Tag Archives: post office

New York’s Poignant Memorial to Lincoln’s Death Is In A Very Odd Place

Abraham Lincoln died 150 years ago today in a Washington DC rowhouse, shot and killed by the actor John Wilkes Booth while the president was attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater the previous evening.

The news hit the North as some sort of horrible dream.  Confederate general Robert E Lee had just surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse less than a week. The war was over in the minds of many. How could this have happened?

On April 21, Lincoln’s body began a mournful tour of the United States, taken from cities across the country via a funeral train.  Three days later, on April 24, the train with Lincoln’s body pulled into 30th Street Station, the depot which served the Hudson River Railroad back when the train brought passengers down the western side of Manhattan. (We give the details of this vanished station in our podcast on the High Line.)

Funeral of President Lincoln in New-York, April 25th, 1865. (Courtesy of New York Public LIbrary)
Funeral of President Lincoln in New-York, April 25th, 1865. (Courtesy of New York Public LIbrary)

From the New York Sun: “This morning the citizens of New  York are called upon to pay funeral honors to the remains of one whose tragic death, invests the ceremonies with an interest never before felt for any individual, who has occupied the highest office which the suffrages of a free people can confer upon a citizen of the Republic.”

His body was taken to New York City Hall where he lay in visitation for almost an complete twenty four hours. Thousands of New Yorkers came to pay their respects.  In the afternoon of the April 25, his body was brought back to the 30th Street Station and transported to Albany, then to other cities, before its final destination in Springfield, Illinois.

lincolns-funeral-at-city-hall

The Hudson River Railroad station is long gone. Standing in its place however is another large structure:  the United States Postal Service mail processing facility at 341 9th Avenue.  Unless you’re a fan of postal history — or you’ve stumbled around the neighborhood after stepping of the High Line — you’ve probably never given this building much notice.

But visit the northern side of this building, and you’ll find the following plaque:

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“On this site stood in 1861 the station of the Hudson River Railroad. The first passenger to use it was Abraham Lincoln, who came to New York on February 19, 1861 on his way to his inauguration as President of the United States.  His funeral train left here on April 25, 1865 for Springfield, Illinois.  This tablet placed February 19, 1941 by the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society.”

That’s right — Lincoln was the first honorary passenger to arrive at Cornelius Vanderbilt’s new ‘uptown’ depot! Again the New York Sun, but on February 20, 1861:

“In that strange and dirty locality where the Hudson River R.R. Company have fixed upon their uptown depot, thousands of people began to congregate fully two hours before the hour when the expected train was due…..The great gate of the depot yard through which the train was to enter was guarded by a cordon of police, and outside these limits surged the crowds, unusually patient for a New York crowd awaiting a sensation probably from a general faith that Old Abe could be depended upon to come to time properly.”

 

Presidential journey : reception of President Lincoln in New York, on the arrival of the special train at the Hudson River Railroad. (Courtesy New York Public Library)
Presidential journey : reception of President Lincoln in New York, on the arrival of the special train at the Hudson River Railroad. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

 

Here’s a description of the exact same spot, over four years later (courtesy the New York Times):

Outside of the gate of the depot yard, on Tenth-avenue, the immense throng stationed there received in respectful and mournful silence the very brief and unsatisfactory glimpse they gained of the coffin of the dead President. Viewing with anxious eyes the train as it emerged from the gate, and gazing upon the gorgeously decorated car, and uncovering with sincere respect for the hallowed dead, the immense multitude beheld the departure of the train. 

 As the train fairly got into motion and disappeared round the curve, the immense mass of beings, so long kept within bounds, at last burst through all restraint, and the entire vicinity of the depot became the scene of the most extraordinary confusion. The police were totally inadequate to the impossible task of keeping the people in order, for they were carried like drift-wood before the flood as the impatient crowd broke up and started upon their several homeward ways.”

This plaque was placed on the side of the postal facility (called the Morgan Annex) on the afternoon of February 19, 1941, unveiled by the U.S. postmaster Albert Goldman.  The organization who sponsored it, the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, still operates today.

 

 

 

Get Rich Magic: The astral adventures of Madame La Viesta and the Occult School of Science on Lexington Avenue

Above: Famed spiritualists gather in Chicago, 1906. The names weren’t listed, but perhaps Mme. La Viesta is pictured here? (Courtesy Chicago Daily News/Library of Congress) 

The Gilded Age brought us human beings of impossibly vast wealth.  It also brought us a mainstream appreciation of spiritualism, an exploration of  magic and the afterlife as a way of understanding a quickly changing world.

And sometimes it brought us both.   Frank W.Woolworth, builder of a retail empire and a legendary skyscraper, was a proponent of Egyptian occult practices, so much so that his mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery is an ode to the Egyptian theories of the afterlife.  The Chicago meat mogul Philip Armour was a rumored spiritualist.  The wives of robber barons frequently attended seances and psychic readings.  Few were immune to the lure of the spiritualism and the possibilities of otherworldly assistance in becoming rich.

Do you want to be rich like Woolworth?  In 1913, the same year as the completion of the Woolworth Building, a series of curious advertisements ran in newspapers across the country:

The ad promoted a free book that revealed the secrets of a “great psychic force which learned men claim rules the destinies of man,” produced by the Occult School of Science, located at 2075 (or 2083) Lexington Avenue at 125th Street.**

At this unusual institution, a student could discover a gamut of psychic and magical practices in service of practical life, from finance to marriage.  Among its offerings included divination (“instructions for making a gold vibrator, for locating gold and silver ore”), fortune telling (course name: Methods of Successful Mediums) and the subconscious (“The Egyptian Interpretation of Dreams”).

The writer of these curious lectures was none other than Madame Vesta La Viesta (at right), a well-known mystic and traveler of the galaxy.

La Viesta was well known to spiritualism enthusiasts, as well as to those who mocked them.  In 1904, at a place called the Cosmological Center, La Viesta described her recent visit to Mars and Venus via a projection of  her astral self.

Her descriptions predate John Gray’s famous book by decades.  Inhabitants of Venus “are associated most happily in soul mated couples, for they have a flexible astral or psychological tubing which invisibly connects their bodies.” [source]

In 1907, she revealed to the world the secret of the ‘soul kiss’, a rapturous and strangely indescribable form of love — taught to her on a recent astral voyage to Neptune — involving an aroused nervous system, cellular breathing and ‘wireless’ transmission of love from miles away.  She was so passionate about this shimmering new form of love that she wrote a song about it called “Description of a Soul Kiss.”

Below: Frank Leslie’s American Magazine mocked an earlier lecture La Viesta in this 1902 article:

She was known for unusual lectures given from her Upper West Side apartment where she resided over a room of both corporeal and astral students. (Meaning that it looked like a fairly uncrowded room.)  She suggested that both disease and finance were mere “states of mind” that could be controlled using vibrational or astral techniques.  It was possible to let life’s many inconveniences “evaporate into the nowhere and melt into the astral ethers.” [source]

La Viesta was also a fan of the dew bath, involving women rubbing against morning grass which supposedly contained the secrets of age-defying beauty.

Said La Viesta:  “I have removed my clothing and have stood in the yard at the rear of my home in the darkness of the night and allowed the dew drops to collect over me until I was happy.” [You can read more on the curious dew-bath craze here.] At right: Illustration of a woman luxuriating in a dew bath, from 1902 NY Evening World

By 1912, at age 50, La Viesta became associated with the Occult School of Science, founded by Frederic Nugent.  Had she been clairvoyant, she might have known to stay away from Nugent, a notorious grifter.

Nugent, also known as Professor John D’Astro, seemed to approach spiritualism from a more cynical place; in short, he wanted to get rich himself.   Through his advertisements, he coerced people into ‘free’ spiritual guidance, then sent them catalogs full of useless and costly items.

The trickster specifically targeted poor people, placing hundreds of advertisements throughout the United States with trumped-up or falsified testimonials.  He also joined Madame La Viesta at the podium of the Occult School, offering courses of palmistry and phrenology that could cost up to $12.50 (or almost $300 today).

The Occult School wasn’t Nugent’s only scam.  He was apparently the mastermind behind at least six other mystical ruses, including the Iridescent Order of Iris, which purported to have over a thousand members, and a separate mail-order lodestone business, the Magnetic Mineral Company, which claimed to share the secrets of 18th century Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture.

Nugent’s lodestones granted good luck to their bearers, or so claimed his advertisements.  He bought the rocks from an unknown source at 12 cents a pound (today about $3), then re-sold the magic stones for up to $25 a pound (or about $570).

It was this scam that brought Nugent to the attention of U.S. Post Office inspectors who arrested him for using the mail system to defraud.  They seized “hundreds of pamphlets advertising Nugent’s schemes and thousands of testimonials.”  After spending a time in the Tombs, Nugent was indicted and sent to prison.

But whatever became of Vesta La Viesta, Nugent’s prized instructor?  Since that was not her real name (are you surprised?), it’s been difficult to track her later antics down.  It does appear she continued to share spiritual guidance, sometimes with people of some renown, such as the aviator Stanley Yale Beach.  In 1923, she wrote up her experiences in the book People Of Other Worlds.  Perhaps she finally left for the orbiting planets?

**They have several addresses listed, most of them on or around this intersection.  I also found 147 East 125th Street as a possible address.  Most likely, the mystics moved around!

From prison to post office: The odd fate of a Dutch church

Say a prayer for the Middle Dutch Church (pictured here from sometime before the war) as things are about to get very ugly.

 One need only walk through the Limelight Marketplace — perhaps stopping to grab a slice of Grimaldi’s pizza or a champagne damask lace duvet at Brocade Home — to understand the strange flexibility of church architecture. I’ve pondered before on this former Richard Upjohn-designed Episcopal church at West 20th Street and Sixth Avenue, transformed into a rehab center in the 1970s, then a notorious nightclub in the ’80s.

But the Limelight is only the most extreme example of church alteration in New York. Brooklyn Heights has so many churches that some have been turned into swanky loft apartments. This is not a new trend. New York grew so rapidly in the 19th century that small stone and clapboard churches, once situated on the outskirts of town, found themselves surrounded. As population shifted, congregations left, and other civic services moved in.

The Middle Dutch Church was built between 1726 and 1731, a vestige of Manhattan’s Dutch Reformed community that traced itself back to New Amsterdam‘s very first house of worship. Its location at Nassau Street and Cedar Street made it central to the lives of colonial New Yorkers, but a series of historical twists ensured a few less hallowed activities would take place here.

Below: The church and the adjoining ‘sugar house’ in 1830, years after being turned into a horrifying prison complex.

During the Revolutionary War, the occupying British turned the damaged and deteriorating Middle Dutch and its neighboring sugar house into a prison for unruly rebels. An old Times article estimates that up to 8,000 prisoners were held here in those years.  “When the victims confined to the Middle Dutch church crawled to the windows begging for food, a sentinel, pistol in hand, would turn back the gifts of the charitable.” [source]

“The whole floor of the Church was one caked mass of dead, dying, excrement and vermin,” reported the Times, “supernatural” conditions that probably echoed throughout the entire city, choked off during the occupation years between 1776 to 1783.

I’m grimly speculating that prisoners were transferred the prison ships of Wallabout Bay at some point, for the building was emptied, “the planking torn up, tan laid down, and a riding-school established for the recruits of the English riding-horse.”

When the British galloped out of New York entirely in 1783, the beat-up old building sat virtually unused — although Benjamin Franklin may have used the belfry for electricity experiments, according to one source — before being turned back into a church, re-opening on July 4, 1790. It stayed as a church for 44 years, even as New York’s population migrated north.

Under a cloud of debt, the church finally closed in 1844, with its final service symbolically held in both English and Dutch languages.

If Franklin (America’s first postmaster general) indeed practiced with electricity here, then the next transformation seems natural. With the federal standardization of postal rates in 1845, New York found itself in need of a central post office. So the U.S. government leased the old church — buying it outright in 1861 — and radically transformed the building into New York’s central post office.

Special delivery: The interior of the Dutch church turned post office in 1871 (NYPL)

The poor building, renovated and stretched thin, could barely process the flow of mail coming through the city by the late 1860s, so a new central post office was built — the odd, greatly loathed City Hall Post Office building.

The old Dutch church, now 150 years old, was considered a city treasure, but real estate in downtown Manhattan was now being carved out for skyscrapers. The church of a thousand faces, to the curiosity of “thousands of relic-hunters and citizens,” was finally torn down and replaced with the Mutual Life Insurance Building in 1882. The ornate Mutual Life had a good run but was demolished — with a part of Cedar Street erased — to make room for One Chase Manhattan Plaza.