So Much for The Victorian Age in Albany: Adah Isaacs Menken

Actress/poet/bohemian Adah Isaacs Menken created a sensation in Albany when she first rode a horse across the stage on June 7, 1861. The attraction was twofold: first, she was performing a traditionally male role in the play, “Mazeppa,” a local favorite since 1833; and second, her character was supposed to be strapped to a horse, naked, and left to die. Adah wasn’t naked, she was covered in diaphanous white cloth – but that was close enough for 19th century thrill seekers.

Her story from a 1964 Knickerbocker News article, by Miriam Biskin:

“At a period when anti-southern feeling ran high, the darling of Albany’s theatre-goers was a New Orleans belle, who wore pink tights from head to foot and who rode to fame strapped to the back of a big black horse. Half of the audience came to marvel at her horsemanship while the other half came to view her daring garb, and neither half left disappointed.

The theatre in which she appeared was located on the west side of Green Street, south of Hamilton. It had been opened to the public on January 18, 1813 in an effort to make a contribution which would “correct the language, refine the taste, ameliorate the heart and enlighten the understanding.”

Such dramas as “The West Indian” and “Fortune’s Frolic” were often shown at box office prices of 50 cents, 75 cents, and $1.00 – whether Miss Menken’s • appearance cause any advance in prices is unrecorded.The theatre was jammed to capacity, however, because by the time Miss Menken appeared in Albany she was already a star in the theatrical world, and her name was synonymous with everything which was daring and exposed.

Extremely buxom, she posed in all sorts of be tasseled portraits in as much undress as the Victorian world would tolerate. Her career had been a series of ups and downs and now that she was on top, she was determined to maintain that position at any price. Born in Milneberg near New Orleans on June 15, 1832, she was named Adah Bertha Theodore. Her father died in a yellow fever epidemic while she was still very young, and her mother remarried a man of some wealth who saw to it that Adah received an excellent education. She learned Latin, Hebrew, Greek and French, and took pleasure in attending the theatre and the opera in New Orleans.

By the time she was 18, she was completely stage-struck, and by the time she was 21, she was appearing with an amateur theatrical group:. She had taken some time off to elope with Isaacs Menken, the scion of a wealthy Cincinnati family. From then on, Menken took over the position of her manager, and Adah was soon appearing in theatres in Shreveport, Vicksburg and Nashville. Wherever she went, she was received with tremendous enthusiasm by a growing host of male admirers. In Dayton, she was feted by the Dayton Home Guard, much to the distress of her jealous husband. He demanded that she leave the stage. She refused and he left. After the divorce, Adah married John Heenan, heavyweight champion (living in WestTroy, NY), who brought her little comfort. Nothing like the docile Menken, he released all sorts of statements vilifying his wife to the papers. Menken added to the furor by issuing her own incendiary statements declaring the initial divorce null and void. A second divorce was soon granted and a new Adah [SENTENCE AND A HALF MISSING, SORRY!]

Adah was a stage-struck girl who wrote excellent poetry in the style of Wait Whitman – religious verse dedicated to Charles Dickens who thanked her profusely for the compliment. The new Adah was a hardheaded publicity seeker who smoked cigars and cropped her hair short in the style of an unkempt urchin. She sought out the bohemians of the day and lived in their free and easy style.

It was at this point that she was offered the role of Prince Mazeppa in Mazeppa or The Wild Horse of Tartary. Cast in the role of the young prince who was strapped naked to a horse and turned loose in the wilderness to die, she was taking a part usually played by a man. And most men were willing to use a dummy substitute for the gallop upstage. But not Menken – she wanted no substitute – and it was her daring which brought crowds into the theatres.

Her tour of New York State was a triumph, and her trip south marred only by an arrest caused by her determination to decorate her dressing room with Confederate flags. In the west, she was welcomed by the miners’ wild adulation and the milder compliments of two young writers, Joaquin Miller and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Clemens, then a reporter for the Virginia City Enterprise, was particularly intrigued by her garb. He described her performance in these terms: “She appeared to have but one garment on – a thin, tight white linen one, of unimportant dimensions; I forget the name of the article, but it is indispensable to infants of tender age.”

He was definitely unimpressed by her acting and horsemanship: “She bends herself back like a bow; she pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms and legs and her whole body like a dancing-jack…in a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic…if this be grace, then the Menken is eminently graceful.”

Returning from the western tour, Menken embarked for the European capitals and fresh triumphs. The critics deplored the entire production of Mazeppa but this did not deter the ticket-buyers, In Europe, too, she made friends with the great and near-great – Algernon Swinburne., Charles Dickens, Dante Rossetti, Alexander Dumas, pere and others. Between the time of her Albany debut in 1861 and tier Paris appearance in 1864, she had married twice more and borne a son who died in infancy.

Despite personal turmoil, her professional fortunes soared. Paris was at her feet and Menken coats, Menken scarves, Menken collars, and even Menken pantaloons were the rage. Few realized that the glamorous star was ill until she collapsed during rehearsal and died a few weeks later. How long she had been a consumptive no one knew but she was dead at 33 – the flamelike quality that Dickens had called the “world’s delight” extinguished forever. They buried her in a corner of the little Jewish cemetery in Montparnasse, and on her grave stone are the words, “Thou Knowest,” an epitaph she had chosen from Swinburne, the poet who had said of her, “A woman who has such beautiful legs need not discuss poetry.”

Note: Miss Mazeppa is the name of is one of the strippers in “Gypsy”. Homage to Miss Menken’s fame that lingered into the 20th century. “You gotta have a gimmick”.

By Al Quaglieri

The Great Railroad Labor Strike of 1877 in Albany

I0n July 14, 1877 a strike among Baltimore and Ohio railroad workers in West Virginia and Baltimore lit a spark that spread to the Mid- West and Northeast, including Albany. It was the first labor strike to spread across the nation.

It started in the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1873 – the worst Depression to grip the nation since the Great Depression of the 1930s. At the worst of the economic downturn unemployment reached 14%. It was the age of railroad and other robber barons and their huge fortunes – capitalism run amok with no safeguards for workers. And so the railroads started cutting wages and then cut them again. Wages in some sectors decreased to about 45% of what that had previously been.

The strike reached Albany in late July 1877. Albany was a railroad hub for the New York Central, Delaware and Hudson and other railroads. Thousands of Albany men, especially Irish immigrants were employed by the railroads. And things became violent. Tracks were ripped up in an effort to halt the trains. There were efforts to impede arrivals and departures at the two train depots in the city – one near the corner of Broadway and Clinton, and the other on Broadway, near the famous Delevan House Hotel.

Strikers tried to damage the West Albany railroad yards, owned by the New York Central Railroad – near Watervliet Ave. and Everett Rd., and clashed with the Guard.


Other workers joined the strike in solidarity with the railroad workers. The economic oppression of the ruling class was felt throughout the working class.

The Governor called in the State National Guard. And the Guard and federal troops were sent to other states. After 45 days the strike was quelled, with over 100 people dead and millions in property damage in across the country. In the short term the strike had little effect on labor conditions and wages. But it did get the attention of the nation, and it was the catalyst for an explosion in the growth of trade unions across the country. Especially in Albany, which became a hub for the growth of the labor movement. The unions pushed for better wages and better working conditions.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland, who had once been Governor of New York State and seen it all, signed into law the federal act making Labor Day a federal holiday.

Thank the unions.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

More in our Recurring Series: The Bicentennial Tablets; Where Are They Now? First Presbyterian Church

Tablet No. 9 – First Presbyterian Church

As we’re tracking the histories associated with the tablets that were installed in 1886 to commemorate the bicentennial of Albany’s charter as a city, we’ve been lucky so far in that nearly all of the tablets we’ve written about have survived. The first lost tablet marked the site of the first Lutheran Church. Now the second one that has been lost is the one marking the site of the first Presbyterian church. And given the tremendous changes in topography in this particular part of Albany, it’s a little difficult to show exactly where it was. But we’ll try.

Inscription on Tablet

Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in the wall of building north-east corner of Grand and Hudson streets. Inscribed thereon :
“Site of the First Presbyterian Church — Built 1763 — Removed 1796.”

Of course the north-east corner of Grand and Hudson Ave. doesn’t exist anymore, it’s buried somewhere under what is now the Times-Union Center. And to the best of my knowledge this tablet doesn’t exist anymore either. “The Argus” in 1914 noted that this was one of three tablets that had “been refastened with slot-headed screws, instead of having the heads filed flat as originally, and in one case at least the screws are becoming loosened.” The paper also noted that “there is a possibility of the city taking the block bounded by Hudson Avenue, Grand, Beaver and William streets for an addition to the public market, in which case something would have to be done with tablet No. 9, marking the site of the First Presbyterian church.” In the end, that building was unaffected by the market, which was built across the street.

The Neighborhood

It is really hard to relate where things used to be when they have changed so very, very substantially. All of the  tablets so far have been on buildings that continue to exist, or at least in places we could point to with some ease. But here we’re talking about entire city blocks that are gone, on streets that we barely recognize in the modern landscape. So, we’ve done the best we can to relate where the first three buildings of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany were located. The first location is squarely underneath the Times-Union Center (not to worry: the Presbyterians came late enough there were no burials around their church that we are aware of). The second is under the plaza corner of the Omni Tower. The third is buried directly below the exit roads from the Empire State Plaza and the East Parking Garage.

The First Presbyterian Church

A history of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany, written by Rev. J. McClusky Blayney in 1877 unhelpfully says, “The exact date and circumstances of the organization of the Presbyterian Church in this city, I have not been able to ascertain.” We aren’t a professional historian, but to Mr. Blayney, author of the history of the First Presbyterian Church, we must say: you had one job.

Blayney said that he had seen notices of the date of organization of the church as 1763, and that he thought it a mistake related to the deed of October 1763, when the City provided a deed for a lot on which to build a church. Blayney believed the congregation dated to at least a year earlier, in 1762, and he noted that in 1760 there was at least Presbyterian preaching being done here. The Albany church was associated with the Dutchess County Presbytery in late 1762 or 1763. In 1775 it was transferred to the Presbytery of New York; a Presbytery of Albany was established in 1790. The first pastor of this church was Rev. William Hanna. But the Bicentennial Committee, anyway, was satisfied with a date of 1763 for the church building, and that appears to be the best we’re going to do.

The First Church Building: Hudson and Grand

The first building stood with Hudson street to its south, Grand to its west, Beaver to the north, and William to the east. Blayney writes that “This ground was then known as ‘the gallows hill,’ and is described as being ‘very steep.’” (Several Albany locations have been called gallows hill at various times.)

“The first church building was erected on this lot during the year 1764. A stairway winding around the hill, and very difficult of ascent during the winter season, was the only means of approach to the church. The house was built of wood, and is described as being ‘of a respectable size, though not of a very elegant appearance.’ It was covered with a flat roof and surmounted with a tower and spire, the tower containing a bell. it was painted red, and stood fronting the east.” Unfortunately, we have found no image of this first church. This description is as much as we know of it.

That description would place the very first Presbyterian church building just about at the southeast box office entrance of the Times-Union Center. The driveway into the parking lot from the current Market Street is essentially William Street. The marker was placed on a building at the northeast corner of Grand and Hudson, so just a little bit west along the Times-Union Center’s current structure from that entrance. The building that stood there (97 Hudson, or 16 Grand, depending on which way one was facing) was used for many years by Chuckrow’s Poultry – possibly as early as 1900, and at least until 1972. So it appears the building even survived the Empire State Plaza and expressway construction.

A look at photographs of Chuckrow’s doesn’t reveal the location of the tablet – given how many windows were in the facade at street level, it’s likely that renovations to the building could have displaced the tablet at any time. The building likely survived into the ’70s; a 1980s photograph shows the corner building gone, but the remaining strip on Grand still intact, so the block likely survived until the construction of the Times-Union Center.

The Second Church Building: South Pearl and Beaver

Owing to the growth in the congregation, the trustees of the church appointed a committee in 1792 to purchase “a lot on the plains” for a new church – presumably they had had enough of the stairs. The lot was on the northeast corner of South Pearl and Beaver streets, and a construction contract was let in March 1795. They struggled to raise the needed money, and borrowed against the future sale of pews. The church was completed and first occupied Nov. 2, 1796; “the steeple was not finished for nearly twelve years afterwards.”

Given the timing, we suspected that this second church could have been the work of Albany’s preeminent architect of the day, Philip Hooker, but according to “A Neat Modern Stile: Philip Hooker and His Contemporaries,” this design was by Elisha Putnam. The steeple that wasn’t finished for nearly twelve years, however, was credited to Philip Hooker, in 1808.

That building was enlarged and remodeled in 1831. It remained the Presbyterian Church until 1850, when the congregation moved to another new church, this time at Philip and Hudson, just a block away from the church’s first location. The old (second) building became home to the Congregational Society for at least a few years.

The site of the second First Presbyterian church then became known as the Beaver Block (at least as early as 1869), and was used for businesses but also still hosted services, of the First Universalist Society. It seems likely the brick church was either torn down (“A Neat Modern Stile” reports it was razed circa 1890) or somehow incorporated into a much larger structure, because the Beaver Block, which housed many businesses and seems to have served as a union hall, was eventually a large structure spanning from Howard to Beaver.

Blayney sheds little light on the conversion, writing: “It then [1850] passed into the possession of the Congregational Society of this city, and was improved by them, till within a few years; when they removed to their new church on Eagle street. It was then sold, and has since been used for business purposes, and is now known as Beaver Block, on South Pearl street.” But try as we may, we do not find when the Beaver Block was finally demolished.

The Third Church Building: Philip and Hudson

The third structure to house the First Presbyterian Church was a substantial structure located at Philip and Hudson, opening in March 1850, although it wasn’t considered completed (with the construction of a lecture room) until 1857.

First Methodist Church

It was at this building that Susan B. Anthony found her woman’s suffragist groove in 1852.   In that year she came to Albany as an elected delegate, along with several other women, to a state temperance convention.  She rose to speak and was told that women were there merely to observe, not to speak.  Sje and other women walked out.  She went found her BFF Lydia Mott who lived in Albany; Mott suggested she hold her own temperance meeting, just for women, and arranged for that meeting to be held at the First Presbyterian Church.  As they say, “the rest is history”.

The front tower of the church was found to be dangerously settling in 1870, resulting in it being reconstructed and significant interior repairs made. In 1884, the Presbyterians moved again, to the much tonier neighborhood Washington Park and the church that still stands at the corner of State and Willett, and this church became the First Methodist Church; it was finally demolished around 1963-64 to make way for the South Mall, or the Empire State Plaza.

By Carl Johnson from his blog Hoxsie.org

Albany Municipal Golf Course

Albany Municipal Golf Course (a/k/a Capital Hills Golf Course) opened in 1931. It was created from 265 acres of farm land purchased by City of Albany circa 1930. Most of land was bought from the Walley Family in the Town of Bethlehem who operated a farm on the New Scotland Plank Rd. From the late 1700s until the early 1970s.The Golf Course wasn’t within the Albany city limits until 1967 when Albany annexed that part of Bethlehem around New Scotland Ave., from Whitehall Rd. down to the Normanskill Creek, in 1967.

Julie O’Connor

A portion of the Walley Farm for sale – about at the intersection of Whitehall and New Scotland Roads
The Walley Farm continued into the early 1970s
Albany Municipal Golf Course
Albany Municipal Golf Course
Albany Municipal Golf Course 1931
Municipal Golf Course c. 1931
Municipal Golf Course C . 1931
Municipal Golf Couse C. 1931
Municipal Golf Course C. 1931

The Beginning of Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR)

New York State didn’t abolish slavery until July 1827, so most enslaved persons seeking freedom before that made their way through the New England states where slavery was illegal, although a number made their way to New York City and lost themselves in the crowd.

But after 1827 it was game on in Albany

In 1828 and 1829 the Albany African Association, lead by the Rev. Nathaniel Paul and Ben Lattimore, Jr., Black men, began to intervene in court cases involving people alleged to be enslaved.

It was difficult finding white allies because at that time most white abolitionists believed that American Africans, once freed, should be re-settled outside the U.S. (called “colonization”). This wasn’t out of meanness. They thought it was impossible for African Americans to achieve equal rights and racial justice in the U.S.

By the early 1830s most white abolitionists understood the position of most Blacks- they were born here, they had built the country, and weren’t going anywhere. Some had fathers or grandfathers who had fought on the Patriot side in the Revolution (like Paul and Lattimore, Jr.) End of discussion.

So, by 1833 William Lloyd Garrison and Black and white men (and a few women) formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, bringing together abolitionists across the north. Although the first Vigilance Committee wasn;t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the Underground Railroad (UGRR). It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.

Although the first official Vigilance Committee” wasn’t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the UGRR. It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.

The police were a real problem. Some who attempted to thwart freedom seekers may have thought they were doing the right thing. Enslaved people were property, and they were merely returning property to rightful owners. People helping those attempting to reach freedom were breaking the law; committing an illegal act.

But many others were simply corrupt. They were paid off by the “Slave Catchers” from the South who came North to retrieve “property”.

But we do know that by the first part of 1834 Albany Blacks, under the African Association and the Albany African Clarkson Society (established in 1829) were already rocking and rolling. In April of 1834 at least 100 Black men broke a “runaway” out of the City Jail. (This is one of the earliest documented instances of this sort of collective and very well-organized action by Blacks in the U.S. )

1834
Before it was the city hospital the jail was in this building at the corner of Eagle and Howard Streets.

It’s not quite clear when the official Albany Vigilance Committee was formed. Some members like the white Quaker sisters Lydia and Abigail (who would become besties with Frederick Douglass) actually hid escapees and arranged to get them to freedom as well as raising money. Ben Lattimore Jr was probably the wealthiest Black man in Albany; he moved easily among the Black and white communities, and was probably a fund raiser. But he also owned a grocery store, owned a number of properties in Albany, so he was well-placed to secret freedom seekers.

Popular local barbers like Michael Douge and John Stewart could reasonably be expected to get lots of foot traffic of both races to their shops. Richard Wright was a shoemaker. (Wright would become president of the Vigilance Committee in 1844.) Stephen Myers would become supervising agent of the UGRR in later year, was first a grocer and then a waiter. Think of the Vigilance Committee as the Board of Directors and bankers of the UGRR operations.

1854

Within a decade Albany (and Troy) were doing a land office business in help freedom seekers on their way. They came here by all means and from all places.

Basil Dorsey and his brothers escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1837 and made it to Pennsylvania. In 1838 he was re-captured, but escaped to New York where he joined his free wife and two children. He was sent to Albany and then to on to a farm in Charlemont Mass. (Dorsey’s son Charles would marry Emma, the daughter of Ben Lattimore Jr. 30 years later.)

Others went west to Canada through Buffalo and Niagara; some went north directly Canada over the Champlain Canal and still others went northeast through Vermont into Canada. The same man, David Ruggles, who helped Basil Dorsey get to Albany in 1838 helped Frederick Douglass make his way from NYC to New Bedford, Mass. the same year.

There was no single route to freedom. It was a spider web. Options available in the early 1830s changed over time. Some found a place in surrounding communities or even in Albany itself.

By 1842 there were at least 350 men, women and children pouring into the city every year, according to the Rev. Abel Brown, a young white radical abolitionist. Brown was in your face kind of guy, and actually taunted southern slave owners by name once their property was safe in the Albany newspaper the “Tocsin of Liberty”.

His biography, written after his death by his wife, graphically depicts the role of the Albany police. They would obtain a search warrant for one house, and then ignoring the limits of the warrant, conduct illegal searches going from house to house, terrorizing the women and children who were home while the men in family were at work.

According to Brown the Police weren’t just looking for freedom seekers. They would seek free persons of color hoping to sell them into slavery.

From Abel Brown’s Biography
From Abel Brown’s Biography

No one knows how many thousands of lives were changed as they passed through our City and elsewhere in the North. We know the history of Frederick Douglass, but what became of others is mostly shrouded in the mists of time, although William Still in his 1872 book about the Underground Railroad does include some histories of men and women who went through Albany.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

New Netherland Myth Busting

On May 4, 1626 Peter Minuit, the 3rd director of the Dutch West India (DWI) Co., set foot on Manhattan Island. But Minuit was not Dutch – he was a Walloon.

The first settlers in the New Netherland Colony weren’t Dutch. They were Walloons – Belgian and French Protestants.

They were the people the DWI could convince to move to the New Netherland Colony, where there was nothing. Zip, zero, nada. They would have to hack their way through the wilderness, build shelter, clear land, grow crops, all while abiding to the Company’s rules.

But the financial upside was enormous. They stood to make fortunes (the Company would take a cut) from the riches of the New World they sent back to Holland -mostly furs in the beginning, and to the rest of Europe. If they could survive and thrive.

24 families and soldiers came to the Colony in 1624. About 18 families and soldiers came to Albany and established Fort Orange. A small contingent stayed down river, not in Manhattan, but on Governors Island (then known as Nut Island). There was a small outpost of soldiers on Manhattan Island.

Minuit, was sent to New Netherland in 1626. He promptly made a deal with the native tribe, the Lenape, and purchased land on Manhattan for 60 guilders worth of trade goods. Which was a good thing.

Because later that year a deadly skirmish happened in Albany between soldiers and a local tribe in what is now Lincoln Park, at the ravine. Minuit sent a ship up the Hudson, and the Albany families fled south to the newly purchased settlement of New Amsterdam.

Some of the original settlers returned to Albany, but some decided to remain in the Big Apple.

So, to recap. Peter Minuit – not Dutch. First New Netherland settlers – not Dutch. The New Netherland Colony was a venture capitalist enterprise.. in today’s parlance, the Colony was a “start up”. It was one of several Dutch colonies in the New World including the Caribbean and on the coast of South America, and in Asia, and in Africa where the DWI had its slave trade in Ghana and Benin.

The DWI was licensed by the Dutch government, which took a cut too. There was a board of directors and other investors, including foreign shareholders. The first settlers were “early adopters”; the “the beta testers” of New York.

And, according to historians, this explains, in part, why New York State has always been just a bit different. If your goal is make $, you don’t really care about peoples’ religion and ethnicity. It’s divisive and detracts from the ability to accumulate wealth.

So, when Peter Stuyvesant became the Colony’s director the DWI smacked him down when he didn’t want Jews to settle here, and tried to stop Quakers from practicing their religion in peace. They even allowed Catholics, despite the long standing religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics.

Sadly, the DWI’s race for wealth resulted in its aggressive involvement in the slave trade, including the importation of Africans into the Colony (and Albany) as early as 1628. And that legacy remained for centuries, even under English control (which happened when Stuyvesant surrendered the Colony in 1664). The owning of enslaved people became the norm .. if you were Dutch, English, French, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish for almost 2 centuries in New York State.

Enslaved labor became the economic engine for capital formation in New York until slavery was abolished in 1827 in the state.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

An Albany African American in a “White” Regiment

William Topp Lattimore was an African American, born in Albany in 1844.

His grandfather Ben Lattimore Sr. had been one of the few Black men who served in the Revolutionary War.

His father Ben Jr. was a key player in the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Albany, working as early as 1828 to keep 2 Black children in the city from being sold into slavery in the South. William was named after his father’s good friend, William Topp, another Black man in Albany who was part of the UGRR.

By 1847 he moved the family from Albany to Moreau NY, just south of Glens Falls, where he bought an orchard and established an UGRR station. It was a family affair – and included the oldest of the 11 Lattimore children.

In late Summer 1861, when the call went out for volunteers for the Union Army William, known as Billy, enlisted in the 77th NY, the Saratoga regiment. (He lied about his age.) He served alongside his friends and neighbors who clearly knew he was African Anerican.

Billy’s service was extraordinarily rare. We’ve yet to find another story like his. At that time Black men were prohibited from serving in the Union Army. Yet it appears no one cared that he was African American.

Billy was one of the first men wounded at the Battle of Fort Stevens, in defense of Washington D.C. (President Lincoln and his wife Mary went to observe battle and were told to take cover.) Billy recovered from his severe wound and re-joined his Regiment in late 1864. He mustered out at the end of the War.

(Had he been captured wethink the Confederates would have treated him brutally; they loathed Black Union soldiers.)

After the War Billy went to live in NYC, working as a waiter. But on the death of his father in 1871 returned to take care of the orchard and Mother and sisters.

He joined the GAR (Union Veterans Organization. – Grand Army of the Republic) in Saratoga Springs in the mid 1880s. The entire family moved to that city about 1888. For the rest of his life Billy was a proud member of the GAR, attending all re-unions and serving as an officer on a number of occasions until his death in 1915. He’s indicated in the photo below by the blue arrow.

Billy buried in Greenridge Cemetery in Saratoga Springs with his mother, father and other family members.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The Bicentennial Tablets – Where are they now? Tablet No. 7—First English Church

 

In 1886 the 200th anniversary of Albany becoming a chartered city was celebrated with great fanfare. Memorial plaques (tablets) were placed around the city at historic sites.

Tablet No. 7—First English Church

The “tablet committee” proposed that 7 be located in the walk, near the curb, north-west corner of Chapel and State Streets. It was a bronze tablet, 11×23 inches, set in the top of a granite block 21×33 inches square and 16 inches high above the sidewalk, and would have a slanting top to shed water. It would read:

“Opposite in middle of State street stood the First English Church Erected A. D. 1715—Removed and Rebuilt as St. Peter’s church 1803 on next corner west. Rebuilt 1859.”

There is no longer a northwest corner of Chapel and State, although we suspect Chapel still exists on paper. It is a driveway between the Hilton Hotel and the bank building that holds down the Elm Tree corner. There are notable markers nearby in the center islands, thoughtfully placed so that pedestrians waiting forever for drivers to acknowledge the walk signals have something to read while they wait.

A 1914 report in the Albany Argus notes that while the Bicentennial Report said this tablet was to be set in the northwest corner of Chapel and State streets, it was never placed there, “but a tablet with a more elaborate inscription was placed on the front wall of St. Peter’s church.” This would explain why the tablet at St. Peter’s doesn’t say what the committee said it would. The tablet that was actually cast looks entirely different from the other bicentennial tablets, and includes much more church history.

“In the middle of State, formerly Yonkers Street, one block below, stood the First English Church, built A.D. 1715, upon ground granted by letters patent from King George the First. It bore the name of St. Peter’s Church. The Parish was incorporated A.D. 1769. The Second St. Peter’s Church was built on this Site A.D. 1802, and bore this inscription: Glory be to the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever. The present edifice was built A.D. 1859. Upon this spot stood the north east bastion of Fort Frederick.”

The First English Church

Recall that despite the colony having been taken under English rule in 1664, Albany was Dutch, Dutch to the core, and a few English soldiers and government officials didn’t change that. In 1704, Albany was described to Church of England clergy in New York as:

“A large frontier town where most of the people are Dutch, who have from Amsterdam a Dutch minister, one Mr. Lydius, but there are some English families, besides a garrison of Soldiers, who are a considerable congregation. A Church of England minister here will, in all probability do signal service, not only by setting up public worship to the joy and comfort of the English, who impatiently desire a minister, and persuading the Dutch and others to conform, but also instructing the Indians which come in greater numbers thither.” Hooper’s “A History of St. Peter’s Church in the City of Albany,” p. 85, referring to “Doc. Hist. N.Y. Vol. III, p. 117”

It would be 1708 before an English church clergyman, Rev. Thomas Barclay, would be commissioned at the fort, which then contained a garrison of 200 soldiers. Barclay was also named missionary to Native Americans who came to Albany, as well as the enslaved persons (which made up about 450 of Albany’s 4000 people in 1712). Barclay wrote in 1710 that he was catechising “a great many Dutch children, who at my first arrival were altogether ignorant of the English tongue,” as well as preaching at Schenectady’s garrison of 40 soldiers as well as 16 English families and 100 Dutch; there had been no Dutch minister there for five years. In Albany, Lydius, the Dutch minister, died in March 1710, with no replacement for more than a year. The English church services were taking place in a “much decayed” small chapel belonging to the Dutch church.

In 1714, Governor Robert Hunter granted license to Rev. Barclay to collect money for the building of a church “in the centre of the broad street called Yonkers Street, leading from the fort to the waterside, between the end of Pearl Street and the small street that leads to the Lutheran Church.”

It was later decided that a location on the hill nearer the fort would allow more room for church and cemetery. But still, being Albany, the center of the street seemed a perfectly reasonable place to put a church.

Hooper writes that “soon after the patent was received, workmen began to lay out the plot granted in the middle of the street.” This site would lead to a dispute between the province of New York, which granted the patent, and the City of Albany, which determined that “the right of the Crown to convey land without any title from the City ought to be tested.” Work on the foundation had begun in November 1714, and legal battles ensued, with Albany taking legal action against workmen at the site. The issue was ultimately resolved in the church’s favor, and the church opened Nov. 25, 1716.

The Second Church: St. Peter’s

By 1796, according to Hooper, it was recognized that the congregation had outgrown the original church. Now known as St. Peter’s, they already had rights to purchase a lot at Barrack (Chapel), Steuben, Lodge and Pine Streets. The sale/exchange was complicated – church properties were assessed in those days, and there was the matter of wanting the old church’s steeple left standing, for it was from there that the fire bell rang. There were other matters under consideration, such as the potential joining of the Lutherans, who used the same church building, with the English Episcopalians, such that the matter was put off for some years. It would be January 1802 before there was a contract made with Philip Hooker, Elisha Putnam, Garrett W. Van Schaick and Samuel Hill to “erect, build and complete a stone Church on the lot of ground in the first ward of the City of Albany at the intersection of State and Lodge streets.” The church was to be completed by June 15, 1803. A new cornerstone was laid May 7, 1802.

“When the first St. Peter’s was torn down, the bodies of all those buried within the church were carefully removed and re-interred under the tower of the second building. Among them were the remains of the gallant Lord Howe, who fell at Trout Brook, July 6, 1758, in the campaign against the French. A payment of seventeen dollars and a half ($17.50), was made to Adam Todd, the sexton, ‘for raising, removing, and interring, the remains of 35 persons from the interior of the old Church in State Street when demolished to the new Church now building.”

Thanks to contributor Adrian Brisee we have additional evidence that the bodies were, in fact moved, in the form of a record made in a Stevenson/Douw family bible. John Stevenson (1735-1810), a warden of the church who laid the cornerstone, wrote:

“In the beginning of July 1802, the workmen began to take down St. Peter’s Church in this City, and on the 19th instant, I had the bones of my Father and five of my Children, taken up, and put into a new coffin, and interred in the new St. Peter’s Church near the centre of the North Hall, back of the pulpit, and had a silver plate put on it, with this incription, to wit:

‘In this coffin are the bones of my father James Stevenson Esq., who died 2d February 1769, and was buried in the Episcopal St. Peter’s Church, and when it was taken down they were removed to the new Episcopal Church, called St. Peter’s. In this coffin are also the bones of five of my children. Albany 19 July 1802.’

[signed] John Stevenson

A marble slab was to be placed above the pediment of the main entrance.

The Third Church

Construction on the third church, designed by Richard Upjohn of New York City, began in 1859, with demolition completed and the first foundation stone for the new church laid by April 8. In the course of that demolition, they discovered a somewhat mysterious stone, four feet long and one foot thick. “Upon its face cut in are the following letters of an ancient form, A.M.S. and A.N.O. joined together as one letter, bearing date, 1715.” Hooper says there is no record of laying any cornerstone for the first church, and that the stone work of that building was taken by Hooker and Putnam in partial payment. “It seems strange that a relic like that should have been allowed to be built into the foundation, if the authorities of St. Peter’s were aware of its value. It may not have been connected with the church, but a stone from the old fort, as the north-east bastion and other parts of the fort enclosure occupied the site of the present church. The stone does not appear to have been preserved.” In other words, we found a mysterious but potentially important stone, we didn’t know what it was about, and we lost it again.

On June 29th, 1859, with the foundation walls nearly completed, there was a large ceremonial placement of the new cornerstone, along with “a proper lead box to be placed under the stone, and a silver plate with a proper inscription to be deposited in that box, with such documents and other articles as the Committee may deem proper.”

What they deemed proper included “the Bible and Prayer Book, the New York Convention Journal for 1858, photographs of the old church, a list of pew holders, a diagram of the old church, and a silver plate upon which was inscribed a brief record of the laying of the corner stone, the names of those connected with the building of the new church, and a concise history of the parish.” The first service in the new church was held September 16, 1860. While there have been some significant renovations, including the erection of the tower in honor of John Tweddle and interior renovations, the church still stands and functions some 160 years later.

By Carl Johnson, from his blog Hoxsie.org

More in the series – The Bicentennial Tablets from 1886 – where are they now?Bicentennial Tablet No. 8 – St. Mary’s Church

Continuing with the eighth in our series covering the tablets that were placed around the city of Albany (and a little beyond) in honor of the bicentennial of the city’s charter, in 1886. This one commemorated the first Catholic church in the city, which came pretty late in the city’s development.

Tablet No. 8—Old St. Mary’s Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in wall of present edifice of that name on Pine Street.

Inscription: “Site of Old St. Mary’s Built A. D. 1797. The First Catholic Parish Church in Albany and second in the State. The entrance directly under this Tablet. A Second Building on this Same Spot, Facing on Chapel Street, was the Original Cathedral of this Diocese.”

Martin Joseph Becker’s A History of Catholic Life in the Diocese of Albany, 1609-1864 notes that the first Catholic Mass in New York was Nov. 14, 1655, at Indian Hill, two miles south of what is now Manlius, at what became a mission to the Iroquois. But in the Hudson Valley, Catholics were few — with the notable exception of Thomas Dongan, Catholic governor of New York from 1683-1688, in the time when James II, who had converted to Catholicism, ruled England.

Then, under William and Mary, tolerance of Catholics was no longer official policy, and “Jesuits, priests and popish missionaries” were outlawed in 1700. That situation continued in the colonies until the Revolution, so the only noted Catholics were random immigrants in the Mohawk Valley, and the Iroquois at Akwesasne. After the revolution, New York’s constitution of 1777 allowed all religions, and the ban on priests was eventually lifted in 1784.

In 1796, the Albany Gazette noted the success of a subscription for “erecting a Roman Catholic chapel in this city. It bespeaks the tolerant and liberal disposition of the country, to find out citizens of every persuasion emulous in assisting their Roman Catholic brethren with the means of building here a temple to the God of heaven, in which they can worship according to the dictates of their own consciences. The corporation [city] unanimously resolved to present them with a piece of ground for the site of their church.”

The cornerstone was laid by merchant Thomas Berry Sept. 13, 1797 at a site on what was then called Barrack St, now Chapel St.

Munsell, in his Annals of Albany Vol. 4, includes an article from the Albany Gazette of Sept. 10, 1798, proclaiming, “It is with the most heartfelt satisfaction that we can inform our brethren of the Roman Catholic faith, that their church in this city is so near completed as to be under roof, glazed and floored (fire proof). That it is a neat building, and will be an ornament to the city, and a lasting blessing to all who are members in communion of that church.” ”There were a number of indications that the building, which was built of brick and “fifty feet square,” was completed without being finished, precisely. In Feb. 1807″.

“Notice was given that a sermon would be preached in the Roman Catholic church, on Sunday morning, Feb. 22, by the Rev. Mr. Hurley, for the purpose of raising a collection to assist in finishing the inside of said church.”

It was this first church that was visited by the Marquis De Lafayette on his visits to Albany during his later tour of the United States; it has been repeatedly asserted that he heard mass in the church (from Rev. John Lewis Savage) in June 1825.

It wasn’t terribly long before that church was insufficient for its purpose, and it was replaced with a new church on the same site. The cornerstone for the second St. Mary’s, designed by Philip Hooker, was laid Oct. 13, 1829, and the church opened for services on August 29, 1830. Also constructed of brick, it reportedly cost $31,000. (During construction, the congregation held services in the Lancaster School, the Philip Hooker-designed building on Eagle Street, which would later be the first home of the Albany Medical College.)

In 1847, St. Mary’s became the Cathedral parish for the new Albany Diocese, but only for a short time, as the cornerstone of the Cathedral on Eagle Street was laid July 2, 1848, and the building dedicated Nov. 21, 1852.

The current St. Mary’s Church

Despite that and the development of other Catholic churches, it was decided that a new St. Mary’s was needed, and a cornerstone for a new church was laid August 11, 1867, and the new church dedicated March 14, 1869. (This one faced Lodge Street, instead of Chapel.)

A major, four-year renovation was completed in 1894, overhauling the interior and adding the tower with its iconic “Angel of Judgment” statue. At this time St. Mary’s became the first church building in Albany to have electric lights; they were very proud of having eight different circuits that allowed them to light any section of the church individually.

The third St. Mary’s still stands today. Since then, we presume additional lighting has been installed. Coming late as they did, the Catholics did not have a chance to fill downtown Albany with burials (unlike some other churches). They did have a section at the State Street Burying Grounds (now Washington Park), and in 1867 established their own cemetery, St. Agnes in Menands.

By Carl Johnson, from his blog,  Hoxsie.org

William Henry Johnson; Albany’s Forgotten Black Civil War Soldier

If you research Black soldiers from the North in the Civil War you will mostly find references to what were known as the “Colored Troop” (CT) regiments formed in 1864. (Black men weren’t permitted to serve in the Union Army until late 1863. ) The most well-known of these regiments is the 54th Massachusetts memorialized in the movie “Glory”. In New York State 3 CT regiments were raised. About 100 men from Albany served in 54th Massachusetts and the New York colored regiments

If you dig deeper you will find stories of Black men who served in white units, like William Lattimore, born in Albany in 1844, who enlisted with the 78th NY (known as the “Saratoga Regiment”) in late summer 1861. He was severely wounded at the battle of Fort Stevens defending Washington D.C., but served until the War was over. Today the number of men who were allowed into these white regiments (for a variety of reasons) is estimated to be between 5,000 – 6,000, but new stories are found all the time, and it’s quite possible there were many more.

Finally, there are men who served in an extraordinary capacity. One of those was William Henry Johnson. Johnson was born in Alexandria, Va. In 1833, but raised in Philadelphia. In 1850/51 he came to Albany; it appears that he quickly became associated with Stephen Myers, who was by then the supervising agent for Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR) helping enslaved Blacks from the south find freedom.

In 1852 he married Sarah Stewart.

Her father, John G. Stewart, had been born a free man in Albany, and became a barber. He was active in the Black community and in anti-slavery activities. In 1831 he started publication of “The African Sentinel”, the second Black newspaper in the U.S. He went on to attend some of the first National Colored Conventions (the only forum for free Black men to discuss political issues of the day- since most of them were denied the right to vote, even in the North). Stewart is linked to Stephen Myers and the UGRR as early as 1831 – it seems quite possible that Stewart’s wife Leah was related to Myers’ wife Harriet.

But in 1855 the couple left Albany and re-located to Philadelphia. There Johnson continued to be active in UGRR activities, and assumed a large and outspoken role in the Black community. He was part of a group of known as “The Leaders” who formed the “Frank Johnson Guard”, a militia organization associated with the Black members of the UGRR. (There were similar militias in Harrisburg, Cincinnati, New York City and Binghamton.) Local white militias would not permit Black men to join, and the Black militias were left mostly not bothered by the white community, because it thought Black men would not fight, couldn’t fight and it was all show.

In August 1859, on the eve of a parade by the Guards, who should appear but John Brown, in the company of Frederick Douglass.

Brown urged the Guard members to tone it down at the parade, to not us use intemperate language, for fear they would rouse suspicions about the Harper’s Ferry Raid, planned for later in the year. Johnson, who had been prepared to deliver a thundering incendiary speech, agreed. In October Brown returned to Philadelphia in an effort to recruit Black men to serve with him. Since Johnson was expecting his first child Brown refused to let him volunteer.

In December 1859 after the failed raid Douglass and some members of the Guard in Philadelphia scrambled. Douglass, who had been discussing plans with Brown and helping him raise money for several years, wired his son in Rochester to destroy documents and fled to New York City. We think the Johnsons returned to Albany.

In April, 1861 shots were fired at Fort Sumter and the War began. Initially Johnson applied to the local Albany militia, but was refused the opportunity to enlist. So, Johnson and other Black men made their way to Connecticut, and associated themselves with the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Infantry formed in May 1861. Their status is not clear; there are sparse military records for these men during the first years of the War, when Black men were prohibited from fighting. They existed in a sort of limbo, although Johnson does refer to his “enlistment”.

But Johnson sent dispatches from the War front to the Boston newspaper “ The Pine and Palm” (published by James Redpath*, who would become John Brown’s first biographer.)In the dispatches it appears the Johnson and the others MAY have been allowed to participate in all activities of the the Regiment, but he refers to himself as an “independent.” They traveled with the Regiment to bivouac at Camp Mansfield in Washington D.C., and were part of the encampment. Johnson and the other fought in the bloody first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 (a huge Union loss).

After the 2nd infantry was disbanded ( there was 3 month enlistment duration because the Union was confident it would lick Johnny Reb in no time), Johnson and his group attached themselves to the 8th Connecticut Regiment, calling themselves the “8th Colored Volunteers”. While with this regiment he fought at the Battle of Roanoke Island in North Carolina under General Burnside in February 1862. Johnson became ill and returned to Albany, but military records appear to indicate that some of the other Black men with whom he volunteered remained in military service until the end of the War**

Johnson was in Albany when the prohibition against Black soldiers in the Union Army was lifted. He then became the chief recruiting officer in the Albany area for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the NYS Colored Troop Regiments.

1864

After the War Johnson went back to barbering (his shop was on Maiden Lane), and established himself as a major force in Black politics in the Albany and New York State. He’s credited with being a prime mover behind the first New York State equal rights legislation, enacted in 1873 and the successful effort to de-segregate Albany public schools in 1873.

He became so well known that in August 1875 the now famous Black sculptor Edmonia Lewis (from East Greenbush and Albany) presented him with a bust of Charles Sumner at the A.M. E. Church on Hamilton St.

Throughout the late 1800s Johnson continued to work on behalf of equal rights for the African American community, culminating in the Elsberg Bill, signed by Governor Theodore Roosevelt, that officially de-segregated New York State Public Schools.

Circa 1900

Sadly, Johnson died almost a pauper at the Little Sisters of the Poor on Central Ave., six months after his beloved Sarah, in October, 1918. They are buried at Albany Rural Cemetery in unmarked graves. (We only know because Paula Lemire, Cemetery historian, has found plot maps.)

*Redpath is credited as being one of the group of Blacks and whites who created the first Memorial Day in Charleston in 1865, by honoring the graves of Union soldiers who died in a Confederate POW camp.

**More research needs to be done on the role Johnson and other Black men played in military combat in the early days of the War. Juanita Patience Moss in Forgotten Black Soldiers Who Served in White Regiments During the Civil War makes a good start. Johnson’s autobiography includes tantalizing references – the Black men may have trained together, rather than with the main regiment, but he also refers to a large number of Black men in the 8th Connecticut camp. About 30 years later a local newspaper makes a point that it’s a shame that Johnson is not eligible to collect a pension.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor