From New York Irish History Volume 28 (2014), released November, 2015:
East in Eden, William Niblo & His Pleasure Garden of Yore
by Benjamin Feldman
(The Green-Wood Historic Fund in association with New York Wanderer Press, 2014)
William Niblo (1790–1878), an Irish immigrant who amassed an entertainment and real estate empire in New York City before the Civil War, might well have been the Donald Trump of his day. But Niblo had a quiet, unassuming personality, and he hated being photographed. He was deeply devoted to his first and only wife, and visited her grave daily decades after her death.
Nevertheless, he bought, sold, and imagined his way to fame and fortune based on the visionary concept that ordinary Americans would be glad to part with their cash to have a good time, and would do so especially if the experience made them feel they were behaving like the rich.
What emerges from the meticulous research in Benjamin Feldman’s East in Eden, William Niblo & His Pleasure Garden of Yore is that Niblo was a visionary businessman, who knew what his customers wanted before they did themselves. Feldman is clear about the entrepreneur’s motives: “Profits stood foremost in Niblo’s mind….” Niblo’s Garden, his masterpiece, an urban oasis and theatre complex at Broadway and Prince Street, invited New Yorkers to partake of the good life, with lavish plantings and cutting-edge performances that offered an alternative to the rowdiness and squalor of downtown music halls and taverns.
Niblo’s story is limited by a lack of biographical sources, but Feldman adeptly uses ancillary evidence to lead us on an insider’s tour through the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan and into the astonishing cosmos of antebellum leisure and entertainment. Despite some juicy anecdotes – his illegitimate son lived in the New York City Almshouse, and he once spent a night locked in his wife’s tomb in Green-Wood Cemetery – the owner of Niblo’s Garden remains a bit of a cypher. East in Eden succeeds best when it lets Niblo’s world speak for itself.
Terrapin and oxtail soups, entrees of trout, bald eagle, hawk and owl (shot in Hoboken), bear meat, reindeer tongue, and ragout of hares were among the offerings on a single menu at Niblo’s Bank Coffee House on Pine Street in 1823. At Niblo’s Garden further uptown, visitors strolled on bucolic walkways festooned with flowers and lanterns, and watched acrobats, opera singers, Shakespearean plays, fireworks, and “aeronauts,” who dropped from the sky in giant balloons. There were mammoth live spectacles at Niblo’s, like the reconstruction of a naval battle featuring bombs and skyrockets, and exhibitions of enormous paintings and panoramas depicting historical or biblical scenes.
To engineer the illusion of an upper-class leisure experience, Niblo kept his prices high and barred the gates to unescorted women. This not only kept out the prostitutes, but also the “rowdies” and “sporting gents” who followed them. At his public dances, he offered a special supper room to sidestep the embarrassment middle-class people might feel at more elite establishments where the wealthy brought their own servants to wait on them. For customers without private transportation, he operated a fleet of carriages (which he later sold at a profit) so they would not have to use public transit.
Niblo’s business ventures provide insight into American social history. For instance, the taste for opulence and European-style amusements suggests thriving cultural and trade networks, as well as a population with sufficient income and leisure time to choose amusements that mirrored their social aspirations. Prevailing attitudes towards race surface in his presentation of blackface minstrel shows, and in his partnership with P.T. Barnum in 1835 to “exhibit” a blind, immobile, African-American woman reputed to be George Washington’s nursemaid. Furthermore, Niblo was at the center of percolating class ruptures as a lessee of the Astor Place Theatre when riots broke out there in 1849 between American nativists and followers of British actor William Macready.
Lack of evidence hampers Feldman’s ability to question Niblo’s politics and personal habits, and some questions are left unasked. Like, how did anyone who spent his life amongst the theatrical demimonde maintain a reputation as a respectable businessman and member of Cavalry Episcopal Church? Was his connection to the Irish-American community limited to just some dinners and parades? What can be made of Niblo’s close relationship with the Rev. Francis L. Hawks, a Southern sympathizer, accused sexual molester, and benefactor of the Irish-born Eliza Gilbert (aka the notorious courtesan Lola Montez)?
Although a modern street map highlighting Niblo’s movements would have been welcome, Feldman offers many fascinating original prints that illustrate the book’s real headliners: nineteenth-century entertainment, and New York City itself.
̶ Daphne Dyer Wolf
Daphne Dyer Wolf is a Ph.D. candidate and Casperson Fellow in the History and Culture program at Drew University, Madison, N.J. She received an MA in Irish Studies from Glucksman Ireland House, New York University, in 2011. ©2015. Published with permission of Daphne Wolf.