Walkabout: A Brooklyn Day in March, 1903

Newspapers are a wonderful tool for historic research, as they cover the issues of the day in both a macro and micro sense. The front page of any newspaper can carry the breaking news of the world, and on the same page, relate the results of a neighborhood hot dog eating contest. It all depends on the editors’ focus, the town, and the readership of the paper. The Brooklyn Eagle was the voice of Brooklyn. Brooklyn had several daily papers during my prime research period of the late 19th and early 20th century, but the Eagle was the oldest, the largest, and most often read.

We are very fortunate that the Brooklyn Public Library had the first fifty years of the paper digitized, it’s been an invaluable source in research. There are other access digital portals to the paper, as well, so a large range of newspapers are now only a keystroke or two away. And these keystrokes are a gateway to a rich world that we can visit any time.

The Eagle mirrored the thought of the people of its time. In its often gossipy pages could be found outrage over injustice, cries for help for the helpless and orphaned, and harsh calls to judgment upon those who had gone outside the society’s very narrow moral code of right and wrong. The paper was also prejudiced against minorities, intolerant of substance abusers and the “idle poor”, often quite condescending towards women, religiously quite conservative, and kissed up to the rich and powerful even more than we do today. It’s a perfect mirror of its time, and our time as well.

On March 7, 1903, page 24 of the Eagle featured obituaries, quality of life and human interest stories. Two of them stood out, and make up today’s Walkabout. They are as different as can be, but show that humanity is humanity, and there is such a thing as karma. People don’t change because we wear different clothing, or have better technology. The first story deals with divorce, a topic near and dear to the Victorian heart. Marriage was supposed to be forever, but by the late Victorian age, and on into the fledgling 20th century, more and more people were getting divorced. The social stigma towards divorced women was not as strong as it once was, and the reasons for divorce were, thanks to the paper, delicious fodder for endless gossip. This one caught the public eye.

George H. Bruce was a Park Row lawyer who lived in the Bedford section. In April of 1896, he married Grace C. Garlock, who lived on Hancock Street, next door to the Rev. Robert J. Kent, pastor of the Lewis Avenue Congregational Church. The Garlocks were members of the church and the Rev. Kent performed the marriage ceremony there at the church. The Bruce’s lived in Brooklyn until 1900, when they bought a house in Plainfield, NJ. But Grace and George started to have really hard times in their marriage by then, and it got so bad that Grace moved back to her mother’s home in Brooklyn.

George wrote to Grace and confessed that he had had inappropriate relationships with other women, and told her that he understood if she wanted to divorce him. George also wrote to the Rev. Kent, and confessed the same thing, urging him to council Grace that she should get a divorce. Rev. Grace wasn’t born yesterday, and immediately suspected that the overly confessional George had something up his sleeve. He advised Grace not to be hasty, and wait at least a year.

George himself waited about a year, and after he didn’t get any response from Grace, he packed up and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, which had very different divorce laws than New York State. He filed for divorce claiming that Grace had deserted him, an offense that instituted an immediate divorce in Nebraska. Before he left, he sold his business, his office furniture, and the rest of the contents of his office to his stenographer, Miss Lillian Neumark, for the incredibly low sum of $500. Lillian Neumark was in the last year of law school, and was going to open her own practice after passing the bar.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska hired Montague Street attorney Carl Heyser to take charge of the investigation here in Brooklyn. He held at least twelve meetings with the New York parties, with Grace, Lillian Neumark and Rev. Kent all giving testimony. Mr. Heyser determined that George Bruce never imagined or planned that his wife would go on the offensive and fight back. She produced the letters he had written confessing his many infidelities, and Rev. Kent backed them up, based on conversations he had had with George.

Grace’s lawyer countersued, charging Bruce with not only infidelity, but also mental cruelty, as evidenced by his confession letters. The judge in Nebraska immediately granted Mrs. Bruce a divorce from her husband, not the other way around. No alimony was awarded, and Grace Bruce was free of her philandering husband on her terms. I’m sure many of the female readers of the Eagle were cheering.

This story shared the same page with a much more serendipitous story of good fortune. Frederick Niblo was the Chief Clerk of the Hotel St. George, a position he had held for many years, by 1903. He was first mentioned in a series of stories I did on the St. George a couple of years ago. Here’s the link to the story that mentions him. Mr. Niblo had the thankless job of dealing with the hotel guests, no matter how rude and obnoxious they might be. He had been with the hotel since at least the late 1880s, and had seen them all; the cheats, the swindlers and con artists, as well as the down and out and desperate.

In 1897, a 72 year old prospector named William Courtnay had come back East to Brooklyn. He was in poor health, and in the course of business, had come to the St. George for a few hours, where he met Mr. Niblo. The two men started talking, and enjoyed each other’s company. Courtnay told great stories about the Nome, Alaska Gold Rush, and his participation in it. He had never struck it rich, but was getting too old to keep prospecting, and had come home. Courtnay fell ill again, and had little money, but Niblo cared for him and lent him money until Courtnay was well enough to move on.

He never forgot the kindness of the St. George Hotel clerk, and came by the hotel before leaving Brooklyn. He gave Mr. Niblo the deed to a placer claim on a field in Nome, and wished him luck. Mr. Niblo accepted the claim and held on to it for a number of years, placing the papers in the hotel safe, never expecting it to actually be worth anything. He was just glad he could help someone in need. “It may be worthless,” William Courtnay told Frederick Niblo, “but in my judgment there is a fortune waiting for you there, and I hope you get it.”

One day, Mr. Niblo was looking in the safe for a client, and saw the claim papers. It was now six or seven years later, and he wondered if they were worth anything. He hired a lawyer, his friend Thomas Kelby, to look into it, promising him a third, if the claim were to be worth anything. Kelby went west to investigate, and called Brooklyn to tell Niblo that he had been offered $2 million for the claim by legitimate interested parties. The news spread, and well-wishers came by the St. George to wish Frederick Niblo well. No one deserved success more than he, they said, Fredrick was a good and kind-hearted man. Mr. Niblo told the reporter for the Eagle that he and his partner in this venture, Thomas Kelby, did not plan to sell the claim yet. They needed time to plan. Frederick Niblo was still at his desk at the St. George. Karma can be the sweetest when it is totally unexpected.

UPDATE: A reader was so intrigued by Frederick Niblo’s good fortune that he did some more research on Mr. Niblo. Amazingly, it was light years from what one would expect. Niblo got married in 1904, a year after this story. In 1914, his wife went to Reno, Nevada and filed for divorce. She told the judge that her husband kept five loaded revolvers in the house, and was “always looking for trouble.” He had threatened to shoot her a couple of times, too.The judge granted her the divorce. Frederick Niblo was still the chief clerk at the St. George. Did his claim pay out and make him paranoid? Or was it worthless, and he was now bitter and angry? I think I’ll have to do some more research! Thanks to Brownstoner reader J.S. for bringing this to my attention!

(1905 Photo: Museum of the City of New York)

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