For later, more encouraging news, see the more recent Downtown Express article at
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Full Steam Ahead
“The situation is most convenient, in a charming spot in the country, with the finest walks conceivable at our door, and it is in our power at any time to be in the heart of New York in twenty minutes.”
Last April we left James Stuart and his wife, our Scots travelers, in mid-December of 1829, moving from their boarding house in New Rochelle, New York; as it was closing for the winter. While they made their plans for upcoming travels they had settled temporarily in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Their boarding house is run by a Mr. and Mrs. Van Boskerck, a couple in their sixties, who live there with their two maiden daughters, who actually manage the business. Only one other boarder is in residence at the time. Leaving the operations to his daughters, Mr. Van Boskerck makes several trips a week over to Manhattan to drum up trade. Stuart will be paying a number of visits to the city as well. They most likely made their commutes on a steam ferry owned by elderly inventor and Revolutionary War veteran Colonel John Stevens, rather than aboard a rival vessel belonging to young Staten Island native Cornelius Vanderbilt. At the close of the revolution Stevens bought extensive land along three miles of lower Hudson River property confiscated from the estate of Loyalist William Bayard. Over the past ten years he’s begun making improvements to the property. The stretch of marshy New Jersey land had cost Stevens today’s equivalent of $90,000 (which will buy you almost a fifth of a condominium there today) and he’d chosen to name the site Hoboken, after the Dutch name Hoebuck, or High Bluff. Today it’s the site of the Stevens Institute of Technology.
It was at one end of this property that the Van Boskerck house stood, so his loyalties would have been to his neighbor’s fleet of steam vessels. In addition to four steamboats making runs between New York and Albany, Stevens and his four sons operate a number of other boats between here and Manhattan and to Philadelphia, as well as stagecoaches across much of New Jersey. In the upcoming year Vanderbilt will become an increasingly large thorn in the sides of the five Stevenses, decreasing his fares to the point of unprofitability, eventually forcing them to buy him out at a cost of $100,000 plus ten annual payments of $5,000. The Commodore didn’t mess around.
Both Stuart and Van Boskerck had an easy commute. An eight minute walk to the Stevens dock down by the water, where the family manufactured their own vessels, and a ten-minute crossing in one of the four ferries, all of which can accommodate entire stagecoaches, which the passengers needn’t get out of. You have your choice of two landing sites, the foots of Barclay and Canal streets. All of this for a whopping sixpence sterling (only threepence during the summer months).
The Stevens family has other sources of income besides their basic transportation business. Spaces on the boats are rented out to concessionaires, who sell, “liquor, fruit, confectionaries, &c.” They also lease out their own hotel here on the New Jersey side. They charge pedestrians nothing for the privilege of strolling along public walks they laid out along the river. They do all right what with all those three- and sixpence fares to get there, thank you.
© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Anyone who’s ever done genealogical research is familiar with the term “stone wall” – a point beyond which you’re unable to travel back, blocked by the unknown. Or the unrecorded.
New York State, as with many another locations, is home to several specialized stone walls. Family researchers whose forbearers lived in areas around Rochester, Albany or Seneca Lake may lose track of their ancestors, especially those less well-off - such as the impoverished or homeless. Especially those who might have had mental problems. Hopefully most reading this won’t have ancestors falling under the latter category. But . . .
You never know.
Michael T. Keene, author of two previous books – “Folklore and Legends of Rochester, The Mystery of Hoodoo Corner” and of “Murder, Mayhem and Madness: 150 years of Crime and Punishment in Western New York” has just released his similarly-themed third work – “Mad-House: The Hidden History of Insane Asylums in 19th Century New York”.
Beginning with the history of mental institutions, dating back as early as 792 AD in Baghdad, and covering the changing attitudes and treatments for dealing with psychiatric episodes in men and women, he tells of influential people – familiar and little-known - such as William Tuke, Dorothea Dix, Thomas Story Kirkbridge, Elizabeth Cochrane, Dr. Amarah Brigham, and Gerit Smith. (You may know Cochrane better under her pen name – you can Google her). Then there’s the Austrian immigrant named Lawrence, who lies in the Ovid-area mass grave at Willard Asylum for the Insane, along with the uncountable persons he physically placed there.
Covering different parts of the state and of New York City, Keene tells of institutions such as the latter’s Belle Vue, the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum and the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum (on the site of today’s Columbia University). Elsewhere around the state he treats of institutions – all defunct or transformed into other types of facilities – at Monroe County, Cattaraugus County, Utica, Syracuse, Binghamton, Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, Middletown, and Mattewan.
Willard Asylum, in the Finger Lakes region, would probably prove most frustrating to those seeking missing persons in their family’s past.
Keene begins the asylum’s chapter in “Mad-House” with the appearance on October 13, 1869 of a Mary Rote, arriving by steamboat on the nearby shore of Seneca Lake. Chained by the wrists and jostled along by armed guards, the “deformed and demented” Rote became the first inmate of the Asylum for the Chronic Insane. It has been speculated that Mary Rote may not have been the woman’s real name. Even if untrue, any Rotes out there today may hit the brick wall already mentioned. If so, they are not alone.
When the facility shut down in 1995 the nearby graveyard contained 5,775 graves. Most do not have markers identifying the deceased. Most have only been marked with a number and even these are often nearly impossible to physically locate. Keene closes this mournful chapter with, “May God have mercy on their souls”.
While the above may bring to mind the old Cole Porter Kiss Me, Kate lyric phrase “. . . the world forgetting, by the world forgot . . .” a few other inhabitants of asylums were very much in the forefront of the media of their time.
On June 26, 1906 the front page headline of the New York American, one of the many illustrations in Mad-House, read “HARRY THAW KILLS STANFORD WHITE ON ROOF GARDEN!. The case will be somewhat familiar to readers who saw the1955 Richard Flesicher film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing which starred Farley Granger as Harry Kendall Thaw, Ray Milland as architect Stanford White, and Joann Collins as Evelyn Nesbitt (the aforementioned Girl). A search of the New York Times archives turns up the following subsequent headlines (among many, many others – imagine what the so-called Yellow Press or sensationalist newspapers of the time reported along the way):
MURDERER’S’ ROW GETS HARRY THAW – June 27, 1906
INSANITY IN THAW’S FAMILY – February 7, 1907
HARRY THAW BACK IN STATE ASYLUM – AUGUST 19, 1909 (referring to Mattewan State Hospital for the Criminal Insane, one of the featured institutions in Mad-House).
Somehow the Times seemed to have missed out on the story in 1913 when, as Keene reports, with Thaw, “. . . reputedly just walking out of the hospital and getting into a hired car that took him across the border to Canada.” He was soon extradited, ending up back in Mattewan, until a 1915 sanity trial declared him sane and he was released.
The Times did not miss out on the February 23, 1947 story:
Harry L. (stet) THAW, 76, IS DEAD IN FLORIDA; Coronary Thrombosis Fatal to Former ‘Playboy’ . . .”.
The book also includes the accounts of undercover reporters, such as the already mentioned Elizabeth Cochrane and of Julius Chambers, both who had themselves committed in order to come up with exposés of the many horrors of residency in the state’s numerous Mad-Houses.
Author Michael T. Keene will keep you turning pages throughout these fascinating accounts.
Anyone wishing to purchase Mad-House or learn about Keene’s other books, may contact him through his website:
He mentions “For those who are not comfortable with using PayPal and who wish to purchase the book directly from me, can do so by either sending me an email or by calling toll-free. My email address and phone number are listed on my website.”