inconsistent.

Other (later) accounts say that Bet and Dinah took live coals from Douw’s house, and went with Pomp to the Gansevoort stable, where Pomp put the coals into a pile of hay. From a distance, this seems more reasonable.

Shortly after the fire, Bet and Dinah were arrested. They admitted guilt and implicated Pomp, who was also then arrested. There was a rush to judgment, and from judgment to execution. At trial in January 1794, the girls pled guilty; Pomp professed his innocence. “The girls were executed in the following spring [March 14] on Pinkster hill, which was then a few rods west of the Academy, or about on the corner of Fayette and Hawk streets. The revelations [a later confession] made by Pomp were given to Gov. Clinton, and a few months after the execution of the wenches, Pomp suffered the extreme penalty of the law upon the same spot [April 11]. Sanders and McBurney were not arrested, for there was no evidence against them except the assertions of Pomp, and he being implicated in the crime his evidence could not be taken.”

The fire and resulting executions have been the subjects of modern articles and even dramatic vignettes. The idea that Bet and Dinah (also given as Dean) would have insisted on going through with the act, over the protests of Pomp, is clearly nonsense, probably taken from one of Pomp’s declarations of innocence. None of the three had any known grievance against Gansevoort.

So from this, as a number of other writers have noted, were passed the aforementioned restrictions on the movements of African-Americans. This has sometimes been grouped with slave rebellions, although it was clearly nothing of the sort. In fact, a brief entry in the Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 1, charges that Pompey was hired to set the fire by “five white men who had a grudge against the landowner . . . An explanation of the grudge is suggested by contemporary accounts that show Thomas Bissbrown, watchmaker, had recently moved his shop from a prominent location, rented from Leonard Gansevoort, to a less advantageous one. A rival watchmaker, newly arrived in Albany, was in Bissbrown’s former location.” (This version of events seems to come from a 1977 article in the Journal of Black Studies, “Black Arson in Albany, New York, November 1793.”) But Munsell’s account gives no mention of this watchmakers’ rivalry.

And somehow, many years later, the Marquise had converted these events into something really quite different, almost entirely removed from the facts. An act of hired revenge was turned into a plot to burn the city as a redress for slavery, with fires started in 20 places at once. The actions of three teenage slaves became those of a large mob, and Bet became even younger than she really was. A trial and later execution, stayed at least once by the governor, became summary judgment and instant execution. What was, of course, a terrifying event for all concerned became something not driven by either a jilted (white) lover or an angered (white) businessman, but instead by angry slaves, who served as convenient scapegoats.

The Resting Place of Séraphine

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A couple of eagle-eyed (or elephant-memoried) readers were already familiar with the story of Henriette Lucie Dillon, Marquise de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet, whose “Journal d’une femme de cinquante ans” has been the subject of our last several entries. And they were also familiar with an article about the Marquise and her former homestead that ran in the Knickerbocker News back in 1937, when Dr. J Lewi Donhauser owned the property.

The headline was “Letter Discloses Details of Two-Year Residence at Newtonville Estate of Lady-in-Waiting to Marie Antoinette, Refugee from French Revolution.” The article starts with sadness:

“Somewhere in an unmarked grave on the summer estate of Dr. J. Lewi Donhauser, just off Fiddler’s Lane near Newtonville, lies Seraphine, infant daughter of LaMarquise de La Tour du Pin, lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette. It was during La Marquise’s residence on the Colonie farm in 1795 a refugee from French revolutionaries, that Seraphine succumbed to infantile paralysis and was buried there . . . Several times in recent years diligent search of Dr. Donhauser’s place has failed to disclose the location of the little grave … When it became the Albany’s physician’s property, he found bits of shattered grave stones back of the house, which evidently had been thrown in a heap. They all bore the name of the family which had owned the property for so long, but none could be found with a clue that it might have marked the grave of Seraphine.”

The Marquise wrote that her daughter Séraphine died suddenly in 1795, “taken from us by a suden illness very common in this part of the country – a kind of infant paralysis. She died in a few hours without losing consciousness. The physician from Albany, whom Monsieur de Chambeau had gone to bring, as soon as she began to suffer, gave us no hope that she would live and declared that this malady was then very common in the country and that no remedy was known. The young Schuyler who only the day before had been playing with my daughter during the afternoon succumbed to the same trouble a few hours later and rejoined her in Heaven … There was no Catholic priest either in Albany or in the neighborhood. My husband, who did not wish to have a Protestant minister called, himself performed the last rites for our child, and placed her in a little enclosure which had been arranged to serve as a cemetery for the inhabitants of the farm. It was situated in the middle of our woods. Almost every day I went to kneel upon the grave, the last resting place of the child whom I had so much loved …”

The Knick News article says that a section of the building, erected by Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1783, still remained, and that a mulberry tree planted by the French statesman Talleyrand (on a later visit than the one we described previously) still flourished in the yard. “The Dutch kitchen of La Marquise still is to be found in the basement of the house.”

The letter referred to in the headline was somewhat obscured in the article itself. It was referring to a letter of inquiry sent to the State Archives and History Division, which prompted state historian Dr. Alexander C. Flick to determine that it was the summer home of Dr. J. Lewi Donhauser that had been occupied by the Marquise. Interestingly, and for this we are entirely in the debt of Christopher Philippo, Dr. Joseph Lewi Donhauser was married to the great great granddaughter of Joseph C. Yates, the first mayor of Schenectady, founding trustee of Union College, and seventh governor of New York State.

Talleyrand Visits Albany and Troy

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So, the Marquis and Marquise de la Tour du Pin found themselves in exile in Albany (as one does) in 1794. With what seems like extremely benevolent assistance from General Philip Schuyler and his family, they were set up to buy a farm on property that is now the site of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, on the Troy-Schenectady road and along what is now Delatour Road. The owner of the farm “did not wish to move until after the snow was well packed,” a reminder that travel and moving was much more trouble in the seasons of mud back then. “As we had arranged with the Van Burens, who evidently had had enough of us, for two months only, it was necessary, therefore, to look for another home from the first of September to the first of November.” Hence, their stopover on River Street in what had been a tavern.

“At Troy, we found for a moderate sum, a little wooden house in the midst of a large yard, enclosed by a board fence. Here we established ourselves, and, as it would be necessary for us to purchase some furniture for the farm, we immediately acquired what we wanted.”

While there, they had a most surprising, high-ranking visitor, a central figure in the history of France.

“One day at the end of September, I was in the yard with a hatchet in my hand, occupied with cutting the bone of a leg of mutton which I was preparing to put on the spit for our dinner. All of a sudden, I heard behind me a loud voice which said in French: ‘On ne peut embrocher un gigot avec plus de majesté.’ Turning quickly, I saw Monsieur de Talleyrand and Monsieur de Beaumetz. Having arrived the evening before at Albany, they had learned from General Schuyler where we were. They came on his part to invite us to dinner and to pass the following day with them at his house. These gentlemen were to remain in the city only two days. An Englishman who was one of their friends was accompanying them and was very impatient to return to New York. However, as Monsieur de Talleyrand was very much amused at the sight of my leg of mutton, I insisted that he should return the following day to eat it with us. He consented.”

The visitor, who said “You can not stick a leg with more majesty,“ was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Bishop of Autun, one of the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. An emissary to Britain during the Revolution, he was forced to stay there when a warrant for his arrest was issued in December 1792, and then forced to leave Britain in March 1794 under the expulsion order of William Pitt after France declared war on Britain. Like some others of his countrymen, he came to the United States. Interestingly, Talleyrand was the house guest of Aaron Burr in New York City, but it is reported he declined to return the hospitality some years later when Burr was in self-imposed exile, as Burr had in the interim killed Talleyrand’s friend Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

The Marquise left her children in care of their traveling companion and fellow exile Monsieur de Chambeau and “Betsey,” her white servant, and set out for Albany with Talleyrand and Beaumetz to dine with the Schuylers. Apparently the Marquis joined them as well. Arriving there, they found General Philip Schuyler had just received newspapers bearing the latest news from France, which in this case was the events of 9 Thermidor – July 27, 1794 under our calendar.

“Here we found the news of the Revolution of the 9 Thermidor; the death of Robespierre and his followers, the end of the shedding of blood and the just punishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Monsieur de Talleyrand was rejoicing especially that his sister-in-law, Mme. Archambauld de Périgord, had escaped, when, later in the evening, having taken up from the table a paper which he though he had read, he found her name among the terrible list of victims executed the 9 Thermidor, that very morning, during the session in which Robespierre was denounced. The news of her death painfully affected him … Without the news of this cruel event, our evening with General Schuyler would have been more agreeable.”

Talleyrand returned to Troy to enjoy the hospitality of the de la Tours. Having known him her entire life, the Marquise noted that Talleyrand had a paternal and gracious tone that was very charming. “I regretted sincerely to find so many reasons for not holding him in esteem, but I could not avoid forgetting my disagreeable recollections when I had passed an hour in listening to him. As he had no moral value himself, by singular contrast, he had a horror of that which was evil in others. To listen to him without knowing him, you would have believed that he was a worthy man.”

As today pretty much all talk has to turn to Hamilton, apparently do it did then as well. Two days later they spent the day at Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s home, with all the Schuylers. This was Margarita “Peggy” Schuyler, daughter of General Schuyler, who married the patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer III, and whose sister Elizabeth was married to Alexander Hamilton.

“Monsieur de Talleyrand had been extremely impressed by the remarkable culture of Mrs. Van Rensselaer, and could not believe that she had not passed years in Europe. She had a very clear understanding of American affairs and the Revolution, of which she had gained a profound and extended knowledge through her brother-in-law, Colonel Hamilton, who was the friend and also the most intimate confidant of Washington. Colonel Hamilton was expected at Albany where he intended to pass some time with his father-in-law, General Schuyler. He had just resigned the position of Secretary of the Treasury, which he had held since the peace. It was to him that the country owed the good order which had been established in this branch of the government of the United States. Monsieur de Talleyrand knew him and had the very highest opinion of him. But he found it very remarkable that a man of his value, and endowed with talents so superior, should leave the Ministry to resume the profession of lawyer, giving as his reason for this decision that the position of Minister did not give him the means of bringing up his family of eight children. Such a pretext seemed to Talleyrand very singular and, so to speak, even a little naïf.

The following morning Talleyrand and company made one final visit to the Troy homestead, and then took a sloop back to New York City. Some time in November the winter snows came, and the river ice, which made it possible to move to the farm in what is now Colonie. With that beginning of transition to the farm life, the Marquise writes casually of an event that she must have previously considered inconceivable, for she notes its extreme singularity but provides no elaboration on what was then a waning practice, but still a legal one in New York:

“At this time we bought a negro, and this purchase, which seemed to be the most simple thing in the world, produced in my case a feeling so new that I shall remember it all my life.”

As before, the source for all this is the Marquise’s memoir, “Journal d’une femme de cinquante ans.”