Toward a Definitive Biography of William Niblo

New York Wanderer Press is pleased to announce its latest project: a definitive biography of William Niblo, celebrated tavern keep and pleasure garden operator in New York from 1814-1861.  Niblo’s Wall Street area Bank Coffee House and his uptown pleasure palace, Niblo’s Garden, were both THE places to see and be seen in the first half of the century.  Part Toots Shor and part Sol Hurok, Niblo’s skills with a larder as well as a proscenium re-defined the arts of hospitality and entertainment in genteel New York.

Author Benjamin Feldman’s third book is based upon the life of yet another permanent resident of Green-Wood Cemetery, where he works as a volunteer archivist and some-time tour guide.  Below is the introduction to Feldman’s as of yet untitled new work:

Late one summer afternoon some years after the Civil War’s end, an elderly, balding gentleman passed through the delicate brownstone entrance arches at Green-Wood Cemetery, dressed inconspicuously, a novel in hand.  It had been a long trip from Mr. William Niblo’s lodgings near Madison Square Park, and the gate-keepers nodded their customary greeting to an habitual guest.  Years before, the visitor’s name was world-renowned, andit remained in common parlance still. Anyone who was anybody ate and drank at Niblo’s famed Bank Coffee House on Pine Street in the ‘teens and 1820s: politicians, theater celebrities and wannabes of all kinds quaffed ales and stuffed themselves silly with the provisions from Niblo’s well-stocked larder.  From 1828 onwards, with the founding of his famous Garden, Niblo’s name became a household word across America and Europe.  Any visitor to the United States who would make a name as a performer for him- or herself found their way to the proscenium stage of Niblo’s Garden, which, in various physical incarnations on the same site on Broadway north of Houston Street, lasted until 1894 under the same name, if not management.
Niblo’s wife of 32 years, Martha King Niblo, left Niblo a widower in 1851, and the ornate, many-drawered mausoleum he dedicated in 1852 held her remains as well as those of her parents and other relatives and acquaintances.  Traipsing by the banks of Green-Wood’s Crescent Water, Niblo was rumored to visit his wife’s final resting place virtually every day he was in New York, despite the need for utilizing surface transportation from Manhattan to the ferry to Brooklyn, as well as making his way up to the Gowanus Hills from the downtown Brooklyn docks or the more conveniently located Hamilton Avenue ferry. The round trip must have taken no less than four hours.
Niblo frequently brought friends with him to the banks of Crescent Water to enjoy Green-Wood’s beauty and serenity; to picnic and recreate in a public space that rivaled later-built Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for natural beauty.  This particular day, though, Niblo was alone, ready to spend a leisurely few hours resting and reading inside the cool shade of the mausoleum.  Its massive door creaked open as the short, portly visitor turned the key in the lock.  It would have to stay open to admit enough light for Niblo to read.
Niblo made himself comfortable and settled into his routine, tuning out everyday life and dwelling both in his novel and the life he had shared with Martha King.  Deeply distracted, the reader noticed nothing of a huge storm brewing.  All of a sudden, a huge gust of wind came up and the iron door blew shut, locking NIblo in the giant, sound-proof tomb before he had time to protest.
William Niblo remained a bachelor after his wife Martha died until his death in 1878.  Though he played an active role as warden and vestryman at Gramercy Park’s Calvary Episcopal Church and maintained a close relationship with Mary Carpenter, his housekeeper, no one kept strict track of his whereabouts.  Only after he failed to return to his lodgings that evening, did friends become concerned.
The next day, however, when it became apparent that he had not slept in his own bed, “alarm seized the household,” according to an article published in the Batavia, New York Morning News on August 30, 1878 a few years after the incident (and nine days after his demise).  Searchers were sent to “the clubs, the theatres, the places of public resort” that Niblo frequented but no luck.
During his thirty-three year tenure as owner/operator of his famous Garden, all manner of entertainments were mounted: sacred and classical music opened the operation on July 4th 1828.  Opera, orchestral and vocal music filled the hall, but more popular fare also abounded.  Balloonists, equestrian shows and vaudeville sorcery pleased throngs of genteel New Yorkers who paid a bit more and avoided unescorted woman amongst their midst on their evenings out at Niblo’s, as opposed to the lower-class venues on the Bowery and adjoining streets.
Decades of vetting and promoting legerdemain experts such as Signor Antonio Blitz and various escape artists proved of little use, though, when Niblo himself was center stage.  He sat in the dark, shrieking for help after the tomb door clicked shut, but soon lapsed into a calm, philosophical consideration of his circumstances, feeling certain that his friends would seek him out.
Luckily, such was indeed the case, and when a few of his many acquaintances inquired at the gatehouse, the keeper realized that Niblo had come in the previous day but he had not been seen leaving.  The temporary prisoner was found forthwith, in calm repose, none the worse for his Stygian sleep-over.
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