Category Archives: Albany

The Albany Basin

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Albany Basin 1879

Bird’s Eye View of the Albany Basin in 1879, when it was already in decline. Madison Avenue is at farthest left, then the Maiden Lane Bridge. On the far right, the locks into the Canal.

There was a time when Albany was very much a river town (and, for a brief century, a canal town). But just what the waterfront looked like in those days, where the passenger ships and cargo ships docked, is a subject of frequent discussion among some local history buffs because, at this remove, it is terrifically hard to lay out with any certainty. At some risk, we’ll turn to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” a sloppy and sometimes self-contradictory amalgam of other sources, to try to piece it together.

Howell says that as early as 1822, perhaps earlier, there was discussion of creating a basin where the Erie Canal met the Hudson River, a place now best approximated by where an historic marker for the Albany Basin rests, just north of where Quay Street swings around into Colonie Street in the neighborhood of the Corning Preserve boat launch. At the time, there were on average from 80 to 200 sloops and schooners at the docks “in front of the city” every day. The Canal Commissioners, under direction from the Assembly, reported in early 1823 that a basin could be built for about $100,000 and would be “extremely beneficial to the trade of Albany.” They noted their general reluctance to make basins along the canals, “believing that mercantile capital and enterprise would find sufficient inducements and interests to furnish these local accommodations to trade,” and that to spend public money would not be just. They proposed to construct a sloop lock at the southern end of the basin, which meant that the state would receive tolls for entering the basin. Later that year, the Legislature authorized construction of the Albany Basin, appointing a large number of commissioners who were authorized to raise subscriptions “to construct a mole or pier within the bounds of the City of Albany, opposite the docks fronting the harbor, so as to comprise a basin extending from the arsenal dock to a point opposite Hodges’ Dock, in the line of Hamilton street, with a sloop lock at the Hamilton street end, to be completed within two years.” There would be wharfage charges, half of which would go to the Pier Company, the rest to the State, and the pier would be divided into lots to be sold at public auction.

The sloop lock was built quickly, with its first water passing through in Sept. 1823. “An eel three feet in length came through the gate and was hailed as the first passenger; it was caught, and the skin preserved in the Museum of the Lyceum of Natural History.”

The Albany Pier was completed May 27, 1825, enclosing a basin capable of harboring 1,000 canal boats and 50 larger vessels. The pier was divided into 123 lots, 121 of which were sold at auction July 17, 1825, fetching $188,510. (Two were withheld and used as opening to the river). Thje pier was 4,323 feet long, 85 feet broad, and unbroken from the canal to Hamilton street, containing 8-1/4 acres of land. The basin contained 32 acres.

To get to the pier, draw bridges were constructed at the foot of Columbia and State streets.

The sloop lock didn’t last long. In the first instance, it was poorly constructed – or rather the basin itself was, as when the lock was first closed, the basin did not fill up. The bulkhead at the southern end of the basin became a point of contention, as the basin silted up quickly. In 1835, the Legislature directed the bulkhead be partly removed, the sloop lock be taken away, and that there be a bridge built from the abutment at Hamilton street to the pier, and to dredge out the silt.

The opening of the pier caused “great dissatisfaction” to the owners of the dock and property on Quay street, who no longer enjoyed free access to the river, lost significant dockage. Quay Street was no longer the river’s edge.

Then in 1836 the Legislature authorized the City of Albany to make an opening in the pier between the Columbia and State street bridges of 60 feet in width. In 1841, the opening was widened yet again to not les than 126 feet; in 1849, it was widened yet again to meet the increasing need for commerce and the ever-larger vessels sailing the river. Each stage of this work, though directed by the Legislature, was charged to those who owned the pier lots, except the actual excavation of the basin, which had been paid by Albany, which didn’t get paid for its outlay until 1849. At that same time the Canal Commissioners were ordered to pay a lump sum to the owners, instead of a portion of the tolls.

“At this time, and until the War of the Rebellion, the property on the pier was very valuable. The portion above the Columbia street bridge was covered with lumber and staves, piled very high for want of room, while below the bridge, on both sides of the cut to its southern extremity were large and commodiously built warehouses, occupied by the leading shipping merchants of the city and the proprietors of the large tow-boat lines. The Swiftsure and Albany and Canal lines each had offices below the State street bridge, and their barges occupied berths on both the inside and outside of the pier.

“Hart & Hoyt, in order to facilitate the transportation of the merchandise they received, erected on a raft or float in the basin, a large wooden structure, familiarly called the ‘Ark,’ which took up much room and was a great annoyance to the other shippers, beside being an eye-sore and great obstruction to the free navigation of the basin. It became so much of a nuisance that the Common Council ordered them to remove it…”

Time, and/or the railroads, took their toll on this business. In 1873, the Dock Association adjourned sine die, with active business on the pier and Quay street having “about come to a standstill; buildings which had formerly rented for seven or eight hundred dollars per annum, would scarcely command three or four hundred, and many remained unoccupied. Storage of produce brought down by canal-boats too late in the fall to ship for New York or Eastern or Southern ports by vessels, was a large item of profit which was cut off by the transportation afforded by the completion of the Central and Hudson River and the Boston and Albany Railroads. The merchants who did a heavy business on the pier or Quay street, either retired from business or removed to Broadway, where they escaped the annual freshets in the river, and obtained more comfortable quarters.

Writing in 1876, Howell noted “Since 1873, the basin has been filling up with silt from the river and sewage from the fifteen city sewers that empty their foul contents into it; and it has become one of the greatest nuisances in the county. It is hoped that it will ether be dredged out by the State authorities or filled up, as it has passed its days of usefulness.”

James Wilson’s Nursery

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Even before he developed the Wilson’s Albany strawberry that transformed the entire strawberry industry, James Wilson, nurseryman of Albany, was a very successful horticulturalist. His work figures prominently in the report of the Committee on Flowers at the Fair of the New York State Agricultural Society, which was held at Auburn in September 1846. According to the Committee, Wilson showed 132 varieties of flowers at the fair, including 26 varieties of new and rare dahlias, 20 quilled German asters. 14 verbenas, seven phloxes, fuschias and others, including “an exquisitely arranged bouquet composed of thirty-six different varieties of choice and rare flowers, and also a beautifully arranged floral design composed of more than one hundred rare Dahlias, choice roses, Gladioluses, German Asters, Amaranths, Geraniums, Heliotropes, &c. &c.”

For his efforts, he won awards for best floral ornament, best 25 varieties of dahlias, most beautiful bouquet, and best 12 varieties of roses.

Location of James Wilson's NurseryAccording to Howell’s “Bi-Centennial History of Albany,” Wilson was gardener for the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer. He established his greenhouses with small fruits and trees in 1835, “on what was then a waste place in this city, at the corner of South Knox and Morris streets. His grounds were about three acres, on a sloping hill-side; this was carefully cultivated and planted with nursery stock and flowering shrubs.” That land was essentially cater-corner from the Albany Penitentiary. He had previously been in business with Judge Buel, with whom he established the Albany Nursery under the firm of Buel and Wilson, according to an 1844 description that said there were three large green-houses containing thousands of exotic species.

After his death in 1855, his widow and son continued the business until 1866, when it was passed on to John Sprague, then Frederick J. Welch, and, around 1870, Thomas Davidson, whose name appears on the map pictured.

James Wilson was born in Scotland and died in Albany on June 27, 1855, from pleurisy at the age of 60 years, 4 months and 17 days, according to his burial card from Albany Rural Cemetery. Or, he was born in Scotland (Quigley) on Aug. 15, 1771 and died Nov. 9 1855. It would appear that two James Wilsons from Scotland died and were buried in Albany Rural that year.

By the way, Louis Menand (for whom Menands is named) was at the fair that year too, showing two “very beautiful bouquets arranged with exquisite taste and skill, and composed of 31 varieties of choice flowers.”

Wilson’s Albany Strawberry

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Wilson's Albany Strawberry, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Wilson’s Albany Strawberry, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Once upon a time, nearly every strawberry in the United States was an Albany strawberry. First cultivated by James Wilson at his nursery, “situated at the head of Lydius-street, within three-quarters of a mile of the City Hall,” his strawberry became the dominant breed for decades.

For details, we turn to Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher’s “The Strawberry in North America: History, Origin, Botany, and Breeding.” Fletcher tells us that before Wilson came along, commercial strawberries were an insignificant industry, occupying less than 1500 acres; Wilson popularized the strawberry for the home garden and for an agricultural industry that grew to 150,000 acres, beginning with his sowing seed of three popular garden varieties in 1851. “The seeds were the result of natural pollination; no hand crossing was done.” At a meeting of the Albany and Rensselaer Horticultural Society in Albany on June 22, 1853, Wilson exhibited a new seedling strawberry, but it did not receive much attention until the next year.

“The following summer James Wilson showed a number of potted plants of his seedling, each laden with fruit. There was no lack of appreciation then. In the words of a current publication, ‘Such was the size and number of the berries upon each plant that people were astonished, curiosity was excited, and public attention was aroused to an examination of the claims of this new strawberry.’ It was then named Wilson’s Albany.” Wilson died in 1855, leaving the nursery to his son John, who saw the rise of the Wilson’s Albany. “By 1861 it had largely superseded all other sorts for market purposes, although the Hovey and Large Early Scarlet persisted for some years, the former near Boston, the latter in western New York, where it vied with Wilson as late as 1864. The Wilson completely dominated the markets of the United States and Canada from 1860 to 1880.” It was estimated that in 1872, the Wilson comprised more than 90 percent of the strawberries in cultivation. Strawberry Fever swept the country between 1858 and 1870, Fletcher says.

“Strawberries commonly sold for thirty to forty cents a quart, and profits of $1000 an acre were not unusual. In 1861 Joseph Harris, editor, editor of the Genesee Farmer, visited Bloomington, Illinois, and found Wilson strawberries selling at fifteen cents a quart, and corn at eight cents a bushel. People who had never before grown strawberries, or any other kind of fruit – merchants, grain and stock farmers, professional men – rushed into the strawberry business.”

Charles Hovey, the Boston area grower, did not take this affront to his former dominance lying down. In 1860, he declared that Wilson’s Albany was “one of the sourest, most dirty colored, and most disagreeable flavored of all recently introduced sorts – an excellent sort to make vinegar of. Besides, it is sot, watery, unfit for carriage, has a very large calyx, and is hollow at the core.” If that weren’t enough, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society called it unfit for general cultivation.

“Boston never ceased to look upon the Wilson with a jaundiced eye. When her sons journeyed southward in 1861, and were forced by dire hunger to partake of the despised fruit, one of the survivors declared, ‘The Wilson strawberry killed more Boston men during the war than Confederate bullets.’”

The complaints weren’t without merit. It was so popular partly for its dependability – it produced large crops without much care. It was firm, and could be shipped easily under the “trying conditions of transportation and marketing that prevailed then.” It did not require professional gardening to grow, and was easy for anyone to cultivate. But it was not sweet. In fact, it was sour. Henry Ward Beecher said “It has every quality of excellent except in the matter of eating.” Nevertheless, the Wilson dominated as a commercial variety for 20 years. Other varieties, including the Crescent and the Sharpless, joined it in commercial dominance, and those three varieties were nearly every strawberry commercially grown for some period of time. Eventually, they were overshadowed by other breeds, and Wilson’s Albany became a memory.

Albany, the booming bustling bee-hive!

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The November 1916 issue of “The Elevator Constructor,” the official organ of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (part of the American Federation of Labor), featured correspondence from Charles Nicholson of Albany’s Local No. 35. Brother Nicholson could barely contain his excitement at all the goings on in Albany and beyond – lots of elevator-driven goings on.

“Our old city is a booming, bustling bee-hive Tearing down and building up, tearing up and relaying is the slogan now in the building line and street repairing, and men, from a street laborer to a mechanic, are at a premium. Why, brother, if you haven’t been in the old town within the last five years you won’t know her. She is getting dressed up as a young bride …

Now for a little chat about the brothers here, and the proper thing to do is to start with our honorable president. Brother J. Scott. You have seen him in the picture of our delegates. It is that long, lanky, good-looking fellow towering over the others. He just loves to sink a plunger and pull it out again. He is installing a plunger dumb waiter in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady, for the Otis Company …

Brother Geo. Reynolds is installing two traction machines in the Gas Company’s new building for the Otis Company …

Brother [A.H.] Anderson has just started a job for the Otis Company in the Ten Eyck Hotel Annex, which will be a fifteen-story building. The installation consists of four electric passenger, two electric dumb waiter and two sidewalk lifts …

Brother Nolf has just installed a push-button machine in the post office in Troy for the Otis Company, and is now installing another in the State National Bank in Albany. He just loves push-button machines …

Brother Muller is finishing the installation of an electric freight elevator in the Mohawk Hotel, in Schenectady. This job was started by Brother Boehme, who has since gone back to the big city. We send our good wishes to Brother Boehme …

Now, listen, all you brothers who know Brother Pete McCool. Pete has taken unto himself a better half. He fell in love with an Albany girl, and that settled Pete. We wish the brother and his wife all happiness and good luck in the years to come.”

In an earlier edition that year, the April issue, Brother Nicholson had told of installations of a traction machine in the General Electric Works in Schenectady, a passenger and a freight elevator for the A.B. See Company in a new eight-story apartment building (location not given), four elevators in the county court building.

By the way, Local No. 35 met at German Hall, 46 Beaver Street, on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.

 

“One Thing I Know, They Won’t Find Arsenic”

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hendrickson-maria-van-deusen-18331853As rough and tumble as Albany could be in the early to mid 19th century, some of the most notable crimes occurred out in the suburbs. One was the shocking poisoning of a young wife, Maria Van Dusen Hendrickson, by her philandering young husband, John Hendrickson, Jr. It was one of the earlier cases of forensic pathology used to prove a murder case in the United States.

In January, 1851, John Hendrickson Jr. married Maria Van Dusen, daughter of former county clerk Lawrence Van Dusen, “a most respectable citizen, and a man of unquestioned integrity;” he was said to have considerable wealth. Maria was 17, “well educated, accomplished, amiable, kind-hearted, affectionate.” Hendrickson pursued Maria although her parents opposed marriage “on the ground that Hendrickson’s character was bad, his conduct rowdyish, and that he had led a life of idleness, and was not, therefore, a fit companion for their daughter.” They married anyway, and lived with the Van Dusens in Clarksville while occasionally visiting Hendrickson’s father, who lived four miles away in Bethlehem.

That very summer, Hendrickson committed a “gross assault upon a respectable young lady in Clarksville.” After a side trip to Schoharie County, where he made a promise of marriage that Maria found out about, he took off for Corning, NY (for reasons not revealed) and stayed there for about three months, until the end of 1851. While he was away, Maria gave birth. Shortly after his return, the six-week-old child was found dead in the bed “in a very singular manner, Hendrickson occupying the middle, the wife the back, and the child the front part of the bed.” More than that is not explained.

“After the return of the prisoner from Corning, he communicated to his wife a loathsome disease, which he had contracted during his absence, and which was the original and only cause of the illness under which his wife ever labored, a disease of the womb, which, as a matter of course, was a source of not only great bodily affliction, but also of intense mortification and shame to her sensitive mind.”

On discovery of this, Hendrickson was cast out of the house in January 1852 and moved to his father’s, but the couple continued to visit each other from time to time. Maria’s health improved (the precise disease she contracted is not explained). In January 1853, Hendrickson convinced Maria to visit his father’s house two or three times, and then she went back there in February to stay for a period of time. She was expected to return to her mother’s house on March 6, a Sunday, but for some reason she did not. That evening she went to church with the Hendrickson family and, after reading from the bible and a religious paper, retired to bed with her husband about 10 o’clock, in an attic bedroom they had only slept in for two or three nights – prior to that, they had slept in the same downstairs room as the two sisters of Hendrickson.

How the alarm was raised was not quite explained, but somewhere around 2 in the morning, Hendrickson was “halloing” and his sisters went up the stairs to find Maria non-responsive, but they were not of the belief that she was dead. None of the family thought to ask him what had happened.  In his address to the jury, the district attorney, Andrew J. Colvin, said,

“Return we now to the deceased. We shall find the family engaged in using means for her revival, but to no effect. Neighbors were sent for, but not physician, although she was not supposed by them to be dead for a considerable time after they found her. And, gentlemen, it will be told you that there was no physician residing within three miles, and that for that reason they did not send for any . . . The prisoner follows the body, as of course he must, or instant accusation would have been the consequence, and a coroner and able physician and surgeon from the city follow in his wake on the same day; for, gentlemen, suspicious circumstances attend the event of her death, and the whole community is moved by the apprehension that a dark and shocking murder has been perpetrated.”

Hendrickson apparently immediately embarked on a campaign of appearing as suspicious as possible. Actually, the campaign had started at least a week before. Hendrickson had been wandering around Albany, visiting pharmacies asking for prussic acid. “On Tuesday or Wednesday of the week preceding the death of his wife, the prisoner is found asking for prussic acid at Dr. Springsteed’s. On Saturday he is seen going into another drug store, and some time during the same week, a person answering exactly to the general appearance, and dressed in a costume corresponding exactly with the ordinary apparel of the prisoner, buys of Mr. Burroughs, the druggist, an ounce of the tincture of aconite, the very kind of poison with which, it is charged in the indictment, the prisoner poisoned his wife.”

Tincture of aconite was known for its potency and it difficulty of detection. So, while being held, and while a post mortem is being conducted, Hendrickson asked someone what the physicians and coroner were doing and what they had found. He was told they were taking out her stomach, and that it was not known that they had found anything. To that he responded, “One thing I know, they won’t find arsenic.” Well, yes, that’s an innocent statement. Then he asked, “Suppose they put poison into her stomach yesterday, can it be known or ascertained?”

There is more, so much more, to show that Hendrickson was an all-around horrible human being, and that he may have tried to poison her once before. He claimed he got the venereal disease from a “fall on the railroad” while in Corning. He was caught passing a note to a prostitute. After his child’s death, he was courting a woman he had previously been engaged to. He gambled and stole and fought with his wife. A week after the death of his wife, he was “seen in the county jail dancing negro breakdowns and other hilarious dances with all the vehemence in his power, and subsequently doing the same on the Sabbath as well as on week days.”

The DA introduced evidence that she died by tincture of aconite, which created some particular effects revealed by autopsy, and which was found in her body. (You may know aconite as monkshood or wolf’s bane.) The post mortem was conducted by the esteemed Dr. Swinburne. With a preponderance of evidence of the terrible character of the suspect and his own semi-incriminating behavior, the jury did not delay in finding Hendrickson guilty, guilty, guilty.

In pronouncing sentence upon Hendrickson, Judge Richard P. Marvin showed tremendous prescience:

“…I desire to impress, not only upon you, but upon all, the fact, that as science advances – as it unfolds to the student the great storehouse of knowledge, and lets man penetrate into the very arcana of nature – that as it advances, step by step, it enables its votaries to detect the most subtle poisons, and to trace the very footsteps of crime. Chemists are enabled now, through the wonderful developments of science – and science detects your crime – to detect almost all poisons, whether vegetable or metallic, to trace out cases of poisoning, (no matter what may be the character of the poison administered), with almost unerring certainty. And it is as dangerous to attempt murder with the most subtle vegetable poison, and as certain to be detected, as if the murder were committed with the dirk or the stiletto. Your case may have its moral effect upon community in this view of it. Community should understand that the crime of murder cannot be committed in this day of light, in any manner or by any means, without leaving the evidence of guilt; and this evidence always points out, unerringly, to the guilty individual.”

The judge pronounced that on August 26th, 1853, Hendrickson was to be hung by the neck until he was dead. He was the first prisoner hanged in the new Maiden Lane jail.

 

Fred Lillie, Armless Announcer

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While describing the relative safety of employment at the Schenectady GE works in 1913, we glossed over what was one of the most dangerous forms of employment of the time, railroad work. At that point, railroad work carried a fatality rate of 2.4 deaths per 1000 employees. Non-fatal accidents, of course, were even more common, and many were the workers who went home short a limb. Fred Lillie was one, as told in this 1906 Albany Evening Journal article:

Fred Lillie, the young messenger of the New York Central Railroad Co., who had his arms cut off in the West Albany yards about a year ago, has secured a position as train announcer at the Union station. He took up his duties this morning, but few of the many persons who passed through the station realized that the clear-voiced young man was armless.

Lillie was at one time employed as a messenger by the Central and made frequent trips between here and West Albany. About a year ago he jumped on the engine of train 29 at the Union station and started for West Albany. Arriving there he leaped from the engine while the train was in motion and fell across the opposite track with his arms spread across the rail. Another train came along at the time and severed his two arms near the shoulder.

He was taken to the hospital, where he recovered, and has secured a pair of artificial arms. Of course he is practically helpless, but the Central officials looked about to see what they could do for him, and it was decided that he could perform the duties of announcer very well. The megaphone which Announcer Day used has been suspended on a hook so that it just reaches Lillie’s mouth, and there is no doubt that he will make good as a caller of trains.

In 1905, Frederick C. Lillie was listed as 19 years old, a messenger living at 5 Clinton St. with family –  his 23-year-old sister, and his mother Mary and  stepfather Joseph Alexander. We’re sorry to say that while the loss of his arms led him to work that depended on his lungs, Fred’s lungs weren’t on his side either: he died of tuberculosis in 1907, at the age of 22. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Delavan House Menu: Maybe Just The Toast

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Delavan House Menu ca 1875

From the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia, an 1875ish breakfast menu from Albany’s leading temperance hotel, the Delavan House, in the era when Charles Leland was running it (which puts this between 1867 and 1882).

Founder Edward Delavan was a rabid temperance advocate who brought prohibition to the state of New York long before that other prohibition everyone is so familiar with, but only for a very short time.

The hotel ended in tragic fire in 1894.

As for the menu, maybe we’ll just have a salad. No salad? Toast, then. The toast looks safe.

History Links! Get Yer History Links Here!

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It’s been a while since we did a Phoenixville Phriday. So, a couple of cool bits of local history news came out of our new hometown region this week.

The first was the amazing news that little Phoenixville was, for 17 years, hiding a secret treasure trove. Revolutionary War muskets, cannons, paintings, sculptures, uniforms, and George Washington’s frickin’ portmanteau were stored just a couple of blocks from our home. Now they’ve been transferred to the new Museum of the American Revolution, which will open next spring. You can read all about it here.

The second was that south of Philadelphia, the Lazaretto, the oldest surviving quarantine center and intake center for tens of thousands of immigrants who came in through Philadelphia, is going to be saved and repurposed. Read all about it!

The third isn’t exactly news. But, it is a good little list of facts about the encampment at Valley Forge, published at the Journal of the American Revolution. Since Hoxsie now spends more time in Valley Forge than you could imagine, it’s useful to remember why we preserved this rolling landscape along the Schuylkill. Check it out.

But we haven’t forgotten our origins. Fan of Washington Irving and headless Hessians? Check out this story on the Revolutionary Beginnings of the Headless Horseman.

 

Albany, And Two Women Holding Grain

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Albany With Two Women Holding GrainAgain from Ben Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, we have this interesting envelope  featuring a bird’s-eye view of Albany, along with two women holding grain over the legend “Empire State.” Did they represent the plenty provided by the state’s farms? Not clear.

The envelope was created by Charles Magnus of Frankfort St., New York City, who, it turns out, made a lot of this sort of thing. The Library Company says this is Civil War era, but doesn’t ascribe a specific date; it says this was cited in a collection of Union Civil War patriotic covers.

According to the Winterthur Library, Charles Magnus, [1826-1900], “was a print publisher, map dealer, bookseller and stationer working in New York City from 1850 to 1899 who issued over a thousand different letter sheets, maps, song sheets, envelopes, and separate prints. His best known works were city views and Civil War-related material. Much of his work was copied from other printmakers. During the Civil War, Magnus produced around 700 patriotic envelopes and over 300 illustrated song sheets. He used images of allegorical figures, battle scenes, political cartoons, portraits and state emblems, frequently using the same images in different combinations.”