The Swan Brothers

Another little gem I found in Nehemiah Cleaveland’s A Directory for Visitors was the site for brothers George and Albert Swan.

george and albert swan

This took a little searching, but I eventually found it.

Swan Brothers memorial

George and Albert Swan were the sons of Gustavus Swan, a prominent Ohio lawyer and Ohio Supreme Court judge. Both lived in Ohio and attended college at Harvard. George was killed on his way there via the steamship Lexington on January 13, 1840. Albert got sick and died 5 years later in New York, also en route to Harvard. Apparently, commuting to Harvard is hazardous for your health.

George’s death aboard the Lexington must have been horrific. The Lexington was a steamship that ran a route between New York and Connecticut, traveling along the Long Island Sound. It caught fire and sank off the coast of Long Island, killing all but 4 of its 164 passengers and crew.

The Lexington had been commissioned by famed billionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, and was designed to be fast and luxurious. The ship could make the trip between New York and Providence in an unprecedented 12 hours, and would often have celebrated racing competitions with other steamships.

It was eventually sold to another company, and the ship’s wood-burning engine was converted to coal–a conversion that clearly was unsuccessful.

On the cold January evening when the ship went down, the Lexington was burning extra coal to aid in its struggle to get through the frozen, choppy waters. This proved to be too much for the engine, and around 7pm, the overheated smokestack caught fire. The fire quickly spread to the ship’s cargo of bales of cotton, and the Lexington went up in flames. All lifeboats that were lowered were quickly sunk–some crushed by the ship’s paddlewheel–leaving passengers and crew to drown, burn, or freeze to death. HORRIBLE.

A few random notes about this:

–Hidden treasure: A man named Adolphus S. Harnden was aboard ship, carrying a large amount of money, $18,000 of which was in gold and silver coins. He was one of the last people to go down with the ship. It is said that the gold coins are still there on the bottom of the Long Island Sound, but the silver ones would have deteriorated.

–There was a ship only 4-5 miles away that could have come immediately to the rescue–but the captain of that ship, Captain William Terrell, wanted to stay on schedule and refused to respond. He was criticized sharply for this decision by the press, and was publicly shamed–to the point where he was advised not to venture out in public. An article in the New Yorker opined, “Human language fails to express properly the feelings everyone should have at the utter stupidity of such a man.”

And here’s a clip from The Times Picayune, criticizing him all the way from New Orleans:

william terrill times picuyune
“Will he ever sleep? What dreams will come upon him?

–Only four people survived, one of whom was the ship’s pilot, Stephen Manchester. After climbing aboard a makeshift raft that sank, he managed to pull himself and a passenger up on a bale of cotton. He used his knife to cut holes in it for his arms so he could hang on. Despite Manchester’s heroic efforts, during the night, the passenger slipped off the bale and drowned. Manchester floated on the bale of hay all night long in the freezing water, and wasn’t rescued until noon the next day.

–Another survivor was second mate David Crowley. He too managed to climb on to a bale of cotton. He drifted for over 43 hours before coming ashore 50 miles down river. He then walked a mile to a nearby home, knocked on their door, and immediately collapsed.

The Awful Conflagration of the Steamship Lexington was one of the first lucrative prints that Nathaniel Currier (also a Green-Wood resident) sold. This image was so popular that Currier’s presses ran continuously for several months producing copies. Prior to this print, Currier had focused on more sedate imagery, and his business had not been much of a success. The Awful Conflagration of the Steamship Lexington showed him that there was profit to be made from images of disasters, and he began to make more. It was then that his business truly took off.

currier lexington

–A couple attempts to lower lifeboats resulted in the boats getting sucked into the paddlewheel and crushed to bits. One of those boats was full of passengers. If you look closely at Currier’s lithograph, you can see that he has included this detail:

the lexington crushed by paddle

Guest Blog! The First and Among the Last

A few weeks ago, I volunteered at Green-Wood’s table at the grand re-opening of Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace in Manhattan (which is a whole other story).  And while I was there, I met Trish Mayo who was also volunteering. We got to talking, and she knew a lot about  Green-wood and the history of New York.  She said she likes to wander around the cemetery taking pictures, and when she sees something interesting she goes home and looks it up. I was like, “SEPARATED AT BIRTH” and of course tried to rook her into writing for my blog. And it worked! Here’s her first entry. 


No matter where I go I seem to end up finding graves, sometimes I’m not looking for them they just are on my path to somewhere else.  

Recently,  I traveled to Boston and decided to spend a day in nearby Concord, MA–home to Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Concord is also the site of the first battle of the American Revolution fought on April 19, 1775.  The battle is commemorated in Minute Man National Park.  

There’s a reconstruction of the wooden bridge where the British and American soldiers met:  

wooden bridge Concord, MA

What I didn’t expect to see was a grave for 2 British Soldiers killed on that day in 1775:

grave of British soldiers

The inscription reads:

They came three thousand miles and died,
To keep the past upon its throne.
Unheard beyond the ocean tide,
Their English mother made her moan.

From the poem “Lines” by James Russell Lowell

According to the park’s website “British military records indicate that there were three soldiers (all privates in the 4th Regiment) missing and presumed dead after the North Bridge fight: James Hall, Thomas Smith and Patrick Gray. One of these three men is buried in Concord center; there is a stone marker for him on Monument St. The other two are buried here.”

These 3 soldiers James Hall, Thomas Smith and Patrick Gray are among the first casualties of the War for Independence. The people of Concord arranged for their burial and later erected this monument to mark their final resting place.

A few weeks later, I’m back in New York and decide to go for a walk in Green-Wood Cemetery.  I locate a group of headstones that predate the founding of the cemetery.  That’s not uncommon, for various reasons churches and congregations decide to move and arrange for the headstones and graves to be relocated to another cemetery.  While reading these old headstones I see the word “Rhinoceros” and think, what’s that all about?

edward morley grave green-wood cemetery

The inscription reads:

To The Memory of Edward Morley, Late Master of His Majesty’s Ship Rhinoceros who departed this life on August 8, 1783

The only reference to the HMS Rhinoceros that I can find is that it was a store ship and used as a floating battery in defense of New York towards the end of the American Revolutionary War.  The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the Treaties of Versailles on September 3, 1783, less than a month after this man’s death on August 8, 1783.  The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783.

For this man to have died so close to the end of the war makes this marker and the story it tells especially poignant.  There’s no mention of how he died – I can’t find any reference to battles or skirmishes that would have involved his ship near the August 8th,1783 date, so the question is,  was he gravely wounded in battle? A victim of disease or an accident? 

So there you have it two Revolutionary War graves, hundreds of miles apart but bookmarking the beginning and the end of America’s struggle for independence.   What makes them amazing is that they are memorials to the other side in that conflict – British soldiers and a British sailor still remembered over 240 years later and given a final resting place in the country that was formed from the conflict that cost them their lives. 

William Augustus Spencer

Ever since I found out that there were several victims of the Titanic disaster buried at Green-Wood, I have been keeping an eye out for their stones.

This pursuit, of course, was proving to be futile considering that Green-Wood has over 560,000 residents, and I have difficulty finding my way out of a Rite-Aid. So I cheated. I looked it up.

For the record, that goes against my self-imposed policy of only writing about stuff that I find while wandering around aimlessly. That said, there was still a lot of wandering around aimlessly because despite the fact that I had a map, it still took me 2 freakin hours to find this plot.

On the other side of Sylvan Lake is a small circular lot– on it you will find the rather regal plot for the Spencer family. It’s a nice little stroll from the main entrance.


William Augustus Spencer (1855-1912) was born into a large, fabulously wealthy family. He had two brothers and four sisters. One of his sisters famously married into Italian royalty, becoming Princess di Vicovaro Cenci. His brother Lorillard was a publisher who founded the well-known Illustrated American Magazine. The family split their time between houses in Switzerland, Paris, and New York.

By the way, one of the houses their family owned was Halidon Hall, in Newport, Rhode Island. This is not only an interesting example of Gothic Revival architecture, but it was later home to “The Cowsills”–a corny singing family act that had a string of #1 hits in the 1960s. They were the original inspiration for the also-corny TV show, The Patridge Family. They often featured Halidon Hall on their record covers.

But I digress…

William’s brother–Lorillard Spencer–died in March of 1912, so William, his wife, and their maid were taking the Titanic back to New York to deal with his will.

On April 14, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank into the icy waters of the Atlantic. William perished–his body was never found. His wife, Marie-Eugenie Spencer, and the maid Elise Lurette, found refuge in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats and were eventually saved.

Marie-Eugenie and Elise were in lifeboat #6, which is probably the most famous of the Titanic lifeboats thanks to the presence onboard of “the unsinkable” Molly Brown.

Lifeboat #6
Lifeboat #6

But more on them in a bit.

William Augustus Spencer–like the rest of his family–was crazy about books. He had a huge collection of the finest illustrated and bound French books in his Paris home. From the New York Public Library’s site:

Sometime in 1910, according to an often-repeated story that has acquired the status of legend, William Augustus Spencer visited the new central building of the New York Public Library, still under construction at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. He was impressed—so impressed that he vowed there and then that he would bequeath his personal collection of fine illustrated books in fine bindings to the Library.

After William’s death, the Spencer Collection was established, and these books were amongst the first exhibitions at the newly-built New York Public Library. Here’s an example of one:

spencer collection book

You can look at all of them on the NYPL Digital Archives.

The book collection itself was worth over $40,000 (that is 1 gigabillion dollars by today’s economy), and was augmented by a generous cash donation for the future purchase of illustrated and finely-bound books. He also left behind a considerable estate. From the New York Times, July 10, 1914:

William Augustus Spencer, who was drowned when the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, left a net estate of $2,218,650, according to an appraisal filed yesterday. The beneficiaries are Mrs. Marie Eugenie Spencer, his widow, $1,273,071; Lorillard Spencer, his nephew, $396,683; the New York Public Library, $394,095; and Eleanora L. S. Cenci, Princess de Vicovaro, his sister, $50,000.

Marie-Eugenie Spencer (1864-1913) died in Paris the next year at the age of 48. She was from a lower-class family, had been born out of wedlock, and was generally not accepted by the rest of the Spencer family. When Marie-Eugenie and William married in London in 1884, not a single member of the Spencer family attended. I’ve also read in several places that she was a manic depressive and morphine addict, which could account for her poor health and early demise.

The maid–Elise Lurette–was with Marie Eugenie until her death. She lived a long and comfortable life shuttling between Paris and Switzerland until her death in 1940 at the age of 87. When she was rescued from the lifeboat, she had in her pocket a menu from the Titanic’s dining room and a first-class deck plan. Just prior to the disaster, she had mailed this postcard to her nephew:


The Devil’s Rock Celebrates St. Patrick’s Day

Sometimes I take a walk down 5th Avenue to what I consider the far edge of Green-Wood. I like to look at the Jackie Mason bus depot for some reason. And when I’m down there, I always pay a visit to the Devil’s Rock.

I visited a couple of days ago and was pleasantly surprised to see that someone else also dotes on it–someone who really, really wants the Devil’s Rock to have a happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Devils Rock


The Devil’s Rock sits in a little alcove behind the fence at 5th Avenue and 36th Street. The somewhat comma-crazy plaque alongside it reads:

“Legend has it that, near this spot during our Colonial period, an African American named Joost dueled the Devil in a fiddling contest. When Joost triumphed, the Devil, in defeat, stomped his foot on a rock, leaving an impression of a hoof print. By the time of the American Revolution, the rock with the Devil’s Hoof Print had become a local tourist attraction. This rock, recently dug out of Sunset Park’s ground, reminds us of the folktale of the Devil’s Hoof Print.”

Wait, so that isn’t even the original rock? It’s just a rock that reminds you of another rock–a rock you have never even seen?

Devil’s Rock, you are an imposter! But that’s OK, no one rocks St. Patrick’s Day harder than you do, buddy.

Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams

Barney Williams (1824-1876), nee Bernard O’Flaherty, moved to America from Ireland in 1831 when he was just 7 years old. This was an interesting time to be in New York City–the Erie Canal had just been completed, and the city’s population and economy was growing quickly. Immigration was also dramatically on the rise. From Virtual NY:

In the 1830s New York City was in the process of attracting large numbers of poor Europeans, including a massive wave of Irish immigrants seeking relief from British colonial rule. (Between 1830 and 1850, the foreign-born population of New York grew from 9% to 46%.)

Many of these Irish immigrants settled in to the notorious Five Points neighborhood, which is where young Bernard and his family ended up.

It sounds like he had a delightfully scrappy youth.  Bernard, a.k.a., Barney, took a number of odd jobs to make extra income for his family. Most famously, he worked for Benjamin Day’s startup newspaper The Sun as one of the first newspaper boys. Actually, I read in a couple of places that he was THE first newsboy, and that for a while he was THE ONLY newsboy, but I don’t know how accurate that is… At the very least, he was one of the first and prototypical newsboys, known for standing on streetcorners shouting, “Extra! Extra!”

Another one of his odd jobs was working at the theater. One night while working at the Franklin Theater, an actor in the cast of The Ice Witch fell ill and the then 14-y.o. Barney took his place.

I could not find out much about either the Franklin Theater or The Ice Witch, but I did find this image of Niblo’s Garden–a large, famous theater in which Barney and his wife Maria would later stage many productions. And while Niblo’s Garden was huge compared to most theaters at the time, this should give you some idea:

Niblo's Garden in the 1800s
Niblo’s Garden in the 1800s

Barely a teenager, Barney then embarked on a long and quite successful career in the theater. He sang, he danced, he was  a comedian, and he even did a couple of seasons in “Kentucky Minstrel”–also known as BlackFace Minstrel shows. Here’s a playbill from one of his productions:

Barney Williams as Dandy Jim from Carolina (1843)
Barney Williams as Dandy Jim from Carolina (1843)

He was only 19 years old at the time.

Barney married actress Maria Pray (1825-1911) in 1849, less than a year after her husband, comedian Charles Mestayer, had died. Maria was from a show-biz family: Her father William Pray was an actor who had died in a theater fire in New York some years earlier, and her sister Malvina was married to the famous actor  William Florence.  A talented singer, dancer and actress in her own right, Maria had joined the corps de ballet at the Chatham Theater in New York (located just south of the Bowery) when she was only 15.

The Chatham Theatre
The Chatham Theatre

According to History of the American Stage, by Thomas Allston Brown:

“On Nov.29, 1850 [Maria Pray] was married to Mr. Williams, and from that day can Mr. Williams date his rise in the profession; for not until they started together was he recognized in the profession as of any account.”

Soon after wedding Maria Pray, Barney Williams was considered the top Irish actor working in America at the time–a title that had previously been held by his mentor, the famous Irish actor, writer and producer Tyrone Power (1795-1841).

Barney and Maria became huge stars. They starred in numerous plays, musicals, and vaudeville acts together–too numerous (and often too obscure) to name here. They also wrote and produced their own plays–always centered around Irish characters and themes. “The Irish Boy and Yankee Girl,” “Ireland As It Is,” “Shandy McGuire,” and the comic opera “Rory O’More” are just a few of their starring productions. With a burgeoning Irish population in America, these productions were enormously popular.

In 1856, Barney wrote a song called “My Mary Ann” for Maria. It was one of the couples’ most beloved songs.


Here they are in a production together:

Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams
Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams

Maria and Barney traveled a lot and enjoyed a long and happy career–they spent several years in the U.K., and performed for the Royal family three different times. They performed for–and likely met–Abraham Lincoln in 1863. They were also–naturally–enormously popular in Ireland. When Barney died of a stroke in 1876, his estate was valued at a whopping $400,000.

Francis B. Spinola

spinola1This rather distinguished and eye-catching memorial belongs to Francis B. Spinola (1821-1891). Spinola is best known as the first Italian-American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But really, that doesn’t even begin to sum up the life and career that Spinola enjoyed. Born near Stony Brook, Long Island, Spinola grew up in a wealthy, influential family. After a swanky private education, he set up practice as a lawyer in Brooklyn.

In the 1850s he was part of the “Secret Police” that helped to keep peace on the gang-ridden streets of New York. He was an alderman several times, a member of the NY State Assembly, a NY State Senator, and also the Commissioner of the New York Harbor–all before the age of 40.

During the Civil War, Spinola enlisted and was commissioned as a Union Brigadier General. At one point he recruited and organized his own bridge of 4 regiments referred to as “Spinola’s Empire Brigade.”


After the Civil War he served as alderman again, and eventually landed a position in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Al Reeves

This one caught my eye because of the copper banjo and tambourine on top. And even though it’s not all that exciting of a monument, Al Reeves was a pretty interesting character.

Al Reeves’ (1864-1940) largely self-appointed title was “The King of the Burlesque.” He also referred to himself as “The World’s Pal” and “The World’s Greatest Banjoist and Comedian,” so maybe take that whole “King of Burlesque” title with a grain of salt.

I couldn’t find out too much about Reeves’ upbringing or family. One of the things he is best known for is encouraging Al Jolsen to pursue a career in vaudeville. At the turn of the century, he was quite well known for having a huge burlesque company–his “Big Beauty Show” was tremendously popular and toured to sold-out houses for over 20 years. So maybe he was “The King of the Burlesque,” what the hell do I know?

Here are a couple of clippings from that time–including one with a rare photo of Al:

For a famous entertainer who didn’t die until 1940, it’s odd how few photos I could find of him online. I did, however, find an ancient cylinder recording of him playing his banjo, which is pretty cool. You can hear his signature catch-phrase at the end of the performance: “Give me credit, boys!”

It sounds like Al was a real character. From Second Nights: People and Ideas of the Theatre To-day, by Arthur Brown Ruhl:

“One catches a glimpses of him, now and then, bowling down Broadway in his pale-green limousine, his name on a brass plate on each door…and in the back seat Mr. Reeves, himself a ruddy orchid, smoking a fat cigar.”

Onstage, his gimmick was to abuse the members of his company, often threatening to throw them out or not pay them. To quote Second Nights again:

“I have seen Mr. Reeves grab one of his singers by the throat and give a lifelike imitation of choking her until she gurgled, ‘Hey, let up! I’ve got a sore throat.'”

On a side note, there are two symbols, one on either side of his mausoleum: The first is for the Shriners, and the second is marked “B.P.O.E. No. 22” with an Elks head. Obviously, that is the Elks Club symbol (“Benevolent Protective Order of Elks”)–but I had to look up the No. 22. Turns out that was Lodge #22, which was located at 144 South Oxford St. here in Brooklyn–near to what is now Atlantic Center. Looks like it’s home to a nursing home now–but it is listed as a notable historic building in the AIA’s guide to New York. Here’s a picture from Google Maps:

Edgar C. Dean

Edgar Dean

This was the headstone that gave me the idea to start writing this blog in the first place. I took this picture in February of 2013, when I first started exploring Green-Wood. As usual, I was wandering around aimlessly, and didn’t bother to keep track of where I had been. As a result, I have not been able to find this headstone again (of course). I’ll find you again one of these days, Edgar C. Dean!

Edgar C. Dean, 26 years old, sailed on the Steamship Pacific on January 23, 1856 from Liverpool. That much we can gather from the stone. I did some digging, but there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot I could find out about young Edgar or his family.

An 1855 census lists him as living with his father, two sisters and an Irish servant in downtown Manhattan. His occupation is listed as “seaman”.

Dean Household, 5th Ward, 1855 Census
Dean Household, 5th Ward, 1855 Census

His father, William E. Dean, was a printer. His business was located at 72 Frankfort Street, just down the block from Tammany Hall. As far as I can tell, the Dean family home was nearby on Church Street.

The ship that Edgar was lost on–the Steamship Pacific–was built in 1849. This ship was large, luxurious, and fast: in 1850 she broke the record for fastest transatlantic crossing.

The Steamship Pacific
The Steamship Pacific

From Sandman Cincinnati:

She spanned 281 feet and was powered by two precision side-lever engines, each with a 95 inch cylinder traversing a massive 9 foot stroke. At full bore, she delivered 13 knots with all four boilers in service and consumed up to 85 tons of coal a day. The passenger compartments were just as impressive. They were spacious, finely trimmed and furnished with steam heat, an innovation of the day. The ship had many amenities to suit the passenger’s needs including bathrooms, smoking rooms, a barber shop and even a french chef in the kitchen. The reason for the elaborate extras was to compete with Britain’s Cunard line. The SS Pacific and her three sister ships, Atlantic, Arctic and Baltic, were financed by the US government and specifically built to win back America dominance in transatlantic traffic. Together they made up the new Collins Line – a small group of larger, faster, and more comfortable passenger vessels.

Here’s where it gets interesting: On January 23, 1856 the SS Pacific and all 189 people on board vanished without a trace. Most assumed that she had hit icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland due to the fact that it had been a particularly cold and iceberg-filled winter. However, five years later, a beachcomber walking on the shore of Hebrides Island in Ulst (Scotland) found a message in a bottle from a British sea captain who was a passenger on the ship.

The note inside read:

On board the Pacific, from L’pool to N. York. Ship going down. (Great) confusion on board. Icebergs around us on every side. I know I cannot escape. I write the cause of our loss, that friends may not live in suspense. The finder of this will please get it published,


A message in a bottle. Six years later. Well how do you like that.