A world like no other, situated in a magical corner of the city, where the city’s people came together to have a good time in public.
—New York Times, 1899
Castle Garden, also known as Castle Clinton National Monument, has had a varied past. Since its inception in 1808, the sandstone fortress in Manhattan’s Battery Park has been a military fortification, pleasure garden, and America’s first immigration center.
What was there before Castle Garden? Well, nothing in that exact spot. A little to the east along the Battery was the spot for Fort Amsterdam, which changed names to Fort George when the British took over. The fort was demolished after the American Revolution.
Water! Water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.
—Philip Hone, former mayor of New York City, 1842
This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you missed them, here are: part one and part two.
In part two, we left off with the Manhattan Company in the early 19th century slowly adding to their network of poorly fitted, cheap wooden pipes and rapidly growing their highly profitable bank.
Unfortunately, an adequate water supply for a city requires it to be available to everyone. Not only did there have to be enough for drinking, but fire fighting and cleaning muck from stables, seepage from cemeteries, and overflowing privies that added to the unsanitary conditions of a busy and growing city.
The Common Council finally parted ways with the Manhattan Company in 1831 and formed their own municipality. The city took over the waterworks project and spent $1,000 dollars to have an engineer write up a report telling them what they already knew:
With the city expanding, they needed a source of water that could handle the projected population.
This meant that they needed to stop delaying an investment in an aqueduct capable of bringing the “pure and wholesome water” from either the Bronx or Croton Rivers into all parts of the city, including the poorest sections. Unfortunately, building a civic project of this magnitude takes time. The bill approving the use of the Croton River with its greater capacity didn’t happen until 1833.
The previous yellow fever epidemics were horrible enough, but before the completion of the Croton River aqueduct and reservoirs, two major setbacks would overwhelm Manhattan’s agencies and economies.
Ten years passed since a yellow fever epidemic hit New York City. The Board of Health as well as the city’s residents had grown complacent. The only disease prevention practiced was to quarantine ships coming in from locations known to have epidemics. However, this didn’t happen often.
The medical doctors on the Board of Health refused to diagnose an illness until it was absolutely necessary, and even then, they didn’t always offer an honest diagnosis. They weren’t eager to cut off the flow of trade and profit because they feared angry merchants more than they did lying to the public. [Gotham]
It was 1832, and a horrific cholera epidemic rolled across Europe and into London. It was only a matter of time before the horrible disease came to New York Harbor on one of the hundreds of merchant ships that arrived daily.
Those who took their Hippocratic oath seriously grew more and more nervous reading about the escalating spread of disease and deaths in London. They implored the city to clean streets, disinfect latrines, and establish a network of emergency hospitals. It wasn’t done.
On June 15, cholera arrived from Quebec via the St. Lawrence River, through the Erie Canal, and down the Hudson. A laborer became ill, survived, but his children did not. It soon spread like wildfire. The Board of Health maintained there was nothing to fear, calling it the usual “summer” cholera, a regular digestive malady brought on when food spoiled in the summer heat.
The Council and evangelical clergy responded to the growing fear permeating the city by saying:
…that the Plague, should it come, would pass over the virtuous parts of town and descend, like God’s wrath, on its Sin-Infested quarters. [Gotham]
In other words, cholera would choose its victims based on morality.
Sylvester Graham, a minister and dietary reformer, preached that liquor, impure foods, and sexual dissipation undermined the body’s ability to resist cholera.
(It would be another 22 years before John Snow of London would discover the true cause of cholera — not a moral failure, but the bacteria Vibrio cholerae contaminating drinking water.)
By July 2, medical doctors in the city knew there was a greater problem than “summer” cholera. They announced the tally of sickness and death occurring in the city. The Common Council was furious. They didn’t want the public to know there was a health crisis because it would hurt the economy.
The very next day saw an exodus of wealthy residents fleeing the city to escape the epidemic, just as they’d done with the arrival of yellow fever. Sure enough, businesses suffered by the lack of wealthy customers. Of the approximately 100,000 people who couldn’t afford to leave, 3,513 died. It is unknown how had many in total suffered under cholera’s grip. *
There was one other immense responsibility that the Manhattan Company’s waterworks failed to protect against: fire. With their pipes not extending throughout the city, there was little chance of stopping a large-scale fire in its tracks. In the years between parting ways, the city hadn’t had a chance to do much more
Bucket brigades were a thing of the past. Back in 1799, the city imported its first fire fighting engines from Hamburg. More would be purchased in the intervening years. These engines had long hemp hoses that connected to each other, bringing water from the one of the city’s wells, rivers, or cisterns to its destination. Unfortunately, these engines did not produce enough pressure, nor did they reach the upper stories of the newer, taller buildings. All of this would become glaringly obvious during The Great Fire of 1835.
The Great Fire of 1835
The night of December 16, 1835 was met with temperatures dropping seventeen degrees below freezing and blustery winds. It had been so cold of late, the East River was frozen.
At nine that evening, a watchman smelled smoke at the corner of Pearl and Exchange Streets. He, along with other watchmen, found a fire in a five-story warehouse. In a matter of minutes, the fire tore through the roof. They watched in horror as the flames jumped to an adjacent building on the tightly developed street. Within fifteen minutes, the fire destroyed fifty buildings.
Alarms sounded, church bells pealed. The firefighters — whose numbers hadn’t increased with the population’s growth — needed all the help they could get to put out the fires. Worse yet, they were exhausted from fighting fires the last two nights, which also meant that the city’s cisterns were empty.
The conflagration lit the sky so bright, people could see it from as far as New Haven and Philadelphia. Gradually, fire companies from surrounding communities arrived. They took their axes to the frozen rivers, hooked up their hoses on their fires engines, but if any water flowed, it blew back on the firefighters with the wind, or it froze in the hoses.
Over two nights, 674 buildings in downtown Manhattan burned. Almost every structure below Wall Street was lost — all thirteen acres of Manhattan’s original settlement, now mostly a business hub. Miraculously, only two people died. Had the downtown area still been residential, the loss of life would have been staggering.
Imagine how the city would have faired if they’d built a fully functioning waterworks with the ability to bring thousands of gallons of water, at high pressure to every street in the city.
Water, Water Everywhere
Between yellow fever and cholera epidemics, and the Great Fire of 1835, the Common Council realized, albeit late, that they needed to retake control over the city’s waterworks. Though the proposal for the aqueduct system was quoted at a staggering $5 million dollars, the Council had the support of landowners, developers, banks, and insurance companies because they all feared fire. (It would actually cost them $13 million in the end.)
The Common Council submitted a Croton Project Referendum. The aqueduct passed 17,330 to 5,916. The poorer districts voted against the waterworks, fearing they’d be priced out of using it, though that was never the intention.
The city bought back the Manhattan Company’s waterworks, pipes, and water rights. They employed John B. Jervis ** as chief engineer. He managed damming the Croton River in Westchester County, constructing the forty-one mile aqueduct, the receiving reservoir by 79th & 86th Streets and 6th & 7th Avenues that held 180,000 gallons of water, down to the distributing reservoir capable of holding twenty-four million gallons of water at Murray Hill on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. ***
On July 4, 1842, the project was complete. “Pure and wholesome water” flowed into the city, through cast-iron pipes, to every home and business who opted in. The Murray Hill reservoir stood like a proud fortress designed in the Egyptian revival style. Its walls towered thirty-eight feet above street level. A twenty-foot wide promenade ringed the top most portion, enclosed by iron railings.
New York celebrated their new and functioning waterworks on October 14, 1842 during the “Festivals of Connection.” A five-mile procession marched through the city, filling it with boisterous cheers and pealing bells. A hundred-gun salute honored the fifty-foot fountain displayed in front of City Hall Park.
Of course they celebrated! New York City had waited since 1774 for fresh, safe water.
Into the Future
The Croton Aqueduct could not keep up with the growth of the city. About 1939, the municipality added the Catskill and Delaware watersheds to the system.
The Croton Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue was torn down in 1911 and parts of it are still visible in the foundation of the main branch of the New York Public Libary. In 1940, the receiving reservoir was drained and became the Great Lawn in Central Park.
* This is why contemporary politicians thought these diseases were a product of being poor, immoral, or “foreign” [immigrant-caused], as wealthy citizens fled, leaving behind those who couldn’t afford to.
** John B. Jervis cut his engineering teeth on the Erie Canal.
*** You might recognize this address because the location would eventually become the main branch of the New York Public Library (where the two lions guard the entrance). Some of the library’s foundation stones are remnants from the reservoir.
1. Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
6. Willis, Samuel J, and et al. “Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, for the Years .. : New York (N.Y.). Common Council : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive. New York : The Council, January 1, 1970. https://archive.org/details/manualofcorporat1855newy.
As early as 1748, New York’s well water reportedly was so bad that even horses balked at drinking it.
—Gregory S. Hunter, Historian
This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you missed it, here is part one. Jumping ahead: part three.
Aaron Burr was a hero of the American Revolution. General Washington honored his leadership, his ability to guide 5,000 men safely away from the British as the Americans retreated from New York, by promoting Burr to lieutenant colonel.
This isn’t a story about American Revolutionary heroes. This is the story of greed and bureaucracy in public service where it least belongs but always does. It’s also the story of how a new nation takes shape. There had to be stumbles and oversized egos, but justice prevails… eventually. You just have to be patient. And in the case of NYC water, very patient!
Recap of Part One
In 1774, Manhattan’s Common Council authorized Christopher Colles to install pine water mains under the city’s streets for conveying fresh water from the Collect Pond to all of the city. A steam engine, the first to be built in America, was to be used in pumping large quantities of water into a reservoir. Before the war, all of Manhattan encompassed fourteen miles of road. Once the Revolution came, all construction ceased.
After the War
When the Revolution ended in 1783, the Common Council, the governing body for the city, didn’t resume Colles’ plan. instead, they busied themselves with expanding streets north on the island. More importantly, Collect Pond, Colles’ fresh water source, was no longer fresh. After years of being abused as an industrial dumping ground (tanneries, slaughterhouses, breweries, etc.), the pond was disgustingly polluted. Because of this, homes and businesses relied on cisterns, wells, and natural springs for their water.
Though New Yorkers wanted Colles’ plan revived, using the Bronx River instead of the Collect, the Common Council refused, citing exorbitant costs.
Not Obvious Until It’s Obvious
After the yellow fever epidemic of 1793(the same infamous one that hit Philadelphia that year), the Common Council established a Health Committee. These inspectors patrolled the waterfronts, quarantining sick sailors at Belle Vue Farm, which would soon be called Bellevue Hospital.
Another yellow fever epidemic hit in 1795, after which Mayor Varick concluded that the disease was “most fatal among the poor, immigrants who lived and died in filth and dirt.” [Burrows] Legislation approved a Health Officer for the city and gained another pest house on Bedloe’s Island when Bellevue ran out of beds. The Health Officer had the right to enforce cleaning ordinances. However, the water from the city’s pumps and wells drew from underground springs polluted from streets sullied with raw sewage, runoff from stables, seepage from graveyards, and apparently, free-range pigs.
Another yellow fever epidemic came to Manhattan in 1798. Citizens demanded the government do something about the water quality. Though they got the science of the disease backwards, they at least understood that rank, wet environments invited disease. (Mosquitoes attracted to these environments in warm weather carry yellow fever, not the water itself.) The government refused this next request for an aqueduct (running from the Bronx River into the city), again citing cost. They did, however, agree to drain the Collect, hoping to one day use the land for premium housing.
They didn’t think it through. The drained swamp continued to be a drained swamp beneath landfill. Basements flooded from the underground springs, buildings built atop it sank (The Tombs — prison, in particular), and it stank because of, well, the buried swamp.
Had this unwholesome region been set aside as a public park — abundantly planted with trees which would have sucked up the moisture out of the sodden soil — the city would have made a substantial gain on the double score of beauty and of health.
Thomas Allibon Janvier, 1894
Instead of premium housing, the worst tenement living conditions existed there for the poorest residents, immigrants, and gangs. It became the Five Points neighborhood.
Then, in 1799, the Health Office wrote a report whereupon they discovered:
New York City needed sweeping public health reforms!
Public welfare had to come before the individual’s rights!
The city needed to be supplied with “pure and wholesome water!” [Gerber]
Two hundred and twenty some odd years later, and the ghosts of New York are still rolling their eyes at those politicians.
The Common Council finally approved legislation for the city’s municipal waterworks. The bill explicitly stated that whoever took over the municipality could not do so for profit.
Reader, the municipality would totally be rigged for profit.
The Council issued a charter of incorporation to Aaron Burr as the founder of Manhattan Company. It allowed Manhattan Company to dig wells, divert streams, lay pipes, and anything else they needed to do to bring “pure and wholesome water” to the city.
A Monster is Born
How did the Manhattan Company make a profit off of a city municipality when the Council explicitly decried it?
(Aaron Burr’s unyielding Hamilton obsession pays off.)
Burr and the president of the Chamber of Commerce and the president of the Mechanics Society “argued that the aldermen should abandon their plan in favor of a privately operated water company, a position Alexander Hamilton hammered home to the Council in a separate concurring opinion.” [Burrows]
Burr himself drafted the charter of incorporation. He included a vague clause that one could exploit if one were trying to game the system. He wrote that “any surplus capital could be used for any monied transactions or operations.”
That sounds like they could reinvest in the waterworks if they came into a profit, they could reinvest it through legal avenues, such as trade, insurance and… drum roll, please… BANKING!
The state issued them $2M to start the waterworks company. The Manhattan Company took $100,000 of it to begin work… found themselves with a profit!
Not to give away the ending or anything, but Manhattan Company would one day become Chase Manhattan Bank.
Btw, Burr twisting Hamilton’s argument to make a profit off of a municipality, you could say, wasn’t what Hamilton intended.
[Burr] has lately by a trick established a Bank, a perfect monster in its principle; but a very convenient instrument of profit & influence.
Putting the “No” in InNOvation
Was this a conflict of interest? Only if you cared about fresh water.
The board of directors for the Manhattan Company, Burr at the helm, had no interest in running a waterworks municipality. The banking division of Manhattan Company was too profitable to waste time on their true purpose. Instead of building an aqueduct to the Bronx River, they went back to Colles’ plan and sunk wells at springs near the site of the (landfilled) Collect Pond.
Just one (ok, more than one) problem: between 1786 and 1804, the population of Manhattan tripled. [Bailey] The truly egregious part? Unlike Colles’ plan, they didn’t want to divert money from the bank’s profits on a steam engine (unbelievably new technology in 1774 when Colles proposed it). So in 1799, they ran the pumps hooked up to horses.
Six years after the chartering of the Manhattan Company, they’d only laid six miles of pipes, providing water for a terrifyingly low number of homes — 400 in total. The water wasn’t available for flushing gutters or reaching the city’s markets where it was needed to wash away filth. The Manhattan Company even refused to fix streets their workers had dug up laying pipes.
None of this improved the city’s public health. Yet the Manhattan Company made quite the profit.
Leaves a Bad Taste in Your Mouth
Though the Common Council didn’t split ways with the Manhattan Company, they removed Aaron Burr from the board of directors. His complete fall from grace came swiftly after.
Burr went on to more illustrious affairs that included being Jefferson’s Vice President, and raising a small army in a plot to annex Spanish territory in Louisiana and Mexico to be used toward the establishment of an independent republic. [History.com]
He was arrested and charged with treason.
The Manhattan Company, without Burr, continued to expand the water supply system at whatever pace you call the opposite of a New York minute, doing as little as possible to maintain their charter.
Next Week: Part Three
Will New York City ever get clean water? Well, you already know their water is famed for its quality, but you might not know how it finally happened.
Pour yourself a cold glass of water, make yourself some hot tea, or wash your hands. But come on back. HEA guaranteed.
Coming up with this blog post was the ultimate dive down a rabbit hole. While searching for information on tunnels below Manhattan, hoping to find some that predated the legendary and possibly mythical cow tunnels, I came across an article about fishing in a basement below Second Avenue in the 1950s. How could I not investigate this matter for you, dear reader? And by you, I mean me. Us. The hopelessly curious.
While some of what I found touches on 18th century Manhattan, much of it references the 19th century to present times.
Let’s begin at the beginning. When the Lenape inhabited the island of Manhattan, it was lush with forests, “streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs.”1 Then the Dutch arrived in 1625 and began systematically rearranging nature to suit their purposes of creating a sustainable town — sustainable to European-style living. They dug canals reminiscent of their beloved Amsterdam. Just like Amsterdam’s canals, eventually they became polluted by residents dumping refuse into them.
When the British took over in 1664, they had no interest in rehabilitating the canals. They filled them in and built over them, as well as other waterways. This started out as a good idea to expand and make the land more habitable. However, that wasn’t always the outcome.
To the west of the famous Tea Water Pump, where drinking water was delivered by the barrel to residents in Lower Manhattan, lay the Collect Pond. Over the course of the 18th century, the pond became polluted by run-off from nearby industries (tanneries, cattle farms, etc.). It was time to bury the pond as it no longer served its purpose and was taking up valuable real estate. In 1819, developers built an elegant neighborhood called Paradise Square atop the filled in pond. It’s elegance didn’t last.
The fancy homes began to sink into the land within ten years, and as it did, methane from the rotting wildlife beneath the fill escaped. No longer a place where the wealthy wished to live, the area fell to slums and tenements, becoming the notorious Five Points. In fact, The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, better known as the Tombs, built over the original deepest part of the pond, sank shortly after its opening. The cells were compared to dungeons of the worst conditions due in part by the pond’s haunting remnants.
Minetta Brook, under today’s Greenwich Village, flowed from the western section of Washington Square Park where its course took it to the Hudson River. Marshland around the brook eventually became tobacco farms. By the time the Yellow Fever epidemic swept the country in 1797, these farms were converted to cemeteries.
Eventually, the city moved the cemetery’s lots to another location, building a neighborhood called Little Africa, the city’s first free black community, in its place. Like the Collect Pond, the area where the Minetta Brook had freely flowed turned into slums and became an uptown version of Five Points.
Some believed that there was a connection between fever outbreaks and the communities built over buried waterways. I would argue that this might be a case of causality vs. correlation. Slums, overcrowded by those who couldn’t afford medical care or better sanitation, may have hastened the prevalence of fast-spreading diseases. It didn’t help that they lived on land with rotting material beneath.
Egbert Ludovicus Viele
Colonel Viele served in the US Army in the Civil War. Before the war, he’d seen how poor sanitation caused illness and was a proponent of the theory that building over buried waterways was the cause. As a civil engineer and surveyor, he set out to map the island’s streams and ponds. It illuminated “what the island looked like before it was filled in.”2
[Egbert Ludovicus Viele. Source: Library of Congress]
Viele’s map shows all the known, original waterways as well as the city’s grid system. Since it is impossible to know how these waterways might affect construction today, structural engineers still use the 1865 map before beginning any job in Manhattan.
Fishing in the Basement
Finally, we go fishing. In the 1950s, New York experienced another regrowth. New, heavier buildings with deeper foundations replaced smaller buildings. This caused underground waterways to reroute again.
Then, in 1955, two hurricanes swept through New York within ten days of each other: Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Diane. As you might guess, these caused unprecedented flooding and destruction.
Between the rerouted waterways and the flooding from the hurricanes came a story that took place on Second Avenue and 53rd Street under Gasnick Supply Company, a hardware store. Mr. Gasnick described his experience in an article in the New York Times on August 22, 1971.
Let’s allow Mr. Gasnick to tell his story:
"...We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.
"With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.
"One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.
"Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother..."
Today, both Gasnick Supply Company and the building are gone. There have been no other reports of fishing in basements in New York City, though in 2007, Giles the author of Urbablurb, a short-lived New York blog, claimed he saw a 19th century clapboard house in Brooklyn with a sealed up well in the basement floor.
Fish Tale or Not?
Maybe. Possibly? I’d like to think Gasnick caught his fish.
Could Carp live their whole lives in New York City’s underground waterways? Not likely. What would they eat? Their diet consists mainly of algae and plant matter, which would have a hard time growing without sunlight. Carp migrating from a backyard pond after the flooding from the hurricanes is a more likely theory.
A conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society argued that it was “unclear whether water still flowed in many of the underground streambeds, because most of the water that once drained into them now flows into storm drains instead.”3 And yet, after heavy rainfall, these underground streams still cause basement flooding, sinking foundations, and backyard sinkholes.
The Last Tribute
Two Fifth Avenue is a high-rise apartment building completed in 1952. I checked. It’s still there. The building is located across from the Washington Square Triumphal Arch, and until 2011, the high-rise’s lobby displayed a glass pipe revealing silted water bubbling up from the buried Minetta Brook. As a triubte to the underground waterways, it was the last of its kind. Sadly, after a renovation, it was never replaced.
Before we look at Jewish rights under British rule in the colony of New York, we must look at Jewish rights in England to get a feel for the coming changes.
This was a precarious time during the Interregnum with Oliver Cromwell installed as the Lord Protector*. Between Cromwell and the leaders that followed him, they never put forth a statute authorizing the settlement of Jews in England. Nor were they prohibited either. Because of this, Jewish rights under British rule remained uncertain and insecure.
As we’ll see, ambivalence is not the same as religious tolerance.
English Law & Antisemitism
Lord Edward Coke, as Chief Justice, was considered one of the greatest jurists of his time. In his legal commentaries, he mixed theology with law**, and considered Jews (and any other group who did not identify as Christians) infidels and perpetual enemies of Christians, and therefore had no rights whatsoever which a court of justice could enforce. (Kohler)
In 1673 this principle was invoked to prevent a Jewish plaintiff from recovering a debt admitted to be due to him, the defendant claiming that a perpetual enemy had no standing in a court of justice. (Kohler)
While many judges used Coke’s principles when arguing a case, some dismissed it.
This is where laws and rights regarding Jews (and other foreigners) diverge between England and the colony of New York. As we discovered in Part 1, when New Netherland passed into British hands, there was ambiguity on England’s part in how to categorize the takeover. If the Crown considered New York a conquered land, the leaders in New York could write their own laws. However, if it was an “acquisition by discovery,” the laws of England prevailed. All this is to say, some of England’s laws carried over to New York, and some laws were created by the General Assembly of New York, a colonial governing body who answered to the Crown.
Naturalization and Denization
Over the next sixty years, the Crown and General Assembly passed a variety of laws regarding naturalization and denization.
In 1683, the colonial Assembly passed a general naturalization act limited to those professing Christianity. Coke’s jurisprudence remained a powerful influence; the Crown did not include Jews with the right of naturalized citizenship. Despite this, Jewish residents did not give up on their quest to build a synagogue, and they petitioned Governor Dongan two years later “for liberty to exercise their religion.” In a time when they were denied naturalization, they had the chutzpah (or the Ladino equivalent) to ask for what they wanted, anyway.
Petitioning for a Synagogue
Governor Dongan handed off the request to the Mayor and Common Council of New York who decided:
In the intervening years, Jews continued to gather and worship in their homes. However, somehow, a synagogue must have existed by 1692 because it was mentioned in a court proceeding. Next, it appeared on Chaplain Miller’s map in 1695 as the Jews’ Synagogue — the correct name of the synagogue is Congregation Shearith Israel, and it is still an active synagogue today. The first legal document reflecting its existence appeared among the New York City public records in 1700 where a property is described as bounded on one side “by the house and ground of John Harpending, now commonly known by the name of the Jews’ Synagogue.” Some scholars consider Miller’s map “questionable” due to Miller losing his notes before drawing up the map. (Hershkowitz)
It is important to mention that Shearith Israel considers their founding in 1654 when the first group of Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. Whether or not they had a building, if they gathered to worship, they existed.
Some Jewish residents gained naturalization in 1715 when the colonial Assembly passed another naturalization act. This time, it included Protestants and “all persons alive who inhabited the colony before November 1, 1683.” Obviously, this did not include all Jews.
Amending the Oath of Abjuration
There were other considerations beyond naturalization that were important to Jews. If a person wished to take public office, they had to take an Oath of Abjuration swearing they would not take arms against the king. The phrasing included “on the true faith of a Christian,” which denied Jews’ political rights.
In 1723, Parliament recognized Jews as his Majesty’s subjects and omitted the phrase. This allowed Jews to lawfully swear in English courts. However, it wasn’t until 1727 that the colonial Assembly passed a general act omitting the phrase in New York.
A major setback occurred in 1737 that reminds me of the voter suppression wave sweeping America right now. Adolph Philipse ran against Cornelius Van Horne for a seat in the General Assembly. He lost to Philipse 399 to 413, causing a controversy over who had the right to vote in that election. The lawyers handling the situation referred to New York law and decided that “all freeholders of competent estate, without excepting the descendants of Abraham” could vote. The lawyer representing Van Horne successfully appealed to the laws of England and to anti-semetic prejudice. (Varga)
In the end, Philipse was still declared the winner, and Jews lost the right to vote and to be admitted as witnesses again. (Kohler) [Prior to this case, the requirement to vote in New York was a freehold worth at least £40.]
1740 brought a little hope for Jewish residents. The Naturalization Act of 1740 passed by Parliament gave special provisions for Jewish citizens. If a Jew resided in a colony for at least seven years, they could be naturalized by swearing an oath of allegiance before a local magistrate. This gave them full civil rights while it still withheld various political rights.
Finally, the first Constitution of the State of New York adopted in 1777 gave Jews and other disenfranchised minorities “absolute equality with all other subjects.” (Kohler) The State of New York was a leader in religious liberty by rejecting Lord Coke’s antisemitism!
So, it’s time for white antisemitic supremacists to remember the principles America was founded on: absolute equality (still working on this one) and a rejection of Lord Coke’s principles based on combining church and state. Keep the Bible away from my rights!
Thank you for reading to the end. I know this has been a lot to digest. I welcome your comments, not your hate.
* Lord Protector is a title used in British constitutional law for the head of state. It is also a particular title for the British heads of state in respect to the established church. (Source: Wikipedia)
** Separating church and state is a pillar of American constitutional law for a reason. And Lord Coke is that reason. He was also the inspiration behind our third, fourth, and sixteenth amendments.
Most of my blogs center on 18th century New York because that is the period and location in which the books I’m writing take place. This post will take us to back to just before 1654, when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. By going back that far, it will give us context for the Jewish experience in the 18th century. More than land changed hands from the Lenape to the Dutch to the British. Religious tolerance and rights also shifted.
The first Dutch settlement in New Netherland was claimed in 1614 under the direction of the Dutch West India Company. Ten years later, the directors of the Company founded New Amsterdam and sent merchants and stockholders to settle there. By 1654, the first Jewish merchants arrived, and some of them may have even been directors themselves.1
Sephardic Jews Under Dutch Rule
In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal expelled Jews during the Inquisition. Many went to Holland, where they enjoyed religious toleration and full political rights. These Jews were known as Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) because they came from the Iberian Peninsula. However, they had to abide by certain restrictions placed on them. The Dutch forbid them to write or speak disparagingly of the Christian religion, convert Christians to Judaism, nor were they allowed to intermarry among Christians.
Jews were also forbidden to engage in retail trade. In many European countries, retail was the domain of the Christian burghers. However, this exclusion did not extend to imports and exports. As such, Jews played an influential role in the Company with their merchant businesses. Many left Holland with the Company and settled in Brazil until the Portuguese took control in 1654, expelling the Dutch.
Does that date sound familiar? It should. The first Jews on record to arrive in New Amsterdam were refugees from Brazil.
Lastly, under Dutch rule, Jews could only legally pray in private. It would be many years before the founding of the first synagogue in the New World. In fact, it wasn’t until 1671 when the first Sephardic synagogue in Holland was allowed to be built.
While there were individuals who wished the Company would enact intolerance rules toward the Jews, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony of New Netherland, instructed otherwise:
Jews settling in New Amsterdam remained under Dutch protection and enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those in Holland. Considering the treatment of Jews in other parts of Europe, it could have been worse — a frequent refrain in Jewish history. Jews in Holland and her colonies were a separate class, but with the same political rights.
Shortly after settling, Jews gained the right to purchase land for themselves. Then they were permitted to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery, a first step in laying down roots.
Then the English took New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming it for the Duke of York.
The articles of capitulation provided that:
The Treaty of Breda in 1667 confirmed that the legal status of the Jewish residents would continue under the new British rule.
Was it so simple? Yes, and no.
English Colonial Rule
Under English colonial law, conquered territories did not have to follow English law; they could create their own set of laws for the new British subjects. Some argued, however, that New York was an “acquisition by discovery,” and therefore subject to the laws of England. After all, the Duke of York acquired New Amsterdam — not conquered it — because the Dutch chose not to fight when the British showed up. Therefore, the land passed into English hands.
What did this mean for the Jews? It’s complicated.
If you had asked me which street in Manhattan is the oldest, I would have answered, “The Broad Way.” And I would have been wrong. Before Chinatown and Five Points, before the street became known as “The Bowery,” it was Bowry Lane, a prior footpath shaped by the Lenape.
The Lenape used the path to travel to and from trading and gathering places, and Collect Pond, the only source of freshwater in Manhattan. (The East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries—or brackish, not fresh.) The Lenape term for the path was Wickquasgeck, which either means “Path to the trading place” or “Birch-bark country.”
As the Dutch stripped land for the colonists to become self-sufficient in their new environment, they named the path for the farms, or bouwerijs, on it.
In 1625, the Dutch West India Company sent Crijn Fredericksz, an engineer, to Manhattan to survey the land for a fort, roads, farms, and property lines. In doing so, the Broad Way—broad enough for carriages passing in both directions—extended from the southernmost tip of the island where the Dutch built their fort, straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerij.”
In 1626, the first enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam. Within two decades, many were granted freedom and parcels of land along Bowry Lane.
Now older and manumitted, free Africans were, for the most part, no longer considered “useful” to colonists. But the colonists still found a way to use them: by living on the farthest land from the fort, the free Africans served as the first line of defense against attacks by Native Americans and the British coming from the north.
Manhattan Changes Hands
When the British took over in 1664, Bowry Lane was already the major road out of Manhattan. It connected to the Boston Post Road, which still exists today, and was literally a posting road that led from New York to Boston.
In the early part of the 18th century, Bowry Lane was paved, and sidewalks installed. A map from 1766 labels the entire length of road as “the Bowry Lane.” However, after the American Revolution, the northern section was renamed for William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, for his pro-American stance during the war.
The Oldest Home in Manhattan
While New York City became more populated with people and buildings, Bowry Lane remained farms and large estates. To accommodate a greater need for meat, the city established the first public slaughterhouse on the land around Collect Pond, which sits very close to Bowry Lane. Prior to this, slaughterhouses weren’t allowed in the city due to their noise, smells, and effluent matter. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end to Collect Pond as a source of non-polluted freshwater.
The slaughterhouses were important to Edward Mooney, who was not only important in the “meat business,” but also represented the city’s butchers in the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Wanting to leave near his place of business, he purchased a parcel of land from the Delancey estate at the auction from the Commissioners of Forfeiture in 1785.
During and after the war, Americans confiscated land from loyalists to pay for the war effort. The inhabitants were allowed to take their clothes, some furniture, and provisions for three months. As such, James Delancey, who remained loyal to the British Crown, forfeited his estate. On this land, Mooney built a house at 18 Bowery, and it still stands today.
The 19th century brought tremendous change to Manhattan and the Bowery, in particular with the influx of immigrants. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the Bowery would continue to thrive and fail many times over.
The first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (what would become New York in 1664) came to escape the continuation of the Inquisition when Portugal wrested control of Brazil from the Dutch in 1654. There were six women among the twenty-three refugees, and only two of their names survived in the record because they were widowed heads of households — Ricke Nunes and Judith Mercado.
For the most part, “at a time when Jews elsewhere were so often locked away behind ghetto walls, colonial Jews found a remarkable degree of toleration and diversity.”1
The lives of colonial Jewish women, like their Christian neighbors, centered on the household as well as religious life, allowing the rhythms and cycles of sacred times to govern their days. They also dressed the same in their bonnets and gowns, practiced needlework, and wealthier wives employed servants and owned slaves to help with chores and childrearing.
Jewish law does not require women to pray in synagogue. Before coming to America, they rarely attended. However, once in America, they chose to attend like Christian housewives. The first synagogue in colonial America, Shearith Israel, was founded in 1654 (it would take 2 years before a cemetery became necessary) and still serves the community in Manhattan to this day.
At home, Jewish housewives made sure kashrut — dietary laws — were followed, including separate dishes for meat and dairy. They were also responsible for teaching their children Jewish culture and traditions. But it must be mentioned that Jewish households, then as now, ran the gamut of observing every Jewish law to disregarding what didn’t serve them.
The average age for a Jewish woman to marry for the first time in the 18th century was twenty-three. Men, needing a means to support a future family, took time to establish themselves. They were therefore about ten years older when they married.
Because the Jewish community in America was relatively small (by 1776, there were about 2500 Jews in colonial America, hailing from all over the world), spouses were chosen locally or as far away as the Caribbean or in England. When marriages straddled the Atlantic, they offered a commercial advantage to merchant families, creating profitable networks.
Unfortunately, as happens too often in history, Jews in British Jamaica were blamed for being “too successful,” causing anti-Jewish sentiment. In 1695, the Jamaican assembly passed an additional tax on Jews.
Education & Business
Many Jewish women were literate, having been educated by private tutors or having attended a school maintained by the Jewish community. In fact, Shearith Israel opened their first school in 1731. Even poor children attended by financial contributions left in wills.
We find further evidence of literate Jewish women in family documents, letters, and wills. Abigail Franks, born in colonial America in 1688, left a substantial quantity of letters written to her son while he lived in London.
Many Jewish widows acted as the executors of these wills, suggesting they had some business experience by assisting their husbands. They regularly received property and money that the law of coverture denied their Christian neighbors.
Though it was rare for a woman to own a business in her own right, it wasn’t impossible. Grace Levy Hays (1690-1740) kept a retail store. Esther Pinheiro on Nevis, a British colony and the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, owned several ships in her own right and partnered with merchants in Boston between the years 1710 and 1728.
Jewish women in colonial America also built cottage industries selling jams and pickles, taking in washing, and running kosher boarding houses.
If it weren’t for colonial American Jewish women who held business in their own right, wrote letters deemed worthy enough to be saved, or became heads of households after the death of their husbands, more of their names and accomplishments would be erased from the historical record.
Nadell, P. (2019). America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. United States: W. W. Norton.
The history of optical projections goes all the way back to playing with shadows. Obviously such a point in time isn’t on record, but one can only assume, based on human behavior, that the shadow, as it does all living beings, intrigued early humans.
As a stupendous example of shadow fascination, one of my Doodles of Mayhem™, the perspicacious Willow, has been known, while on a brisk walk, to chase the shadow of a bird on the pavement before her, and face-plant in an attempt to catch her prey.
Around 1420, Giovanni de Fontana recorded the first use of an optical projection by lantern. He included an image of a man holding a lantern, projecting the image of the devil on a wall. The lantern shows a small cut-out of the devil, while the wall shows a much larger version. Fontana describes it as a nocturnal appearance for terrifying viewers.1
[The text reads: Apperentia nocturna ad terorem videntium.]
The Romans invented the camera obscura, or dark chamber, though the term has only been in use since 1604. It works by allowing a bright light, usually sunlight, through a pinhole or lens in the wall. Through this whole, the image projects onto the opposite wall. The camera obscura, sometimes referred to as a pinhole camera, is actually a predecessor of the modern photographic camera.
The image from a camera obscura is projected upside down, reversed left to right, and has a very low luminosity.2 The reason for the image appearing upside down is due to the crossing of the light’s rays through the hole. (See image above.)
The camera obscura was useful in studying solar eclipses without damaging the eyes. Artists also used it to enhance accuracy in their designs.
In the 18th century, it evolved for entertaining purposes.
The magic lantern takes the technology of the camera obscura and advances it to the next level, using moving glass slides with painted images on them. In this way, it was the predecessor to the slide show. Early images included a gun in which a red, fiery discharge shoots out before the bullet does.
Later, projectionists stacked glass slides together for depictions like a ship at sea during a storm. The scene would start with a calm sea, slowly increasing in movement by manipulating the individual slides until the ship bounced dangerously on the waves.
Images from the magic lantern were projected onto smoke and moved about the room, creating the illusion of flying ghosts. These phantasmagoria (horror) shows were meant to frighten audiences.
The peep show, which had a very different connotation then than it does now, was another popular form of entertainment for colonists. Taking the experience to a personal level, the magic lantern’s glass slides, like the camera obscura before it, were constructed inside a box with a viewing hole. These new scenes depicted depth and movement by manipulating lenses and light. The peep show was the predecessor of the stereoscope.
Remember Mr. John Bonnin from my Living Monsters and Curiosity blog post? He’d surely be offended if you didn’t, considering he was his greatest promoter.
I realize this gets confusing, but in 1748, Mr. Bonnin used the mechanics of the peep show and projected the images onto a screen using mirrors, instead of a viewing in a box. This way, he could draw a large crowd at once to show off his “Philosophical Optical Machine.” In this way, he brought “most of the famous palaces and gardens in England, France, and Italy[,] … the siege of Barcelona, and the cities of Rome, Naples, and Venice.”3
For the colonists who were homesick or had never been to England, this gave them a chance to imagine walking through the pleasure gardens and palaces of London. These included Kensington, Hampton-Court, Vaux Hall, Ranelagh House, among others.
These shows were so popular, they ran from “eight o’clock in the morning and continued showing until nine at night.”
Here is a terrific example of a peep show scene: Six overlapping hand-colored engraved panels. Approx. 6½x8x15 when extended in apparatus. Scene depicts garden fountains, gates and a flower garden surrounded by tall hedges. Numerous people are also depicted, including a musician, children, lovers embracing, etc.
If you’d like to make your own peep show, here is a tutorial: