Hurst’s Free Museum – Albany NY

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We thought we’d tell you about our favorite, but little known, Albany museum of the past.

The Hurst Free Museum was open on lower Elm St. for several years in the early 1870s. James Hurst was born in England in 1810; the family subsequently immigrated to Canada. By 1849 he had moved to Utica and opened a taxidermy shop.

1.2In 1850 or so he was induced to come to Albany to become the NYS Taxidermist at the State Hall (the earliest NYS museum) on State and Lodge St., which had strong emphasis of natural history Hurst had incredible skill – not just in taxidermy, but in creating dioramas and exhibits that portrayed wildlife in their native habitat.

As more people flocked to urban areas knowledge of how wild creatures lived in their natural settings was being lost. So Hurst’s exhibits were a teaching tool. Hurst’s dioramas were exhibited at the World’s Fair in New York City between 1853 and 1854 which drew over 1 million visitors. (The Fair was America’s answer to London’s Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851.)

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Taxidermy was Hurst’s love and he had hundreds of personal specimens. The museum was free, but he sold his hand tinted stereoscopic view cards to visitors, as well as to schools around the country. Hurst had a whimsical and satiric side too, and we’ve included photos of some of those cards.

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Hurst’s work was so important it’s part of the collection of the Library of Congress.

(9-11 Elm St. still stand, just above Grand St.)

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Who’s that Guy? (The Statue in front of the School District Building) – Albany’s Joseph Henry

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Joseph Henry. He changed our world; he was one of the country’s first great scientists. Henry was the first American to discover the practical application of the principles of electromagnetic induction (key to most electronics), the electric motor and electric current. Without Henry there might not be any telephone, TV, refrigeration, central heating or automobiles. His work lead to the invention of all the things we depend on in 21st century everyday life.

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Henry, in the statue, is holding an intensive electromagnet – the basis of most of his important scientific discoveries.

b(The statue stands in front of the Joseph Henry Memorial Building that currently houses the office of the Albany City School District. In 1817 it opened as the location of the Albany Academy (for Boys). In 1971 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The statue honoring Henry was installed in the late 1920s. )

 

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Henry was born in 1797 on Division St. in Albany. His family was Scots Presbyterian that immigrated to America on the eve of the Revolutionary War in 1775. The family was poor and Henry’s father an alcoholic. Prior to his father’s death in 1811 Henry and his siblings were sent to live with his mother’s parents in Galway in Saratoga County. In his later teens Henry returned to the Albany and was apprenticed to a silversmith, while he dabbled with theater and considered an acting career.

Albany Academy
The story has been told that Henry stumbled across a cache of books including “Popular Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry”. Heavy reading for a half-educated teen, but it included a great description of scientific experiments. They fired his imagination and scientific curiosity. Apparently Henry was hooked and he enrolled in the Albany Academy, paying his way through a variety of jobs (he tutored Stephen Van Renssleaer IV, who would be the “last patroon”) and Henry James Sr. -father of novelist Henry James). One of his jobs, as an assistant NYS road surveyor, moved him in the direction of engineering.

Ultimately he became a professor at the Academy in 1826. Teaching at the Academy didn’t thrill him. A few years later he described his situation in a letter: “. . . My duties at the Academy are not well suited to my taste. I am engaged on an average seven hours in a day, one half of the time in teaching the higher classes in Mathematics, and the other half in the drudgery of instructing a class of sixty boys in the elements of Arithmetic.” (One of his students was Albany’s Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick”, who did quite well in Henry’s class, winning a prize.)

Nevertheless Henry found a little time, a little space, and a little money to do research.

Like most scientists of his day Henry was not a specialist, and explored all aspects of the physical sciences, but an initial focus was electromagnetism. He began to build electromagnets which, for the first time, were wound with many strands and layers of insulated wire. (According to legend, at one point he used silk strips torn from his wife’s petticoats for insulation.)

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In one famous experiment Henry strung wire from his laboratory at the Albany Academy to the roof of the Van Vechten building on State St., just below Eagle St.). His goal was to send an electromagnetic pulse across a distance. “The cheers of the school boys on the roof of the Van Vechten building gave Henry the first intimation that his experiment had been a success.” Henry also invented the precursor of the first electric motor and identified the principles that made the telegraph possible.

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In 1830 Henry married a cousin, Harriet Alexander. While he was teaching the couple lived on Columbia St. They had 4 children. Henry served on the board of trustees that over saw the first public school, the Lancaster School, in Albany (supported in part by money allocated by the Common Council) as well as the  publi financed City’s African School.

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Princeton

In 1832 Henry accepted a position as professor at what is now Princeton University in New Jersey. He taught natural philosophy, geology, and architecture. At Princeton he had the opportunity continue his scientific research and published on a variety of subjects, but it was his work on basic and applied electromagnetism for which he became known. Henry thrived at Princeton. He was paid the princely sum of $1,000 annually and soon his brother-in-law, Stephen Alexander from Albany, arrived to teach astronomy.

By 1846 Henry was widely known and respected among the scientific community worldwide. (During his first European tour in 1837, he met the greatest scientific minds, including Michael Faraday, on the other side of the Atlantic.)

The Smithsonian

Consequently he was offered and accepted the position as the first secretary/director of the new Smithsonian Institution*. He continued in that position until his death. It was under his tenure that the National Museum of Natural History was established in the first Smithsonian building – known as “The Castle ”** today. (The Henry family had quarters in the east wing – every night was a “Night at the Museum”for the Henry kids. )

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As awesome as the museum is, Henry wanted to be more than a museum curator. He led the Smithsonian in the support of original research and dissemination of scientific knowledge worldwide.

In 1849, Henry assumed the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (founded in Albany in 1839 by Henry’s colleagues). Henry served on the board of managers that oversaw the American exhibit at Prince Albert‘s Crystal Palace in 1851 in London. In 1867  He beacme president of the recently established National Academy of Science to further ensure that America would support science and scientific research of all kinds.

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For years Henry didn’t get the recognition he deserved, but over time more has emerged about his life. Today, it’s fairly widely accepted that if Henry had patented his work he, rather than Samuel Morse, would be credited with invention of the telegraph. (Henry thought that patents inhibited the sharing of scientific information.) More light has been shed on Henry’s somewhat tense relationship with President Lincoln and his much closer relationship with Senator Jefferson Davis, who would become President of the Confederacy.***

(Henry was circumspect about his political sentiments and rarely spoke about them in public.  He abhorred slavery, but favored colonization rather than abolition and thought that a peaceful secession was better than a Civil War. In 1862 an association asked for and was granted permission to give a series of lectures in the Smithsonian auditorium, with the proviso that it be made clear that use of the Smithsonian in no way constituted an endorsement. At the end of the series all hell broke loose in the District when Henry denied Frederick Douglass the right to speak.)

Alexander Graham Bell and Henry

However, our favorite story is the relationship between Alexander Graham Bell and Henry. After Henry’s death his widow was left in reduced circumstances. As a result the Bell Telephone Co. was prepared to remove her telephone because she hadn’t paid her bill. Bell himself stepped in and gave Mrs. Henry free phone service for the rest of her life. Bell readily acknowledged that without the help of Henry he would never have succeeded with his invention. When Bell visited Henry at the Smithsonian with his preliminary work, Henry was encouraging. But when Bell told Henry that he didn’t have enough knowledge of electromagnetism to make his theory a reality Henry is said to have simply replied, “Get it”.

Joseph Henry died May 13, 1878 (his funeral was arranged by General William Sherman). He, and his wife and children, are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in the District of Columbia. Henry’s parents were buried in the First Presbyterian Church lot in what is now Washington Park. Those remains were transferred to Albany Rural Cemetery. Henry’s siblings remained in Albany and are buried in Section 55 of Albany Rural.

*The Smithsonian Institution was founded with a bequest of James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman and amateur scientist. The Smithson funding was intended for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”.

**The Castle was designed by James Renwick. Renwick became the pre-eminent architect of the period. He designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC and Trinity Episcopal Church, on Trinity Place, in Albany. Trinity Church was allowed to degenerate into a state of neglect and was demolished in 2011.

*** The Henry/Davis friendship has become the basis of myth and novels that link the Smithsonian to the Confederacy, especially lost Confederate treasury gold.

Julie O’Connor

A Brief History of Albany’s Early Jewish Congregations

Jews were among the earliest settlers in Albany. They were Dutch citizens, arriving from the far flung territories in the Western Hemisphere established by the Dutch West Indies Company. By the early 19th century the Jewish community was well established in Albany, and the city became a center for Jewish immigration into America.

The post below is by Christopher White, excerpted from his blog, “Finding Your Past: Genealogical Gleanings with the Albany Grave Digger” https://findingyourpast.blogspot.com

Western European Sephardic Jews were attracted to Albany from its earliest days because in the seventeenth century Albany was the leading exporter of skins and furs to Europe. The first Jews appeared in Fort Orange and Beverwyck in 1654. They came to travel and trade in the colony. At first they were denied permission by the Director General of the colony, Pieter Stuyvesant. Only citizens of the village were allowed to trade, and only members of the Dutch Reformed could become citizens. The following year Jews were allowed to trade outside of the borders of New Amsterdam. Among the first Jews to arrive in Fort Orange was Asser Levy. By 1660 he had purchased several homes and became a trader on a substantial scale.[1] At this time there were 23 Jews residing in Fort Orange. The Jews were now allowed to practice their religion within their own homes, but they were not allowed to build houses of worship. The same provisions also applied to the Lutherans. However, it was not until the 1820s that the Jewish population was large enough to build a synagogue.[2]

The Jewish population in Albany came predominantly from the Germanic state of Bayern (Bavaria), where anti-Jewish restrictions were rigidly enforced. These Jewish immigrants began to heavily settle in the city in the 1830s and 1840s. The German Jews adhered to their native tongue and even attempted to perpetuate it among their children. They kept synagogue records in German, communicated in German, and engaged Rabbis who delivered addresses in German. The use of German was respectable because it was the language of the majority in the German enclave.[3] As of 1886 there were approximately three thousand Jews in the city, most of them German.[4] But as Russian Jews, numbering over two thousand, migrated to the city between 1880 and 1900, anti-Semitism took hold of Albany’s elite. Discrimination was directed both to the newcomers and to the older, more established upper-class German Jews.[5] This occurred even though the German Jews were fully absorbed in the German community. Many Western European Jews were charter members of various German societies of the city, such as Doctor Joseph Lewi, who helped establish the Deutsche Literatur Gesellschaft, or German Literary Society. Jewish merchant Julius Laventall hosted numerous Jewish organizations in the upstairs rooms at his clothing shop, also known as Laventall’s Building. Another prominent Albany Jew was Myer Nussbaum, a lawyer who later became a New York State Senator.

Albany’s first Jewish congregation was the moderate orthodox sect, Beth El, meaning “The House of God.” The flock was organized in 1822 and later incorporated on March 25, 1838. Beth El was the city’s first German language congregation. On December 16, 1839, the congregation’s first meeting place, 66 Bassett Street, was purchased from Abel Fretch for $1,500. After the idea of building a new house of worship was not fulfilled, 76 Herkimer Street was purchased for $2150 from the Hibernian Society on September 2, 1842. In 1846 the congregation opened a school, the Jewish Academy of Albany, at 77 Ferry Street, and by 1849 the school had one hundred students. School tuition cost $9.00 per year. The school’s pupils were instructed in German, Hebrew, and English.[6]

On July 14, 1865, a larger edifice situated on the corner of South Ferry and Franklin Streets was purchased for $4,000 from the South Ferry Street Methodist Episcopal Church and used as a synagogue. It was dedicated on January 20, 1865, with great pomp. There was a parade through the streets of Albany with members of the congregation carrying the Scrolls of the Law.[7] To bury the congregations’ dead, two acres of land were purchased in Bethlehem near the Abbey Hotel for use as a cemetery. On April 13, 1839, the land was bought for $15.[8] Organizations associated with Beth El were the Bethel Society, formed in 1838 as a mutual aid society, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, established on September 20, 1855, providing assistance for families in need and distress; and the Chevra, organized in 1843, was another benevolent group that provided sick and death benefits for its members.

The second Jewish congregation in Albany was Beth El Jacob. It came into existence after eight families broke away from Beth El due to internal conflicts regarding orthodoxy. It was the city’s only orthodox sect and was incorporated on February 22, 1841. The first meeting place was located at 8 Rose Street and was dedicated on May 25, 1841. On December 1, 1847, the corner stone for a new synagogue was laid. The new house of worship was located at 28 Fulton Street, between Lydius, now Madison Avenue and Van Zandt Streets and consecrated on April 28, 1848.[9] In 1860 it was proposed by the congregation that prayers be offered in German, instead of Hebrew.[10] By 1900 the congregation was composed mainly of newly arrived Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. The influx of these Eastern European nationalities helped the congregation’s lagging German membership. On August 5, 1974, Beth El Jacob merged with another orthodox congregation, B’nai Abraham, or the Sons of Abraham, which was founded in June 1882 at 69 South Pearl Street.

Anshe Emeth, signifying “People of Truth,” became Albany’s third Jewish congregation when forty-six members from Beth El left to form a new moderate reformed congregation on October 5, 1850. The society was formally incorporated as a house of worship six days later. At the time, Anshe Emeth was the fourth reformed Jewish congregation in the United States. The flock first worshipped in the German language in an abandoned razor strap factory, on the corner of Lydius and South Pearl Streets. Afterwards, the congregation worshiped in a building on Green Street until the former Baptist church at 155-159 South Pearl Street was purchased and was transformed into a synagogue. It was officially dedicated on October 3, 1851, with an elaborate ceremony.[11] Worship services consisted of prayers in Hebrew, the reading of the law, also in Hebrew; while music, and sermons were conducted in either English or German.[12]

On August 27, 1851, land was purchased in Watervliet from George E. Hartman for use as a cemetery, and on April 3, 1862, the cemetery opened.[13] Two more acres were later bought in 1878 to increase the size of the burial grounds. Anshe Emeth opened a school in 1852. Its curriculum provided both religious and secular instruction, including the study of German until the school closed in 1905.[14] During the mid 1880s the congregation included about 150 families.[15]

In December 1885, after years of discussion, 1200 worshippers from the congregations of Anshe Emeth and Beth El merged to form a new Reformed congregation, Beth Emeth. The board decided that English should be used during board meetings and in the keeping of records. By 1889 services in German and English alternated each week, to the dismay of most of the congregation, who wanted to continue services strictly in German. Land for a synagogue was purchased on the corner of Lancaster and Swan Streets for $19,000 in 1887. The synagogue was erected at a cost of $145,000. On May 24, 1889, the new house of worship was consecrated.

As of 1897 the congregation numbered approximately 1,200 members. In 1894 a school was created where bilingual instruction in Hebrew and German was taught, along with Bible study, catechism, and Jewish history. By 1905 the school existed only as a Sunday school. Regrettably as time passed, Jewish children who understood German refused to use it in public or among their friends; second and third generation German Jews also abandoned the language of their ancestors.[16] Societies within the Beth Emeth congregation included the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Ladies Sewing Society, and the Jewish Home Society. All three societies aided the poor and the old of the Jewish community. Another group, the Young People’s Society promoted literature.[17] Today, the synagogue is an African-American church, the Wilborn Temple on Jay St.

German Jews were similar to German Gentiles. They also created non-religious organizations. Fourteen German Jews established the Deutsche Literatur Gesellschaft, or German Literary Society, in 1849. The society stressed intellectual development, community activity, and the maintenance of the German language, as well as extending assistance to newly arriving German immigrants.[18] In 1876 the society met at Laventall’s Building, located at the corner of South Pearl Street and Hudson Avenue. The group included a theater and music committee that held debates, gave recitations and lectures, intellectual presentations, and dramatic productions, including Schiller’s “Räuber.” Schiller Halle, established by Wilhelm Schindler and located on the corner of Herkimer and Franklin Streets, was the host for these events. The literary society became the best outlet for social and cultural needs of Albany’s German Jews.[19]

Another Jewish literary group was the Concordia Literary Association. The association was in existence only a short time, approximately from 1877 to 1880. Yet another Jewish literary group, the Adelphi Literary Association, was founded on January 26, 1873, and incorporated on February 11, 1881, as the Adelphi Club. The original purpose of the association was for mutual enlightenment and instruction in science and literature, by the aid of social intercourse, debates, readings, orations, and the maintenance of a library.[20] The first meeting place was located on South Pearl Street, between Division Street and Hudson Avenue. In 1876 the club moved to 83 Green Street, formerly Turn Halle. The new site soon became known as Adelphia Hall. In 1893 Adelphia Hall moved and was located at 82 South Pearl Street. By 1914 Adelphi Club ceased its intellectual pursuits and purchased land in suburban Voorheesville, New York and transformed itself into the Colonie Country Club.

Other Jewish organizations included the Society for Brotherly Love, which was established on March 19, 1843. The society provided assistance and burial facilities for deceased members. Meanwhile, Jews were not admitted into Freemasonry. They, therefore, founded the International Order of B’nai B’rith, meaning “Brotherhood of the Covenant,” hereafter IOBB. Jews from New York City formed the IOBB in 1843 as a fraternal, charitable, and benevolent Jewish association. In Albany the Shiloh Lodge, Number 17, IOBB was organized on December 11, 1853, and met in Laventall’s Building, located on the corner of South Pearl Street and Hudson Avenue. The Shiloh Lodge was involved in the social, cultural, and philanthropic activities of the Jewish community. As Jewish scholar Hyman B. Grinstein put it, “Affiliation with a B’nai Brith lodge was a great social distinction among the German Jews in the 1840s and 1850s.”[21] Therefore, IOBB lodges were mainly composed of older German-speaking Jews. The Shiloh lodge, with sixty-seven members, was an insurance society that issued payouts of $500, $750, and $1,000 to its members depending on the amount of contributions made to the lodge by its members and also depending upon the age of the member at entrance into the lodge.[22] The lodge ceased to exist after 1900 because of the numerical decline of German speakers in the Jewish community. But two organizations that catered to the younger Jewish population who identified with both American ideals and Jewish affairs included the Young Men’s Association, henceforth YMA and the Progress Club. Both groups came into existence during the 1860s and were concerned with cultural and social activities, such as debates, readings, recitations, and concerts. The YMA was located in the Martin Opera House on South Pearl Street in 1876, and its library consisted of over seven thousand volumes. Meanwhile, the city of Buffalo, New York, also had a strictly German YMA, which was incorporated, earlier than Albany’s, on May 12, 1846. Its library compiled 1,800 volumes as of 1855.[23]

Another Jewish society was the Brith Academy. It opened in November 1866 at 67 Division Street, but closed on May 1, 1869, due to a lack of financial support. The academy had 150 students and four teachers who taught English, German, Hebrew and secular studies.[24] An additional Jewish organization was the Gideon Lodge, No. 140 of the IOBB. This organization was founded on March 19, 1870, for the purpose of furthering Jewish social and cultural activities. They also met at Laventall’s Building. An unofficial female auxiliary group of B’nai Brith was the Unabhängiger Orden Treur Schwestern, or the Independent Order of True Sisters.[26] The Abigail Lodge formed under the Order of True Sisters on August 4, 1857. Later, the Arnon Lodge, Number 64, of the men’s Independent Order of the Free Sons of Israel was founded on April 5, 1874.

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[1] Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 216. Morris O. A. Gerber, Pictorial History of Albany’s Jewish Community (Albany: n. p., 1986), pp. 13-14.
[2] Rabbi Donald P. Cashman, “Albany’s Synagogues: Split-Off and Merger,” in Historic Albany: Its Churches and Synagogues, Anne Roberts and Marcia Cockrell, eds., (Albany: Library Communications Services, 1986), p. 118.
[3] Hyman B. Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1945), pp. 207-210.
[4] Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., p. 763.
[5] Timothy J. Malloy, “Elite Gentlemen’s Clubs in Albany, New York, 1866-1920” (Masters thesis, University of New York at Albany, 1996), pp. 54-58.
[6] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 83-89. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 227.
[7] Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 236.
[8] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 53-57.
[9] Ibid., pp. 57-60. Reynolds, Albany Chronicles, pp. 577, 593. Cashman, “Albany’s Synagogues: Split-Off and Merger,” in Historic Albany: Its Churches and Synagogues, Anne Roberts and Marcia Cockrell, eds., p. 119. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 237-240.
[10] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 268-269.
[11] Ibid., pp. 156-168. Reynolds, Albany Chronicles: A History of the City Arranged Chronologically, p. 613. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 235.
[12] Phelps, comp., The Albany Hand-Book: A Strangers’ Guide and Residents’ Manual, pp. 97-98. Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., From 1609-1886, p. 763.
[13] Reynolds, Albany Chronicles: A History of the City Arranged Chronologically, p. 644. Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., From 1609-1886, p. 676.
[14] Rubinger, Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century: Historic Roots and Communal Evolution, p. 214.
[15] Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., From 1609-1886, p. 763.
[16] Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860, p. 210.
[17] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, p.57.
[18] Conners, “Their Own Kind,” p. 103. Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 152-153. Reimer, “Ethnicity in Albany, N. Y., 1888-1908,” p. 47. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 230.
[19] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, pp. 71-75.
[20] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” p. 287. Reynolds, Albany Chronicles, p. 651. Phelps, comp., The Albany Hand-Book, pp. 4-5.
[21] Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860, p. 204.
[22] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, p. 217.
[23] French, comp., Gazetteer of the State of New York, p. 147.
[24] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, p. 131.
[25] Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860, p. 154.

The Church of the Holy Innocents

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Holy Innocents Church (Episcopal), on the corner of North Pearl and Colonie St., was built in 1849 by the prolific English architect Frank Wills. It was built in a style called Gothic Revival”. (By way of comparison, Notre Dame was built in the original Gothic style.)

Wills (who wrote the definitive text “Ancient Ecclesiastical Architecture” in 1850) built a number of churches and chapels across the United States. They all draw on the elements of the great English Gothic cathedrals – Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury. Holy Innocents is unique because it included a seperate “Lady Chapel” (dedicated to the Virgin Mary) adjacent to the main church building. Because it was surrounded by the a small garden, it had and has the feel of an English country parish church.

Holy Innocents was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 (We believe it’s the second oldest extant church building in Albany – the oldest would be St Mary’s on Pine St.)

But it’s fallen on hard times over the past 20 years while vacant. In 2015, while it was owned by Hope House, a residential recovery program founded by Fr. Howard Hubbard (before he became the Albany Catholic Diocese Bishop) part of the church collapsed. In late 2016 the church was acquired by a local developer. Based on recent asessments and photos it appear to continue to deteriorate since that acquisition. As a result it was placed on the 2019 Historic Albany Foundation “Dirty Dozen” list of Albany’s most endangered historic structures. There are fears it will simply end up as one more Albany demolition.

Holy Innocents Church 3/19 – credit Ian Benjamin
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Holy Innocents Church 3/19 – credit Ian Benjamin
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Holy Innocents Church 3/19 – credit Ian Benjamin
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Holy Innocents Church 3/19 – credit Ian Benjamin
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Holy Innocents Church 3/19 – credit Ian Benjamin

(My grandmother’s family were Holy Innocents parishioners from 1870 to the early 1940s, so the old pics you see are from my personal collection. We love those altar boys. Grandma is the tall girl in front of church entrance and the somewhat goofy, albeit almost always cheerful, young man in the surplice is Grandpa, who was the organist at Holy Innocents from the early 1920s to early 1940s. That’s where they met – at Holy Innocents – and there’s a whole wacky courtship story I will save for another time.)

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Easter Sunday Holy Innocents

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Mae Kiernan & Catherine Vail – Holy Innocents c. 1918

The White Towers of Albany

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White Tower was an iconic restaurant chain started in the late 1920s in the Mid-West. (And yes, a total rip off of White Castle, but very successful.)

This was back in the day when there were almost no chain restaurants (Ho-Jos didn’t begin until the 1930s.) There were the Harvey Houses in the West and Mid-west and Schrafft’s – mostly in NYC, and the southern chain, the Toddle House. (A Toddle House moved into Albany in 1938 to Washington Ave., just above Lark St.)

Timing is everything. In the midst of Great Depression, the White Tower diners (because that is what they were) thrived. A hamburger and a cup of Joe would set you back a dime. They were clean, white and well–lit with an amazing iconic Art Deco look. The White Towers were the antithesis of the greasy (some sometimes filthy) spoon. They were modern – all gleaming Formica and chrome. You watched your food being made.. (no secrets there). Waitresses and counter girls wore all white uniforms (very nurse like – totally hygienic).

People who had never set foot in a diner in their life flocked to the White Tower. You could take your kids.

The era of the Hamburger had arrived.

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2The first White Tower in Albany was located on north side of Washington Ave., between South Swan and Dove. Land was originally leased from the Catholic Diocese. The Dominican Monastery on the site was demolished. (The building was originally the historic home of the Gansevoorts and the Lansings, dating back to the late 1700s, and oft visited by Herman Melville while he was in Albany. )
The White Tower bought the site in 1952.

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Albany’s second White Tower moved into Clinton Square, across from the Palace Theater in 1935.

 

 

 

 

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5The third and last White Tower near Albany area was built on Broadway between 1935 and 1937 opposite the behemoth Montgomery Ward superstore (now Riverview Center).

 

 

New York State Digital Library

Hamburger prices stayed at 5 cents until 1941, and coffee cost a nickel until 1950.

For decades most White Towers offered free meals on Christmas Day.

At its peak in the 1950s the White Tower chain has 230 locations, mostly in the northeast. But suburbia quickly killed the White Tower (along with management that couldn’t change fast enough).

Fate of the Albany White Towers

The White Tower in Clinton Square was demolished in 1969 for the 787 ramps.

If memory serves, by 1971 the location opposite Wards was no more

14But the Washington Ave. White Tower survives. And that’s a fascinating story. In early 1962 it was first moved about 40 feet to make way for a new Mechanics Exchange Bank. Yup.. the whole shebang, including foundation.. was moved less than 15 yards.

But 9 months later the entire building was on the move again.. up the street to a new location at 12 Central Ave. And there it remained as a functioning restaurant until the early 1970s. The move put the White Tower directly across the street from its competition, a Toddle House diner on Washington Ave.just above Lark St.

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457de96b909cb2102fddb0082ddbe5a0--iroquois-ware(The Toddle House moved to 816 Central in 1969 and became a “Steak ‘n Egg”, owned by the same corporation by 1974; it remained in business until the early 1980s.)

 

 

The White Tower building was vacant until 1986 when Charlene and Dave Shortsleeve purchased the building in turned it into the QE2 club and performance venue. Charlene sold out in the late 1990s.

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Enter the Fuze Box, still going strong.

Paul Robeson and Albany

Why is Robeson important to Albany history?

In 1947 Robeson was at the center of a great political and legal battle that took place in Albany – watched by all of America and the world. He was booked to sing in the auditorium of Philip Livingston Jr. High in Arbor Hill by a black cultural organization in the city. (Livingston was often a venue for large concerts and theatrical productions.. it had a big auditorium and parking space.)

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Robeson had previously been questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (under Senator Joe McCarthy) as being a potential communist. The Albany School Board, appointed by Mayor Erastus Corning (and at the direction of the Mayor) said Robeson could not use the school venue because Robeson was a communist. A huge political crisis ensued.

Local attorney Andrew Harvey, known for his civil rights work for decades , took the Board to court. (Much of the legal expense was funded by the local unions.)

A decision was rendered in favor of Robeson and the concert took place. (One the few times Mayor Corning lost a fight.)

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It’s a story that has been lost to time, but as relevant today as it was 70 plus years ago.

Robeson was an amazing man – an athlete and a lawyer, turned actor and singer – who began to stand up for civil rights and against fascism before it was fashionable. If you would like to know more about him, click here for a summary of his life prepared by the New York Public Library. http://archives.nypl.org/scm/20649

And if you can wait, there’s a Robeson biopic in the works with Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) collaborating with Harry Belafonte.

Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Swashbuckling Captain Dean and the “Experiment”

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Stewart Dean was born in Maryland in 1748. It’s said he learned to sail off the coast of Maryland and captained his first ship while still in his teens. For reasons unknown he came to Albany in the late 1760s or early 1770s and quickly became a respected member of the community.

In 1773 he married Albany native Pieterje Bradt (a/k/a Bratt), daughter of a shipwright. He captained ships up and down the Hudson River and into the West Indies. In 1775 Dean and Abraham Eights, a sailmaker, own property next to one another on Dock St. along the River. (Eights was several years older than Dean, the son of a captain from NYC, who settled in Albany around the same time as Dean and it appears they became fast friends.)

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The Revolutionary War

In June 1776 Dean received a “letter of marque” from the Continental Congress. This commissioned Dean and his sloop the “Beaver” (90 tons, 6 cannon, 25 men) to act as a privateer. (Basically, this was a license to fit out an armed vessel, use it in the capture of enemy merchant shipping, and to commit acts which would otherwise have constituted piracy.) Within 3 months the “Beaver” and the brigantine “Enterprise” captured a prize,the “Earl of Errol” en-route from Jamaica to London. The “Earl” was taken to Boston where it was sold along with its cargo of sugar, cotton and rum. The investors who owned the “Beaver” sold it as well.

Dean returned to Albany where he and his friend Abraham enlisted in the first regiment of the Albany County Militia. Over the next 4 years they would participate in a number of campaigns, including the Battle of Oriskany, in the Mohawk Valley and the Battle of Saratoga.

Dean would become a member of the Albany Committee of Correspondence (the city’s governing body during the War) and its successor, the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies (which may be my favorite organization name ever). By 1781 life in Albany had begun to return to a degree of normalcy although the War was not over (it wouldn’t end until 1783 with the Treaty of Paris). But life was apparently too dull for Dean.

In 1782 he was again commissioned as a privateer, on the schooner “Nimrod” (90 tons, outfitted with 25 men and 6 guns) out of Philadelphia. Allegedly part of his mission included carrying secret letters to the Caribbean to Admiral De Grasse, the commander of the French navy (who had been so instrumental in the American victory at Yorktown). In his 1833 application for a Revolutionary War pension Dean gave an account of this voyage. While at harbor on the island of St. Kitts the “Nimrod” was engaged by the British. Dean was wounded, captured, taken to Antigua and imprisoned for the better part of a month. Ultimately he was released, re-joined his crew and the “Nimrod” sailed back to America.*

By now one would think that Dean was ready to settle down, but tragedy struck. Pieterje died in 1783 as a result of childbirth. His great great grandson (who wrote Dean’s biography in the 1940s) thinks the death of his wife was the catalyst for the next chapter of Dean’s life.

China

In 1784 Dean was seized with the idea of sailing to China!

The first American ship to reach China was the “Empress of China”. It set sail in late 1784 and returned in April 1785. Dean found a group of Albany and New York City investors, and built and fitted out the “Experiment”, after conversations with Captain Greene of the “Empress”. The “Experiment” was relatively small – 80 tons and a crew of about 15. It sailed in December 1785 with a cargo of turpentine, furs, scotch, “Spanish milled dollars”, Madeira, and ginseng. The “Experiment” followed the route of the “Empress” on its 13,000 mile journey, around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and through the Java and China Seas. It made its way past Macao and up the Pearl River to Canton, landing in June 1786. The “Experiment” was the second American ship to reach China, and greeted by crews from England, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Sweden, Demark and France. (Canton was the only place where foreigners were permitted to engage in trade with the Chinese.)

Dean returned to New York City harbor in April 1787, 18 months after he first set sail, with all members of the crew – a remarkable achievement. While great glory had gone to the “Empress of China”, the fact that a small ship with a small crew could make a successful journey proved the viability of Chinese trade. Her return trip was made in four months and twelve days, with a cargo consisting principally of teas and nankeen cotton (a pale yellow cotton, made in Nanking, China). Dean was said to have brought back lengths of silk for the family and 13 sets of china for Albany families that could afford such luxury. When the “Experiment” sailed up the Hudson to Albany, it was greeted by almost all of Albany’s then population of about 3,000.

Upon his return Dean married Margaret Todd Whetten, sister of one of the “Experiment” crew, in 1787. He continued to sail to China, sometimes for John Jacob Astor (Dean’s uncle by marriage) as captain of Astor’s “Severn”. (Astor began his career as trading fur in Albany in the 1780s after the Revolution, and was soon trading across the Atlantic. He would come to dominate American trade in China and became one of the richest men in the country.) The initial voyage of the “Severn” began in April 1800. It was the culmination of several years of planning, since its route around Cape Horn in South America was unfamiliar and potentially more dangerous, but theoretically shorter than the route around Africa. The gamble paid off. The “Severn” returned in little more than a year, laden with cargo that would make Astor even richer. (Other voyages of the “Severn” were captained by Dean’s brother-in-law John Whetten.)

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It’s been said that while on his trips to Canton Dean became good friends with Howqua, the chief merchant for the Chinese imperial Court at Canton (and at one point estimated to be the richest man in the world). Dean was presented with a portrait of Howqua and other captains were entrusted with caskets of special tea to bring to Dean even after he stopped sailing. There’s a family tale that Dean once brought his young son Abraham on a voyage. In Canton, Howqua walked into the Imperial walled court city with the boy. When they emerged Abraham was dressed in the traditional cheongsam of the ruling Mandarin class of the Qing Dynasty. There was even said to have been a painting of an American man and a boy hanging in the Howqua family royal apartments long after Howqua’s death.

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By 1805 it appears that Dean’s sailing days were over and he becomes a member of the Albany Common Council, still living on the edge of the Albany River basin next to Abraham Eights, along with their warehouses. By 1809 Dean had become one of the wealthiest men in city and moved to Arbor Hill (then mostly rural), but by 1820 he appears living back on North Market (Broadway) close to the River. For a while the Deans removed from Albany to live with a son in Lima, NY, just south of Rochester, but after the death of his wife Dean went to live in NYC with his daughter Margaret Sedgewick and her family. He died there in 1836.

In 1826 Dock Street would re-named to Dean Street in his honor. Dean St. ran south of and parallel to Broadway, just above the River, and once extended from about Steuben St. on the north to Hudson Ave. on the south. Today a little stub remains that extends from Maiden Lane, running behind the Federal Courthouse and the old Federal Building, opening into the SUNY plaza.

*The story of Dean’s adventure in the Caribbean was adapted by Catherine Maria Sedgewick in a “Tale of Perdita” from her book “Modern Chivalry”. Sedgewick was a cousin of Margaret’s husband, one of the first female American novelists and the most prolific (she’s sometimes called America’s Jane Austen). She started writing around 1820 and continued for the next 40 years. At one point she was engaged to be married to Albany’s own Harmanus Bleecker, but changed her mind and remained single to be able to write.

Julie O’Connor

The Albany Jail’s Most Notorious Resident – “Count” Shinburn – the King of Crooks

14990303775_fbedff53b7_bThe old city jail, on Maiden Lane just behind City Hall, “hosted” one of the most notorious bank robbers of his age, Maximilian Shinburn, in the 1890s.  The July 22, 1895 edition of the “Albany Morning Express” published a story on a then-current denizen of the old Maiden Lane jail.   The headline read,

“Slickest Robber in America, Is Maximilian Shinburn Whom the Jail Harbors. His Methods Are all His Own. He is a Man of Patience and Strategy; Not of Violence.”

 

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Master Criminal

Shinburn was notorious. According to “Professional Criminals of America,” (an 1895 tome), he was recognized for 30 years all over the world as the “King of Bank Burglars.” “He is an American product, in the criminal sense, having begun his ‘professional’ work here early in the sixties (1860s) as a leader of that great galaxy of safe breaking stars…” Shinburn was wildly successful –he left America with a half a million dollars of ill-gotten gains.  He returned to the U.S. in the early 1890s, organized a new band of burglars, and went to work. When he was arrested there was “vast amount of evidence is in the hands of authorities indicating that his is the genius which substituted nitro-glycerine for the safe breaking appliances of earlier date.”

“Under a dozen aliases and over a period of thirty years he has stolen millions, evaded countless pursuits, broken out of a dozen prisons, lived in luxury, purchased a foreign title, engineered the greatest robberies of the age, and fairly won the title of the century’s greatest thief.”

In June 1895 he was arrested by the Pinkertons in NYC for robbing the First National Bank at Middleburg in April 1895, “but this is only one of a hundred crimes perpetrated by him during an unparalleled record.” Shinburn was taken to Middleburg under heavy guard, and transferred to Albany for safe keeping (so to speak). In the previous two years, his band of robbers were believed to have robbed banks across the U.S. and Canada.

How You Get To Be the World’s Greatest Safe Cracker Genius

Shinburn immigrated to America from Germany before he was 17.” He allegedly had “wonderful skill” as a locksmith. He embarked on a criminal career before he reached 18, falling in with a rogue’s gallery of rogues and went on a safecracking spree, beginning with a New Jersey bank. “He progressed rapidly,” the Los Angeles Herald later reported,” and as his ability became known in the ‘crook’ world his services were in constant demand.” He soon started organizing his own heists, always through safe cracking”.

“At that time the only safe in general use in banks and business houses in this country was that made by the Lillie Company (founded in Troy NY). Shinburn figured that a man who could master the Lillie combination lock could loot every Lilly safe in the country.” So, he did what any clever criminal machinist locksmith would do – he went to work for Lillie.

Capture

“It took him over a year to obtain all the knowledge he needed” – about lock tumblers and combinations. (Think of the skill set of the  character played by Charlize Theron in “The Italian Job”.) Using this information “Shinburn and his associates plundered Lilly safes all over the country, finally driving the Lillie out of business.”

Escape Artist

Shinburn was arrested in Saratoga in 1865 for a robbery in New Hampshire, but escaped the first night of his sentence. He wasn’t recaptured until 1868 while making an attempt on a bank in St. Albans, Vt. He served 9 months and escaped. He robbed a coal company in 1867, was arrested and handcuffed to a detective, but escaped while his captor slept. There were more robberies, more arrests, more escapes.

He invested in the stock market, made a killing, and sailed for Belgium, where he lived large in Europe for fifteen years until he was penniless again. In Paris, he met some American crooks, planned a robbery in Belgium, got caught and jailed . . . and escaped. He returned to the U.S. and began the spree that would see him arrested for the Middleburgh robbery.

Shinburn’s Stay in Albany’s Lock Up

14803741057_156ee27c50_bDuring his stay in the Maiden Lane slammer Shinburn impressed the “Albany Morning Express”:

“Even a casual observer at the little window or peek hole, will at once pick Shinburn out from 30 or 40 other prisoners. He dresses neatly, always wear a clean white shirt and goes about in his shirt sleeves. He keeps his hat on and remains most of the time in the rear portion of the corridor.. The officers at the jail, however, know his record pretty well and there is no time at which his movements are not watched.”

14990317515_b2911d8b45_bDespite the supposed security of the Albany jail, Shinburn tried to escape. In December 1895 he slipped out the cell door, but was grabbed by the sheriff’s wife at the outer door. “The sheriff’s wife is quite a large woman and the sheriff quite a good man, but Shinburn dragged them both about 100 feet, where all three fell over an iron fence. Mrs. Loveland’s cries were heard at this time and several men from the hotel ran to the scene. Shinburn, when he saw help coming, immediately gave himself up and was taken back to jail. The sheriff supposed that the cell door was locked, but Shinburn must have sawed off the lock during the afternoon, as the sheriff thought he heard a squeaking in the jail, but imagined it was the bed in the cell.” On a later occasion, being transported to Schoharie, Shinburn got into a fight and kicked Sheriff Loveland in the face.

Love Comes to Max

Newspapers reported Shinburn found love in jail.   He had many female admirers and won the heart of a young woman stenographer, whose desk in the county clerk’s office was directly opposite his cell window. So ardent was the flirtation which Shinburn carried on across the street which separated the two that the girl became infatuated. “There followed a long period of correspondence, notes being exchanged by means of a long cord which the prisoner let fall to his waiting sweetheart in the street below.” Shinburn finally got the girl’s promise to wait for him outside the door leading from the jail yard at 5 o’clock on a certain afternoon. She was to bring with her a loaded revolver and some money.

Shinburn figured out an ingenious way to escape from his cell, and armed himself with a broom. His jailer foiled the plot. He was a quick man with his revolver, and a shot rang out.  “The love-sick maiden was waiting outside as Shinburn had told her but she fled in dismay when she heard the revolver shot and the cries of pain that followed. Her friends prevented her attempting to communicate with the prisoner again.”

Shinburn Pays the Piper

After 11months in Albany Shinburn was sentenced to Dannemora. He served some time, but he was granted a retrial, and returned to the Maiden Lane jail in March 1898.  He was again convicted, sentenced and returned to Dannemora. He served his sentence, but immediately on his release he was rearrested him for his jail break in New Hampshire in 1866. He defense was “they got the wrong guy”, but he ended up in prison in Concord, N.H.  He was freed from Concord in 1908, and according to an article datelined Boston, April 22, “The aged robber enjoyed barely 24 hours of liberty after serving eight years in the New Hampshire state prison before he was arrested on the charge of stealing $200. He protested his innocence.” He was alleged to have taken the money from another man in the lodging house where he was to stay.

Max died in 1915 under his preferred alias” Henry Moebus”: in Boston in a home for reformed criminals.

(The jail was demolished in 1904 and all prisoners transferred to the Penitentiary (on Delaware Ave./Myrtle Ave) across from what is now Lincoln Park.)

Excerpted from the Carl Johnson’s blog,  http://hoxsie.org

Albany’s Old Municipal Buildings

On March 22, 1969 the last occupants (Albany Police detective squad) of the old Municipal Building on Eagle St. exit and settle in at their new digs on Morton Ave.

The Municipal Building, completed in 1923, was one of the last buildings demolished to make way for the Empire State Plaza. (I remember having to go there for something when I was teen and it looked like photos I’d seen of areas bombed in World War II.)

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The building on Eagle St. replaced the old Municipal Building on South Pearl St. which was built in the 1870s. It was demolished and the site became the home of the Ritz movie theater, which in turn was demolished in 1964.

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The proximity of the Municipal Building on Eagle St. to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception gave rise to the practice of the APD annual communion mass at the Cathedral and breakfast at the DeWitt Clinton Hotel (the renovated hotel is now the Marriott Renaissance).

FUN FACT: The first regularly operating telephone system in Albany was installed in 1877 by the Chief of Police in the building on South Pearl. It was connected to instruments in Chief’s home, the Mayor’s office and the precinct houses. The Albany police were early adopters; the first police in the world to use telephones. (The installation cost was about $800; annual cost $30.)

Julie O’Connor

Mary McPherson’s Gift to Albany

Mary McPherson was born in Scotland in 1804 to Lachlan McPherson and his wife, Mary Mitchell. In her childhood, she lived near the River Tay in a house built by Lachlan himself.

When Mary was about fourteen and her brother, John was twenty-six, the McPherson family moved to America. They had friends in Albany who looked after them and helped Lachlan to obtain work.

Her father became the custodian of the old State Hall at the corner of State and Lodge Streets and John became a carpenter. Both men were respected for their honesty and humor as well as for their skilled work. Mary would later work as a housekeeper for many years. The family lived in quarters on the upper floors of the State Hall where they were known for their thrift, though Mary was regarded as somewhat eccentric for her love of bright clothing even as she passed into spinsterhood. Her dress and hair were often adorned with flowers.

In 1839, Mary’s mother died and was buried in the Presbyterian lot of the old State Street Burying Grounds (now Washington Park), though her grave and modest headstone were later moved to Albany Rural Cemetery. Around this time, Lachlan, John, and Mary moved to a small farm on Patroon Street, now Clinton Avenue. That block is now called McPherson Terrace in honor of the family.

Lachlan died in 1859, leaving all of his money and property to both children. John died in 1881. With the loss of her family, Mary put aside her colorful clothing and wore mourning for them for the rest of her life.

Mary was now the sole heir to the McPherson estate. Her family’s thrift and her own saving made for a substantial amount of money, but Mary had no one to inherit it. She had never married, nor had John.
At the age of seventy-seven, Mary decided that she wanted her modest fortune to honor both her family and her country of birth in some public way. In drawing up her will, she made Peter Kinnear, a well-known businessman and another native of Scotland as my executor. While a portion of her money was set aside for the poor of Albany, the bulk of the estate would go to create a permanent tribute to the McPhersons and their homeland.

abMary died in 1886. She was buried in Lot 26, Section 15 where a monument of rose-colored Scottish granite marks the McPherson lot. Carved thistles, a symbol of her homeland, adorn the stone.

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Kinnear carried out Mary’s wishes, commissioning sculptor Charles Calverley to create a heroine bronze statue of the Bard of Caledonia, Robert Burns. The statue sits atop of pedestal with panels depicting scenes from the poets’ works such as “Tam O’Shanter’s Ride” and “Auld Lang Syne.” The monument stands near the eastern edge of Washington Park and the words, “THE MCPHERSON LEGACY TO THE CITY OF ALBANY” are carved on the back of the pedestal.

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By Paula Lemire – Historian Albany Rural Cemetery

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Please consider joining the Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery or renewing your membership if you haven’t already. Membership forms were recently mailed, but if you haven’t received one yet, please contact us with your mailing address and we’ll send one to you. The support of the Friends is vital to the financial health of the Cemetery.

 

Albany Rural Cemetery
Cemetery Avenue, Albany, NY
(518) 463-7017

info@albanyruralcemetery.org