Tag Archives: green-wood

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.

Precious Georgie

georgieI have this dumb rule when I walk around Green-Wood: If you see a hill, walk up it. There is almost always something interesting at the top of a hill. Here’s one result.

“Precious Georgie” and his twin brother Theodore were born in 1863, to renowned Presbyterian minister Theodore Ledyard Cuyler. Georgie died suddenly from scarlet fever when he was five years old. Clearly the family was heartbroken, so much so that his father went on to write a book about the experience, entitled “The Empty Crib, A Memorial of Little Georgie”. It concludes with this passage:

I close this love-tribute to my boy, in the very room whence his spirit took wing for heaven. The pillow in the crib is all smooth and undisturbed to-day. A picture of Jesus blessing little children hangs before me on the wall. Every shelf in yonder closet is filled with his keepsakes; and on the nail hangs his little velvet cap. As I look at all the playthings, and at the precious little slate on which he tried to mark, with feeble hand, on his dying day, I cannot believe that he is dead. He must be somewhere in my dwelling yet.

I actually got sucked in to reading this book online, and practically read the entire thing. It’s genuinely sad and heart-felt, particularly the part about his brother Theo coping with his twin’s death. You really feel for the Cuylers.

Georgie and his brother Theo
Georgie and his brother Theo

The sides of the monument are inscribed with the story of his last exchange with his mother before dying:

He look up at his mother and whispered, “Does Jesus love me? What will He say when he first sees me?” All through that April Sabbath with head on the mother’s breast the sweet child murmured of Jesus ’till the sun was low in the west. Then the door of Heaven opened that had been ajar all day. And our darling alone could answer what will Jesus say.

Ack! Heartbreaking.

It is worth noting that this beautiful portrait was created by sculptor Charles Calverley (1833-1914), who is responsible for a number of beautiful monuments throughout Green-Wood. (I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of his work.)

Theodore Cuyler
Theodore Cuyler

Georgie’s father Theodore Ledyard Cuyler (1822-1909) was a prominent religious figure in the 1800’s. On top of writing several books, he founded the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church here in Brooklyn, which boasted the largest Presbyterian congregation in the country. He also lead The New York Anti-Suffrage Association (no fun), and was a staunch proponent of the temperance movement (really no fun).

On a side note, there are two other small markers nearby for an infant son born to the Cuylers on December 25th, 1873, who only lived for about 10 days; one of the stones simply reads, “Our Christmas Gift”.

Peter and Jensine Lawson

map-lawsonThis is one of my favorites. I don’t think it needs too much explanation, just look at the photos. Peter Lawson–“Grandpa”–died at age 84 in 1887. His granddaughter Jensine (love that name) died a year later at age 24. In the statue, she is holding a rose to his lapel.

The earth, the earth has lost a gem,
Heaven has gained a star
The Angels saw it shining here
And called it from afar.