Kings County Penitentiary, 1906

On a chilly day in late November, 1905, thirty-six year old Benjamin F. Chadsey was taken to the Raymond Street Jail in Brooklyn. He had been brought back to New York from Indiana after being on the run for two years. In 1903, he faked his suicide, and disappeared on the evening before he was to go to trial on a charge of grand larceny. Chadsey had been one of Brooklyn’s up and coming legal talents, an aggressive and arrogant pitbull of a lawyer who loved his fancy clothes and his diamond jewelry. That was all showmanship, because he was also highly efficient and had a large private practice with a lot of clients. He was also a rising star in the jungle of Brooklyn politics, and was called upon often to stir up the Republican faithful with his gifts of oratory and persuasion. Benjamin Chadsey was the last person anyone would expect to be dishonest, or to run from his troubles. But here he was.

The man who had once sported bespoke suits with diamond stickpins and fingers glittering with diamond rings was now standing in handcuffs before a judge, surrounded by the police and District Attorneys who had to go out to the suburbs of South Bend Indiana to get him. The private detective, J. Edward Orr, who had tracked Chadsey down once before in San Francisco had found him again. But this was not the old Chadsey they knew. The man standing before them was sickly looking, emaciated and gaunt. He had shaved his signature moustache and would have looked years younger, had he not been looking over his shoulder for the last two years.

The judge stared down on him without a lot of pity. The charges against Chadsey were serious, but had he not skipped bail and disappeared, he probably would have been let off easy. Wealthy and well-connected men convicted of much larger thefts usually did not suffer the same consequences as those of lesser breeding. But faking your death, and thumbing your nose at the same authorities you once ate dinner with and invited to your home makes for bad feelings, and Brooklyn’s legal world was more than happy to throw the book at Chadsey. For the time being, though, they tossed him back in jail. (more…)

19th century steamship, 1As the cynical and world-weary people we can be today in 2014, it doesn’t really surprise us when those who are entrusted with much, or are held up as paragons, fail spectacularly. Sadly, we see it almost every day. But 100 years ago, life was simpler. Back then, (and now, as well, to be honest), people expected certain criminal activities like thievery and dishonesty from the classes and groups they felt were beneath them. But they held the upper classes to a higher standard, one of dignity and success through hard work and privilege. Therefore, when one of their own was suspected of, or caught doing wrong, the stories fascinated the newspaper reporters and their editors, as well as the general public. The fall of a prominent lawyer, or a banker, was news for days.

We met Benjamin F. Chadsey last time, the scion of an important Albany area family, and an up and coming lawyer here in Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century. He lived here in Brooklyn with his wife at 88 Decatur Street, in an upscale apartment building in Stuyvesant Heights. Like another occupant of the same apartment house, J. Edgar Anthony, the topic of our first story from this building, young Chadsey was also an attorney who worked in estates, wills and trusts. Mr. Chadsey had a fine reputation in the law, and was a rising star in the world of Brooklyn Republican politics. Benjamin Chadsey, it was said, could persuade you to vote for anyone, and his silver tongue was put to use at political rallies all across the city. He was soon on a first name basis with some of New York’s most important Republican political figures.

Unfortunately, Chadsey was arrogant enough to think that he knew best in the matters of his clients, as well as the voters, and had been playing loose with some of his client’s money. He had been administering the estate of Daniel M. Collins, a wealthy Brooklyn Heights jeweler. The deceased Mr. Collins’ wife suspected that her brother-in-law and Chadsey had conspired to cheat her out of her inheritance, and that Chadsey had grossly overbilled her for services rendered. The widow retained another lawyer, and filed suit. A judge agreed, and had chastised Mr. Chadsey, and ordered him to pay back about $900 in overcharged fees. That may not seem like much in today’s money, but in 1902 it was around $20,000 worth, certainly enough for most of us to file suit. (more…)

04/10/14 10:45am

Benjamin Chadsey, NY herald, 1902

88 Decatur Street, in Stuyvesant Heights, was one of a group of four small upscale apartment buildings making up a complex called the Lindsley Apartments. Advertised as a luxury alternative to row house living, the apartments were home to many respectable professionals and their wives and families. Over the years a host of people lived here, their names and activities making the newspapers when they married, attended social functions, or died. This is normal for any apartment building, but 88 Decatur coincidentally, was home to three individuals who, in their day, managed to sell newspapers for different reasons.

Three of the tenants here were independently, and at different times, charged with crimes that made reporters glad to get up in the morning. One day these upscale citizens and respected professionals’ names were in the paper for their successes, the next, for their sins. Greed and the love of money were the downfall of them all. Part One and Two of this series was about a lawyer named D. Edgar Anthony. He lived here at 88 Decatur with his wife and child in the mid-1890s, before moving on by the beginning of the 20th century. Seven years later, another lawyer was living in this building with his wife. His name was Benjamin F. Chadsey, and his tale is next.

One could joke that there must have been something in the water at 88 Decatur to drive a lawyer to crime, but that would be unfair to the house. If there was anything in the water, it flowed upstate. Like D. Edgar Anthony, Benjamin F. Chadsey also came from upstate New York. Anthony was from the Utica area, but Chadsey hailed from Clifton Park, outside of Albany. His family was quite prominent in the area, and he grew up and was educated there. He got married, passed the bar, and was working in Brooklyn. This did not go well with family life or with his wife. In 1896, she successfully filed for divorce, and stayed in Troy.

Now single and free, Chadsey was living in Brooklyn, and becoming very well known in Brooklyn’s legal and political life. He was one of the shining stars of local Republican politics, and was known as a smooth tongued orator who could convince you to vote for anyone or anything. He was also getting a reputation as a slick lawyer, and was rising in the world of Brooklyn law. Chadsey was apparently slick in other ways as well. He was a fancy dresser and a dandy, and became well known for his love of diamond jewelry. (more…)

04/08/14 10:45am

88-94 Decatur st. D.Edgar at trial, 1897, NY Herald

David Edgar Anthony was in college at Syracuse University when he decided he wanted to be known as “D. Edgar Anthony.” He was a local boy, his parents had moved to Syracuse from New York City, where David Anthony Senior had been a successful and prosperous dealer in hats and furs. D. Edgar’s announcement to his fellow students came as no surprise to those who knew him, and it didn’t endear him to them any more than the rest of his personality did. D. Edgar was not well liked. “That man Anthony was one of the cheekiest fellows I ever knew,” one of his former classmates would tell the Syracuse Daily Standard. “There was brass enough in his makeup to make a Krupps cannon. He was just the man to get on in the world, for nothing would dismay him and he was as cold blooded as a lizard.”

The former student was talking about D. Edgar’s decision to dump his wife of many years, and the mother of his only child, and take up with a much younger and wealthier heiress. Last time we read about the Anthony family, and how the married D. Edgar had fallen in love with an heiress who had a back story like a Dickens novel. Young and beautiful Jeanette Ballou was the daughter of millionaire Wells Ballou. She was born as a result of a secret marriage between Wells and one of his servants. The story can be found in Part One, here. The background helps explain what came later.

To make a long story short, our lovebirds are successful in both getting Miss Ballou out of jail, getting a separation and divorce from Ida Anthony, and marrying in their own secret ceremony. The new Jeanette Ballou Anthony was pregnant, and also fighting for an inheritance from her grandfather, one the Ballou family did not want her to have. She needed a good lawyer, so she called upon D. Edgar Anthony. He was the relentless lawyer Jeanette needed to handle the family. He won the case.

The new family moved to 88 Decatur Street, a fine apartment in the upscale neighborhood of Stuyvesant Heights. But D. Edgar soon had his own problems. He was working as a receiver for the National Mutual Insurance Company. His expertise was in wills, estates and trusts. It was his job to move money into client’s accounts, and manage trusts. Unfortunately, he got creative, and when asked to move several amounts of money around in 1894, managed to skim some off the top and deposit the funds into a separate account, writing personal checks from that account. He got caught a year later, and ended up in the notorious Tombs prison in lower Manhattan. (more…)

04/03/14 10:45am

Ludlow St Jail, Manhattan, 1

88 Decatur Street is a handsome small apartment building in Stuyvesant Heights. It is one of four similar buildings built as a group in 1889, designed to house well-to-do folk who did not want an entire house, but wanted attractive and suitable apartments in an upscale neighborhood. The building was a Building of the Day last month. In researching some of the people who lived there for the story, I found a remarkable thing: 88 Decatur Street was a hotbed of intrigue and controversy.

Sometimes, when researching a building, there may be one person or family who does something outstanding or newsworthy, good or bad. But here, I found three individuals, who all lived here between 1895 and 1906, who were quite newsworthy indeed. They were three supposedly upstanding, upwardly mobile and respectable gentlemen, with careers in law and finance. But all three ran afoul of the law, got caught, and had big, splashy trials with lots of drama. Who can resist drama? Well, there certainly was plenty here. So without further ado, let’s begin with a tale of love, loyalty and larceny.

D. Edgar Anthony was a lawyer. By 1995 1895, he and his wife and child lived here at 88 Decatur Street. He hailed from upstate Utica, and it was there that he first made the news in a scandal that would have made any opera librettist swoon with envy. The best stories are always true stories, and this one was a classic. Sometime in the 1860s, a wealthy Utica man with the wonderfully theatrical name of Wells Ballou died. As the family mourned and looked forward to the reading of the will, a former servant appeared at the door with a two year old girl. She announced to the family that she was the legal wife of Wells Ballou, and the child was their daughter. (more…)

04/01/14 10:45am

441 Willoughby Ave, sspellen 5

The huge French Gothic Revival mansion on the corner of Willoughby and Nostrand Avenues has always been a tantalizing mystery that I wanted to solve. Who built it? Who lived there, and what’s the story of the large mansion in an otherwise middle class area? Generally, row house neighborhoods grow up around large houses like these, but this time, the mansion was built much later. So much later that part of the neighborhood was being reclaimed by industrial use. This is not the usual pattern for wealthy people. Why build there, at that time? In Part One of this story, we found out that the house was built for Jacob Dangler, a successful meat packer and manufacturer of provisions; today we call his products cold cuts. He built the house for his family in a location that was only a short walk from his factory, and for him, that seemed to have made all the difference.

Dangler was born in 1851, and raised in a town in the Alsace-Lorraine, a western state in France that has been disputed territory for France and Germany for centuries. He came to America as a teenager, worked hard, saved his money, and was extremely successful. By the turn of the 20th century, he was more than able to afford to commission his dream house. Although culturally German, the French side of his upbringing seems to have come out in his choice of architecture.

He was also a very religious man, a devout Lutheran, so perhaps those traditional Gothic elements were very deliberately incorporated in this large French Gothic house. The architect of this structure remains unknown, pending physically digging through dusty records in the Department of Buildings, but it may have been Theobald Engelhardt, the premiere architect of the Eastern District, and the architect of many of Dangler’s other building projects. Whoever it was, they designed a large house worthy of any wealthy family. The Dangler family had been living nearby on Myrtle Avenue, but by 1902, this was their address when their names made the papers. (more…)

03/27/14 10:45am

441 Willoughby Ave, GS,PS

The house sits on the northeast corner of Willoughby Avenue at Nostrand Avenue, seemingly empty, sprawling behind a chain link fence. It’s on a large lot, and the house itself, a golden brick and limestone French Gothic pile, is totally incongruous with the much more modest brownstone neighbors on the block. A block away and across the street is the Bedford Stuyvesant branch of Home Depot, and for thousands of people visiting the store, or waiting for the Nostrand Avenue bus across the street, this house may be a fleeting mystery, glanced at when passing through the neighborhood. Even those who don’t care about these things wonder what it was, or how it came to be there. Was this a rich family’s mansion? Who were they? Why did the house sit here, and what’s it being used for now? Is it abandoned? Empty? Has anyone ever been inside?

Well, I’ve been asking those questions for more than thirty years. I saw this house on my first trip down Nostrand Avenue coming into Bedford Stuyvesant, when all of Bed Stuy was a mystery to me, and I’ve long been curious about its former and current inhabitants. Since I fantasize about rescuing houses the way some people rescue stray animals, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live there, rattling around in that huge house like a rich old recluse, while the neighborhood around you changes over the years. Did anyone actually do that? It turns out the answer to that is no.

I’ve also wondered about how much money it would take to restore a mansion like that, and what are the chances that will happen? How would it look with the porch opened up again, with the windows repaired and the stained glass transoms recreated? How much would it cost to replace the slate roof? What about landscaping around the grounds and the chain link fence replaced by a proper black wrought iron fence, perhaps one with an ornate gate, as befits this French fantasy? And inside? Who knows? This house is a whopping 58×85 feet, with over 12,000 square feet of house. Who the heck lived here?

That question was relatively easy to answer, and given that the house is in the Eastern District, on the far northern side of Bedford Stuyvesant, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the man who commissioned the house was of German ancestry, as were most of the wealthy men in this part of town. This was the home of Jacob Dangler and his family, and he was a very successful purveyor of meats and provisions. At least that’s how his empire and long career started. (more…)

03/25/14 10:45am

Charles Nalle plaque

Charles Nalle, his body battered and bleeding, blood streaming from his wrists where the heavy slave manacles bit into his skin, stumbled up the embankment of the Hudson River, into the town of West Troy, N.Y. It was April 27, 1860, and Nalle had just escaped being taken back into slavery. He was, according to the law, still the property of his half-brother Blucher Hansbrough, of Culpeper, Va. That morning, he had left his employer Uri Gilbert’s house on 2nd Street, in Troy, and walked to the bakery, intent on getting bread for his employer’s household. Two years had passed since that fateful day in 1858 when he had boarded a boat in Washington, D.C., on his way to freedom in Philadelphia, and then on to upstate New York, bound for Canada.

To look at the man making his way up the embankment, one would scarcely have taken him to be the average Negro slave. He looked as Caucasian as any other free white man. He was the son of a Virginia planter named Peter Hansbrough and his slave named Lucy, who was herself half white. Charles was four years older than his half-brother Blucher, and was given to him by their father. The two men looked so much alike, a change of clothing would have obscured master from slave. But blood made all the difference, and Charles’ African lineage had assured him of a life of slavery. Unless he took his fate in his hands, and boarded the Underground Railroad to freedom.

The story of Charles Nalle’s early life, his family in Virginia and Washington, and his life in Troy up until this day can be found in Part One and Part Two of this story. We ended the last chapter with Charles Nalle escaping his captors and jumping on the ferry to West Troy, which today is the city of Watervliet. The hounds of hell were behind him, but so was salvation, in the person of Harriet Tubman, the “Moses” of the Underground Railroad, a woman who had never lost a passenger. And she, and the members of the Vigilance Committee, and the citizens of Troy, weren’t going to start losing one now. (more…)

03/20/14 10:45am

Harriet Tubman during Civil War, wikiThe great Harriet Tubman was a tiny little woman, with strong African features, no taller than five feet. But she was as tough as nails, and as fast and resourceful as a ninja. Over the years between 1849 and the dawn of the Civil War, she singlehandedly traveled back and forth from the plantations of the South to the Canadian border more than 19 times, leading captives out of slavery. Over 300 people directly owed their freedom to her, and she faced capture and certain death every day as they traveled north along the Underground Railroad. Her own family members were among the first people she shepherded to freedom, and some of them settled in upstate New York, in Auburn, and in the Capital region.

Part of Harriet Tubman’s success lay in the fact that most people didn’t believe that this diminutive black woman could possibly be the scourge of plantation owners everywhere. They didn’t know what she looked like, and they never caught her, or came close to finding out her identity. For those she helped to freedom, and those who helped her as operatives on the Underground Railroad, and supported her financially and in spirit, she was simply called “Moses.”

In the spring of 1860, she was slated to speak at an anti-slavery rally in Boston. She was traveling east from Auburn, so when she reached the Albany area, she decided to take some time to visit a cousin in Troy. The entire Capital District was a hotbed of abolitionist activity, and many of the area’s citizens were conductors on the Underground Railroad. Troy had a great number of people sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause, and the prosperous city had a small black community that included successful store and small business owners, outspoken ministers, and others, who with many of the city’s leading white citizens, were members of abolitionist groups. Harriet Tubman was right at home in Troy.

So was another man, one we met in the first chapter of this story, where greater detail can be found. Charles Nalle had escaped from bondage at the hands of the Hansbrough family, in Culpeper, Virginia. His father was the wealthy planter, Peter Hansbrough, and his mother was a light-skinned slave woman named Lucy. According to all accounts, Charles Nalle looked as white as the next white man, but his black blood had condemned him to a life of slavery. He had grown up playing with his half-brother, Blucher, although those filial ties were never spoken of, but had none of the young master’s advantages, not even the ability to read or write. (more…)

03/18/14 10:45am

State at 1st Street, Mutual Bank Building, Troy

Like Brooklyn, the Capital City area has long been recognized as an important nexus of the Abolitionist Movement in New York State, in the days before the Civil War. Anti-slavery activists were quite busy in Albany, Troy and the surrounding towns. The Hudson River cities became important routes on the Underground Railroad; the road to freedom in Canada for fugitives escaping slavery in the southern states. After the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1850, the need for a strong and active resistance movement to pass escapees on up to Canada was necessary, as the new federal law not only made it a crime to help escapees, it also allowed bands of slave catchers to operate freely. The law also compelled local law enforcement to imprison and hold those who were captured, whether local officials wanted to, or not.

There was a small, but strong black community in the area, with black churches, schools and communities established in Troy, Albany, Saratoga, and beyond. Solomon Northrup, the hero of the true story “12 Years a Slave” lived with his family in Saratoga Springs. It was from there that he was kidnapped and spirited away down South, into slavery. Troy was home to several important black abolitionists, including Henry Highland Garnet, one of Troy’s most prominent ministers. Harriet Tubman had a cousin living in Troy. In Albany, Stephen Myers, another African American abolitionist, was publisher of “The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate,” an important African American newspaper. Myers was also one of the most important Underground Railroad agents in the state, and helped thousands of people make their way to freedom.

Our story starts not in Troy or Albany, but in Culpeper County, Virginia. There, Charles Nalle was born into slavery. He was the property of the Hansbrough family, and was, in fact, the planter’s son by one of his slaves. Charles Nalle favored his father, and was fair of complexion, and would pass for white anywhere but in the South, where even a drop of African blood doomed him to a life of slavery. He was not allowed to learn to read or write, and worked on the plantation, as a coachman. He was said to have a great affinity with horses. He was allowed to marry a woman named Kitty, who lived on a nearby plantation. Allowing slaves to marry was a rare occurrence, and having a married couple on different plantations was purposefully done to prevent strong family bonds from developing.

Kitty’s owner died, and in his will, freed the slaves on his plantation. Virginia law forbad free blacks from living in Virginia, so she had to leave the state. Kitty and their two children took up residence in Washington DC, which was also a slave territory, so she could be closer to Charles. He was rarely allowed to visit her. Finally, in 1858, on one of those rare visits, Charles saw his opportunity to escape, and with the help of a white agent of the Underground Railroad, he and another man named James Banks were spirited north. The Hansbrough family was furious, and in retaliation, sold Charles’ brothers far to the South, “sold down the river,” where slavery was even worse than in Virginia, and they were never able to be found again. (more…)

03/13/14 10:45am

Brooklyn County Courthouse

In the fall of 1873, the great city of Brooklyn had been “Rodmanized.” No, not taken over by the ancestor of a second-rate, cross-dressing basketball player, but by the actions of one M.T. Rodman, the Deputy City Treasurer, who used his position to rob the City of Brooklyn’s bank account of what would today be millions of dollars. The reporters of the day prayed to the newspaper gods for a story like this, and their prayers were answered, as the scandal spread wider and wider, and more and more important people in high places were implicated in the looting of the Brooklyn treasury. One witty individual from the Brooklyn Eagle came up with this new verb, “Rodmanize,” and it soon captured the imagination of a populace that had good cause to wonder where their tax dollars and city revenue were really going.

The story of this great embezzlement, this great defalcation, began in Part One with the death of the president of the Brooklyn Trust bank, Ethelbert S. Mills. His suicide opened the investigation, which brought to light some of the actions of M.T. Rodman, in Part Two. Rodman was the Secretary of the Brooklyn Trust, and Mills was his boss. Rodman had two jobs, he was also Deputy Treasurer of Brooklyn, in a unique and tempting position to take money from the City’s coffers and deposit it into the Bank’s vaults. If not all of the money made it into the vault, was that his fault?

Watching over the city’s money was City Treasurer Cortland A. Sprague. He was Rodman’s boss on the city side. He never reported that the city was missing money because it turned out he was also helping himself. Part Three of our story introduced us to this wealthy hardware merchant-turned-politician and functionary, who seemed to have been too tempted by the proximity of all that money, and the relative ease involved in stealing as much of it as would go unnoticed for years.

So here we are in September 1873. Mills was safely dead, and Rodman was at home, recovering from having languished in jail until his very high bond could be secured. All of his wealthy friends had disappeared upon hearing the charges, and Rodman made bail only because he was becoming quite sick in the stinking public prison. The District Attorney, the police and state investigators had been on him for weeks trying to get answers, and on Sept. 16th, District Attorney Britton announced that Rodman had finally confessed. (more…)

03/11/14 10:30am

Thomas Worth, Central Park, Ephemeral NY 1

In April of 1873, when the warming breezes of spring caressed the sideburned cheeks of wealthy male Brooklynites, they, as one, turned their attentions to their favorite pastime – racing their fancy horses and carriages along the roads leading to Coney Island. It was the place to be seen, and anyone who was anyone could be viewed on a fine weekend day, taking in the fresh air. Some of these swells rode their pedigreed ponies, but some were content to be driven, sitting comfortably in their carriages and cabs, racing along the road with a controlled abandon. For the most part, this was a man’s show, and wives did not usually come along for this show of male preening. Some men drove their own rigs, but many more content to be driven by coachmen, while they waved and nodded at their peers.

One of these was Cortland A. Sprague, a wealthy Brooklyn Heights merchant. His preferred mode of Promenade to the Sea, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, was to ride in a “one-horse park phaeton driven by his colored coachman.” From there he could pretend to read his newspaper, or just watch the scenery go by, content that all was well in his world.

For aside from his lucrative business, Mr. Sprague was also the City Treasurer of Brooklyn, a political appointment that had lasted, in the spring of ’73, into its second term. He held the strings to the purse of a growing and prosperous city. But had he really been reading his paper on his ride to the ocean, by the summer of that year, he would have been a very nervous man, as skittish as a thoroughbred in a field of gopher holes. Because Cortland Sprague’s world was about to come tumbling down around him. (more…)