4th July parade, findmypastblogspot.com 1

As all American kids learn in school, Independence Day celebrates July 4, 1776, when the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. That announcement was made through the Declaration of Independence, one of this country’s greatest and most powerful documents.

There are some modern doubts as to whether it was actually July 4th, or the 2nd, or even another date, but it really doesn’t matter. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about the event, (which he thought was July 2) and said, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

“It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Americans took John Adams’ advice and have been celebrating Independence Day ever since. (more…)

KC Courthouse and Muni Bldg. undated 1

In Part 1, we met Clarence R. Van Buskirk – architect, engineer, preacher’s kid, and well-regarded Assistant Engineer for the Brooklyn Department of Highways. He would one day be the architect of Brooklyn’s most iconic structure: Ebbets Field Stadium. But before that, he needed to get out of deep trouble. In 1907, the Department of Highways was on the hit list of a local politician looking to make a name for himself by rooting out corruption. And he had Van Buskirk in his sights.

Bird S. Coler was the Borough President of Brooklyn, coming into office in the fall of 1905. But he had higher political ambitions, and was consumed with a fanatic’s zeal to weed out corruption in the borough. If it happened to further his political ambitions? Well, all the better.

Self-serving or not, he did have a point.

At the time, all of New York City was a hotbed of corruption of one kind or another, some forms more blatantly corrupt than others. Over at Brooklyn’s Department of Highways, where Coler first set his sights, the head of the department, Frank Ulrich, had continued a long-standing tradition.

He bloated his department with patronage jobs, played favorites with certain inspectors, accepted kickbacks, and hugely overbilled utilities like Edison Electric Company and Brooklyn Union Gas.

Ulrich overstepped and got caught accepting payoffs in exchange for jobs. He was indicted, arrested, and let out on bail awaiting trial. He submitted his resignation towards the end of 1906.

Coler called for a Grand Jury to determine if charges could be filed against anyone else in the department, especially Ulrich’s junior staff, which included Clarence Van Buskirk.

Investigators came to the offices and boxed up billing and other records pertaining to the utilities, and put them under lock and key, intending to remove them for review.

But in the early hours of February 25, 1907, at least two men entered the Department offices on the top floor of the old Municipal Building, broke into the locked desk which held the keys, and made off with the records. (more…)

C.R. Van Buskirk, Ebbetts Field composite

Some of Brooklyn’s greatest architectural treasures were designed by people whose names we either never knew or can’t remember. Most people don’t really care about architecture anyway, but in spite of that, a few names become part of the cultural conversation.

Some of them we manage to remember: the Brooklyn Bridge – that Roebling guy. He died.

The Brooklyn Museum – um, oh yeah, McKim, Mead & White. White was the guy who had the mistress on the red swing in his private playroom and her husband shot him. That’s easy to remember. Unfortunately it’s less easy to remember that White didn’t actually design the museum, McKim did. But still, not bad.

So what about one of Brooklyn’s most famous icons? What about the ballpark with the name that can cause a native Brooklynite of a certain age to get teary and wax nostalgic? We know the name of the team and the exploits of the players in that temple of baseball. Their names are whispered the way one speaks of a saint in church.

But who was the architect of this sacred space? Who designed Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Clarence R. Van Buskirk, that’s who. Well, maybe. More on that later. But first, who?  (more…)

139 Bainbridge St. BPL, 1928

The big white house on the corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and Bainbridge Street in Stuyvesant Heights is one of the most beautiful on this street of fine townhouses and large mansions. In Chapter One we learned who built it. In Chapter Two it was home to the Sutton family, torn apart by the miserable marriage of Francis and Louise Sutton. The house was a casualty of the dissolution of their union, and by 1919 had passed into new hands. Our story continues:

This story is also about two remarkable sisters, pioneers who chose to spend their lives helping women and girls in need of support and care.

Myrtis and Mary Fish hailed from Oswego County, NY. They came with their parents and a brother to Brooklyn as children, and were educated in Brooklyn public schools. All three Fish children became respected in their chosen professions.

They were distant relatives of the powerful and wealthy Fish family of Manhattan. Hamilton Fish was the most famous member, and was a senator, a governor of New York, and Secretary of State to President Ulysses S. Grant.

Myrtis Fish graduated from the New York School of Law, and was said to be the first female attorney licensed to practice in Brooklyn and Long Island. Her brother Lawrence also became a lawyer, and was a municipal court judge in Brooklyn.

Myrtis became a probation officer, and for over 20 years was the female probation officer for the Brooklyn Night Court.

Fish felt strongly about helping the women she saw pass through the courts and in her sphere of influence. She wanted to establish a place where girls and women could find a place of refuge and help.

She enlisted the help of several wealthy society ladies, and, most importantly, her sister. (more…)

139 Bainbridge St. BE, 1903

The house at 139 Bainbridge Street was built in 1903 by developer William Clayton for an upscale buyer. The architect was Axel Hedman. He designed a house with all of the most modern amenities of the day. Please check out Part One of our story for the details. The house was purchased by exporter Francis M. Sutton, who lived there with his wife Louise and their three children. But this was not a happy home. Our story continues:

In 1912 Louise Sutton filed for a divorce from her husband of 19 years. The story made the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle on February 20, 1912.

Through her attorney, Louise Sutton told the judge that her husband was having an affair. She said that many of his business trips involved assignations with other women, some of which took place at a resort hotel in White Plains and at a hotel in Manhattan.

She also told the judge that although she and her children lived in a palatial home on Bainbridge Street, she was actually destitute. Her son Sherwood, who was 19, was at Princeton, but the other two children, Doris, 17, and Francis Jr., 14, lived at home. (more…)

139 Bainbridge St. CB, PS

Much of the section of Stuyvesant Heights in the vicinity of Stuyvesant and Bainbridge avenues used to belong to the Prosser family. They came to this part of town in 1857 and bought up a huge swath of land from the Lefferts family.

Thomas Prosser, the family patriarch, made his fortune from iron and steel. During the London Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, Prosser met Alfred Krupp, a highly successful German iron manufacturer. The two men became friends for life.

American iron and steel manufacturing was no match for Germany’s in terms of output or technological capability at that point, and both men could see a lucrative business opportunity. A westward-growing America needed German steel for railroads and other production.

Prosser was soon signed up as the American agent for Krupp. That relationship lasted up until the beginning of World War I.

During the Civil War and the Railroad Age of the postwar years, Krupp iron was essential to a growing intercontinental economy. Thomas Prosser, and later his sons, got a piece of every dollar that Krupp made in the USA. (more…)

Kings County Pen, 1901 postcard 1

In Part 1 we met Edward B. Coombs and George H. Nason, the last elected coroners of the independent City of Brooklyn. Coroners did not have to be pathologists back then. They were elected officials who presided over inquests into suspicious deaths and billed by the case. These public officials found themselves on the wrong end of a corruption scandal in 1897, and by 1898, Coombs was on trial for fraud. Our story continues:

As Edward Coombs’ fraud trial continued, the jury heard damning testimony about faked invoices and inquests. Coombs, with the help of trusted subordinates, had fabricated records for over a hundred inquests that had never occurred.

These reports were submitted with the names of people, many of them babies and children, who had died of disease and natural causes, making inquests unnecessary. Coombs simply changed ages and a few details, and used a family’s grief for his own profit.

Coombs had concocted fake addresses, jurors, witnesses and other details to pad out his invoicing. In a city of millions,  he probably figured no one would notice a few extra inquests, especially during the chaos of unification with the rest of New York City. But the District Attorney’s office had caught on.

The District Attorney was trying to clean up corruption at all levels of city government in order to deliver a clean slate at unification. To their horror, the D.A.’s investigators were finding corruption everywhere. (more…)

KC Courthouse, undated photo 1

If you are a fan of procedural cop shows, you are no doubt familiar with the character of the coroner or medical examiner. Since the days of “Quincy, M.E.,” we have grown to love the crusty and quirky personalities tasked with investigating the deaths of thousands of people in a given city.

Over the years, our TV coroners and medical examiners have changed. In today’s shows most of them seem to be black women. But no matter who is cast, on television they are invariably dedicated and brilliant doctors with a passion for finding the facts of a person’s death. They are immune to politics or profit, and serve only the law and the truth.

Well, back in 19th-century Brooklyn, things could be different. Our tale concerns the last mayor of Brooklyn, his administration and the two doctors who served as the last coroners of Brooklyn. (more…)

Murray, 783 St. Marks, postcard,

Inventor and business giant Thomas E. Murray died in 1929, just as the world was about to suffer through the Great Depression. He left his large family over $11 million, and a personal and company portfolio of over 1,100 patents. The story of his life, his family and his businesses can be found in Part One and Part Two of this story.

Following Murray’s death, his eldest son, Thomas Jr., became company president, and the work at the factory at 1250 Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights went on.

Thomas Jr. was a chip off the old block. He had inherited his father’s generosity and love of invention, and was a skilled inventor himself. He was an excellent businessman as well, even better than his father. In 1928, he was made a trustee of the Brevoort Savings Bank.

He was also a devout son of the Church, who like his father was sworn in as a Knight of St. Gregory, a singular honor bestowed on men of great faith. His home was down the street from Papa Murray’s house, at 800 St. Marks Avenue. For both Murrays, it was only a short walk up the street to get to work.

(more…)

Murray, 1250 Atlantic Ave, R. Baird Remba 2

Brooklynite Thomas E. Murray was one of America’s greatest inventors. A colleague of Thomas Edison and the holder of 462 patents, Murray was responsible for developing much of the electrical technology we enjoy today. Electric signs? T.E. Murray. The dimmer switch? T.E. Murray. The designs for the power plants that bring us the power we take for granted? Yes, those were Murray, too. His base of operations was in Crown Heights, where he had his factory and his home. Part One of our story tells of his early days, his family, and his business ventures.

In the spring of 1920, Murray was given an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He must have been thrilled, since he’d been a working man supporting his family since the age of 10, and had never had the opportunity to attend high school, let along college. His success was a testament to hard work, self-improvement, and genius.

By this time, Murray was at the height of his success. His businesses were thriving, he was living in a mansion among fellow millionaires on the best block of St. Marks Avenue, and his many children were getting the educational opportunities he’d never had.

His eldest son, Thomas E. Murray Jr., graduated from Yale, and was also a mechanical wizard. He was being groomed to take over the companies after his father’s retirement or death. Another son, Joseph, also had the gift, and worked with his father. His daughters were doing well in marriage and family; the other boys were successful in school and work. He and his wife were on the boards of several charities, and gave generously of their time and money. (more…)

Murray, with Edison, temurray.com 1

As you travel east on Atlantic Avenue sometime, take a minute to notice the factory buildings on the south side of the street, between Bedford and Nostrand Avenues. They are a bit hard to see, as one’s attention is distracted on the left by the rising elevation of the Long Island Railroad tracks as they come up out of the ground near Bedford Avenue.

Back in the 20th century, these buildings belonged to one of the greatest inventors in Brooklyn, a man named Thomas E. Murray.

Murray has the distinction of being the second most prolific holder of patents in the United States, surpassed only by Thomas Alva Edison, his friend and colleague. Yet most people have never heard of Murray, and fewer still know that these long factory buildings with rows of windows stretching along Atlantic Avenue were the headquarters for the Metropolitan Engineering Company, Murray’s company.

If you are a follower of the Southampton, Long Island, crowd, and the history of the rich and famous who have summered there for over a century, the Murray name may ring a bell. Murray’s extended family was part of the “Golden Clan,” wealthy Irish Catholics who helped build Southampton into THE posh summer village of the rich. That seems as far away from a gritty Brooklyn factory as one could get. We’ll get to that part of the story later. (more…)

Holy Cross Cemetery, Flatbush. Jim Henderson, Wiki 1

Pretty 16 year old housemaid Barbara Gronenthal was dead, and her boyfriend, James Walsh killed her. Now he was in jail, awaiting his murder trial. Would he end up like his older brother, sentenced to Sing Sing Prison, or, as we learned in the last chapter, would his fate also match his brother’s – death?

James Walsh sat in Brooklyn’s Raymond Street Jail alone and friendless. His mother, Catherine Duffy, came to visit him once, and left shortly thereafter, weeping bitterly. The guards told reporters that James would be calm and quiet in his cell, and then suddenly rage and throw himself at the bars. He also liked the prison food, which in their estimation proved he was insane.

An autopsy was conducted before Barbara was returned to her family for burial. It determined that the four inch knife had been plunged into her heart up to the hilt, killing her in minutes. She never had a chance. Her funeral took place on January 6, 1881. Only her mother, her two sisters, her brother-in-law, and a few family friends followed the funeral procession to Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush. The Carlisle family was not there.

Investigators went to talk to anyone who knew James Walsh. They visited his job and found out a lot of information that was not positive for James’ case. His supervisor said that James had been a fine worker until about a year ago, when his brother Buck had been arrested for the home invasion robbery. After that, James had started to pick fights with management and with fellow workers.

The day James killed Barbara he had suddenly taken off from work in the afternoon, and never came back. That was it for his supervisor, who told other workers that if James came back the next day, he was going to be fired. (more…)