With these thoughts playing a gentle continuo, I’ve re-opened a modest little leather-bound day book that I came upon serendipitously almost ten years ago. My older sibling had cleaned out his in-laws’ home after their decease, and among the couple’s possessions was a Daily Memorandum book for 1870, probably acquired in a junk-shop foray. Though himself a voracious collector of old post-cards and portrait photos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, brother Henry knew instantly upon whom to bestow this treasure.
The pleasure I experience examining such an item is almost indescribable. The worn edges of this cheap little ledger, the faded ink cursive, tinged brown with age, the poor spelling: all cast a spell upon me, one that pumps adrenaline into my veins each time I delve therein. Opening the volume for the first time, I leafed through slowly, page by delicate page, a pleasant hunger gripping me. I knew instantly I’d found a precious window into a long-forgotten life, a record of New York from days long gone. And I knew exactly what I’d do, the urge irresistible. With ample effort and careful thought, I’d be able to reconstruct the author’s life, both for the year of the account, and before and after.
One of the wonderful things about this diary is that its author, one Henry K. Dyer, was not a famous person, just an ordinary citizen. My reading and musing on his quotidian doings will neither be confused with the cult of celebrity nor distorted through the lens of fame. I’ll make him famous through my attention, and with that he’ll grow within me to considerable stature, forging a path of understanding and appreciating history from a common person’s life. Another place in history will be created. It will come to matter.
Once my task is well along, I’ll contact the author’s relatives. There is only one place where this book truly belongs: back in their hands. Perhaps they’ll be thrilled (I certainly would be). Perhaps no interested party can be found. And perhaps the author was a reprobate, and the less said the better. I think not, though, and chances are that I’ll find some unsuspecting relation who’ll thank me profusely. I don’t really care. I’m neither Robin Hood nor Sir Lancelot. I’m doing this for myself.
It’s the process that thrills me, this detective work, this re-creation of a life. And maybe that’s why we use that word in common parlance as we do. Sports, crossword puzzles, television watching, billiards – there are countless means of recreation. But my chosen path fits the word just as well. Let this serve as an invitation to you to join me on my jaunt backwards in time. Read my first steps below and accompany me on the next ones. Whatever we discover, we’ll do together.
Why did I overlook the flyleaf when I first opened my brother’s gift? I just can’t imagine, but when I opened the book for the second time in 10 years, a vein of gold glistened. I stared wide-eyed at the inscription on the inside cover, and my pulse quickened:
This is my husband’s diary written when he was 24 years – we were married in 1875 Feb 25th when he was 28 years old – I was 27 years…Please do not destroy it. I want to keep this . . .
The first printed page ornately announces the contents,
MEMORANDUM FOR 1870
Then his widow’s script repeats:
HK Dyer 24 years – we were married in 1875 – Henry K Dyer died at the age of 65 on October 19, 1911
Entry after entry in the following pages tell of a young man who spent his days and evenings in Manhattan’s Tammany Hall clubhouse (then located on the north side of 14th Street just east of Irving Place at # 141 East 14th), sailing the Gowanus Canal and up through New York Harbor and the Hudson River to Haverstraw and back, ice and roller skating in Brooklyn and Manhattan, treating himself to ten cents’ solace and segars on a daily basis.
Though he visited “the store” on New Year’s Day, and occasional mention is made of this un-named place in the following months, Henry Dyer’s days seem devoid of gainful employment. Much time is spent in a Burnham’s Tavern, roadhouse located at 79th Street and Broadway that occupied the former Van den Heuvel country house near that intersection. Dyer would have taken a horse-car up Broadway from lower Manhattan, but I’ve yet to uncover his residence address during this year.
Finding his home in later life in the City was simple. Trow’s New York Directory for 1870 and 1871 list no entries for Mr. Dyer. Subsequent years’ volumes show him at various business addresses in lower Manhattan and residing at 86 Lefferts Place in Bedford Stuyvestant. I couldn’t resist going there, and I was amply rewarded. I found the homesite; unfortunately now a huge vacant lot on a beautiful tree-lined street. The property is flanked on either side by multi-story wood-frame dwellings, one a sizeable mid-19th century yellow mansion with a widow’s walk, the other a more modest and probably older green structure (pictured below). Though the lot at 86 Lefferts Place is vacant, a cursory examination of the remains of curbing and border wall foundations at the property line indicate that a majestic carriage-way once provided access to a set-back house. The lot appears to be approximately 200′ wide and 100′ deep, never built up with the late 19th century brownstone townhouses that line most of the block. Googling 86 Lefferts Place produces a number of obituaries of individuals whose funeral were conducted our of a funeral chapel conducted at that address a few years after Henry Dyer’s death in 1911. I surmise that Dyer occupied a sizeable mansion on the site that was sold to a mortuary shortly after his death. We’ll see…
The 24 –year old had a number of favorite hang-outs: Visits to taverns named“Cuyler’s” and “Hooley’s” are frequent. I suspect Dyer of being moderate in his consumption of alcohol, though. His gentlemanly reference to “solace” in his daily entries in all likelihood refers to the dram or two of hard liquor in which he indulged. (I’d originally thought that the entries were a code for prostitution expenditures, but the maximum daily entry is ten cents in this category, far too little to have involved the flesh trade at contemporary prices). Dyer’s hours at taverns were probably irrigated, for the most part, with malt beverages purchased at modest cost. No mention is made of hangovers. I infer that his use of a euphemism for hard liquor stems from a religious family background that frowned on the consumption of the liquid kind of spirits.
Young single men in the City with some independent means had for decades formed cliques in a so-called “Sporting Gentlemen’s Society.” Starting in the 1820s, New York drew legions of young men and women from declining agricultural areas of New England to pursue gainful employment in the burgeoning urban economy. In earlier years, young male employees in stores and workhouses who hailed from outside the City usually resided in their employer’s combined residence/workplace. The establishment of middle class residential districts away from the central commercial area of lower Manhattan afforded business proprietors the opportunity to separate their homes from the noise and other discomforts of residing next door to or above a busy workplace. With these changes, however, apprentices and journeymen frequently lost their lodgings. Boardinghouses and similar arrangements become commonplace for young workers of both sexes. Employers who formerly supervised the moral conduct of their employees renounced that function. Young men and women in the City found new freedom to intermingle in the taverns, theaters and other recreations that abounded.
By 1870, New York had long been the unquestioned pinnacle of the national as well as regional economy. The Civil War made many New Yorkers wealthier than ever. Henry Dyer lived in a town filled with Reconstruction-era excesses. That very year saw the collapse of Boss William Marcy Tweed’s infamous Ring in a municipal corruption scandal that still captures New Yorkers’ imaginations.
The image at the top of this post shows the entries for January 1st, 1870 in Dyer’s neat hand. Apparently a new pair of overshoes was needed to protect the dress shoes and spats he most likely wore that day to go visiting. Dyer used stage coaches to get around that miserable, rainy day. Nothing like a plate of oysters and a good segar to ward off a cold and take one’s mind off the ubiquitous smell of horse manure in the muck-filled streets.. .
Dyer’s visit to Tammany Hall on the first day of the New Year surprised me a bit. It had long been the tradition for those active in municipal politics to gather at City Hall for a daytime reception hosted by the Mayor (so long as their party’s man held that office). 1870 was the beginning of the end for the City’s chief executive. “Elegant “ Abraham Oakey Hall, served as Boss Tweed’s designated flunky-in-power. The former New York County D.A. was known for his sartorial splendor, and headed up a troika of thieves who had drained the City’s coffers for the personal advantage of uncountable Tammany faithful over many years. Henry Dyer was a Democratic party regular, but a recent change in law making the first Monday in January the start of the term of office of new municipal officials ended this practice. The celebration of what was intended to be one more year of skullduggery took place in Tammany’s clubhouse.
A note on sources before I wrap up this first post about my little treasure:
So far I’ve been to the New York Historical Society’s magnificent library where I’ve had easy access to Manhattan directories as I try to pin down Dyer’s residence and business addresses. NYHS has wonderful collections of hotel materials in paper files that will hopefully shed more light on some of Dyer’s visiting places and watering holes. Taverns were frequently maintained in or adjacent to hostelries, and one never know s what treasures one will find in these collections. The hotel materials date back to colonial times and are indexed by name of hostelry. There are hundreds of business names in the hotel file card catalog.
n.b.: I could be happily locked in the NYHS library for the rest of my life. Even stale bread would do with my cup of water…
Green-Wood Cemetery’s Historical Association provides gracious assistance to researchers. Its website, http://www.green-wood.com/ has a searchable burial inquiry page. Theresa LaBianca in the cemetery office has already been tremendously helpful to me in this new project.
A Rite of Return – Part 2 will follow soon. In it I will examine the rest of the January entries and related topics. Stay tuned!
Before we rejoin young Henry Dyer’s daily January activities, let’s focus a bit on the fellow with whom we are traversing 1870. I daresay we’ll do so better than he did, with what I have now guess to be his continually dilated pupils Contrary to my initial thoughts, I’ve now a much better idea of what “solace” means in Dyer’s day-book. I already shared my opinion that sex-for-pay was far more expensive than the ten-cent entries for this item, and my musings about temperance and family religion possibly playing a role in his use of this term. I was right about the need, but wrong about the means. Solace at ten cents a day in 1870 was indeed sticky and sweet, much like the other two possibilities I mentioned. It was also black and fragrant. It’s called opium.
According to the 1972 Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, “The United States of America during the nineteenth century could quite properly be described as a ‘dope fiend’s paradise.’ Opium was on legal sale conveniently and at low prices throughout the century; morphine came into common use during and after the Civil War; and heroin was marketed toward the end of the century. These opiates and countless pharmaceutical preparations containing them ‘were as freely accessible as aspirin is today.’ . . . Though called ‘opium eaters’ in the medical literature, most nineteenth century opium users (including Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater) were in fact opium drinkers; they drank laudanum or other opiate liquids. Similarly ‘morphine eaters’ included many who took morphine by injection or in other ways. In a number of the quotations which follow, ‘opium eaters’ refers generally to morphine as well as opium users. Opium smokers, however, were considered to be in a separate category.”
Though Harry Hubbell Kane’s 1882 work Opium Smoking in America and China maintains that the practice migrated from the west coast to New York in late 1876 or early 1877, I believe that Dyer (and in all likelihood some of his compatriots) indulged in the practice years before, whether in the dens of New York’s Chinatown, or elsewhere in the city. How and with whom Henry Dyer took his solace remains a mystery. We’ll try to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts he spent his 24th year high as a kite. Many days he wrote that he “stayed home.”
Many pages that mention “solace” also contain modest expenditures for “segars,” but Dyer may well be off the hook as a drug user. “Solace” was also the brand name of an extremely popular brand of cherry-flavored pipe tobacco marketed in foil pouches by tobacconist John Anderson, whose downtown New York City shop played a crucial role in the infamous Beautiful Cigar Girl murder of 1842. An 1893 photo of the Liberty Street store and two photos of a tin box used to retail Solace packetes by a successor to the Anderson business are below.
Anderson made his fortune marketing the pouches to soldiers in the Mexican War, and the brand remained popular for many decades thereafter. Whether Dyer was an aficionado of the sweetish mixture, or chose to indulge in stronger stuff remains a mystery. But I lean towards the opiate definition, given Dyer’s long absences from work and poor health in the year in question.
Now, let’s get on with January. The month’s first week tells us much already about Mr. Dyer. The 3rd is spent at Burnham’s Mansion, the road-house I wrote of in Part 1 of this series. Burnham’s was known far and wide, and was located on many contemporary maps of the entire island of Manhattan. According to William Harrison Bayles’ Old Taverns of New York [Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, New York: 1915], Burnham’s was first located at Seventieth Street as early as 1825. In its latter incarnation, together with the Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive at the cusp of the Manhattanville gorge, Burnham’s was a popular refreshment stop for ladies and gentlemen out for a warm-weather bicycle jaunt or carriage ride. Winter sleigh-rides up semi-rural Broadway often made Burnham’s warm tap-room and blazing fireplaces a mid-journey stop. I’ve now positively identified the exact second site of the roadhouse and hotel: Both the Dripps 1867 and Bromley 1876 plats of the neighborhood show the structure located on the 11th Avenue (now West End Avenue) side of the block bounded by that street, Broadway, and 78th and 79th Streets. The ultra-elegant central-court Apthorp apartment house has occupied the site for approximately the past eighty years. The Broadway entrance to Burnham’s consisted of a circular driveway that led west into the lot and up to the porch of the hotel. This carriage path is clearly shown on one of the maps.
A list names of the neighboring property owners on the largely vacant West Side blocks reads like a catalog of famous New Yorkers: Fernando Wood, former Congressman and Mayor during the 1850s, owned many nearby lots and small buildings. Wood was Mayor during 1857, when the location of Central Park was finally approved by the State Legislature and construction began. The Mayor and his cronies made no secret of their efforts to profit from real estate acquired near the vast Park borders. they reckoned on a rapid increase in values in what had been remote and undesirable precincts of the City, largely occupied by truck farms and rocky parcels inhabited by squatters, bone, boilers and goats. In 1870, Jacob Lorillard, John C. Van den Heuvel, Jacob Harsen, and Lemuel Wells all owned parcels on the Upper West Side, where the largest extant structures were the coal-gas holding tanks of the Metropolitan Gas Company, located at 65th Street and Tenth Avenue.
Dyer also spent ten bits on a book on January 3rd, as well as a dollar on “pictures.” Paperback novels were plentiful and cheap in 1870, so the dollar volume must have been hardbound. It won’t be the last book he buys this year, but what the unidentified title was intrigues me. Much the same as to the pictures: Daguerreotypes were wildly popular by this time. Images could be purchased for modest sums such as that Dyer tendered. Pach Brothers, Matthew Brady and others operated studios in town where middle-class customers could take advantage of what was still a much marveled-at technology, even three decades after its invention.
January 4th marks Dyer’s first attendance this year at a “sociable.” Throughout the season, we’ll read entries of his attendance at these functions. Early January’s event was held at “Mrs. Hubbard’s.” Who she was and where the gathering took place will have to abide further research. The fact that Dyer paid $6.00 to attend (a healthy sum in his budget) tells me that the goings-on at these sociables were prized by the young bachelor. Though these get-togethers may have proven a fertile hunting ground for Henry Dyer, ultimately his acquaintance with a certain Miss Price probably was made in an even more controlled environment. More on that in the next installment.
Down the Wishing Well
Perhaps Henry Dyer’s mother, Emma, answered the knock on the door at the family home when a Federal census taker visited on Wednesday June 15th of 1870. Or perhaps her namesake eldest daughter greeted the visitor. Most likely though, their Irish servant, young Eliza Conlon, admitted Inspector William Mundell to the parlor where the interview was conducted. His notations, marked in the 1870 Federal census, reveal that under one roof, 23-year old Henry, his Virginia-born father and English mother, 29-year old sister Emma, 21-year old sister Florence, and 16-year old brother Charles all lived together with their 21-year old housemaid and a schoolteacher named Louise Herring (a boarder?) at 101 Cumberland Street in Clinton Hill. The spirits of several siblings who would have been counted in Dyer family census count a decade before sadly lingered in the home. Henry and his surviving brother and sister had lost Grace, Herbert, and Anson Phelps in recent years. Another brother, Sidney, also died at age 2, though it is unclear whether he was still living in 1870.
Inspector Mundell’s visit occurred on a weekday, and thus it is likely that Samuel Dyer was out of the house practicing his profession, described to the census-taker as professor of music. Ditto for Henry (a/k/a Harry), said to be a “clerk in a bank” as well as his teenage brother Charles, a clerk in a publishing firm. I assume that the $5000 worth of real estate specified on the census schedules as owned by the elder Mr. Dyer was the Cumberland Street house alone, and that the $400 personal estate was an estimate of the value of the home’s furnishings, plus perhaps a horse and carriage. Henry’s sister Emma is listed as “at home” in the column of professions, a spinster in contemporary parlance.
Next door to 101 Cumberland Street stood a pair of identical four-story attached brick houses with ornate stoops and heavy carved entry doors into their parlor floors. The houses survived until at least 1940, when they were photographed in the city-wide WPA-financed project whereby every tax lot in the five boroughs of New York city was photographed.
By 1940, the Dyer home had long since been replaced with a Presbyterian church (the edge of which is shown in the photo above but which, too, is now long gone). The adjacent homes and others on the block were commonplace for families of the Dyers’ modest means. A demolition photo taken in 1945 prior to the construction of the present structures on the site (The NY City Housing Authority’s Walt Whitman Houses) shows the backside of the block, behind the Myrtle Avenue elevated line, the successor to the streetcar line that Henry Dyer used for years as part of his commute to Manhattan)
1945 photo of Carlton Avenue (backside of the Dyers’ Cumberland Street block), looking north past Myrtle Avenue el
The men in the neighboring households were shipwrights, accountants, real estate brokers, and fish merchants, while the two women employed outside the home were both schoolteachers. The Myrtle Avenue and DeKalb Avenue streetcar lines provided easy access to Brooklyn’s Fulton Ferry, where Henry would have made his way to Manhattan for work or pleasure. But the mystery remains how young Henry held down a position in a bank for any length of time that year when so many of his weekdays were spent in outdoor daytime amusements. Keeping up appearances, especially in front of government officials, must have been important for his parents and siblings, even if Henry refused to stay on the straight and narrow. Perhaps that explains the disconnect between his diary that year and the census taker’s notes.
One sad fact perhaps explains in part his older sister Emma’s presence in the family home in 1870 even at the advanced age of 29, as well as Henry’s deep involvement in opium use that year. The Dyer household had, in previous years, been filled with the sounds of little voices. Many, many little voices. But late in August of 1861, “effusion of the brain” took the life of three year old sister Grace. One year earlier, 11-day old brother Herbert expired due to “congestion of the lungs,” and in November, 1860, 17-year old Samuel Price Dyer died of heart disease. All were buried in Green-Wood cemetery, where their parents and many aunts and uncles would eventually be laid to rest. Less than five years later, disaster struck again. Within ten days in January 1865, the Dyer children lost their 13-year old brother Anson Phelps Dyer to “gastric fever,” and Eliza Jane Dyer, to “rheumatic endocarditis.”
Eliza Jane was born in 1828, and lived with the family in lower Manhattan. The 1850 census lists her in the household together with the parents, Samuel and Emma, and five children: Emma, Samuel, Louisa, Henry and Florence. Eliza Jane may well have been an unmarried younger sister or cousin of Samuel’s who lived with the family for at least 15 years. Another sibling, Sidney, passed away at age 2. His death is recorded on the reverse of his parents’ graves in Green-Wood, but the date of death is unknown; I cannot find him in any of the Federal census records. All told, Henry’s mother seems to have borne at least ten children, and have outlived six of them.
Though carriage accidents and household fires frequently resulted in multiple deaths within a single family, it was far more frequent that diphtheria, cholera, yellow fever, typhus or influenza took the lives of young children in families such as the Dyers. It would be decades until the first crude antibiotics were invented to prevent the sudden deaths that these and other diseases routinely caused. Though none of the children nor Eliza Jane Dyer seem to have been victims of contagion, the family suffered more than its share of misfortune. Henry Dyer was 14 and his sister Emma 21 when the first of their brothers and sisters passed away prematurely
Emma was undoubtedly her mother’s helpmate in raising her younger siblings. Despite the commonplace nature of these deaths, the losses must have been staggering for a young woman, particularly one on the cusp of marriage and childbearing age herself. So it’s no mystery why Emma stayed at home with her parents and surviving siblings for so long. Ten years later, though, she no longer lived with her parents. According to the 1880 Federal census, her parents’ sole housemate in June 1880 was Emma Price Dyer’s 85-year old father, James Price, a retired bookkeeper. Henry’s sister Emma finally married at some point prior to her father’s death in April 1894. She is listed as Emma Elizabeth Brown in the application made by her mother to the Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court for letters of administration, but for reasons unknown, resided then with her parents at their rented abode at 76 Quincy Street, near Classon Avenue.
Samuel and Emma Dyer had moved several times in the 25 years before Samuel’s death, living with at least Henry (and perhaps other of their surviving children) at 117 Cumberland Street in 1872 and at 81 Willoughby Avenue during 1873-1877. Henry’s career in banking was apparently short-lived (if it ever started). While continuing to live with his father in the mid and late 1870s he is listed in Brooklyn City directories as a jeweler, a merchant and in the tag business, perhaps becoming essential to his parents’ support. At some point Samuel Dyer’s fortunes deteriorated from those reported to the 1870 census official. He is listed at his death as owning only $600 in personal property and no real estate.
Henry Knight Dyer is listed in Brooklyn directories separate from his father in 1867-70 as a clerk in an unnamed business. A New York directory for 1867 is more specific, showing him as employed in the tag business at 198 Broadway, where Dennison & Co. maintained their New York City offices. His business address remains in succeeding years at Dennison in Manhattan. Married to Caroline Lavinia Price in 1875,
Marriage Certificate: Henry Dyer and Caroline Price
Henry and his bride lived in his parents home at 81 Willoughby Avenue, finally moving to 295 Ryerson Street in Clinton Hill by 1878, and to 235 Gates Avenue in by 1884, finally purchasing the mansion at 86 Lefferts Place for his final Brooklyn home in September 1890. Dyer continued to be listed in Trow’s Directory in the tag business or as “v. pres.” at 198 Broadway through the mid 1890s. Various entries in 1890-1895 list Dyer and Charles MacDonald together in the tag business at the 198 Broadway business address. No title is listed for MacDonald, and Dyer is listed in the joint entries as “v. pres.” Until I found the key to their relationship, I troubled myself no end about the whys and wherefores of Henry’s acquaintance with Charles MacDonald. When Henry Dyer’s father passed away in 1894 it would have made perfect sense for the eldest surviving son to suggest to his widowed mother that she employ Henry’s business associate as her legal representative. Just what that association comprised left me in the dark for quite a few weeks after I first discovered the relationship. Samuel Owen Dyer died intestate, and Charles MacDonald indeed appears as attorney for the petitioner on the widow’s application for letters of administration.
Despite many (and unfortunately vain) pieces of sleuthing, these connections remained nebulous until a couple of weeks ago, when I struck gold at the New York Historical Society. The Bella Landauer Collection of Business Ephemera at NYHS comprises a treasure trove of 19th century American commercial life. When I punched in Dennison Manufacturing Company to the computerized catalog, I was rewarded with three particularly choice listings.
Like so many projects, the Dyer daybook research has proceded in fits and starts, one morsel of information serendipitously leading to many others. I stumbled across Henry Dyer’s career at Dennison through another serendipitous find at The New York Public Library earlier this summer. Knowing through Surrogate’s Court records that his only child was Agnes Dyer Warbasse, I found in NYPL stacks a slim volume of the speeches given at the memorial service held for her on April 8, 1945 at the home of Mrs. Raymond Ingersoll in New York City. The preface to this simple pamphlet details Agnes’ early years as well as adult life, and mentions her father’s ascent to the presidency of Dennison.
In 1894, the Dennison Company published a history of the company, celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Massachusetts founding. Dyer had recently been named president. The Horatio Alger-esque biographical sketch of the new head of the enterprise provides a curious contrast both to the contents of Dyer’s 1870 day book as well as the story told to census taker Mundell in the Dyer family parlor that June day in 1870:
In 1859 the New York branch of Dennison & Co. was in a small back room on the second floor of Fellows & Co.’s building, 17 Maiden Lane, where it was first established in 1855; Henry Hawks being the partner, salesman, book-keeper and traveler, with one young assistant and a boy. That boy is the subject of this sketch. Born in New York City in 1846, one of ten children, necessity started him early in his career. He has since occupied all the positions in the gift of the Company – errand boy, clerk, book-keeper, traveler, salesman, manager of New York branch, Director, Treasurer, and Vice-President, and now rounds out thirty-five years of continuous service as President of the Corporation.
The public relations copy fascinated me. “continuous service”? I doubt it . Somehow the hiatus of 1870 must have been conveniently erased when it came time to publish a celebratory volume. Every thread just seems to lead to a new set of questions: what was the truth of 1870? How and when did Henry Dyer enter and leave the Dennison Company in the years surrounding 1870? How could he have held down his position with Dennison that year and spend so much weekday time at the mineral springs pavilion in Central Park, sailing on Gowanus Bay, at taverns, skating rinks, and outdoors with his friends, much less the many days spent home felling “unwell,” enveloped in all likelihood by opium smoke. There’s a lot more to this story. The question is whether I will ever get anywhere near the bottom of this murky well.
More to follow: I’ve found the site of his home during his daughter Agnes’ primary school years. The house is gone, but the neighboring ones survive ! And NYPL is really a gold mine. A contemporary catalog from her primary school surfaced there. But later…
Passing the Pipe
Sports fans, shoe shoppers, stamp collectors – we addicts each have our own escapes. Down the hatch with the little bottle’s contents and we’re gone…
Some people smoke dope, others dance themselves silly. My problem’s a little different, though, perhaps just this side of sane. Musty old documents and crumbling ledgers are what take me there. I have very few requirements, but being of a certain age is not negotiable. The tickets for my trip must be pre-computer vintage. Beyond that, don’t light a match. The simplest piece of paper ephemera sets my mind on fire.
Each new find is like a love affair. Behind the face of a warehouse receipt, a diary page, a deed of conveyance, lies a beautiful story. Unlimited possibilities exist. Unwrapping the details like layers of onion skin, I uncover myriad possibilities, teasing out the connections. No protective gloves are called for. You can’t get hurt. My eccentric friend Stacy might say these papers are grateful for the attention. They lie there, hidden, submissive, waiting patiently.
Take the diary with which I am now obsessed. Though it lay neglected on a shelf in my office, unobserved and unappreciated for five years after I first came upon it, the story inside never moldered, didn’t falter. A simple morocco-bound booklet sat there tempting me for years. There’s something here, I know there is… Finally ready, I went about my task silently, reveling in anticipation, a weatherman’s fantasy of just which way the wind would blow.
Just one page is all it takes. Then the dreams begin. Who was this person who wrote these words? How did they dress? Whom did they love and whom did they scorn…Bit by tiny bit I draw a picture in my mind, the gum eraser at the ready when I stumble in confusion.
This is my husband’s diary written when he was 24 years – we were married in 1875 Feb 25th when he was 28 years old – I was 27 years…Please do not destroy it. I want to keep this . . .
Thirty –eight words twist a torque wrench on my heart. Here was one, I was sure. Who was this man who was so loved, he of precious memory? To start I’d need to know his name. Another penciled scribble sent me flying.
HK Dyer 24 years – we were married in 1875 – Henry K Dyer died at the age of 65 on October 19, 1911
My pulse quickened, my heart raced. Now I knew I’d get inside. Who were this couple? How’d they meet? What could possibly explain the abandonment of this once-precious diary to the hands of strangers? I read these lines; a bell tolled. The author’s wishes had been observed, but only in letter, not in spirit. Here it was, the precious book, cast out, alive but barely breathing. For me it was a golden gift: the opportunity to make repair, to reconnect, to bring closure.
First I’d have to recreate the diarist’s life; perhaps uncovering facts that surviving relatives would not want to know. Repair or destruction were equally possible. But I could hold all the cards, doling out the wins and losses, setting the pace and upping the ante at my will.
When will I know that the game is over, the well run dry and time to fold? When will I know that the time has come, to lay my cards upon the table, to invite the others to the dance. To put at risk my big fat winnings?
The little faux-leather bound book my brother handed me gleefully might have appeared inconsequential to the untrained eye. But we knew better, H. and I. Well-thumbed edges of fake morocco revealed a pinkish dermis in the thin-fleshed binding. Inside the cheap edition, an ornate title page added a taste of grandeur to the ruled pages for each day of 1870 where quotidian entries were inscribed in Dyer’s neat hand. Much like the facades of urban buildings in mid and late-19th century America, outside appearance was everything. An over the top beaux-art exterior hid many a collection of pstage-stamp sized rooms in the large hotels of New York and Saratoga Springs. So it might be, I thought to myself, as I ventured beyond the grandiloquent opening page of Dyer’s day book. What lay inside might well be nothing much to speak of. But I got lucky.
Turning each yellowed page with utmost care in a silent room, I could hear the scratching of his pen-nib. Massed produced fountain pens (he could not have afforded a luxury item) were uncommon in America until the mid-1870s, but the brevity of Dyer’s entries make it difficult to determine if he used a quill or one of the new inventions. There is significant consistency in the ink applied to form each word, and “dry-out” endings of letters or words are rare. A daily expense book more than a diary, Henry Dyer’s notebook has few words on each page other than those necessary to describe in modest detail the author’s daily outlays, and in many cases a line about one or two activities. It all seemed plain and simple to the naked eye. But my brother and I knew Golconda when we came upon it. As with so many treasures, though, this one required months of investigation before the might of its story revealed itself.
1870 was a special year for Henry Knight Dyer. Though obviously not a man of means, the young bachelor spent the majority of his time in leisurely pursuits, sailing on Gowanus Bay, skating, and imbibing the mineral spring waters at the newly opened Central Park Pavilion. Sociables at various hostess’ homes and in well-patronized taverns such as Burnham’s Hotel at 79th Street and Broadway, plus evenings at Manhattan theaters made for busy days and evenings of pleasure. The trip via streetcar from his home near Fort Greene Park (then known as Washington Park) in Brooklyn to Fulton Ferry took only a few minutes, and the ferry ride to Manhattan not much more.
Travel to and from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s theaters, taverns and to Central Park was far easier that 20 years prior, and Henry Dyer did so almost every day. Except the days he spent at home. Inclement weather was one reason. Illness another. But the almost daily entries of a ten-cent expenditure for what is euphemistically referred to as solace reveal the darker side of Henry Dyer’s libertine year. First I came to know of his youthful addiction, but who this man became later in life remained a puzzle for many weeks.
Dyer died in 1911, a wealthy man, with palatial homes on Lefferts Place in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood and at Penzance Point in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. He had risen through the ranks of the Dennison Manufacturing Co. to become its president by 1894. The Massachussets-based manufacturer and tags, labels and jewelry boxes grew in its first fifty years to a multi-national operation, predominant in the manufacture and sale of not only its initial line of industrial products, but also the leading dealer in tissue, crepe papers, napkins and other decorative and household paper products. The burgeoning middle classes in the Americas and Western Europe all had access to the Dennison Co.’s product lines through a network of retail stores in large cities, as well as through its mail-order catalogues.
Despite a plethora of facts about residences, wills, family members and the like, after several months of research, I remained in the dark about how Henry Dyer became associated with the Dennison Co., and why he was able to spend much of 1870 apparently out of work. In Part 3 of A Rite of Return – Down the Wishing Well, I’ve told of one of my finds at the New York Historical Society. The 50th anniversary celebratory pamphlet printed by Dennison was my Rosetta Stone.
Embodied in the pamphlet within the official sketch of Dyer’s early life may be one of the explanations to his year away from Dennison & Co. I’ve independently confirmed from census records and tombstone engravings at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery that Henry was indeed one of at least ten children of Samuel Owen and Emma Price Dyer. Henry’s father, a self-described “professor of music,” was brought to New York City by his father, also Samuel Dyer, in the early 1820s. The Dyer family had resided in Virginia when Samuel Owen was born in 1819. Son followed father in the trades of piano tuner and musician, and by 1839, Samuel Owen Dyer had established himself in Manhattan at 302 Hudson Street. (Henry’s grandfather moved to a home at Washington and York Streets near the Brooklyn waterfront in 1829 after a succession of addresses in lower Manhattan). Henry Knight Dyer was born in 1846 at his parents’ next home at 396 Hudson Street, a few doors south of Charlton Street. The family moved to Laurens Street (now West Broadway) in 1847, then to Leroy Street in Greenwich Village in 1848, residing at numbers 32 and 49 for a few years. They departed for Brooklyn’s downtown Gold Street in 1852. The family moved once again to 54 Cumberland Street in 1854, and to 101 Cumberland Street about 1859.
The Dyer family’s peripatetic years were common for middle-class mid-19th century Brooklynites. It seems from title records that Samuel Owen Dyer owned only one of the many homes in which he lived. A music teacher with many mouths to feed must have had a hard time accumulating the necessary means, and the tide of real estate development sweeping over the entire metropolitan area caused frequent displacements as downtown Brooklyn neighborhoods shifted from residential to commercial uses. Title records are not dispositive, though. Evasion of creditors through changes of name, “parking” of real estate and other assets with friends and relatives and other devices was far easier in 19th century America than it is today. Whether or not Henry Dyer’s parents were forced to such ends is unclear. A bit of skullduggery might have been a matter of life and death in a household that at one time or another held a dozen mouths to feed.
Henry Dyer’s parents never held title to the Cumberland Street home that they occupied in 1870 when the census taker showed up. A woman named Charlotte Dyer took title to the house in the summer of 1869, and conveyed it to a Sarah Dyer of Morrisania, (in what was then Westchester County and is now the Bronx) in 1871. No further Dyers took title thereafter. Perhaps these grantees were relatives, and the conveyances arranged to avoid the greedy hands of creditors. And perhaps Samuel and Emma Dyer were renters for the several years that they lived at 101 and then 117 Cumberland Street. But in 1872 Samuel Owen Dyer acquired the house at nearby 81 Willoughby Avenue, for $12,500, a substantial sum in those days. Father and son lived in the same home until 1877. Samuel Owen Dyer and his wife conveyed the property to their son Henry in 1886, who turned around and sold it in February, 1888. Meanwhile, Henry Dyer had married Caroline Lavinia Price in 1875, and moved to a home at 235 Gates Avenue in Prospect Heights that he purchased in 1883 for $15,000. The couple lived there until 1890. Henry Dyer must have prospered, just as the Dennison & Co.’s sketch depicted: in 1884 he also purchased 76 Quincy Street, around the corner from his Gates Avenue home for $4750. The two-story frame house at 76 Quincy Street became his parents’ residence some time before Samuel’s death there in 1894. Henry’s father died in poverty, owning no real estate and only $600 in personal property to his name. His wife Emma is buried beside him beneath a simple stone in the Dyer family plot at Green-Wood.
Out at Green-Wood this past summer I quickly found the Dyer plot, and little by little I’ve connected the dots among the gravestone inscriptions and vital records. But someone’s missing. Henry’s wife. Until death did they part, or so I had thought. She’s in Green-Wood, but not next door. In Lot 1715, Grave 585, deceased within 13 months after her husband’s passing. Caroline lies in a public lot, among strangers. And Henry’s tombstone was erected by his brother.
What can possibly explain this? Surely the Dyer plot cannot have been too full (though I guess it’s technically possible). Some money and a concerned relative or two would likely have gotten permission to bury deeper and make a space. Henry’s property was left to Caroline Price Dyer and their daughter. So I doubt it was his doing, this strange misalignment. His widow’s words have haunted me, though: she treasured him and all he’d been:
This is my husband’s diary written when he was 24 years – we were married in 1875 Feb 25th when he was 28 years old – I was 27 years…Please do not destroy it. I want to keep this . . .
Who and why were they done dirt? Questions fly about like bats: Caroline and her mother in law shared the same surname. A common one, admittedly. Henry’s mother had come from England, his wife from Madison Parish, Louisiana. Were the young couple kissing cousins? And if now, how did they meet? I sure wish I could lay my hands on the guest lists for those sociables at Mrs. Hubbard’s and Mrs. Edsall’s that Hnery attended in January 1870. Better still I’d like to talk to those two dames. But that would be a tall order, wouldn’t it?
Til Death Do Us Part
The graves of a man and his loving wife lie more than a mile apart at Green-Wood today: Henry Knight Dyer’s earthly remains are buried in the Dyer family plot on the southwest side of the cemetery near Fort Hamilton Parkway.
A modest tombstone, placed by his surviving brother Charles, marks Henry’s grave, side by side with those of his parents, several siblings who died in childhood, and other relatives. But Caroline Price Dyer, Henry’s wife of 36 years, is absent. If you look carefully, you can spot Caroline’s grave in Public Lot 1715 at Green-Wood, but you need a little imagination.
The unmarked plot to the west of the White family holds Caroline Lavinia Price Dyer’s coffin. Though dignified and beautiful today (and never a potters’ field), Public Lot 1715 at Green-Wood Cemetery sits at the foot of the burial ground’s rolling hills, hard by Fifth Avenue. The location is far less desirable, even today, than that of the Dyer family plot. The peace and quiet a visitor experiences today at both sites is deceptive. From the late 19th century until right before World War II, elevated trains regularly screeched past the cemetery’s Fifth Avenue iron fence, rousting even the drowsiest residents from their eternal rest. Graves in the Public Lots at Green-Wood were sold piecemeal to those who found themselves in need, on a first come first served basis. The gravesites are modest at best, and the fancy statuary so common elsewhere at the cemetery is absent. Common sense dictates that for the most part, people of modest means occupy Public Lot 1715. But other reasons must have occasionally led to a decedent’s interment there among total strangers. Caroline Dyer is one such case.
Locating the estate administration records of Henry Dyer and his wife was a simple task. The Surrogate Court’s file room at 345 Adams Street in Brooklyn is open to the public on business days. Apple pie order rules the day. Absent special needs for secrecy, estate administration records are freely available and well-indexed. The name of the decedent and an approximate date of death provide access to card catalogs and computer databases This lead you to dusty old bound libers with transcriptions of major documents such as wills and intestate distribution orders, the court decrees that establish the distribution of estates where the deceased left no will. No novice at Surrogate’s Court research, fifteen minutes in the well-staffed and thinly patronized office lead me to all that I’d imagined I’d find there, not only for Henry and Caroline Dyer, but also for his parents and several other relatives. Estate documents are a treasure trove of other leads: residence and business addresses of the deceased and relatives and attorneys mentioned in the documents spill forth, leading you to real estate records, litigation records, and not infrequently a peek at the personal property owned by the decedent. It’s all free, except for the quarters you feed into the Xerox machines, and the damage done to your respect for humankind engendered by having to overhear the banter among the male file-room clerks that would make the characters in Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn squirm.
Henry Dyer executed his last will and testament at the end of January 1909, more than two years before his passing. By its terms, Caroline Lavinia Price Dyer was to inherit all of her late husband’s wearing apparel, jewelry, “household furniture usefull and ornamental” automobiles, horses, carriages, and the contents of the houses, barns and garages of the couple’s large homes in Brooklyn and Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Other than minor bequests to family servants, $1000 bequeathed to the Brooklyn Nursery and Infants Hospital and an annual income of $1200 to his sister Emma Dyer Brown, Henry Dyer left the balance of his sizable estate in trust, with 75% of the income to go to his widow until her death. The remainder of the income went to their daughter Agnes Dyer Warbasse. Caroline’s death resulted in Agnes receiving the corpus of the trust, less a few small added bequests to Henry’s brother Charles and other relatives. It struck me as strange that a man as wealthy and important as Mr. Dyer provided such a paucity of charitable bequests in his will. Perhaps he was more inclined to practice philanthropy inter vivos, but I think not. A search of the computerized databases of all issues of the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for his adult life did not turn up any evidence of his involvement in civic or charitable affairs. Dyer split his time in his later years between Brooklyn and Woods Hole, Mass., and I was informed by the Woods Hole History Museum that Dyer was a founder of the local public library. Perhaps Dyer’s Horatio Alger-like rise in life deterred disinclined him to magnanimity towards the great unwashed above whom he rose by luck and pluck. And perhaps his daughter Agnes’ extensive efforts for left-wing social causes showed a different path. But none of this explains the set up of the eternal marital bedroom. We’re not just talking twin beds here, but separate bedrooms in opposite wings of the house. I wonder what the set-up was like at Gladheim, the couple’s palatial home at Penzance Point in Woods Hole? Or was it Agnes who rearranged the bedrooms?
It defies reason that the Dyer family would have lacked the funds to bury Caroline next to her husband of 36 years. The Dyer family plot could accommodate more than the 9 graves that it holds to this day. So why a Public Lot for Caroline ? One of the burial records for her husband lists him as “Unmarried” the record keeper having taken pains to strike through the other two typewritten possibilities on the form, “Married and Widow__.” So perhaps marital discord explains everything. But the inscription Caroline made in Henry’s 1870 daybook, which seems to me to have been made by a widow after her husband’s passing, is hardly consistent with a split-up.
Caroline died intestate in 1912, and when her daughter Agnes submitted a final accounting to the Kings County Surrogate, the cash distributed from her estate was approximately $20,000. The Brooklyn and Woods Hole houses were inherited by Agnes and later sold. It appears that Caroline spent whatever income she derived from the trust set up in her husband’s will. That income was more than likely quite substantial, if I’ve done the math correctly. The transfer tax paid upon the probate of Henry Dyer’s estate in Kings County was 65 times that paid on Caroline’s estate. Assuming that the New York and Massachussetts real estate was not included in the calculation of the tax (I’ve yet to verify this assumption) Henry Dyer’s assets probably exceeded $1,300,000 (plus the value of the two homes). The trust probably contained most of this wealth, with much of that being held in the form of stock of the Dennison Manufacturing Corporation. I’ve come to this conclusion after being unable to locate the final accounting of Henry Dyer’s estate, and based upon a story related to me by his great-grandson, Phillip Warbasse that further illuminates the extensive public record of the exemplary lives of Phil’s grandmother Agnes and her husband Dr. James Warbasse, Sr. Phil’s grandparents were founders of the co-operative consumer and housing movements in the United States and Europe in the years after World War I and their careers as energetic social activists and pacifists stretched over many decades. One of the largest subsidized housing projects in Coney Island was named after James Warbasse. According to Phil, his grandparents decided after the end of the War that they had more than enough resources to last them throughout their lives. A keen sense of social justice impelled them to return much of their holdings of Dennison stock to the employees of the company, a gift worth millions of dollars, even in 1919.
Having tracked down the finances and amassed some evidence of a daughter who lived an extremely committed, moral life (and who I assume had a lot of say as to where her mother was buried) I can’t figure out why a rich widow was buried by her even wealthier daughter in a grave more than a mile distant from their husband and father. All appearances are that Henry and Caroline were close throughout their long marriage. Family portraits, Caroline’s inscription in his 1870 diary, and the manner in which Dyer set up his estate in his will, signed 33 months before his demise, would normally lead to a widow being buried next to her late husband. Their daughter Agnes was already 32 years old at the time her father penned his last will and testament, a married woman with several children of her own, living on Washington Avenue near her parents palatial Brooklyn home. So why was Caroline Dyer placed in a grave that remains unmarked to this day?
I’ve requisitioned the correspondence files from Green-Wood cemetery, and when they are located, perhaps some of the explanation will spill forth. Though I think it’ll be fruitless, I’ll also check the Kings County, New York and Barnstable County, Massachussetts divorce and litigation records, and try and determine if the Dyers remained married until Henry’s death.
Caroline’s interment in an unmarked grave was the final chapter in a life that suffered from enormous devastation when she was a teenager. Caroline was a descendant of Samuel Adams (though I’ve yet to determine how), and her father received a patent from the Federal government for several hundred acres on Bayou Despair in Madison Parish, Louisiana (near present-day Richmond, Louisiana) in 1844. The family probably lived in a substantial plantation home, but its location proved unfortunate when Ulysses S. Grant’s Union armies crossed the Mississippi River a few miles north at Milliken’s Bend at the outset of the Vicksburg campaign. Public records I found on the internet told me of David Price’s land grant and its proximity to Grant’s march west and south through the Parish. The story of Grant dropping by one early Spring day at the Price homestead was related to me by Caroline’s great grandson, and I’ve already been able to determine from The works of Bruce Catton as well as Grant’s memoirs and detailed extant maps of the Vicksburg campaign that it could be true. Rest assured: further efforts are underway to get closer to the whole truth.
Family lore holds that General Grant and his troops marched into Caroline’s family’s plantation during their march down the eastern edge of Louisiana towards New Carthage. Many plantations were ransacked for supplies by the Federal troops on their way south, before they re-crossed the Mississippi River, to march northward and attack Vicksburg from an advantageous direction. Henry Knight Dyer undoubtedly heard the story told many times how as a 15-year old girl, Caroline trembled with fear as General Grant and his adjutants stormed into her home. Grant made himself comfortable in the formal dining room, his muddy boots unceremoniously propped up on the mahogany dining table. Caroline recoiled in disgust as the uncouth General expectorated on the dining room carpet.
Apparently the family’s real estate was not confiscated, though. Lists of post-war claims filed against the Federal Government in Madison Parish lack any mention of the Price family, and real property tax rolls continue to show David Price and then his estate as the owner of the property until 1879. How, if at all, the family recovered from the devastation of the Vicksburg campaign, and how Caroline Price made her way to New York remain to be answered. Right now I’m fantasizing about a trip down south that salesman par excellence Henry Dyer might have made eight or so years after the War’s end, perhaps encountering young Caroline in a New Orleans hotel lobby or some such after a day of flogging the Dennison Co.’s wares to local businessmen. I doubt that the Price family had the resources to bring their eligible daughter to Saratoga Springs on a mating trip during the destitution of Reconstruction. Seems like a good excuse for another wonderful research trip up there though, doesn’t it?
The internet is a marvelous thing, and thus a few months ago, more than two years after I started this series of pieces about an 1870 expense book kept by a young man in NYC unknown to me, but later identified as Henry Knight Dyer, I was contacted by a gentleman from the midwest with what I hesitate to say is “priceless” information. In fact it was filled with Price, my generous informant being married into the Price family, that of Henry Dyer’s mother Emma Price, and perhaps also his wife, Caroline Price Dyer. I had long ago lost the trail of the Price family, and have not published on this matter in 32 months to the day.
Herewith are photos of Henry Knight Dyer’s mother and father (Samuel Owen Dyer), both mistakenly captioned “Byer.” My correspondent’s connection with the Price family makes the provenance of these photos indisputable.
Emma’s christening record is as follows, taken from
England & Wales Christening Records, 1530-1906 Source Citation: Place: St. Saviors, Southwark, Gravel Lane, Surrey, Eng; Collection: Dr. William’s Library; Nonconformist Registers; Date Range: 1820 – 1820; Film Number: 816019. Source Information: Ancestry.com. England & Wales Christening Records, 1530-1906 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2008. Original data: Genealogical Society of Utah. British Isles Vital Records Index, 2nd Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Intellectual Reserve, copyright 2002. Used by permission.
Description: This database contains information extracted from birth and christening records from various counties in England and Wales. The records date from 1530 to 1906. The records included in this database do not represent all localities in England and Wales and for any given area, coverage (both records within a year and total year range) may not be complete. Some parishes and counties are more complete than others.
Name: Emma Price Gender: Female Birth Date: 14 Sep 1820 Christening Place: St. Saviors, Southwark, Gravel Lane, Surrey, England
Father’s Name: James Price Mother’s Name: Elizabeth Maternal Grandfather’s Name: William Hunt. Maternal Grandmother’s Name: Elizabeth
Samuel Dyer’s obituary was published in the New York Times on April 3, 1894; Henry Knight Dyer was at the peak of his career when his father passed away, still residing at the 76 Quincy Street address in Bedford Stuyvesant near the younger Dyer’s palatial residence on Lefferts Place.
Several mysteries and apparent dead ends have confounded me along the way in “A Rite of Return,” not the least of which is why Henry Knight Dyer’s widowed wife of 36 years, Caroline Lavinia Price Dyer, lies in an unmarked grave in a public lot at Brooklyn’s magnificent Green-Wood Cemetery, many hundred yards from her late husband’s resting place, despite the fact that the terms of his will demonstrate a great deal of caring between the two.
The couple was married in a Brooklyn Episcopal Church in 1875, and a trip to the Garden City archives of the Long Island Archdiocese some months ago yielded the parish ledgers. There, plain as day, is Caroline’s 1869 confirmation record, and the priest’s entry of the solemnization of their marraige at St. James Episcopal on February 25, 1875.
Their only child, Agnes, was born April 4, 1877 and duly baptized in the same parish church.
Her name appears in this Baptism register
Weeks went by after my last post in this series. But then, a comment appreared out of nowhere, and I hardly believed my eyes as I read the following email on June 25, 2009:
“Hello Benjamin, Thank you for following up and your interest in my blog comment regarding Henry Dyer Knight. A little background which you may find interesting. My fiancé and I hosted my parents for an belated Father’s Day dinner last night. During dinner my Father presented a male wedding band, which he described as having belonged to Henry Dyer Knight (our family’s connection to whom I described in my comment on your blog). This ring was worn by my Grandfather James Henry Warbasse (his middle name having been the namesake) and was subsequently willed to my father who has offered it to me. Though appreciative, I thought it would be appropriate to learn a little more about the man who’s ring I may wear to symbolize my wedding vows. To that end, my father produced a (apparently mimeographed?) copy of a typed, informal, autobiography of Henry Dyer Knight’s dated 1905. I read the document last night and, my interest having been piqued, I googled his name today …low and behold. My hope is that you can share more information that you learned about him – as the more complete the picture the better of course. In fact, I would LOVE to see related copies of whatever you are willing to share from your collection. I would be happy to reproduce the autobiography that I mentioned, as well as any other information that my father has, assuming he is comfortable with the sharing of it (which, since you have the Henry’s diary – I can’t imagine there are privacy concerns left to be agonized over)…”
Thus began my acquaintance with Eric Warbasse and his father, residents of Phoenix, Arizona. Eric promptly sent me a photo of the ring and the autobiographical typescript prepared by his great-great grandfather late in life.
One sometimes thinks of Brooklyn in the mid-19th century as a large and anonymous place, when in fact at least the confines of the waterfront Brooklyn Village and its adjacent Vinegar Hill neighborhood as well as the western reaches of Williamsburg were fairly small communities with frequent interlocking acquaintances. Nothing has brought this fact home to me more strongly than a sentence in Henry Knight Dyer’s autobiography describing his childhood in the early 1850s in the Adelphi Street area where his parents made their home.
Those readers who are familiar with my projects may recall the book I published in 2007 entitled “Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics and the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-bellum New York.” It chronicles the infamous murder in 1857 of a rapacious, misogynist dentist and the acquittal of his Brooklyn-bred paramour, Emma Hempstead Cunningham, after her trial on charges of homicide. Emma grew up at various Vinegar Hill addresses as her father plied his trade as a ropemaker in various ropewalks and lofts down near the Navy Yard. Her younger brother, Christopher Hempstead, Jr. became a milkman in the western reaches of Williamsburg in the 1840s and 50s. Reading what Eric Warbasse sent me, I stumbled across a few words in the Dyer typescript and suddenly self-levitated from my office chair. Guess who earned a few pennies on the weekends, riding on Hempstead’s dairy cart in the neighborhoods? “When I was about 10, Saturdays, I went the rounds with our milkman, Mr. Hempstead,” wrote Henry Knight Dyer in 1905, “who called on us about 7 A.M., had a route which took him as far as Bridge St. and Flushing Avenue, and ended at Court and Carroll Streets. Then he started for home somewhwere in the direction of Canarsie and dropped me back of the Penitentiary, at perhaps 2 P.M. For this I got 2 cents, and was happy thinking how to spend it.” After his duties were finished, young Henry could go blackberry picking in the summer in the vacant lots and fields that still dotted Fort Greene. Winters were for skating at the various Brooklyn ice ponds, including the Union Grounds.
For a mid-1850s view of HEnry Knight Dyer’s childhood neighbrohood, click on the following link and zoom on the map from the NYPL Digital Images collection:
More was to follow, though: Caroline Price Dyer has not lain in peace. Through yet another blog comment, I finally know the reasons why she is all alone in a public lot. In April, 2010, I received the following from the grand-daughter of one of the housemaids in the Dyer residences in Brooklyn and Cape Cod, who married the Dyers’ chauffeur:
Hi–I was thrilled when I saw your wonderful research on Henry K. Dyer. I am in no way related to them. However, my Grandmother and Grandfather worked for the Dyers in New York and in Falmouth MA. where they had a summer place. My Grandfather was Mr. Dyer’s driver and my Grandmother took care of Mrs. Dyer. I have a few ‘tid bits’ of information about them if you are at all interested. A few come from an oral history that my Father took of my Grandmother talking about them.
Further correspondence revealed that poor Caroline Price Dyer developed an endocrine imbalance shortly after the birth of her only child Agnes, and ballooned from 100 lbs. to four times that amount. With no medical treatment available for her condition, Caroline spent 34 of the 36 years of her marriage to Henry Knight Dyer in an immensely adipose condition. Family photos reveal a bit of her condition:
At some point, her husband took up with the Swedish house-mistress of 86 Lefferts Place, according to the oral history that my correspondent possesses. That woman retired to her homeland, a wealthy owner of fistfuls of shares in the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. Who knows what Caroline knew or didn’t know about her husband’s relations with the Swede. If he was ever asked, perhaps Henry Dyer privately expressed mixed feelings about having a 400 lb. woman lie on top of him for eternity (he died before Caroline, and had she been buried in the Dyer family plot, she might well have ended uppermost in the three-deep stack cutomary in such family plots, closest to the surface.
A trip to the Framingham History Center as well as research at the New York Historical Society have shed light on Dyer’s substantial career at The Dennison Manufacturing Company. From modest beginnings in Maine as a maker of boxes for jewelry, Dennison came to dominate the paper products business in late 19th and early 20th century America as well as have a large presence in South America and Western Europe. Greeting cards, tags and labels, crepe products of all kinds and office supplies were just some of the weveral thousand products constantly invented and marketed to businesses and consumers through a network of wholesale sales offices and drummers as well as retail stores and showrooms. Though his tenure spanned only a decade, Dyer’s elevation to the presidency of the Dennison Company marked the triumph of the sales staff over the manufacturing and design arms of the company: his roles in previous years were all at the New York City headquarters where no manufacturing took place.
In 1897 the company movied from its Roxbury, Massachussetts complex to a larger location in a former rubber products factory in Framingham. There Dennison was to grow and prosper for almost a century, expanding on the site and becoming so large and important an employer that Framingham was nicknamed “Tag Town.” Dennison’s name was attached to numerous philanthropic gifts to the city’s institutions, where it remained until the 1990 takeover by the California-based Avery Corporation. In short order, the factories in Framingham were all shuttered and the Dennison name erased from the local scene, living on locally only in a tiny and virtually unpopulated office on the eastern edge of the huge complex. The Tag Day parade is no more, the floats disassembled. Where dye vats and production lines fulfilled the offerings of colorful catalogs, now community college students click mice and try to enter a sadly-reduced local labor force. Along with General Motors and a substantial local airport, Dennison has flown the coop, impoverishing a city that once flourished and grew.
Little remains to recall the size of things: Dennison in Framingham, Caroline Dyer’s form, the mansions at Penzance Point and 86 Lefferts are all long gone. In the case of Caroline, I and her relatives have taken a remedy: soon a dignified stone will mark the vacant patch of grass hard by Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn under which she lies for all eternity. With that, another step will be trodden. A Rite of Return will continue on.